I've posted a number of times before our trip, and now that we're back, I'm passing on our impressions. Hope it's of use to someone. We had a great trip!
Our Continental Air flight left Toronto very early on Saturday, February 7. We flew to Houston, had a couple of hours there and then on to Panama City, where we had booked 3 nights at La Estancia. Although we had pre-arranged a taxi pick up with them, we got through customs & immigration so quickly that no one was waiting for us at the designated pick up spot. I called and they told us to sit tight – someone would be along shortly.
La Estancia is ok. The rooms are not particularly well decorated, but comfortable enough. We were in room #4 because that was the only one available when I booked. The bathroom is across the hall, but the room has a private balcony. I think La Estancia's strong suit is their service – they had made all of our flight plans within Panama and were very efficient and responsive when I made changes to the plans.
That first night, we just ordered in a pizza. We were tired from the flight and it was nice just to sit and relax on the balcony.
On Sunday morning, we were up early and had breakfast. That morning we realized the downside to room #4 – it's right next to the kitchen / breakfast room, so it's quite noisy early in the morning. First of all, there is the staff setting up breakfast. Then it's the early risers, twittering about the birds they have seen. But it was fine for us – we had gotten a good night's sleep and were eager to see some of the city. The breakfast coffee was nothing special (especially considering the great Panamanian coffee), but the fresh fruit was great. They also offer eggs or pancakes as well as yogurt, cereal and so on. After breakfast, we walked up Ancon hill before it got too hot. Lots of birds and butterflies. At the top, we also saw a couple of friendly housecats and got a great view of the area.
That afternoon, we took a taxi to Casco Viejo. We looked at the church with the gold altar, which had been decorated for a wedding the day before – loads of gorgeous flowers. (Later at La Estancia, we met a Dutch guy who had been the best man at that wedding.) We checked out the canal museum, which was all in Spanish, but lovely and cool with the air conditioning. There weren’t a lot of shops open, but I found a couple of bracelets to buy. The highpoint was a late lunch at S'cena. That was probably one of the top 2 or 3 meals we had in Panama. We started with ceviche and a Spanish tortilla (actually 3 different kinds of tortilla), then we shared the Spanish paella – all of the meal was perfect. Even the rolls are fabulous. We shared a wonderful banana chocolate / caramel pie for dessert, recommended by the waiter. I really enjoyed S'cena – the food and service were excellent.
We took a cab back to the hotel and I think I might have had a bit of a nap at that point. That evening, we took a cab out to the Amador causeway. Nice place to walk around and we stopped for a cheap meal at a place that was filled with locals. I wasn't hungry at all, but John ordered some chicken that was surprisingly pretty good. I think I may have ordered more ceviche and a beer.
On Monday morning, we went to the Miraflores locks around 9:30 in the morning. We had talked to other guests at the hotel and they recommended that we go in the morning. We had a funny experience when we were paying the entry fee. My husband is 61 and retired. I'm 57 and still working. So when the woman at the ticket desk asked if we were retired, I said he was, but I wasn't. She then asked how old I was and when I said 57, she said (rather dismissively) “jubilada”. John and I had a good laugh over that and we saved $4 each. (That's about the only time I like to be older.) As soon as we got in, someone told us to go to the 4th floor – that there was a cruise ship going through the canal. In fact, we saw 3 huge ships (the cruise ship and 2 container ships) going through. The museum was also really interesting. I have to admit that I wasn't very interested in the canal when we went to Panama, but I actually really enjoyed it. We spent about 2 ½ hours there.
From Miraflores, we took a taxi to the artisans market behind the YMCA in Balboa. I loved the baskets (especially the really expensive ones) and was quite tempted to buy one, but I didn't want to carry it around Panama. I thought that if I was still interested at the end of the trip, I'd buy one when we got back to the city. We walked a few blocks to the other market nearby (with all the molas) and picked up 2 very nice molas there. Much easier to carry than a basket!
We then took a taxi to Siete Mares. We thought we'd go to that area, look around and then eat later. We wandered around a while and had a wonderful iced coffee and ice cream at a place near the restaurant (it was hot). I bought a gold frog charm at Reprosa and finally we went to the Siete Mares. It was ok, but in my opinion not as special as S'cena. I can’t really remember what we had, other than it would have been some sort of seafood of course. We didn't order dessert – we wanted to go to a place nearby for churros & chocolate. Finally, stuffed to the gills, we took a taxi back to La Estancia.
