Looking for advice on a week's itinerary for Panama

Jun 2nd, 2010, 06:43 PM
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Looking for advice on a week's itinerary for Panama

I'm considering a week long trip to Panama in mid-July. I usually plan my trips very far in advance, so this is last minute planning for me. I'm just starting to consider going (found reasonable airfare today) and would appreciate any advice I can get.

My husband and I (both early 40's) have traveled all over the world, but have never been to Panama. In Central America, we've been to Honduras and Costa Rica.

We would arrive into Panama City late afternoon on a Saturday and depart the following Sunday around noon. I was thinking we'd spend a couple of days in Panama City, see the canal and then head somewhere else.

Is there a good way to mix a few days in the jungle/rain forest with a few days at a beach?

How much should time of year/weather factor into our choice of destination? Caribbean vs. Pacific?

Should we consider renting a car? We did this in Honduras and Costa Rica with no problem. If having a car would help keep the cost down (vs flying) that would be a bonus too.

How necessary is it to book accommodation in advance at that time of year? I usually do, but I'm thinking of playing it by ear on this trip. When we were in CR, we had a hotel in Jaco booked for 5 days and while it was nice (and expensive), we saw all these cute little budget places right on the beach I would have loved to stay at. I'm wondering if we could find that in Panama and if so, where?

So, a little direction here to narrow down my choices would be helpful. We don't mind moving around a bit but I know we can't see it all in a week. From what research I've done already, my head is spinning with choices.

Kristina is offline  
Jun 3rd, 2010, 06:51 AM
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www.weather2travel.com Climate Guide

would only visit Dec-Mar for best weather

Car rental ok in 1 week maybe Panama City/Canal

Gamboa Rainforest Resort and Santa Clara

Las Sirenas is nice there...if more time



Yandup Island Lodge

Have fun,
qwovadis is offline  
Jun 3rd, 2010, 11:44 AM
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Thanks for the reply. We have to go in July, that's the only time I have available. Gamboa Resort gets pretty good reviews but might be out of our budget.

Anyone else have other Panama recommendations or itinerary ideas?
Kristina is offline  
Jun 3rd, 2010, 02:10 PM
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Hi Kristina -

Sorry I can't help with the beach ideas or the beach/jungle combo ideas.

You might take a look at the Canopy Tower in the Soberania National Park. Not far from Panama City. Great guides, good food. Accomodations are comfortable, clean and unique, but not 5*. I went for a long weekend in Oct 08 and spent a couple of days in Panama City and a couple of days at the Canopy Tower. Rainy season - we had mostly late afternoon rain, but one afternoon where it really just poured.

El Valle is a great destination too... smaller town, slower pace. I've only been there in February, so don't know about rainy season.

I'd suggest you look into the partial transit of the canal... It's really cool going through the locks with other boats/ships and getting an overall feel for it.

I've stayed at the Country Inn & Suites and at the Bristol in Panama City if you end up wanting info about either of them.
dreaming is offline  
Jun 3rd, 2010, 05:03 PM
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Dreaming-Yes, I've been looking at Canopy Tower and Canopy Lodge. I think the tower is more expensive (priced per person)but I can't find the rates for the Lodge on their site either. I need to email them. Not sure which to choose.

Right now I am thinking this:
Arrive on sat 6pm Panama City
Sunday & Monday Panama City (one day for canal the other for??)
Tues, Wed, Thurs somewhere at beach/island either via flight or rental car.
Friday/Sat maybe at Canopy Tower
Sunday Departure at 12:20 PM from Panama City (go direct to airport from Canopy Tower).
Kristina is offline  
Jun 3rd, 2010, 07:04 PM
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Hi Kristina -

You can find rack rates for the Canopy Lodge through the Canopy Tower website. Go to: http://www.canopytower.com/index.php/Rates/ Under "Rates", select "room availability". You'll get a pop up window where you can select "reserve at Canopy Lodge". You'll then see the room availability. You can click on each individual room and see the rack rates. I'm sure you'll be better off e-mailing like you plan and asking about specials or last minute deals. I think that both places have minimum stay requirements, but if you're booking last minute they may be more flexible (they were with us!).

