Exploring Gatun Lake

March 20, 2011 By: thorwald Category: Travel guide

The Isthmus of Panama was formed just over 3 million years ago. This land bridge has allowed animals and plants of two continents to mix and mingle. This is why Panama is so rich in flora and fauna. Lake Gatun was created between the years 1906-1914. The lake is part of an aquatic bridge that links the Caribbean sea to the Pacific Ocean. When you consider the nature, history, and the Panama Canal, Lake Gatun is one of the most interesting places found on this planet.

And there’s no better way to visit it than with Jungle Land Explorers.

See the Gatun Lake like nobody else does

This company, led by the passionate Carl Davis, has created an excellent set of tours that will satisfied the need of individuals, families and even companies. Their one day Gatun Adventure is a great way to combine leisure, nature and adventure and it’s only a 25-minute trip from the Balboa Inn.  Prices are around $ 95 for a full-day package that includes a lunch on their floating lodge and all the activities seen below.  Next to our trans-isthmus train & tour package and a visit to an Embara village, this is one of our favorites.

If you pictures above don’t get you excited, we don’t know what will!

Trans-isthmus train & tour package

March 15, 2011 By: thorwald Category: Travel guide

We many times get (future) guests asking us about the best way to see the Panama Canal.  Most think that a (partial) canal transit is the best way to do this.  We beg to differ.

First of all, the transit leaves at about 9:30 a.m. and transits the Miraflores locks around 10-10:30 a.m.  That’s after all the big ships have gone through.  I’ve done the trip 2x and in both cases there was no other ship in the locks.  That kind of eliminates the ‘ohhhh and ahhhhh’ factor to a large degree.  You have a much better view – at the  right time – from either the visitor tribunes at Miraflores or Gatun locks.

Secondly, it’s about $ 120 per person including taxi to Amador.  Finally, you are doing this trip with 80-200 other people who all want to take that great picture from the same spot on the boat :  the front.

Spanish canon at Fort Lorenzo

Now picture this:

  • Pick-up at the Balboa Inn and transfer to Panama Railroad train station (minimum 2 people).
  • Take a comfortable one-hour trip across the Isthmus with great views of the Canal or surrounding jungle.
  • Have a bilingual guide wait for you in Colon.
  • Take a quick tour through Colon, then head for the Gatun locks while passing through the old installations of the Canal zone.
  • Watch huge ships going through the Gatun locks.
  • Cross the locks to go to Ft. Sherman, the former training base of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force and then on to Ft. Lorenzo.   Howler monkeys 90% of the time to been seen and certainly heard!
  • Check out historic Spanish fortress Ft. Lorenzo at its beautiful location at the mouth of the Chagres river.
  • Visit a nearby secluded beach only insiders know about.
  • Return to Panama City in your comfortable van.
  • Get dropped of at the Miraflores locks for a great late afternoon drink at the terrace of the Miraflores restaurant, visit the Albrook Mall or return to the Balboa Inn.

And all this for $ 65 per person (trip), $ 22 train ticket + food.

If you have a rental car, you can still do large part of this trip yourself (obviously without the train and no guide). We have detailed maps at the reception desk with instructions to make this a great (family) day.   It’s a very easy drive.

And last but not least, get a copy of the book ‘Path between the Seas‘ byDavid McCullough. A must-read for anybody visiting Panama.  Truly fascinating.

 

A Day in Panama- What to See?

November 12, 2010 By: Gina Category: About Panama, Travel guide

Every so often we have guests that come to Panama City with no idea of what to see and only have perhaps 1-2 days to explore. For guests like this we put together a Day in Panama sheet that will quickly give them a few ideas for their time in Panama, it’s not the final word on what to explore but it’s definitely a list of what you don’t want to miss while you’re in Panama City. The best part of this list? Most of these places are within walking distance or a short (5min) taxi ride from the Balboa Inn!

Canal Administration Building

Take a walk up the stairs and see where they hold the canal’s offices but more importantly check out the murals they have in their rotunda of the building. The murals are a tribute to the work and hardship that went into the construction of the canal. The administration building lies on a large hill just a 5 minute walk from The Balboa Inn and can also be a great spot to just relax and enjoy some lunch al fresco.

