Panama trip report

Jan 29th, 2005, 05:02 AM
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Panama trip report

We recently returned from a two week visit to the beautiful country of Panama. Flew from the midwest using FF miles of American Airlines. Unevenful flights, we even left a day early to avoid a possible ice storm without problems.

Arrived in Panama City and stayed at Sevilla Suites, downtown in the El Congrejo district. Large room, full kitchen, nice staff. We were only there one night, taking off early the next am for the San Blas islands. Sevilla Suites kept a bag in storage for us since we would be returning.

The domestic airline we used, Aeroperlas, gave us fits on this leg of the trip. Our 6am flight didn't leave until 10am. They said it was mechanical, but another couple who had had the same problem the day before was told it was a schedule change. At any rate we finally were in the air. I kept thinking it was taking an awfully long time to get there. Finally we landed. Hmmm. Soldiers and drug sniffing dogs all over. Even sandbag bunkers. Hmmm again. Where in the heck are we???? I never did really find out exactly where we were, but I'm pretty sure it was the furthest south airstrip in the islands and pretty darn close to the Columbian border. We were only there a few minutes and were airborn again. After another uneventful stop, we finally arrived at Mamitupu and trudged down the path to the boat to get to Dolphin Lodge.

Dolphin Lodge was fun. Nine cabanas, each with a private bath, cold water shower. Certainly nothing fancy, but pounding surf and a hammock. What more could we ask? The tours were fun, the snorkeling good. Food was pretty variable, certainly not great most meals, but I didn't starve.

Two days later back to Panama City and Sevilla Suites. We did some wandering around on our own, ended up at the Causeway for dinner. Nice views. Next day was a full transit of the canal. The best word I can use to describe it was LONG. Left the hotel at 6:30 am, returned 9pm. The locks were interesting, but I would have preferred a partial transit. Live and learn.

Next day we flew to Bocas del Toro. No problems with Aeroperlas for this trip. We stayed at Cocomo on the Sea, nice four room B&B on the edge of town. No complaints here, good breakfast, clean rooms, honor 'bar' for sodas and beer. However, we were there for six days and it rained every single day. I was expecting lots of rain, but what caught us by surprise was the fact that it was chilly. Only in the 70's while we were there. That was a bummer. We still toured the other islands, tried to snorkel (too strong a current for wimpy me) and read lots of books.

After six days it was back to Panama City with a transfer to the Canopy Tower. In the jungle, it's a converted radar station. It's quite a place. The focus is bird watching. We are big birders, but we did enjoy our two night stay there. It certainly isn't cheap, but I'm glad to decided to stay a couple nights. Food was decent, the people were interesting. Management was a little off. The onsite manager was on vacation for a couple of days, and there didn't seem to be anyone in charge. Only the guides spoke any English. I realize that I'm not in the states, but the place is geared to Anglos, all the signs and notes are in English. It was confusing, we were just sort of led to our room and left alone. Having read alot about the place, I had some clue what was going on, but it was odd. The manager returned before we left and said she had left welcome letters to be handed out, but no one received one that I know of. Anyway, the tours were wonderful. The highlight for us was a sighting of a jaguarundi, a small cat.

Leaving Canopy Tower, we spent our last night at Gamboa Rainforest Resort. We usually aren't resort people, but it was nice to relax and lounge by their beautiful pool. I had heard that the food wasn't the greatest there, but our two meals were very good.

We used Tammy Liu, of Panoramic Panama to assist with travel arrangements. She was great, all scheduled transfers were right on time, hotel reservations came off without a hitch. She's in Panama City, so is available if there are problems.

Any questions, feel free to ask. Jean
JeanH is offline  
Jan 29th, 2005, 02:39 PM
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Thank you so much for the report Jean. How was the birding at the Canopy Towers? We still have that on a back burner for another trip. We are looking forward to our trip in just over a week.

