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This year I decided to go back to visit Panama. I loved this beautiful country when I went in 2017 with a friend, and I wanted to visit Panama with my husband. This is the perfect vacation that combines both the beach and the jungle experience. After some research, I decided on the Pearl Islands for the beach portion and Gamboa for the rainforest.
The Pearl Islands are fairly remote islands with beautiful beaches. The TV show Survivor was filmed on one of the islands three times. There are two main islands people stay on: Contadora and Saboga. Saboga Island, being one of the least populated of the Pearl Islands, was the obvious choice for us. I booked a lovely efficiency apartment through VRBO. The only caveat to this island is it offers no amenities besides a small restaurant that is not open all the time.
Gamboa is a small town about 45 minutes outside Panama City that used to house Americans working on the Panama Canal. Since the canal was given back to Panama in 2000, the town has closed many of its amenities and has several abandoned buildings. None the less, it is a very safe town with access to the Pipeline Trail, Soberania National Park, and the Rainforest Discovery Center.
Visit Panama: Itinerary
- February 28, 2020: Depart Dulles Airport through Copa Airlines and land in Panama City
- 1 night at The Beach House in Panama City
- Morning ferry to Saboga Island through Sea Las Perlas ferry
- 4 nights at Sandpiper Studio Apartment through VRBO and El Remanso Vacation Rentals
- 3 nights at Ivan’s Bed & Breakfast
- Guided tour along the Pipeline Trail in Soberanía National Park
- Tour of Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute
- Panama Canal Partial Transit Tour from Gamboa to Panama City through Panama Marine Adventures
- 1 night at La Isabela Suites in the historic district of Casco Viejo
- March 8, 2020: Depart Panama City for Dulles Airport through Copa Airlines
I booked our flight to visit Panama through Copa Airlines leaving on February 28, 2020 and returning on March 8, 2020. It cost $1,500 for both of us non-stop from Dulles Airport to visit Panama. You could probably get it for less, but I’d rather pay a little more for non-stop as I have flight anxiety. The flights were around 5 hours long. As far as the airline goes, it was just OK. During our 5-hour flight to Panama, we were offered one drink with our breakfast and 1 glass of water. That’s it.
Day 1: Friday
We left at 9:20 am for Panama City and landed at 1:30 pm. After we got through customs, I bought a bottle of Titos Vodka at the duty free shop to sustain us in the Pearl Islands. The Pearl Islands has no amenities, so you have to bring everything with you. I had decided to book a transport service through Amber Moon Panama Taxi Service to drive us to a grocery store and our hotel. After we got through customs, our friendly driver was waiting for us with a sign. I highly recommend a transport service instead of typical taxis (more on this later).
We stayed at The Beach House the first night due to its close proximity to the ferry dock. There was also a mini fridge in our room where we stored perishables for our trip to the Pearl Islands. The hotel was nice but appears it had seen better days. The pool was nothing special. We ate chicken wings, fried fish sticks, and ceviche at the restaurant there. Food was nothing to write home about.
We decided to walk to the end of the Amador Causeway to figure out where the Sea Las Perlas ferry dock was located. We ended up eating at the Fish Lovers Ceviche Bar nearby and had some fantastic ceviche at a great price. We were not able to find the dock even though it was supposed to be next to the duty free shop.
My original plan was to walk in the morning from the hotel to the ferry dock but we quickly realized we could not make the 1 mile walk with all our stuff (especially the food and beer we bought).
Isla Saboga, Pearl Islands
Day 2: Saturday
The hotel called a taxi to pick us up at 6:30 am. Luckily the taxi knew where to drop us off (this was our only positive taxi experience during our trip). The pier was indeed near the duty-free shop in the back. Check-in for the ferry was at a table outside the shop. Even though the Sea Las Perlas website said we had a bag limit, we carried 4 bags and a box of food onto the ferry with no issues.
The Sea Las Perlas ferry crew was not super friendly or helpful but thanks to a local who spoke English, we were able to figure out where we needed to be. One note about Panama versus Costa Rica. Panama is not 100% American tourist friendly and many people do not speak English. Be prepared to figure out things on your own.
