Go Back  Fodor's Travel Talk Forums > Destinations > Mexico & Central America
Reload this Page >

Panama made us Panamaniacs, Trip Report Dec/Jan 2015-16

Panama made us Panamaniacs, Trip Report Dec/Jan 2015-16

Old Jan 26th, 2016, 07:33 AM
  #1  
Original Poster
 
Join Date: Mar 2004
Posts: 7,199
Likes: 0
Received 0 Likes on 0 Posts
Panama made us Panamaniacs, Trip Report Dec/Jan 2015-16

We loved Panama. Central America has always been appealing to us and it didn't fail to disappoint this time. It was friendly, hot, and easy to navigate. I won't post a day-by-day but thought it was worth sharing some highlights and noteworthy experiences here.

We went to Panama City, Metiti, and Boquete and had wonderful experiences in each. We arrived in Panama City, had a few days there, then did a scheduled program in Metiti through Panama Exotic Adventures, flew to Boquete for a few days and then back to Panama City before heading out.

Panama Canal: Partial Transit
We really wanted to go through the canal but the company Canal and Bay Tours, http://www.canalandbaytours.com/ which runs the partial transits is a logistics mess. And I don't think our experience with that is particularly unusual. We booked well before arrival in Panama and had clear instructions about pickups. I booked directly with the company to avoid any chance of miscommunication/middleman problems. I was actually pleasantly surprised when, as instructed, I contacted them the night before to confirm the pickup time and they responded within minutes with an updated time. Less impressive was the next morning when I awoke and saw our time had been moved up another hour. We scrambled and made it down to the lobby just in time. And then we waited. And waited. And waited. We waited throughout the entire 8:15 to 9:00 window we were just given. We waited another hour past that (since we had also been given a 9-10 window at one point). We waited 15 more minutes. Our hotel tried calling the tour multiple times and no one picked up. We finally just took a taxi to the meeting spot (a circumstance the company anticipates happening so often that they have instructions about it in their confirmation email AND point out they won't reimburse you for the taxi).

When we arrived there was a rather grumpy group waiting to head out. We eventually learned that the grumpiness was because there were significant delays that hadn't been explained. We finally got on the buses to take us to the departure point and learned that part of the problem was that a lock was broken and so traffic was backed up. There had been a chance the trip would have been canceled. We were glad that it was not. But that probably explains why our phone calls had gone unanswered as the company scrambled to try and get the trip to go anyway.

But they didn't handle it in the best way possible--they indicated we would still be going but failed to mention that it would mean a very long wait to get through the first lock. We arrived there at about 2:30 PM and had to wait until 5 PM to go through. That was fine for us but many, many passengers were irritated about it. I think some might have opted not to go if they knew about that long wait. The boat was hot and fairly boring. We did get to see some HUGE ships go through the other lock. We tied up in the broken lock until there was a ship that was small enough and safe (no HAZMAT) enough for us to go through together (the tour boat is too small to be allowed through alone as it's not fiscally beneficial for the canal to send small boats through by themselves). While we waited there had been a breakfast and lunch served. Both were forgettably fine. The logistics of serving them were foolish--it would have made sense to have packaged meals for people to just quickly pick up. Instead there was a loooong buffet line which led to more grumbling from the passengers. There were free cold drinks available the whole time, which was wonderful. There was Balboa for sale for $2 each.

When we finally got through it was really cool. I read The Path Between the Seas and my husband and I were both fascinated by everything about the locks and canal. The beautiful doors have lasted since they were completed in 1914, which is so remarkable. Most passengers were excited about the first set of locks and then seemed generally annoyed with the process. The second set we went through, the Miraflores locks, were actually just as (maybe more) interesting, though.

So it was a long day. We arrived back on shore sometime close to 9 (MUCH later than initially anticipated) and we were put on a bus for hotel drop off with a driver who spoke no English and didn't know where the hotels were. He decided to just start driving to the hotels he knew. At this point, after a day of being quite patient, we were annoyed and just got out at one of those hotels and figured we would walk to take a taxi (we were close enough to walk).

