Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Panama..... to the Beach!

For the second part of our trip, we headed back to Panama City where we would drop our rental car off at the small domestic airport of Panama, Albrook or Marcos A. Gelabert.  We had to leave Boquete painfully early (before we even got to eat breakfast or have coffee) and not much was open for a good while. We had some breakfast bars but those never cut it for me for very long.... especially without coffee. So we finally find a place to stop, a panaderia which is a type of bakery. Horrible mistake. The coffee was incredibly watered down and not good and the pastry we got was not good either (tasted like something you'd get out of Walmart's bakery section!). So off we went, down the street to get coffee at ... you won't believe this... McDonalds! Boo hiss. I am not a fan of theirs, as you may or may not know... and would almost rather die than eat there, ESPECIALLY on vacation in a foreign country. But!! We were desperate for at least regular strength coffee... even if it was from McDonalds and not what we would even call good coffee. It was interesting to see their menu though- it was very different from an American McDonalds menu. 

Here are some of the sights on the way (there was a time where we were in the clouds!). Notice the very bottom picture- these are the roads just outside of Boquete, before you get to David. They are new construction (& still being worked on in many areas) and are pretty interesting in regards to driving. There appears to be no rhyme or reason to the way the lanes are divided up. You would think (at least if you are from the US maybe) that the 2 lanes on the right go one way and the 2 lanes on the left go in the opposite direction. Well this is sometimes true and you will see people passing as we do in our country. However, every so often you will have the opportunity to go across into the other 2 lanes, which apparently many do. Often we would be driving down the road and have someone coming in the opposite direction on the lane next to us, not in the 2 lanes that you would think be for going in that direction. Our tour guide for the coffee plantation did tell us that there are a lot of accidents on this highway, most certainly this is one of the reasons why! So you will see that we are in the "wrong" lane to go the direction we are heading but were forced over by construction. But we still saw people going the opposite direction on the other side! 

So after getting our coffee emergency taken care of, we headed on our way back to Panama City. I'd say it was pretty uneventful. No traffic stops. I drove part of the way (Mike had driven all the way to Boquete and was not going to let that happen again!) and thankfully had no mishaps. We stopped at a grocery store to get lunch to eat in the car (we were worried our trip back would be like the trip down and we could not miss our flight!). I really enjoy browsing through the grocery stores in foreign countries. So interesting! This store was super busy with long lines at the check out. Maybe it was a common day to go shopping? It also had security in the parking lot and covered parking. 

Here are some of the things we saw while on the highway in Panama City. I wouldn't say we were driving through the "nice" part of PC. 

We make it to Panama City (and see a bit more of the city since we're coming in a different way) and to the airport... crazily enough, we're a few hours early. So we definitely could have woken up later, had breakfast/coffee, and still made it in time (barring any unforeseen circumstances like we had on our way up). But ah well. We go to a coffee shop (looks very similar to Starbucks but it is a regional coffee company) and have some good coffee to kill some time. Then we take back our rental inside the airport and then get checked in (which they were not even checking in our flight when we arrived to stand in line, we were that early!). Then we waited some in the waiting room before our very small plane arrived and we boarded. 

Here is our small plane and the beautiful views we enjoyed while up in the air (when I wasn't petrified of crashing!). The far left picture on the bottom is the "airport" we landed in front of (on a grass landing strip no less) on the island. 

There was a van waiting and we soon found out that everyone getting off the plane was going to our same hotel (some workers and one couple who were also staying there). We drove quite a ways through the jungle to get to the hotel and when we arrived, this is what we saw.

The structure is the main hotel building with the restaurant, bar, "store", etc. The tall pole in front of it is where the macaws come and land to wait for the fruit they set out just below. It was amazing to see (and hear!) these birds all throughout the time we were on the island. We would be doing this or that and hear a loud squawking in the distance (you can hear them from really far away!) and look out to see them approaching in a group. It is amazing that a bird so pretty can sound so annoying!! :) I did enjoy them though. 

