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Panama Trip Report - November, 2012

Toronto, Canada
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Panama Trip Report – November, 2012

Trip purpose: Celebrate my mother-in-law’s 60th birthday with family vacation (4 adults)

Trip goal: Get a cross-sectional taste of Panama with minimal intra-country travel time

Trip side-goals: Eat & sleep comfortably at average price range. We are generally willing to spend a little more on food.

Itinerary summary: 3 nights in El Valle de Anton (Golden Frog Inn), 2 nights in Playa Corona (Suites on the Beach), 3 nights in Panama City (Casco Viejo loft, Patty’s Casitas)


- Flew Copa Airlines (emergency exit row – lots of legroom!) and arrived at PTY in the afternoon

- Customs officer did not immediately return my in-laws’ passports. We don’t speak Spanish, and the customs officers didn’t speak much English, so we weren’t sure what was going on. So we waited around the baggage claim area and we were soon joined by other passport-less people. We eventually learned that they were probably doing some additional background checks on my in-laws, possibly due to them having a dual citizenship.

- Got the passports back and our bags arrived at around the same time – no other issues

- Car rental: We had pre-booked a car at Alamo for 5 days with GPS and mandatory personal liability insurance ($235). Visa covered collision damage (CDW), so we did not include that in our pre-booking. We brought a copy of our Visa policy with us.

- When we got to the Alamo counter, CDW was in the contract, so we had them take it back out. They didn’t give us any hassle over wanting to take it out.

- The final cost ended up being $250 even though we didn’t have any extras beyond what we pre-booked. Oh well.

- They were reluctant to mark the smaller dents and scratches, and weren’t all too careful about looking for big ones either – we had to point out the big area of scrapes on a door after the guy had already walked around it (to be fair, it was hard to see – light scratching on silver paint – but it was a big area)

- Overall, no issues with Alamo.

- Note: We eventually spent approximately $40 in gas total for the Toyota Corolla: Panama City (PTY) -> El Valle -> Playa Corona -> Panama City (PTY)…plus a few smaller trips in and around El Valle & Corona

- And we were off to El Valle de Anton!

- Took the toll road and Alamo gave us a map with toll booth locations & costs marked down ($1.25 and $1.40), which was helpful. We got out of the city without taking any wrong turns (yay!).

- Once in El Valle, we did have some trouble finding our first hotel (Golden Frog Inn) because I was naively using some maps I had found online instead of just following the Golden Frog signs along the road. Apparently there are very few (if any) accurate maps of El Valle.

- We arrived in time for Happy Hour to find that Becky (owner) had even baked a lovely little cake in honor of my mother-in-law’s birthday! My mother-in-law was surprised. :)

- Accommodations were perfect for us – we had Suites #1 and #2. Great rooms, spacious, clean, thick toilet paper, loved the hammock and big sheltered terrace.

- Dinner at Bruschetta ($76 for four) – my Calypso seafood stew was good, but a little salty

- Didn’t sleep very well that night due to huge thunderstorm and high wind (really loud!), but oh well…we were on vacation!

Toronto, Canada
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1. Re: Panama Trip Report – November, 2012


- Breakfast at Cano Panaderia ($8) – pastries were tasty (banana bread had a great banana flavor), coffee was meh

- Walked around the crafts / produce market and purchased a Christmas ornament (pear-shaped with nativity scene carved inside, $5)

- Went to see the Chorro El Macho waterfalls ($3.75 per person entrance fee) – short but slippery / uneven trail to the falls wasn’t difficult for my fairly active husband and I, but my less active in-laws walked slowly & carefully

- Lunch at Massiel ($22 for four) – really friendly folks who seemed to have fun helping us decipher what they were serving (they told us what it was in Spanish, we tried to look stuff up in our phrase books… we ultimately just pointed at stuff that looked good). They even gave us a complimentary dish of stir-fried bok choy & chicken (maybe because they saw we were Chinese and they don’t have a lot of Chinese tourists?). My father-in-law was pretty darned happy about this.

- Tour at the Orchid Center (I forget how much admission was, but it was relatively cheap) – we were shown around by Kristina, a lovely young lady from the States who recently graduated from college and was doing some volunteering work at the center

- Coffee break at El Valle Gourmet Coffee Shop ($15 for four drinks and a slice of cake) – coffee (served in foam cups) was okay (much better than Cano Panaderia) but nothing to write home about

- Back to the Golden Frog where we splashed around in the pool and generally lay around doing nothing (hammock time!)

