Category Archives: Panama

2012 hot spots: Bocas del Toro and Dominican Republic’s Samana Pennisula

I was surprised to see two fairly obscure places we’ve visited on the NYTimes Travel sections list of 45 places to go in 2012. But I have to agree with them:

#1 was Panama including Panama City and Bocas del Toro. Lower down the list was  Las Terrenas, a village on the Samaná Peninsula, Dominican Republic (although no mention of the cool, low-key place where we stayed in 1990 or thereabouts: “The Hotel Tropic Banana” in Las Terrenas, which I gather from my googling is still there – although place seems more built up than when we visited.) 

Below are the details.

1. Panama
Go for the canal. Stay for everything else.

 It’s been 12 years since Panama regained control of its canal, and the country’s economy is booming. Cranes stalk the skyline of the capital, Panama City, where high-rises sprout one after the next and immigrants arrive daily from around the world. Among those who have landed en masse in recent years are American expatriates and investors, who have banked on Panamanian real estate by building hotels and buying retirement homes. The passage of the United States-Panama free trade agreement in October is expected to accelerate this international exchange of people and dollars (the countries use the same currency).

Among the notable development projects is the Panama Canal itself, which is in the early stages of a multibillion-dollar expansion. The project will widen and deepen the existing canal and add two locks, doubling the canal’s cargo capacity. For those who want to see the waterway as it was originally designed, now is the time. The expansion is expected to be completed by 2014, the canal’s 100-year anniversary.

Other high-profile projects include the construction of three firsts: The Panamera, the first Waldorf Astoria hotel in Latin America (set to open in June 2012); the Trump Ocean Club, the region’s tallest building, which opened last summer; and Frank Gehry’s first Latin American design, the BioMuseo, a natural history museum scheduled to open in early 2013. Even Panama City’s famously dilapidated historic quarter, Casco Viejo, has been transformed. The neighborhood, a tangle of narrow streets, centuries-old houses and neo-colonial government buildings, was designated a Unesco World Heritage site in 1997 and is now a trendy arts district with galleries, coffeehouses, street musicians and some of the city’s most stylish restaurants and boutique hotels.

Across the isthmus, on Panama’s Caribbean coast, the Bocas del Toro archipelago has become a popular stop on the backpacker circuit, with snorkeling and zip lining by day and raucous night life after dark. FREDA MOON

2) Samaná Peninsula, Dominican Republic (although no mention of the cool, low-key place where we stayed in 1990 or thereabouts: “The Hotel Tropic Banana” in Las Terrenas.)

Unspoiled beaches, but not for long.

For years, the Samaná Peninsula on the northeast coast of the Dominican Republic was one of the Caribbean’s remaining natural holdouts, largely untouched because of its remote location. But an international airport, El Catey, built near the peninsula’s base a few years ago and, more recently, a highway that shortened the drive from Santo Domingo to two hours from five, are bringing new development.

Balcones del Atláantico, a RockResort that opened last May in the village of Las Terrenas, is the newest luxury resort on the peninsula. Its 86 two- and three-bedroom villas start at $500 a night, supplying a cushy base from which to explore ecotourism. The Peninsula House, a plantation-style estate with just six suites from $580 a night, was named a 2011 Grand Award winner by Andrew Harper’s Hideaway Report. And Auberge Resort’s’ Casa Tropicalia , with 44 beachfront suites and an open-air spa on Samaná Bay, is to open in 2014.

There are plenty of off-resort attractions, too. Just last month, Bravaro Runners, an adventure tour operator, opened a new zip-line tour consisting of 20 platforms and 10 zip-lines.

Go now, before the crowds arrive. MICHELLE HIGGINS

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For our next trip to Panama City….

