Author Topic: Panama / New Orleans Trip Report 8/17/19-8/27/19  (Read 1472 times)

Offline itreu001

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Panama / New Orleans Trip Report 8/17/19-8/27/19
« on: August 29, 2019, 05:16:03 PM »
We just came back from an amazing trip from Panama. We all had a great time.  I want to share with you our vacation, and travel tips to pay it forward. We (mostly me) spent about 3-4 months researching this trip, on this site, and on others, and using guidebooks as well. As all vacations, there are ups and downs, you will get ripped off by people trying to make a bucks, but you just have to take it in stride, and hope the planning, minimizes the problems. One thing I like doing in planning for vacations, is to leave time for "unstructured time" that allows you to do stuff in the area, but give you enough wiggle room, that doesn't mean that you are running from item to item without enjoying the moment (like ride to ride at Disney). Thank you to everyone. Any criticism here, is NOT TO COMPLAIN, but rather to help people in the future. We aren't going to trip advisor or Yelp to give 1 star, but just want to help everyone going forward.

We flew non stop from EWR-PTY on United. We took at 11:50pm flight Saturday night. We used 240K amex points (at 40k a pop) to fly through Air Canada with AeroMiles. Since we booked 3 months out, it was hard to find non-stop award availability from NYC area, and non at all from JFK. The way back we had to do a stop over (we chose MSY - New Orleans), either in Houston or MSY.

The flight on United was uneventful. Take off at 11:50pm, and landing at about 4am Panama Time. Flight time is about 4 hours.

Panama is Eastern Standard Time Year Round. Meaning they never change the clock. So in the Summer they are Chicago time, and in the winter NY time. 

Immigration in PTY is very quick and we had no hassles. The PTY is a transfer hub for Latin America, so most of our flight didn't end up at immigration at all.

Our bags were just laying on the floor when we got to baggage, and customs was no hassle.

The problem with landing at 4am is unless you are going home or to family, you have a hotel issue. Will a hotel take you at 5am or not? Is it near where you are going? etc...

So this is where we had our 2 bigger mistakes on the trip.

1) Transportation in Panama.  We wanted to rent a car, and everyone told us not to. Everyone was right, and we are glad we didn't. We used UBER everywhere. Uber is dirt cheap in Panama. From downtown to the airport should run about $10.00. Regular rides are 3-4 dollars a piece. So our mistake was, that we are a family of 6, and we didn't know where we were going, so we hired a jewish person as a cabbie to wait for us, instead of getting 2 Ubers. So it cost us $65 for the guy, instead of about $25. Ok. We learned, we moved on.

2) Hotels are sticklers for people in rooms, and will rip you off if they think they can. - So we booked a room at the Plaza Patilla for one night. I didn't realize that I needed to be specific in how many people were in the room. They saw that we were dropped off with all our bags at 5am with sleeping kids, so they took advantage. They wanted to surcharge the amount of an entire room, just for one extra kid. Ridiculous. So we left the bags with some of us, who stayed there, and I took a 5 dollar uber to the Radisonon Israel street, and spent a few hours sleeping there with the kids. The rooms were spotless, and its next door to a kosher Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf. (Side note - Most restaurants in Panama do not accept AMEX - CBTL does, and you will get your 4x bonus for the Amex Gold Card there) where we ate breakfast afterwards (or pre breakfast, welcome to kosher panama). 

The half at the Radison, then met the others at Jeffrey's for Breakfast. Jeffrey's is a dairy place which is also a bakery. The food was good. We then went across the street to SuperKosher, which is one of 2 giant kosher supermarkets in Panama City (they are a few blocks away from each other). They also have a meat and a dairy restaurant in each of the supermarkets).  The supermarkets are both fully stocked with anything you need. It amazed us at the amount of panamanian kosher items with a local hashgacha like popcorn, ice cream, etc...Unless you are on a strict diet, there is no reason to bring any kosher food with you to Panama City.

