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The Kuna of Panama
 
Cliff & Christa Gunn

Trip Report -- Panama 2008

The planning for this trip started in the summer of 2007 with me doing research on the Internet for possible good locations in Panama. Once I had narrowed it down to three locations as well as Panama City I emailed Maria at Arians tours and had her go over my choices. She reviewed everything and suggested some changes. I then contacted World of Vacations to pick out a time when we could get J Class both ways with a four-week stay, and our trip ended up looking like this:

Panama City, El Panama hotel -- breakfast included
Bocas del Toro, Isla Colon, Cocomo-on-the-Sea bed and breakfast -- breakfast included
Panama City, Crystal suites hotel -- breakfast included
San Blas Archipelago, Isla Yandup, Yandup Cabanas -- meals and tours included, no open bar
Panama City, Crystal suites hotel -- breakfast included
Pearl Islands, Contadora, Contadora Hotel -- full all-inclusive including open bar
Panama City, Crystal suites hotel -- breakfast included

Our itinerary was a bit ambitious, but we had not been south for a couple of years and were making up for it. The reason for going to Bocas then Yandup first was to ensure that we were nowhere near Contadora during Carnival, and also for those few days in Panama City we would be far from the action. Not a good idea to be on Contadora during Carnival; It is hard to get a room, food lineups forever, and one big party. I believe that rooms also cost more during this time.

We were met on arrival in Panama by Juan of Arians Tours and taken to the El Panama, where he went over all of our itineraries with us. The El Panama is a deluxe Caribbean-style hotel, set amidst acres of palm-laden gardens surrounding a large pool, and is located in the heart of Panama City. Dining is in either the in-door Portobello Restaurant that has also a patio by the pool, or in a barbecue alfresco restaurant by pool, which also has a swim-up bar. It is classed as luxury but in spite of this is a relaxed hotel where you can wear shorts and a shirt anywhere. A word of advice though -- never book into the El Panama on weekends. They tend to book large weddings by the pool on weekends and the noise is not bearable. The El Panama is quite close to the city's shops and nightlife, including a casino right next door. On the way to the hotel we stopped at a Rey supermarket for some supplies (there is nothing that you can buy in the duty free in Toronto that you can't get for one third to one half the price in the normal stores in Panama City). That evening Maria, owner of Arians Tours showed up at the hotel and confirmed our travels, briefed us on the various hotels, and left us with a cell phone with their numbers pre-entered. Had a real feeling of comfort after this. The next day we went out to Plaza Concordia to visit Arians and also to do a bit of looking around. In the afternoon we went to Albrook shopping center and looked around, then back to the hotel for an early evening by the pool.

The next day we were picked up early in the morning by Maria and taken to Albrook airport for our flight to Bocas del Toro. Our plane was a SHORTS SD3-60, a 36-passenger plane, and we arrived in Bocas without a hitch and booked into our hotel. At first we were less than impressed by Cocomo-on-the-Sea, more like a wooden cottage back home. It is a small B&B with four rooms and a sitting area on a veranda and then a deck. It is built on stilts over the sea, which appears to be the norm for hotels in Bocas. After settling in and looking around however, we decided that we were in probably one of the best places to stay in Bocas. The staff was extremely good, and the included breakfast was great.

It had been raining, and we got a good amount of rain for our first couple of days there and as a consequence the seawater was dirty and cloudy. It did clear up around day 4, and things looked better. We went on a couple of boat tours through the mangroves and to neighboring islands and beaches. We also visited El Naturel, another hotel advertised on the net. It was a beach hotel, remote from everything else and looked to be very good, although the remoteness would be a problem. We stopped on one of our boat tours at a restaurant that was built on stilts out over the water. Christa had to use the outhouse, which was also on stilts over the water at the end of another boardwalk. When she opened the door a sign read Please use bucket to flush. She took the yellow bucket on a rope and threw it down into the water 5 feet below and filled the bucket. Alas, it was so heavy she couldn't haul it back up. After a mighty struggle she succeeded, but had some trouble again lifting it up to dump it in the toilet once ready to flush. She did manage to get back to us though. Of course, half of the people observed her struggles with the bucket.