Cerro Ancon

This hill lies right behind the Balboa Inn. It is an hour hike up or a short taxi ride ($4), you can see great views of the City and of the Canal and maybe even some wildlife (monkeys, ñeques, etc). This might be an early morning trip before heading into the city and should be done before 3PM around 4PM. To walk up Cerro Ancon, head to the Canal Administration Building, walk up the stairs and around the right-hand side of the building, from there you’ll see a road that heads up the hill. If you’re staying with us just check the front desk for our map. Make sure to wear sunscreen, bug repellent and bring a bottle of water!

Casco Viejo

A beautiful corner of Panama, this is the ‘colonial quarter’ of Panama of which you’ve probably read much about in your Lonely Planet or Frommers. Even if you’re here for just a day we always recommend a stop in Casco Viejo. Ask to be taken to Plaza Francia, walk along the Bovedas, and have ice cream at Granclement. Also try to see the Panama Canal Museum in Plaza Bolivar but remember they’re closed on Mondays. There are also plenty of old churches and beautiful buildings to admire in this old part of Panama along with great restaurants and some bars i.e. Ego/Narciso, Platea, and Relic Bar. Always take a taxi to get to Casco Viejo and when you need to leave. If you can try to arrange a free tour with the Oficina de Casco Antiguo.

Amador Causeway
Rent a bike or talk a walk along the beautiful Causeway and have lunch at Alberto’s (Italian) or Mi Ranchito (Panmanian/seafood). Alberto’s is in Flamenco shopping area, facing the pier and Mi Ranchito is on the first island near the Smithsonian Nature Center. The Causeway is within walking distance from the Balboa Inn although walking to the end will probably take almost an hour. It is safe to walk just be very careful with traffic.

Miraflores Visitors Center
You can’t come to Panama and not see the Canal, but you don’t need to spend $100 either. Take a cab to the Miraflores Visitors Center and check out the great exhibitions they have there (9AM-4:30PM). You should head around 3pm, enjoy the exhibition then maybe have a drink or late lunch at the Miraflores Restaurant, it’s been described as overpriced but you’ll have great views of the ships passing through.
Metropolitan National Park
A beautiful piece of the Panama rainforest at the city limits, this park is just a 5 minute taxi from the Balboa Inn and will give you a small taste of the natural beauty of Panama. No need to go with a guide, they have maps of the different trails and it’s a safe park, just show up well covered in sunscreen, bug repellant, and bring a bottle of water. You won’t be disappointed.

Mercado de Artesania
You can’t leave Panama without a few gifts to show you were here. Within 5 minutes walking from the hotel, you can find every type of souvenir you would want to bring home. This Artisan Market is located in a large yellow building behind the old YMCA building; you can ask the front desk for a little map of how to get there.  If you want to explore more there is another artisan market up the same straight (exiting Calle Las Cruces to the left), this market is smaller and focuses only on the artisan goods of the Kuna indigenous tribe (i.e molas).

Want to do some shopping? Check out Panama’s Malls:

Albrook Mall

This is a huge mall located next to the main bus terminal. At just a 5 minute taxi ride you can find most anything you’ll need in Panama. You can get lost for hours shopping deals in the various department stores here. The mall along with tons of shops has pharmacies, several food courts/restaurants, a bowling alley, a movie theater, and a supermarket (Super 99). If you stop by make sure to take the customary picture with the animal statues.

MultiCentro Mall

This is a much smaller and quieter mall with pretty much the same selection as Albrook. The Panama Hard Rock Café is located here along with a small movie theatre.
MultiPlaza Mall

This is definitely the higher-end/designer mall of the 4. It is located by Avenida Balboa, about 15-20 minutes away from MultiCentro. Avoid this mall during rush hour (3-6PM) because getting out of Avenida Balboa at rush hour is very difficult.

Metro Mall
The newest mall in Panama, a large 3 story mall that rivals the Albrook Mall in size and looks, though the location is not as convenient, it is about 10 minutes from the Tocumen Airport and 30 minutes from the city.

For some traditional Panamanian food try on of these two spots:

Las Tinajas-in Bella Vista
This restaurant serves delicious traditional Panamanian food and they have a dancing show nightly that you don’t want to miss (9pm). It is $5 for the show with a minimum consumption of $12 p/person but it’s definitely worth it. Try the yucca pie dish and the corvina.

El Trapiche-on Via Argentina
This is another top restaurant that serves traditional Panamanian food but at more moderate prices. El Trapiche is on a residential street near Via Espana, try the sancocho.

Metropolitan National Park

October 28, 2010 By: Administrator Category: Travel guide

Panama City is probably the only big city in the world that has the jungle coming right up to its city limits! It’s really unique when you see it.