Nice to see that the restaurant we chose – after much deliberation –  for our one “splurge meal” got a prominent mention in Sunday’s 36 Hours Panama City, Panama story on the NYTimes Travel section. We were very happy with our meal at La Posta — and apparently the NYTimes was too. But this restaurant wasn’t mentioned in the 2005 36 hours piece on Panama City. I can’t remember how I found it – another travel article or guide – or how I narrowed my fairly long list but glad we chose La Posta. The latest Times story doesn’t mention the entrees we really loved – the “best pork chop ever” – my Kansas husband’s assessment which is saying a lot since this guy knows his pork; and pitch perfect seafood risotto, which I loved.

I wish this article had come out before our visit because I was looking for a hotel on our last night – and ended up with a dud.  The NYTimes recommends the Canal House Hotel in Casco Viejo or the new Manrey Hotel (both are $200 and up which is more than we wanted to spend. we probably got the best we could for $100.)

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The People in Panama who made our trip so great

As always, it’s the people you meet along the way, who make a trip great – and that was true once again during our recent trip to Panama. They included:

– The B&B owner in Bocas Town who went above and beyond the call of duty, sitting down to recommend outing options and biking into town to find a reliable water taxi driver to take us to a neighboring island with a beautiful beach (he hung out playing dominoes with other drivers until we were ready to return.)

– The man at the Visitor’s Center in Boquete who leisurely suggested outing options in the area, arranged a zip-lining adventure for us and smoothed the way with a taxi driver we had hired to drive us three hours to Bocas (the driver spoke little English, we spoke little Spanish, the visitor’s center man gave us his card and said to call at any time if we needed to communicate with the driver).

–  The staff at what we thought was the Visitor’s Center in Boquete (it was a real estate office’s “welcome center”) who found us the taxi driver – way beyond the call of duty.

– The young woman from New Jersey working at Bocas Blended, a clever sandwich and drink shop in an old bus, who greeted us warmly upon our return visit to her shop and shared her  feta-pesto sauce recipe.

– The young “fire dancer, yoga instructor and masseuse”  from Minnesota who volunteered to drive us in her golf cart to her favorite beach – an empty one next to the more well-known and populated Red Frog Beach.


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On zip-lining

No one – including me – can quite believe that I went zip-lining in Panama. For the uninitiated, zip-lining is an adventure sport that involves coasting along a cable strung between two high tree tops. You’re attached by a harness and a metal pulley – and you’re way up high, often soaring above a roaring river.  I’m not afraid of heights – so that wasn’t a problem. But I  do question my technical skill in these kind of things – will I be able to follow directions properly so I don’t end up at a standstill mid-cable dangling over the roaring river? Will I remember when and how to brake. (It involves simply squeezing your hand that the cable is running through – but it’s hard sometimes to figure out just when to start squeezing and how hard.) I didn’t screw up too badly.

I wish I could say it was fun – but I was too nervous to really enjoy it the way the others in our group (five young kids in their early 20s, four German, one Chilean) were. I did try to enjoy the sensation of flying across the tree tops way high on a mountain and occasionally succeeded. It did help that there were six very good-humored, safety-conscious young guys from Boquete Tree Trek as our guides. The first three zips were easier than the final nine because with the last ones, there was more standing and waiting which meant more thinking about the nutty thing we were doing. It kind of reminded me of our trip to Morocco in 1989  – made for interesting story-telling but once is probably enough.

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Ag tours near Panama City and bringing rum home

A reader wanted more information on the agricultural tour we  took outside Panama City. So maybe others do too. We visited a cashew farm and a sugar cane factory in the Province of Cocle near the towns of Nata and Aguadulce , about 90 minutes west of Panama City. The cashew farm is part of the Panafruit Company. The owner is organizing an agro-tourism circuit in southwestern Cocle including companies producing salt, sugar and shrimp, for tourists interested in tropical farming and food production. For more info see:

The reader suggested visiting the Abuelo/Sec distillery (southwest of where we were, in the Azada Pennisula, in the town of Pese) which I gather produces rum. I just checked and this is the brand of rum my husband bought (for $6.50 a bottle) at the duty-free in Panama City. The distillery may also make seco, a sugar-can-distilled alcohol that I gather tastes like vodka. (Add milk and ice and you have Panama’s most famous drink, mostly in rural areas. We didn’t try – it reminded me of a White Russian- but my husband did grow fond of Balboa beer.)

