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Need advice on planning a trip to Panama

Travel Forums Central/South America & The Caribbean Need advice on planning a trip to Panama

1. Posted by ReuvenNY (Budding Member 6 posts) 9y

ReuvenNY has indicated that this thread is about Panama

My wife and I (in our 50s) are planning to visit Panama for about 10 days in the second part of April 2007.
We need help and suggestions for:

  • itinerary
  • accommodations
  • how to travel and whether we should arrange everything in advance or do it upon arrival.
  • anything else worth mentioning

We are planning to do this trip on a budget - not the absolute cheapest, but not extravagant either.

We have been already to Costa Rica and Guatemala, so we have a general understanding of Central America, but would like to hear about any experiences, advice and nuances regarding Panama.
Any information would be greatly appreciated.

Thank you,

Reuven

2. Posted by GregW (Travel Guru 2635 posts) 9y

I found it a little more difficult travelling on the fly in Panama than other places - i.e. planes full up, hotels booked, but it's still possible to do if you just plan a day or so ahead. I was only there for a short time, and did Panama City and The Pearl Islands.

In Panama City I stayed at the Hotel Riande Granada in El Cangrejo neighbourhood, booked at $CAN 90 a night (around $US 80) on expedia.ca. The walk up rate advertised for the hotel is $US 95 for a double room. The hotel also has a small but nice pool and a casino on site. In general, I would say that two-three days of site seeing will give you everything you'd want to see in Panama City. I liked seeing the Canal and Casco Viejo.

In the Pearl Islands we ended up staying at The New Hotel Contadora, a 350 room all-inclusive resort on Isla Contadora. We phoned up Grupo Hotelero del Pacifico, who manages that resort as well as the nearby Hotel Punta Galeon, and booked two rooms. As it was the “high season” with many Panamanians were taking the week off and heading to the islands, the room rates were $US 176 per room per night. That rate, however, included 3 meals a day and unlimited drinks from 9:30am until midnight.

Isla Contadora is pretty small - you can walk around the entire islands in a few hours. Unless you are really big on lying on the beach and doing nothing, than I'd say 3-4 days on Contadora is probably pretty good. A day or two of beach relaxing, a day doing a boat tour of the nearby deserted islands, perhaps some fishing, and that should be good.

There are also a number of independent fishing boats that will take you out for a few hours to tour around Contadora and some of the other 200 islands in the Pearl Islands chain. We booked a boat called the Pobre Diablo (Poor Devil), captained by Ninos for 5 hours. Ninos took us to see one of the beaches that was featured during one of the seasons of Survivor. The CBS show has filmed three seasons in Panama’s Pearl Islands, and the resort we were staying at was used to house crew and those contestants voted off the island. After that, Ninos took us to a couple of beautiful, deserted beaches, including one island that was nothing but a mound of sand and some rocky outcrops that couldn’t have been more than 100 feet long. The boat rental cost $25 an hour for four people.

Here's my blog, with some more details: Panama.

Other than that, you might want to check out Boca Del Toros, though I hear that the bugs are bad there. Diving and snorkelling is supposed to be very good at Isla Coiba, an island in the Pacific that is a nature reserve. You might also want to think about heading down to the San Blas islands and seeing the Kuna indians.

Enjoy Panama,
Greg

3. Posted by Isadora (Travel Guru 13926 posts) 9y

Hi Reuven!

My husband and I traveled to Panama 2 years ago. (We're in the same age group. Well, I am anyway. )

We spent about 14 days traveling around the country. We did choose to rent an SUV as we weren't sure what the smaller roads in the moutains would be like and we had two rather large suitcases - one carrying all of our snorkel gear, etc. We were able to waive the vehicle insurance because we used our American Express card for the rental which had rental rider attached. (That costs us $29/year but saved us about $400 in extra charges.)

We stayed at the Riande Hotel Continental, in the financial district, at the front and back end of our trip. We happened to be there for Carnival the last 3 days so made sure to book Panama City in advance. The rest of the time, we were able to find lodging without prior reservations. Our lodging ranged from $129USD/night (Riande) to $13USD/night in Sante Fe.

Because we were also there to look at different areas as possible relocation sites, we covered approximately 1100 miles - you probably aren't planning a "whirlwind" visit such as that. We did not make it to the Pearl Islands. We also did not make it to Bacas del Toro as Costa Rica has just experienced severe flooding that also encompassed Bocas and roads were washed away. (It was unusual for January/February.)

We started from PC and made an afternoon stop in Santa Clara to visit the local beach and stopped for the night in Penonome. We stayed at the Hotel Guacamaya (with the Chinese resaurant attached and next door to the car wash/food stand/religious shrine rolled into one). We paid $39USD for a room w/double bed. From Penonome, we headed into the mountains to visit Sante Fe, which is a small village with only one small hotel. The hotel is quaint, clean and $13/night. We met some very interesting people there and the little "restaurant" serves very good fresh fish (so says my husband - I had chicken). Though we didn't go, several people went horseback riding and said it was beautiful. We chose to take the "road from hell" and see the river to go swimming. It was worth the trip - though took 2 tries because the initial steep hill scared me.