Did you see any signs of the recent flooding? We had planned on going into the country via Sixaola but were told that the roads around there and in that northern area of Panama were in pretty bad shape. Have rearranged and are going down through the InterAmerican.
Jessie_ is offline  
Jan 29th, 2005, 05:46 PM
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I don't know enough about good birding to know how it was at Canopy Tower. People were commenting that it was pretty slow. I thought it was great fun, but my experience is pretty much non-existant.

When we first got to Bocas del Toro, I heard that the border crossing between Panama and Costa Rica was impassalbe for a bus. By the end of the week, I heard that the road was completely washed out and the border was closed. That was a little over a week ago.

JeanH is offline  
Jan 30th, 2005, 04:07 AM
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Thank you for the road report. Glad we switched entry.
Jessie_ is offline  
Feb 3rd, 2005, 07:03 AM
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JeanH, just did a search under your name and found your trip report! Too bad for you about the weather in Bocas del Toro!

I have a few questions:
Generally, having gone to both Costa Rica and Panama, how do the 2 compare? We took 3 trips to CR and are ready for something new. Is Panama sufficiently different to justify a two week trip?

We are thinking about staying 2 nights at Gamboa and seeing the canal from there. Then going to San Blas for 4 nights. We are thinking about chartering a crewed sailing boat for a few days there instead of staying at a lodge. What are your thoughts on that? Then I want to go to Boquete for 3 nights and end the trip with a few nights on one of the Pearl Islands (Contadora or San Jose). We are will be traveling with our 11 year old daughter who is a very hardy traveller. What do you think?

Iza is offline  
Feb 3rd, 2005, 09:05 AM
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Iza, Panama certainly doesn't have the choice of jungle lodges that Costa Rica does.

We opted out of Boquette since we were looking for heat on this trip, and apparently they have cool nights there.

I think your itinerary looks awesome. We really enjoyed San Blas, the Kuna villages are fascinating. I think it would be even better with your plan, the Dolphin Lodge was fun, but it really is too much of a 'package tourist' experience for us.

We went for two weeks and didn't begin to see the entire country.

We're not city people, but Panama City was much nicer than San Jose.

JeanH is offline  
Feb 3rd, 2005, 02:02 PM
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Looks like we took the same trip, including that milk-run flight from San Blas to Panama City. That little machine-gun guarded village you stopped at was Puerto Obadilla, the last stopping point before Columbia and a very dangerous place. I loved how our pilot gave every village we stopped at 1 newpaper!

To the other traveler--One of the great highlights of our trip was our visit to Barro Colorado Island, run by the Smithsonian (you must reserve in advance), which included a ferry ride to the island (set right in the middle of the Canal), a jungle tour w/guide, a short slide show, and lunch. If you do the El Valle Sunday market, see if your guide will show you the square tress in the jungle nearby. If you don't make it to the market, there is a wonderful craft market just behind the old YMCA in Balboa, right near Panama City (could stop there after touring Miraflores Locks).

San Blas Islands a must-do! We stayed at Dolphin Lodge as well, but I noticed an outfit called that offered some even more wonderful looking trips to San Blas.

Bocas del Toro was not my cup of tea...I envisioned more of a beach scene and you really have to water taxi to everything beach-wise. It wasn't bad, but....

