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Panama City & San Blas: The Must-See Destination You Didn’t Know You Wanted To Go To

When K and I agreed to do a spontaneous girlfriend getaway, the conversation went something like this:

Me: Let’s go to Guatemala!

K: What’s in Guatemala?

Me: I’m not sure…ruins, maybe?  Well, it’s a short flight from California and the airfare is reasonable.

K: Hmm…ok, sure.

For the next couple of hours we researched everything there was to do in Guatemala trying to figure out for how many days we should go as well as how much we thought it would cost.  Then, as I do with all trips abroad, I researched the safety warnings for Guatemala on the U.S. Travel Website, and to my shock, saw that there was a warning that foreigners could be kidnapped for organ harvesting (say WHAT?!).  Thankfully that warning is no longer on the website today.  In its place, Guatemala just has one of the highest crime rates in Latin America (hmm, glad they got that organ harvesting under control, I suppose).  Anyway, I saw that and decided that Guatemala probably didn’t seem like the best place for two women to be traveling.

So, we looked quickly for an alternative as we were planning to travel the following week.  We settled on Panama. I wish we had a bunch of awesome reasons for picking Panama but honestly we picked it because it looked safer than Guatemala and the flight costs were within our budget (yea, that’s about as scientific as trip planning ever gets).

Well, let me tell you: our decision to go to Panama was one of the best decisions we’ve ever made!  Panama is an undiscovered gem and having been there, I cannot figure out why more people don’t go.  It may be because the government hasn’t pushed for tourism, which makes it kind of difficult to plan a trip there (your options are more limited), but gosh-darn-it, the variety of things you can see and experience in Panama are unparalleled.

Obviously there is the Panama Canal but everyone’s heard about it so I’m not going to talk about it.  We went and we saw.  That’s about it.

What may be surprising to some is to learn that Panama City is often compared to Miami because of how cosmopolitan it is.  If you just look at the skyline, you could argue there are more skyscrapers there than in Miami.

There’s also an old town (Casco Antiguo) that is next to the water and has the most charming buildings and houses with alleyways that you could almost lose yourself in but you won’t because the town is totally walkable.  When I’m somewhere foreign, I love places that are walkable since that’s the best way to experience it like a local.  There are vendors selling their arts and crafts, particularly the colorful molas. Let’s not forget all the restaurant options in Casco Antiguo.  This place was definitely the place to be if you want to be where the action is.

Since Panama City is next to the rainforest (how ridiculous is it that there are even jungles in the city?!  We even saw sloths up close in the city!), we also went on a jungle tour that took us down the Panama Canal where we were surrounded by super lush rainforest.  During that ride, we saw crocodiles, sloths, toucans, and were thisclose to monkeys that jumped onto our boat.  One even stole a Dorito from me!  Zoos are for wimps.  I’m telling ya – when you’re out in the wild where the animals actually live… well, that is the real deal.

In the spirit of “saving the best for last”, we visited the San Blas Islands towards the tail end of our trip.  There are about 378 little islands on the Caribbean side that make up the San Blas Islands, but the coolest part about San Blas was how untouched the islands are.  There is literally NO commercialization on any of the islands so when you’re there, you feel like you’ve gone back in time.  I could definitely go on and on about how blessed we felt to get to experience something like this, but I’ll let the pictures do the talking on this one.

If you’re going to go to Panama, I urge you to book a tour with Kevin at Barefoot Panama (there’s really just no other way to see this place and I cannot emphasize that enough). Kevin’s originally from Boston but caught the travel bug early and roamed the world before settling in Panama to start Barefoot Panama.  As such, he is just friggin’ passionate about traveling.  He spends his off days exploring the country and therefore, puts together the best off-the-beaten path tours that you’re not going to find anywhere else.  He’ll basically bring you to the places he’s found and loved as well as the restaurants he personally visits because the food is just so darn good (and it was) and not because it just happens to be the restaurant that partnered with the tour company (it’s not – you could totally pick another restaurant if you didn’t want to go with his recommendation but that would be a big mistake if you ask me).  It was such a treat to have him show us around, to see his passion, and feel his zeal and zest.  I am dead convinced that he is 100% responsible for the great time we had in Panama.  If I could afford it, I would hire him to be my personal tour guide for the rest of my life.  He could go scoop out all the best attractions and experiences and then take me there afterwards!   Yes, he was THAT good.

Finally, here are some of quick tips if you’re planning to go as well as some other pictures from our trip (there was no way I could fit everything about Panama into this post):

When to go:

We went in October but Panama is a year-round destination.  They say that the dry-season is from December to April, but we went outside of that time frame and didn’t mind the occasional showers.  Additionally, if you go in the off-season you’ll have a better shot of avoiding the crowds (always a plus!).

Weather:

It is hot and humid especially outside of the dry season.

Accommodations:

There are plenty of hotels in Panama City and they are actually building more.  In Panama City, we stayed in a Courtyard and a Four Points and both had all the comforts and amenities you’d expect from them in the U.S.  The only downside of these two hotels was that they were farther out of the city, but since we got picked up for our tours, it didn’t matter.

If you visit the San Blas Islands, accommodations will be barebones and run by the Kuna Indians.  Our overwater hut had quite a few lizards that spent the night with us, too.

Packing:

Do not leave home without bug spray and sunscreen.  There are also many opportunities to go hiking so you may want to bring the hiking shoes, too.  If you go to San Blas, bring a swimming suit, but load up on the bug spray as there are invisible insects that bite (no nos or sand fleas perhaps).  I was bit over 50 times in the day I was there… despite that, I still think San Blas was worth the visit.

Things to know beforehand:

  • Most people outside of the travel industry speak Spanish so you’ll want to brush up beforehand.
  • Credit cards aren’t accepted in San Blas so make sure you have cash.  By the way, US Dollars are widely accepted since the Panama currency, the Balboa, is tied to the dollar.  You will, however, get change in coins so just make sure you use those up before you leave.
  • If you’re going, make sure you book your tours with Barefoot Panama.  I know I already stated this, but you’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t so it’s worth reiterating.

 

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Roger - February 14, 2012 - 8:12 pm

Who knew Panama had so much to see.

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