- Dinner at La Casa de Lourdes ($120 for four – appetizers, main course and non-alcoholic drinks) – tasty! Becky advised us which tables were sheltered from the wind (enter restaurant and go to the right). My grilled & smoked mozzarella appetizer was yummy (relatively large portion). For main I had the sole with cashew crust and potato gratin…also very good.

- We met Lourdes herself, and it was interesting to contrast her (fashionable, an air of privilege & success) with some of the other locals we’d seen around town (“normal” working people)


- Cooked our own breakfast at the Inn

- Fruit juices available in the grocery stores (eg – Del Monte pear juice, fruit punch, apricot, etc – ~$1.30 for a 900-ish mL box) are really good! We purchased a lot of them while in Panama. :)

- Hiked up La India Dormida (started at the petroglyph (La Piedra Pintada) entrance, $1.50 per person) – moderate difficulty level (lots of rocks and tree roots to navigate, a couple of steeper parts); not too bad a hike for my husband and I…my in-laws had some trouble but just took it slow and made it through unscathed

- Poor signage as noted by other TA reviewers (tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g635545-d1…)

- Took us about 1 hour at a slow pace to get from the petroglyph to the La Piedra Pintada sign on the tree (as mentioned in TA reviews) and another maybe 45 min (?) to get to the top

- Once at the top, the views were beautiful and I regret not walking further along the trail at the top (the hardest part was getting to the top, afterall), but the in-laws had had enough. We found out later that we could’ve kept walking and descended at the navel area in about the same amount of time it took us to go back down the path we came up on (in the head/hair area). Doh!

- Late lunch at Buon Appetito Pizzeria ($45 for four pizzas and some drinks) – awesome pizzeria with handbuilt stone oven. Four small outdoor tables under a sheltered area. We sat at a fifth table off to the side by the driveway and naturally it started to rain partway through our meal (we pulled out our umbrellas to keep eating, but fortunately another table had just finished up and gave us their table). Highly recommended for good pizza!

- Hammock time at Golden Frog Inn for the rest of the day

- Cooked dinner at the inn (pre-marinated chicken from the Peking supermarket, squash and potatoes from the market across the street)

Edited: 4:43 pm, December 05, 2012
Toronto, Canada
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2. Re: Panama Trip Report – November, 2012


- Squeezed in a final bit of hammock time in the morning and cooked our own breakfast

- Checked out (sad to leave!) and hit the road for Playa Corona

- Playa Corona (not to be confused with Playa Coronado) is just south of the highway, a few minutes west of the turn-off up to El Valle

- A bit of weather shock when we arrived – it had been mostly cloudy and rainy-ish in El Valle (borderline needing light jacket), but Corona was hot, sunny & humid (in a micro climate that is generally less affected by rainy season)

- Checked into our two studio units at Suites on the Beach (flipkey.com/coronado-beach-condo-rentals/…) – hesitant to write about this place because I want to keep it a secret for myself! But if you’re looking for a quiet beachfront location that’s not a resort, this is where you want to stay. Clean, modern, well-stocked, convenient and private. Hardly any other people. Beach and water for miles in both directions (river flowing into the ocean if you walk east, cliffs & neat tidal pools during low tide if you walk west)

- Settled in and drove 20 minutes east to Coronado for McDonald’s for lunch (hah, I can’t believe we ate at McDonald’s! But it’s always interesting to see how the McDonald’s menus differ from place to place, although it was about the same in Coronado as what we have in Toronto.)

- Bought some groceries at the Rey across the street from the McDonald’s

- Back to the beach for some lounging and beach time. It was great.

- Dinner at Terrazas del Mar (restaurant at Vista Mar resort, $200 for four with drinks and appetizers) – hard to find the restaurant in the dark (we drove around the complex area for a while), but food was good (I had the sea bass carpaccio appetizer and yellow fin tuna with ginger sauce for main – ginger sauce was a little…’different’ for my taste buds, but still tasty)


- Beach day!

- Cooked our own breakfast and lunch

- Silvard (owner of the Suites) treated us to an outdoor piano concert on his terrace overlooking the ocean! How awesome is that?!

- Dinner at Los Camisones ($80 for four, main entrees only and drinks) – I had the $15 mahi mahi with lemon sauce. Flavor was good, but no effort was made in the presentation (fish was by itself on a plain white plate with rice on a second plain white plate, no other sides or garnishes). Service was somewhat indifferent. I’m not sure if I’d recommend this restaurant – it just felt overpriced for what you get. I guess overall, food is good, but don’t expect much in terms of overall “dining experience."

