Panama in 15 days - from bday to bday / trip report

Feb 10th, 2015, 05:09 AM
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Panama in 15 days - from bday to bday / trip report

Sunday, 25th Jan 2015
Our trip in Panama started a day earlier, however as our flight has arrived late afternoon, and we were dead tired after a long day (we were flying east to west so the day lasted 5 hours longer), our only activity that first day was taking the shower and sleeping.
Our airport transfer was done by a local company www.goldenfrog.net . Jose, the owner, was very responsive to my emails (once he discovered the first one in his spam folder) and the price was same as taking the taxi ($30) so why not?! We were off the plane and out of the airport in 30 minutes ... very impressive time for that part of the world.
Anyway, I digress. While driving from the airport we have decided to start our first day in Panama with an introductory drive, called Jose and arrange for a driver. The hotel where we stayed, Hotel milan, does not include breakfast in the price of the room, and on-site restaurant is closed on Sundays. Luckily, I have been well stocked with all kinds of great information by DE gb_williams. Finding Cafeteria Manolo was piece of cake. The breakfast was tasty, and the cafe con leche as good as we have expected.
Our driver for the day, Johan, already waited for us, and we started first towards Miraflores Locks. Arriving at about 9:15 the ticket lines were short but the viewing platform already full. One big cruise ship was on its way from Pacific to Atlantic, and a smaller freight ship followed it. The whole experience was worth the entry price, $15 per adult. The museum inside is also very good, and the movie the same.
Next stop was Ancon Hill. As only about 10 cars can park on the top, we have to wait about 15 min; we were third in line. On our way back the line was much longer, at least 20 cars waited to get access to the top! A side note: a shuttle should be introduced, so no cars would be allowed to the top but a shuttle would drive up and down non-stop. The views from the top of the hill were very good, both the ones over to the canal side as the ones toward Casco Viejo and further towards modern Panama City. Speaking of modernity, I was really impressed by the number of skyscrapers that dotted the shoreline! And most of them are of interesting design. After several photos we drove down and do first the Causeway, and later the Cintura Costiera. We were shown where the bus and metro station are (Estacion 5 de Mayo) and were dropped at Plaza de Francia, at the very tip of the Casco Viejo.
It was 13:00 so we have had five more hours to walk around Casco Viejo. Many of houses are still very dilapidated, but the are also many renovated ones, and they look really nice, and are pretty photogenic. I hope that the government of Panama City will continue with revitalisation of this area, as it has enormous potential, not only for tourists but also for residents of PC.
We walked back towards Mercado de Mariscos, where we had our lunch/dinner at one of the many small food shops that lined the walls of the market itself. Fried corvina is an iron repertoire, one cannot go wrong by ordering it any place there. Just find a free table and you are good to have very tasty fish with patacones. We liked ours, and the price was $9 per plate. Beer was $1.25, it was Atlas in .33 l can so I needed two to rehydrate my body just a bit. After this tasty food break we continue our journey towards Metro when my DW decided she is not into any metro today, so we waved a taxi down (OK, for not to be corrected by the regulars here, the taxi has honked us down) and after establishing the rate ($5) we were taken to our hotel. Hotel Milan, where we stayed, is nothing fancy, and I prefer my hotel to have less rooms but more character. However, the good side of this hotel is that every taxi driver knows its location. Having about an hour of daylight still to consume, we walked down to Manolo for a couple of batidos, and more cafe con leche.
First day ended and although tired (lot of walking and the day was mostly sunny thus hot) we were satisfied with what we have seen and experienced.
Oh, yes, it was also bday #1. Instead of cake we enjoyed Yoghurt Forever! My bday wish? To travel forever (or at least as long as possible).

