Panama revisit: Trip report

Old Apr 25th, 2014, 11:12 AM
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Panama revisit: Trip report

I usually don't like to revisit the same places, but after visiting Panama 2 years ago and loving it so much, we had to return with friends!! There was some repeat of favorite places (Casco Viejo, Tesoro Escondido in Bocas del Toro, and snorkeling there at Crawl Cay) and new spots to explore. So, we had 6 adults on this trip, flying nonstop with Copa airlines from Chicago, in late March, early April, 2014.

We started out in Casco Viejo, with a repeat stay at B&B Casa Antigua, where we were able to get a 3 BR, 2 BA unit, and enjoy the good location and awesome rooftop. The views on the rooftop patio offer the highlights of Casco but incredible views across the bay of the modern skyscrapers. And there is an ahhhh breeze, too! We toasted the start of the trip up there, loving it, then struck out to explore Casco. Casco Viejo is an UNESCO world heritage site and under significant construction. The juxtaposition of the old city, locals mixed with tourists, billowing bougainvillea blooms against crumbling, ornate facades, chic coffee shops topped by laundry blowing in the breeze, and the red-tiled roofs in Casco and steel skyscrapers across the bay in the banking sector—well, that makes for a place I wanted to return to. In 2 years, a lot of development has happened, esp. on Plaza Herrera. This plaza was crumbling and dusty 2 years ago, but is a hot spot now, esp. with the stylish new AmericanTrade hotel that recently opened. There are many more little open-air bars and great spots to tuck into around Casco and everyone enjoyed the little impromptu street dances that were going on, and general slice of Panamanian life on a Saturday night. Great people-watching! Culturally interesting, but not so great for sleep, though--at midnight, they set out the big speakers on the sidewalk under our window, and music blasted til the wee hours. Then a public church service started up at the parkway adjacent to Eloy y Alfaro street at 7:30 a.m. We decided to go with it, and took our coffee on our balcony and swayed and sang with the church music, waving to the local policia. We dubbed this: Disco to Dios without even getting out of bed!!


On Sundays, Airpanama has a 12:30 flight to the Caribbean archipelago of Bocas del Toro, so we were able to have a relaxed start, and grabbed some fantastic chicken, pesto and roasted red pepper sandwiches and fresh-squeezed lemonade with perfect tartness at Supergourmet to eat at the airport. I snapped a few photos of the places we would be staying in Bocas as we flew over them, having seen this already on Google earth. Great intro. Our 6 nights in Bocas del Toro were divided by 4 nights at a VRBO house rental on Isla Bastimentos, then 2 nights at Tesoro Escondido on Isla Colon, the main island in Bocas. We just loved our time on Bastimentos! The property manager had arranged for a wonderful local guy named Matoli to pick us up and take us on excursions. We had access to snorkel equipment, floaties, kayaks and stand up paddleboards and had a full kitchen, so we stocked up some food in Bocastown beforehand. We were on the mile long stretch of white sand beach that ecolodges Casa Cayuco and Al Natural were on, but on the opposite end, and water was calm and clear, with several nice reefs for snorkeling. There is a beach bar out here, and a few American ex-pats and we really enjoyed chatting with the locals, some who speak the interesting wahi wahi dialect. Maria manned the beach bar, and cooked us a couple nice fish dinners, served candlelight with our toes in the sand. Her three year old son constantly entertained us with his antics, donning different masks, playing Frisbee or football, pretending he was “driving” a surfboard, and generally acting like a delightful, curious, imaginative little guy that one might encounter anywhere around the world. Except this little dude had a pet three month-old howler monkey that draped itself around his neck, and periodically, (oops, shriek!) peed down his shoulder.
We went twice down to Al Natural eco resort for dinner, which was one of our favorite memories--the food was truly gourmet, the wine poured generously, Vicente, the Belgian owner, is a fun and relaxed character, we enjoyed chatting with the contingent of Norwegians who were there at the time, and the night monkeys came out each night--cool little creatures that I had never seen before. Each night, we enjoyed teasing the bioluminescence in the water to give us a sparkling light show. We discovered that we could leave a trail of lit-up footsteps in the surf as we danced under the starlight. Just great. Unfortunately, all the house rentals on this strip have been sold and they are turning it into a destination wedding area, complete with a wedding/ reception hall and 8 new over the water bungalows adjacent to Casa Paradiso. It is a marvelous area and I just pray that this new venture doesn't change it too much. There is still a house rental next to Al Natural and I could recommend that. The best reef in the area is straight out from that house, and you could enjoy meals at Al Natural.


