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Panama Day 4: El Valle de Antón + Buenaventura

Panama

We woke up at the Miramar Intercontinental on day 4 of our trip, feeling glad that the heavy travelling and sightseeing part of the trip was mostly over and the next few days would almost be a ‘holiday at the end of this holiday’ – a bit slower paced and more relaxing. I could actually admire my room’s view over the bay in daylight rather than weak dawn light!

Panama
Panama

We set off on a mini road trip to the Antón Valley, a volcanic area about an hour west of Panama City. On the way we made a couple of cool stops: first to a little roadside farm shop, where we stocked up on local food treats to take home: papaya jam, dried cashew flowers and pots of duche de leche. They also sold a delicious array of fresh soft drinks; I had a tamarind flavour.

Panama

We stopped to check out a cashew tree: the nuts are so expensive because each fruit only bears one seed and they need a lot of processing to get rid of the highly toxic shell. We tried the fruit too, it tastes really odd – like a very dry, sour apple.

Panama
Panama

The second stop was to a typical Panamanian fast food place, where I was overjoyed to find tamales (I think I was the only one who liked them) amongst some other fried delicacies. The Yorkshire pudding type thing was declared the winner.

Panama
Panama

This Antón Valley is famed for its beauty and diverse wildlife, and lots of people come to hike, cycle or ride horseback.

Panama
Panama
We stopped for lunch at a really pretty resort called Los Mandarinos, where we had great tapas.

Panama

We drove on a little further to the El Nispero Zoo. The tour guide ‘surprised’ us with this stop, which was unfortunate as several of the group were of the anti-zoo mindset. This one didn’t really help matters as it was quite small and unkempt, with several of the animals in what seemed to be too small cages. However I think they rescue and rehabilitate sick animals here too (some allegedly seized from the drug-trafficking ex-Panamaniam dictator Manuel Noriega) as well as researching sickness and diseases in frog populations, so it’s not all bad.

Panama
Panama
Panama

It originally started as plant nursery, and it was nice to see the orchids and other flowers that they cultivate.

Panama
Panama
Panama

Though I did enjoy seeing the frogs, white peacocks, a chatty cockatoo and a beautiful little tigrillo which, sweetly curled up for a nap in the shade, reminded me of my cats. I’d give this a miss if you’re generally anti-zoo though. It was also a shame that we came here instead of the local daily artisan market, which I was looking forward to seeing.

Panama
Panama
Panama
Panama

We then took a little rainforest walk nearby and found the El Chorro Macho waterfall. There’s also a pretty natural pool you can swim in.

Panama: Anton Valley springs
Panama: Anton Valley springs

Nearby is a park containing pools of natural hot springs. The water looked kind of sulphuric yellow so we gave that a miss but had fun applying the local clay to our faces, with youth-defying and/or hilarious results.

Panama: JW Marriott, Buenaventura
Panama: JW Marriott, Buenaventura
Panama: JW Marriott, Buenaventura

In jovial frame of mind, we rocked up to our final hotel, the JW Marriot in Buenaventura, located on the southern Pacific coast in the Gulf of Panama. Our jaws all collectively dropped at how gorgeous and luxurious it was – I’ve never stayed anywhere like it before. (I’m already planning how soon to go back – you can get two weeks all inclusive for about £1200, so I’ll start saving.)

Panama: JW Marriott, Buenaventura
Panama: JW Marriott, Buenaventura

We all made for the pool straight away. There’s a family pool near the hotel and a bigger one a few minutes walk away on the coast.

Panama: JW Marriott, Buenaventura
Panama: JW Marriott, Buenaventura

The beach is less picture-perfect than the Caribbean side, but the water is still clear and calm.

Panama: JW Marriott, Buenaventura
Panama: JW Marriott, Buenaventura
Panama: JW Marriott, Buenaventura

As the sun set, we enjoyed a few poolside (or in-pool) cocktails…

Panama: JW Marriott, Buenaventura
Panama: JW Marriott, Buenaventura

… and star-spotted. It was such a clear night you could see thousands, and even a few shooting stars. We ate in one of the hotel’s restaurants, which was OK but not really to my taste, then tuckered down in the beautiful guest rooms.

One day left, where we’d get an actual (10am!) lie in and see some of Panama City itself…

Panama Day 3: San Blas / Guna Yala

Panama: Guna Yala

After two long days with lots of travelling and sightseeing, this was the day of the trip I’d been looking forward to the most. The Guna Yala (previously San Blas) Islands lie off Panama’s northern coat in the Caribbean Sea and looked like a little slice of paradise: the archetypal tropical islands of white sand, palm tees and turquoise waters. The day got off to a slightly wobbly start when our 4.30am 4×4 pickup vehicle didn’t arrive due to a traffic accident. Being a little sleep deprived from such a busy few days, this didn’t go down well in the group. But it all got sorted and we were on the road by 6.30 – and at least it meant we got a bit of hotel breakfast in.