We settled up with the hotel. In addition to the room, we had to pay them for our 2 nights in San Blas. We were able to use visa for the hotel (they charge 3% extra for that) but we needed to pay cash for Yandup.
The next morning (Tuesday), we were up very early to go to the airport to catch our 6:30 flight to Yandup. The reps from Yandup were there to greet us at the airport. We were checked in, then found out our flight was going to leave 1 ½ hours late. We had to pay $7 for excess luggage (small bag each and a dive bag with our snorkel gear, etc.). We bought a coffee at the Kotowa coffee place and settled back to wait. Finally we boarded the plane and took off. We had 2 stops before arriving at Playon Chico. We were met at the air strip by the hotel staff and it was just a short boat trip to the island.
Yandup was great! We had a cabin over the water that was fabulous. There was a mosquito net over the bed, the mattress was ok, the linens were fine (I didn’t need my silk sleep sack), and so on. The water pressure for the shower was just about non-existent – literally the water was a trickle (made washing your hair a bit of a struggle), but Yandup was much nicer than I had expected it to be. They served us breakfast (eggs, ham, rolls, juice, coffee), and then it was time to go on an excursion to the beach. After we got back, we had lunch and I thought the fish and potatoes were pretty tasty. The excursion in the afternoon was to the community and that was really interesting. The guides didn’t speak much English, but I was able to understand a fair amount of their Spanish if I really concentrated. We also had a couple of Chileans with us who spoke very good English and they translated for us. Dinner that evening was more fish, but with rice this time.
Wednesday was more of the same – similar breakfast, lunch and dinner. I think the lunches were better than the dinners – the fish filets at noon were really nice. We had 2 excursions that day – a trip to the mangrove and a trip to the river. Quite informative.
In summary, it was a wonderful 2 nights. For us that was enough time. One night wouldn’t have been enough and 3 or 4 would have been too long, although I would have been interested in seeing the cemetery (an excursion that happened before we got there). Our fellow guests were from all over – Chile, Israel, the US, Germany, Australia and so on. It's a friendly atmosphere, and we were so glad we went. It's a unique part of the world.
I also didn't have nearly the problem I thought I would have with bugs. I don’t think I had any bug bites, although I was careful to use repellent.
Thursday morning, we were up around 5:30 AM. They served us coffee, bread and jam at 6 AM, and left at 6:20 to take us to catch our flight back to PC. (Note – all our excursions left on time – if they said 4 PM, the boat left at 4 PM – unexpectedly efficient.) No one to weigh our luggage, so no excess weight charge. Our flight was on time, and we got into PC early in the morning. We checked in again, but this time for a flight to David. Oddly enough, the fee for the excess weight was now $17 – not sure why – it was exactly the same luggage....
Flight to David was uneventful. We had booked a car from Thrifty on the web. They seemed to have the best rates, and I had requested a small 4X4 (standard transmission) at $22 / day. Well, when we got there, they didn't have any 4X4’s available – the one they did have wouldn’t be ready for a few hours (something about the brakes ....). They were going to give us a Yaris instead. I said no – we had requested a 4X4 for a reason. They then said they’d give us a Corolla sedan (still no 4X4), but they wanted to charge quite a bit more than the $22 / day because we weren’t booking over the web. I said I didn’t think that was exactly fair – I had booked over the web, they were the ones changing the reservation. Finally we got a Corolla and I think it was about $16 / day. After a couple of wrong turns, we then made our way to Boquete.
We were staying at Little Tinamou cottage on a coffee farm (Finca Habbus de Kwie). It's a really lovely place, lots of birds, trails through the finca, freshly roasted coffee every morning. I'd highly recommend it. They have 1 small cottage for 2 people and 2 larger cottages that sleep 4 or 5 people. The Dutch owners run Coffee Adventures and they give tours of Kotowa, as well as bird watching tours, hiking, etc. It was perfect for us. In Little Tinamou, there is a gas stove and oven, small refrigerator, and of course, a French press for coffee making. Water pressure in the shower was definitely better than at Yandup! The bed was one of the most comfortable I’ve ever slept in, ever. I had booked over the web and there was a significant savings that way.
