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Trip Report Panama revisit: Trip report

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I usually don't like to revisit the same places, but after visiting Panama 2 years ago and loving it so much, we had to return with friends!! There was some repeat of favorite places (Casco Viejo, Tesoro Escondido in Bocas del Toro, and snorkeling there at Crawl Cay) and new spots to explore. So, we had 6 adults on this trip, flying nonstop with Copa airlines from Chicago, in late March, early April, 2014.

We started out in Casco Viejo, with a repeat stay at B&B Casa Antigua, where we were able to get a 3 BR, 2 BA unit, and enjoy the good location and awesome rooftop. The views on the rooftop patio offer the highlights of Casco but incredible views across the bay of the modern skyscrapers. And there is an ahhhh breeze, too! We toasted the start of the trip up there, loving it, then struck out to explore Casco. Casco Viejo is an UNESCO world heritage site and under significant construction. The juxtaposition of the old city, locals mixed with tourists, billowing bougainvillea blooms against crumbling, ornate facades, chic coffee shops topped by laundry blowing in the breeze, and the red-tiled roofs in Casco and steel skyscrapers across the bay in the banking sector—well, that makes for a place I wanted to return to. In 2 years, a lot of development has happened, esp. on Plaza Herrera. This plaza was crumbling and dusty 2 years ago, but is a hot spot now, esp. with the stylish new AmericanTrade hotel that recently opened. There are many more little open-air bars and great spots to tuck into around Casco and everyone enjoyed the little impromptu street dances that were going on, and general slice of Panamanian life on a Saturday night. Great people-watching! Culturally interesting, but not so great for sleep, though--at midnight, they set out the big speakers on the sidewalk under our window, and music blasted til the wee hours. Then a public church service started up at the parkway adjacent to Eloy y Alfaro street at 7:30 a.m. We decided to go with it, and took our coffee on our balcony and swayed and sang with the church music, waving to the local policia. We dubbed this: Disco to Dios without even getting out of bed!!

On Sundays, Airpanama has a 12:30 flight to the Caribbean archipelago of Bocas del Toro, so we were able to have a relaxed start, and grabbed some fantastic chicken, pesto and roasted red pepper sandwiches and fresh-squeezed lemonade with perfect tartness at Supergourmet to eat at the airport. I snapped a few photos of the places we would be staying in Bocas as we flew over them, having seen this already on Google earth. Great intro. Our 6 nights in Bocas del Toro were divided by 4 nights at a VRBO house rental on Isla Bastimentos, then 2 nights at Tesoro Escondido on Isla Colon, the main island in Bocas. We just loved our time on Bastimentos! The property manager had arranged for a wonderful local guy named Matoli to pick us up and take us on excursions. We had access to snorkel equipment, floaties, kayaks and stand up paddleboards and had a full kitchen, so we stocked up some food in Bocastown beforehand. We were on the mile long stretch of white sand beach that ecolodges Casa Cayuco and Al Natural were on, but on the opposite end, and water was calm and clear, with several nice reefs for snorkeling. There is a beach bar out here, and a few American ex-pats and we really enjoyed chatting with the locals, some who speak the interesting wahi wahi dialect. Maria manned the beach bar, and cooked us a couple nice fish dinners, served candlelight with our toes in the sand. Her three year old son constantly entertained us with his antics, donning different masks, playing Frisbee or football, pretending he was “driving” a surfboard, and generally acting like a delightful, curious, imaginative little guy that one might encounter anywhere around the world. Except this little dude had a pet three month-old howler monkey that draped itself around his neck, and periodically, (oops, shriek!) peed down his shoulder.
We went twice down to Al Natural eco resort for dinner, which was one of our favorite memories--the food was truly gourmet, the wine poured generously, Vicente, the Belgian owner, is a fun and relaxed character, we enjoyed chatting with the contingent of Norwegians who were there at the time, and the night monkeys came out each night--cool little creatures that I had never seen before. Each night, we enjoyed teasing the bioluminescence in the water to give us a sparkling light show. We discovered that we could leave a trail of lit-up footsteps in the surf as we danced under the starlight. Just great. Unfortunately, all the house rentals on this strip have been sold and they are turning it into a destination wedding area, complete with a wedding/ reception hall and 8 new over the water bungalows adjacent to Casa Paradiso. It is a marvelous area and I just pray that this new venture doesn't change it too much. There is still a house rental next to Al Natural and I could recommend that. The best reef in the area is straight out from that house, and you could enjoy meals at Al Natural.

While on Bastimentos, we did one day trip to Polo Beach and Coral Cay for snorkeling. Polo is just beautiful, just a few other people, soft white sand and swaying palms, with easy snorkeling all around, if the weather cooperates. You can only reach it by boat or a long walk from Red Frog Beach. Coral Cay has the best snorkeling, though--the brilliant colors of the sponges, brittle stars and anemones is amazing. There were more fish there than I remember last time. Some really beautiful angels, tangs, damselfish, surgeonfish, trunkfish….We also kayaked, including a cool kayak through the mangroves to Salt Creek, a local indigenous village.

To be continued....

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