Pan9

When one needs to reuse airfare, the most important aspect is calendaring the expiration date!  It’s likely fair to say that many a cancelled fare has been forgotten and never used.  I know I have done that.  Put the expiration date in your calendar, or keep the original reservation sheet in your travel folder, or wherever is your best place to keep track of it.

Most of the Panama City skyline did not exist 10 years ago ..

In this case, 2019 Boston travel plans changed resulting in unused fare on American.  We had until April 2020 or the credit would go bye-bye.  Early January is the best (and only) time the hubby is free to travel during tax season — plus it happens to coincide with my birthday.  So, where to go???

Nowhere with snow or I’d be traveling solo.  It’s high season in the Caribbean with crazy rates.  The South Pacific is on the to-do list, but will need to wait.  I started looking at Central American countries.  Panama unanimously gets positive feedback from other travelers who have been.  We wanted to see the canal without going on a cruise.  A moderate downside is American routes through Miami (at least from LA), with a plane change then another 2.5 hours to Panama.   If you have a choice, either Copa or United fly nonstop from LA.  Still, Panama got the nod.

Long Miami layover allowed for lunch at Joe’s Stone Crabs with the hubby’s family — Uncle Mike & Shelley of Boynton.

I was thrilled to see how affordable the hotel rates are!  Your dollar goes far with accommodations, meals and most everything else.  The experience is easy — Panama is on both the USD and the same electrical current — and most folks are English speaking.

1. Accommodations

After initially booking the Santa Maria Hotel & Golf Resort, I followed a frequent visitor’s suggestion to stay right in the city so I changed us to the JW Marriott.  That turned out to be a mistake as there were significant renovations impacting the pool experience among other issues there.

Poolside at the Santa Maria with the golf course in the background.

Here’s where one of my favorite topics — Brand Loyalty — played a huge role.  Both properties are under the Marriott umbrella.  Upon explaining our situation, the JWM general manager without hesitation facilitated our move to our original choice, providing a car and driver for the transfer.  The same rate was honored.  We were welcomed at the Santa Maria literally with open arms.  But it gets better.  Gorgeous flowers arrived two days later on my birthday from the JWM manager with lovely wishes.  That’s what I call customer service 101.  Brilliant.

Feeling the birthday love, all courtesy of the hotels.

2. Visiting the Canal

A trip to Panama is not complete without some tour of the Canal, whether via cruise ship or our choice of going to the Miraflores Visitor Center.  An excellent documentary narrated by Morgan Freeman at the adjacent Imax theater provided the history of the canal from which I learned a great deal.  And then we waited on a viewing deck for an enormous ship to pass through (one of forty in a 24-hour cycle).  Patience is key as it is very slow going, about one hour to transcend a particular lock.  In the end, it’s fascinating to see the canal in “action.”

Jockeying for position to capture a photo of the vessel heading down the Miraflores Lock.
From our guide’s phone — apps that show all Canal traffic and descriptions of the vessels.
Near side full and far side empty. Remarkable engineering.
With Robert Valencia, our excellent guide.
Two trains on each side attached by cables pull this enormous vessel through the lock. A captain up top guides a ship from the beginning to end.

3.  Fit for Foodies

A birthday dinner at Maito (#17 on the San Pelligrino Top 50 in Latin America) was a great experience.  It’s hard to pinpoint a specific “Panamanian” cuisine.  We had everything during our visit from fresh fish to terrific and authentic pizza to a French bistro preparing steak tartare tableside.   With the very large and observant Jewish population, Kosher restaurants are abundant and we’re told excellent.

Above from Maito (clockwise from upper left):  Kale with fresh hearts of palm; tacos; Cline Pinot from Sonoma; Banana Napolean; Coconut Ice Cream in Chocolate Shell; flat iron steak — all excellent!

Authentic French bistro in the old town.

4.  My Takeaway

Scenic.  Safe.  Affordable.   Three key phrases to entice travelers for a visit plus expats and retirees looking to possibly relocate to this terrific destination.

Cheers! We had a great time …