After two years of pandemic suppression, it feels to me like international for fun travel is trying its best to make a comeback. And this post is my personal evidence of that, as I just returned from an amazing adventure in Panama with a truly lovely group of intellectually curious and seasoned travelers. They all came and conquered, laughed and smiled, and bonded with the group in spite of having to navigate extra paperwork hassles, mask-wearing aggravations and plenty of overarching COVID-19 concerns while traveling abroad.
Antony and Mary Underwood, graciously acted as host and hostess for this robust group of intrepid American travelers, and the rewards were most certainly worth the headaches. We were all taken up by the charming ease and elegance of our hosts as we rode the red-carpeted wave of well-heeled travel that they rolled out for us. They imbued us with their elegant assuredness. And it was as if by osmosis that we too felt a relaxed confidence and ease. Times being what they are, unexpected Covid-related glitches came up, such as non-operational trains, closed museums and dinner menus amiss, but they took it all in stride and, therefore, so did we.
Our luxurious hotel for our 5-night stay, Central Hotel Panama, was on the pretty Plaza Mayor, now known as Plaza de la Independencia. It’s across from the cathedral, Catedral Metropolitana, in the heart of the picturesque Casco Antiguo, or Old Quarter. This historic district, dating back to 1673 and considered a UNESCO Cultural World Heritage Site, is still in the midst of a major gentrification process. And our group was the beneficiary, able to stroll around the charming old town, admiring all those handsome buildings that have been, and continue to be, lovingly restored.
And the weather was just so gorgeous, with plenty of sunshine and temperatures ranging from 76 to 89 degrees. It is the same time zone as New York, they use the US Dollar, and all the electrical sockets are standard USA, so all we needed was our passport (no visa required!). And of course, we had our sneakers, sundresses, bathing suits and plenty of room in our luggage to fit the little take away pieces of Panama (like those Panama hats no one could resist).
And to make matters even better, wherever we went, we never really had to fight a crowd! And yes, that meant that we had the full viewing pleasure of the man-made wonder of the Panama Canal essentially all to ourselves.
We drank wine at lunch and late into the evenings and ate glorious food, including indulging in decadent desserts, without worrying about decisions or bills. It seemed there was constant permission given, by our hosts, to indulge in decadence and have fun. And as we were wined and dined, feeling that carefree feeling of being guests at an elaborate dinner party, we also enjoyed the connections we were making with each other, a cohesion of cohorts. All of this, while celebrating the astounding feat of the Panama Canal and its lakes from every possible path and angle.
We piled into a zippy open-air speedboat to race alongside giant container ships then encountered howler monkeys and heard them roar. We surveyed the entire canal and its lakes from the tippy top of a rainforest tower that could only be reached by aerial tram. We overlooked both sets of locks, at opposite ocean entrances, all the while feeling supremely taken care of, comfortable and relaxed.
We traipsed comfortably between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans, crossing the 50-mile width of this attractive, important and historical country. We all marveled at the engineering feat of the canal, but also took time to pay homage along the way to the way too many lives lost here in such terrible associated fights and failures.
Someone else was driving the bus, literally and figuratively, for the whole trip. So, all we had to do was enjoy getting to know each other, have great conversations, absorb it all with our ears and eyes, while taking plenty of photos to remember it all by.
Meal after beautiful meal, the salad and steak and wine and dessert kept coming! One delicious bite after the next, all while sitting in one luxurious and fabulous setting after another. We dined al fresco in gorgeous locations overlooking the canal lakes, or lakeside among the lotus, or on breezy seaview rooftops overlooking the city and the Pacific.
At one point, fireworks erupted in the sky in honor of the Chinese New Year, but it felt like it was meant exclusively for us. We danced to ABBA around a rooftop pool with jugglers, our faces full of glitter and jewels and smiles.
Antony and Mary smartly hired a local guide, Jose, who was a gem. He gave us riveting history lessons with incredible enthusiasm and perfect English. He instilled confidence in us, and we all knew that we were in good hands, as he patiently answered all of our questions all day long. Jose also took great photos of us and had an amazing attitude and an enviable passion for the history of Panama. Through him, we learned so much more about Panama’s independence from Colombia. We also learned about France’s failure with the canal construction which preceded the American’s involvement. We talked about the 1989 invasion of Panama, the history of the Canal Zone and the eventual withdrawal of America in 1999, turning the Canal back over to Panama.
In addition to fully appreciating the greatest engineering masterpiece, Jose and Antony and Mary made sure that our group took time to experience skyscrapers and slums, both of which are easily seen and reached from our Old Quarter oasis. Seeing the juxtaposition of such poverty and wealth certainly had us all wondering about corruption and exactly where all that income from the Canal really goes.
We were a happy and curious crew of mask-wearing, church-admiring, panama-hat-toting, wine-drinking adventurers. The streets were relatively empty, and we felt very safe, with plenty of police presence, aided by our proximity to the Presidential Palace.
Our 5-day Trip, Day by Day:
Sunday, February 13: Arrival day
I landed in Panama City at 8am on Copa Airlines, after a quick 2 ½ hour flight from San Juan, PR and was met by a driver who whisked me off to Central Hotel Panama, just 25 minutes away. They say convenience is currency, and this hotel is mint—so perfectly placed in the heart of the Old Quarter, right on Plaza Mayor, overlooking the beautiful cathedral. Built in 1874, The hotel is UNESCO listed and has been restored magnificently, ensuring both luxury and history are found here in spades.
I settled into room 210 with an outdoor balcony with a small view of the water and the quaint shopping street down below. After breakfast in the lobby, complete with colorful Panamanian dancers twirling around us, we wandered around the Casco Viejo, Old Quarter, then ate a delicious al fresco lunch at Casa Cathedral Museo de Antano surrounded by vintage cars and fantastic matching décor.