We're glad we did the transit but it's not a trip I would make with kids as there's a lot of waiting, even when the tour runs smoothly. And I would bring a book or a deck of cards for the waiting period. Also, we debated doing a full transit and are really glad we didn't. You really do get the idea just from the partial transit.

We like to find song that go along with our trips so we enjoyed about the Panama Canal (a riff on The Erie Canal) which had the bonus of being a throwback to a childhood cartoon, Animaniacs,:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eN3qfnjbKJ8



More report to come....
schlegal1 is offline  
Old Jan 26th, 2016, 09:59 AM
  #2  
 
Join Date: Sep 2012
Posts: 2,464
Likes: 0
Received 0 Likes on 0 Posts
Thanks for sharing. Bummer about the canal trip not being what you may have hoped.
tripplanner001 is offline  
Old Jan 26th, 2016, 10:50 AM
  #3  
Original Poster
 
Join Date: Mar 2004
Posts: 7,199
Likes: 0
Received 0 Likes on 0 Posts
Parque Metropolitano, Panama City

This is a great park. We considered going to Soberania National Park on our own but saw a few warnings about robberies there and consulted with the front desk at the hotel who confirmed they had heard of such things. We decided to err on the side of caution and went here instead and had a great day. It's not a particularly small park but it doesn't have any long trails and they keep to largely one area of the park. We got dropped off around 2 PM and hiked until they closed at 5 and completed every public trail available. That included a rest at the lookout over the city and lots of wildlife viewing. Since it's so small, this park actually favored us with the best wildlife sightings of the trip--a troupe of coati (probably about 10-12) that came down very close to us, some tamarins, a few agouti, some pretty birds and butterflies, a huge spider, and at the pond lots of turtles and basilisks. There's a small entrance fee and the trails aren't very difficult. It is very hot and humid, though, so though they are not difficult hikes, they do wear you out with the heat.

Casco Viejo, Panama City

Not hugely interesting for us but a nice place to walk around for an afternoon. Plenty of restaurants and coffee shops to stop into when you need refreshment. It's probably the most enjoyable in the early evening when local families are out and about, socializing and the kids are playing.

Panama Exotic Adventures, Metiti
This is the company that took us to Metiti and runs Fillo del Tallo Lodge.http://www.panamaexoticadventures.co...filo6_eng.html They run four or five day all-inclusive excursions and four days was just the right mix of adventure and comfort for us. The couple that run it, Michel and Elizabeth are warm and personable. They are originally from France but have lived most of their lives in Panama. They are wonderful, welcoming hosts and Filo del Tallo is a cool place to stay. The adventures have set schedules though they can gear them more to your tastes (say, if you prefer hiking to kayaking, etc). So we hiked, took a boat ride to ruins and La Palma (Darien's capital), spent time in a Wounaan village, and rode in a pirogue in the river. They easily accommodated me being vegetarian. They navigated all the government checkpoints throughout the Darien with ease. It's clear they've built lots of good relationships with their neighbors/region as you watch them interact with everyone. It's not fully luxurious (bamboo rondovals, cold water showers) but has enough luxury for me (cocktail hour with the hosts, delicious foods, en suite bathrooms). We saw lots of wildlife on our walks and all the staff were wonderfully friendly and helpful. Only complaint was that we were both horribly either bitten up by insects or covered in some kind of poison ivy after our first day. We had worn long pants the whole time so I have no idea how it happened but it was uncomfortable. I still have the marks fading from all over my legs and especially my ankles. Bring your DEET.
schlegal1 is offline  
Old Jan 26th, 2016, 12:00 PM
  #4  
Original Poster
 
