The following article is by my friend Acquania Escarne. She and several family members surprised her Dad with a trip 'back home' to Panama for his 65th birthday.
Read on to learn how they managed traveling with a large family group, squeezed in many cool things, and came home with great memories.
From Acquania Escarne
Since my first international adventure to Madrid, Spain, when I was in the 7th grade, I have ventured to 35 countries. Sometimes I stayed for one week, others for two to three years. I even grew up to pursue a job where I could travel and live abroad.
The way I traveled then is different than the way I travel now. For me - traveling later means traveling more luxurious and with a mindset of “memories are everything!” Translation--no more hostels or all inclusive joints for me. YOLO baby!
So it’s only fitting that when I traveled to Panama this past March my trip was an upgrade from my first visit while in college in 2005. Back then, I ventured to Panama on spring break with my mom (she is cool like that - trust me) and two friends.
On that trip, we took several connecting flights and split our time between an all-inclusive beach hotel and a super cheap hotel in Panama City. We ran around trying to snap pictures of all the tourist sites and went to a Sean Paul concert.
When the airline offered money to give up our seats, we stayed an extra night. Nothing to do that Monday but class right?
This year’s trip to Panama was a year in the making. For me, it was not just another vacation. It was the first time I would travel to Panama with my Dad, who was born and raised there. My father was returning home for the first time since 1981. And it would be his 65th birthday.
I was also taking my husband for his first time to Panama. Saying this trip was special is an understatement. Oh, and did I mention this would be a surprise for my dad?!?
I always look for a good flight deal when I travel. But sometimes I compare the costs of a cheaper connecting flight with flying direct. To me, flying non-stop means less stress trying to make a connection. It also means lower chances of your luggage not arriving when you do. One time a bag of mine ended up in Colombia, in South America, when I was flying home to Washington, D.C.
These things matter more to me now than they did when I was younger.
For this trip, my husband and I flew from Dulles International Airport direct to Panama City, Panama. We flew Copa Airlines, a Star Alliance Member and Panama’s official airline. During our five hour flight, a meal was served, liquor was free, and the latest Hollywood and international movies were available for viewing.
When I searched for flights, I found we could connect for $595 or fly direct for $700. Needless to say, flying direct was worth the extra $105, especially since all the connecting flights left at 6 a.m. and the Copa flight left at 10 a.m. In the end, we paid nothing for our flights because we cashed in American Express points.
And, bonus - my hubby and I are Star Alliance members, so we both earned over 3,000 points for this flight and plan to cash in those miles on our next vacation.
Go Luxury or Stay Home
I traveled a lot in a previous job, propelling me to platinum status (now called Titanium Elite) with Marriott in less than a year. Since then I’ve been a loyal customer staying at some of the best hotels in the world. My membership comes with money-saving perks like free food and drinks in lounges or free breakfast. I also get complimentary room upgrades, late check out, a welcome gift, and cheaper hotel rates than nonmembers.
As a result, if I am in charge of planning the vacation I always pick a Marriott property whenever possible. Plus, since Marriott’s merger with Starwood my options have expanded worldwide.
My hotel search led me to Buenaventura Golf & Beach Resort, a luxury hotel on Panama’s Pacific coast. This hotel had amenities to meet the diverse needs of everyone in our group. My dad would love the pool, my husband planned to play golf, and the ladies could lounge on the beach. They offered several restaurants, free bikes, horseback riding, a spa, and a fitness center.
After surprising my dad at the airport, our group of six loaded in a van and drove two hours to the coast. The hotel provided a map that we used initially but soon abandoned for Google maps. Although most of the route consisted of driving on one major toll road, our attempt to get out of Panama City was challenging after making a few wrong turns in the congested city traffic.
But the drive was worth it. And, immediately upon check-in, I was informed all our rooms were upgraded to king suites. This was such a treat since technically hotels only commit to upgrading the member--not their guests. Plus I booked the prepaid “summer” rate which included a full breakfast buffet, so we paid $233 per night including taxes.