The ferry ride was 1 hour and 30 minutes long and was a smooth ride. We saw many ships waiting to get through the canal which was kinda cool.
Once we got to the Isla Saboga docks, (again the crew was not helpful), it was a little unclear if we were even at the right dock since the ferry also makes a stop on Contadora Island. We walked up the dock and Lee, the owner of La Romanso VRBO was there to pick us up in his golf cart. It is quite a hill and was a bit difficult carrying all our stuff but we made it.
Backing up a little, the VRBO we rented through El Remanso is an efficiency apartment and is part of a house. There is no grocery store on the island and so we had to bring our own food and drinks with us. Knowing this in advance, I brought a lot of non-perishables from the U.S. (canned salmon, boxed mac & cheese, trail mix, ramen noodles, curry mix, thai noodles mix). We bought some other staples in Panama City (bananas, pineapple, chips & salsa, black beans, spam, rice, quinoa, beer, wine, pina colada mix, and chicken).
The room was fairly nice with all the necessary appliances including an oven, stove, microwave, blender, fridge, etc. It supposedly sleeps 4 with the sleeper sofa but it would be a tight fit. We had our own deck overlooking the palm trees and beach which made for some great photos. On our arrival night, we had mac & cheese and canned salmon for dinner.
Day 3: Sunday
On Sunday we walked down a rough dirt road into town. As we were walking, my husband noticed the leaves rustling. We thought it was a snake, but further investigation proved it to be a crab. Strange that we found a crab no where near water. After some googling, it appeared to be a land or Halloween crab.
The walk through town was a little awkward. The unfriendly locals made us feel like we were being stared at. There is nothing to really see there except an old church. I don’t recommend it. Supposedly you can get some groceries and beer there, but we saw no welcoming place to walk into.
We then walked to the old archaeological site and along the way, we saw an adult roadside hawk and 2 juveniles.
We found a semi-paved road covered with leaves indicating this was not a trail often traveled. There was nothing to see, not even a sign indicating where the archeological site was located or what they found there. Another bust.
We then made our way to Playa Blanco, a sandy beach that Lee had pointed out the day before. There was no one there. We walked along the shoreline and along the rocky outcroppings back to the beach near our apartment. We spotted this Rufescent tiger heron in a tree along the shoreline.
The whole time during our walk a puppy decided to follow us. His loyalties changed when another couple from our house walked past us and he decided to follow them instead. Most of the dogs we saw did not appear to be neutered which made me wonder about the care these dogs get on this island.
One of the reasons I chose the Pearl Islands (over San Blas Islands) was because I had read that sewage and trash is not managed on the San Blas Islands. I wanted to go somewhere more environmentally friendly. Well, we walked past a large trash dump site near the town. I wondered if this is where all our trash will go after we leave and the impact we were having on the environment. When you decide to visit Panama, do your research before you go and choose sustainable places.
After chilling out on our patio, we made some pina coladas and headed to the beach. Joe did some snorkeling. He came back cold after 20 minutes and had nothing of interest to report. Turns out this was not the ideal place to snorkel as there are no reefs on this side of the island. If you do decide to go this time of year, bring a wetsuit if you plan on snorkeling.
In the late afternoon we headed back to the apartment to chill out some more on the patio. We heard a voice coming up the stairs from the beach. It turns out the man was supposed to be renting a room from Valerie, who owns the beachside restaurant nearby. He could not reach her and needed a place to stay as he was guiding a fishing trip the next morning. Joe introduced him to Lee and he got a room at our house for the night. He contacted us the next day via WhatsApp to offer suggestions on where to go in Casco Viejo as this was our last stop on our trip. We welcomed our short visit with him as we had not spoken to anyone else since we arrived.
Dinner that night was curry and chicken with rice. We ended the day watching the sunset. I practiced my photography skills using a low shutter speed.
Day 4: Monday
We woke up, drank some coffee and had turkey spam, rice and beans for breakfast.