Panama has several national parks. In fact, it has more national parks and protected areas, both in absolute terms as well as percentage wise, than its better known northern neighbor Costa Rica.

If you are staying in the city one of these parks you must visit is the Metropolitan National Park. This is just 10 minutes from Panama City making it one of the only parks in Latin America that lies within an urban area.

It has great views at its “Look Out” points with vistas of the Canal and the city. Not to mention it has five hiking trails to get your heart pumping.The trails range from about an hour to an 1.5 hours, the longest trail with the best views being the Sendero Cienaguita. Although the park is used for research of wildlife this is not the best spot to view mammals however its perfect for birdwatching. Panama itself is popular with birdwatchers and they consider the Metropolitan Park a preferred spot.

Some recent guests also discovered the amazing canopy crane tour that the park offers. The crane has been used since 1990 by the Smithsonian Research Institute for their studies of the national park and the different species that inhabit the area. Now this crane is open to guests as part of a guided tour. You can book this directly through the park for the best rate.

The park also has a library, museum, and of course the gift shop. The hours of the park are from 6am-5pm daily and its $2 per person. They also have a nice website. We recommend going early in the morning when its cooler and you can see more wildlife. All you need is a taxi there, a map of the area, and good hiking shoes and pants.

Panama Restaurant Week

September 11, 2010 By: Gina Category: About Panama, Food

Panama Restaurant week is back for 2010 with some of the best restaurants participating this year. These 25 different restaurants will offer from September 13 to 27 special menus that sample their delicious cuisine. The menu allows you to choose an appetizer, main dish, and a dessert from their available selection along with a glass of Morande (Chile) wine, a Ron Abuelo Dirty Mojito, or a glass of Canada Dry Ginger Ale.

The price of the menu varies depending on the restaurant, usually between $20- $30 per person (not including tax or tip). To see the participating restaurants and their menus please visit www.panamarestaurantweek.com. From there you can select “Restaurantes” and see the list of restaurants along with their contact information and menu for this special event.

The purpose of the Panama Restaurant Week is to allow locals and tourists alike to sample the various cuisine offered in Panama by some of it’s best restaurants at an accessible price. Panama City is one the most metropolitan cities in Central America and one of the most culturally diverse as well, this combination has allowed Panama to develop a competitive restaurant scene with chefs from all around the world. So take advantage of your time here in Panama to enjoy this event and sample some of the best cuisine in Panama.

Nearby participating restaurants:

Cafe Barko (Amador Causeway)

Indigo (Casco Viejo)

Puerta de Tierra Steakhouse (Casco Viejo)

Scena/Platea (Casco Viejo)

Pet Relocation

September 06, 2010 By: Gina Category: Travel guide

Moving to another country can already be a difficult process but moving with a pet can make it much more complicated. Over the past two years we’ve had many guests who come to Panama not as tourists but as future residents and they’ve often asked our advice regarding pet relocation. Therefore we’ve decided to publish a short post on this process and are of course welcoming of any questions.

However please keep in mind that we are not the final authorities on this process and that this is simply information for our guests so that they can take the next stop in finding the right person to assist them with the process.

The page where you will find instructions and necessary documents for your pet’s arrival is from the Ministry of Health here. The first page listed is an application for home quarantine which will allow you to bring your pet to your new residence the same day you arrive instead of having it quarantined with the Ministry of Health for 40 days. This is very important! You must have this filled out and sent to the appropriate office at least 3 days before your arrival otherwise you will have to leave your pet quarantined with the government for 40 days.

The second page is a list of requirements in English and Spanish for a successful relocation for your pet. Again as we mentioned we highly recommend using the services of a company here in Panama to help you with the process. Our guests have used two different companies in the past: The Golden Frog and Panama Pet Relocation.

They will aid you in preparing for your pet’s arrival and be at the airport the day of your arrival/departure to help you through the process with the paperwork and the veterinarian. However another word of warning it’s very important that you maintain constant communication with the company who you contract for this service and that you understand every step of the process so as to avoid any hiccups.

Visiting the Interior

September 01, 2010 By: Gina Category: About Panama, General, Travel guide

When reading travel literature about Panama you will often come across a the slightly ambiguous term “the interior”. The interior of course simple refers to the interior of Panama, the countryside, consisting of the provinces of Veraguas, Los Santos, Herrera, and Cocle.