We also went to what was purported to be the nicest and largest beach on Isla Colon. It was right at the other end, about a 25-minute taxi drive. The way it worked was that you booked the taxi for a return trip, made out a pick-up time at the beach, and didn't pay until you were back. Although the beach was nice and went on for miles, the water was still dirty because of the many rainfalls.

Overall though, neither of us was impressed with Bocas. The town is a dirty tourist town, and most of the tourists are either young hard-body surfer types or aged hippies. I have never seen so many grey ponytails in one place before, and that was only on the old men. Accommodations are mostly designed for back packers, and restaurants are many and varied. I have never been able to fall in love with anyplace that has the Hare Krishna chant as the headline on it's tourist map though, so it is a place we will pass up in the future. Nice to see, but not a go-backer. After 7 days in Bocas we flew back to Panama City and Juan was waiting for us at the airport. Another stop at the Rey to replenish supplies then on to the Crystal Suites hotel, which turned out to be quite nice. It was a bit out of the way, which is what we wanted for this time (Carnival), but a 5 minute taxi drive ($1,25) gets you to the Multiplaza shopping center or downtown to Plaza Concordia on Via Espania. It is a suites hotel with different types of suites and we had a one-bedroom suite with a nice size front room and a full kitchen. Breakfast is included, and a there is nice Peruvian restaurant on the main floor for some variety. It is in a very, very safe upper-class area of the city for walking and there is a first class Italian restaurant just two blocks up. During this stay in the city we went with Juan for a day trip to visit the Embera Indians at one of their villages in the rain forest up the Chacres River. We drove about an hour and a half from Panama City, and then were picked up by boat to be taken to the village. We first of all went to a creek off the main river and went up to a waterfall with a big pool for some sweet water swimming. After this stop we went back to the village and after a look around had lunch with one of the families - fried fish and plantains served in a folded palm leaf. The next day Juan took us on a city tour that included the locks. We went to various material stores that Christa wanted to visit, shopping streets, indigenous villages, touring the old town of Panama City, a visit out the causeway, and so on. We noticed massive development in the city. Whole sections of high rises in areas where there was nothing before, mostly along the shore, or within site of the ocean at least. Traffic is horrendous, and getting worse. Thousands of new units going up on roads that are clogged right now. They are not paying any attention to infrastructure and in three years you probably will not be able to drive anywhere in the city.

Our next flight was to Playon Chico, then catch the boat for Yandup. It was an early morning flight and Juan picked us up at the hotel and took us to the airport. We were actually met at the Albrook airport in Panama City by someone from Yandup who made sure that we were there, and told us what to expect. Our flight to Playon Chico was on the well-known Twin Otter and we had a landing at one other island before Playon Chico. The island is fairly close to the mainland so the landing was a bit of a feat. Wind is always off the ocean so the plane had to fly up a mountain then do a quick turn and steep drop down the face of the mountain onto the runway, which was about as long as my driveway. We were met at the airport, such as it were, and loaded into a boat with our backpacks for the trip to the island. There was only one other person with us, a young lady from Brazil who was working in Panama for Dell. Her name is Ana Villanova, and she has been added to my travel contacts. Maybe we will see her next year in Panama.

Yandup is a very small island with just 7 cabanas and a restaurant on it. Five of the Cabanas and the restaurant are on stilts over the water and there are two of the old Cabanas left on the windward side that are on the land that have a shared toilet and shower in an outside building. The cabanas are made from mangroves and the windows are just slated bamboo. They are quite nice in a rustic way, large with one queen size and one single bed and a private washroom. There is a walkway out to the cabana and all around it with a large front veranda with a couple of hammocks and some chairs. There is running water in the cabana, but only one tap for the sink or shower -- no hot water. It is delivered from a cistern on a building and the pressure is closer to a dribble than a stream. The water comes in at the temperature the cistern happens to be, so it is wise to take your daily shower before supper, when it is at it's warmest.