One word to the wise: remember that if you buy Rum or any other liquid more than three ounces at a foreign airport – and are making a connecting flight in the U.S. – you’ll have to pack it in your checked luggage (at least for the flight within the U.S.)  Otherwise – as we learned the hard way – security will confiscate it from you when you board your connecting flight in the U.S. (In our case, my husband rushed back to get his soon-to-be-rechecked luggage so he could pack the rum inside.  He didn’t end up doing this. Instead, a helpful airport ambassador boxed it for him and put it checked it as a second piece of luggage, at no extra cost.)


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Panama: Our best and worst lodging in Panama City

We were fortunate to stay primarily at great places during our recent 10-day (5-hotel) stay in Panama but we did have one dud (which I kind of predicted in advance. Here’s the three places we stayed in and around Panama City:

Gamboa Rainforest Resort – gorgeous tropical resort in the Panama Canal zone about 20 miles  north of Panama City, lush jungle setting with green landscaped lawns stretching out to a muddy river and densely forested jungle-like hills beyond; nice pool; red, orange, purple, yellow Bougainvillea everywhere (and some of the world’s largest rodents called Capybaras that look like a cross between a pig, porcupine, and rat…ick) ‘,knowledgeable and friendly guides who took us on a tour of the Embera Indian Village about an hour away. Didn’t have time to take the aerial tram or visit Monkey Island, alas. Banquet food so-so.

Intercontinental Playa Bonita – another gorgeous resort west of downtown Panama City on the Pacific Ocean with a great view of the city and huge ships approaching the Panama Canal; more pools than I could ever swim in (five – and I didn’t find the fifth until we were leaving); large clean attractive rooms. Banquet food so-so.

Gran Hotel Casino Soloy   – we knew this probably wouldn’t be great (it was only $99 and we picked it primarily for its downtown location, close to the  location close to the airport we were flying out of the next morning and because we were arriving late and leaving early) and we were right. At least it was clean and the staff pleasant.  But it was very noisy (definitely pick a room NOT overlooking the street where the activity was loud and nonstop until about 3 a.m.) Other issues – soft mattress, very limited hot water (we got only a lukewarm shower in the early evening), two bath towels (no hand towels, wash clothes, floor mat), no toiletries beyond a bar of soap. The free breakfast, though, was surprisingly pleasant.

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Sick from Panama trip

A week ago – in Panama City – I was battling stomach upset that I dubbed “Noriega’s revenge” – kind of reminded me of colonoscopy prep, enough said. But throughout the trip, I was staving off a vague headache, dizziness, and nausea. Oddly, or maybe not, that second batch of symptoms hit me hard about midday yesterday – after several days of feeling just fine. So yesterday I took to bed and spent hours trying to get my room to stop spinning. Today, I’m better but still wobbly. D. had something similar – that didn’t last as long but unfortunately marred dinner for him at the best restaurant we went to during our trip (La Posta – more on that later.) Several other people in our group got ill, ranging from the serious (a bacterial infection that sent one woman to the hospital; a diarrhea bout for one man that his doctor thinks was due to a parasite) to not-so (a little vomiting.)

The big issue in Panama and other Central and South American countries is dengue fever but from what I can tell from reading the symptoms, that’s not what D or I had. D did have a fever and some mosquito bites (which is how you get Dengue fever) but I didn’t. I did read that as of Jan. 17, Panama now offers all tourists free  emergency health care – as an incentive to boost tourism – and maybe that’s more useful than I realized. It’s good for the first 30 day of travel and includes top-level coverage during emergencies (although I see that it doesn’t cover accidents caused by extreme sports – so guess if I’d had a mishap while zip-lining I’d be out of luck…)


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