We then went back to the Plaza Paitilla, to get our stuff, and the same driver was to meet us, to take us to the Westin Playa Bonita. Once again, we reserved this driver in advance. It cost us $65, (in 2 ubers would have been $30), so we learned our lesson for the rest of the trip.

We booked 2 adjoining rooms for 2 nights at the Westin Playa Bonita using Chase Points. It cost us 77,500 points for the two rooms for two nights. We also added the all inclusive option, which although we keep kosher, would allow us to get unlimited internet, drinks at pool, breakfast, (and any other meal we wanted).  For the experience, we feel that it was worth it, because then the kids could get all the drinks they wanted, at the bars, and at the bars in the pool. We also had what we could eat at breakfast there (fruit, salmon, cereal, drinks, yogurt), so that made it more helpful, plus we brought groceries with us from the City.

The Playa Bonita is on the other side of the Panama Canal. It is a fairly new resort where Kobbe Naval Station was. The resort is nice, with multiple infinity pools overlooking the Pacific/Bay of Panama. The beach there is no for swimming really. Do your own research, but the water isn't the greatest. After 6pm tiny bugs swarm the area, so pooltime is done by 6pm. The views from the pool are stunning. They also have a kidsclub there for the kids.  Its a place to relax.

With regard to food. You must download the "Kosher PTY" app. It includes many kosher restaurants, and every store on the app delivers through the app for a flat $4 fee. They will even deliver to Playa Bonita for an extra $11 (on top of the $4 fee). We ordered dinner to Playa Bonita, on two evenings, one night from Pita Plus (not to be confused with Pita Pan which is dairy), and the other night from Dr. Sandwich. Both were meat places. They both delivered well. They both were Israeli style places.

Sunday was a lazy day once we got to the Resort, (They allowed us to check in early at 1pm with no problem) We had adjoining rooms, we went to the pool and ordered dinner and went to bed.

Monday we went to breakfast, we then took Ubers to the Canal Locks at Miraflores.

With regard to Uber, we were a family of 6. So we needed Uber XL to go places together. However in the more far out places, or if we didnt want to wait 15-20 minutes, we would instead order two ubers to get places quicker. At Playa Bonita, it was more "out there" so even for a regular Uber, you could wait 15-20 minutes. But the cars are available. If you are in Gamboa (like we will explain later) there are no Ubers. So we took 2 Ubers to the locks at Miraflores.

Seeing the Canal. - There are three sets of locks at the canal. Only two are open to the public, one near Panama City, (Miraflores), and one near Balboa. Miraflores has a giant visitors center and museum recently built, and a bleachers section in where you can watch ships pass through the locks. You need to be there before 9am or after 3pm. We got there after 9. We saw a ship or two, and toured the museum. It was nice. There is also an IMAX right there, who's tickets are discounted with purchase to the Canal admission. Its an extra $10pp for the IMAX which is about an hour, and is in English.

The IMAX has a kosher CBTL there. You can go to the canal, and have a kosher coffee and snacks right there. It was really nice, and a nice part of the Panama Experience, that you can vacation normally.

Remember, when going to museums, and other places of interest in Panama, kids are normally cheaper, and kids under a certain age are free. Make sure to ask, otherwise they will try to charge you for kids that should be free.

We then took an Uber to Pita Pan. Its another bakery/dairy breakfast/lunch place. The Uber was a few bucks, and lunch was good. We then took an Uber back to Playa Bonita, and spent the rest of the day there at pool, and ordered in dinner on the app.

Tuesday we went to breakfast, and had checkout by 12pm. With all our luggage we needed to call 2 Ubers (grand total of $30 including tip, instead of $65), to take us to the Hard Rock, which we stayed for the next 6 nights.