Go Chic & Boutique
We spent three days in Panama’s oasis, then ventured back to Panama City to revisit my dad’s stomping grounds, staying at the chic boutique hotel, AC Hotel Panama City. Here, we paid $94 a night for a central location, amazing rooftop pool and view, and a cool happy hour spot. The rooms were smaller but came with full cable network, city views, and all you needed to get dressed and hit the streets.
Traveling with a Mixed Group
One thing I learned pretty quickly with our mixed group was that if I didn’t stick to my itinerary the world would not end. Half our group was under 40 and the rest slightly above:) So, most days we did one group activity together and planned to eat dinner as a family. And part of the group was able to take a much-needed break in the afternoon.
When I was younger and eager to see all the sights, the day time breaks would have driven me crazy. But now, hell, I needed the breaks too if I'm being honest. It’s just that we all had our own version of what “taking a break” meant. My dad and his girlfriend loved naps. I would sit by the pool or beach and write in my journal or take pictures. Either way, I was disconnected and not obligated to report to anywhere by anytime. Then, mid-afternoon I would text everyone a suggested time for dinner.
Whoever showed up for dinner was fine - and whoever didn’t make it connected with everyone in the morning. No judgment.
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One thing we consistently tried to do was eat local - meaning venturing away from the hotel. The bonus was most local spots were cheaper than the hotel restaurants. My husband was the best at scoping out the local staff--that didn’t work at the concierge desk and getting real local restaurant recommendations. In Buenaventura and Panama City we enjoyed fresh seafood and amazing drinks made from locally grown fruits or produced liquor. Below is a list of our favorite spots.
In Buenaventura check out these great places to eat.
- Cokoblue: Restaurant with the best, fried ceviche, mojitos, and direct access to the beach.
- Restaurante Los Camisones: Great local restaurant with a full bar, fresh fish, and fun staff.
- Restaurante Xoco: Local spot that offers fresh seafood, paella, and fun decor.
In Panama City explore these local eateries.
- Sirena: Seafood restaurant with excellent lobster and a large menu selection.
- Segundo Muelle: One of the best restaurants in Panama City for 2018. Peruvian food.
- Restaurante Tinajas: Fresh seafood. A must eat restaurant in Panama City.
When I am in a busy city and public transportation is available, I take it. On the coast, we had a rental car and ventured all over to waterfalls, local eateries, and other beaches. In Panama City, we took the train, Uber, and local taxis. The train, at 35 cents per person, was the cheapest deal and got you all over town. Uber was great for night time fun and local taxis are cheap (about $5-$8 a ride) and you could negotiate the price.
While visiting the mall, we found a taxi driver willing to be our personal guide for the sights we wanted to see in the city. For the same price as the Hop-on-Hop-off bus ($30 per person), we got a private driver and guide. We traveled at our own pace visiting major sights like the Panama Canal, Old Panama, and Flamenco Island. He also took us to catch some awesome views like the Pacific Point.
My dad wanted to go back to his old neighborhood, but unfortunately, the area is as unsafe as it was when he grew up there. The driver pointed in the general direction and highlighted the crime and drug trade is still active. I guess my dad was grateful to get out, finish growing up in the United States and return to Panama as a member of the U.S. military.
My family and I had a blast revising Panama together. My dad is still telling his friends how we surprised him with a trip home and he can’t stop smiling. He’s normally someone you can’t get anything past but we planned a trip in secret for a whole year! Now I’m planning a trip next year when my mom turns 65! More adventures to come. I can’t wait.
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Acquania is a financial coach, freelance writer, and speaker. As a financial coach, she equips her clients with “outside the box” finance tips and tricks they can act on immediately to meet and exceed their financial and personal goals. (Traveling to incredible places like Panama!) You can find her at The Purpose of Money.