Monday, 26th
I am a sucker for metro transportation wherever it exists. Since the nearest metro station is just mere 10 min walking from hotel Milan, using it was obvious choice.
The system is easy, and similar to what many other cities a using. One needs to buy a card, and then top it. The card is valid both for metro and for buses. Using the vending machine is also easy, as it communicates also in English. The card itself costs $2; I have paid with a $5 bill and after issuing the card, system asks if the rest should be used to top up the card. Inserting the car in appropriate slot and it is done. Check the balance shows $3 amount on our card, which will be good for a number of local drives. One card can be used for max. 4 simultaneous entries, at 35 cents each.
The metro is new so the stations are fresh and clean. Not too crowded. Our destination was again Estacio 5 de Mayo as we have planned to explore the Casco Viejo one more time. However we started with Mercado de Mariscos first. Business was kinda slow, but plenty of fishes on display. After photographing dead animals it was time for a crash course on BBIF (Big Birds In Flight) photography. Many brown pelicans and vultures provided for an easy target shooting.
Strolling around Casco Viejo kept us amusing for next 8 hours. For refreshments we ate ice cream at Grandclement ($4.20 for 2 scoops), had a mug of Elida Geisha coffee at Highland Coffee House ($9 for a mug), enjoyed very good batidos at Vita Fruta Bar ($4.40) and finished with an ice cold Balboa and another batidos at Pips ($2 cerveza and $3 licuado de pina).
After yesterdays remark I have take special attention to how much of the revitalisation is a work in progress. Again, I was more than positively surprised. Many houses are under recounstruction. Yes, only outer shells have remained, but that is how this type of work can be done. Having conversation with several workers on site, I have an impression that at least that have job here are more than happy with what they do.
As we have walked many hours and coved many side streets, I can say that we felt absolutely safe at all times. I have to give an accolade to local business entrepreneurs; being to Istanbul just a month ago, and having to deal with those, folks here are a joy to deal with. Sometimes only a nod of head is enough, but a polite "No, gracias" works 100%. Try that in Istanbul! I have enjoyed having a short conversation with sellers and "tourist guides" without fear that I would end up buying anything I would not want to buy. Really impressive show of hospitality.
Maybe the most memorable event of the day was signing our wish line on the "To do before I die" blackboard which is found at Plaza Tomas Herrera. Our line was 'Živeti polno!'; step in line of many others that will not be able to translate it from Slovenian ! Only for the readers of this trip report: "Living fully".
On return we ate at Mercado de Mariscos again. Same fare plus chevice at $22 for two. However, we liked the food at the other place more. Both were good, just the other day was more up to our taste.
Coming "home" there were two more things to be done. First was the cancellation of the rental car. Yes, as much as it sounds weird, I have decided not to drive to the other side of the canal. On my next visit. Second was to get a data SIM card for internet access. There is a shop in Torres de Alba building, I bough Digicel 15 days unlimited internet access for $14. Lady installed the SIM card and activated the plan in no time. I have also $3 of calls but since I have an iPad, those calls will remain unused.
So, another great, sunny, fun day in Panama City.

Tuesday, 27th
Since I have abandoned a well prepared Plan A by cancelling the rental car, it was time for Plan B (which also happens to be my nickname given to me by my family members).
No car means no Portobello, no Summit, no Discovery Centre, and my DW also declined the offer to show her the hidden secrets of Parque Metropolitan. And since we have explored Casco Viejo pretty well already, not much has left to chose from. At least what we have was a metro and bus card. With no plan at all we exited the hotel, and have another breakfast at Manolo's. Then we went to Iglesia del Carmen, and instead of using a metro, we walked toward the oceanfront using Avenida Boyo (it looked like it might have some shade and trees). Indeed it was a nice walk, with nice views to several skyscrapers. At that moment a decision was made to photograph modern side of Panama. We reached Cintura Costiera at Parque Urraca, and walked over the two 4-lane avenidas to the other side. A green pedestrian belt is lining the heavy trafficked roads, with places for basketball and football and a number of kids were playing there. A string of concrete benches are positioned along the walking/biking path, and trees were giving a much needed protection against ever stronger sun (yeah, another sunny day it was). There were birds in the branches, and observing them was kind of a birding activity. Diablos Rojos were another subject to take photos of. And of course many skyscrapers that lines the coastal road.
After about 2 hours we started to walk toward Casco Viejo but have abandoned that idea after just a couple of meters, as it was too hot and not enough shade. So we turned back toward "downtown", using any avaiable shade that was on our way. We reached the end of the pedestrian path at around 14.00 and were desperately looking for a place to cool down. The Multiplaza (??) was our safe heaven. Nicely air-conditioned! I have read that shopping or just visiting one of many shopping malls is popular past time of Panamanians, so we followed the example. Food court was also there, thus our lunch (and dinner) was taken care of.
Out at around 16.00 and it was still pretty hot. Now walking in Panama City is not what I would advice to anyone. Crossing the roads is for the bravest and fastest only, and finding directions when only a handful street signs exists, becomes a problem. Many construction sites does not help either. So we retraced our steps to Parque Urraca and Avenida Boyo and reached Manolo safely and in time for ice cold water and fresh batidos. Speaking of water, we did drink the water given to us at Manolo (tap wat with plenty of ice) and have zero problems. However, as the hotel has provided a bottle of water each day, we did not use their tap water.
A mild annoyance was that wifi in hotel was not working, now for the second consecutive day. As I am writing this on an iPad that has only wifi I was not able to post it daily, as planned.

