This was our second trip to Panama. This time we stayed in several different spots – over 6 weeks: Panama City and nearby Cerro Azul, El Valle, Penomene, the beach (Las Olas), Cerro Punta, and 3 fincas.
Location #1 – Panama City
We spent 5 great nights in Panama City at La Estancia B&B on Cerro Ancon. As was our experience a couple years ago, it was a great place to stay. Last time we lived it up in a suite. This time we had a small queen room on second floor without a balcony. No problema though as there's balcony space galore for general use. So we had nice breakfasts on the balcony and saw lovely crimson backed tanagers, seedeaters, and blue gray tanagers at the feeders - as well as mono titis (tamarins)- such interesting looking monkeys - also related to lemurs so we now understand. Easy to see - they're almost cat like.
Our first day in PC we did a partial transit of the canal. We had been to Miraflores on last trip, but husband wanted to get on the ship. It was fun, slow of course. We went through two locks and so could again marvel at the engineering -sheer size of the lock gates etc. It was a mob scene on our ship - which holds 300. Tourguides broadcasting in 4 languages. We didn't learn anything new though - but that's because we read David McCullough's tome The Path Between the Seas a couple years ago. Hot sunny day!
Ship returned to marina at Amador. We settled in at Alberto's restaurant there for a few drinks and dinner looking out on water and at city sky line. Then walked back on the causeway toward centro. Walked long distance. Lovely evening. Lots of people out walking, rollerblading etc. Felt quite comfortable walking there after dark. Many people out. Finally hailed a cab to take us rest of way to La Estancia.
Next day we were up early to walk to top of Ancon Hill. Saw the usual toucans and some other birds – rather special was a masked tityra . Nice walk as always. Great views of city and canal from the top. Took cab down to Casco Viejo. It was last day of the week long Panama Jazz Fest. We hung out there at the free outdoor concert the rest of the day. Had pretty good shady seat on concrete. Hordes of people. Some musicians from New England Conservatory played. Especially enjoyed a young pianist from Spain (Alex something) and his group. Tried to hang on for headliner Chucho Valdez, but couldn't last. Tried to go to dinner at Manolo Caracol about 7, but they said they were booked for eve. Ended up at Mostaza. OK place, only ok food.
Walk several blocks to place advised by tourist police for catching cab. Jazz fest still going strong at 9 or so. . . .
Sunday we left at 5am with Birding Panama guide and driver to go to Nu Secundi (sp?) - Kuna territory on road toward San Blas. 2 hour drive, part on dirt road. Remote area. Saw maybe 40 species of birds there. Walked from 7am to 4pm. Gasp. I was actually done in at 1. We didn't find endemic species guide was searching for, but did find some other good stuff - e.g. yellow-eared toucanet. Enjoyed seeing a couple big rodeo like fests on drive back which our guide said happen at this time of year. Ordered pizza into La Estancia that night for balcony dinner - we were whipped!!
Monday left at 6am to go to Pipeline Road with Ancon. We shared guide with nice Canadian couple. Our guide this day was a young Panamanian biologist. He was wonderful. Not particularly bird oriented - but full of in-depth knowledge of tropics and animal behavior (his specialty). He was working part time for Ancon and STRI and finishing a degree. Saw some white faced monkeys and about 20 species or so of birds. Had a little rain shower on trip. Finished the half day trip with a visit to the harpy eagle display at Summit Zoo. We'd been before but not to new pavilion. Great video of harpy fly/hopping and snatching a sloth (their primary food). Much better idea of their size and strength than we had before. Great view of the 40 year old male who is now residing at zoo.
Hung out at La E, did laundry (so convenient) talked to other guests, etc. Went back down to Casco Viejo for dinner - this time at Manolo Caracol. The place was not even half full! Deal here is they bring you 7 courses for $25 per person. Interesting food, but not, we thought, as good as lunch we had a couple years ago. We had raw oyster starter, clams, grilled prawns, another fish, a meat dish, salad, and a frou frou dessert. Fun chat with British couple we'd met on partial transit.
Tuesday- Obama inaugural. Yay. We take another am walk up the hill. Have breakfast. Pack. View swearing in etc with 10 or so others in the suite downstairs. Even toast him with white wine. How decadent at 12pm. We're all so excited.
