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Trip Report Panama, me encanta.

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Who we were:
I graduated in the Golden Class of ’64 from Balboa High School in the Canal Zone. Twenty-five of my classmates, family members and assorted friends, who thought the trip sounded like fun, visited Panama with me. We spent much of our time with friends who live there.

How we got there:
My party of four flew DELTA from RDU to ATL to PTY. It was an all day trip. Both legs in each direction were completely full flights. RDU and PTY are very nice airports, easy to maneuver and plenty of amenities.

We flew Air Panama to David. Horrible flight conditions, but the pilot did a good job. The winds were very high and made us a bit nervous. The plane was a typical commuter plane, but they strictly enforced the 25 pound weight limit on checked luggage. No one weighed our carryon. We had considered driving from Panama City to Boquete because the roads are relatively good, but in the end decided it was better to spend the $185 for the flight and have more time in Boquete. Our car rental was Budget and ran us $300 for three days in a big SUV (we planned to do some back roads….not to happen, but we didn’t know what was ahead for us).

Where we stayed:
Panama City: Country Inn and Suites on Amador Causeway and La Estancia in Quarry Heights
Boquete: The Hotel Panamonte

Country Inn and Suites:

This is a generic hotel showing signs of wear. There are two pools and the view from that side of the hotel is terrific. You can watch the ships as they queue to transit the Canal and see the Bridge of the Americas. The room was sufficiently large and comfortable for two. It had a microwave, coffee maker and small refrigerator. The bathroom was fairly large and had plenty of towels. Housekeeping kept the room quite clean. The breakfast was a buffet of cereals, breads, fresh fruit, yogurt, and some cooked items, like sausage, bacon and eggs. By prepaying we got a good rate which included breakfast.
The hotel arranged for airport pickup for our group, $35 for the first two people, $10 for each additional passenger. The pickup was prompt and efficient.
I like the location, which allowed us to walk the Causeway several evenings after dinner and early in the mornings. It is certainly quieter and less congested than downtown.
The hotel has an on call massage therapist, Alicia, who charges $30 for a full hour massage. She is very good and does the massage in room. If you want a facial, she can also arrange that. Everyone in my group had at least one massage .

Hotel Panamonte:

I reserved a garden suite with patio. It was charming, very nicely decorated and spotless. The bathroom was very large and had high quality linens in good supply. The room had a flat screen television. The patio was furnished with a large couch and several chairs and tables. It was shared with the next room. Since the other room was unoccupied during our stay, we had the full patio area to ourselves. The patio is covered and there is a very large ceiling fan. It was quite comfortable and looked out on the gorgeous gardens of the Panamonte. Since my group had eight rooms I had a chance to see both the twin and queen rooms in the old hotel and the twin and queen rooms in the building across the street. The ones across the street struck me as a bit larger and more attractively furnished, but all the rooms were charming and comfortable.
Because we had terrible weather, which made hiking and birding impossible, we took full advantage of the spa at the hotel. The services were quite good and the staff most accommodating. The women in the spa all speak English well. I have to give them especially high marks for maintaining an air of calm when the power and water went out.
The common rooms of the hotel are lovely. We especially enjoyed sitting by the fireplaces in the bar.
We took most of our meals in the hotel for a couple of reasons, it was convenient and did not require us to go out in the weather, they were able to accommodate us without reservation even though there were from 12-17 of us at each meal and not least of all, the food was extremely good. I don’t know when I have had better fresh trout. It was delicious as was the corvina. Everyone was pleased with the meals.

La Estancia:
I booked this hotel because it is located just above my old house in Quarry Heights. The room my brother had had a balcony overlooking our house. It is in a secured area now so this was our only chance to see it. Unfortunately the room my husband and I had faced to a parking/street area. We arrived too late to do an Ancon Hill walk, but that is easily managed from La Estancia. There are no restaurants or shops close. We left before breakfast was served. Our room was very Spartan and bare. There was a comfortable bed and shelving for storage and little else. The air conditioner worked fitfully during the night, which would have been a problem for us if our stay were longer. The common areas are quite large and comfortable and I believe where guests spend their time. The views from the common rooms are terrific. The hotel arranged a pick up for the airport, which was on time and very convenient. When we flew to David, we left our excess luggage at La Estancia.
Although I did not stay at Panama Vacation Quarters also in Quarry Heights, some of my group did and had nothing but praise. They said the units were well equipped and comfortable and they enjoyed the pool.

How we got around:

Cabs are cheap and easy to find in Panama City, but I was trying to keep us together as much as possible. I ended up hiring a driver with a bus, which seated 29. I highly recommend him. He has other vehicles, which he was able to use for us when we did our smaller groups to Barro Colorado, Pipeline Road, and shopping excursions. The rates were always affordable and the vehicles were clean. The drivers were always on time, which in Panama is definitely not a given!
His name is Antonia Cardenas and his cellphone number is 507-6575-9365. Antonio’s English is limited, but he has drivers who do speak it well if that is a concern.

What we did: Since this was trip involved seeing many old friends, a good deal of the time was spent together either at the rooftop bar of the new Balboa Yacht Club or at private homes socializing.

-visits to the Rainforest Discovery Center on Pipeline Road. http://www.pipelineroad.org One of my classmates has been instrumental in the development of this project and the involvement of Robert Ridgley. We arranged a private tour the afternoon of our first day. This is not the best time to see birds, but we lucked out. We saw quite a few species, including toucans, parrots, mot mots, and cuckoos. The center has opened a tower permitting viewing from a number of platforms. We also saw some howler monkeys and caimen. I have posted some photos I took there on my facebook page. This visit was such a success, many of the group returned at 0600 for a morning visit which produced some pretty fantastic viewing. Highly recommended.

