World Trip 2012-13: Panama Experience Tour Highlights

Tour Title: Panama Experience (Code CRSP)
Tour Company: G Adventures
Tour Leader: Liza Villalobos
Countries Visited: Costa Rica, Panama
Dates: 29 January 2013 to 10 February 2013.

G Adventure Tours
I took this trip as part of the Mexico and Central America tour between 15 December and 10 February 2013 which has four separate stages/tours:
1) Mexico Ancient Civilizations
2) Mayan Sun
3) Volcano Trail; and
4) Panama Experience (this tour)

I took this trip as part of my 4.5 month World Trip during 2012-2013. I booked several other G Adventure Tours including the Patagonia and Antarctica in Depth tour between 29 October 2012 and 19 November 2012 which had two different stages/tours:

1) Patagonia Experience
2) Antarctica

And between 29 September 2012 and 12 October 2012 I took my first G Adventure Tour of this world trip:
1) Colours of Asia.

Tour Type
This tour is listed as one of G Adventures basic tour types titled YOLO – You Only Live Once. In short the hotels you stay at can be basic, normally won’t have air conditioning, might not have hot water. There is usually no included activities but the Tour Leader will have lots of recommendations and help you book them.

Included Activities
None however Liza provided some undocumented free extras like orientation walks. I strongly recommend visiting the Animal Rescue Centre in Puerto Viejo and the Panama City and Canal Tour options.

Accommodation and Transportation
The hotels were rated as basic but for the most part were very good. I had opted for the single room option for the entire Mexico and Central America tour but normally for the Panama Experience you can’t select this as an option. Despite warnings on the trip notes I received a single room at every stop so G Adventures looks after me better than I paid for.

1) San Jose – Casa Orquideas Hotel: Free WiFi in rooms and computers. Nice hotel. Supermarket within walking distance. Cheap breakfast on premises.
2) Puerto Viejo – Kaya’s Place: Free WiFi near reception. Laundry Service. Directly opposite beach. Good bar with Cable TV running (mostly sports). Room had a TV but I never turned it on.
3) Bocas del Toro – Del Parque: There was a problem with over booking so a few of us got moved to a different place run by the some family. This ‘spill’ over area was above a lively eatery / bar and was on the coast with excellent views from two balconies. This accommodation had a shared kitchen, TV and common area – room were great. The wi-fi didn’t work here but the rooms and space were incredible and would be at the top end of an rental market so a great upgrade. I could get wifi by going back to the main hotel.
4) Boquete – Hostal Boquete: Located opposite a fast running river. Small room and bathroom which require some manuering but still fine. WiFi in room, laundry option. Great location near bakery and big supermarket. Close walk to town centre.
5) Santa Catalina – Oasis Surf Camp: An interesting place that you had to walk across water from the sea to get there, at high tide you are basically caught at the hotel. Meals are taken on the property as a result. Free wifi in the restaurant area but it is very slow and hard to connect at times. They offer surfing lessons (hence the name). Owner’s son drove me to the local bus pickup area and wouldnt take a tip. You room / hut has air-conditioning for additional cost of $10 per night otherwise it is the fan ceiling to keep you from getting too hot. All rooms face the sea and you get some exception views.
6) Panama City – Centroamericano: A modern hotel something like you would expect from a Western 3-4 star place. Area isnt the best but there is a nearby MacDonald’s and lots of ATMs. You will be offered drugs and women (if a man like me). Free wi-fi at a reasonable speed but not available in all rooms (like my one) but there are comfortable chairs on each floor. Front facing rooms get a lot of traffic noise (not a problem for me). Plasma TV in each room with a couple of English channels and lots of Spanish ones.

Transportation between towns was a mix of public buses and private vans with occasional taxi to bus station and a boat at Bocas del Toro. Public buses are fine but by opting to upgrade to private van you get to the next stop faster plus you can stop of bathroom breaks and meals. Importantly on the day we had a very sick passenger we could stop and eventually get an ambulance. It is unlikely a public bus would offer the same freedom. I travelled to Panama City by myself since I was leaving the tour early and wanted to see the Canal. For this I used local small bus/van from Santa Catalina to Sona costing $4.65 (1 hour 45 minutes) than a bigger bus to Panama City costing $9.65 (5 hours). The tour group took a lot less time using the private van.