Location #2 – El Valle
So, anyway, on to El Valle. Took taxi to Allbrook bus station. Found ticket booth for bus to El Valle, but never found the stated gate number. Who knows what system that was. A security cop took pity on my searching husband - and to help us- led us back to the booth where we'd bought tickets. Whereupon they told him the same gate number, whereupon he led us there, where we could see nothing having to do with the gate number provided. and so it goes. There appeared to be no luggage area on the van provided, so we basically held ours in our laps/aisle. Van was full. All riders very adept at negotiating over and around luggage, bundles, children, etc. Nothing rattled anyone. Road was a little windy from Panamerican hgwy to El Valle. At intersection of those roads we stopped and bus driver with help loaded two bunk bed frames and two mattresses on top of vehicle. Then took turns to El Valle at fairly fast clip. gracias a dios, we arrived safely. Total cost $3 for los dos.
We spent 3 nights at the lovely and reasonably priced Anton Valley Hotel. Recently rehabbed by two nice guys from states Earl and Les. Our room #4 was comfortable- though a tad noisy as we were next to patio, parking lot, and the new house being constructed for the owners. Nice little breakfast room, tasty breakfast, nice staff. Lots of good hiking possible in and around this lovely spread out little town, but weather was wacky. Rain/sun/rain nonstop for two whole days. Rather than venture far we walked the nearby roads - often in rain - looking at beautiful flowers and more birds.
Had two great meals at little place on main drag a couple blocks from our hotel: La Brushetta. Also went to El Nispero, El Valle's zoo. nice walk and enjoyed seeing animals, but cages pretty sad looking. Enjoyed walking around town looking at lovely homes and grounds - second homes of wealthy Panamanians so they say.
Location #3 – Chiguiri Arriba/Penonome
After 3 nights in El Valle we took another bus to Chiguiri Arriba to stay 3 nights at a lovely lodge called La Posada Cerro Vieja. Naturally we got 3 or 4 different stories as to whether a direct bus to town of Penonome from el Valle existed. But turned out it did. So we board another van bus - this one with space for luggage and headed off from El Valle to Penonome. About 1 1/2 hours and $5 for both of us. From Penomone we hailed cab (turned out to be a pickup truck) and went 45 minutes further afield and up to the area called Chiguiri Arriba where this lodge is located. a beautiful spot. We had a second floor room with a balcony that looks over canopy below and mountains beyond. They have a nice little spa here too. So we availed ourselves of massages and reflexology, facials etc and did more walking and looking at birds. Watched a sloth just beyond our balcony last am. Weather cleared but slowly. Still a little rain now and again. It was a VERY muddy glissando hike we took with a guide the second day. Saw toucans, mot mots, and many others. Food in lodge was buffets. But simple food cooked well using local ingredients including great greens, tomatoes, etc from nearby organic garden. Lodge hosted a big group of nurses over weekend. Then turned quiet again – just the two or us and a few European tourists.
We made great connections from Posada La Vieja in Chirigui Arriba to David - a 45 min cab ride took us from lodge to bus stop in Penonome where we immediately hopped on a bus for Santiago. About another 1 1/2 to 2 hours we were in Santiago where the bus for David was just loading. Both buses were pretty comfortable and cost us about $12 total each. Our hostess at La Posada Vieja had given us very specific instructions how and where to make the various bus connections. From David bus station we caught a quick $2 cab to the airport to pick up rental car from Budget. That all went smoothly. Stopped at Super Baru market for a few things and then got on Interamericano to go to Finca Suissa - on the road to Changuinola/bocas etc.
Location #4 Finca Suissa
Finca Suissa is a lovely one story home that sits high up with a gorgeous view of David in distance, mountains, and Panama's Pacific islands. House has 4 bedrooms and baths (3 for guests), a paneled common area with big fireplace,and a kitchen in back. Surrounded by lovely bougainvillea. Swiss owners Herbert and Monica advertise their 20 hours of jungle trails. They also have a terrific garden - so the food here was wonderful! They have 2 or 3 dogs (all German shepherds I think). They’re very careful about preventing contact between dogs and guests. Suppose they want to avoid any incidents and want to maintain dogs as guard dogs. Hence owners negotiated with guests hours for “opening” the grounds in the am and “closing” them in the pm. This didn’t cause us any problem because we never had intention of going out after dark or before light in am. Understand some have felt this to be restrictive though.