If you choose Canopy Lodge, you'll need to plan for the longer trip to and from El Valle. 3 hours vs 1/2 hour-ish. (It looks like Santa Clara that qyovadis recommended is near to El Valle, so that could be convenient.) If you choose Canopy Tower you'll want to take earplugs, in case you have a snoring neighbor.

I took Panama Marina Adventures for the canal tour - in July they only have Saturday on their schedule. Looks like Canal Bay & Tours is also Saturday only in July.

For how to spend some of your time in Panama City, have a look at Casco Viejo and Panama Viejo. Truthfully, I'd limit the time in Panama City and try to spend most of the time elsewhere.

Hopefully others will chime in with beach info... Bocas del Toro look fantastic.
dreaming is offline  
Jun 3rd, 2010, 09:28 PM
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Yes, I emailed Canopy Lodge and they told me they had a 3 day minimum which I thought was odd given that it's low season and they're not even close to fully booked. He didn't send me the rates though, saying someone else would send them tomorrow. In looking at it again, I think it may be out of budget at close to $300/night for the two of us. It's too bad, I'd like to do it, but I really want to keep the cost of the trip down. I think the Lodge is too far for my comfort to make it back to the airport in time.

Do you think that 2 full days in Panama City is too much? We're not going to be able to do anything on the day we arrive and just 1 day seemed like it would be rushing it.
Kristina is offline  
Jun 4th, 2010, 02:02 PM
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If you do decide you really want Canopy Lodge, I'd e-mail them back and ask if they'd be willing and able to change the minimum stay, esp since it's heading toward last minute.

Since you want to be close to the airport for the outbound, have you thought about flipping your itinerary around? That could also put you back in PC for the Saturday canal tour.

Such as:

Option 1
Saturday: Panama City/Dinner out.
Sunday: Day trip - Nature Tour - Embera Indian? Pipeline Road?
Monday - Friday - Beach location?
Friday night - Panama City dinner/nightlife?
Saturday - Partial Transit, then Casco Viejo
Sunday - Home

Or Option 2
Saturday - Canopy Tower pickup from airport
Sunday - Canopy Tower
Rest same as above.

Option 2 only really gives you one full day at Canopy Tower, which, if it rains in the afternoon, means maybe one real nature walk/drive on Sunday am.

You could also visit the Miraflores Locks rather than going on the partial tour canal tour, which gives you more options in terms of timing.

If you like the sound of Canopy Lodge, there is a range of lodging possibilities in El Valle(we stayed at the Golden Frog Inn). There are a number of walks/sites that you can do without a guide, or you can hire a guide for birding/wildlife to get more out of it (night walks and such).

I think you could spend 2 full days in Panama City, it's just a matter of what you want to see the most?

I'm still hoping that someone will chip in with some beach opinions, since it looks like you could fly to the Bocas or ?, stay Sunday - Friday, see both rainforest & beach and back to PC on Friday or Saturday. The Bocas del Toro site does say that July and December have the most rain. http://www.bocas.com/btisturi.htm
dreaming is offline  
Jun 4th, 2010, 03:00 PM
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Hi Kristina,
You helped so much on our Rome Trip...and I love all of dreaming's ideas.
We have been to Panama several times as my sister-in-law has lived there for 35 years. We have visited in summer, spring, and winter.

We enjoyed Pipeline road (very close to city!) and also enjoyed our trip up the Chagres River to visit the Embera Drua people- this trip included lunch (we had fresh tilapia they had caught), craft & tattoo demonstrations (just our family), dancing and an amazing musical greeting by the entire tribe. During rainy season the river could be a bit dangerous after a storm (in the dugout canoe) but they will watch the weather. When we went 2 years ago they were building an extra hut for overnight guests to learn basket weaving and other indigenous skills. Might want to check the Embera Drua web site.

The "Rain" is often in the afternoon so we chilled or visited markets during the rain.
We did drive to Coronado, which was a nice beach, but I have always wanted to visit the San Blas Islands on the Caribbean side. Bocas looks cool but flying would be the way to go and I would investigate flights/roads/weather, etc.

El Valle has a very cool open-air market; I think it is usually on Saturdays- we drove there on our first visit. People walk miles through the jungle with their goods to sell at market.