Join Date: Mar 2004
Posts: 7,199
Likes: 0
Received 0 Likes on 0 Posts
Guest Suites at Mañana Madera Coffee Estate, Boquete
http://mananamadera.com/Guest_Suite.html
We loved this boutique lodging just outside of Boquete. Boquete itself is wonderful and this is like a little piece of paradise in the middle of all that wonderful. It's mainly a coffee plantation but the owner, Randy, had two guest suites that are on the property and where he treats you with the warmest welcome you'll ever get in your life. He's the most welcoming host and has thought of a million small touches that made our stay run smoothly and pleasantly. We found the place on trip Advisor where it had all rave reviews--a state that is usually either because something suspicious is happening with reviews or because it's really that great of a place. His is the latter--it's that great. He's easy to get in touch with, helped us arrange transportation to Boquete, had a plan in place for getting us into and out of town as needed (since the suites are not right in Boquete and it's not reasonable to walk back and forth as needed) and gave us a simple cell phone to use while we were staying there so we could get in touch with him whenever we needed to. There's a little patio where you can take a blanket and hammock and enjoy the view, there was a nice living area in the suite, where Randy brought us our breakfast, he gave us freshly roasted and ground coffee to use in the coffee maker so we could enjoy the fruits of the estate. He had recommendations for activities and restaurants and was just generally really personable. There's a resident dog, Chubbs, who is a gigantic love bug and hung out on our stoop most of the time we were around. (We never had the nerve to ask why the place was called "Morning Wood," though).

Volcan Baru Hike with Explora Ya, Boquete
http://exploraya.com/tour/baru-volcano-hike
We love to hike and spend quite a bit of time hiking both at home and on trips. We knew we wanted to hike Baru but doing it all in one day seemed daunting so we wanted to do an overnight. Explora Ya is the only company that offered an overnight so we booked with them. The hike was a great experience, the company was not terrible but not impressive. The hike was much harder than I thought it would be. It was about 7 hours with full packs just going up. There were a few small breaks from the relentless up when there was a small downhill or straightaway but they were few and far between. It was mostly just up, up, up. We were glad to reach the summit, but be warned, it's not like other summits--it's accessible by road and covered in radio antennas so it's not a commune-with-nature type moment. But it's still cool and beautiful. If it's clear (rare) you can see to both the Caribbean and Pacific. We were able to see pretty well as the clouds moved through quickly so the view was ever changing. There were many other hikers there for the sunrise, though we'd had sunset to ourselves.

As for Explora Ya: The good was that they provided warm clothes to borrow if needed, sleeping bags, packed us food, and provided a guide. The bad was that the guide spoke no English and the summit accommodations were reminiscent of a cold war bunker. So the accommodations were not horrible--the plan was to be in a tent, but the guide said it had been so cold and windy that a tent wasn't feasible and so they'd plan to have us stay with the rangers at the top. When we arrived there were some soiled mattresses, which we were able to cover with blankets and then use our sleeping bags over. It wasn't any worse than camping but it was still surprising to be told that's where we were sleeping when we arrived. The bigger issue was with the guide not speaking English. It was a surprise because everyone I had dealt with directly at Explora Ya was really helpful and spoke English. Their tour description advertised an "experienced bilingual guide" On the drive to the trailhead the woman explained that the guide spoke a little English and since we spoke a little Spanish, we'd get by. He did not speak a "little English." He spoke none. It wasn't a problem but it wasn't ideal, either. Because of this, when he cooked dinner, he made it with meat, despite assurances from the company that they knew I was vegetarian. Luckily, the ranger had some rice and beans that he shared. So overall we weren't impressed with the company but had a good hike.
schlegal1 is offline  
Old Jan 27th, 2016, 04:38 PM
  #5  
 
Join Date: Aug 2003
Posts: 1,215
Likes: 0
Received 0 Likes on 0 Posts
Following along with you, schlegal1. So glad you enjoyed Panama! We did a half day transit too and that was plenty. It wasn't disorganized but it was a mob scene with guides giving info in many languages. Cacophony! Think we got more enjoyment really out of being at Miraflores and watching boats go thru the lock.