Three meals a day are served in the restaurant, which also has a bar with beer and wine (the later not included). The meals are simple but very good, if you like seafood. Breakfast was always coffee & juice, one fried egg over, a couple of pieces of bread or a corn meal tortilla and once we even had some jam. Lunch and dinner were seafood or fish with rice and vegetables and a *small* plate of fruit for dessert. I informed them when we got there that I did not eat octopus, conch, crab, etc., so when the others got this I was served fish. I like a good filet of fish, but I don't like to eat things that look at me, and they always gave me a small whole fried fish. Here I was in the morning snorkeling with Charley, and in the evening there he was, dead and medium warm on my plate! I did lose weight there. Included in the costs were two tours a day, one in the morning at 9:30AM or 10:00AM and one in the afternoon at 4:00PM. These tours could be to another beach, the Kuna village, the mangroves, or a walk in the jungle on the mainland to a waterfall. You went or stayed as you pleased, and we usually stayed then we had the whole island to ourselves. The beach on the lee of the island is great and very good for snorkeling. Lots of coral and drops off steeply to good depths.

Yandup is a very quiet and laid back place. There is no sound system of any sort. Most people tended to hit their hammocks after lunch for a few hours and get up in time for a swim or beer before the afternoon tour. Supper was at 7:00PM and the electricity was turned on at 6:00PM for this. The electricity was turned off at 10:00PM, at which time all of the staff left the island for their homes on Playon Chico, to return the next morning at 6:30AM to prepare breakfast. They would stay longer if you wanted the bar to remain open, but no lights and no noise please. Each cabana had a good lantern for light after 10:00, but most people were asleep before that. Doing nothing tires you out! We thoroughly enjoyed our time on Yandup, definitely a go-backer.

After three days on Yandup we took an early morning flight back to Panama City. Juan was waiting for us at the airport, and this time it turned out we needed him. After getting off the plane and going through a passport check a young lady from Aero Pearles was waiting for us. She would call out your name from a list she had, then you were able to get your baggage and depart the secure area. Christa's name did not get called and the young lady told Christa that her name was on the list, but showed as cancelled. She then said that Christa was not there, and would have to pay for another flight if she wanted out. It was pointed out that Christa was there, came off the flight with me, and had no intention of returning. Christa called in Juan and he got the supervisor and straightened things up.

Back into the Crystal suites, and this was the weirdest ride that I have ever had through Panama City. It was the last day of Carnival, no offices were open and the streets were deserted! Although it was broad daylight the traffic was like it usually is at about 4:00 in the morning. We were into the hotel early so we decided to take a taxi to the Multiplaza, a shopping center. It is larger than Albrook and is quite a bit more upscale, with lots of very expensive brand-name shops. It is two levels and there is a good department store in the center, Stevens, where you can get some good deals. There are also a couple of food courts, and unlike Albrook there are also a couple of sit down restaurants where you can get a beer with your meals. We tried Tony Romas this first time, which advertises itself as the home of the best ribs in Panama -- untrue. The food is very typical American south, mostly deep-fried and in large quantities to hide the lack of quality. On a return visit there we went to the Palomar, a good quality Panamanian style restaurant with excellent meals at good prices.

The next day Juan picked us up in the morning for a trip to Colon and Portobello. We had made this trip a few times before so this was a return visit just to see changes and re-experience the areas. Juan had also promised to take me over the new bridge cross the canal, which he did on return to Panama City -- impressive. We stopped at the locks in Colon, took a tour of the city and stopped on the way to Portobello for a good Panamanian lunch. We did the tourist thing in Portobello, which is the old fort at the end of the trail from Panama City where the pearls were trans-shipped to Spain. Interesting to see both places again. On our way back to our hotel we stopped in at a Rey to stock up on supplies to take with us over to Contadora.

The next morning Juan picked us up and took us to the airport for the flight to Contadora. It was with much trepidation that we boarded, as we were not sure what to expect. Maria at Arians had guaranteed the place, and it turns out that she had even gone over a few days earlier to check the place out and to ensure that our room and arrangements were all OK. She did not tell us this, we found out later from people there. We started to get impressed from out initial arrival when we were met at the airport by the hotel van, and it actually ran. All people in the reception spoke English and Thomas, a young university student working there on his break, booked us in. He was extremely pleasant and helpful throughout our stay. We got the second floor of building 8, as we had asked. All buildings have had new tiles on their roofs and are being generally renovated. Doors have electronic key card locks and you can actually have two keys. Bathrooms have been renovated, with the old salt ruined fixtures were replaced, new toilets and tempered glass shower doors on the tubs. Each room has an electronic safe free of charge. Air conditioner was rebuilt and worked all of the time; water was always there with good pressure. Mattresses were new, at least newer than they were a few years ago.

