Despite the immense popularity of Central American destinations for American travelers, the pocket-sized country of Panama still appears to be off most people's tourism radars. Apart from the Canal itself, little seems to be known about Panama, despite it being a haven for sun-worshipping vacations and eco-tourism adventures like white water rafting, hiking and wildlife viewing. It is still very affordable, even if you choose to take a package with five-star accommodations. A seven-day trip can start as low as $1,400 including your international airfare, several meals, luxury hotels and plenty of beach, sun and adventure.
Panama City is a modern and modest city that most visitors use as a base for day trips to the Canal and the islands. But the city, on Panama's central southern coast, has a long and important history in the region as an stop on the Gold trail for looted treasures being shipped back to Spain from the colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries. Although much of the historic original city was razed, the part of the city known as Panama La Vieja (Old Panama) is home to a selection of grand architectural masterpieces and museums. The Casco Viejo area of the city is surrounded by sea on three sides and a moat on the fourth, and is covered with narrow cobblestone streets and colonial-style buildings. Of course the Panama Canal is a major draw card and hundreds of thousands of visitors (not to mention some 30 ships a day), flock to this engineering marvel each year to ogle at the 50-mile expanse of multi-level water locks.
But venture outside the Canal and Panama City and you will discover an unspoiled oasis of white and volcanic sand beaches, tropical jungles and the tranquil islands of Kuna and the Bocas del Toro Archipelago with bountiful scuba diving and snorkeling.
Pearl Panama (www.pearlpanama.com) is a local Panamanian tour company that offers a variety of land-only vacation packages including its seven-day Boquete and the Beautiful Panamanian Highland trip priced at $1,275 per person based on double occupancy. It includes airport transfers, six nights' accommodations at five-star hotels (Sheraton Panama Hotel in Panama City and Panamonte Inn & Spa Resort in Chiriqui) domestic flights to Chiriqui, private transportation, breakfast daily, one lunch, entrance fees to national parks and other attractions; English-speaking guide for tours and all taxes. Highlights include riding in a native boat along the Chagres River; hiking through the forest with a local indigenous guides; visiting an authentic Chocoe-Embera village and sharing their culture through dances, rituals and food; partaking in "jagua" body painting with vegetable ink; a scenic drive through the quaint village of Boquete in the Valley of the Rainbows; reaching the peak of Barú Volcano; observing the birdlife of Barú National Park; coffee plantations; and rainforest walks to see animals like deer, panthers, wild pigs and monkeys.
Their five-day Kuna Islands Secret Treasures vacation package includes airport transfers, four-nights of lodging at five-star hotels, private transportation, domestic flights, some meals, entrance fees to national parks and other attractions, English-speaking guide for tours and all taxes. After one day in Panama City, take a short flight to San Blas and then sail the Panamanian Caribbean in the comfort of a luxury catamaran or sailboat. During three days of sailing around the San Blas islands you will have a chance to visit Indian communities and discover virgin islands on different reefs everyday. In low season (May 16 to June and September 1 to December 15) this trip is priced at $1,438 per person and in high season (December 16 to May 15 and July 1 to August), $1,925 per person. Their seven-day Bocas del Toro Caribbean Retreat vacation package includes airport transfers for international and domestic flights, flight to Isla Colon, six-nights of lodging at five-star hotels (Sheraton Panama and Swan's Cay or Punta Caracol), private transportation, four breakfasts, three diners, entrance fees to national parks and other attractions, English-speaking guide for tours and all taxes. Highlights include a half-day morning Panama City tour includes a visit to the ruins of Old Panama and Casco Viejo; a boat tour to Dolphins Bay and Coral Cay; Bastimentos National Park tour to see monkeys, sloths and the island's famed red poison arrow frogs; a boat rode to the Bahia Honda Indian Village; a jungle hike; a Bat Cave tour; snorkeling in the mangroves; and relaxing on one of the most beautiful island beaches in Panama. This tour is priced at $1,300 per person in low season (May 16 to June 30 and September 1 to December 15) and $1,425 in high season (December 16 to May 15 and July 1 to August).
GAP Adventures (tel. 800/708-7761; www.gapadventures.com) runs several different tours within Panama and includes Panama in a few larger multi-country Central and South American itineraries. Their 15-day Panama Experience travels from Panama City to San José, Costa Rica visiting El Valle, Boquete, Bocas del Toro and Puerto Viejo de Talamanca en route. The trip departs from Panama City throughout the year (two to four times per month, always on a Wednesday) and is priced at $450 per person based on double occupancy plus a $250 local payment. Highlights include the village of El Valle located in an extinct volcanic crater and known for its forest and handicraft markets; climbing the India Dormida rock formation; the mountain retreat of Boquete; coffee plantations; the Archipelago of Bocas del Toro for snorkeling, scuba diving or just relaxing on the beach; and the northern border region of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca. The group size is ten to 15 participants and the trip includes 14 nights' accommodations in simple hotels, transportation by public buses, boats and private vans and a GAP tour leader.
For great deals on airfare inclusive trips, Solar Tours (tel. 800/388-7652; www.solartours.com/Latin_America/Panama_Vacations.aspx) can tailor your Panamanian getaway and come up with a simple, single-price including everything from your international airfare and domestic flights to accommodation, tours and taxes. I did a search for a one-week trip in late May/early June from New York (Newark) and received an on-the-spot quote for $1,394 per person including all taxes which featured a round-trip non-stop international flight on Continental, two nights in a deluxe double room at the four-star Crown Plaza Panama in Panama City including breakfast daily, flight to Bocas del Toro, two-nights at the three-star rated Limbo on the Sea Hotel (on Isla Colon with breakfast Plan), a flight from Bocas to Chiriqui, two-nights at the five-star Palo Alto Riverside Hotel with breakfast and return flight to Panama City and a final night at the Crowne Plaza. What I liked about this option was that you could choose your departure city, it gave suggested itineraries, you could decide exactly how long you wanted to stay in each destination, and it gave you the opportunity to opt in or out of tours. For a city, Canal, beach and rainforest option, a tailor made 11-day Jungle, Islands and Beaches of Panama trip out of Chicago is priced from $1,733 per person in June, 2008. It includes round-trip international flights from Chicago on Delta Airlines, 11 nights' accommodations (two nights in a one-bedroom historic villa at the five-star Gamboa Rainforest Resort, three nights at Coronado Golf and Beach Resort, one night at the three-star Best Western Las Huacas in a junior suite, three nights at the four-star Uaguinea Eco Resort in San Blas and two nights at the four-star Country Inn and Suites El Dorado in Panama City), breakfast daily, full board in San Blas, land transfers to Gamboa and Playa Blanca, flights to San Blas and transfers.
Airfares to Panama City are very reasonable, especially in low season (May and June). Continental (www.continental.com) flies non-stop from Newark from $571 including all taxes during the month of June, 2008. If you have a couple of extra hours up your sleeve, you can fly via Bogota or San Jose from as low as $513 with Avianca (www.avianca.com) or $528 on Taca International Airlines (www.taca.com). Delta (www.delta.com) flies non-stop from Atlanta from a low $413 including all taxes, with one stop from New York for $550 and $611 from Chicago. Priced tend to rise significantly and can be double these during peak and holiday season like Christmas and New Year.
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