My son and I signed up for the Mountain to Sea five day tour, which starts with a whitewater rafting adventure on the Piedras River to the Chagres River followed by a kayak adventure all the way across Panama for the next four days. I made this decision after some email dialog and telephone conversation with Javier, the owner of Aventuras Panama, who said that this was his favorite trip because it crosses almost the entire isthmus and the Chagres River was the key to a deep understanding of the entire Canal project.
I’ll speak for myself here, but we were both DELIGHTED with this tour. I have been recommending this trip to all my friends whole-heartedly. One friend became so fired up about MY trip that he called the local newspaper and asked them to come interview me, as he thought the whole town should know about Panama!
Coming from New England in January, what I wanted was some warm weather, unspoiled nature, good water for paddling, a fun adventure, a somewhat comfortable back country camping experience, decent equipment, and someone to make ALL the arrangements. And if I could wish for something I did not want, it would be mosquitos.
I've been back a week now and I’m still smiling because I got all that and more. Panama is a hidden gem!
We started our raft trip in an area so remote it took a couple of hours of extreme 4WD driving with an expert driver followed by a two hour hike to get to the water. After the 4WD vehicles could go no further, and despite being so remote, Aventuras Panama had local indigenous people waiting with horses at the trailhead to carry our boats and gear so we could hike without carrying gear. I was impressed – people waiting for us with horses deep in the jungle. How did they manage that?
The rafting was through an area so unspoiled you could feel you were back in the 16th century. The jungle on both sides of the river was so abundant with life, color, and noises. For hours, we did not see a structure, wire, road, or sign of any person. Great moving water (Class II-III) almost continuously for 4 hours with expert guides, one to a boat. Our group had two boats. We stopped several times for snacks and photos. Javier was right: by starting in the mountains, one really came to understand a lot about the Canal project by experiencing the river - it’s essential water, it’s variability, and its power. It was a dimension to understanding the Canal project that most people never get, which was both fun and fascinating.
At the end of the whitewater at a bend in the river, some Embera indigenous people were waiting for us with a 30’ long canoe that they had made by hand from a tree. We loaded our gear into their boat and they took us several miles downriver to their village, where my son and I disembarked to spend the night to begin the next, kayaking leg of the trip. I note again that Aventuras Panama worked magic to keep things on schedule, even in the jungle.
We stayed that night and the next night in two different Indian villages, and the next two nights bushwhacking in tents. Our guide, Orlando, was fabulous - thoroughly knowledgeable and delightful to be with for four days (this is important with a group of only three people!). Orlando is a professional cook, so boy did we EAT! Never did I expect to be enjoying flank steak with grilled onions and fried yucca and fresh vegetables, wine and beer, cheese and stuffed olive appetizers, and fresh pineapple for dessert in the jungle. Orlando laid out a menu each night that was varied, fresh, and delicious, a rich reward to top off each glorious day of paddling. Breakfasts were also hot and hearty – often sausage, pancakes, rice pilaf, and of course fresh fruit. We prepared lunches to pack in the kayaks.
Some of our camp sites were accessible by truck, so all our gear was delivered when we arrived ashore and then picked up the next morning; other sites were accessible only by boat, so we had a chase boat for a day (I think this was also required to pass that part of the Canal). We carried only the personal items we needed for the day in the kayaks. This was a very nice arrangement because the boats remained light. The drivers were steadfastly punctual and very helpful getting our camp set up and broken down. Our chase boat driver had relatives in a village near where we camped one night, so it was fun dropping by to say hello to the family. Some family members came by to help us set up camp and we got to know them a little bit with our limited Spanish. This connection with the people and the land was just what we were looking for.
Kayaking across Panama is mostly a trip across the huge Gatun lake, and one might wonder how this works with the large ships passing through. We stayed several miles away from these big boys; Gatun houses many islands and Orlando guided us between one island to the next so that we felt like we were on a river without any consciousness of the large boat traffic a few miles away. At all times, safety was the top consideration and we respected how much effort Aventuras Panama put into tracking the weather, tracking us through GPS, planning our course, making sure we had the chase boat in the proper places, and making sure all our equipment was in good order. Orlando carried a GPS that allowed the home office to know our exact position at all times. If there was ever an emergency, this device allowed him to beckon help at once. We knew we were in professional hands so we could relax and enjoy the scenery.