We stayed here for 3 nights - spent one whole beautiful day on the trails - 9am till about 5. Forest was quiet that day - but wow was it beautiful. The trails are well maintained -but hilly and pretty challenging. Beautiful miradors. Some cloud forest. Fabulous trees.
Gave ourselves a break next day and drove some of the lovely mountain road that goes toward Bocas. Stopped occasionally for some bird watching.
In the eves we enjoyed the great cozy dinners with other guests and hosts. Lots of good conversation re travels, nature, conservation, global warming. . .
Location #5 Finca Hartmann
After 2 full days at Suissa it was time to head out again. We packed two carless guests into our 4 x 4 and drove them (via scenic drive thru Caldera) to their next stop in Boquete. Stopped for some birdwatching on way. Bid them farewell in Boquete and headed down to Super Baru in David again. Major grocery buyiing there as we'd be doing our own cooking at our next stop: Finca Hartmann.
We had wanted to visit this place ever since we got lost on the road to Rio Sereno Costa Rica on our first trip to Panama a couple years ago. How we missed the turn in Concepcion to go to Volcan and Los Quetzales was hard to imagine. But we kept going -ending up on an amazingly beautiful mountain road which we finally realized was taking us to Costa Rica. Had to double back, but made mental note to check out that area some time.
So when we realized that Finca Hartmann - a coffee estate that has good birdwatching - was up in that neck of woods, we arranged to rent their small cabin (they've got one small one and one large one).
In fact it was a gorgeous drive up there - to the "town" of Santa Clara about 5 miles? from Rio Sereno and CR border. Finca Hartmann has an interesting history - founded by the Hungarian Alois Hartmann back in the early 1900s. Finca remains family run today. We met Ratibor, his wife, and daughter Alissa. Alissa takes care of the tourist part of their biz, so we had lots of conversation with her. She led us (in her big truck) over bumpy farm roads to our cabin (3 km from main farm). Wow, we were out there by ourselves for sure. Cabin is surrounded by bubbling stream. No electricity - gas for use with cook top and for hot showers. No refrigeration. Candles and oil lamp. Such a beautiful farm, rolling hills all planted with coffee trees, some bananas, and old forest providing for shade grown coffee. We hiked one trail (there are 4 or so there), but mostly just walked the farm roads. Saw lots and lots of birds. White faced monkeys came through trees one am. Alissa warned us of peccaries she'd been surprised by on trail the day before. Fortunately we didn't run into them.
We did run into something else she warned us about though - red chiggers. OMG. I was horrified by number of red bites when I got ready for bed that night. Husband had about half as many. We'll be itchin for awhile so I understand. The finca had the perfect environment for them I guess, long dry grass and dead dry leaves. Nevertheless it was a great time. One night was super clear with great crescent moon and bright stars. Frogs came out first followed by slow mo fireflies. . .
Plus it was really interesting to see and hear about the Hartmann's family biz. Lovely people.
After 2 whole days at Hartmann's we did the scenic drive back to David. Cooled our heels at airport for 45 min waiting for Budget to return from lunch to change from 4 x 4 car to Yaris. Made another stop at Super Baru and drove to Boquete.
Location #6 Boquete
Proceeded to our lodging for the next 4 weeks at Cabanas Momentum - just off main road about 5 miles from Boquete. Canadian property owner has 4 sparsely furnished spacious cabanas, guest house, and pool on property that looks across at Volcan Baru and down into a deep canyon cut by Rio Cochea. Another lovely spot. A bit of wildlife on the property. We spotted a beautiful violaceous trogon one day. Every cabin found a scorpion or two. One neighbor had a coral snake on the carport . And a coati went over the wall and down into the canyon one eve at dusk. There’s a nice trail down into the canyon from the property – a wild footbridge (one of many we experienced on this trip) – and a trail up the other side.
