Becoming A Tourist In Your Own Country

There are some people who enter your life and leave you incredibly improved.

For me, it was a visiting professor at university who took an interest in me and essentially changed my life. After more than two decades had passed, I recently received a text from him asking for a few “tips” on what to do in Panama.

According to the text, he has been reading my blogs for years and “keeping up with my comings and goings”. I smiled at the thought and wondered why he hadn’t reached out earlier. “We stumbled on an incredible $250 round trip airfare from Los Angeles to Panama City, so we’ll be there in a couple of weeks,” was his reply. He always was a sort of a no-nonsense person!

My mind started rolling as I stared at the message. Where should they stay? Which restaurants should I recommend? What areas are must-sees? How can I help in making a perfect vacation?

A Limited Number Of Tourist Options

When I arrived in Panama over a decade ago, there wasn’t much of a tourist industry. People came to see the Panama Canal – an engineering marvel. Then they maybe rented a vehicle and drove to El Valle to see the El Nispero Zoo and Botanical Gardens. We had hats and plenty of molas for take-home gifts, but being a tourist in Panama was pretty much left up to individuals with a strong sense of adventure and their own ideas of what might be interesting.

hats and molas
Molas, the fabric art of the Kuna Indians, is indigenous to Panama and has long been a favorite item purchased by tourists visiting the country. The Panama Hat is also a tourist friendly gift, but despite the name, the hats are generally not made in Panama, but rather Equator.

New Ways To See The Panama Canal

Of course, I immediately thought of the Panama Canal and figured I would suggest the all-day tour that takes visitors from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean in about nine hours. After negotiating the three sets of locks, visitors arrive in Colón and then take an hour bus ride back to where the adventure started. I had done this particular trip several times and knew it was a long day, on a boat, without a lot of action. Remember to bring a book, I thought to myself.

Transiting the Panama Canal is on a lot of bucket lists and there are several companies that offer the trip daily, but it’s somewhat expensive ranging from $185 to $250 per person. The price includes breakfast and lunch buffets, as well as regular announcements about interesting spots along the route. The thing I remember most about the trip, was that we passed the prison where Manuel Noriega spent his last days. The prison looked hot and humid, nestled in the rain forest, and they explained there was no air conditioning.

Activities Other Than The Canal

I decided to continue researching what might be available in terms of places and activities – I was quickly amazed. There were plenty of offerings by local companies, but also by international tour operators I had no idea were now in Panama. Where had I been?

While perusing the Gray Line website I read “Since 1910, Gray Line has been a trusted provider of traveler experiences and sightseeing tours in the world’s most sought-after locations.” So, Panama was considered a “sought after location!” I liked it!

colon panama
While there are two piers accepting cruise ships in Panama, the one most often used is Colón 2000. That pier links directly to shops, restaurants and the second largest duty-free zone in the world. The cruise ships dock right next to the Panama Canal adjacent to the large ships awaiting their turn to transit.

I thought the tours might be limited to the Canal, but that is not the case! There are tours around Panama City, the old city of Casco Viejo, day-trips to Portobello on the same train used by the Gold Rushers in the 1850s, as well as shopping trips in the duty-free zone of Colón. Bird watchers are encouraged to visit the Soberania National Park since it was billed as “one of the best places in the world for bird watching”.

I decided I needed more information, so I called the Panama specific telephone number listed on the beautiful Gray Line website. I asked if business was good enough to support multiple tours and the reply was a laugh.

“We have cruise ships docking at the relatively new Colón 2000 pier almost every day in season as well as plenty of other days during the year,” said the local manager. “The more popular excursions are often sold out weeks in advance. We try to add buses, but there is a limit to what we can do. We are adding more tours all the time,” she continued.

Lots Of Active Adventures!

The Gray Line manager directed me to Adventuras 2000, a Panamanian company who partners with Gray Line by providing more active excursions. Their website was simply fun and made me want to sign up for everything!

“Panama takes its parties seriously and 2019 could mark the country’s most evolved fiesta yet,” the website proclaimed, quoting from an article about Panama which was published in Vogue magazine. “Panama City—the oldest continuously occupied European settlement on the Pacific coast of the Americas—is turning 500. Ancient walls, glassy skyscrapers and a mix of African, Native Panamanian and Spanish cultures have all played a part in forming the frenetic Miami of Central America.” I knew I needed to read the entire Vogue article and then send it on to my friend.

Luxury touring buses make daily stops at most hotels picking up tourists ready for a great adventure! “Water?” questioned one of the guides as people filed out of the five-star Westin at Playa Bonita.