While on Bastimentos, we did one day trip to Polo Beach and Coral Cay for snorkeling. Polo is just beautiful, just a few other people, soft white sand and swaying palms, with easy snorkeling all around, if the weather cooperates. You can only reach it by boat or a long walk from Red Frog Beach. Coral Cay has the best snorkeling, though--the brilliant colors of the sponges, brittle stars and anemones is amazing. There were more fish there than I remember last time. Some really beautiful angels, tangs, damselfish, surgeonfish, trunkfish….We also kayaked, including a cool kayak through the mangroves to Salt Creek, a local indigenous village.

To be continued....
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Old Apr 25th, 2014, 02:35 PM
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Great start.
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Old Apr 25th, 2014, 04:08 PM
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Sounds terrific. More, please.
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Old Apr 26th, 2014, 05:20 AM
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Our time on Bastimentos came to an end, so Matoli loaded our bags into his panga for the 45 minute ride to the main island of Colon, so named because this was the most southern spot that Christopher Columbus landed. Fun to imagine his ships anchored around these islands. Back on Isla Colon, we made a return stay for 2 nights at Tesoro Escondido, about a 15 minute taxi ride along the coast. True to its name (Hidden Treasure), this is such a beautiful spot and its artistic swiss owner, Monique, has created an Eden with flowers and trees that envelope you as you walk the paths or simply sit on a comfy chair in a common area. It is a rustic place, that attracts eco-tourists and South American and European backpackers. It has its own tranquil cove that is tucked in by bluffs and backed by rainforest. If you are a gardener, you will love it. If you prefer a Marriott-type experience, this isn't your place. It is about a 20 minute walk down the rainforest road to a few other ecolodges and the new, super cool Beach Bar (still called Buddha beach bar on TA), located on Bluff Beach. Wow, what a spot. Loved, loved it. Great food, great views, good drinks, hammocks and colorful tables pepper the property—very peaceful. You can watch surfers from here, too. We signed up for dinner that night at their sister restaurant, Island Plantation (open only for dinner with reservations). Since one of the owners is Argentinian, and we had had a lot of marvelous fish already, we decided to go for the steak with bleu cheese sauce. Recommended.


The next day, we went into town and hired a guy to take us to Bird Island--another repeat for us, as it is an amazing small Galapagos-type of place with many birds and lush tropical setting that you see by boat. The disappointment of the trip was starfish beach. There now seem to be hardly any starfish, and in the afternoon, it was populated by loud clusters of people who were partying hard and....well, turning this into a college spring break-type of place. Not recommended, unless that is what you are after.


Our final night of the trip was outside of Panama City at the Gamboa Rainforest resort. We could be close enough to get our return flight home, but were in the rainforest! We picked this because of its rainforest setting in Soberania National Park, on the River Chagres. It was cool to watch the huge cargo ships from our lunch table at Los Lagartos restaurant. This resort gets mixed reviews, but for us, it was perfect for the trip finish, relaxed. They have a gorgeous pool area, with swim-up bar and beautiful views. A few lovely flowers and fluttering butterfies on the way to your room, sunrise views off the balcony, not so tough! We searched out the howler monkeys putting on a noise show around dusk, saw capybaras and sloths, and watched flocks of parrots over the trees. Not your typical resort, and that is why we picked it. This was our pampered stay of the trip. The breakfast buffet is outstanding and was included with my booking through Orbitz, on a beautiful veranda overlooking the pool and river. Other meals were okay. The prices weren't Panama-cheap, but more typical of what you would pay at a tourist resort, so we were okay with that. I wouldn't want to eat here every day for a long stay, though. We booked a "birding by boat" tour with Jose Soto, and this was fantastic. It was from 7 to 11 a.m. I love this time of day, with its gentle light reflecting off the water and through the diverse range of trees (this was rainforest, not just beach). I got some great sunrise shots off my balcony, across the misted hills and river before we breakfasted and met up with Jose. We didn't see as many birds as we had before on a walking tour, but this was really interesting and unique. We explored some of the tributaries off the main Panama Canal, and Jose showed us some cool stuff we wouldn't have seen ourselves. The capuchin monkeys here climb out on branches and quickly scoop their tails into the water, then drink the water off their tails, a technique these intelligent creatures have developed to avoid the crocodiles. Jose introduced us to a couple cool fruits I had never heard of, and showed us a cluster of proboscis bats that clung to the underside of a log. Super nice, knowledgeable guy. We made our way back to the resort alongside huge cargo ships stacked with six-deep stacks of train cars for our check out and final dip in the pool.
To get to the airport, you drive through the forest and then pass the skyscrapers and modern Panama City--perhaps a dose of re-entry juice before heading back to Chicago.