We headed out to do some more snorkeling up the beach a bit past the restaurant. I was having a hard time maneuvering with the flippers in the current and decided to opt out and take pictures instead. Joe snorkeled a little bit but couldn’t stay in too long due to the cold water.
We walked back to our beach and stayed there for the rest of the morning. Around 12:30 we went in and had ramen noodles for lunch. We then decided to take a walk on the beach past the restaurant to see what was around the corner. As we approached the restaurant, we could see people dining. Score! This was the 1st time (and turns out the only time) we’d seen it open. We decided to forego the walk and have a meal along with some Balboa beers. Valerie, the owner, served fresh fish, butter noodles, lentil salad, and custard for dessert. It was fantastic!
After lunch, we bought 4 beers to go and headed back. We watched the sunset at the beach before heading back up for dinner (boxed Thai noodles, rice, chicken, and wine).
At first I was disappointed that the apartment had WiFi but it was nice to watch TV at night (we got hooked on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) before going to bed.
Day 5: Tuesday
We woke up to another beautiful day, had coffee, and breakfast of potatoes and rice. Another beach day, we took a walk past the restaurant (which was not open) and saw much of the same.
At noon we went up to grab some lunch (prepackaged coconut rice and lentils) and decided to drink some beer and wine.
After a couple of drinks (and getting bored at this point) we headed back to the beach and decided to film our own video set to Billy Ocean’s Loverboy (video not available!).
Dinner consisted of chickpea rotini with spaghetti sauce. Joe made some daquiris with coconut water and pulp he got from a coconut he found on the beach. That along with some leftover pineapple and vodka made for a great treat!
We watched the sunset again and noticed a green glow from a nearby tree. There were fireflies all over the tree and it looked like it was covered with green Christmas lights. It was amazing!
Day 6: Wednesday
Breakfast this morning consisted of coffee, rice and potatoes. We watched some more Mrs. Maisel and packed up our things. We headed down to the beach for the day before getting picked up at 3:15 to head back to the dock. It was nice that we didn’t have to race to leave in the morning although I was ready for our next adventure. Turns out laying around on the beach for four days is not my thing! We boarded Las Sea Perlas ferry and headed back to Panama City.
The second portion of the trip was Gamboa. It’s about a 45 minute drive from Panama City. Gamboa is known for great birding and wildlife viewing.
When we got off the ferry, we were immediately approached by a taxi driver. I inquired how much it would be to go to Gamboa. He quoted $40 which was probably a little high as Uber quoted $20-32 but took the ride. The driver spoke broken English but was pleasant enough. We gave him a map of where we were staying (Ivan’s B&B).
On the way there we saw a sloth crossing the road! He stopped to block traffic so it could safely cross the road and I got out to take some pictures. Another car stopped behind us and soon after the police showed up. We left quickly.
The taxi driver proceeded to take us to the Gamboa Rainforest Resort which is not where we were staying. As an aside, The Gamboa Rainforest Resort is a large resort which houses large tour groups when they visit Panama. They have three different restaurants to choose from and a pool area which we used. The resort has definitely seen better days, but it offers many amenities you can’t find anywhere else in town.
We again gave the taxi driver the map and he could not figure out how to read it or take directions from me. He drove around town and finally got stopped by the police. I gave our map to the police who led him to another wrong place. Finally, by that time the taxi driver had gotten a hold of the owner and we found the B&B (which did not have an obvious sign posted out front).
Ivan (the owner) sat down and chatted with us while we checked in and filled out forms, etc. He had all the details of our excursions and gave us information on what time to meet each day, where to go, etc. This was the most tourist friendly experience we had on our trip.
That night we walked up to the Gamboa Rainforest Resort for dinner. Service was slow and food is mostly bar food. Nothing special but better than the food we brought with us on the Pearl Islands and drinks went down easily.
Day 7: Thursday
We met our guide, Saul at 6 am for our bird and wildlife tour along the Pipeline Trail. The pipeline trail was built to get fuel to the area in the event that during WWII the canal was bombed.