Panama: Guna Yala
Panama: Guna Yala
Panama: Guna Yala

I may have to come to regret the breakfast though, as the journey to paradise does not run smoothly. The islands and province surrounding them are under control of the indigenous Guna people, and the only way in is via an extremely precipitous drive along a twisty, turny, up and down road through dense forest. Despite the road being only a few years old (previously you had to take a flight and then a boat) it’s already pitted and potholed, so is distinctively uncomfortable and feels much longer than its 37km. I tried to enjoy the gorgeous scenery and not just count down the km markers! You also must remember to bring your passport as the Guna insist on checking it as you enter the port. You really wouldn’t want to turn back for it.

Panama: Guna Yala

One last hurdle is the boat ride out to the islands, made by speedboat. This was a little choppy but not that bad, and the memories of the 4×4 ride was already fading as we started to spy island after tiny paradise island on the horizon.

Panama: Guna Yala
Panama: Guna Yala
Panama: Guna Yala

There are about 300 islands in the group, which are in the ownership of Guna families and get passed down through the generations. Every time you dock on an island a Guna will spot you and ask for a dollar or two to use the beach. Some islands are more built up – by which I mean they may have a little hut for selling snacks or handicraft souvenirs – but the feeling really is of being amongst desert islands.

Panama: Guna Yala
Panama: Guna Yala
Panama: Guna Yala

Our first stop was Elefante, where we had a bite of lunch and a beer.

Panama: Guna Yala
Panama: Guna Yala
Panama: Guna Yala

We then did a bit of island hopping – Dog Island, Pelican Island, one which was barely a hump of sand out of the ocean but had the most amazing crystal clear shallow waters, perfect for paddling and having a beer.

Panama: Guna Yala

I swear I didn’t Photoshop this: the colour of the water was incredible.

Panama: Guna Yala
Panama: Guna Yala

We reluctantly tore ourselves away in the late afternoon: the gate out shuts at 6pm sharp so if you’re not out, you’ll need to stay the night. The ride back didn’t feel so bad as coming in, and there was a lovely sunset.

Panama: Tantalo
Panama: Tantalo
Panama: Tantalo

Buoyed by a relaxing day and the thought of a lie in (to the lofty time of 8.30am) in the morning, once back in Panama City we headed to the old town for a bit of nightlife and dinner. It was nice to be amongst young locals and start to see what the city side of life here is like. We had some lovely cocktails on the roof of the Tantalo hotel, with views of the modern city over the rooftops…

Panama: Tantalo

… and a brilliant tapas dinner in its restaurant. Lots of veggie things, from fried queso fresco with lime to aubergine sashimi and sublime macaroni cheese. We then bar hopped to a couple more before turning in for the night, sunburned and happy.

Panama Day 2: Railway, Canal, Portobelo

Panama Railway

We left Gamboa at the break of dawn to head to Corozal train station, where we would catch the Panama Canal Railway north to Colón. The train only leaves once a day at 7.15am so we left plenty of time to catch it.

Panama Railway
Panama Railway
Panama Railway
Panama Railway
Panama Railway

The train route runs parallel to the canal and Gatun Lake for most of its route, so it was very scenic. There were open-air carriages so you could get a really good view and a bit of breeze (of which sadly my hat succumbed to, and bounced down the tracks away from me).

Panama

After a quick pit stop for snacks and new hats all round…

Panama

…we visited the canal expansion site, where the canal is being widened to accommodate an extra lane of traffic and to allow much wider ships through. The huge new gates, made in Italy, will allow ships big enough to carry three Empire State buildings into the canal. I’m now basically an expert in Panama canal facts and figures, by the way, if you ever fancy being really bored entertained.

Panama: Portobelo
Panama: Portobelo
Panama: Portobelo

In the afternoon we headed eastwards along the northern coast to Portobelo.

Panama: Portobelo
Panama: Portobelo
Panama: Portobelo
Panama: Portobelo
Panama: Portobelo

Portobelo has an ancient and fascinating history (it was allegedly given its name by Columbus in the 16th century) and the town, with its colonial fortifications still intact, is a UNESCO world heritage site. Today it’s home to the main Afro-Panamanian (Panamanians of African descent) population in the country.