First day we drove as far as we could on the "Bajo Mono" loop and to the entrance for the sendero de los quetzales. The road loop is still broken in one place and the trail was (at that time) still closed due to damage created by late November flooding. Nevertheless it's still possible to drive alot up there and quite beautiful. We stopped for lunch at Finca Lerida - a fancified version of Hartmann's.
There were very strong winds (and some rain elsewhere) our first few days at Momentum. It’s always windy here at beginning of year – on the edge of a canyon - but these winds were hurricane force. Downed 6 tall pine trees in a neighbor’s yard, a few on our property – and 4 utility poles along the main road nearby. So we were without power for about 12 hours – and those strong winds just kept blowing for several days – rattling the heck out of our metal/louvered windows/doors. Meanwhile it was sunny and dry.
Our routine here was to get up and go to bed early. Enjoyed sitting outside in am and pm looking out at volcano/over canyon/at starry skies etc. We rented a car for the month (just a Yaris – withstood a lot of abuse). Went off exploring the area, hiking, looking at birds. Mostly cooked at home – with groceries purchased at well-stocked El Rey or Super Baru in David half hour a way. But did have 2 nice dinners at Panamonte Hotel Bar (much nicer atmosphere than their restaurant IMHO) and also one at Ooh La La.
Once again enjoyed walking Mi Jardin Es Su Jardin – the private gardens open to the public. Beautiful flowers there and some good birds too. Visited the very lovely Paradise Gardens where a British couple has developed an animal rescue site. The grounds are beautiful and the rescued animals interesting to see and well cared for. They’ve got a great bird house here too.
We hiked several trails off the Bajo Mono loop on the hill beyond Boquete – Pipa de Aqua (pipeline) trail, La Culebra trail, and the Pianista Trail. All are beautiful and at various times yielded good birds. One am we did some of Culebra with a bird guide – Terry (of the Dutch couple Terry & Hans well known locally). She did a great job for us.
On two occasions during our month rental I like to say we took a “vacation from our vacation from our vacation (we’re retired).” We spent one night at the lovely Finca Lerida so we could avail ourselves of an early bird walk there. Lerida has a newish little ecolodge with 11 nice rooms, a small casual restaurant, and beautiful grounds. We birded the grounds the following am with Lerida’s resident guide Cesar – whom we later realized is the son of the now rather famous local “Chago” known for finding quetzals. We’d been out with Chago and Cesar on our trip two years ago. So it was nice to see Cesar again. We heard and saw the 3 wattled bell bird almost as soon as we arrived at Lerida. All of this did not come cheaply though it must be noted. . .
Location #7 Playa Barqueta
Our second “vacation from our vacation from our vacation” was a jaunt down to the beach and then up to Cerro Punta. Closest beach to Boquete is Playa Barqueta (just under an hour’s drive). Easy drive down to David and then on to beach on paved country like road – past rice and sugar cane fields. Stopped at a wetland area along the road that was great. Saw both the amazon and ringed kingfishers, some interesting wading birds, and others. .. Stayed the night at the Las Olas hotel. There’s not much at Playa Barqueta, but we found that rather appealing. It’s VERY hot there. Walked a bit in and around the wildlife refuge there – more birds, some cool lizards of every size, and a small croc/caiman/alligator?. We thought it was great to have an oceanfront room for $70. Nothing fancy about the small room/but comfortable and clean with nice shaded porch facing the Pacific. We had several meals at the restaurant and thought the food was good. The pool area is small but pleasant for a dip. And we enjoyed one of the casual/outdoor/local restaurants “off the reservation.” Interesting to watch people come and go from the many thatched gazebos for rent there. Took a couple very long walks on the grey (volcanic) sand beach. Las Olas advertises that it has 14 miles of oceanfront! Completed and in progress beach houses all looked empty when we were there .. Some folks in swimming, but apparently rip tides are a problem there. We mostly walked/waded. We walked south as far as the little refuge building. Had jolly conversation with employee there about the marine turtle sanctuary (the main purpose of the refuge). Sad to think about the inevitable impact of expanding (?) Las Olas resort will have on the returning turtles. . .
