Visiting Panama with Ancon Expeditions of Panama was my first study tour that was truly an experiential visit. As a group of seven travel advisors, we were on the move every day, learning and experiencing the many highlights of Panama. Here are my top five. 1. The Canal The obvious #1 reason to visit Panama is to see the Panama Canal. It is on everyone’s bucket list…but why? The Canal enriches the history, the culture, the economy and the nature of not just Panama, but our entire world. The Canal is permanently neutral and serves ships of all nations of the world. Each ship must have a Canal Pilot on board to pass through. A tip for travelers: opt for the partial Canal transit. The whole Canal can take 8-10 hours to pass through. If you take a partial transit, you can cut that time in half and still experience the locks and half of the Canal! 2. Nature After we saw the Canal (by ferry, by boat, by train, and by sailboat!) we ventured outside of Panama City to see the rest of Central Panama. Our next stop was a visit to the Gamboa Rainforest where we bird watched (and listened!) in awe of our wonderful guide Hernan, who could call and name every bird within earshot. We climbed the Gamboa Rainforest Tower, saw the different layers of the rainforest and looked for miles and miles out over the canopy layers. Our day ended with a boat ride on Gatun Lake where we saw even more wildlife, including mantled howler monkeys, black spider monkeys, long nosed bats, black bellied whistling ducks and a red lored parrot…just to name a few. 3. The Accommodations Our trip began in Casco Viejo at the beautiful American Trade Hotel, one of my favorites in Panama City. With an outdoor pool that looked out over the city, a world-class jazz club, and décor so unique that guests frequently order it from a catalog, the character and experience of the hotel was the warmest welcome to begin our journey. To give us an idea of the “relaxing vacation” potential of Panama, we rented out the entire property of El Otro Lado Resort in Portobello. Only a five minute sunset boat transfer on “the other side” of the bay, El Otro Lado is made up of four private one bedroom houses and one three bedroom house. The resort truly is a private retreat – as each of its three beaches are a five to fifteen minute boat ride away and secluded from the property. My favorite part of the resort (aside from my Bayfront private house) was the main gazebo that opens out to the swimming pool. A relaxing evening in the pool with a passion fruit mojito followed by a delicious dinner served at the gazebo dining table made for a Portobello paradise. 4. The People We visited the Embera Quera indigenous village. Made up of only 30 people, the community is known for its basket weaving and handicrafts. The people of Embera Quera speak only a few words of English. Their lack of English gave me the confidence to use my limited knowledge of Spanish. What an experiential visit it was to communicate with the women of this village. One of the greatest joys of the day was watching the young children laugh and run around the community with nothing more than a few sticks and other natural toys. 5. Ancon Expeditions of Panama The hosting touring company, Ancon Expeditions of Panama, is a Virtuoso partner of Aladdin Travel. They know how to show off their country and immerse you in all that it has to offer. It is well worth having someone share experiences and information with you throughout your stay. Our Ancon guide, Hernan Arauz was the son of a famous archaeologist and cartographer. It was delightful having Hernan navigate us through the history and culture of his home country. He knew the markets to visit, the handicrafts to buy, where to buy them, and how much you should spend on them. He knew the lookouts to pull over for, the detours to take, the food to order and the Panama hats worth waiting for! Note: Don’t buy your Panama hat in preparation for your trip, wait to get the real thing IN Panama! Mary Louise
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