Panama: Portobelo
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I’ll come back to the Panamanian buses another time, they are pretty special.

Panama: Portobelo
Panama: Portobelo

I’ll come back to the beautiful hand-painted type everywhere too. I barely saw a plastic sign anywhere in the whole country, which was pretty amazing.

Panama: El Otro Lado
Panama: El Otro Lado
Panama: El Otro Lado
Panama: El Otro Lado

We took a speedboat over the bay to our lunch spot, El Otro Lado (‘The Other Side’), a breathtakingly pretty luxurious boutique hotel. Set in lush, secluded gardens with a beautiful infinity pool and seven uniquely decorated rooms, it’s a pricey (about $500/night) but very special location with ‘honeymoon’ written all over it.

Panama: El Otro Lado
Panama: El Otro Lado
Panama: El Otro Lado

The food was really good, and afterwards we got a peek at the rooms which are all individually decorated and immaculate.

Panama: El Otro Lado
Panama: El Otro Lado
Panama: El Otro Lado

We then boarded a super cool floating bar, where we enjoyed snacks and a glass of bubbly as we had a leisurely tour of the bay.

Panama: Portobelo
Panama: Portobelo
Panama: Portobelo
Panama: Portobelo

Back in Portobelo, we found a buzz in the air, the streets full of people and kids, and music starting up: the Congo Carnival was swinging into action. We’d missed the main Panama Carnival which runs through February, so it was good to see a little bit of Portobelo’s own one.

Panama: Portobelo
Panama: Portobelo

These men and children dressed as devils were armed with whips, which they liberally used on anyone daring enough to jump into the square. They represent the evils of slavery, and the carnival ends with the devils being tamed by the carnival queen (dressed in white) and baptised. The atmosphere was really good, but we left before it got too wild.

After another long day, we transferred to our next hotel, the Miramar Intercontinental back in Panama city, and prepared for another pre-dawn start for our trip to the islands of San Blas.

Panama Day 1 & 2: Embera & Gamboa

Panama - Embera

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.

panamap

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.

Panama - Bristol hotel
Panama - Bristol hotel

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.

Panama - Bristol hotel

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).

Panama - Embera

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.

Panama - Embera
Panama - Embera

The community is reached on a leisurely journey by piragua boat.

Panama - Embera

On the way we spotted a spider monkey in the trees.

Panama - Embera
Panama - Embera
Panama - Embera

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.

Panama - Embera
Panama - Embera

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.

Panama - Embera
Panama - Embera
Panama - Embera
Panama - Embera

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.

Panama - Embera
Panama - Embera

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.

Panama - Embera

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.

Panama - Gamboa
Panama - Gamboa
Panama - Gamboa

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.

Panama - Gamboa
Panama - Gamboa
Panama - Gamboa
Panama - Gamboa

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.

Panama - Gamboa
Panama - Gamboa

We spotted toucans and an iguana.

Panama - Gamboa
Panama - Gamboa

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.

Panama - Gamboa

As the sun set, we got an early night ready for tomorrow’s adventures…

Panama: flying with Air France

I’m in Panama! We’ve touched down less than 24 hours ago, but have done loads of stuff already and experienced the extremes of Panama weather – from 36-degree sun to torrential rain. I thought I’d just post quickly about the flight itself, since it’s Air France who so kindly sent me on this trip.

panamaflight1

Since we were pre-checked in as a group we just had to drop our cases, then we were able to make use of the Skyteam lounge. It was a world away from my usual airport experience: a little oasis to relax in where you can get a cold drink, coffee, pastries or even cooked breakfast. Definitely nice to be put in a relaxed state of mind pre-flight.

panamaflight2

A quick transfer at Charles de Gaulle later and we were on the long haul over the Atlantic to Panama. Our Air France rep Elise pulled some strings and got the group bumped up to business class for this leg. I’ve never flown non-economy before, and I have to say – uh oh – I might be a convert to the swishy business class ways. Amuse bouches! Menus! Real glasses and silverware!

panamaflight3

The best part for me was having so much more space. The cabin in general feels much less claustrophobic, plus the seats themselves are super generously sized and recline to nearly flat. I didn’t get to sleep because I barely ever sleep on flights, but it was definitely comfortable enough to do so and I enjoyed reading mags and watching some films throughout the ten-hour flight. The attendants were charming and kept bringing around treats, from a drink and pre-meal canapé to the main meal, which was considerably better than any other airline food I’ve had, to the dainty trio of desserts. Nice one, Air France.

Back soon with more of the stuff we’ve been up to…