We booked a 2 BR suite at the Hard Rock for about 216k points for 6 nights from Tuesday through Monday. Check in was 3, but they let us in about 1pm.  We had a gorgeous view from the 34th floor. The suite came with a small fridge. The service at the hotel was good. When we needed something, they were there within minutes. However, one of the room's ac didn't work for a day or two, but they did fix it.

The hotel locationwise was great. It is connected to a mall (Multicentro) which has a kosher supermarket in the basement (and has two restaurants in it), and all the amenities in the mall. The mall has allot of closed stores, but basically anything you need you can get there without getting super ripped off.

A few minor details that might be helpful. a) Because of the internet there is no english reading material to be found anywhere. English newspapers don't really exist there anymore. Before shabbos, I managed to find two random magazines from 6 months earlier. Make sure to bring reading material for shabbos. b) Panama has completely banned plastic shopping bags. So if you are in a "heimish" store, they still give them out,even with the sign saying they are banned. However, if you are in a regular supermarket or pharmacy, make sure you have a bag with you, or you will be out of luck trying to get your stuff home.

So after checking in, we went to another CBTL (our third so far) a few block walk from the Hotel for lunch. We then took a cab to Panama Casjo (old city of Panama). We walked around for about 1-2 hours. There are old buildings, the presidential palace, some museums, and nice scenery.  Its a nice place to walk around. There used to be a kosher yogurt place there, but it closed down. We looked all over for it. Its not there anymore. Make sure you take a cab to the neighborhood, as the area around it is super shady.

We then took an uber back to the hotel, and we rested and went out to dinner. We walked to Pita Plus for dinner, and it was very good (typical israeli stuff), and then we went to bed.

The next morning (Wednesday) we took a tour to San Blas, we went with https://www.therealpanamatours.com/kosher-tours-details.html . This was our big splurge.

In researching things to do in Panama, everything was really really pricey, making Disney look cheap. However, to go to San Blas, a) You can't do it yourself b) Unless you've done it before, you need to know where to go, c) Its pricey, because there are too many people to "shmear" and are making money off of it.  San Blas Islands are a group of beautiful islands on the Caribbean Sea, that are in an autonomous zone within Panama. You need to travel about an hour west of Panama City, and then an hour north on what can only be described as a torturous 40km road in which someone in your car will probably vomit. Then once you get to the Caribbean sea, you then need to be taken by a guide on a 30 minute boat ride to your island. The islands are gorgeous. It is well worth it.  All of this costs $$. For the six of us, it was about $850. We went to two islands, and then another place in the middle of the Caribbean sea where you can walk on the seafloor for about 30 minutes. It was very nice. 

We were picked up at our hotel at 5:30am, and got back at about 6pm. We were wiped and zonked. We used the PTY app to order in dinner from The Burger Truck, which we all loved. They had the best burgers, (for only like $4.50), and great delivery.  Another annoying thing we learned about the Hard Rock is that they will not accept a food delivery for you, unless you are in the hotel. This was very annoying, since there were times we would have wanted to have food delivered and be ready for us, but we could not do so.

Another thing we learned about the Hard Rock is that the pool was open only from 8-8, and no food or drinks allowed. Oh well.

To be continued... (Thursday through Tuesday is next)>...




Offline itreu001

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Re: Panama / New Orleans Trip Report 8/17/19-8/27/19
« Reply #1 on: August 30, 2019, 11:36:43 AM »
Ok. Part 2.

I forgot to mention that Tuesday night we purchased sandwiches from WOW Yogurt which is a yogurt place that now sells bagels and other breakfast food. We were pleasantly surprised at the bagels and that they were actually good and better than allot of bagels that we’ve eaten in the states.

After a full day in San Blas, nobody really wanted to do anything Thursday. But we were in Panama and we had to make the best of it. We got up late and had a lazy day. We first went to the MULTIPLAZA mall which was about a 5 minute cab ride from where we were staying. (4 dollar Uber ride). The mall is a giant mall with a mix of super high end and upper middle class. In terms of kosher there is lots there with a kosher Krispy Kreme, Kosher Mrs. Fields, 3 kosher ice cream/ yogurt places, a kosher CBTL. We also took the kids to Chuckie Cheese there. (Go figure. Fly to panama for Cc). There is also a supermarket in the mall which sells allot of imported kosher goods and diet soda.