We shopped and wandered the brick streets, admiring the architecture and soaking up the hot sun. We swam laps in our hotel’s rooftop outdoor pool that boasted spectacular views of the church of San Francisco de Asis. Our welcome dinner was at the rooftop restaurant Lazotea overlooking the Panama Bay of the Pacific Ocean. The night started with poolside jugglers and a fantastic meal accompanied by flowing red and white wine, then the fireworks began mid-meal (to celebrate Chinese new year) which set us into the mood to dance while the DJ played ABBA and BeeGees, just for us. We all sang and wore glitter and jewels on our faces. The smiles and laughter were endless. It was amazing!!!
Monday, February 14: Valentine’s day
We started the day with a buffet breakfast at the hotel and then enjoyed a detailed and passionate welcome talk by Jose in the comfortable lobby. We then walked all over the Old Quarter, taking in the Plaza de Francia, Plaza Bolivar, the ruins of the church of la Companie de Jesus, the Church of San Jose, with its famous golden altar, and the ruins of the Convent of Santo Domingo with the famous low arch that is over three hundred years old.
We ascended to dine on a rooftop with impeccable food at de Diez for lunch and indulged in cocktails and dessert, of course! Then we were able to squeeze in some more rooftop swimming and a massage at the spa before a pink champagne dinner at Santa Rita with our whole happy group. Dinner was full of laughter, wit and just overall great conversation.
Tuesday, February 15:
Today we navigated all around the canal and saw both oceans! It certainly was a busy one—jam packed with speedboating around the canal right alongside the big container ships. We also spent time with monkeys, up close and personal (and also at a safe distance!) as we putted around in Gatun Lake. Then we had a lovely lunch in Gamboa Rainforest Hotel perched over the lake. My favorite part about that lunch, other than the amazing view and breezes, was Mary telling personal tales of Lady Diana Spencer in her gentle and oh-so-British accent, over the most delectable chocolate mousse.
After lunch we went up to see the amazing Neopanamax Gatun lock system, completed in 2016, up on the Atlantic Ocean side, to accommodate ships larger than the Titanic. We watched a 7000 car-carrier cross through the lock from the Atlantic Ocean into the Pacific. Jose told us all about the fees these ships pay (as much as one million dollars for one ship to pass through once) and about where the money goes, (or is supposed to go). We loaded up on souvenirs and historical knowledge, satisfying our appetite for dates, stories and facts while the canal was right there before us.
We came back to our hotel to swim in the pool and then it was a free night to do dinner on our own. So, my family enjoyed drinks on the rooftop at CasaCasco on Plaza Herrera with wonderful views and breezes, then we chose a Peruvian restaurant close to our hotel called Nazca 21. It was good, but we certainly missed our host and hostess leading us and our dynamic touring group that night!
Wednesday, February 16:
We spent today at the Gamboa Rainforest Center, enjoying an aerial tram ride through the rainforest canopy to reach a 10 story overlook that we climbed up to take in the breathtaking views of the Chagres River, the village of Gamboa and the Panama Canal. When we descended we were able to spend some time with sloths in a sanctuary that treats and rehabilitates them.
Then we had a lovely buffet lunch at Don Caiman, right on the lake, so that we got to watch the crocodiles and turtels and enjoy the lily pads all around us. After lunch we went to see the Miraflora locks (completed in 1914 to accommodate ships up to the size of the Titanic). This was the first time on the trip that we felt like we actually had to share the sightseeing with some other people! Jose also gave us some perspective on Panama’s rate of unemployment, its history as a fiscal paradise, and the rise of real estate values in the canal zone. When we got back to the hotel, we swam in the pool and ate a steak dinner at Marulo in the Casacasco building.
Thursday, February 17: Our last day
We boarded wooden boats crafted from giant logs and enjoyed an adrenaline-fueled ride upriver maneuvering by a small motor, but navigated by a lookout guy with a long wooden pole to keep us from grounding in the rocky shallows. We reached the village with our hearts in our throats to disembark and meet the locals and buy handicrafts and ask questions and hear about their life in the village. Then we ate fish they caught in the river just before we arrived. It was wrapped in banana leaves and we ate it with our hands. Then we partook in a wonderful dance with them and went back down the river by log boat once again. It was all so fantastic!
After that, we got back to the hotel and changed and headed to the Causeway Marina to board a big beautiful catamaran for a lively cocktail cruise around Panama Bay. After that scenic and amazing cruise, we disembarked at the foot of the Marriott tower, the tallest building (and sail-shaped!) on the waterfront. We dined right there at La Vespa for our farewell dinner, under a full moon that glistened across Panama Bay, with a very jovial and now close-knit crew indeed.
Friday, February 18: Departure day
I was able to do some last-minute strolling and shopping for purses, dresses and hats in the old quarter with two lovely new friends from the group, which turned into lunch at the almost always full Lo Que Hay restaurant. I squeezed in a visit to the colorful flora and fauna BioMuseum, a landmark of Panama City, designed by Frank Gehry, and had some last laps in the rooftop pool before heading to the airport.
I loved how everyone hugged each other goodbye after our farewell dinner. And I feel confident in saying that we were all so very full from this trip, and not just from the food and wine but from the new sights and sounds, knowledge, memories and friends.
I felt that my family really reveled in being free to relax and just sit back and let Antony, Mary and Jose do the thinking and lead the way. They are running another trip to Panama City on March 4. I was on such a high at the end that I nearly signed up for that! Ha!
But seriously, I did sign up, along with several others, for their upcoming cruise in August along the Dalmatian Coast, on a lovely yacht.
The New Panama Canal: A Risky Bet; How Wall Street Created a Nation by Ovidio Diaz Espino; The Panama Papers; The Panama Deception.