Now backing up to our locale. The Pearl Islands are a set of islands located in the Gulf of Panama, about 30 miles off of the Pacific coast of Panama. There are about 100 islands, most uninhabited. Contadora Island is known for it's resorts and where wealthy Panamanians have homes. However, our hotel was located on San Jose Island, the second largest island in the Pearl Islands. Despite it's size, it only has one hotel and a couple fishing shacks. Our hotel was called Hacienda Del Mar. I had considerable difficulty finding a beach location for our trip. The popular place to go from Boquete (Bocas) was just too difficult for us to swing logistically. I wasn't keen on a pacific coast location... I wanted the clear and calm Caribbean. So when I found this location, just off of Panama City, with calm, clear water I was pretty excited. The reviews we found were ok... not stellar but ok. After such an extensive search I decided this was going to be it. I am going to go into a bit of a hotel review... so if you have no interest in that, you can skip on through and just look at the pictures.

Our cabana was a bit rustic but mostly comfortable. The cabanas are not really sealed off to the outside air very well so the a/c has to work super hard (a window type unit) to cool the room but it was definitely cooler in the room. The view from our balcony was gorgeous. 

When we arrived, Mike was grumpy (I mean GRUMPY). He does not like the heat and had to grump about it for a bit. We relaxed in our room, I think he took a nap while he cooled off and I enjoyed the balcony for a bit. (He did get over the grumpiness and he must have adjusted because he wasn't grumpy the rest of our stay... so that was good!) 

We explored the beaches/water in either direction from our hotel during our stay and found some pretty neat and beautiful things.

And here are the geckos that greeted us each night when we came back to our room after dinner (look closely just under the light, above the number sign). 

Overall, I'd say our stay was relaxing but interesting. The hotel was in a beautiful location. Perfect for lazing around reading (which I love to do anyway but with the ocean nearby it is super lush!). The food, overall was fairly good. Nothing spectacular... only one dish stands out in my mind and that was just a simple salad with huge shrimp and a really yummy dressing that had the perfect amount of salt and creaminess. The service was good although sometimes communication was difficult as no one really spoke much English. We ordered in Spanish but beyond ordering, communication was a struggle! For instance, we didn't completely understand a few things on the menu which ended up costing us extra money... had the language barrier not been there, it could have been explained. But no matter, that is the risk you take when traveling in foreign countries. We're ok with that. 

The bugs on the island were somewhat of an issue. We felt them biting when we got there so we used a repellent that I brought for our entire stay. I didn't use it on the last day because it had been raining & I thought I was safe. But then I came away from the resort scratching like crazy w/ lots of bites (kinda like chigger bites but they call the bugs chitres… I see online they are sand fleas?? I dunno. Maybe it was something in the room. Our bed had a really strong smell of cilantro on the last night & I thought that maybe they put some sort of repellant on there and so we switched to the other bed... I am not keen on the idea of sleeping in pesticides!). 

Probably our biggest complaint would be that we never got a key to our room. The manager said he would get it to us on the first day at arrival but then never did. When we asked at dinner, he side tracked us by talking about how to say it in Spanish and then we never got it. Our suspicion was that they didn't have one for that room. We felt safe (locked it when we were in there) and there were so few guests we didn't think that anyone would take anything. It was also such a small resort, we could watch our door from nearly anywhere we were, except on the beach. We locked up our valuables in the safe when we went on the boat tour. 

Oh ... the boat tour is another crazy adventure. We went on it because we actually wanted to snorkel. We asked the manager if we could do a boat tour … the listing for it said it would take you around the island where you could enjoy other beaches and snorkel. He set it up for us for the following day. When it came near we asked if we could snorkel and if so, where to get the snorkeling stuff. He said he would check with the boat captain and see if the conditions were ok for snorkeling. Well we get on the boat and don't see any snorkeling stuff. Then we get going on the tour and I just figured that the conditions were not right. Well it was on our tour that I see that the water is not really prime snorkeling water- it's dark and not clear like all other places we've snorkeled. It isn't clear like it is near our hotel, just off the beach. Then we get about an hour into the tour (it is a 3 hour tour... so of course Mike is singing the Gilligan's Island song off and on the whole trip), we haven't stopped anywhere and we see really dark clouds. Next thing we know, we are in pouring rain. It is also freezing by then... gone are the hot, steamy temps that we'd seen since we arrived on the island. The boat captain has us sit in his seats after a bit so that we can get out of the rain. It was really pretty bad. I think it probably rained for about 45 minutes while we went around that part of the island. It was not so fun. I was tensed up trying not to shiver uncontrollably  Finally it let up and we were able to enjoy the scenery again. We arrived back at our hotel after about 2.5 hours. So it was definitely a wasted $200! We saw 1 dolphin poke up two times and some flying fish but that was the extent of the excitement. It was really pretty but not really much that we couldn't already see from the grounds of our hotel.  The boat captain and the other guy didn't speak any english so we didn't even bother trying to figure out why that was the boat tour we got. And as you can see from our pictures, it was really not so great. (Not to mention the dampness made my camera go crazy for a few days afterward, taking tinted pictures!)