From Sante Fe, we headed to David and on to Boquete. Boquete has become the retirement mecca for US ex-pats though they all choose to live in gated communities with golf course. (Whatever floats your boat and they were beautiful homes.) We stayed at the Hotel Panamonte and were lucky to get one of the cabbana rooms with it's own patio. Regular rooms are about $70/night and the cobbana was $109/night - but well worth it. The resaurant is absolutely wonderful. Boquete is interesting in that it is literally in the clouds. The sun will be out but there is an almost constant mist though you do not get wet. The mist evaporates as it hits your skin.

At this point, we change plans from visiting Bocas to heading to the Pacific shore on the Golfo de Chiriquiri and found lodging in Playa Barquetta at the Las Olas Resort. All the other hotels and resorts in the area were booked solid (or they didn't like our looks and said they were full - we were a bit road weary when we stopped). Las Olas was virtually empty of patrons and our room was $85/night and all-inclusive. They have 2 pools/swim-up bars and a great (but feet burningly hot) black sand beach. The body surfing was great and they do use the riptide flags. We did not find the riptides too strong.

From Playa Barquetta, we headed back toward PC and stopped in El Valle (again, in the mountains). It's a small village (larger than Sante Fe) biult in the caldera of an extinct volcano. We stayed at the Hotel y Restaurante Los Capitanes which is owned by a retired German merchant marine captain. He was absolutely the most fascinating person we met. He also serves nothing but German food and lots of it. We did get one of the last rooms available, a suite, for ~$100/night. Again, well worth it. El Valle is unique as the wind blows at storm strength for 10 minutes, then dead calm for another 10 minutes. You just don't talk during the wind as you can't hear anyone. They have a huge open air vegie/fruit and craft market which was very cool. There is a canape "adventure" (approx. $45USD/person) that takes you 85 meters over a waterfall. With my fear of heights, I declined. It looked like fun, but I would have been very uncomfortable with no way down until the end.

From El Valle, still with an extra night to go, we headed through Panama City and Colon, up to Isla Grande on the Caribbean side. Most of the residents along that area are of Caribbean descent so it has a "flavor" similar to Jamaica. We made a short stop in Portobello just because we wanted to see what Jimmy Buffett was talking about in one of his songs. There are more Spanish ruins along this area than anywhere else. The Caribbean side is much calmer for swimming. We ended back in Panama City for Carnival. We did not see a lot in Panama City besides the canal because everything closed down for 3 days. The canal was very cool.

Hope that helps! If you have any other questions, please contact me. ;)

4. Posted by Utrecht (Moderator 5595 posts) 9y

That's a 10 Isa...12 is not possible I saw;)

5. Posted by Isadora (Travel Guru 13926 posts) 9y

Quoting Utrecht

That's a 10 Isa...12 is not possible I saw;)

Thank you, Michael!!
As you probably noticed, I did a bit of copy/paste from the PM I sent you. Hopefully, that won't be considered cheating...

Isa now returns this thread to it's originally scheduled Panamanian topic. ;)

6. Posted by Utrecht (Moderator 5595 posts) 9y

Quoting Isadora

Quoting Utrecht

That's a 10 Isa...12 is not possible I saw;)

Thank you, Michael!!
As you probably noticed, I did a bit of copy/paste from the PM I sent you. Hopefully, that won't be considered cheating...

Isa now returns this thread to it's originally scheduled Panamanian topic. ;)

No problem, but of course I don't feel special anymore

7. Posted by beerman (Respected Member 1631 posts) 9y

Quoting Isadora

There is a canape "adventure" (approx. $45USD/person) that takes you 85 meters over a waterfall. With my fear of heights, I declined. It looked like fun, but I would have been very uncomfortable with no way down until the end.

Uh, dear.....I think that's supposed to be canopy adventure.........we had the canape adventure at the restaurant at the Riande.....

8. Posted by Isadora (Travel Guru 13926 posts) 9y

Quoting beerman

Quoting Isadora

There is a canape "adventure" (approx. $45USD/person) that takes you 85 meters over a waterfall. With my fear of heights, I declined. It looked like fun, but I would have been very uncomfortable with no way down until the end.

Uh, dear.....I think that's supposed to be canopy adventure.........we had the canape adventure at the restaurant at the Riande.....

So right you are!!!!!!! Okay, so we didn't do the canopy adventure, but we did eat very well! I also don't recommend eating canapes right before soaring through the canopy.
(Hopefully no one notices my other typos...)

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I do recommend using credit/debit cards for your trip, along with having some cash on hand for the small villages you may choose to visit. We made the huge mistake of taking Visa travelers cheques. The rundown hotel on Isla Grande did accept TCs begrudgingly. Otherwise, we didn't try to cash any until our return to Panama City. (Being Carnival and everything closed for 3 days didn't help this situation either.) Our hotel cashed $200 worth for us. But, we visited almost every bank in the financial district (~12 of them) and no one would take Visa cheques. They all accepted American Express cheques only - so they said. We ultimately did a cash advance on a credit card. We won't be making that mistake again (travelers cheques, that is).

Panama also works in US dollars but calls them Balboas. We did not have to convert any money at any time.