The advantages of traveling with an organized group are plentiful, especially for those who have limited time and resources. Tour operators take the headache out of planning a trip, and they iron out the wrinkles that invariably pop up along the way. The language barrier is less of an issue when you have a guide to translate for you, and a guide can interpret the culture and history of Panama and the natural surroundings of your destination. Most tours include guides, ground transportation, accommodations, meals, and gear. Independent travelers tend to view organized tours as antithetical to the joy of discovery, but leaving the details to someone else does free up substantial time to concentrate on something else. Besides, your traveling companions are likely to be kindred spirits with similar interests.
The best tours limit group size to 10 to 15 people, which allows for personal attention and a bit of breathing room -- this is appreciated after a week on the road together. Ask about difficulty levels when you're choosing a tour. Most are focused on "soft" adventure, with light excursions that are suitable even for couch potatoes; be honest with yourself when considering more difficult journeys. A multiday adventure that includes trekking through virgin jungle might look great on paper, but are you physically up to it? Tour operators are responsible for their clients' well-being and safety, but that doesn't let you off the hook. Inquire about your guide's experience, safety record, and insurance policy. Remember, no adventure trip is 100% risk-free.
North American-Based Tour Operators
These agencies and operators specialize in well-organized, 7- to 15-day tours that allow travelers to pack in a lot of action and diversity in a short period of time. Do a little price comparison when shopping for a tour, as many U.S.-based operators subcontract Panamanian tour operators who can be reached directly. Also, some operators offer trips that are duplicitous in that they plan journeys around all-inclusive lodges that already provide guides and transportation. In other words, the operator is simply booking your reservations and providing a minder-guide to solve any glitches from one stop to the next. A few of the operators include luxury accommodations and gourmet dining as part of the travel itinerary, and are therefore very expensive. Remember, the tours shown do not include airfare! Solo travelers in most cases will be charged the dreaded single supplement that can run an additional $500 to $1,500 (£250-£750).
A few tour operators offer custom-made journeys for travelers who wish to craft their itinerary according to their own tastes and interests. Depending on the destination, this option can be reasonably priced or very expensive (less so if you are traveling with a group of friends and meet minimum group size requirements).
Abercrombie & Kent (tel. 800/554-7016 or 630-954-2944; www.abercrombiekent.com), an award-winning tour operator that caters to the luxury market, offers guided 10-day tours from $3,835 (£1,918) per person, not including internal airfare. Upscale accommodations and gourmet dining are a feature of this low-key, culturally-oriented trip.
Adventure Life Journeys (tel. 800/344-6118; www.adventure-life.com) is a Montana-based operator specializing in travel to Central and South America. Groups are limited to 8 to 12 people, and they only utilize locally run hotels and native guides (prices run $1,270-$1,995/£635-£998) per person). Their weeklong journeys include a trip that combines Panama with Costa Rica; they also offer a 16-day trip ($3,285/£1,643 per person) with six destinations and a 15-day trip for $2,895 (£1,448).
Bike Hike Adventures (tel. 888/805-0061; www.bikehike.com) is a Toronto-based company specializing in multisport adventures for travelers who are in at least moderate shape. Their 9-day "Rumble in the Jungle" includes river rafting, mountain biking, hiking, snorkeling, and canopy rides; as well as visiting the Caribbean Sea, the Pacific Ocean, and the Chiriquí Highlands and costs $2,199 (£1,100).
Country Walkers (tel. 800/464-9255; www.countrywalkers.com) focuses on easy to moderate, 3.2 to 9.7km (2- to 6-mile) day hikes through Soberanía National Park, Isla Bastimientos in Bocas del Toro, and the Quetzal Trail in the Chiriquí Highlands, plus a few add-ons like a city tour and a boat cruise in the canal. Lodging is in upscale hotels. Their "Tropical Jewel" trip is 8 days and costs $3,098 (£1,549) per person.
International Expeditions (tel. 800/633-4734; www.ietravel.com) offers a 9-day journey that focuses solely on the Panama Canal region (including boat passage through the canal), with nature and culture excursions in Soberanía National Park, visits to Emberá indigenous villages, and sights along the Caribbean area in the Colón Province; the cost is $2,898 (£1,449) per person January through November and $3,098 (£1,549) in December. They can add on trips to the San Blas and Bocas del Toro islands.
Wildland Adventures (tel. 800/345-4453; www.wildland.com) is a well-respected tour operator, offering five journeys from 8 to 14 days that are focused on exploring nature as well as cultural interactions with indigenous groups. The exciting, well-organized trips cover a lot of ground. Wildland Adventures is one of the few U.S. companies to offer trips to the wild Darién jungle. Wildland also offers a 9-day "Family Adventure" with kid-friendly hikes and activities. Prices run $1,850 to $2,450 (£925-£1,225) for adults and $1,260 (£630) for kids age 10 and under).