The road though is a challenge. Terry, one of the owners, met us in town when we arrived and led us to an area where we could park the Corolla, about 300 meters from the finca. Because we didn’t have a 4X4, she was worried that we wouldn't be able to get the car all the way to the cottage. (Even the road up to that point was pretty rough.) So we transferred our bags to her car and went the rest of the way with her. Later that day, we drove back into town and had lunch at the Boquete Bistro – ok, but nothing special. We picked up some groceries for breakfast and snacks and checked out the town. That night we were tired and ate snacks for dinner.
Friday we had breakfast in our cottage (the coffee was fabulous) and we went for a hike on the property. We had lunch at the Art Café – really nice crepes and pleasant atmosphere. We had booked the Kotowa coffee tour for the afternoon. My husband actually roasts green beans here in Toronto – not every day, but occasionally, so we do appreciate our coffee. There were 5 of us on the tour and 3 of the people bought Kotowa coffee. Although it's excellent, we had already decided to buy a couple of pounds of coffee from Habbus de Kwie instead. The tour lasted about 3 hours, lots of time for ‘cupping’. It's definitely worthwhile especially if you like coffee.
That night, we were tired again. We just picked up a pizza from a place in town and brought it back to the cottage for dinner. Sometime that day, we had decided to try to bring the Corolla all the way to the cottage – it took a lot of time and care, but we did it.
Saturday was Valentines Day. After more of that incredible coffee from Habbus de Kwie, we went to the Paradise Gardens, which is an animal rescue centre. I have some concerns about whether they'll be able to release some of the animals back into the wild, but it was incredible to see young sloths up close (I didn't realize that they appear to be smiling – so sweet). Being a 'cat' person, I loved seeing the young jaguarundi – so beautiful. Lots of birds, a couple of capuchin monkeys (be careful with 1 of them – he tries to grab your hair through the cage) and so on. The gardens are also beautiful. We probably spent about 2 ½ hours there, which included a tour with a volunteer. On the way back, we stopped at Fresa Mary for delicious milk shakes. Just in time – after we got our order, 3 big cars pulled up filled with a few Panamanian families. We did a bit of shopping in town and I bought a couple of decorative tiles at a place called Tucan Tiles (something like that), near the Art Café. We had made a dinner reservation at the Panamonte Inn. It was a fixed price of $23 each (if I remember correctly) which included a glass of wine and 3 courses. We had a drink in the bar with the fireplace, chatted with some ex-pats (lots of them about), then moved to the dining room for dinner. Lovely dinner and we really enjoyed it. You can also get the same menu in the bar, which would be very nice. The crowd in the dining room was a mixture of tourists like us, probably some ex-pats and Panamanians.
Sunday we visited Mi Jardin es Su Jardin. We had heard that it a little bit odd, maybe a bit tacky, but it really is quite lovely and it’s huge. Given that it's free, it's quite amazing. We then decided to check out Valle Escondido, a large development right next to town. I have to admit I was only interested because I'd seen it on Househunters International (an HGTV show). Odd place – quite lovely, but I have this real bias against gated communities. Afterwards we stopped in town and had some nachos and beer at a place near the square. We came back to the cottage and went for another short hike on the property. Later in the afternoon, we drove up the road leading to Finca Lerida. (I can't remember the name of the road.) Beautiful drive, and great rainbows.
That night we had dinner at OuLaLa. The salmon and tuna tartar was amazing. We both ordered fish – one with a very spicy sauce, the other milder. The restaurant itself is quite basic looking, but the food is excellent and prices are very good. The owner / chef asked how we had found the place – he said that he knows 85% of the diners. Terry, at Tinamou, provides a fact sheet and she had recommended it to us.
We really enjoyed Boquete. It was interesting to see the difference between the Kuna people and the indigenous people around Boquete. Different body types, different clothing. And totally different climate. Great rainbows. Not much of a problem with insects, but I did come away with a few bites.