Sorry about the insect bites. Might they be chiggers? We got those walking in dry
Grass/leaves in coffee plantation in Panama. Was weeks before mine finally disappeared. But then again the usually go for moister body area like around waist. ,...

Impressed that you did that Vulcan Baru hike. We just spent a lot of time staring at it.

Keep it coming!
glover is offline  
Old Jan 29th, 2016, 03:00 PM
  #6  
 
Join Date: Aug 2003
Posts: 1,215
Likes: 0
Received 0 Likes on 0 Posts
Copan Ruinas.. Arrived in Copan Ruinas and liked it immediately. Our lodging at Don Udo's is great. We have a huge room with two double beds, night tables and reading lamps, and a giant bathroom. Probably 20 or so rooms on two floors around a pleasant courtyard, small restaurant and bar space in front. Don Udo is a contemporary of ours, a Dutch expat of many years. A friendly and helpful guy. The hotel is in the center of town, but on kind of a dead end quiet cobblestone street. Tripadvisor told me that Cafe San Rafael was the number 1 restaurant in Copan, so we went there for lunch. Casual outdoor space, great fast service by a very English fluent young Honduran guy. We had wonderful smoothies/milkshakes - pineapple for me, coffee for Mr G. Then pulled chicken jalapeno sandwiches and fab French fries. Yum. Waddled out of there and walked around town plaza ( small, simple but pretty - church, museum, few shops, park benches). Back to hotel for a little rest. Heard ruckus outside our room and discovered they were setting up for a 6 or 7 piece marimba band concert at 6. Turned out the hotel had hosted a group of volunteer eye doctors and dentists for 2 weeks.
So Udo (we think) provided this entertainment as a thank you to them on their last night in town. I spoke to one of the dentists. He said he and a fellow volunteer had seen about 80 patients. The band was wonderful so we just hung around the cozy hotel and enjoyed it. Two marimbas, drums, and a base. They played both traditional and modern stuff. One of them chatted us up on break and told us they were 3 generations of the same family, and that they had made all their instruments! Took lots of pictures and videos. The group is "India Maya". Ate a later "light" dinner at our cozy hotel (split one order of beef filet, green beans, potatoes and carrots) all perfectly cooked.

Next day we were up early (well for us). Ate our included breakfast and set off for the Copan Ruins. Walked the kilometer or so from town (some along a nice stone path adjacent to the road). Paid the expensive "total" entry for ruins, another related separate site, the cultural museum and the archeological museum. $40 us each. Partly sunny in am, sunny and really hot and humid later. Park entry area has some resident scarlet macaws, sacred bird of the Mayas and national bird of Honduras. Lots of feeding areas for them to encourage them to stay. Talked briefly to two young guys from US who were set up with massive photo equipment taking pix of macaws. Just because. If they had some official/commercial purpose, they weren't sayin.