Wednesday, 28th
Early wake up call as our flight to Bocas del Toro was scheduled at 6:30. Jose, owner of Greenfrog Travel (www.greenfrog.net is proper web address) came early and roads to Albrook airport were almost deserted. Check in procedure was relatively fast. If pgoing by a small plane, all the luggage and the passengers are weighted. We were flying a bigger, twin prop plane, so only the luggage was weighted, much to my DW liking. One word on max. allowed weigth for luggage. Panama Air web site states 14 kg total, and 4 kg on plane. Electronics, cameras, etc goes on board. I recon 14 kg per person, and we have scaled down our total luggage weight to 28 kg (great job, DW). However, the person at the check in counter said it is 14 + 4 rule. And even if over that weight limit, extra kg is not expensive at all.
Flight leaves about 30 min late, no big deal. Approaching Bocas we entered in some thick clouds, and once on the earth again, it was obvious that we might have had a lot of relaxing on the porch time ahead of us.
Taxi is more like a bus transportation, as they charge by the person. Inside the town is .65 cents, outside depends on the length. We were situated near to bluff beach so it is $3 pp to the town.
The place we are staying is Monkey Tree Lodge. The are two cabins, within nice garden, up the hill, about 10 m asl. Very comfortable, kitchen, fridege, big covered porch. The owner, Heather, showed us around and we are happy with our pick.
Returned to town to wait for our friend coming from Bouquete by shuttle. It was raining on and off so not the best weather for traveling. After she arrived we had a quick lunch at nearby fonda (similar to soda in Costa Rica), do some shopping and back to our place.
Enjoyed the porch most of the time, as it was grey overcasted day with rain. Luckily internet is included with our cabin so I was able to upload the missing two days.
Since Bocas was planned to be mostly relax, chat and read place, the weather is not our concern. Always better sitting on the porch and listening to the rain than shoveling the snow back home !

Thursday, 29th
Heavy rain during the night. And it rained on and off all day long. Spent a lot of time on the porch, chatting, reading, just listening to the sounds of the nature. Had to go for a walk just to get soaked by another rain shower. Luckily next door is a pizza place, Ciao Pizza. Very good wood oven pizzas, thin and crusty. Early to bed.

Friday, 30th
The weather just want us relax to the full! Grey morning, rain goes from light to normal to light. At least it stopped around noon, so we walked to nearby Paki Beach Bar for the lunch. A surfer's spot, funky, loud music, slow service (nobody is in a rush here) and surprisingly tasty food. And not expensive. We had 3 main meals (a tuna tartar, a hamburger and a fish of the day) with 3 drinks, desert and coffee total $55. Whole lunch was 2 hours long, but who is looking at the watch when there are surfers all around.
More chatting, more reading, more web browsing. Tried to get some birds on the camera but also birds are somewhere else, probably doing the same thing as us.

Saturday, 31st
Finally, no rain! And even better, only a few clouds on the blue sky! Excellent day to do my birding day on Bocas.
Through BirdingPal I have made a contact with Pat Wade who is a passionate birder, and is living in Bocas del Drago. He picked me up early and we drove slowly towards his home, stopping whenever Pat found a new bird for me. Back at his home, we have a coffee and a nice chat with his wife Kitty, also a birder. Next we went out together, for more birds. It was a perfect day, nice sunny day, enough birds to keep me busy with my camera, and above all, very friendly and interesting hosts. Thank You, Kitty and Pat!
I came back to the lodge only at 3 pm, and of course ladies were out. Not far away, I found them at Paki Bar having their late lunch, after which my wife took some time to photograph surfers. I am afraid that her photos are better than mine .