Anyway, bright and early Monday morning, we set off back to David for our flight to Bocas del Toro. We had to make 1 stop at a service station to fill up the tank and I made a quick trip to the banos there. (For the rest of my life, I'll probably be trying to forget that part of the trip – ugh.) We dropped the trusty Corolla off – it had made it on the bad roads, and headed for Bocas. Our flight left on time, and this time it was only $6 for excess luggage (so $7, $17, now $6 ....).
In Bocas del Toro, we had booked Heliconiidae B&B. It is owned by a Belgian couple – Erwin and Hilde. They live in a house on Isla Colon – you can walk to it, but it's much easier to go by boat. Hilde and their cute daughter Nicky met us at the airport and we walked into town to take their boat to the house.
Our time in Bocas was a total trip! Erwin is quite the character with lots of great stories. He’s very knowledgeable about butterflies, birds, snakes, and so on. They will take you back and forth to town, so it’s fairly convenient considering that you aren’t in town. Right now, they have just the 1 room with attached bathroom that they rent out, but they have plans to expand. They provide a big breakfast every morning and their balcony is a perfect spot to watch birds, the caiman in their pond and so on. It's like staying at a friend’s home, so not for everyone, but very relaxing.
After settling in, we went back into town and had lunch at the Pirate. I wasn't hungry so I ordered a snack & drink, but John ordered the $4.95 chicken lunch special, a huge plate of food. We wandered around and a few hours later we had dinner at Lemongrass. Food was very good and we enjoyed it. The couple at the table next to us didn't have much cash on them, and were alarmed when the waitress said they only took cash. He ran outside (presumably to visit an ATM) and when he got back, they found out that the restaurant can take visa, but it's an extra 3% or something like that.
It was carnival week in Bocas, and the 'devils' were out on the main street. Lots of fun to watch them.
Tuesday, we had booked an all day tour with Erwin. It was a full day. We left around 8 AM and we saw dolphins, we snorkelled a couple of times, we saw frogs. Like I said, it was a FULL day. That night, we had arranged to have dinner with the family at the house – really good chicken, rice, tomatoes, salad. We were definitely too tired to go out anywhere and this was perfect.
Wednesday, Hilde dropped us in town in the morning. We picked up an iced coffee at Starfish, then walked back to the park to catch the 10 AM bus to Boca del Drago. The bus ride is about an hour from town and it's $3 return. The beach was much nicer than I had expected – loads of starfish, etc. We just lazed around, got into the water a few times, and relaxed. I hadn't brought my snorkel and I regretted it. We had lunch at the seafood restaurant there – considering it's the only place there, it's not bad at all. We caught the 4 PM bus back to Bocas. I had a drink at Bongo’s – I’ve never had a ‘blended’ mojito, but it was really good. Lots of lime, the way I like it. We had already arranged to have a light dinner at the house that night – toasted sandwiches and salad, which was perfect after a long day at the beach.
Erwin and my husband went for a night hike that evening. Erwin has night vision goggles, etc. and they were gone about 2 hours. Not my idea of fun, but John enjoyed it and they saw opossums, sloths, spiders, caimans, etc.
Thursday, we woke up to rain. We hung around the B&B for a while, until it cleared up enough to go into town. We stopped off at the Super Gourmet and bought some Bocas chocolate. We picked up another iced coffee at Starfish. Finally we decided to have lunch at Nine Degrees, a really nice restaurant in town. Not cheap, but the food was amazing. Their ceviche, although different from S'cena, was fabulous. I had lobster tacos, my husband had the sliders. (Actually we shared.) The dessert (which we also shared) was fabulous – a very dense chocolate cake, with mousse.
We drifted over to Bongo again – this time I had a capairoschka – it was wonderful. By now, the weather was much better and we didn't know what we would do for the rest of the afternoon. It was too hot to just hang out there. We called Erwin (they had given us a cell phone to use) and asked if he wanted to go snorkelling. So we headed out to a small reef near a sunken ship. With the earlier rain, it was too dark to actually go to see the ship, but the reef was fun to explore.
That night, we had Hilde drop us at the Cosmic Crab for dinner. It had been recommended by some people from California – we ran into them at Lemongrass (the couple with no cash), Nine Degrees, everywhere. I wanted to order the crab cake, but the Cosmic Crab was out of crab. I had grilled lobster tail instead, very nice. Their key lime pie was great for dessert. The setting is lovely and while the food was pretty good, I think that Nine Degrees has better food if you're looking for a special dinner. (Both of those places, btw, take visa.)