We actually enjoyed eating at the canal. Watch the Canal movie or read The Path between the Seas. The food is mediocre but the canal is very cool to watch at night.

Knowing you, I am SURE you have great restaurants scoped out but I can ask my family if you need recommendations. They are also very tuned in to the dance community if you are interested in traditional dance.
eyemom84 is offline  
Jun 4th, 2010, 06:29 PM
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Ok, I like the way you think. I'm not sure yet if doing a partial transit of the canal is important or not, but that's certainly an option.
BTW, we do not arrive in time to go to the canopy tower straight from the airport. According to their website, they do not allow late arrivals.

I heard back from Canopy towers who said they had a 3 day minimum, but would make an "exception" for us for 2 days. But the more I think about it, the more unsure I am about spending $600 for two nights. I think I may search out a substitute. Could you tell me more about the Golden Frog Inn? I looked at their website and it looks pretty nice.

As for Bocas del Toro I don't know yet if we want to go that far or just drive to the coast somewhere. I'm also looking at Isla Contadora and the Pacific coast side near Santa Catalina.
Then there's San Blas...I just don't know.

eyemom84-So glad I could be of help on Rome. I love it so much I'd be going back again this year if the airfare were more affordable.

I will look up the Pipeline road and the Embera Drua though I have to admit I'm pretty uncomfortable going to "visit" indigenous peoples. It just all feels so weird and unreal. I would love to visit the market in El Valle but it sounds like it's on Sundays and I don't know if that will work for us unless we go there on our first full day in Panama.
Do you know of any other good markets?
And no, I have no restaurants scoped out yet. So, if you have any, let me know!
Kristina is offline  
Jun 5th, 2010, 09:32 AM
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Yes! I will check on Markets and Restaurants...

Yeah, I felt that way too at first but they are trying to maintain their way of life & without some tourism that would be lost. They have already been run out of the Darien (jungle) by drug-runners (there are no roads between Panama & Columbia). There is actually a tribe member whose sole job is education of outsiders, & he has been to the U.S. several times to educate people in traditional medicines, crafts, building practices, etc...
eyemom84 is offline  
Jun 5th, 2010, 12:22 PM
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Ok, I bought the tickets so I'm really going!

Now I just have to figure out all the rest.
Rent a car and drive?
Fly to an island?
Jungle treks?
Panama City at the beginning of trip or the end?

Sigh. It's overwhelming.
Kristina is offline  
Jun 6th, 2010, 05:53 PM
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Overwhelming in a good way, right!

The market in El Valle was open every day we were there and was just bigger on Sundays. It was smaller than I expected it to be (even on Sunday). We got some shaved ice with flavored syrup and condensed milk from a cart vendor there. Surprisingly tasty.

We didn't rent a car, and were glad not to have one in Panama City. Taxis were plentiful and inexpensive in PC. It would have been nice it have outside of Panama City - we probably would have made it to the beach with a car. The roads were good...

The Golden Frog Inn was great. Friendly owners, great breakfasts, clean and comfortable. Not a 4 star hotel, but a nice place. We were in Suite 3. The only downside was that the walk was a bit far from the center of town. With a car it wouldn't have been a problem. We didn't realize how close some of the local buses run to the Inn until the end of our stay.

For Panama City restaurants, my favorites were La Posta (near the Bristol Hotel) and Rene Cafe (in Casco Viejo). There are some restaurants listed here: http://www.panamainfo.com/en/panama-...staurant-picks I wasn't super impressed with Barandas (should have order one of the dishes they're known for) or Cafe Barko (touristy & tourist prices).
dreaming is offline  
Jun 6th, 2010, 07:00 PM
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Hi Kristina, I've been lurking on the Asia board for awhile now (planning first 2month trip to SEA in Jan/Feb), but often check back here too after many trips to Costa Rica and Panama. We've been to Panama twice (and spent 2 months there in 09), so maybe can help. We've been to both Gamboa Rainforest Resort and Canopy Lodge, and enjoyed them both. What are you most interested in? That would help. If you want to do some local rainforest without spending the $$$ of Canopy Tower or Gamboa (though I see someone is quoting a $125 / night price lately), I had some emails awhile back with someone with a small B&B in Gamboa (there's not much choice in lodging out there). .. .. sounded good to me, but he was booked when we wanted to go a couple years ago. ... You know you can always stay in city and do day trip to Gamboa. .
glover is offline  
Jun 6th, 2010, 08:16 PM
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I enjoyed a great trip to Panama just over a year ago.