Sunday, 1st
Time to leave Bocas del Toro. Our days were limited to mostly staying at the lodge, as the weather was not cooperative to explore the island of Colon, and other islands. Next time! When waiting for the boat taxi to depart, we have strolled the town a few blocks, side to side. In comparison to Puerto Viejo, it is much bigger, with many more tourist facilities, like restaurants, cafes, and tour agencies. Boat tours to other islands a offered almost on every 10 meters. Folks offering you tours are friendly, and a simple "No, gracias" is enough. But the vibe of Bocas Town is very different to the vibe of Puerto viejo, and the later is more to my likings.
We booked our shuttle to Bouquete already four days ago, through a company named Hola Panama, for $30 pp. Seeing that the weather was not good I was a bit afraid about the boat taxi part. No worries there as on Sunday, rain stopped a 9 am and it was dry and mostly sunny all four hours we needed to cover the Bocas to Bouquete distance.
Boat ride was smooth, and short, about 30 min. A bit of confusion at the small dock, but nothing to worry about, just listen to whoever will name your final destination. Our transportation was a small bus, about 30 seats, and as it was not full, the ride itself was quite comfortable. Much more comfortable than the ride we have had years ago in Costa Rica, using smaller van for about 12 persons.
The road itself was interesting enough. After about 100 minutes we stopped at the roadside restaurant, for food, drinks and toilet (eating and drinking on bus is not allowed). Food was very good, and portions are huge. Next we started to climg the mountain, and road become narrower and with many curves. Up in the mountains we drove by a huge artificial lake. i was wondering where all the electricity for Panama City came from, and here was the answer.
The bus driver stopped at Kotowa Coffee House where we waited for taxi who drove us to where we will stay almost a week. Much cooler up here, wind is blowing almost with a force, and a spray of rain refreshed us. Very different climate to the one in Bocas, and no doubt we will enjoy also our days in Bouquete.

Monday, 2nd to Friday, 6th
The five days we stayed in Bouquete with our distant cousin Gloria. She is living in an urbanizacion named Santa Lucia. Bouquete itself is quite a town, with many restaurants but it is mainly a living town, not a tourist town. On the outskirts of the town, several urbanizacion has developed during the years, most of them with nice houses where expats and wealthier Panamanians have their houses. Due to its much cooler climate, having a house in or around Bouquete is important for those seeking to escape the more humid places like Panama City.
Apart of assisting Our cousin with some maintenance works, I have made 2 birding days, both with local guy Jason Lara. Jason is an excellent birder, and as he finished university studies his English is also excellent. On first day it impresses me arriving 10 min before our agreed upon time. I like when people does not joke with my money being late. The weather was not cooperative, bajareque was on almost entire 6 hours, but we managed to spot a number of interesting birds, including two male resplendent quetzals. They were too far away for taking a decent photo but through the scope they looked, well, resplendent. We were birding the Los Quetzales Trail.
My wife enjoyed a couple of visits to Haven Spa. She said it is very nice inside, with all kind of saunas and jacuzzi. One of those visits I have also been invited, yet only to enjoy the nice garden and the free wifi. Good enough for me.
Second birding day was on Water pipeline Trail. There is an entry fee of $3, well worth as they have constructed 3 bridges so no more river crossing and wet feet and shoes. It was the best day of all, sunny and also without much wind. Almost 9 hours we enjoyed the skills of Jonas calling the birds to came closer. My wife was taking photos this time so results were much better than mine. Also he we have seen resplendent quetzals, and one female was so close we could watched her with bare eyes. Truly amazing sight.
There are other outdoor activities offered by many tour agencies in the town, like rafting, zip lining, horseback riding. All of those, plus birding, requires a shorter or longer drive out of the town. One can flag down a taxi, or go with a group. There are also bus lines but I have no idea where those famous yellow school buses goes. For sure there are frequent buses connecting Bouquete with David.
A new road connection is now available for those wanting to do the other side of volcano Baru. With a bit more than an hour of driving, reaching Volcan is now much easier than before. If staying in Bouquete for a longer period of time, do visit also that part of Chiriqui province.
All to fast our days in Bouquete we over. We slept excellently as nights were cool, we walked a lot around Santa Lucia, and we have had two excellent birding days.
Oh, yes, on our last evening in Bouquete we have also celebrated my DW bday.

