Caravan Tour to Panama

Old Jan 27th, 2013, 04:30 PM
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Caravan Tour to Panama

Caravan trip to panama, trip advisor review by Leib Lurie 2013-1-24

Caravan has been around for 20 plus years, but is a newcomer to Panama, this is only their third year in the country. They are well known for trips to the US west and Costa Rica, with a reputation for low cost tours. After a few early web promoted logistic fumbles, I'm pleased to report that they have gotten it right. Overall 4 stars out of 5!

This year, they will take more than 60,000 people on their single itinerary- an 8 day tour (including travel days) to see the country. The value is very good, we paid less than $1400 per person for doubles, (january is high season), and $1600 for my daughter as a single. They all but insist on $99 to add trip insurance; which covers a lot for the cost.
Airfare is NOT included, they recommend you book your own. I found Caravan hard to reach, no email contact published! and limited Chicago time hours. Although we received a great pre-trip packet, they lost our return flight email. I'm web savvy, but evidently their typical travelers are not.

The tour includes airport transfers and all upscale accommodations (four nights at all inclusive resorts) and all meals from arrival through departure morning; fully guided tour with many side excursions and a few shows thrown in. The only extra costs were the standard tour director and bus driver tips ($12-15 per day pp total recommended).

Our driver was a master at negotiating traffic and tight spaces, and always ready with sanitizer (a nice touch) and bottles of iced water.

Our guide, Bernard, is a Panama native, who knows the country, it's culture, background, history, the canal, and logistics very well. His English was excellent, and he was more than accommodating, although the group size of 44 is much larger than we are comfortable with. Such size all but mandates ubiquitous buffet feeding at most hotels. At age 58, traveling with my wife, daughter, son and his girlfriend, we were much younger than average, which skews 70 plus. But we made some great new friends!

Our favorite tour operator, Overseas Adventure Travel has a 16 person group size, offers Panama over 14 days, and costing almost three times as much, with a number of meals on your own. Caravan tips daily tour guides, whereas OAT usually suggests an extra $5 a day for theirs, and OAT offers several added cost side trips. Caravan included everything. We were impressed.

The highlight for us was the time in and around the canal. A half-transit from Pacific to Lake Gatun on 100 year old wooden yacht originally built for JP Morgan, with an enthusiastic guide was well done. The canal is truly a marvel of engineering.

We had a private dining room in the canal discovery center - with third floor private deck view of the locks- practically eye level with several huge ship's superstructure as they entered the locks. Another view at the Colon side was equally spectacular from shaded deck with dedicated guide describing the action. We saw an illustrative 3D film, and another featuring historian David McCollough, author of the epic tome, "Path Between The Seas", which is well worth the read before coming down. The only gripe was that we heard much of the same information three or four times.

But Panama is much more than the canal. A trip to a private zoo, situated on the wind swept hill in the caldera cone of 2500 foot (dormant) volcano highlighted the breadth of native wildlife. A night tour at our rainforest resort found Capaberas foraging, a tour of the orchid nursery and butterfly house was equally educational. On a jungle cruise on lake Gatun we saw four kinds of monkeys up close and personal, as well as a crocodile and many birds.

We liked a trip to a native Indian village, where a small group of Emberra showed costumes, family life, crafts, dancing and music.

Although we had several shopping opportunities for native crafts; they were short, low key, affordable, and we didn't feel pressured or pushed. (Unlike many tours, nor were they the fake markets built by the cruise ship lines in other Caribbean stops!).

The pace was easy and relaxing, with plenty of afternoon free time for swimming, spa treatments or walking beaches. The Wyndam beach resort had free liquor and a huge swim up bar and many secluded lounging areas in the compound. sailing, kayaking, horseback riding and zip line tours were available for a fee). It also had four restaurants adding variety and fun.

The logistics of the trip were flawless. Airport transfers, Check-ins, check-outs, luggage, meals, tours, etc. we're all fast, smooth and seamless. We never had to wait, nor felt rushed. The rooms were great. Marriott courtyard in Panama adjoined a huge mall with 400 stores from a grocery ($7.00 rum) to Prada. All hotels had great free wifi, although one was free only in lobby. Skype worked well.

Flights... Copa aIrline is the most common to get to Panama, a Star Alliance (united, us air) partner, their reservations mesh well. 3 hrs to Orlando, 5 to Chicago. But... Their carry-on limit is 10 kilos (22 lbs) we normally take just an overhead sized bag- but it weighs 30lbs. No hassle coming down, but we needed to check (no charge) going home. Also, if you need special meal, the United airlines system can't help you. Call Copa direct - 48 hours in advance.

From the Panama Marriott Courtyard, it's Just a five minute walk to Crossfit PTY, an excellent bilingual 6am workout with my daughter under tutelage of co-owner Adrienne was fantastic, although my friends back home questioned my sanity for doing so on vacation. We stayed there the first two and the last night. The rainforest resort featured a hammock on balcony overlooking river valley, and enjoyed two nights at pacific resort with music, magic and a contortionist show, but they were eclipsed by the sunrise over the Pacific (yes you read that right).

The final evening featured a world renowned Panamanian dance troupe for private show. What great energy and exquisite hand embroidered dresses.