We walked 3 miles for 6 hours and saw capuchin monkeys, howler monkeys, a sloth, and many birds.
We stopped by the ammo pond on the way back. This is where the U.S. put their ammo they didn’t use from WWII. We saw a purple galinue and a couple other cool birds.
Saul was very knowledgeable helping with bird identification using his guide book and playing bird songs. Since he is from England, we found him easy to follow and understand. He spent 10 years in Gamboa and has an intricate knowledge of the flora and fauna in the area. After our tour, he emailed us a list of all the birds we saw or heard that day which included over 60 different birds!
After Saul dropped us off, we put on our bathing suits and headed to the Gamboa Rainforest Resort to get some lunch and use their pool. On the way to the resort we saw a jaguarundi run across the street to the wooded area. This was huge! We told many, few believed us. We spent the rest of the day at the pool, had dinner, and went back to Ivan’s to crash.
Day 8: Friday
That morning we grabbed our bagged breakfast and walked 20 minutes through town to the Colorado Barro Resource Institute dock to catch the 7:15 boat. Since they are only open a couple of days each week, I had made reservations ahead of time through their website. The boat ride was pleasant but full. The majority of the people on the ferry were scientists and day workers.
Our guide was Louisa. There were 9 people in our group. At $100 a person, I had hoped for a smaller group. We walked a 2-hour trail. She pointed out interesting facts about the fig trees, liana vines, and such. We had lunch, watched a video about research on the island, then she downloaded 2 days worth of game cam footage (not much to see).
We took a short walk afterwards before the boat left at 3:30. We ended up seeing howler monkeys, spider monkeys, and a couple bird species (including a toucan). As a whole, I would not recommend this tour if you are going to visit Panama. The guide was very nice, but it felt like we were rushed through the trail and not much time was spent stopping to find things to see. We did not have a bird guidebook to show us birds that she told us about by song along. I also felt like she missed some key items like talking about termite mounds, army ants, and other important species to the habitat of the rainforest.
We got back at 4:15, walked back to Ivan’s, chatted with another guest over beer, and then headed to the Rainforest Resort for dinner. After two days of eating the bar food we opted to go down to the restaurant and have the buffet meal. It was delicious! We walked home and crashed for the night.
Roaches and the Rainforest
In the early morning hours of Friday morning, maybe 2 am, I had to use the bathroom. I saw a giant cockroach walking toward me from underneath the sink. I grabbed the trashcan and slammed it on top of him as a trap. The trashcan stayed in the same spot for the rest of our stay with the cockroach alive and well underneath it. Cockroaches (of the giant variety) are found in Panama. I HATE them. It is the only insect besides millipedes that completely freak me out. If you plan to visit Panama be prepared to see spiders, roaches, and scorpions.
Day 9: Saturday
We had breakfast (oatmeal and fruit), said our good-byes to Ivan, and headed out for a short 10-minute walk to catch the Panama Marine Adventure boat through the Panama Canal. The gate to get to the Panama Canal dock is guarded. We had thought that we could walk in with our tickets and go to the dock. The guide did not allow us to do this. We were told we could only come through the gate on a tour bus. He ended up calling the company and after 20-30 minutes someone met us at the gate to board the tour bus coming from Panama City. As we were the only ones with luggage and coming on foot, this was not the standard protocol. The employees from the company seemed frazzled and like our other experiences were not 100% organized.
After getting on the boat, there was a huge scramble for people to find seats on the upper deck to get the best view as the boat was full. Some were “marking their territory” with personal items so others could not sit next to them. Within the next 30-45 minutes lunch was served in groups, so everyone ended up giving up their seats anyway to eat downstairs. The food was pretty good, and the lines moved quickly.
A large group tour is not my ideal situation, however, this was the only way to get through the canal. At the time the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic was starting to get serious. It was a little unnerving to be so close to so many people, many of them who had come from Asia, where the virus had started.