It was raining on and off on Thursday so we really didn’t get to do much outdoors on Thursday. We had lunch at Aroma. It is dairy and had good food.

Tangentiality the climate in Panama is tropical. It rains every day no matter what. It can be any time of the day for a long or short duration no matter what. We got very lucky in our trip with regards to weather.

We then went (by Uber of course) to Albrook Mall. The mall bills itself as the biggest in the Americas and is massive. We only got through a third of it. It has a bowling alley, 2 food  courts and rides for kids and is just massive. It caters to a more middle class crowd. There are kosher options there as well. We found 2 kosher yogurt places and a kosher Krispy Kreme there. There are kiddy rides in the food court. This mall has pay toilets though but they are free in the bowling alley.

The currency is the Balboa but it is pegged to the dollar 1:1 and the dollar is used as real currency. Try to use credit cards with no international fee when possible. American Express is not widely accepted. We brought lots of small bills with us as “nobody will have change” when you give a big bill (larger than 10).

On a tangent. You can’t find diet soda in Panama except for Diet Coke. Fresca in Panama has sugar. In some stores they sell various drinks by the can from 12 packs imported from the states.

We then went back to the hotel and the supermarket and went shopping for shabbos. We discovered that the Deli K supermarket has a nice selection of locally made kipaas at prices cheaper than one can find in the states.

We then went back to the hotel. We went to La Spezia for a late dinner. It was good as well, although we didn’t rave about it like others who posted here.

Friday morning we went to Panama Viejo, which is the ruins of 16th Century Panama City. Its about a 15 minute can ride from the Hard Rock. There's a museum and ruins. (There is also a dead body in the museum). We spent about 35-40 minutes there before we left. There was only so much ruins we could see. The museum is in a pretty shady area, so make sure to stay on premises or near the police station when calling for a cab. Kids under 6 are free.

We then went to Deli K, where we ate lunch at the dairy place ($10 special for soup, main and drink), and ordered takeout for shabbos from the meat restaurant. The meat restaurant has a special shabbos takeout menu, however the people working there's english is very very limited. Of all the places we've eaten at in Panama (and there were many), the Deli K meat restaurant had the most limited English service of any place. The shabbos takeout there was typical shabbos takeout. Nothing special. The supermarket sells rotisserie chickens, and will slice deli for you at the counter. They also sell salads prepared, but surprisingly did not have the greatest of variety. They also have fresh challah for shabbos there as well at very reasonable prices ($2 for a big challah, approximately).

We then went back to the hotel, and went the Amador Causeway, which is a must do. The causeway is a road which links 4 islands in the Bay of Panama (Pacific Ocean). It was built by the USA to protect the Panama Canal. After the USA left in 1999 it reverted back to Panama. There are two museums on the causeway. There is the new biodiversity museum in the fancy colorful Gehry building. We did not go to that. Instead we went to the Smithsonian Museum, the Punta Culebra, on Isle Culebra. It was much more affordable, hands on for the kids, and gave great views. $7 for an adult, $2 for kids, and kids under 6 are free. They are only open in the afternoons, and you need to check if they are open before you go. Expect to take 45 minutes to an hour there tops. Around the corner from there we rented pedicabs, which we biked up and down the causeway on the bikepath. We all had a great time.  We then took an UBER back to the hotel for shabbos.

We ended up eating Friday night in the hotel. Shabbos day we went to Beth El. You need to register in advance online, and provide your passports. We brought them anyway (we were in the eruv). We paid in advance for lunch at the shul ($25pp), and ate there. The shul was an ashkenazi shul with Latin American Nusach, while the Rav is Chabad. They reserved a table for all the Americans that prepaid and made sure we all had seats. Davening was at 9, we finished lunch around 2ish. There was an aufruf in shul, so laining took extra long with hasafot, and the rabbi speaking at every other aliyah.