Panama offers some interesting culture and history, a little salsa dancing, a few (historical) pirates, some crazy dialects, colorful poison dart frogs, birds and butterflies, mesmerizing landscapes, a bit of traffic and some really excellent eats, but at a price I can afford (for now anyway). Great country, great people.
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Old Apr 26th, 2014, 09:40 AM
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Did you see the snail kites?
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Old Apr 26th, 2014, 09:57 AM
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Oh yes, we saw them! They were nesting while we were there. They camouflage amazingly well. I really appreciated the advice to use Jose Soto, cuz he was great!
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Old Apr 26th, 2014, 03:23 PM
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Fun to read your report. Wish we were back on Isla Colon right now. We had a better experience on Starfish Beach, but we went early in the day before the partying started, perhaps, or ahead of the spring break crowd, at least. We counted 30 starfish as we snorkeled along the beach - maybe that's a low number compared to what it used to be, but it seemed like a lot to me. It was such a gorgeous setting.

Do you have the VRBO number for the house near Al Natural? Definitely want to go back to Bocas someday and maybe stay a few nights on Bastimentos.
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Old Apr 27th, 2014, 07:36 AM
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The VRBO rental adjacent to Al Natural is 478416.
http://www.vrbo.com/478416
It is 3BR, 2 BA. Dinner at al natural was $35, including 3 fabulous courses, cocktails an hour before dinner, and a generous wine or beer pour. Hope you can enjoy it!
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Old Apr 27th, 2014, 12:22 PM
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Thanks for all the helpful details.
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Old Apr 28th, 2014, 06:27 AM
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Thanks, snorkelluvn. Talk about right on the beach! Looks like an excellent spot to stay on Bastimentos. I'll keep it in mind for the future.
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Old Apr 28th, 2014, 07:19 AM
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Really makes me want to get to Bocas some time. And yes, Jose Soto is great--he's pretty much the reason we were able to organize our February trip to Panama the way we did--Gamboa resort becomes a much better birding/wildlife destination with him there.
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Old Apr 28th, 2014, 03:02 PM
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The water is tranquil as bathwater on this side of the island. We were kayaking back to our rental after snorkeling in front of this rental house, though, and we suddenly encountered two large, rogue waves. Our kayak rock n rolled, but we were fine...then discovered that there was a tsunami alert due to a 5.0 earthquake that had occurred 3 hours away. There's an experience I don't have every day in the Midwest!! Then there were no more waves, and water went back to utter calmness. Wild.
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Old Nov 7th, 2015, 10:18 AM
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Loved your report. My husband & I are just starting our search of where to go in Panama for 2017. Hopefully we will have about a month to spend there. We love to snorkel, hike, see wildlife & visit historic sites. We've been to Costa Rica 3 times but this would be our first trip to Panama. If we stayed a week in each place, what areas would you recommend for to visit? I have checked out Gamboa Resort & would like to spend 2-3 nuts there so might tie that one with a couple of nights in PC (we aren't very fond of big cities) but the history there is fascinating. Appreciate any help you can share.
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