Adventuras 2000 offered catamaran tours to Taboga Island, day-trips to the San Blas Islands, which is an archipelago of 365 islands, hikes through the rainforest and tram rides in Gamboa. I had no idea that somewhere each night in Panama City, women and men dressed in native costumes and danced for tourists. During the dance, tourists dined on traditional foods while learning about the wonderful history of Panama. At this point, I really didn’t know exactly what to offer my friend and his wife, in terms of “tips” for a week’s vacation in Panama. 

Eco Lodging Under The Radar

isla palenque
Paddle boarding is part of the attraction of staying at Isla Palenque. The gourmet meals, prepared with ingredients grown on the island and sourced from the ocean, is another reason!

When I moved on to check out what I might suggest for lodging, I stumbled on new and incredibly wonderful resorts. Isla Palenque is nothing short of amazing. It recently opened with only eight modern casitas and a six-bedroom villa. Rates run from $500 to $1,000 per person a night, depending on the season. It’s over-the-top all-inclusive with three-meals a day and every possible type of water sports.

I was pretty sure my friend wouldn’t want to spend $2000 a night on lodging (he was coming in high season), but it was good to know Panama had such luxurious options. I didn’t even bother telling him he would have to take a 45-minute flight to David—after arriving in Panama City—and then a 90-minute boat ride just to check into Isla Palenque. It’s so under the radar that Hollywood types and billionaire hedge fund managers are the most frequent guests.

Islas Secas
The villas at Islas Secas are scattered among the lush vegetation and has more monkey residents than humans.

Another, similar resort located 20 miles away from Isla Palenque, Islas Secas, only accommodates 18 guests at a time. There are one-, two- and four-bedroom villas available at $1,000 per night for each individual. Of course, everything is included, even the use of their 34-foot fishing boat, complete with captain and first mate!

Not For Everyone

I know that kind of luxury is not for everyone, but it gave me a real sense of security knowing people, who can go anywhere, elect to go to Panama! I was going to stick with the Westin Playa Bonita for lodging, or maybe the American Trade Hotel in Casco Viejo where more reasonable rates apply.

With so many activities from which to choose, I found myself pondering the day-long Canal transit because it seemed like a real time commitment. Then, someone suggested a Jungle Land Tour. You are picked up at your hotel and taken to the public boat dock on Lake Gatun. I learned the boat cruises you around Lake Gatun and then they bring you right next to the ships transiting the canal. I like the idea of being eye-level with the ships and experiencing the size difference, but mostly I think you’d get a great perspective of how the Panama Canal works. They could always go later to the Miraflora Visitor’s Center, have lunch or dinner and watch more big boats!

The Jungle Land Tour doesn’t stop with checking out the big ships, they also take you to the only floating lodge in the history of the Canal. Lunch and then an afternoon of swimming, fishing, kayaking, reading would round out the day, for about $100. Amazingly, I wasn’t going to suggest the full transit of the Canal!

floating lodge
The floating lodge was very appealing for an easy day out of the city.

Where To Eat?

I was very aware of the vibrant food scene in Panama. I didn’t think I’d find many surprises and I didn’t. I routinely suggest taking in the dining experience at La Vista. This is a special occasion affair which starts with sipping champagne and a 30-minute ferry ride to the Island of Taboga. Once on the island, you are taken to the 28-seat open air restaurant where you enjoy six-courses of international cuisine. Of course, there is live music and lots of wine and cocktails!

donde jose
All the ingredients used at Donde Jose are locally sourced.

I mused the calendar since La Vista only serves on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights and I decided I wanted to take my old friend to Donde Jose. With only 16-seats and hidden behind an unmarked door. The place is booked solid for weeks in advance, so I hoped I still had time. There is no better food in Panama. When you go to Donde Jose, you eat what is on the tasting menu. All 16 diners are served at the same time and every course tells some part of Panama’s history. Should we book for the 7:00 or 9:30 pm seating?

I also considered the Jazz Club in the American Trade Hotel and Salvaje, a fun sushi restaurant with an incredible rooftop bar. I made a mental note to book reservations for cocktails around 6:30 pm to enjoy the stunning sunset.

Too Much In One Sitting

When I finally closed my computer, I realized there was way too much to consider all at once. I thought I could respond with a quick text about the Canal, maybe a few of my favorite restaurants and a resort quality hotel. I owed this professor so much, I wanted to do this as completely as I could.

I started by sending my friend, the New York Times article about Panama being the number four place, of 52 places to visit in 2019. That was quickly followed by the Vogue article entitled “Why Panama Is The Place To Go In 2019”.

I was excited to learn more about how my country had evolved into such a “hot” travel destination. I was a little embarrassed I hadn’t kept up! I think I should test a few of these places before I make any suggestions. Maybe, I’ll start with checking out the rainforest and end with the Sunday brunch at Gambo Rainforest Resort!

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