U.K.-Based Tour Operators
Journey Latin America (tel. 020/8747-3108; www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk) is the U.K.'s largest tour operator that specializes in Latin American travel. They currently offer tailor-made itineraries as well an organized trip, called Tinamou, that includes visits to Canal Zone national parks, the cloud forest of the Chiriquí Highlands, and beaches of Bocas del Toro; the Tinamou tour lasts 13 days and costs $2,778 (£1,389) per person.
Reef and Rainforest Tours (tel. 018/0386-6965; www.reefandrainforest.co.uk) specializes in just that, providing small-scale, nature-oriented trips to the Caribbean Sea and the rainforest of the Darién Province (via small plane). The company has an excellent track record, and their trips, though not specifically oriented toward families, are kid-friendly. Their Multiple Wonders of Panama and Panama Wildlife Adventure trips (each lasts 14 days) start at $3,844 (£1,922) per person.
Panamanian Tour Operators
Foreign tour operators usually subcontract a portion -- and sometimes all -- of their tours to established Panamanian companies. Some book their clients on prescheduled trips with other travelers who are not part of the client's tour, while others plan exclusive itineraries but rely on local guides and logistics planners to do the ground work for them. Contacting a local tour operator directly, and thereby cutting out the "middleman," may result in a small price savings.
There are few tour operators in Panama despite the burgeoning tourism industry and the potential that exists here. But the operations that do exist are tried-and-true companies with a staff of full-time, qualified guides, drivers, and customer service reps. Trips can be tailor-made, or operate on predetermined dates, and most offer day excursions and short adventures that last just a few days. Hotel tour desks can put together a day excursion, but the quality of service can vary dramatically, so it's best to book ahead with one of the companies listed below. Also, if you have a specific activity in mind, it pays to plan ahead because some tours leave only on preset dates or when they have a large enough group. All the companies below have a bilingual staff.
Ancon Expeditions (tel. 269-9415; www.anconexpeditions.com) is the foremost tour operator in Panama, with a full-time staff of degreed naturalists and bird-watching experts, a handful of remote lodges, and offerings of day excursions and preset and custom-planned journeys to all corners of Panama. Ancon Expeditions began as the travel arm of the Asociación Nacional para la Conservación de la Naturaleza (ANCON), an NGO devoted to the preservation of natural resources and biodiversity; but the two are no longer related. Trips with preset dates can be guaranteed with just two to four people. A few of the more unique offerings are a trek across the isthmus following the old Spanish Camino Real; and Ancon's short adventures (1-5 nights) visiting the San Blas Archipelago, Bocas del Toro, or the Chiriquí Highlands. A few of their trips are based around their own lodges. Ancon specializes in trips that take adventurers deep into the heart of the Darién jungle; they have more trips to this region than any other operator. Day excursions such as a "Panama Canal Rainforest Boat Adventure" are highly recommended, especially for kids.
Ecocircuitos (tel. 314-1586; www.ecocircuitos.com) is run by a young, dynamic group of travel professionals who specialize in small groups (minimum four and maximum eight people), and who focus heavily on sustainable tourism with a low impact on the environment. They offer everything from a city tour through Casco Viejo to an 11-day bird-watching, trekking, and cultural journey through the San Blas Islands, the Chiriquí Highlands, and Bocas del Toro. Ecocircuitos also has a unique 4-day trip to the Darién that involves trekking through old-growth forest and tent lodging in a traditional Emberá Indian village. Tours are either tailor-made or have a preset itinerary. They recently opened an office in Boquete on Avenida Central (tel. 720-1506), which offers short adventures in the Chiriquí area.
Adventures in Panama (tel. 877/726-6222 in the U.S., or 236-8146; www.panamapeteadventures.com), whose slogan is "No Tours, Just Adventures," is the operator to go to for active sports such as kayaking, mountain biking, and rock climbing around Panama, and day adventures around Panama City. Tamer adventures, like city tours and cultural encounters with Emberá Indians, are also available and can be combined with sports. One of the company's specialties is the San Blas region -- they offer guided tours or can book difficult-to-contact hotels and hostels there. Adventures in Panama focuses on private trips with either a preset itinerary or a tailored adventure to suit your tastes; rates vary according to the size of your party.
Pesantez Tours (tel. 263-8771 or 223-5374; www.pesantez-tours.com) is an established company that can do all your booking for you if you're not looking to join a set tour. They focus more on traditional tours of Panama City, trips to El Valle de Antón, the canal, and Portobelo, and they even offer a half-day shopping tour.
Getting the Hotel You Want
Many boutique-style hotels and inns have complained recently that tour operators who receive a hefty commission from a particular hotel tend to steer clients toward that hotel -- even if a client has requested different accommodations or is not a good match for the operator's choice of lodging. If a travel operator or agency tells you that a hotel is sold out, and you had your heart set on staying there, do your own investigation and see if this is indeed true.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.