Most days we paddled 5-6 hours, arriving at our camp for the day around 3pm so we had time to get cleaned up and of course dig into the appetizers that Orlando was preparing almost as soon as the coolers were unpacked. We had some light headwinds a few hours a day, but nothing major. For the most part the water was dead flat. Since we were so far from the ship traffic, wakes were not something to worry about. Our drivers were waiting for us when we had to portage around two dams because in each case we had to go a a few miles downstream to the put-in spot. Everything was like clockwork, but we in the boats had no consciousness of clocks, time, or schedules – the tour company took care of everything.
Panama is truly a hidden gem in plain view: we did not see another boater, fisherman, or tourist the entire five days we were on the river. We did see some indigenous people in a couple of places, but there was a two day period where we saw nobody – and this in one of the busiest waterways in the world! The route we took was lined with jungle, so our companions were birds, monkeys, an occasional flying fish, and other animals that we could see rustling near the waterline, but could not see the animal itself. It was great to have flat water and only the sounds of nature; for hours each day we quietly paddled our kayaks, scanning the jungle for animal sightings. It was one of the most relaxing things I’ve ever done.
Some in the tourist industry we met lamented that ‘tourists don’t come to Panama’, but for the reader of this review, this is the opportunity – Panama is a relatively short plane flight from the US and until it catches on, it is a paradise of nature without people. We learned much from our guide about the local peoples, how the terrain changed when the lake was created, and how the country is doing today. Panama is a financial capital, but just a few miles outside of Panama City, it is a wilderness known and enjoyed by very few from outside the region.
The last day was out of a movie. The three of us were padding through flat, clear water on the Chagres river, downstream from the dam, noticing that the river was getting incrementally darker. This meant it was getting more brackish; the end was drawing near. We inhaled the last few hours of the jungle on both sides, stopped to watch howler monkeys in their trees, tried to pick out the various trees Orlando had taught us to identify, and even pulled ashore to see if we could walk 100 yards into the jungle to get a feeling of what Henry Morgan’s pirates went through when they hacked through the jungle on their way to sacking Panama City in 1671. Despite our efforts and several attempted routes, we couldn’t do it. It was just too thick.
Then we turned a bend in the river and there it was – our green river spilled out into the blue Caribbean Sea with gentle whitecaps rolling in. We paddled into the waves, turned around, and surfed onto a white sandy beach framed by coconut palms. We could see the arc of the beach for miles and there wasn’t a single person on any of it – except for our faithful support truck driver, waiting to offer us two cold Panama beers. It was as idyllic as could be.
To conclude, I got everything I wanted. The weather was in the mid-80’s by day and low 70’s by night, and we were lucky to only get a few sprinkles of rain late at night. Aventuras Panama had their eyes glued to the weather so we didn’t have to worry about it – should a storm have come through, they had the support to get us out of the water easily. The nature was as unspoiled as it could get; I tend to pick up floating trash when I kayak, and in five days I picked up exactly two items. The backcountry camping was great with all the gear delivered and meals that were out of this world. My only complaint to Orlando the entire trip was that the PFD’s (lifejackets) were shrinking – every day I had to let mine out a little bit!
The icing on the cake is that even in the areas where we were bushwacking, there were very few mosquitos. Your experience may be different, but all I did was put on long pants and do a light spray with OFF at dusk, and I think I picked up fewer than 30 bites over five days. You could get that many in ten minutes in my New England backyard in the summertime. I think this was because it was cooler at night and there was a constant breeze over the water. Or maybe we just got lucky…
On a scale of one to five, where five is that all my expectations were perfectly satisfied, I’d give this trip a five. If there were a special category, though, for where most of what I got was beyond my expectations, I would not hesitate to give this trip that special category. The planning, logistic support, equipment, guides, friendliness, support, and packaging that Aventuras Panama provided was just fantastic. This was a trip of a lifetime and I’ll definitely be back to Panama, hopefully before everyone else discovers it.