When it comes to the Caribbean side of Panama, most people tend to spend a few days there. The usual suspects are the Bocas Del Toro region and the stunning San Blas islands. Now, these are great choices but I’m from the Caribbean, I found them a bit expensive and seemed like a lot of effort. Instead, I chose the Portobelo day tour for a pleasant mix of beach time and some of Panama’s Spanish history.
Cost: 80 USD
I thought it was a bit difficult to find affordable day trips in Panama, especially as a solo traveller. Of all the operators that I contacted, Panama Road Trips was able to meet my budget.
First Stop – Isla Mamey
The tour involved a 7 a.m. Panama City hotel pick-up with light refreshments and snorkel gear provided. Since Isla Mamey is not developed and has no items for sale we stopped along the way to pick up our own supplies. About 2 hours later we boarded a small boat at a colourful little fishing village, Puerto Lindo. One thing that I noticed, a lot of the landscape and buildings in this area look a lot like that of my home country.
After a 10-minute boat ride on the somewhat choppy ocean, we arrived on the uninhabited Isla Mamey. This tour involves snorkelling but because sea conditions prevented this. The very tiny Isla Mamey has no facilities, restrooms are Porta-Potties. On weekends, the island is’s filled with locals and during the week you have the place pretty much all to yourself. There was a total of 7 people there during my weekday trip.
To be honest, I didn’t think this beach would fare well against other Caribbean beaches. I was actually quite impressed with Isla Mamey. The island provided breathtaking views of Pristine blue water, surf breaking in the distance and foliage. The bathing area is a little small, but this is irrelevant once the island isn’t crowded.
Second Stop – Fort San Jeronimo, Portobelo
After a few hours, it was back to the mainland for the fortifications in Portobelo and then back to Panama City. During Spanish rule, Incan riches were transported across the isthmus of Panama. Destined for Spain, these riches moved from the Pacific coast to the Atlantic coast.
As a result, Panama was often attacked by pirates such as Sir Henry Morgan. Fort San Jeronimo was strategically built in Portobelo to protect against these threats. There’s something captivating about standing where battles were once fought. It’s easy to imagine ships like the Black Pearl sailing into the port to pillage and plunder
Today, much of the fortifications are still in good condition. Though many in the surrounding hills succumbed to attacks and are in ruins.
Ever heard of the Embera people? Before this trip, I hadn’t. Approximately 12% of Panama’s population comprises of Indigenous people. It involves going into the jungle, so you need to use a tour company. Again, I had some difficulty finding a day tour with space and a price that I could afford as a solo traveller. This tour isn’t as popular when compared to San Blas for example, but Panama Unlimited Travel was able to include me in a group tour. There’s also an overnight camping in the village option.
The tour begins with hotel pick up and you are then taken to Chagres National Park. Here, you’re greeted by members of the Embera tribe and then set sail along the Chagres River (part of the Canal’s water system) in a dugout canoe. Some parts of this river are actually so shallow you can walk through, but this depends on the time of year.
Our first stop, we did a 10 minute hike into the jungle to a small waterfall where we were able to go swimming.
The next stop was the Embera Village. Upon arrival, the Embera people greeted us is a display of traditional music. Entering the village area it was like taking a step back in time. No phones, no television, no cars, just people living in a community of huts. If you’re curious about the bathroom situation, well this village had regular toilets for visitors, others may have an outhouse.
It was quite refreshing to see the kids play with each other rather than iPads and other devices.
Part of the tour includes, a few members of the tribe explaining details of their way of life. For example the children attend a school within the village courtesy the Panamanian Government. They explained that the women’s clothes are more intricate and hence more costly.
Also, the materials and sources for dyes used in weaving crafts come from plants in the jungle surrounding the village. These narratives were in Spanish and but the English translation was not very good. There were things that I understood in Spanish that was not translated into English.
We were also served a traditional lunch of fish (chicken in my case because I despise seafood) and patacones (fried plantains).
After lunch, the Embera people treated us to some of their musical talent and displays of dance. For some videos, see my Facebook page.
As with any tour of this type, you might want some souvenirs. The Embera people showcase of their beautiful arts and crafts for purchase.
Cost: 115 USD
What do you think about these tours? Would you do it? For more photos and video, check out my Facebook page.
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