Prior to Panama we had already been to Costa Rica and did a lot of the "nature thing" and given that we didn't feel the need to totally go that route in Panama, we didn't.

We arrived in Panama City and spent 2 nights at La Estancia, which I highly recommend if you are OK with budget accommodations in a convenient and friendly atmosphere. It was easy to get around from there, close to the Causeway, and fun to have monkeys right outside.

Of course, a visit to Miraflores is a must. We did not do any transit because we've cruised through here and other locks before so it was not new to us. We got a tour of Casco Viejo and some parts of the city, but the tour guide not good so I can't say I got much out of it.

Then we spent 2 nights at Yandup Island Lodge in San Blas. We loved this and 2 nights was just right. Maybe 3 would have been ok if you really want down time. It was a good mix of beach/relaxation, cultural experience and nature. Our hosts there were lovely people and we especially loved visiting the Kuna community.

From there we went to the Azuero Peninsula for a night, El Valle for a night (at Golden Frog) and then back to PC. On our return to PC we spent one afternoon at Gamboa and another day on an Embera tour. I first requested Anne Gordon but she was not available and then I booked with Garceth. We had a good day on this tour, but it was not the same type of experience as our stay with Yandup. The people were friendly and a lot of fun, but the atmosphere and the experience was different.

We also considered Bocas but thought we'd save that for next time and combine it with a return to Costa Rica.

We really enjoyed Panama and the variety of experiences and activities the country offers! Good luck in planning and deciding.

I am totally delinquent at writing trip reports but this is probably the closest I've come to doing one. In my planning I remember great reports from cmcfong and SusaninToronto - you may want to check those out if you haven't already.
hamlet is offline  
Jun 7th, 2010, 09:24 PM
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Thanks for all the replies!

Glover-I've been to Asia many, many times. If you have questions, just ask, or see my travel blog (link in profile).
When I last looked at Gamboa it was minimum $155 a night for our dates. What was that B&B you had info on?

Dreaming and Hamlet-When you stayed at the Golden Frog did you go on any nature/wildlife tours or did you go on your own?

About San Blas Island:
I keep looking at different places and I'm just not finding anything that "fits." Yandup looks neat, but at $200 a night, I really think it's out of budget. Plus, I very much dislike paying for things like that in full, in advance, with no refunds.
Almost everything else is at the opposite end of the spectrum and probably too "rustic" for us. I keep reading about outhouses and toilets which empty into the ocean making it unsafe to swim there too. Ick.

So I think I need to concentrate on either the Pacific Coast or maybe Contadora Island. Not sure about Bocas. I keep reading the beaches aren't great.

Anyone know anything about the Sheraton attached to the convention center in Panama City? I can stay there for $60 plus 4000 SPG points per night. I'm sure the hotel is fine, but I'm concerned about the out of the way location.

Still feeling a bit overwhelmed but at least now I feel like I have my bearings about the different areas of the country.
Kristina is offline  
Jun 8th, 2010, 06:02 AM
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I don't recall where the convention center was but at the end of our trip we stayed at a Marriott/Courtyard by a shopping mall. We chose to change location since it was closer to the airport and was the same price or less than La Estancia. I really preferred La E because it offered something special with the view of monkeys, sloths and birds right outside our door.
I don't know how long it took to get your points and if you'd rather apply to something else.

In PC taxis are really inexpensive (you need to bargain or you might pay $20 instead of $4, no exaggeration) so location is only so much a factor. Taxis around the city may cost $3-8, to Miraflores might be up to $15, and more for Gamboa (can't remember).

We usually don't spend $200 a night on lodging, especially since we sometimes get industry discounts. However, Yandup was not just lodging but an experience which also included a bit of a tour and guide and food. The food was not at all "special" but it was fine and they accommodated me with chicken since I don't eat fish. They did not serve the lobster they show on their website either.