We spent the rest of the day at the hotel.

Saturday night, we went out to eat at Sabra Pizza, which is a small pizza place across the street from the Hotel (right next to Burger Truck). They do a crazy delivery business, and they are NOT on the app. The pizza was good compared to many of the places we had pizza by in Panama.

Sunday -

So we wanted to do other excursions in Panama without breaking the bank. The prices being quoted were insane. So I found a few other options.

Gamboa Rainforest Resort- http://www.gamboaresort.com/activities-en.html

This is a resort in Gamboa, which is in the middle of the Canal. We did not stay there. 

However, Gamboa is where all the boat rides to "Monkey island" go.

You can drive/take an UBER to Gamboa (about $25.00 from downtown), to the dock of the Chagres, and meet people, and work out a deal to go on a boat. If you take UBER there, you will not be able to get one back (because it is in the middle of nowhere), so make sure to arrange transportation with your driver to come back for you (pay him/her in cash).

Another option is the Resort, which offers their own excursions at really competitive rates, cheaper than anyone we saw. Its meant for their visitors, but open to the public.

(If you book with the resort, you need to book online, but when you get to the resort, you need to go to the main lobby and re-checkin there, and pay then. You need to get there about 15-20 minutes early (even though nothing starts on time). because we were the only ones on the boat tour, and they would have canceled it otherwise.

1) Boat ride on the canal (Monkey Island). - We did this with them. The guides were good, and were able to get the animals to come out. It was an hour tour.

2) Cable Car ride to lookout tower - This was really cool, and we did this as well. It literally is a 3rd world country cable car ride up a hill, (takes about 15 minutes each way), and then climb (by ramps, no steps) a twelve story lookout tower over the rainforest, and the canal. This was really nice and cool. The entire journey was about an hour and fifteen minutes. They pick you up from the Resort Lobby.

3) "Nature Park" - This we could have done without, and was like $2pp extra, a 45 minute tour of sloths, a few tiny frogs, butterflies.

4) Embera Village - This we got cancelled on with an email on Friday night, so we could not reschedule, as we were leaving on Monday. The resort, relocated a tribe to live right next to the resort. They give a 3 hour tour/experience. I know its not the same thing as the other operators, but its half the price, literally. The shame is that we got cancelled on, because they said the tribe had a meeting to attend to. 

At any event, we finished the Nature Park at about 1pm, we called our UBER driver to come back and get us, ($35), and we went back to the Hotel. We were all tired (We left at 715), at about 2pm, so we went for lunch. We went back to Pita Pan, which we liked again. We went back to the hotel, then supermarket, toured the Multicentro Mall, and back to hotel to relax. We ordered dinner in from Burger Truck on the PTY app.

Monday we had late checkout at 1pm, so we stayed in the hotel until then. Our flight was at 6:30, so we had the hotel hold our luggage for a few hours, which we did. We did one last lunch at Jeffrey's, which is where we started, and everyone enjoyed. We went back to the Multicentro Mall, where we went to an arcade and bumper cars for the kids, which they enjoyed as well. We then went back to hotel, got our luggage and took 2 UBER's to the airport (both ubers totaled less than $30) .

We flew Copa Air from PTY to MSY. Its officially a 3:50 minute flight, but the time in the air is less than 3 hours. We went to one of the lounges, where we waited for about an hour.  At the gate we needed to go through security again, make sure to give extra time for that. We took off at 6:30, and landed in MSY at about 10pm. They gave a kosher dinner on the plane with the Panama Shevet Achim Hechsher. It was decent. Customs at MSY is amazing. In the summer they only have 2 international arrivals a DAY. (London is the other). Immigration and customs were 1-2-3.