Liza organised great transportation deals on the upgrades. Boquete to Santa Catalina only cost $5 USD per person extra and Santa Catalina to Panama City was also $5 USD (but as I left early for this leg that upgrade wasn’t an option for me).

Tour members
There were 11 other travellers, the maximum allowed. Group members; Rebecca Kalman, Ivan Huisson, Bo Huisson, Evan Fitzsimmons, Esther Oluwatosin, Dottie Duncan, Michael St George, Laura Hadley, Robin Burton, James Gordon and myself. I had been travelling with James, Robin and Laura since 15 December and consider myself lucky to have such great people along for such a long trip.

Tour Leader
Liza Villalobos was our tour leader for this 14 day tour. Liza is a great example of a G Adventure Tour Leader, or Chief Experience Officer (CEO) as G calls them. Passionate about her country (Costa Rica) and the region Liza cares about our impact on the environment and local cultures. Liza we give you frank advise and was really interested on our feedback on activities that didn’t work out. Liza has an extensive network of locals in each location we stop in. Liza excelled when challenged and nothing is more challenging that having to take a passenger to hospital and still get the group to the next destination and have all our activities setup and booked.

Personally Liza looked after me helping me leave the group and get to Panama City earlier than the group so I could visit the Canal. This isnt something she needed to do as I went off tour. Liza’s instructions for transportation were clear and accurate (I made it) and additionally she organised a room for the night and a tour activity to see the Old Town, The Causeway and the Panama Canal for only $40 USD and I was the only person on the tour.

Considering Liza lost the diamond from her engagement ring helping load a private van, her flip flops (again helping us out on an optional activity) and her ambrella and stepped on fish bones slightly injuring herself it is amazing how positive she was. I also loved my late night chats about Costa Rica, travelling and life, after some many months on the road it was great to discuss such topics with such an intelligent young women.

Highlights
There were lots of highlights of this tour including;
– The Animal Rescue Centre in Puerto Viejo a worthy cause and you get to see toucans, sloths and lots of other animals.
– The Beaches at Puerto Viejo
– Snorkelling in the Pacific at Santa Catalina (the wild boat ride was also a highlight)
– A monkey stealing my Gatorade and calming opening it and drinking all the contents as I dehydrated in the sun!
– Swimming in the Caribbean Sea and lounging on a beach (Bocas del Toro)
– Visiting Panama City’s ‘Old Town’ and the Panama Canal Miraflores Lock

This is very much a water based tour, if not interested in swimming, snorkelling and/or diving this might not be the right tour for you. Keep in mind that the temperature gets warmer the further we got from Mexico (except mountain stays).

Note: USA currency can be used in Costa Rica at an exchange rate of $1 for $500 Colones. US dollars is effectively the local Panama currency but if you get Panama dollars the rate is set at 1 for 1.

Facebook photos

1) Costa Rica Facebook Photos
2) Panama Facebook Photos.

Panama Experience Journal Entries.

Day 125 – San Jose, Costa Rica. Highlights: New Group and CEO.
Day 126 – San Jose to Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica. Highlights: The Beach at Puerto Viejo, Mountains during bus ride.
Day 127 – Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica. Highlights: Animal Rescue Centre, Organic Ice Cream.
Day 128 – Puerto Viejo to Bocas del Toro, Panama. Highlights: Long Border Crossing, 50th country visited, Boat ride to our Island.
Day 129 – Bocas del Toro, Panama. Highlights: Night Water Taxi with no lights and Festival Time!
Day 130 – Bocas del Toro, Panama. Highlights: Swimming in the Caribbean Sea, Wild Water Boat Ride.
Day 131 – Bocas del Toro to Boquete, Panama. Highlights: Ride across the ocean, Boquete room next to river stream.
Day 132 – Boquete, Panama. Highligths: Outsmarted by a monkey, 1.5 hour hike to magnificent waterfall, Hot Springs.
Day 133 – Boquete to Santa Catalina, Panama. Highlights: Magnificent Santa Catalina beach
Day 134 – Santa Catalina, Panama. Highlights: Snorkelling in the Pacific
Day 135 – Santa Catalina to Panama City, Panama. Highlights: Crossing the Panama Canal, Not getting lost travelling solo.
Day 136 – Panama City, Panama. Highlights: Panama City ‘Old Town’, Panama Canal, Causeway, Group Farewell.

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