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The Good, The Bad, the Ugly- Panama 2021

When you think of tropical vacation destinations what do you think of? Mexico, Caribbean, Tahiti, the Maldives. I bet you Panama would not even make the top 10 list and rightly so. As one of Central America's largest banking centers and home to the Panama Canal, tourism plays a very small role in the overall economy of this country. But as my family and I found out on our recent vacation to Panama, there is more to this country then meets the eye. Located on the southern edge of Central America, Panama offers a wide variety of activities for travelers seeking relaxation, adventure, culture and more.

COVID Test Complete

Our travel plans started with the customary pre-travel COVID test. At the time, Panama required a negative test 48 hours prior to arrival in country. If you were unable to get your test in time, the offered testing upon arrival for a small fee. We planned our tests for the morning of our departure. I usually prefer a direct flight but for this trip we would be traveling to Atlanta first for an overnight stay and then onto Panama. Once we all aced the COVID test, it was off to find lunch and then to the airport.

Upon arriving in Atlanta, we had to collect our luggage and then it was off to the hotel. We chose a hotel that offered easy access to the airport and plenty of space for a family of five, the SpringHill Suites by Marriot Atlanta Airport Gateway. The hotel is a short 5 minute train ride from the terminal to the hotel. The resort offered 2 queen beds and a sleeper sofa which was perfect for us. The resort was in the perfect location for an overnight stay in Atlanta. There are also three additional hotels in the area to choose from. These hotels make it very convenient for an overnight stay in Atlanta. Next stop Panama.

Our arrival to Panama was met with a few showers, which is typical for Panama this time of year and absolutely fantastic views of Panama City and the Panama Canal. After clearing customs and finding our transfer we were off to our resort: Dreams Playa Bonita. A short 40 minute drive brought us through Panama City, past Casco Viejo (Old Town), and over the Panama Canal until we arrived at our resort. See earlier post on the resort.

Ships waiting to enter the Panama Canal

One of the best parts about traveling is being able to experience new places, cultures and experiences. Panama offer our family the ideal destination to experience something new. It is not a typical destination for all-inclusive travel, despite us staying at an all-inclusive. For the nerds like me that love sitting and gazing out over the ocean marveling watching the ships sail into the opening of the canal, our resort was perfect. One of the days we were there, we counted over 80 ships waiting to transit the Panama Canal. Pretty cool if you ask me.

As we spent more time in Panama it became clear that Panama was a fantastic adventure destination. The country offers everything whitewater rafting, kayaking, ziplining, waterfall hikes, snorkeling, tours of the canal and so much more. This week we chose to go whitewater rafting and take a tour of the canal and the Old Town.

Our first full day in Panama started out with a nice walk down the beach. As we walked I noticed a ton of really nice shells that could be collected. Then I noticed all of those shells kept moving. Almost every shell on the beach contained a hermit carb. Just after lunch we set off to see the Panama Canal and Old Town. Our guide picked us up at the resort and off we went. Unfortunately due to COVID the visitor center at the locks were not open but our guide took us to an upper lock where we were able to watch as a ship pulled into the first set of locks. As the ship came in, he explained that the ships loose some of their ballast so they sit higher in the water which means they have less control and the tugboats are necessary to keep the ship in line with the canal.

After we finished watch the ship come in, we headed off for a little shopping and a tour of the Old Town. Now I am not one who usually would shy away from driving anywhere, but I have to tell you, I am pretty sure I would still be driving around in Panama trying to find my way back to the resort. The streets in Old Town were tight, confusing and not at all marked. The area featured plenty of shops restaurants and other attractions to keep any travel busy. We however opted for the fast food drive thru tour from our guide. While it was nice, it lacked the personal attention and touches that would have made the tour more enjoyable. However our guide provide some really nice insight into the Panama culture and history including the first builders of the Panama Canal.

Our rafting adventure began with a very early transfer to the rafting companies headquarters and when I say headquarters I mean our guides home. After loading up it was off into the mountains of Panama until we reached our launch point on the Mamoni River. Our guide, Javier with Adventuras Panama, talked a lot about the travel industry in Panama and how it had been impacted by the pandemic. He advised the government was working towards increasing the visibility in the Panama travel market before COVID put the breaks on it. He advised that we were is first commercial tour in two years.

As we headed into the mountains we knew this was not the typical rafting adventure we were used to. We were used to easy launch points on well established rivers, this was back hills, deflated rafts, pack it in pack it out rafting. Your Toyota Prius is not making it these hills. Once at the launch point, we were treated some absolutely amazing views. You will have to trust me, I did not take many photos. We did take one last family photo in case things went sideways on us.

While the river's water level was low, the river still had class 3 and class 4 rapids we needed to navigate. The rafting was very different from what I was used to. We had to navigate narrow chutes and small water falls at times all while avoiding rocks. Despite the low water levels, the trip was a lot fun with only a few mishaps.

As we navigated our way down the river, in a fairly mellow area, we watched as Tyler decided to go for a swim, not intentionally of course. He soon caught up to his boat and climb back aboard. Crisis 1 averted.

So as we approached our first set of class for rapids, our guide explained the rapid and what we needed to do. The boys and their guide went first. We watched as the entered the rapid and then nothing, they were gone. Then I thought., glad we got the photo of all of us. A short time later, I see them standing on the rocks like they were scouting their next move and away they went. They made it all the way down, safe and sound. Then it was out turn. We headed off and we paddled hard towards the first rapid as instructed. We then hit a little calmer pool, the look out point right, nope a bad spot to stop is all that was. As we soon became stuck on the rocks in the middle of a class 4 rapid, crisis 2 ensued. Our guide quickly tried to move us off the rocks and back in the main flow of the water. Eventually we were freed from the rocks and decided to take the rapids backwards. See for yourself below.

As we got down, the main guide Javier informed my son's he had never seen anyone take that rapid backwards before. When you do something you are not supposed to and are with another group, this is the response you get from them. They all laughed at us! However Crisis 2 averted.

And this is what we took backwards:

When it was all said and done, everyone had a great time and came back in one piece. This was an adventure we will remember for ever.

We spent the next few days relaxing at the resort and dodge the heavy rain storms. The good part was that most of the days were not complete washouts and over half the day provided sunshine and warm water to enjoy. We were also able to enjoy a romantic dinner on the beach, which actually turned into a romantic dinner on the grass which was not a good idea. Our dinner was joined by thousands of chitra's or no-see-ums and mosquitos. This made for a very un-enjoyable dinner until we got the bug stray. It took weeks to finally move past the number of bites I had on my legs. And here I thought we were having dinner on the beach not the other way around.

All in all the adventure to Panama was a fantastic trip. While everything did not go perfect, our time there experiencing and exploring this wonderful country has left me wondering what we missed. While Panama may not be your typical vacation destination, it offers travels a wonderful opportunity to explore a country that very welcoming and eager to serve you.

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