Toronto, Canada
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3. Re: Panama Trip Report – November, 2012


- We checked out of Suites on the Beach (extreme sadness!) and headed back to PTY to return the rental car (no issues with the return process)

- Note: GPS wasn’t that useful for El Valle or Corona, but it was pretty good navigating us back to the airport.

- Then we took one of those tourist taxis back towards the city to Casco Viejo ($30+tip) – we “bargained” the price down from something like $40 and the head taxi guy emphasized that they would do us this favor just this once but next time it would be regular price. Alright then.

- I know we could’ve tried to take a regular yellow taxi from the arrivals deck for a bit less money, but with all of the luggage and number of people, it was just easier to take the larger tourist taxi (minivan-like).

- Even though I had a detailed map AND directions written in Spanish, the driver didn’t know how to get to the hotel in Casco Viejo. I should mention that Casco Viejo is arranged like a grid…with numbered streets…and we had the intersection…and I had a detailed map AND directions written in Spanish. *rolls eyes*

- Fortunately, we reached Patty (owner of our next accommodation) via cell phone and put her on with the driver and we got there with no issues.

- We checked into the 2-bedroom loft (Patty’s Casitas - http://www.pattyscasitas.com/LoftCascoViejoHome.htm) and even though we knew it would be good based on all the positive reviews on TA, the place was better than expected and nicer-looking than the photos. Win!

- After we settled in, we met up with stxSteve, TA’s own Panama City destination expert, for a walk/tour around Casco Viejo

- The walk/tour was most excellent! Steve knows a lot of interesting tidbits and history and facts about the neighborhood. He touched on lots of different practical subjects too – shopping, where to eat, how to handle taxis, etc. It was great. We really like Steve. :)

- Dinner at Rene Café (tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g294480-d1…) as recommended by Steve and Silvard. It was $105 total for drinks and 3x dinner fixed price menu and 1x lunch fixed price menu (you can have the lunch fixed price menu at dinner – it’s basically a smaller amount of food). The service was friendly and unassuming, and the food was pretty good. The dishes just kept coming! My favourite course was the grilled squid skewer and the fried rice was also especially well done (it’s hard to do fried rice well).


- Breakfast at Da Vinci per Patty’s recommendation ($33 for 4 coffee & breakfast) – frankly, it sucked. We waited more than 45 minutes for our order and we were the only ones in the restaurant! And when the food finally showed up, my waffle was cold. Sadness. Maybe their lunch/dinner (pastas) are better, but I would not recommend this place.

- We then walked over to the fish market and it was a fun sight to see. My in-laws went crazy and bought clams, shrimp, octopus and fish to cook for dinner later on.

- We wandered around Casco Viejo for a while – stopped in at the National Theatre for a quick peek (very pretty)

- Lunch was random stuff from the grocery store (big grocery store along the pedestrian portion of Central Ave)

- Taxi to Miraflores Visitors Center ($10, bargained and tried a few taxis before we found one willing to take us at this price) – we encountered quite a bit of traffic on the way there

- Miraflores Visitors Center ($8 each for full access ticket for my husband & I; my in-laws showed proof of age to get the retiree price of $4 each for the full access ticket) – worth a visit. There was a huge ship (called Asian King, haha) going through the locks just as we arrived (around 2:00 pm) so we went up to the fourth floor for a better look. There was a live “tour guide” who provided English & Spanish commentary on what was happening with the ship in the locks plus other miscellaneous canal facts over the PA system.

- Watched the slightly cheesy 3D film and went through the rest of the museum. A number of large ships went through the locks while we were there.

- Took a taxi back to Casco Viejo ($12) around 4:00pm – We just took a taxi outside of the entrance. We got stuck in rush hour traffic and passed the time chatting with the taxi driver as best as we could with the help of our phrase book, cell phones (Google translate) and newspaper. We introduced ourselves, and “talked” about the traffic, the weather, and sports. It was pretty funny.

- Dinner was at our loft – aforementioned seafood cooked by my in-laws, yum!

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4. Re: Panama Trip Report – November, 2012


- We got up bright and early and snacked on random things we had at the loft for breakfast

- Took a taxi to Amador Causeway ($7) and checked in at the PMA booth at the Flamenco Resort & Marina for our partial canal transit tour (pmatours.net/pacific-queen/partial-transit-t…)

- I had pre-booked our tickets ($115 each) and the online booking process was easy & painless

- We boarded the bus on time at 9:00 and drove to Gamboa, where the boat (“Pacific Queen”) was

- We waited on the bus for 20-30 minutes…not sure why? A lot of hustle and bustle was going on as the tour operators were getting things organized. There was another boat there too (I think it was the Canal & Bay tour).