So all in all we had a relaxing time with great views. We weren't upset at any point, despite the negatives, we just felt like things could have been improved to be more in line with the cost of the stay. It was very beautiful so I think that made up for a lot of the issues.  So I wouldn't probably pick that place again if we were to want a beach location in Panama again… but we still had a nice time there. 

Speaking of nice time... 

We spent three nights on the island and when the day came to leave, we packed up and went to eat breakfast. We learned that a storm would prevent the plane from coming to the island and that it would be a bit later that we would leave. They would know when the plane left Panama City so we would have plenty of time to make it to the "airport". So we hung out and read a bit after taking some last minute pictures. (The discoloration is due to the dampness on the boat trip... despite it being a waterproof camera!) We never once got in the pool... we just looked out at it during most of our meals!

Here is the landing strip and our plane to head back to Panama City in. Even smaller than the last! Eeek! You know it is a small plane when you can see the pilot not too far in front of you clicking on the route on his GPS!

When we arrived in Panama City, we basically had the whole day to kill before our flights took off at 2:08 AM!! the following day. We didn't want a hotel room for a few hours so we decided to kill time at the mall. We had our luggage, which was kind of a drag... but thankfully we packed light. The malls are pretty similar to our malls with just a few differences. For one, we've never seen lines to get tickets to the movies so long... except maybe on opening night of a huge hit. They spiraled around the outside of the mall theater! The lines stayed the same length the whole day long so we didn't figure it was a new movie everyone was dying to see.  Scratch seeing a movie off our list of things we could do! We ended up at two different malls and took a taxi from one to the other. This same taxi driver asked what time we would be done and then picked us back up at that time to take us to the theater! Wow... talk about reliable! We ate our meals in the malls which were decent (we chose non-chain, non-fast food places). We saw a teen walking around with a small monkey on his shoulder. (Never have I see that in the mall in the US!) 

We ended up at the airport a couple hours before we could even check in for our flight. Maybe it was around 8p and check in was at 11p? We skyped a bit with the kids via the free wifi (w/o video because the speed was so slow) and then tried to cat nap (Mike successful, me not at all). I did sleep a bit when we got on our plane... and we had to get on another plane in Florida. It was a very long morning!! Then back to OKC from Dallas to pick up the kids after a quick stop in IKEA and H&M. :) We were soooo glad to see the kids (even though they both cried within seconds of seeing us... Jackson accidentally killed a baby frog and Bella was upset to go home and miss the park they were headed to) and sooo glad that everything went fairly well for my sister and brother in law who kept them. (A BIG HUGE thank you to them!!)

And thanks to our travel agent, Laura, with Anchors Aweigh Vacations for her help and patience with the booking of this trip!

We were so happy to celebrate our 10th anniversary in such a lovely place... we're excited to share it with our kids in the future!


Gray Family said...

Fun! I remember it being super hot in Jamaica and we only had a little unit in our room that ran all the time. Looks like you guys had a fun trip :)

Blog-anista said...

My mom and I were just talking about you and I was telling her I thought your 10th anniversary was close. Looks like a great trip ... and happy anniversary (albeit a little late)

Leslie said...

Yep, that is about how it was in Panama, Jessica!

Leslie said...

Thanks Felina! Hard to believe it has been 10 years. It was a nice trip. :)