Panama is so much more than the canal. The country has beaches, rain forests, and bustling cities. Adventure and ecolodges are popping up all over the country. I would say that it’s like a little Costa Rica. We have gone to Panama before as part of a down and dirty birding trip. We went all over the country and stayed in remote ecolodges. We stayed in places that the term “lodge” can be argued. I believe that if you can see the forest through the slats that are the walls, it’s not a lodge. This time we did things differently. We stayed at the island resort – Isle Palenque in Boca Chica. It took us almost twelve hours to get there including, a domestic flight from Panama City to David, a two-hour car ride, and a thirty-minute boat ride. It was worth it.
There are eight casitas and one large villa on the property. Each casita is secluded and feels like a personal strip of paradise. The whole resort sits on the beach. There are guest accommodations, the house for staff, a restaurant, a pool, and that’s about it for buildings- the rest of the island is beaches and trails in the rainforest.
Our casita’s bedroom was enclosed but the bathroom, including two outdoor showers and bathtub, was outside. It’s like being in a hut with all the comforts of an elegant hotel. The whole front was a sliding door, and you can sleep at night with the doors open listening to the ocean. The rooms had a coffee press, air conditioning – no TV. It’s genuinely a private paradise.
The food was a highlight of the resort. Ceviche is on the lunch menu every day – the first lunch was red snapper, and it was the freshest I have ever tasted. We had tacos, ice cream and french fries (which became a staple with every meal)! At dinner, we tried the tiradito, which was something of a ceviche sushi dish. The fish is thinly sliced with hot peppers, pickled onion, and cilantro and served with different sauces. This night, we had the tiradito with a beetroot sauce. That was an OMG moment. We went on to eat grilled fish and fish curry. Delicious.
That very first afternoon we met with a guide and went for a walk to see the howler monkeys. After an hour or so, we made our way to one of the many mangrove beaches, and sure enough, the trees were full of monkeys! We spent about thirty minutes following them in the trees and enjoying the beauty of their movement. The beach is one of the many black sand beautiful beaches along the island. Initially, it seemed like an adventure to find the monkeys. We soon discovered we didn’t have to look too hard – they were EVERYWHERE!!!
Every night there was a different sunset drink while you watch the sun dip down into the ocean.
Our first birding hike was at 6:30 AM – yup! We went out with two guides. We didn’t see a lot, but what we saw was pretty amazing, including a lanced tailed red-capped manikin. Yeah, you can’t make up the names. Such a beautiful bird! In the afternoon, we took kayaks out into the Pacific and paddled for three miles along the coast of Isla Palenque, with the seabirds diving all around us.
We made our way to a little island in the middle of the ocean where we rested and then headed back to the resort. With birds and the beautiful Pacific Ocean behind us, we took quick showers and headed to the bar for our nightly happy hour drink. As we came around the back of our casita, we came face to face with a large and loud group of howlers in the trees over our casita, eating fruit and throwing them to the ground. All the birds were running from the mayhem. Red Lore Parrots and Vultures were scattering as the monkeys howled. Turn down the volume on your computer – they are pretty loud!
Onto the bar for a cocktail and the nightly celebration of the sunset. Dinner consisted of roasted octopus in plantain cups and grouper as the star of the tiradito. We had skirt steak and yuka mash and more grilled fish. Tasty and so wonderfully prepared. As we went back to our casita, we caught the moon over the water – a fantastic sight.
The next day after our 6:30 AM birding (I know – I promise it was the last one of the trip!), we had breakfast and headed out with a guide for a tour called “Secrets of the Island.” Our guide, Chava, took us through the jungle and explained the tree species. There is a symbiotic nature of termites and the trees they build their nests in, and he showed us some excavated sights of native tribal inhabitants that survived on the island at the time of the Aztek and Inca peoples. It was exciting and fascinating. We came home educated, sweaty, and covered with bug bites!!!
We spent the rest of the day relaxing and walking the seemingly endless deserted beach. The daily temperature was in the ’90s, so we spent the rest of the afternoon in the shade waiting for the sun to set – of and of course more food!!
The next day we went on a snorkeling adventure that took us out into the Pacific and over to a beautiful reef full of fantastic fish. The boat took about an hour, and we were able to snorkel around for about two hours. We all got back onto the boat, and we made our way to one of the smaller islands for lunch and relaxation. The guides cooked a fantastic meal of fish and octopus. We didn’t want to leave!