These regions are often skipped over by visitors who head straight to Bocas or Boquete, however, when you miss the interior you’re missing the heart of Panama. The interior holds the key to much of the history and culture of Panama and is the location of some amazing yearly festivals not to mention the infamous Carnaval celebrations. To see if there are any events during your time in Panama go here.

What to See:

Now because we’re talking about various provinces you can pick and choose how to arrange your trip; were to go and what to skip.  However these are a few of the sites that should be part of your itinerary listed by town.

Penonome (El Cope)

Omar Torrijos National Park

Parita

Iglesia de Santo Domingo de Guzmán

Museo de Arte Religioso Colonial

Sarigua National Park

Guarare

Casa Mueso Manuel F Zarate (994-5644) – polleras, mascaras

Las Tablas

Iglesia de Santa Librada

Isla Iguana

Refugio de Vida Silvestre Cenegon de Mangle (Cenegon de Mangle Wildlife Refuge)

Los Santos

Museo de la Nacionalidad

Sitio Arqueológico Cerro Juan Diaz (cementerios precolombianos)

Pedasi

Isla Las Cañas

Getting Here:

As of now the only way to arrive to these provinces is by land. Previously last year Aeroperlas Airlines was offering weekly flights to Pedasi but has since canceled them until further notice. Truthfully though we highly recommend arriving by land, especially by rental car, it allows a certain freedom during your travels and you can enjoy the changing landscapes as you drive through the country. However you want to permit yourself an itinerary of 8-10 days so you’re not feeling rushed.

By Car:

You can rent a car at the nearby Albrook Airport. We always recommend booking online ahead of time as to ensure the availability of the car and a better rate. For most places mentioned in this post a standard economy sized car is fine except where mentioned. Make sure that you have a decent map on hand, for the most part you will stay on the Interamerican Highway but you keep in mind that road signs are not common in Panama. The drive is about 3-4 hours.

By Bus:

For those who prefer not to drive you can take public transport, there are direct buses to Chitre, Los Santos, and Las Tablas. To get to Pedasi you can take a minibus for $2 or a taxi for $25-$30. The buses that go to the interior have comfortable seating. However we always stress bringing a jacket with you inside the bus and perhaps some headphones because most likely the driver will be playing music at slightly deafening volumes. The bus drive to this region is about 4-5 hours.

Where to Stay

This list comes from our personal experiences and those of our guests. Also if you’re planning this trip be sure to check in with the various hotels about your itinerary since they can give you the most current information on local events and sights.

Posada Cerro La Vieja (Chiguri Arriba-Penonome) – A beautiful eco-resort in the mountains with accessible rates.

Hostal La Qhia (Santa Fe)- A charming guest house with private rooms.

Posada del Mar (Las Tablas) – A small B&B on the beach run by a Canadian/Panamanian couple.

Casita Margarita (Pedasi)- #1 B&B in the area with a very helpful staff.

How to see Casco Viejo

May 31, 2010 By: Gina Category: About Panama, Travel guide

When Henry Morgan and his pirates raided Panama Viejo (Old Panama)in 1671, a new town was built in what is now referred to as ‘Casco Antiguo’ or ‘Casco Viejo’. As you stroll down the narrow streets of Panama’s colonial quarters you will encounter historic churches, beautiful plazas and plenty of restaurants.

At only a 5 minute drive from the Balboa Inn, the “Casco Viejo” is site you don’t want to miss. The best way to experience the Casco Antiguo/Viejo is through a guided tour. The local Casco Antiguo Office [OCA] offers free guided tours on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. The tours are usually with local bilingual students and can last from 2-3 hours. Your guide will explain to you the history of the Casco Viejo and it’s different sites thus providing you with a full experience of the area. In order to arrange a tour you can call the OCA office or ask one of our staff to arrange it. Be sure to ask for a bilingual guide.

If you can’t make the guided tour ask one of our staff for our map of Casco Viejo, it has all the main sites marked and we also try to stay up to date on any events going on in the area so don’t hesitate to ask.


Isla Taboga/ Taboga Island

May 30, 2010 By: Administrator Category: Travel guide

taboga

This beautiful island is under an hour away; just a boat ride across the Panama Canal entrance. It is sometimes referred to as the “Island of Flowers” because of the abundance of orchids, roses, and other variety of flowers that adorn its beautiful walkways.

