Oh gosh. I don’t really even know where to begin writing about my trip to Panama with Air France and Enjoy Panama UK. It was simply amazing and exceeded all my expectations. It’s such a beautiful country and it was a pleasure to explore it with such a lovely team of people. Having said that it was very much not like a normal holiday: it was HARD work! The itinerary was extremely packed with lots of pre-dawn starts and late finishes, but that’s understandable when there was so much to see and do.
A quick primer about Panama first, as I knew nearly nothing before going:
- Panama borders Costa Rica to the north/west and Colombia to the south/east, with a Caribbean coastline to the north and Pacific to the south. It’s very little: about half the area of England with a population of 3.5 million and only about 40 miles from north to south at the narrowest part. It’s a 10 hour flight from London and 5 from New York, and the airport is only 20 minutes from downtown.
- Peak visiting time is the dry season which runs approx December – April. As it’s near the equator it’s hot and humid. Temperatures reach over 40 in the day and stay at around 25 all night. You can still expect sudden rain in the dry season, so packing both suncream and a rain jacket is essential.
- It’s generally very safe and comfortable to visit, as long as you avoid areas like Darien along the Colombia border. The usual South America recommendations to not drink tap water, not eat undercooked foods or fruit with rinds, and to use mosquito repellent apply. There are a few vaccine shots you should get if you’re vulnerable or visit the rainforest for extended periods.
- Not many locals speak English (apart from hotel staff etc), especially away from the city, so knowing a bit of Spanish is useful.
- The US dollar and Panamanian Balboa are the official currencies. The exchange rate is tied so $1 US = $1 PAB. You can use both interchangeably.
- It’s pretty cheap to eat out and get around. A beer in a bar or restaurant is about $2-3, our meals were rarely over $20 a head (and some were really fantastic – more on that later)
Right, back to business. After the wonderful Air France flight, we arrived into Panama City in the early evening (the airport is only 15-20 minutes from the city centre). We stayed in different hotels nearly every night as we moved around the country, and the first night was at the Bristol in the modern side of the city.
They actually had our booking down for the wrong night, so a lucky two of us got upgraded to 15th-floor suites. Wowza – the room was huge with a completely equipped kitchen, the biggest bed I’ve seen and a beautiful bathroom.
We had a welcome cocktail in the bar and a quick bite to eat before turning in ready for an early 7am start in the morning (though not the earliest we’d see all week by far).
The itinerary for our first morning was a trip to the Embera Quera native Indian community in Gatún, near the geographical centre of the country on the banks of the Gatún River that the Panama Canal feeds into.
The community is reached on a leisurely journey by piragua boat.
On the way we spotted a spider monkey in the trees.
The Embera welcomed us to the community with music and dance, and we received an introductory talk about their way of life. The community moved onto this land quite recently, having bought the land from the government for $30,000, and provide eco-tourism as well as maintaining the natural beauty of the landscape and their traditional lifestyle and practices.
The Embera Quera are one of the more modern-facing tribes of Panama. The children are well educated and have the option to go to high school in the city and on to university. The young chief of the community is even training in tourism and hospitality at college. They sustain a living by welcoming tourists and providing ‘eco’ holidays: you can stay here with them in the village in their guest lodge.
There are about fifteen families in the village. We took a walk around to see their homes, school, the guest lodge and some of the local fauna and flora, which they use for food, crafts and medicine.
Despite being the dry season, the heavens opened on the way and didn’t stop until the evening! I felt glad I’d packed my rain parka.
Back in the main hut, we had a dance demonstration then had a go ourselves. Luckily the rain had let up a bit by the time we took the canoe back over the lake.
From Gatún we headed south to Gamboa, Panama’s rainforest on the banks of the river Chagres. There is a large tourist resort here where we spent the night – it’s got great views and a lovely pool, but the buffet dinner was nothing to write home about.
The hotel runs several activities in the stunning surrounds – we went on a rainforest canopy tour, where you’re hoisted above the treetops in tiny cable cars for a round trip.
We spotted toucans and an iguana.
The view from the top included our first glimpse of the canal. After the sun set, we also took a night rainforest tour, where we spotted a few more creatures including a family of capybaras with their babies.
As the sun set, we got an early night ready for tomorrow’s adventures…