Our good feelings continued on browsing around. Al lot of the old kitsch has gone and the place is looking nice. The old blue activities stage has been torn down and redone in a more fitting wood. It is still garishly decorated though, and they made a mistake in rebuilding it. Remember those nights when we could sit with low background music and look out over the ocean? We really miss those times. The flowers are spectacular and gardens immaculate. The stage that used to be at the pool area is gone -- no more activities there. The 9 hole golf course is no more and the grass is being kept in check by three sheep, who no doubt will eventually end up being rotated onto the buffet. Talking about buffet, the food was the best we have ever experienced it there. Very good to excellent, but no more a la carte. Maybe because there were not that many people, the three restaurants were being used in rotation. The main one was open for breakfast and lunch with the fish restaurant and the Italian one open in the evenings in rotation with the main one. You just asked at lunch which one was open for the evening. All were buffet, with very good meals. The chef will still prepare any fish you catch and get it to your special table and we had a couple of good feeds with Ida and Al, fisher people extraordinaire from Ontario.

The service was great and a lot of the bar tenders and waiters the same as before. Felix quit a couple of years ago, Ricardo is still headwaiter and Alizar is still on either the pool bar or the main bar in the evening. The hours have changed a little, breakfast from 0700 to 0930, lunch is now from noon to 2:30, snacks in the form of hot dogs, hamburgers, or sandwiches are served behind the beach bar from 4:30 to 5:30, and then supper is from 7:00 to 9:30. Obviously you will never starve!!

You would think that with all this praise I would give the place 3.5 stars. Alas, they have one serious problem, and that is the activities staff. In the evening they set up in the old disco, now open and right at the entrance beside the bar. Just a big marble floor with a bunch of chairs and a large screen TV. The young activities staff gets going at 10:00 PM and hooks up a sound system with a disc jockey and start blasting out the music they like. Rarely is anybody there to listen, but you can hear it up at the airport no problem. There is absolutely no way to sleep with open windows in any of the buildings, and even with open windows the bass rattles your bed. Most of the clients are Panamanians or Columbian with families or older people like ourselves, local and from Canada and Germany -- our choice of music or setting is not what a bunch of teenagers would want. As soon as they would start up their music we would leave, although several of us did politely ask them a couple of times to turn it down -- to be met with the blank stares of brain dead teenagers. It would have been very nice to sit around the bar chatting with low music, but once they started you could not hear yourselves think. It was the same at the beach activities during the day. A huge loudspeaker with music blasting out of it that can be heard on Saboga, but no one around except for a couple of loose-hipped activities staff. It was dangerous to your eardrums just to try to change your towels. The management at the Contadora has done what even a three star hotel would not do, and that is to turn the quiet enjoyment of the guests over to the young activities staff. Activities staff, by definition, have neither the intelligence nor the maturity to be allowed to make any decisions. They should be locked up and only let out under supervision when needed.

Our other beach is a beautiful as ever. There seems to be a lot more coral growth and fish about as well. Once when we were snorkeling a nurse shark of about 1.25 meters visited us. At some time in the last few years a set of wooden stairs was put in from the beach just behind our tree up to the road. They are now rotted out and could not be used even in an emergency. There is an abandoned hut that has been built on top of the point of land that we have to walk around to get to the second beach, big glass windows on each side for a good view of the beaches. Rumor has it that Carlos had it built, but he had his accident before he got to use it. It is sort of suspicious and makes the beach users feel a bit uncomfortable -- the hotel should tear it down. The conference center that was built down at the end of the main beach is an abandoned ruin, never was used and the flat area for a disco at the end of the beach was in the same shape. This would be a good area to let the activities staffs boogie off their boredom so they would not inflict their tastes on us more mature people.