Saturday 7th & Sunday, 8th Feb
It is a long way from David to Panama City, by bus, so we decided to take the newly introduced COPA flight. From Bouquete, a taxi needed 45 min to reach the airport in David, and the fare was $30. The plane needed another 45 min to reach Tocumen airport, where a driver from Goldenfrog already waited for us. On the way to hotel Milan we have stopped at Panama Viejo. The modern museum has some artifacts dated back to the pre Colombian history, and of course many panels are linked to what have happened to the city it was attacked by the pirates. After museum we went to see the ruins of this old city. Not much has left but overall, this site positively surprised me. It is like a big park, big trees and ruins with panels that depicted what a visitor is looking at. At what used to be Plaza Mayor, there is the tallest standing structure, the tower of cathedral. From its top the views are 360 degrees, south to the sea, east and west to skyscrapers, and north to green hills. Well worth the many steps. Also quite a lot of birds as on one side the park is bordered by the mangrove. No snakes that we have seen, but a pretty big green iguana was sunning on a rock. The combo ticket was $7.
After checking into hotel room, it was time to do another visit to Multicentro Mall. This time to get me new hiking shoes. The outdoor equipment shop did carry some sale items, and a very helpful salesman helped me found my next hiking companions.
Sunday was time for last gift shopping. Now already experts in using the metro, we went to Casco Viejo. From El Cangrejo / Estacion della Carmen to Casco Viejo it is about 35 min, metro plus walking. In the morning, one of the roads that makes Cintura Costiera is closed for traffic and many bicyclists were using the car free lane to enjoy the sunny and not so hot day.
Casco Viejo was more empty as on our previous visit, yet many souvenir and art shops were open. We got all we were looking for, apart of the book Birds of Panama. That one will need to be ordered on-line.
Jose Saenz came personally to wish us a farewell, and his wife drove us to Tocumen airport. Not much traffic in the city, we reached the airport in 40 min, paid $30 for transfer, and waived our last good-bye to Panama.
It was an interesting visit. We have not been very active, have skipped all the birding around Panama City, did not get to Portobello, and have only a limited experiences at Bocas del Toro. But we liked what we have seen, we felt very safe wherever we were, and with a few Spanish words we have been able to "open" otherwise more reserved Panamanians. About the only thing we have trouble with were post office boxes. It seems that sending mail or postcards is not what Panamanians are doing. Even finding a post office was a feat. Sure enough, we will come back, as there is still much to explore and to experience in Panama.
xelas is offline  
Feb 10th, 2015, 01:30 PM
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Join Date: Feb 2003
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Thanks for the report. Great info!
MichelleY is offline  
Feb 11th, 2015, 07:35 AM
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Join Date: Dec 2006
Posts: 608
Nice trip report, Xelas. Too bad you had rain in Bocas and couldn't explore more, but sounds like you didn't mind. The house we stayed in on Bocas was right by Monkey Tree, I believe. Hope to see your pictures!
janenicole is offline  
Feb 11th, 2015, 11:16 AM
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Here are those taken by me: https://www.flickr.com/photos/670412...7650355932678/ .
xelas is offline  
Feb 11th, 2015, 11:34 AM
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Xelas, welcome back and thanks for report.
Love the photos too-great local color.
plambers is offline  
Feb 11th, 2015, 11:47 AM
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Join Date: Aug 2003
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Do give Panama another chance! We've been twice - doing lots of birding - got plenty of bahareque (i like the word, just not the weather condition) and on one trip 50mph winds for two days! so weather can be odd this time of year. But fortunately we were on a very long trip so got plenty of good days as well.

How great that you got to see so many quetzales! a beautiful bird indeed. We need to try that birding pal organization, sounds like that worked well for you.

always enjoy hearing about Panama.
glover is online now  
Feb 14th, 2015, 05:33 AM
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Love your pictures! I especially love the one of the fishing boats with the Panama City skyline in the background.
janenicole is offline  
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