A surprisingly diverse, vibrant, historic country with lots to offer, and a terrific value trip on which to enjoy it.
leib is offline  
Old Jan 28th, 2013, 05:40 AM
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What a wonderful posting!!!
Thanks for such a detailed report.
schmerl is offline  
Old Jan 28th, 2013, 12:12 PM
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Don't mean to rain on the parade. I did the Caravan tour of Panama in December, 2011. There were about 40 of us and seemed as if we wasted much time waiting for people who were late, as much as a half hour. All meals were buffets, two or three nights we were isolated at an 'all inclusive' resort. It was okay, but not sure I'd choose this company again. Plus by the time you figure in air fare, the price isn't all that great. It's not the total price of the tour that really counts--one must figure the per day price and there Caravan doesn't seem like such a bargain.
geribrum is offline  
Old Jan 28th, 2013, 12:29 PM
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It's also interesting that this is 'leib's' first post.
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Old Feb 9th, 2013, 10:00 AM
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Yes, my first post for Fodors! But not in any way solicited or compensated.

We have travelled extensively on four continents, mos recently to Turkey, Israel, China, france, Germany, Nova Scotia and Greece. We have used overseas adventure travel, Viking, and many on our own. Tours are not for everyone, and large bus tours of 40+ can, as pointed out, be made miserable by a bad guide or uncooperative travelers.

Compared with low cost cruise trips, this was much more per day. Compared with Europe, and the small ship adventure offered by OAT to Panama, much less.

I DO wish that Caravan was more opaque with their reviews, and insisted in Panamanian guides (some are Mexican or American)

And, yes, buffets get old fast. The resort had four restaurants, with decent choices, buffet alternatives, available side trips (zip lines, jeep tour, horse riding, but we liked the relaxing pools, beach, and Pacific.

I agree... Add up all the costs. Package, air, taxes, insurance, food, tips, night life,, and optional excursions or admissions (none here), to plan the value you seek, and the value you want.
leib is offline  
Old Mar 7th, 2013, 09:10 PM
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Thanks for this review. We are taking the Caravan Panama tour in April after having a wonderful experience in Costa Rica. But after reading really terrible reviews of the Wyndham Playa Blanca hotel, we are having second thoughts. Can't help but think Caravan is getting negative reports and can't imagine why they aren't changing location. I have a little more hope after reading your report.
kdc918 is offline  
Old Mar 8th, 2013, 05:09 AM
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We did the Caravan Panama tour three weeks ago. This was my second Caravan tour and I was disappointed. The benchmark standards of their Copper Canyon tour went way far downhill in Panama.

The worst part was a completely unprepared tour "director." Panamanian and personable (but overly perky for some), she had almost everyone complaining after the second day. Difficult to understand, lacking in basic knowledge, and unprepared for bumps along the road.

The highly touted visit to the Enbera "Indian village" was a Disneyesque experience. It was within sight of the Gamboa Resort, and a couple of miles from town, and quite obvious that these locals did this for their living and had their Fords and Chevys out in the back beyond the fenced limits of the tourist village.

The best part was the Canal itself. Both the visitor center (excellent museum), the locks, and the two boat excursions on the canal. Magnificent to see and the schedule left plenty of time to do so.

Everything else was varying degrees of "meh" depending on the experiences of the individual person on the tour. For many, the hotels were way too western. A Marriott Courtyard and a Wyndham? Come on now. And all the food was western with but a sparse sprinkling of Latin items, including on the ubiquitous buffets. (Our last night we skipped out on the "folkloric" last night "gala" and skipped to the adjacent mall and Tony Roma's; if we were destined to eat western at least it would be good BBQ!)

And several of us were close to horrified at the conditions at that private "zoo." Where is PETA when you need them?

Oh, our bus driver was excellent. I still don't know how he could maneuver the bus around some of those corners. And even without English he communicated as well or better than the "director." (He was the only person many tipped.)

Fortunately, for us, Caravan has no other trips which we would consider doing with any group. Canada...group?

As to flights, we took Copa down from Orlando and it was an excellent experience, particularly since we took advantage of a huge promotion and were in first class for all flights. Would fly them again even without receiving any useful "miles." We also, using Copa, stopped in Honduras for three nights on the way to Panama so that we could see the Maya ruins at Copan. Magnificent!
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Old Apr 19th, 2013, 06:59 AM
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I appreciate the review....based upon your report that you traveled with 44 people, had to stay in all-inclusives with buffet food, most everyone was elderly, and you did things like visiting a zoo in a country with outstanding wildlife--no way would I want to go on a Caravan tour. Also, we did a trip booked on our own, which is now easy to do with online booking and online review sites, for less money than you probably paid, with airfare considered. Everyone we booked with online spoke/wrote in english, except for a domestic AirPanama flight, which our hotel ended up booking for us. Fantastic country, friendly people, lots of wonderful food for very reasonable cost.
snorkelluvn is offline  
Old Apr 22nd, 2013, 01:08 PM
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Kudos are due. Further to my trip report above, Caravan stepped up to the plate and apologized to all participants for having "assigned [the tour director] before she was prepared. For that we apologize." The well written letter was accompanied by a quite reasonable refund plus discount off a future tour.
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Old Apr 22nd, 2013, 07:38 PM
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Hey, Nofly, how did you find a promotion on Copa? We loved the country and its people so much, we are planning a return trip.
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Old Apr 23rd, 2013, 06:06 AM
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It was on their website. I didn't know it was a promotion when I booked thinking I was getting pretty good price. $833pp for MCO-PTY-SAP, SAP-PTY, PTY-MCO in business class.
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Old Oct 18th, 2016, 02:18 PM
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Well... for OP it was the first and last post But others chimed in, thank you, all!

We are planning Caravan to Panama in 2017. Copa? Haven't heard of this airline, I took it off my Kayak search of flights. Maybe I shouldn't have? I'll go look.
Dayenu is offline  
Old Oct 22nd, 2016, 03:19 PM
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Copa is well known, almost a legacy carrier, and not a risk. Let us know how your Caravan trip went!
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