We rented a minivan on costco from avis for $72 for two days. pickup was a breeze in the airport, its a small walk from the terminal. We drove to the Holiday Inn Metarie. Its about a 15 drive from the airport (just getting out of airport takes about 10 minutes). We booked a suite on IHG for about $90.00. We would not stay there again. The rooms are "outdated".

We got up early and went to Waffles on Maple for breakfast. The place is one of a kind, (well really two of a kind, if you include their other branch) and is delicious. The kids really enjoyed.

We then went shopping at discount stores all over NOLA. We then went downtown to the French Quarter. First stop, Cafe Du Monde, we sat, drank, ate, and listened to music outside. We then did a walking tour of the quarter. You can do the entire thing on foot in about 45 minutes. We saw the Mississippi took some pics, and then went for more shopping. We ended the day by Cajun Kosher, which is also a really good one of a kind, local institution in NOLA.  We then picked up at the drive through beignets at Cafe DuMonde, and we headed back to the airport.

Check in was easy at MSY, we have TSA Precheck, so it was 1-2-3. Our flight from MSY to EWR take off was 7:40 CDT and landing was 11:45 EDT, we had a sick person on board, so we had a early and very hard landing, and we had an ambulance meet us on the tarmac. We had $$ left on Amex Platinum for airline credits for the year, so we were all able to upgrade to Premium economy, and 4 of us had our own rows.

We then took 2 Ubers back home, but had to pay USA Uber prices.

Also, when overseas, UBER will not allow you to buy UBER cash (which I do all the time for the 5% discount), so make sure to stock up on UBER cash, before you leave the country.

I hope this is helpful to someone out there in preparing any trip. Please feel free to ask q's.



Offline Divora M

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Re: Panama / New Orleans Trip Report 8/17/19-8/27/19
« Reply #2 on: September 03, 2019, 09:06:08 PM »
Great trip report, thanks for sharing!
Would Uber drivers in Panama allow a small child to sit on an adults lap in order to fit in the car?

Offline TripsPls

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Re: Panama / New Orleans Trip Report 8/17/19-8/27/19
« Reply #3 on: September 03, 2019, 09:11:17 PM »
I’m gonna say I think they would let... But quoted from a Panamanian, “they do NOT know how to drive in Panama”. I’v seen Nothing like it before. And our trip from the airport was one of the worst. Stop and step on it was all our driver knew...

Offline itreu001

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Re: Panama / New Orleans Trip Report 8/17/19-8/27/19
« Reply #4 on: September 04, 2019, 12:31:44 PM »
With regard to driving in Panama, we spent 9 days there, and not once did a single driver ever stop at a stop sign.

With regard to Ubers, a regular Uber should be able to fit 4 people. No car seats are required. An Uber XL should be able to fit 6. Only once did we order an XL, and only a regular car came. That being said, if you are not in the downtown area, if you are in a rush, it will make way more sense to order 2 Ubers rather than wait for an XL, so when we were at Playa Bonita, The mall at the old airport, Amador Causeway, and Old Panama we ordered 2 cars. Its really just a few dollars difference, and you are paying people who really need to money.

Offline Divora M

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Re: Panama / New Orleans Trip Report 8/17/19-8/27/19
« Reply #5 on: September 04, 2019, 12:37:12 PM »
With regard to driving in Panama, we spent 9 days there, and not once did a single driver ever stop at a stop sign.

With regard to Ubers, a regular Uber should be able to fit 4 people. No car seats are required. An Uber XL should be able to fit 6. Only once did we order an XL, and only a regular car came. That being said, if you are not in the downtown area, if you are in a rush, it will make way more sense to order 2 Ubers rather than wait for an XL, so when we were at Playa Bonita, The mall at the old airport, Amador Causeway, and Old Panama we ordered 2 cars. Its really just a few dollars difference, and you are paying people who really need to money.

how old are your kids?