Continued on to ruins, much smaller compact area than Copan, but much better preserved decoration. Many beautiful and interesting stellae, big inscribed stones providing important historical info. "Hieroglyphic stairs" 33 ft wide with a total of 62 steps, with a large figure sculpted in the centre of every 12th step. These figures are believed to represent the most important rulers in the dynastic history of the site. The stairway takes its name from the 2200 glyphs that together form the longest known Maya hieroglyphic text. The text is still being reconstructed. Spent Several hours wandering through the ruins, climbing up and down as permitted, taking pictures, sweating. Went to the park cafeteria and had a beer and a baleada ( a flour tortilla folded over various ingredients - in this case egg, sausage, avocado. Cheese and cream. Delish. Refreshed and cooler we walked the site's nature path. Nice forest flat easy path. Saw a few common birds and not another soul. Finished off the day by visiting the site's cultural museum which turned out to be the very ugly white and blue concrete unmarked building across from the cafeteria. What a surprise it was inside! Huge open to the sky in center space. Nicely displayed stelae and reconstructed and original pieces Inside. Large centerpiece a colorful reconstructed Mayan temple. A mezzanine with other pieces dispersed around round building. Open and airy and well done we thought. By now it is late afternoon and we are done in. Tried to take tuk tuk back, but didn't see one so walked back to town. Collapsed for a while. Showered. Decided to go to number 2 restaurant in Copan: Sol de Copan- a German brew pub!? Walked several blocks including last one straight uphill. Neighborhood got darker and darker. At top a tall tattooed guy standing outside what was perhaps our place but it looked darkened. "Cerrada?" Mr g asked? "No, no, come on in," the very friendly owner said, ushering us to basement level. So here's a German guy with a passion for beer who married a Honduran woman 18 years ago and decided to start brewing his own beer and open a pub/restaurant. Just another amazing story about what people do!
He now has two teenage sons working in the biz. Very casual few shared tables downstairs. First restaurant we've been in that seemed frequented by both tourists and locals. All very jolly. A fun experience. Every day there are 2 beers on draft. We tried em both. Great. Had some ok German food. All very cheap. Owner was so much fun. A recommended experience, especially if you appreciate good beer. Owner saw us next day. He was in the plaza walking his dogs and waved from a distance as if he'd known us forever.
glover is offline  
Old Jan 29th, 2016, 03:04 PM
  #7  
 
Join Date: Aug 2003
Posts: 1,215
Likes: 0
Received 0 Likes on 0 Posts
Sorry Panamaniacs I didn't mean to paste my Honduras report above your there'd! Obviously trying to do too many things at one time. Maybe forum admin will remove please!
glover is offline  
Old Jan 29th, 2016, 04:17 PM
  #8  
 
Join Date: Jan 2003
Posts: 29,049
Likes: 0
Received 0 Likes on 0 Posts
In Panama now. Not overly impressed after a few days. Few things work as intended.

Went to miraflores lock today. Interesting.

My wife would like to transit--- have fun with your nex husband...
rhkkmk is offline  
Old Feb 3rd, 2016, 07:57 AM
  #9  
Original Poster
 
Join Date: Mar 2004
Posts: 7,199
Likes: 0
Received 0 Likes on 0 Posts
Haha, glover--now I'll have to go over to your Honduras report and get the full scoop. It's like having a book teaser at the end of a novel you've read. "If you liked Panama, you're sure to enjoy Honduras"

rhkkmk: Understand about things working as intended. It's something we've learned to roll with, especially in Latin America.


Sorry to have left you all hanging for a bit, things got busy for me...

Cafe Ruiz Coffee Tour, Boquete
http://www.caferuiz-boquete.com/
We took the Cafe Britt coffee tour years ago in Costa Rica, which was like a Disney version of a coffee tour (we enjoyed it for what it was). The one from cafe Ruiz was simple and informative. We really enjoyed it and had a great guide who was incredibly knowledgable and has worked at the farm since he was a child (picking). There were two other couples on the tour, one of which was exploring all the coffee in Central America as they planned to open a roaster and cafe when they returned. They said Cafe Ruiz was one of the better tours they did. After the tour we got to do a tasting of different types of beans (I had no idea how complicated coffee could be before the tour). We also bought a serving of the famous "Geisha" coffee to taste. I liked it, but then, I prefer tea anyway and most reviews of "the most expensive coffee in the world" indicate that it's pretty tea-ish.

Quetzal Trail, Boquete
No quetzals seen but then we didn't go for a guide, nor really were we that enthusiastic over them (not birders, we). We just wanted a relaxing pretty walk and this suited us well. It's a well-marked, easy trail that goes through pretty foliage, past the most storybook tree I have ever seen and up to a trickling waterfall. After we finished the trail, we walked back to Boquete (about 2 hours) though one could catch the collectivo bus. But the walk was nice as we went past a nice waterfall, along a river, and saw some great basalt rock walls.

