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We took a two week trip to Panama in high rainy season. It's a lovely country with very important history as well as natural beauty, indigenous culture, ecotourism destinations and excellent cuisine. It is a great destination for families with kids. A few words of advice:
1. It really helps to speak Spanish, especially if you are not on an organized tour or staying at the international hotels. If you don't speak Spanish, use one of the major guides' recommended hotels and you should be fine for seeing the sights and getting around.
2. I strongly recommend the Moon Guide, possibly with Lonely Planet as a back-up.
3. Read some history ahead of time - best is David McCulloch's "The Path Between the Seas," or the NOVA documentary based on the book, "A Man, A Plan, A Canal, Panama" (this is a palindrome - same backwards and forwards). In addition, the Moon Guide has an excellent summary of history, culture, economy, etc. at the back. Read it before you go.
4. Make sure you have plenty of cash ("efectivo") to pay for tours, taxis, restaurants outside the city or in less expensive places. There are lots of ATMs in the major cities, so you don't want to carry too much on you, but at the same time, you don't want too little - try to have smaller bills on you - 1's and 5's, as people often don't have change for a 20.
5. Avoid driving in Panama City!
6. Don't expect efficiency. Drivers and tours were on time, but confirm and re-confirm internal flights, expect slow service in food establishments, and relax....things will work out.
7. Food not to leave without trying:
--- patacones - fried green plaintain
---corvina - whole fish flash fried
--- coco rice
8. Tap water is fine (courtesy of Panama Canal works) in most major cities and surrounding areas - the only place we drank bottles was in Kuna Yala and El Valle (because the house we were staying at had well water - I'm sure the rest of the town is fine).
There's a lot more, but these are essential.
Tall ship cruise: Not sure about this one, as our cruise was cancelled due to a labor issue at the last minute. Itinerary is San Blas area. People swear by it - maybe we'll find out some day.
UPDATE 9/27: this company is in serious trouble. Check www. jammerbabe / flotilla (sorry -word length max here is 25 characters - you'll have to put together the URL yourselves) for the scuttlebut - buyer beware!!
Great location, clean and helpful front desk, especially when the cruise was cancelled. They can find good tours too. I wasn't excited about the TGI Fridays next door, but some are.
Seafood restaurant on the causeway. It was o.k. Go to Barko instead.
The ruins on the main road are small; you can do this and the Black Christ Church quickly and they don't close - see if you can see Gatun locks first - they close at 3 -or save time for a water tour to the other forts. The town is beyond unimpressive, given its importance in history (pirates and treasure).
Definitely stop here on the way to the ruined fort - great Panamanian seafood with a view of the bay - bring cash, though it's not expensive.
We took the train one way, from Colon (on our way back from Portobello). It was about $20 per person, but it was a very nice way to go - great views of the canal, the Chagres river, Gatun lake, the locks and the rain forest. Colon is not recommended, however, so we had the taxi driver who took us to Portobello (who we were ready to ditch anyway), drop us at the train rather than driving us back to Panama City. The train only runs twice a day - about 8 a.m. to Colon and at 5:15 from Colon to Panama City.
If you want to see a "living museum" of Embera culture, although it's not a true village, this is the way to go, and Ancon is a reputable tour company. It was a little hokey and touristy, but the kids liked it and learned a lot. Heads up: the traditional clothing is minimal and women are mainly topless. Kids were fine with this, but I was glad to let them know ahead of time. Also, if you like the crafts, particularly the "vegetable marble" carvings, buy them here - they are much more expensive elsewhere. Also, try to buy from multiple tables, as each family is earning money individually.
at the Amador Causeway
Neighborhood: Flamingo Island
Best seafood we had in Panama - and I went with a picky Italian! Try the seafood brochette - you'll never forget it.
Very primitive and poor but spectacularly beautiful. People are a bit wary of tourists, but yet expect a lot from them. Worth a short visit on a sailboat or maybe someday that Windjammer cruise. If you go on land, I hear the Sapibanenga resort is the best.
These guys were great. It's a French company and they pulled out all the stops to accomodate our group of 8 once the cruise was cancelled. The two captains, Boubou and JC, were terrific. You need a sense of humor and a tolerance for wine and rum. Also - there was no wind - not uncommon during rainy season and one day was a complete rain out, so make sure you like that rum and wine (and great food!). Snorkeling was terrific too, but the reefs are rapidly eroding, so go soon.
Wealthy residential neighborhood with proximity to all the sights. Great place for a temporary apartment, close to food shopping and malls. Safe area. Funny moment: standing out and waiting for a taxi and a lady pulls up and asks "are you lost?" Anyone looking like a gringo is probably driving a Lexus or at least being chauffered around, so a family of gringos waiting for a taxi in the rain doesn't exactly "blend."