I laugh to myself thinking that we spent more money than usual to NOT have electricity or sophisticated plumbing. Each day at Yandup they take the group to another island nearby to go to the beach there, but you can stay at Yandup if you just feel like staying in your hammock. Then after lunch is a tour. I believe there are only 3 - Kuna community, cemetery and mangrove, so what you see depends what day(s) you are there and where they are in the rotation. It is rustic and roughing it more than I am used to, but it was fine and I really enjoyed it. And I thought, how much electricity do I use on a beach vacation anyway? (There is some power at night so I could charge camera batteries etc.) It was an experience unique to Panama. If I just wanted a beach or to swing in a hammock with a book, there are other options outside of Panama.

You may want to consider the beach down the hill from El Valle, whose name escapes me right now. Then you can split your time btw PC and El Valle and/or that beach. We were in EV for just one night and did everything on our own. We walked to the rocks with carvings, walked to the square trees and went to the zoo, which was mostly every kind of winged creature.

We were in Gamboa for only a few hours and did the monkey tour there, and did see lots of monkeys.

Hope this was helpful.
hamlet is offline  
Jun 8th, 2010, 01:29 PM
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Here there are a few places where you can go in Panama: http://www.hoteltraveltour.com/panama/
yacare is offline  
Jun 8th, 2010, 07:27 PM
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Hi Kristina - wow, I started reading your Vietnam report last night and AM STILL READING. Lots of great info there for us!

For the Gamboa B&B take a look at Ivan's B&B Gamboa - reviews on tripadvisor. It wouldn't be fancy, but it sounded like it would be good for our needs next time we're around that area. Rainforest Resort has a wonderful location, nice grounds, and pool (though we never used the pool). We stayed in one of the old quarters type buildings. The mixed reviews on tripadvisor tell the story of the resort. We enjoyed our time there - mostly because of the location- and the great birds and plants we were able to see on the property itself. We stayed there a few nights on our first trip to Panama - and also one night at Canopy Tower - which is great to see what they've done with bldg. Fabulous view from top of the tower - loved our evening time there - but next am it was socked in- so didn't see many birds to speak of. Second time we went to Panama (having done both those rather $$$ lodgings in Gamboa and finding that Ivan's place was booked, we just stayed at La Estancia - which is so pleasant as OP said - and signed up with Ancon Expeditions (or some other group) to do a birding trip on Pipeline Road. Even this can be done rather easily now on your own - though, as people who like birds, we want help spotting them.

We also did a partial transit of the Canal last time, which was slow but interesting. Read David McCullough's Pathway Between the Seas before you go. Had little interest in the canal until I read that book. Fat and detailed but really interesting! The Casco Viejo area of Panama City has a really nice history museum in a beautiful old building. Really liked that one better than the museum at Miraflores lock - though that was interesting too. And just sitting outside at the restaurant at Miraflores and watching a ship or two come and go will give you a nice canal experience.

See from the Asia board that you're definitely into food - PC has some nice restaurants: Manolo Caracol is one we like. But there are many more (and probably new/better ones). Both times we were in PC we also enjoyed having drinks and/or dinner at the Italian joint on the Amador Causeway. Fun to sit by water, look back at PC city scape, and watch people/boats come and go. We also walked back from Amador on causeway one night - half way back to town. Lovely night and lots of people out so felt quite comfortable. I've got lots of Panama trip reports out there if you click on my name. Can't help you much with beach, cause we don't much seek that out on vacation (we do enough here in States). However, we have spent some time at beach on Pacific side closer to David - at Las Olas resort. Cheapest oceanfront digs we ever had! Great place for long walks on the beach. Not much else down there. Perhaps because IT"S REALLY HOT! We thought it was a deal. But we were staying around Boquete, so it was only an hour or so drive from there. You've only got a week . .. so probably won't get up there. I remember researching Isla Contadora and thinking that sounded nice. I liked the sound of a place called Cala Mia - but again that's gonna be some distance from PC. .. .
glover is offline  
Jun 8th, 2010, 07:34 PM
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I recommend you check the following websites:
Two top nature oriented tour companies in Panama.
raulpanama is offline  

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