Location #8 Cerro Punta
After our night at Las Olas we drove from there to Cerro Punta to stay one night at Los Quetzales. We’d loved staying at their cabin in Amistad park a couple years ago. This time as we were already paying rent in Boquete, we just opted to stay in one of the lodge rooms. Los Quetzales had suffered some Nov. storm damage too – mostly to their spa building on the river. Once again we enjoyed talking to owner Carlos Alfaro. Spent the afternoon trying, but failing, to walk from the lodge to cabin area. Thought we remembered the way – ha ha. Saw a lot of lovely agricultural land though instead. The next am, set straight on directions, we walked up towards cabins where we saw tons of hummingbirds. Not much else though. Then we made mistake of hiking trail on property “tres cascadas.” Shortish trail was very muddy, washed out in a place or two, requiring some tricky stream crossing maneuvers for us geezers. Thank god we came upon a small group with a guide, otherwise we might have lost that trail or broken a leg or two. . .. OK, I made it sound like this wasn’t a good time – but it was – it’s truly beautiful up there – perhaps even a bit more so than Boquete side.
Location #9 Cerro Azul
Had read on the internet that this area – an hour outside Panama City – and a reasonable drive to Tocumen – was a good birding area. So decided to end our trip there. Reserved lodging there at Casa de Campo. Drove rental from Boquete to David and hopped on Aeroperlas back to PC. Arranged for driver from Jose Saenz company “bocasfrog” to pick us up at Allbrook. Good driver and nice guy Edgar collected us as requested and drove us waaaayyyyy up Cerro Azul. Saw 2 dead snakes (one in mouth of raptor) on way. Edgar says “there are lots of snakes up here.” Thanks for sharing. .. We arrive in time for lunch, choose among several rooms offered by our hostess/owner, and settle in. Walk around nabe till dinner time. Indeed, it’s a good birding area. Particularly fun was to watch/listen to the interesting nesting behavior of some orapendulas who were making their unusual hanging nests in tree down the street. This was an interesting area – an isolated development. According to the owner the first of the developments on the hill – others followed still higher up. Casa de Campo was built 40 years ago as second home by current owner’s father. It has a hacienda look to it and includes a small pool and hot tub. We enjoyed chatting with owner Ana Maria Sanchiz at dinner our first eve. Only guests that eve were a young couple and us. Ana Maria was very gracious, as were her two staffers. Meals were simple/tasty – bbq chicken one day, simple soups, fish.. This property is a work in progress we thought as owner and her brother struggle to do what’s necessary to maintain family homestead as B&B, while holding down other lives in the city etc. . .. They’re part of a birding circuit group now and are working to provide spa services as well. There’s a lot of maintenance still to be done – it’s a punishing environment. Metal is rusting, concrete is crumbling. It’s very quiet up there (a plus or minus depending on your point of view). Other houses around – of all sizes – in all states of repair/occupancy. Some were perfectly tended and obviously lived in full time. Others were perfectly tended and obviously used as weekend homes. Many were empty/abandoned. Some were for sale. So it was a bit of a ghost neighborhood. Good for birding though. And there’s a path from there down into Chagres National Park. We walked a good part of that in am next day. Enjoyed lying in hammock on one of our room’s two patios and just relaxing/reading in hot mid day.
Our second and last eve we were a tad unnerved to discover we were on property alone, except for one staffer (and he was small). The owner was elsewhere and the cook lives out. And there were no other guests. Nevertheless we slept fairly soundly till our 5am alarm. The kindly staffer rose to serve us coffee/fruit, and our trusty driver Edgar braved darkness/mist/and windy hill roads to collect us at 5:20. All so that we could (naturally) cool our heels at Tocumen for many hours once our 8:05 flight was essentially cancelled due to mechanical issue. Yeah we got on plane and off the plane. Retrieved luggage, stood in long American line and were rebooked on Copa. In the end only (?- my how our expectations are all lowered) 5 hour delay getting back to dc.
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Glover's long report on long Panama trip
This was our second trip to Panama. This time we stayed in several different spots – over 6 weeks: Panama City and nearby Cerro Azul, El Valle, Penomene, the beach (Las Olas), Cerro Punta, and 3 fincas.