We got a three bedroom apartment with a maid (paid separately about $100 for the week) who cleans and cooks, for about $900 for 10 days (but this was low season). Use your common sense with this. Our apartment was owned by Marc and Jackie Kramer and we had a good experience with them.
Lots to see here in this rapidly gentrifying area. The Tourist Police will escort you to the sights in the more dicey areas - do this, even though you might feel like an idiot. This was the second site for Panama City, after the original city was sacked and burned (those are the ruins in "Old Panama"). We went to the cathedral, the church with the golden alter and the canal musem. Also beautiful views from the old seawall.
Very interesting, cheaper and in many ways superior to the museum at the Miraflores locks. It's in Spanish, however, so bring your dictionary or someone who made it to at least AP level in Spanish.
New restaurant in Casco Viejo - near S'Cena, which has been written up a lot lately. Nice menu and good service - if you get the white pizza with carmelized onion, however, share it as an appetizer - it's good but too rich for a main dish.
Ruins in the process of being restored. You can climb the original cathedral tower for a fee and see the ruins of the original town - foundations only, however, since all the buildings were wood. Great view from the tower and the museum, a bit down the road, was interesting but....again....all in Spanish. The artisinal shops there were o.k. - same stuff as all over the country.
The oldest cafe in Panama City, or so they say. Good Panamanian fare - I went for the corvina (as usual). Great place to people watch - especially after church.
This is the real, working class Panama - stroll down from Parque Santa Ana (in front of the cafe) to Plaza Cinco de Mayo. You can buy all your little items and t-shirts here in the discount stores. Nothing you'd really want to write home about, but we got my son some t-shirts that weren't ripped and stained (as his were after camp), reading glasses, batteries, that sort of thing. Or try some of the local fruit - like mamones (red lichee nuts), which my kids went crazy for (small red fruits covered with a hard shell and sort of hairy).
You can't go to Panama and not visit the canal. The visitor's center is a bit repetitious if you've already gone to the museum downtown, but it's still worth doing. The observation deck is great, and it's worth it to invest in the mediocre expensive lunch in order to enjoy the view of the ships transiting the canal. Give yourself 1/2 a day for this.
"Tourist" taxis are more expensive, but more confidence inspiring for longer trips (also, with 5 of us, we had the added pleasure of being driven around like bats out of hell in marginal cars with our 9 year old on one of our lap). You can look them up under "taxis" (radio taxis) in the yellow pages, or if you don't speak Spanish, go to one of the hotels and negotiate the taxi/van in advance with them. Usually you pay by the hour - $10-$15 per hour. We found a great guy - contact me if you want the number. He only speaks Spanish though. We had a decent experience with the taxis from the Intercontinental, with a guide who spoke English. Pricy though. The Country Inn can arrange taxis too.
The resort looked nice. The activities, however, for day trippers like us, were overpriced and underwhelming. The kids loved the monkey island tour ($26 per person and you will see more crocs than monkeys, but the monkeys will eat out of your hands). Do NOT go on the "exhibitions" tour. The "human zoo" that they called the Embera Indian village was horrible, or rather the guide's explanation was horrible and disrespectful. The aquarium was less interesting than Petsmart and the serpentarium, butterfly house and orchid gardens were amateurish. I heard the retaurant was good, but we went to the fish market instead, having already had an overpriced mediocre buffet at Miraflores the day before. (the aforementioned Italian liked it though)
Great restaurant and great fish market - if you like that kind of thing - We do. You can even buy your fish and have them prepare it. Slow service, but it's the freshest fish you'll eat.
Go early in the morning or late in the afternoon for a hope of seeing wildlife. Follow the Cieguitos trail to the overlook (Mirador) and then down the mono titi (titi monkey) trail, though we saw no monkeys. We also took the shorter trail accross the street, where we saw the most wildlife, right off the road. Go with a guide, if you can (if you call ahead the day before you can set this up. One of the guys speaks great English). We didn't have a guide (though our taxi driver decided to come with us after we bought him lunch, so that was a help). This is a terrific park in the heart of the city (all the guidebooks say that, but it's true).
Calle 49 #15
Bella Vista (calle Uruguay)
Fantastic, original food that would cost twice as much in the US - but it was not cheap - $150 for 5 - would have been $300 in D.C.