-visits to the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute-Barro Colorado island
http://www.stri.org/english/research/facilities/terrestrial/barro_colorado/index.php

I began trying to reserve space for our group in October. Only because I was incredibly persistent did I arrange for most of my group to visit. We had to split up because of the limitations on tours, which was not a problem. The two groups enthusiastically agreed the day spent there was exciting and interesting. The guides were quite different. One spoke very limited English and was difficult to understand. He rushed the participants and spent an inordinate amount of time focused on his personal speciality, ants. The guide on the second day outing was a palm specialist, but she took a great deal of time reading the group interest and allowed adequate time to explore. Not surprisingly the second day participants were happier with the experience. Everyone said the food for lunch was excellent. If you are considering this outing, book ahead. Be prepared for long waits for return correspondence.

-tour of the Gehry designed Biodiversity Museum. http://www.biomuseopanama.org/en/index.html

One of my classmates has been involved in the funding and development of this project and was able to arrange an exceptional tour for us. This was the highlight of my visit. I am so excited about what this museum will do for Panama. We began with a presentation by a Smithsonian geologist focused on the unique role of Panama, as land bridge, in animal and plant diversity, evolution, and the environment. The presentation was sparked by one “ah ha” moment after another. He made complex theories so easy to understand and appreciate. After the presentation we viewed a model of the plans for the museum and then went on a hard hat tour of the construction site. It is utterly fabulous. I see it as the Panamanian equivalent of the Sydney Opera House or the Eiffel Tower, soon to be an immediately recognizable landmark to the world. As an aside, building a Gehry design is no easy task and required specialized training for the Panamanian work crew. It was such a delight to witness the pride of the workers as we toured the area. They were so thrilled to show off what they are accomplishing. It is clearly not just another job to them. The building and its contents will be a fantastic asset to Panama, not only for visitors, but, Panamanians. The focus will be on their unique opportunity to be stewards of a treasure.

Miraflores Visitor Center-
http://pancanal.com

This outstanding facility is a must see when in Panama. They have an excellent viewing position of ships passing through the Miraflores locks and the exhibits (including some video footage of rioting which took place in January of 1964 at Balboa High School) include the history of the Canal and the country.

-we did a day trip to El Valle followed by a stop at a classmate’s home in Buenaventura on the beach

The cooler temperatures and slower pace of El Valle were a welcome respite from the heat and humidity of Panama City. We enjoyed walking around the town and visiting the markets. One of our classmates has a home there and I ended up spending nearly all my time sitting around chatting and enjoying the breezes.

I loved getting to the beach as well. We had a wonderful sunset dinner of paella overlooking the gorgeous beach and ocean. It was a marvelous day.

-Boquete

Fortunately I have visited Boquete before so I know it is a wonderful place to hike. On my last trip I hiked Sendero Los Quetzales and saw the fabulous quetzal. But not on this visit. During our stay there were very high winds, heavy rains and many downed trees. The trails were impassable. One person described the winds as so strong as to be “tombo monos”, knock the monkeys out of the trees! We lost power and water during the stay. Sounds pretty grim, right? Well…..it wasn’t so bad. First of all, we were among friends. About fifteen of us made this visit, so we had plenty of time to enjoy each other. The Panamonte has a first rate restaurant and the bar had lots of champagne on ice. The spa was a perfect retreat for facials, manicures and massages. We walked up to Mi Jardin es Su Jardin and even in the pouring rain it is gorgeous. We also walked all around Boquete and enjoyed the visit. So no hiking, no birding, but still a very nice stay. Highly recommended.

Where we ate:
Because we were a pretty large group, we chose restaurants, which would seat us together and provide separate checks. We also wanted to dress relatively casually since we were so active during the day. A number of us liked walking back after dinner. To my surprise, these requirements didn’t create a real hardship and we were able to enjoy each one of these restaurants.

El Barco-on the Causeway
I liked the corvina with almonds, a lobster salad, a tomato Florentine and the house ceviche. All were quite good.

Mi Ranchito- also on the Causeway (we liked being able to eat outdoors and enjoy the breezes and then having a nice walk (2-3 miles) back to the hotel along the ocean and Bay of Panama

I had corvina here, which was very good. (Yes, I had corvina about every place I went. I love it!) Even the desserts got good marks.
Albertos-on the Causeway
Surprise, corvina again….and yes, quite good. Several people had pizza which they liked. When we were in school the ultimate pizza was at Napoli. It has two locations and the newer one is in the safer neighborhood. Some of our group managed to get by there and reported it was still the gold standard for pizza in Panama. Our opinions may be colored by nostalgia.

Tony Roma’s- in Panama near the big mall.
Oddly enough this was our driver’s choice not ours, but it was fine. He loves the food there and we couldn’t get into the Napoli because it is not open on Mondays. This particular day we had the bus to tour the old Zone and the locks, etc so parking the bus was undoubtedly a consideration in this choice.

The new Balboa Yacht Club-on the Causeway
This concrete building has zero curb appeal, but their rooftop bar and good (cheap) food and good service made this our “hangout”. Oh, and the facts that we could stay as long as we wanted, talk as loud as we wanted and enjoy the company of one another.

El Trapediero on Via Argentina.

We had a very good lunch here one day. I had, wait for it….corvina and black beans and rice which was very good. One of my friends raved about the arroz con pollo. Our driver said it was his favorite place to go because the lunch special meals were so good.

I love Panama and relish the prospect of my return. In the meantime, if you think I can help you plan your visit, please let me know. Panama me encanta.

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