I think the Pearl Islands sound lovely as well as a couple of other Islands on the Pacific. I also hear Portabello is lovely on the Caribbean side. Too much to do--too little time...Have fun!
ojoy is offline  
Feb 18th, 2005, 04:17 PM
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You mention Aeroperlas giving you fits, how about having my camera stolen from my checked baggage by Aeroperlas baggage personnel! After days of working my way up the food chain and meeting with indifference, I spoke to their airport manager who promised to compensate me for the camera. This was on 19 December 2004, and I am still waiting for the compensation. The airport manager does not return my inquiries or answer my letters. A nice vacation in a beautiful country was ruined by the theft of a camera. Beware of Aeroperlas.
scappoose is offline  
Feb 20th, 2005, 08:52 PM
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I am currently planning a trip to Panama in April. I'm really concerned about the rain in Bocas! We are looking for beach, relaxation and lots of sun! Right now we are going to San Blas and Bocas, should we go to Contadora or another island instead of Bocas? Has anyone stayed at Punta Caracol?
Thanks for your comments,
ljoly is offline  
Feb 25th, 2005, 05:59 PM
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ljoly: First of all, beaches in Bocas are not what you have to hike to or water taxi to almost all the beaches, unless you're staying at a resort that has a beach. Being on the water does not mean being on the beach. My guidebook "Adventures in Nature-Panama" by William Friar is excellent and as for weather...I really don't know about April. I think Bocas is just plain hit or miss (much like where I live!).
ojoy is offline  
Mar 3rd, 2005, 08:56 AM
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End of April should have less rain than you experienced. Of course the weather had been wierd here as it has been all over, so no guarantee. The Portobelo Bay is, indeed, beautiful. The diving is not as good as it could be, however, The Spaniards started the problem in the 16th century wehen they stripped the coral to build forts. You will be diving over a silty bottom unless you opt for a long boat ride. Even then, there are few dive sites. If you want to dive the Caribbean coast of Panama, check out the diving at Caribbean Jummy's Dive Resort.

divelady is offline  
Mar 5th, 2005, 07:09 AM
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Hiya! My fiancé and I went to Bocas two years ago in March and stayed in Punta Caracol for 5 nights.

The resort was beautiful. There were tons to do around the resort, but all required water transportation. That was part of the experience and we never regretted it for a second, as some of the islands we visited were unimaginably beautiful.

Not sure if you are aware, the facility had limited access to electricity, so at night, the entire resort was candle-lit. Can you imagine how gorgeous that was?

The bungalows themselves were simple but considered luxurious in Bocas. There was also occasional outage of hot water, but in the heat, we didn't mind.

There was a ladder from the porch that reached directly into the ocean, so that the guests could swim from their back porch. We didn't do that. Instead, on lazy afternoons, we hung out sun bathing from our porch overlooking the beautifully clear water. In the evening we watched the sun set from our lounge chairs and took some amazing photos.

The food at the resort was excellently prepared. Quite honestly, given how fresh everything was, it really wasn't difficult to come up with something yummy each meal. The only issue we had was that we didn't speak Spanish and the staff (with the exception of the owners) didn't speak English. The service was good, but don't expect anyone to bend over backwards to make you happy.

Even though Punta Caracol was much more expensive than the other resorts in the area, but at the time, it was absolutely the best.

We highly recommend this place.

Let me know what your plans are.

For Panama City, we hired an incredible guide Guido, who came highly recommended from a few sources. We like using private guides, because you learn so much more about a place through their narratives. He charged only $120 per day, I think. It was so worth it. He had an SUV and took us all round the city. He was also very helpful in answering questions and providing feedbacks on our travel itinerary before we arrived. We've traveled to so many countries and never had a guide as responsive and informative as he. He was a biologist, whose passion for wild life was contagious during our day trip. Let me know if you would like Guido's information.

We stayed in Gamboa for 3 nights and did a couple of their private tours. The guides were OK: paled in comparison to Guido. The resort was beautiful, but it wasn't anything really special. I would've much preferred to go to San Blas.

In Panama City we stayed at The Bristol. This was the hotel that I used when I was on business trips there, so I didn't do much research to find other alternatives. The Bristol is a boutique hotel. The rooms were very spacious and beautifully appointed in good taste. The bathrooms were oversized with both a tub and a separate shower unit. Everything marble, of course. The food was amazing. In fact, it has one of the most famous dining rooms in Panama. On the nights we stayed there, some of the most prominent Panamanian families and socialites were having dinner in the hotel. Still, their breakfast was my favorite.

With regard to service, the staff were all very courteous and helpful, but more importantly, they seemed to take great pride in the service that they provided and were held to a high level of integrity. When we left for Bocas, I forgot my jewelry bag in the room. I didn't even recall that I had the bag until I returned to Panama City a week later and when the staff informed me that they had found it. And nothing was missing. Incredible, especially since some of the pieces in the bag were very valuable. I was amazed and very thankful. I knew that I was in good hands. I can't say the same for some of the best hotels in other parts of the world.
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