Rain started up again sometime Thursday night, and it was pouring Friday morning. We had considered going to Finca Los Monos – the gardens are apparently beautiful, but the weather was not going to cooperate. We were booked on the 2:45 Aeroperlas flight and we decided to pack up early, so that if the rains cooperated, Hilde could take us into town. Finally the rain let up enough for us to head into town. Hilde dropped us at Lily's Café where we could have lunch, then take a taxi to the airport. Lily's was great – I ordered a BLT and my husband had a fish sandwich. The bread is excellent and the hot sauce is hot. (We bought a bottle to bring home.)
Getting our flight was an experience. The flight arrived on time, and we got on the plane, but by now, it was torrential rain again. (The excess fee this time was $12.) The pilot needed to refuel in Changuinola and apparently they were closed. So we all got off the plane and waited until Changuinola re-opened. We stopped at Changuinola for 10 minutes, where we all got off again, then back on to fly to PC. It was close to 6 PM by the time we got to La Estancia. I had already decided that I wasn’t going to buy an Embera basket – good decision, since we wouldn’t have had time in Panama.
We relaxed at La Estancia, cleaned up a bit and then took a cab to Manolo Caracol for our final dinner. We really enjoyed Manolo – the food was great. I think we had 11 or 12 dishes. Some were excellent, all were interesting, none were bad. I was stuffed by the time we finished. Thank goodness the dessert was 3 little jellies – easy enough to eat and the passion fruit one was fabulous. The restaurant has a fun atmosphere and I’m really glad we had a reservation. It was packed – the crowd was a mix of tourists like us and Panamanians.
At La Estancia, we were again in room #4, but we had to be up to catch a cab at 7:15 to the airport to fly home so the early morning noise wasn’t a problem. We were able to have a quick breakfast and then caught our cab. The flight into Newark left on time and then it was on to Toronto (and snow).
Some general notes.
Prices in Panama were a little higher than I expected. Part of that is the decline of the CAD $ - everything was 25% more than when I had budgeted the trip, so I knew things would cost more, it's just discouraging when that actually happens! I also think prices have probably risen quite a bit in the last few years. Restaurant prices are probably less than in Toronto, at least for the higher end restaurants like S'cena and Nine Degrees – you just don't get seafood like that here. Beer is a lot cheaper than it is in Toronto, so are cocktails.
The taxi prices were definitely odd. From La Estancia to Miraflores, was $8. From Miraflores to the market behind the YMCA in Balboa was $10. From the market all the way to Siete Mares was only $3. From Siete Mares back to La Estancia was only $2. All over the map in terms of prices.
Humidity – didn't matter where I was, the humidity was fairly high. I left Toronto with a nice sleek hairstyle and that was the last time my hair wasn't a frizzy mess. I didn't bother taking a hair dryer, no point.
Bugs – I mentioned a few bites in Boquete. I had none in San Blas. Bocas was another story. I was eaten alive. There are bites on the parts of my body that never see daylight. I used repellent all the time but it didn't seem to make much difference. John seems fine though – maybe they liked me better. From experience, I know that insect repellent and nail polish don't mix, so I had removed the polish from my toes. But I had OPI Nail Envy on my fingernails and consequently my nails were sticky most of the trip.
Between the ‘big’ hair and sticky nails, I wasn’t exactly the poster child for the well groomed traveller ....
I know there are lots of ex-pats moving to Boquete and other parts of Panama, and in a way, I can see the appeal, but it sure isn’t me. The weather in Boquete is great, even with the mist / rain. But we met a number of people who had bought within 2 or 3 days of arriving there. One couple had bought 2 lots – one in Boquete, one by the water. I wonder how many of those people will actually end up staying. We heard that there are a number of properties that were started and aren't being finished – with the current economic climate in North America, I'm not surprised.
So here we were – back in Toronto and once again the annual winter holiday is over. Where to next year? Maybe something completely different – Buenos Aires and Santiago? Maybe Vietnam? I’m already starting to plan!
If anyone has any questions, please let me know.
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I've posted a number of times before our trip, and now that we're back, I'm passing on our impressions. Hope it's of use to someone. We had a great trip!