The condos at the entrance are still not finished, although the swimming pool is in and some units have glass windows. It appears that they are moving along in baby steps. There are rumors that they will not be condos, but become part of the Trump Beach Club for the Trump Center being built in Panama City. Gerald has given up his Gasthaus in Panama City and is back full time. During school time Sabine and their daughter Innes, who is now a young lady, live in Panama so Innes can go to school. Gerald is thinking of giving up his restaurant and developing a high-rise condo on the property. You can see more detail at www.imobilienpanama.com. We had a couple of meals at Gerald's and it was nice to sit with our old friends there. We also had Max Iten and his wife Jan (sailboat Kouros) to supper at the hotel, and were invited to their place for lunch. They have sold their sailboat so don't do tours anymore, but they do have an unadvertised B&B (one room only, but very nice).

The galleon hotel has been bought out by a Panamanian family and seemed to have some guests in it. The strip of shops is closed though, and the nice boardwalk under the rubber tree is chained off. The airport building has been renovated and there are still the small shops across from it. There is a dive shop, a small Internet caf?`?© (two terminals) and a souvenir shop, selling mostly cheap Columbian stuff. The young Kuna girl that used to be there (Mayra) is now living in Panama and is a new mother. She gave birth to a boy in January of this year. We were able to make contact with her by phone through her mother, who is still head of housekeeping for the hotel. Angelina's, which was turned into a juice bar or something is now just vacant. She is still on the island and is trying to rent the place back from the new Galleon owners, but no luck yet. The competing airline is now Air Panama and they occupy the old Kiosk, which is now brightly painted red. Same guy running it as was running Aviatur the Air Tourismo, or whatever is was called. The Duty Free is no longer a duty free and is now a shop selling the same stuff plus general store items such as fruit and vegetables and now have a restaurant as well -- great burgers. Sagitario restaurant, which used to be the red building across from the doctor's is now painted white, has the rear part closed in and is an Internet caf?`?© as well as a restaurant. The old doctor is no longer there; it is now a younger female doctor. The mini blandy supermarket is just about out of business and the other main supermarket is still in business, but with a lot less offered. Charley (fluffy) has sold his second house but still has the main one with Restaurant Romantico, and still hustles all of the incoming flights. There is so much garbage around his property and on the other side of the road that I don't see how anyone could eat there -- must be full of rats. He is building another restaurant up beside the police station; I guess he wants to be in direct competition with the locals!

As always, you meet the nicest people on Contadora and we met couples from Canada, the US and Germany during our stay -- a few of them are on my updated travel list. From Canada (Ontario) were Ida and Al who loved to fish, Ron and Carol who want to be remembered to Elaine and Larry, Bogda and Stan who were formerly from Poland and we only had a few nights with. Never did get Bogda & Stan's email address, so if any of the new ones have it would appreciate getting it. Most made their own way there, Ida and Al & Ron and Karen flew United from Buffalo to Atlanta then on to Panama and had made their reservations direct with the hotel. We used Arians Tours for everything and were comfortable with the fact that they looked after all arrangements and made all of our transfers. The cost was not more, but it was nice dealing with an insured local travel agency and paying them instead of the hotels and airlines direct. In spite of our rather ambitious itinerary everything went off without a hitch. It is nice to know that you will be met on arrival at the airport as well. A few of the people we met indicated that they would probably use Arians next year, not because they had problems but they just did not feel comfortable. Using a travel agency also means that you can get some guarantees out of the hotel such as preferred building, etc., and they are insured.

Whatever way you go, there is no reason not to go to Panama and choose your own locations, rather than being tied down to a package deal out of Canada. Also, we found that because we were booking and paying locally we got the full benefit of our strong dollar. In spite of the fact that we did a lot of touring and traveling, that only the Contadora was truly all inclusive, that we made numerous flights in-country, our total holiday costs were considerably less for this 4 week vacation than a four weeker just at Contadora 6 years ago! I am going to approach Arians to see if some deal with a reduced rate could not be made with the Contadora hotel for long stays of three weeks or more.

God and Christa willing we will definitely be back in Panama next year. I would like to go to Yandup for 7 days during Carnival, then directly to Contadora for 3 or 4 weeks, arriving a few days after Carnival. We would spend only one night in Panama City, on arrival in order to buy some subsistence rations for Yandup. Also, the flight to Yandup is very early in the morning. The air connections from Yandup on to Contadora could be made the same morning and, if you are taking an afternoon or evening flight back no reason to take the morning flight out of Contadora to catch your evening flight back to Canada.