Friday, February 20, 2009

Panama reviews and photos

Bob and I always take a trip over Labor Day week, to take advantage of the "free" day off (anything to use less vacation time!) This year, Panama was the chosen destination for two reasons. First, we (Bob especially) had been talking about going there for awhile. We're big fans of Central America, but had already been to Belize and Costa Rica, and wanted something a bit "beachier" than Guatemala or El Salvador. Honduras and Nicaragua were the other options we considered for this trip, but the fact that we were able to get business class seats with Skymiles to Panama sealed the deal!

1 night Panama City at the Albrook Inn(our flight landed at 9PM and our flight to the San Blas left the next morning at 6AM, so this was a very short stay)

3 nights San Blas Islands (aka Comarca Kuna Yala)at Yandup

1 night Panama City at the Veneto

4 nights Bocas Del Toro at Popa Paradise


The trip was awesome--great weather, so many gorgeous beaches, tons of lobster meals...we loved it! I'm already trying to figure out when we can get back down to Bocas del Toro for at least a long weekend.

The first night we got in from ATL at about 10PM and were leaving at 5AM the next morning for the airport to fly to the San Blas. After landing in Panama City and clearing customs, we jumped in a cab (about $25) and arrived at the Albrook Inn around 11PM. The room at the Albrook was spacious enough, and the location is very good for catching an early morning flight. However, when we arrived they had lost/never noted our reservation (even though we had a full confirmation) and had nothing left in our room category. They tried to get us to pay to upgrade, but we ended up having to wait for the manager to show up for his shift about an hour later (it was originally supposed to be about 15 minutes, or we would have just gone ahead and paid for the upgrade, I guess, as the wait really cut into our sleeping time!) to upgrade us for free since it was their mistake. Anyway, looking back over the tripadvisor reviews of the hotel, I can see that this is not the first time this has happened, and some people were turned away entirely, so I would really not recommend this hotel. Anyway. after a few hours of sleep and a requested wake-up call that never came (good thing Bob set his watch!), it was time to head out for our flight to Playon Chico in the San Blas islands.

The trip got much better upon arrival in Playon Chico! The San Blas are just stunning--complete tropical paradise. We stayed at Yandup Lodge ( It is rustic to say the least, but all the lodges in the SB are, and Yandup seemed to be the best of the bunch. For slightly more luxury, there is Coral Lodge, which is just past the boundary of the Kuna Yala territory. We looked into staying there, but it seemed pretty overpriced considering the somewhat mixed reviews, and they force you to take a 7 or so-hour tour right after landing at 6:30AM. No thanks! Plus, going to that area and staying in a resort not owned by the Kuna people seems like it kind of misses the point.

Anyway, we were in an overwater cabana at Yandup. They're all wood and bamboo construction, with very open bamboo walls. There's a fan in the room rather than a/c, but the cabana design lets such great sea breezes in that we stayed cool all night. There's a private bathroom with real plumbing (I can deal with some "rustic-ness", but a real toilet is a MUST!) and a shower. A cold water shower. With the barest trickle of water. Which sometimes stops entirely when you're all lathered up. (Though it generally starts up again within a couple of minutes). Honestly, after being out in the heat of the day and in a sun-warmed cabana, a cool water shower felt great. And while obviously I would have preferred more water pressure, it really was not a big deal at all.

There's a deck that wraps around the whole bungalow, with 2 hammocks on the back side facing the sea and the lush mainland and the local community. The water is crystal clear, and Yandup has a small but lovely private beach. It must have been jellyfish season though, b/c we saw tons in the waters both in the San Blas and BDT.

Everyone was very friendly, even though communication was a bit difficult as DH and I speak fairly limited Spanish, and the Kuna staff spoke basically no English and limited Spanish (they grow up learning their native language rather than Spanish). DH and I got a huge kick out of it though when he was using our camcorder to film a boat ride and one of our guides. This guy literally did not seem to know a word of English, but he was hamming up up for the camera, pointed to it, then to himself and asked "Internet? YouTube?" LOL He was smiling for the rest of the boat ride, saying over and over something about being "famosa en youtube". Loved it :)

The food was overall good, the only exception being the whole fished served for 2 days in a row with trillions of tiny bones, teeth, and eyes still staring up at you. I love seafood, but prefer not to have to make eye contact before eating it :) But the rest of the meals were very good--lobster, prawn, and crab dishes for dinner and for lunch the 3rd day, eggs and bread and fruit or these really yummy local-style pancakes for breakfast. And fresh local fruit for dessert every day. I would definitely recommend taking snacks though (we took trail mix, granola bars, and pb cheese crackers) b/c if you don't like what they serve, you don't eat, and the portions tend to be fairly small anyway, especially with the appetite sea air tends to work up in people. Coffee and juice were free with breakfast, water with the other meals. Wine was $12/bottle (Concho Y Toro was the brand), beers and soft drinks were $1.50 or $2, and mixed drinks were $3.