- We got off the bus and walked onto the Pacific Queen and we were off!

- It was interesting to note that our boat wasn’t at capacity – I think we had maybe 100 people or so and no children. The Canal & Bay tour was packed with people and lots of kids. I have to admit I was glad to have the extra space to walk around on our boat and not worry about fighting for a good view.

- We passed the continental divide and under the Centennial Bridge into the Pedro Miguel locks

- There was a tour guide providing commentary on what we were seeing – he spoke mostly in English with some Spanish translation thrown in every once in a while

- We went through the Pedro Miguel locks with two other similar-sized boats and also two small sailboats. It was so cool! You really have to experience it for yourself if you haven’t gone before.

- Lunch on the boat was as expected – nothing special, buffet prepared for the masses (salad, rice, potato (really good, I thought), chicken and plain cupcakes). Non-alcoholic drinks (pretty good hot coffee) and bananas were available for free throughout the cruise, and other drinks/snacks were available for purchase.

- The weather started off hot & sunny when we boarded, but the clouds started to build up as we cruised along. It started to rain hard sometime during lunch, and the downpour continued as we went through the Miraflores locks.

- Being the total photography nerd that I am, I broke out all of my rain gear (rain jacket, waterproof cover for my bag and plastic sleeve for my camera) and was able to take some photos of our passage through the Miraflores locks while most other passengers stayed inside or under the covered part of the boat

- Note: It’s neat to watch the process from both the front and back of the boat

- I treated myself to a Panama Canal magnet ($5) from the gift shop while on board

- After we finished going through the locks, we went under the Bridge of the Americas, saw anchored ships that were waiting for their turn to go through the canal and had some nice views of the city skyline before we docked at Flamenco Marina at 2:00 pm.

- I’d definitely recommend this tour!

- We got off the boat and took a taxi ($9) back to Casco Viejo. This taxi driver seemed smarter than any of the others – we think he took some side roads to avoid the traffic that we had encountered on all of our previous taxi rides.

- Note: We did bargain with every taxi driver and tended to choose cars that looked newer with their windows rolled up (evidence that the A/C worked). We know we paid more than locals, but we were okay with that.

- After we refreshed ourselves, we went out souvenir shopping! We bought a few molas and my mother-in-law treated me to a pretty bracelet.

- We also stopped for coffee at Bajareque Coffee House (https:/…4fc012b5e4b07ac9fc1fad2e) per Steve’s recommendation and the coffee was the best we’d had all trip. We sat on the 2nd floor, which was more comfortable than the main floor. I particularly liked the two little tables on the small balcony – a lovely afternoon date spot.

- On our way out, we stopped to ask how much the packages of whole coffee beans were. The owner of the shop noticed our interest and ended up taking us for an impromptu tour of his shop and coffee growing process (via large photos on the walls). His family has been growing coffee for a few generations in the highlands of Panama and he explained the different types of coffee he had available (natural vs washed process, honey, gesha). Very informative! He clearly loves his work and his coffee.

- We walked out with a lot of coffee beans. :)

- Dinner at La Rosa de Los Vientos ($90 for 4 fruit juice and main course; http://cascoviejo.com/la-rosa-de-los-vientos/) – my papaya shake was all sugar and no papaya (not recommended) and my mother-in-law’s chicken lasagna was cold. My spaghetti bolognese was fine. My husband had the seafood spaghetti that came wrapped in tin foil and he really enjoyed it.

- We meandered back to our loft via Plaza Franzia (plaza with the rooster) where we stopped for a while to admire the city’s nighttime skyline. We were also treated to a fireworks display (off in the distance) that we think originated from the causeway

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5. Re: Panama Trip Report – November, 2012


- Last day in Panama! We packed up all of our stuff and met Rudy (http://www.rudystours.com/; Rudy is Patty’s husband) for a tour of Panama City ($220 for 4ish hours and transportation to PTY)

- We first walked along Central Ave along the pedestrian portion of the street to get a feel for everyday Panama life. This was “The Other Panama” tour described on Rudy’s website. We had some refreshing sugar cane juice (30 cents per cup) and a pineapple/watercress shake ($1.50) that was much more satisfying than the sorry excuse for a papaya shake ($5) that I’d had at the restaurant the night before

- Then we picked up our luggage, checked out of the loft and piled into the (clean) minivan to go up Ancon Hill (Alex was our driver). There was a long traffic line-up to get to the top due to very limited parking. I think we waited at least 30 minutes, but it was faster to wait than to walk up on foot – it was a nice day and a Sunday to boot, so there were lots of people out and about

- When we finally did reach the top, we had a nice view of the city and canal area.