When we went through the locks, people were scrambling to get the best view from the front of the boat. I was trying to find humor in the situation while still attempting to get some pictures. At one point, a man put his IPad directly in front of my camera so I just started videotaping him instead. It did not phase him as I had anticipated.
The tour was an all day excursion and well worth it. I had seen the locks from the Miraflores Visitor Center but it was much different being in the boat. I would highly recommend it if you are going to visit Panama!
I did manage to get this amazing sunset picture on our way to the dock in Panama City.
Once we got to the dock in Panama City, there were plenty of taxi drivers available. We asked our driver to take us to our hotel, La Isabela Suites, in Casco Viejo (the historic part of Panama City). He was a very nice man, but due to bad traffic he stopped the car and told us to walk the couple of blocks with our luggage to the hotel. Needless to say we got slightly lost and annoyed by the situation. If you plan to visit Panama, opt for Uber or a transport company instead.
Once we finally found our hotel, the door was locked, and we had to wait 5-10 minutes before someone arrived only to inform us that we had to walk (again) to their sister hotel about 10 blocks away. The lady ended called a cab for us after she saw the look on our faces. The streets are very narrow with no room to pull suitcases. Fortunately, the hotel room was very nice with a kitchen, living room, and balcony with a lovely view.
Since this was our last night in Panama, we decided to get dressed up and go out for dinner and drinks. Casco Viejo has a great variety of restaurants and nightlife so it wasn’t hard finding a place to go. Word of warning: drinks are strong and large. At one place I asked for a vodka tonic and it was served in an oversized margarita glass!
We took up the recommendation given to us by the man we met on Saboga Islands and started off at Marzola Parrila Argentina Steakhouse. They had all kinds of cuts of meat and crazy decorations including saddle bar stools. As I’m allergic to beef, I got a beer and watched my husband eat an amazing appetizer.
We had a great time bar hopping although the next day was a little rough. I will say that I felt safe in Casco Viejo and everyone was very friendly. If you are going to visit Panama, Casco Viejo is a must-see spot.
That evening we’d seen a couple people drinking pretty heavily. When I woke up the next day they had not stopped and an hour or so later they were asleep!
Day 10: Sunday
Our flight did not leave until 6:30 pm so we dropped our luggage off at the main hotel building and decided to explore Casco Viejo during the day. As you can imagine this historic part of Panama City has many old churches and historic brick buildings.
We had lunch at Gatto Blanco. Food was delicious and the host was super friendly. I asked for a Pisco Sour which they made perfectly! I did not think I would be able to get this during our visit to Panama as this is a Peruvian specialty drink.
At 3:30 pm Amber Moon Taxi picked us up from the main hotel to take us to the airport. They emailed to confirm pick up time and place the night before. I couldn’t be happier with their services.
Overall, we had a great time during our adventures in Panama. I would love to visit Panama again and explore other areas of the country.
Visit Panama: The Good and the Bad
- Good: There seemed to be less tourists and less touristy areas.
- Good: The amount of wildlife was very similar to Costa Rica.
- Good: The cost seemed to be less to visit Panama than Costa Rica.
- Good: The currency is the U.S. dollar. This is huge!
- Good: Copa Airlines offers a direct flight to Panama City from the U.S.
- Bad: I did find Panama to be less tourist friendly. You have to figure things out for yourself sometimes.
- Bad: Many of the tour companies are not 100% organized. I did, however, hear back from all the companies I did business with via email in a timely manner.
- Bad: Taxi drivers are almost worthless. Many don’t know where they’re going. I’d stick with Uber or a transport company.
- Bad: I did not find the friendliness I found in Costa Rica. In Costa Rica everyone is friendly. In Panama some people are friendly (usually if they are doing business with you). We did find exceptions of course!
- Bad: Not everyone speaks English. I was thinking since the U.S. had such a huge impact in Panama for so long (i.e. Panama Canal) more people would speak English. Not the case. Bring a translation guide book or app.
If you plan to visit Panama and have any questions or comments please post them in the comment box below. I hope this helps you plan your next vacation to the beautiful country of Panama!
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