Barro Colorado, Smithsonian Tropical Research Insititue
http://www.stri.si.edu/english/visit_us/barro_colorado/
We were on the fence about whether to book this or not and decided to just splurge and do it. Everything ran quite according to plan--easy to book, someone to meet us at the ferry and make sure our taxi driver knew when to retrieve us and an incredibly knowledgable nature guide. We arrived at the appointed time (you are responsible for getting yourself to the pier) for the ferry and met the guide and other guests for the day. The other guests included six women and then a family of three. This turned out to be probably 5 too many people to really enjoy the walk. You walk a narrow trail on the island and the guide is at the front, which means that when they spot something fleeting, the back of the group neither sees it nor can they hear her explanations about what is being viewed. But we still had such a great time. We were lucky and saw capuchin monkeys and then saw howlers very close for about 40 minutes (the howlers kept following us). There were plenty of birds spotted, a coati (back of the group didn't see that one), agoutis, and insects. It was the first time my husband and I had seen leafcutter ants use a dumping ground for their waste --and we have previously seen leafcutters many times---so that was cool.

They provided tea on arrival then a short introductory video before the walk. Long pants are required (though the man in the threesome pretended he hadn't gotten that info and they made an exception--he and his sister argued when the guide left about how he HAD been told to wear them so we knew he was fibbing) but you walk in the shade so a hat was superfluous. After the walk we had lunch (they had something vegetarian specially prepared for me) in the cafeteria. It's such a cool research facility--made me wish I were a biologist. All the scientists and grad students were around the facilities and forest working.

After lunch was a choice between more walking or a video. The group preferred the video (it was an older, less active seeming crowd). The guide still took us on a short walk afterwards, too. Then we took the ferry back.

The guide was amazing. She both masters and a PhD in some biological fields. She was good at spotting wildlife and particularly knowledgeable about birds.
schlegal1 is offline  
Old Feb 3rd, 2016, 08:10 AM
  #10  
 
Join Date: Aug 2003
Posts: 1,215
Likes: 0
Received 0 Likes on 0 Posts
So enjoying your report, schlegal1, I sent an email to forum admin asking them to remove my post from your thread several days ago, but see nothing has happened.

Glad to hear a review of the barro Colorado trip. We considered but never did do that. It makes such a difference to have a guide with really deep knowledge of biology, environment, doesn't it?

What about the new biodiversity museum? Have you been or are you going there?
Did they ever even manage to finish it? They were building it forever.

Such great hiking round Panama!
glover is offline  
Old Feb 5th, 2016, 11:59 AM
  #11  
 
Join Date: Jan 2003
Posts: 29,049
Likes: 0
Received 0 Likes on 0 Posts
Nearing the end of our trip, and organization has not improved much, even at a 5* Marriott.

Thank god my wife speaks Spanish or I don't know how we would have managed. Even China is easy in comparison.

We have leased a house for a week over Thanksgiving but we will have staff to assist.
rhkkmk is offline  
Related Topics
Thread
Original Poster
Forum
Replies
Last Post
schlegal1
South America
7
Jan 20th, 2013 10:34 AM
RAC
Mexico & Central America
15
Feb 21st, 2011 01:57 PM
happytotravel
Africa & the Middle East
7
Jun 16th, 2010 03:18 PM
sm827
Mexico & Central America
23
Sep 6th, 2007 06:45 AM
maxwell
Africa & the Middle East
46
Mar 10th, 2006 09:24 AM

Posting Rules
You may not post new threads
You may not post replies
You may not post attachments
You may not edit your posts

BB code is On
Smilies are On
[IMG] code is On
HTML code is Off
Trackbacks are Off
Pingbacks are Off
Refbacks are On


Thread Tools
Search this Thread

Contact Us - Archive - Advertising - Cookie Policy - Privacy Statement - Do Not Sell My Personal Information


All times are GMT -8. The time now is 07:15 AM.