- The next part of the tour was a drive through the modern part of the city (recently built condos and skyscrapers) – we did a quick drive by the Trump Hotel (which I was surprised to see is actually somewhat hidden amidst all the other tall and similarly-colored buildings…online photos would lead you to believe that the distinctive sail-shaped building is standing by itself).

- Then we stopped for lunch at some sort of food court (husband got a moderate case of food poisoning from something he ate here)

- The last stop was Panama Viejo where we got out and walked around the ruins for a little while. We also stopped in at the building where the craft market is. Most of the stores were closed, but my mother-in-law bought a couple of small souvenirs that she was really happy with.

- I think the molas here were better than the ones for sale on the streets in Casco Viejo – at the very least, these ones were inside and not exposed to the elements…and there was more choice concentrated in a smaller area

- It was interesting to see these other parts of Panama City, and I’d recommend seeing them if you have time.

- However, I have to go against the grain and say that I did not think that Rudy was a good tour guide. He would typically point out the obvious things (eg - this is a sugar cane vendor, this is an upscale mall, etc.), but then we’d have to probe him if we wanted to know more. It was frustrating because he clearly has a lot of in-depth knowledge, but didn’t volunteer it easily. We learned a bit more at Casco Viejo, but overall, it felt like he’d rather chat with our driver than with us.

- If I’m going to be honest, I’d have to say he was indifferent. Considering we drove through the modern part of town without commentary and he would’ve driven past Panama Viejo without stopping (until I said that we wanted to get out of the car and walk around)…well, that’s just not a good tour. We didn’t need to pay so much money to be driven around like ballast.

- Overall, I would not recommend Rudy’s tours.


- Bug spray: Avon Skin So Soft Bug Guard Plus IR535 Expedition SPF 30 spray, OFF! spray, and my mother-in-law had some sort of clip-on thing too. Everyone but my father-in-law (who has some sort of built-in immunity, lucky guy) got some bites every day, but it wasn’t too bad.

- Significant police presence on the highways and in the city. It felt fairly safe to walk around Casco Viejo in the evening.

- The diablo rojos buses are colorfully fun!

- We noticed that the restaurants generally weren’t very crowded…possibly because we tended to eat earlier (6ish pm timeframe)

- Most people we ran into (waiters, shopkeepers, taxi drivers) did not speak much, if any, English. We still got by okay. It helps to have at least a grasp of numbers so you can bargain and pay for things. I should really learn some Spanish!

- I planned most of the trip using TripAdvisor as a starting point. Hooray for TA! :)

Thank you for reading this super long trip report and I hope this provides some insights for others planning their trips!

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6. Re: Panama Trip Report – November, 2012

Thank you for taking the time to write a very detailed trip review.

Your planning with the help of TA is what makes me use this site for any vacation.

Your recommendations of the places you stayed is very helpful.

Panama City, Panama
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7. Re: Panama Trip Report – November, 2012

WOW ! Thank you soooo much for giving back to other travelers with your lengthy trip report! You took so much time to do this and gave alot of insight too.

Posters / Travelers like yourself make being a DE on Tripadvisor soooooo worth it ! AND it IS about giving back, isn't it?

Azulann, if you need help in the El Valle, Pacific Beaches areas, just post on here. I will do my best to help you !

Happy Travels all !

Edited: 11:23 am, December 09, 2012
Miami, Florida
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8. Re: Panama Trip Report – November, 2012

Thank you so much for such detailed trip report!

btw, any other tours suggest?

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9. Re: Panama Trip Report – November, 2012

I am just beginning to research for a trip to Panama. Your report was great and answered a lot of questions that I had. Especially the part about going through the canal.


Toronto, Canada
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10. Re: Panama Trip Report – November, 2012

Andy_MIA -- Unfortunately, I don't have any other tours to suggest or recommend beyond the ones I've mentioned. At the end of the day, it probably depends what kinds of things you're interested in and how much time you have. For example -- my mother-in-law likes orchids (hence why we went to the orchid center in El Valle), but if it were up to my husband, he probably would've done something else (maybe gone to Cerro Gaital, which we didn't end up seeing). Sorry I can't be of more help!