Each morning around 9:30 they take you to a deserted beach on a tiny island in the area for a couple of hours, then bring you back in time for lunch.

After lunch, there's some free time before the 4PM cultural or environmental tour (the 3 while we were there were a mangrove visit, visit to the local community, and river/fishing tour). With all the scheduling and rustic cabins, it sort of felt like adult summer camp. But in a good way--at camp we were never allowed to polish off a bottle of wine between lunch and the afternoon activity. Or have boys in our cabin. ;) And it keeps you from having to ponder the age-old vacation question "what should we do now?"

After dinner each night (dinner starts at 6:30-7ish), we came back to the cabin, read for a bit, then went to bed. I think we may have actually been asleep before 8PM one night, since we had been getting up around 6AM.

There were very few other people there with us, so we had a couple of tours/beaches to ourselves, which was nice. DH's favorite was the river/fishing tour, since he loves to fish. We also saw a saltwater croc in the river, which was cool. My favorite was probably the local community tour, b/c I loved seeing the way they live and interacting with the children. They do charge $1 pp to take their picture, so be sure to take lots of ones with you if you go!

The one thing that is sad to see is how much trash there is in the water and along some of these other-wise perfect, postcard beaches. I guess they really don't have a good system for getting rid of trash, so it just send up in the water and then washed up along the beaches. Yandup's staff cleans theirs every day, but it was piled high on some of the unpopulated islands.

After 3 great nights in the San Blas, we caught the daily morning flight back to Panama City. This time we stayed at the Veneto by Wyndham, which was nice but nothing to write home about. Decent rooms, though small, and a nice pool. Be sure to stay away from the margaritas served by the pool bar, which were the worst things I've ever tasted. Honestly, we did not particularly love Panama City. Went and saw the Canal, Miraflores Locks and Visitors Center. Were going to go to Casco Viejo, but it was rainy with some thunder and lightening and we didn't want to get caught in a storm down there, in a not-super-secure area where it's apparently hard to get a cab even at the best of times. Next time, though! It of course depends on your interests, but I would say that if planned out well, one full day in Panama City itself would be plenty. If we'd had more time there, we would have done some day trips outside the city--Gatun Lake/Monkey Island, Embrera Indian visit, a national park, etc.

After Panama City, we took another early-morning flight to Bocas del Toro. If you could fit it in to your itinerary, this can be a very fun place to visit! November is rainy season (but then, pretty much the entire year is rainy season in BdT--Sept/Oct. and Mar/Apr are supposed to be driest, but it can rain at any point.

We stayed at a brand-new resort called Popa Paradise, which was really beautiful but which I would not recommend at this point for several reasons. *Disclaimer - it has been some months since we stayed at Popa, and the few reviews on have been pretty positive, so many of the issues I'll describe below may have been taken care of by now.*

It was certainly not all bad--we stayed in a beachfront cottage (#6), which was wonderful--best location the the property, we thought, and the cottages are beautifully decorated. The grounds of the resort are lovely and lush, great pool and swim-up bar, and some absolutely gorgeous touches--mosaics, carvings, sculptures, and imported Balinese furniture around the main building (clubhouse/dining area). From the other resorts we saw in and around BdT, Popa is definitely the most luxurious in terms of accommodations. The facilities were almost finished, though they still had some work to do--the spa/massage area was not ready yet, and some work is still being completed on a couple of the cottages and on the owner's villa.

However, management was inexperienced and downright poor in some aspects, and there are quite a few issues in terms of booking excursions (good luck doing so, unless it fits into their schedule, and don't expect that they will be willing to help with any information beforehand, or even when you're there--even if you ask more than once).

The food was good overall but very inconsistent. I believe the website states that there are buffets for each meal, but this is not the case. Honestly, this didn't bother us, as we are not buffet fans, but I think they need to be a little more clear about what the dining situation actually is. There's no menu--you pretty much have to just come up with something you'd like to eat for breakfast, and they'll either make it for you or tell you they can't. Again, nice if you want something they can make, but a little irritating if you have to go through several options before hitting on something they can prepare. For lunch, they give you a couple of options (generally lobster or other "catch of the day" or chicken) and a couple of preparation and side options (rice, potatoes).

Dinner was the most inconsistent. For the first couple of days we were there, some staff members were preparing the food. Again, it was good, but nothing too inventive and got pretty repetitive. The last day and a half we were there, an outside chef was brought in (she apparently just comes on weekends). The food got better at that point, and changed up a bit, but the inconsistency was odd. This may be nitpicky, but at $50 for food per day per person* in BdT, and considering that you are pretty much stuck at the resort for most/all meals, we felt that at least some kind of salad/appetizer should have been offered with dinner, and that there should have been at least some choice of vegetables available as well.

The rates on the website were not the ones they gave us when you try to make a reservation. Their explanation was that they just haven't updated their website yet, and some nonsense about guests not having to pay tax on meals (how 10% on the food portion of the room rates makes paying an extra $100 a good deal, I don't know!). I just checked the website, and it looks like the rates have still not been changed 6 months later, so I'm curious as to whether they're now honoring the internet rates or still playing a bait-and-switch game on those.