Neighborhood: Bella Vista
Cuisine: Nuevo Latino, Market, A-la-carte
Fascinating province with beaches, volcanoes and cool little expat filled towns. If you stay on the Cerro Punta side of the Volcano you can hike to Boquete (or near to it). Otherwise you have to drive down to David and up to Boquete, as there's no through road. We didn't hike because it was rainy season and also complicated to get dropped off and picked up. The "trail" is supposed to take 4 hours, but it's hard to get to the trailhead on the Volcan side, and when you arrive in Boquete you are pretty far from the town. Hence, we also didn't get to see wild quetzales, but you can't do everything....
Sleepier western side of the province. Major towns are Bambito, Volcan and Cerro Punta. If not for being invited to stay on the racehorse farm, I would probably have opted for the Boquete side. However, people say good things about the Manantial spa. The hotel, Los Quetzales, has a million signs and billboards. However when we actually went to check it out we couldn't get a soul to talk to us or give us information. Weird.
Racehorse breeding farm (owned by my college roomate's family - full disclosure). Recently opened for public tours (in Spanish). Call to reserve. Very interesting and beautiful horses - don't expect trail rides though - these are skittish creatures training to race. They also have a HUGE French percheron the kids can sit on. He's gentle.
Hard to get to but worth it. This is a huge park that goes into Costa Rica as well. this is different from the "Lost Quetzales" trail - the one mentioned above that goes down to Boquete (the entrance to that park is in the town of Volcan or Bambito - not sure). In this park, whose entrance is in Cerro Punta, there's a nice trail to a waterfall, but we didn't have the 2-3 hours needed, so we did the 1 hour retono trail, which was beautiful. You need a 4 wheel drive to get from the first entrance to the trailheads.
Cute artsy town full of expats. There's a nice souvenir store here with higher end crafts from all over. Don't bother with the market. This is a jumping off place for adventure tours in whitewater, mountaineering, mountain biking, zip lining, etc. With lots of good coffee shops and potential to visit coffee farms as well.
If you want to do a Costa Rica style zip line, this is the place to do it. We felt very safe and were handled professionally by a large-ish group of young, strong, confidence-inspiring guides. Weight limit 170 lbs for women and 250 for men. Kids can go, usually helped by a guide - my 72 lb. 9 year old had some trouble braking, so she did most of the 12 (!) lines with a guide. My husband and I were terrified, but we're glad we did it in the end. The kids had a blast. $60 per person, regardless of age, plus you will want to tip these guys, plus $10 for the CD of lots of photos of your group which they make on site and give to you - definitely worth the extra $10. Not sure about the extra $5 for the "Tarzan Swing." Kids wanted to do it, but fortunately the rain came pouring down.
Good food. Mildly surly service. Nice change from heavier Panamanian fare.
Lifestyles of the rich and famous. Really.
Beautiful valley town used for summer houses by many elite families. In a volcanic crater. We were staying with friends, but there are some pretty guest houses and restaurants. We had a massage at "Los Mandarinos," which looked nice and apparently has a good restaurant. The Central market is newly redone and has many craft items. Lovely place for a day trip and hike or a weekend.
Private zoo and botanical garden. A bit strange and not up to international standards. Still it has a certain charm and weirdness we all liked. Beautiful birds.
Nice little walk to a little waterfall for $3.50; guided 3 hour walk that's supposed to be good (more expensive), though I think the path up to "La India Dormida" is supposed to be better (and more strenuous). I was not impressed by the canopy tour ($52.50 - not as well maintained and much shorter than the $60 tour in Boquete), however, having survived Boquete and vowed never to do THAT again, I can't say if it was good or bad.
Did some quick school shopping here, since our clothes STANK of mold and mildew, courtesy of rainy season. "Conway" is Target, but better clothes and cheaper, if you can believe that.
(When I say "we," just to give it some context, I am referring to me, my husband, my 13 year old son, and my 11 and 9 year old daughters):
We didn't make it to Bocas del Toro to see turtles nesting. We didn't get to see a quetzal, or a harpy eagle (the national bird). We didn't get to go deep sea fishing (my son was disappointed about that - I wasn't too broken up about it). We didn't go to Eurasia restaurant in Panama City, which I heard was great. We didn't go to any of the nightclubs (no regrets there). We didn't go to any folkloric shows, though I heard (from a Panamanian planning a visit for American guests) that Al Tambor de La Alegria (yikes - I may have messed that up, but it's in the yellow pages, under restaurants, I believe), puts on a good show. We didn't go to "Mi Pueblito," which recreates a lot of different "typical" cultures - from West Indian to Kuna to other indiginous cultures (depends on your interests - the guide books say it's interesting).
Go, enjoy, be "tranquilo," and post your experiences here. This country has a lot to offer, and despite the weather, the flu (or West Nile virus), the lost cruise, changed air times and other inconveniences that drive an obsessive planner (me) crazy - we had a great time and would return in a heartbeat.