Taboga is a perfect day-getaway from the traffic and business of the city. While on the island you can shop, birdwatch, scuba dive or simply spend the day on the beach. There are a couple of public beaches, and one private beach accessible by a nice hike through the jungle. One of the more historically interesting sites is a simple church that lies on the island. It was found in 1550 making it the second oldest church in the western hemisphere.

If you do choose stay overnight at Isla Taboga there are a few small B&Bs and hotels. Some of these hotels, like the Cerrito Tropical, even offer day pass where you can use a room for the day. They can also help set you up with hiking fishing, boating and snorkeling trips by advance reservation. The Hotel Taboga is closed as undergoes renovation into a probable resort however here are some other places to stay .

Getting to the Island:

To get to the island you must take one of two ferries. The Calypso ferry departs from the Playita de Amador on the Amador Causeway. The ferry departure times are in the chart below. Times can change  without notice so to confirm departure/arrival times call (507) 314-1730 or check with your hotel. You need to be there an hour before departure, this can be important because there are two afternoon boats and its better to get the latest on so you can don’t have to rush your day. Ticket prices are $11 adults, $7 kids & seniors (roundtrip) and the trip lasts 45min-1 hour. Last piece of advice is bring cash because there are not ATMs or banks on the island.

The other ferry option leaves from the Balboa Yacht Club at 8AM and 3PM M-Sunday. The tickets cost $10 Round trip and the ride is 30-45min. Again you want to be there an hour early. To confirm the time you can call 314-0571

Monday-Wednesday-Friday
Departs Amador Causeway Departs Taboga Island
8:30 a.m. 9:30 a.m.
3:30 p.m. 4:30 p.m.
Tuesday-Thursday
Saturday-Sunday-Holidays
Departs Amador Causeway Departs Taboga Island
8:00 a.m. 9:00 a.m.
10:00 a.m. 3:00 p.m.
4:00 p.m. 5:00 p.m.

El Valle de Anton

April 19, 2010 By: Gina Category: Travel guide

El Valle de Anton is a small mountain valley town located in an ancient volcanic crater. The beauty and temperate climate of the area are partly why this is a popular weekend getaway for locals as well as a preferred tourist destination. The best part is that despite it’s popularity it retains it’s sleepy village charm and never feels overrun with tourists.

In spite of its small size El Valle offers plenty of things to enjoy in a few days or weekend, especially for those who come to Panama to enjoy it’s natural beauty.

Activities available include zip lining, hiking, a small zoo, bike riding, thermal waters, horse back riding and nothing has to be planned ahead of time except perhaps the hotel. El Valle is very tourist friendly and if your hotel isn’t much help with information you can check with the local tourist booth on the main street next to the outdoor market.

Getting Here

By Bus:

You can take a direct bus, about 2 hours, from the Albrook Terminal. They leave about every 1/2 hour and it costs $3.50 each way. The latest you want to leave is 6PM, after that you will arrive late in El Valle and there won’t be many options for dinner. Some advice about the bus, while physically the seating is comfortable some find the drivers’ speed to be excessive, the last 1/2 hour is through windy roads in the hills, for those who suffer motion sickness take this into consideration. Also always bring a jacket and perhaps some headphones on the bus, they crank up the air conditioning and the music quite loud.

Be sure to ask your hotel where to have the bus driver drop you off or arrange for them to pick you up in front of the market (el mercado) and to get around once you in El Valle you can rent bicycles, grab a taxi, or talk with your hotel about arranging transport.

By Rental Car:

This is the preferred method of transport to El Valle. The town is just 30-40 minutes from some great beaches, so with the rental car you have the freedom to head to the beach for a day if you choose.

Recommended Accommodation

Casa Di Pietra B&B

You can’t help but feel at home in this beautifully decorated B&B. It’s a small place, 6 rooms, run by a very friendly and hospitable Costa Rican family. Breakfast is included in their prices and they offer dinner for a separate price, we highly recommend you try at least dinner once at the Casa Di Pietra, you won’t regret it. Note: They don’t allow kids so this is a better place for couples and/or friends traveling together. $60-$90

Golden Frog Inn

A popular choice in El Valle, this B&B has suites and individual guest rooms. They are famous for their beautiful gardens and surrounding scenery and of course the pool. In addition they have a great staff that will help you with organizing activities during your stay and with any questions or concerns you might have. $70-$130

Anton Valley Hotel

This small hotel is one of the top rated hotels in the area, it is located right on the main street of El Valle and has it’s own restaurant next door, Bruschetta, which is very popular with locals and tourists. $55-$125