The website also fudges a bit when it comes to travel time/options into town. It's more like a 45-minute ride, not the 20-25 minutes they claim. And there are no set times of day they go--some days they don't go at all, others they do at whatever time works for them. And while we were told via email before our trip that we could pay extra to go outside of "scheduled" hours, once we arrived this promise was disregarded. It was also stated that the "set" trips to town are complimentary--also not true (though they did take it off our bill when we questioned them about it).

The waiter and bartender were delightful young men with a good grasp of English, quick smiles, and a willingness to help. Rusty, the bartender, made some amazing cocktails, and we very much enjoying speaking to him and our waiter Martine about their lives. Unfortunately, no one has taken the time to teach Martine or other staff members how to properly/smoothly do their jobs at a "luxury-resort" level. This did not bother us a bit, but we felt bad that he obviously felt awkward not knowing what he was supposed to do. And we thought that the way the managers (husband-and-wife team Jon and Mary, who are pretty new at the hotel management game, and it shows) kept making fun of him or snapping at him in front of guests when he did something incorrectly was extremely unkind and unprofessional, as well as completely unhelpful.

The rest of the staff ranged from vaguely friendly to downright surly, but there wasn't much contact with them anyway (aside from the managers, who we had a lot of contact with, whose attitudes also were anywhere from friendly to irritable/rude). My husband and I both agreed that we pretty much were made to feel that we were being tolerated/were intruding at a stranger's home. I don't think it was anything personal--it just seemed as though the managers would have preferred not to have to deal with any guests whatsoever.

The beach is smallish but pretty, with clear water and some of the best shelling I've ever seen. While we were there, we didn't do any snorkeling/swimming though, due to the very high concentration of jellyfish in the water (this was not limited to Popa, though--we encountered the same issue in other areas of BdT, as well as in the San Blas islands, where we'd spent a few nights earlier in the trip). I think they tend to be seasonal, though, so hopefully they will not be an issue when you're there!

I really do hate to sound negative or nit-picky about the resort, but I really felt like it was so poorly managed/organized as to really not be anywhere near as great an experience as it could/should be. And we felt very misled as to the current state of the resort--even after asking straight out when making the reservation whether it was fully open with all the amenities and excursion options available, we were not given the truth. It was really not ready for guests, and may not be for quite a while in terms of the promises made on the website. Had we been told the truth and thus able to adjust our expectations somewhat, the experience likely would have been better.

After meeting the owner, who showed up our last day, my husband and I both agreed that it seems like this resort is just a vanity project for him rather than a property he's really interested in making a great destination resort. But my hope is that they'll "get it together" at some point and really bring Popa to its full potential.

At the end of the day, I would say it really depends on what you're looking for. If you just want to be in the general BdT area, want a very nice cottage, a pool, etc., and don't care much about being able to do tours, and are not too picky about service or variety of food, Popa is not a bad option at all. But if you do want to really have some degree of flexibility to see and do what you want/when you want, and really experience more of what the area has to offer, another resort might be a better fit.

If you do go to BdT, I would recommend staying in one of the hotels right on the water in Bocas Town, or across the way on Isla Carnero or Isla Bastimentos, where you can easily get water taxis back and forth and really take full advantage of what BDT has to offer!

As far as excursions while we were in BdT, we did a few different things. One day we borrowed a kayak and paddled around the island a bit, which was fun even in the rain! We also explored Bocas Town a bit and took the bus up to Playa del Drago. I would recommend that you find out about the tides before doing this, since it's a long ride and if the tide is in, there's really no beach to speak of. We still enjoyed seeing it though, and had an enjoyable lunch at the restaurant up there. My only regret is that we didn't realize we were only about a 15 minute walk from the famous starfish beach until it was too late--we had to catch the bus back to Bocas Town right then if we were going to be able to make it to Red Frog Beach and back before it was time for us to be picked up and take back to Popa.

We hired a boat from Bocas Town to Red Frog Beach, which I think was around $20 + tip round-trip for both of us. Red Frog Beach is a must-see in BdT, although the only red frog we actually saw was in the palm of a small local boy's hand! At least we saw that one, though, and we had a great time hanging out on the beach, drinking fruity concoctions from the beach bar!

Our favorite excursion in BdT was going to the Zapatilla Cayes--absolutely stunning! We were dropped off on Zapatilla 2 for a few hours with a picnic lunch, and had the whole island to ourselves after the tour boats left 10-15 minutes after our arrival. It seems as though most of the organized tours go to the island in the morning and leave around lunchtime, so I suggest hiring a private boat or taking your resort excursion if possible, and going in the afternoon if you'd like to have more privacy.

Overall, we loved Panama, would go back to the San Blas or BdT in a heartbeat, and would love to explore some other areas of the country as well!

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