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Panama Canal

The Zika virus did it, not once, but twice! Laid low my well thought out vacation plans!

The first time was in 2016. I had planned a spring getaway to an Aruba resort with a stopover on the way back in Panama and ending in Tampa to visit family. All on miles with hotel bookings on points. Then, the Zika Virus epidemic took over Central and South America and we decided to cancel the trip. While there was no mention of any long-term effects of potential exposure to Zika in non pregnant humans, we felt it best not to tempt fate. So we cancelled the trip and stayed home.

Last year, I tried to recreate the trip but couldn’t make it all the way to Aruba. Instead, I was able to find flights from Dallas to Panama City, Panama and back for our 2018 spring trip. The majority of the options on the way back were routed through Nicaragua and San Salvador. And after a while of seeing the same, it struck me that we could stopover in Nicaragua, just for a couple of days. With the kids’ school schedule being tight, we could not afford to miss any school days. So we had to finish the entire trip within the ten days school was out.

I was able to find business class tickets to Panama and back, during that time, with a stopover for 2.5 days in Nicaragua, for the same price. While I normally don’t consider business class for such short distances, in this case it had the most reasonable schedule and worked well with my time restrictions.

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Panamanian Biodiversity

I used 180,000 United miles for the round trip and just under 400 USD for the rest of the family to book this itinerary. I had unused miles in my Singapore Airlines from our cancelled Hawaii trip in March 2017. I used them to book the same itinerary for me at a cost of 60,000 Singapore miles and about 180 USD.

With our travel dates settled, we had three full days in Panama and two and a half days in Nicaragua. I knew going in that we wanted to see the Panama Canal, the Casco Viejo, Panama Viejo and rainforest area. I also wanted to visit the Embera tribe village along the Chagres River. Panama is known for its unique biodiversity and the kids wanted to explore that side of the country. There is a lot to see and do in this country and three days just wasn’t enough. So our main focus became Panama City and its surroundings. We would have to return another time to experience the magic of Boquete, Bocas del Toro and the San Blas islands.

A few years ago, I had come across a blog called As we saw it, written by an American expat couple living in Panama. It’s a well written blog with lovely photos and a glimpse into travel in Panama. I reread all of their posts related to Panama City and its environs. I also got good insight from the posts on TripSavvy. A few days before our trip, I came across a blog called Past the potholes, that had great information about day trips from Panama. One last resource I used was the Amateur Traveler podcasts on Panama.

After studying Nicaragua, it became clear we had to focus on Granada and its surroundings to capture a slice of that country’s natural beauties. I read Nomadic Matt’s Nicaragua travel guide. And I found inspiration in a few other blogs like this one, called Inspired by maps.

Once we had an idea of what we wanted to experience, Mr. JJ and I looked into booking our hotel accommodations. After reviewing all our options, we decided to use the Citi Prestige benefit to book our hotel. I have covered this already in a separate post elsewhere. We chose the Marriott Executive Apartments Panama City, Finisterre. It had easy access to the airport and all the places we wanted to visit.

For our Granada lodging, we decided to book through Airbnb and found this private bedroom in this B and B. Liam, our host offered to arrange a taxi from Managua airport  to Granada right after we landed. This is about an hour’s journey one way. After two days exploring Granada, we would take a cab back to Managua on Friday night to be closer to the airport. Our flight out of Managua to San Salvador was scheduled for an early departure. We chose a room at the Airport X Managua Hotel through Booking.com

For our transportation in Panama City, we looked at the top few choices on TripAdvisor. And sent emails asking for quotes from three of them: Amber Moon Panama Taxi Service, Panama Your Way and R and E Transfer Panama.

We heard back immediately from R and E transfer. They provide taxi services but their drivers are not licensed tour guides. Amber Moon did not have any availability at time of our travel. Panama Your Way was available but more expensive than R and E, not surprising, considering they provide tour guides and not just transportation.

We chose R and E transfer Panama since they were the most responsive to our emails. They were able to help create a suitable itinerary for us and helped rearrange it in the best manner possible for our trip. Although not a tour guide service, we felt their drivers could give us adequate information on local sights.

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Panamanian Beach

Our final itinerary for the trip looked like this:

Day 1: Travel from Dallas to San Salvador on Saturday, short stopover, then onto Panama City. We would reach Panama around 11 pm. RE transfer would pick us up at airport and drop off at hotel.

Day 2: RE Transfer pick up at 9:30 am, then Panama City full tour including the Canal, Casco Viejo, BioMuseo

Day 3: Early morning pick up at 8 am for day trip to El Valle de Anton. Return trip would stop at Punta Chame beach for some water fun, before returning to hotel

Day 4: Day trip to Embera Village tour.

Day 5: Leave for Managua, arrive around 1 pm, taxi transfer to Granada, tour local markets, bell tower, local architecture

Day 6 and Day 7: Ometepe Island, explore Masaya or Mombacho volcanoes, visit Las isletas de Granada, Laguna de Apoyo. We did not have all the details worked out since Liam felt we could plan it all once we got there. We knew what we wanted to see, so we were okay with this plan. We planned to finish an early dinner and take a cab back to Managua for stay at airport hotel.

Day 8: Early morning flight from Managua to San Salvador and onwards to Dallas.

Join us as we explore our Panama travels this spring.