Back at the lodge, shower, cocktail, sunset. Seriously in that order! Dinner every night was exceptional.
The last day we decided to lay low and do a few walks and pretty much lounge and eat – pretty effortless.
We walked the beach daily and began noticing these strange and beautiful designs in the sand. We couldn’t figure out what they were. After much investigation, pictures, and studying with our binoculars, we discovered that a crab was making the designs! Thank god for Google. It’s a sand bubbler crab that lives in dens that they dig in the sand. When the tide comes in, they blow a bubble of air to fill the hole, so the water doesn’t drown them. The crabs feed on the sand by filtering it through their mouths, leaving behind tiny balls of sand that creates these wonderful designs. They can make up to 360 balls an hour! What the meanings of these designs are we never did figure out but they all end up being washed away when the tide comes in, only to be recreated the next day. I know you can’t make it up!
We were sad to leave our paradise but the next morning we made our way back to Panama City. Our trip ended in the old city in Panama. The old town is experiencing incredible gentrification. What was once full of dilapidated and crumbling buildings has become an exciting and vibrant part of the town.
We stayed in the newly renovated American Trade Hotel. It had the feeling of a grand New Orleans hotel with Spanish tile and open-air spaces.
We had lunch at a place called The Fish Market, located almost directly across from the hotel. The menu was simple, and the food was fresh and delicious. They proclaim that they have the world’s best fish sandwich. How could I pass that up? So I order the sandwich with their secret sauce. Now, I wouldn’t declare that I have eaten enough fish sandwiches to judge this one, but it was really, really good! I asked for the recipe for the secret sauce. No language barrier….it’s a secret.
We cruised around the city after our hefty lunch. Going to the seafront and wandering through some little town squares with little outdoor cafes. We came upon a man serving shaved ices; in Spanish, he is called piraguero. I ordered pineapple with the traditional evaporated milk on top. What a treat!
We made dinner reservations at Donde Jose ranked one of the top fifty restaurants in the world! The meal was a preset menu that was both whimsical and executed perfectly. Each course was presented with a different story of Panama – it’s cultures and traditions. There were eight courses and, one was as good as the next.
Our last day in Panama and we decided to do a full-day tour to meet an indigenous tribe called the Embera people. Panama is home to six indigenous groups – the Ngöbe-Buglé, Emberá-Wounaan, Naso (Teribe), Guna (Kuna), Bri Bri, and Bokata. While many of these peoples have lost their habitat and have assimilated into the mainstream population, the Embera have worked with local guide groups and the government to help maintain their way of life. The tour companies arrange trips to their villages for lunch and an in-depth understanding of how they live in a remote village.
Rivers are essential to the traditional Embera way of life for food and transportation. Their diet centers around fish and plantains, both of which are plentiful in river environments. To get around, they use dugout canoes, today the canoes are powered by outboard motors. We were taken by one of these boats to the village. It was an exhilarating hour trip.
Ancient traditions of handicrafts, dance, music, cooking, hiking, fishing, and body painting are all part of the rich cultural heritage of the Embera. We were able to witness first hand their daily life. They are famous for their distinctive houses and clothing. Traditional Embera houses are raised high on stilts and have a roof and floor, but no walls. Embera people have colorful, patterned clothing. Women wear skirts and often go topless. Men and women have tattoos done in henna all over their bodies. Men wear long loincloths or pants/shorts. When we arrived at the village we were greeted by the tribe with song and we were escorted to a meeting area for a chance to meet the tribe and hear them tell their story.
After an afternoon of food and wonderful storytelling, we had the chance to shop for their beautiful handicrafts of woven baskets, carved nutshells, and wood carvings. We hopped back in the boat and went back to the city. An exceptional day.
Back in the old city, we had our final dinner of the trip at the very popular and busy Fonda Lo Que Hay. This is the little sister restaurant to Donde Jose. No reservations, order at the front, limited wine, and lots of fantastic food and beer! The place has lines out the door every night that they are open. We were lucky to get a spot at the bar and ordered fried chicken, ceviche, and the most amazing crispy rice in tomato sauce. I have never seen anything like it, and it was excellent.
The next morning we woke early and bid Panama goodbye. We had a really special time in a country that was rich in people, culture and food. Note – it is very accessible – a non-stop five-hour flight from New York.
The day after we left, Panama had their first case of the Carona virus and quickly closed the country down to travel. We made it under the wire and stayed healthy. Here’s to all of us traveling again soon
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