Panama is a unique place to go right now; you have the relaxed resort to enjoy, the beaches, the Canal to explore, as well as a city that’s been labeled a world heritage site. But it’s also going through a transformation right now, since the Americans left the nation in 1999. The city is being gutted and rebuilt (literally) to bring in more multinational corporations, condos, and tourism; the latter of which is just starting to blossom. Consequently, there are still a lot that needs to be learned with experience in regards to how travelers to resorts expect to be serviced. In addition, because the Panamanians lived quite separate from the Americans when they occupied the Canal Zone, English is only spoken by 14% of the population; which does not make for easy conversations when shopping, or when trying to communicate what you want to some of the resort staff.
In terms of weather, we went in August, which is the rainy season. We’ve gone in August to Mexico and the Dominican in the past, with great weather. Panama is a bit different in that it gets quite a bit of rain, sometimes their wet season lasts 8 months. On our trip, clouds dominated. Usually, they get some mix of sun and cloud in the morning; solid clouds by noon, and rain in the afternoon/evening. During our seven days, only three days of complete sun were enjoyed. The other days, were cloudy, with spotty showers. However, we were lucky to be off the resort on those rainy days, so it’s not like we were sitting around hoping to get tanned. But if you want a vacation with solid sun the majority of the days, I would not travel to Panama in the wet season.
Arrival: The airport is efficient with no worries. The duty free shops are all over, selling much of the same merchandise, but some had more variety than others. When you arrive, a truck will take your luggage to the resort. We had no issues with that. Remember to set aside $40USD per person for the departure tax. When you check your baggage as you leave Panama, you will have to cough it up. The Hotel itself is quite isolated, in the dry belt of the country. You’ll still get clouds and rain, but nowhere near what the rest of the country gets – in the city it rained every day we were there. But the resort only got rain in the daytime 3 times, and it was brief. It rained through the late night a lot – but few care about rain at 3am. The hotel is small, with 4 buildings, a slew of pools, and the beach. Building one is the largest, main structure with the lobby. Building two, three and four are on a slight slope heading down to the beach, with 4 being the only one with direct views of the ocean for a lucky few. I’d recommend avoiding anything on the 2nd and 3rd floor of buildings one or two; that faces the pool area of the resort – at night, a lot of loud, latin hip hop music is played from the sports bar (bottom floor, building two) which would disturb many people. Many seem shocked that the hotel wants to copy your passport, but it’s common in Europe for hotels to keep your passport numbers, so it didn’t phase me. The front desk now has a small photocopier out front to expedite this process; but we saved time by bringing copies ourselves
Rooms: Our room was originally a premium oceanview with a king sized bed and balcony. Unlike many rooms, this wasn’t a Juliet balcony (which are plentiful – and you can’t sit out on them), but large enough for two of us to sit out and chill. But the balcony is shared – it joined with three other rooms, so you won’t be sitting out there alone – no big deal. That room was in building three overlooking the pool area. It wasn’t too noisy, but instead of a king bed, there were two doubles. The front desk was courteous enough and said they could get us what we booked the next day. Outside of this issue, the room was substandard compared to what we were used to. The walls were scuffed, there was dirt along the baseboards, there was no fridge. . . . it just looked a bit dingy, but we figured we’d just roll with it; after all, it’s a different country and tourism is new. The next day, the front desk told us that they couldn’t get us the premium oceanview with a balcony and a king size bed, so they were upgrading us to a suite. The suites are on a totally different level than the other room we were in. The suites are in building four, and if you go on the Breezes website, under the heading ‘rooms and suites’ pictured here: http://www.breezes.com/resorts/breezes-panama/rooms/ you will see the suite we stayed in. There’s a standard room with a bed and bathroom, and then you can go into the adjoining room, which is a big sitting area with yet another TV, full bathroom, fridge, and dining table. Go outside, and there’s a huge balcony spanning the two rooms of the suite, with 4 lounge chairs, and an unencumbered view of the ocean. Unlike the premium ocean view with balcony we were in the first night, the suite had granite counters in the bathrooms (which were larger) and was generally in much better condition in terms of cleanliness, with no signs of wear or neglect on the walls.
Restaurants and Bars: The bars all stock top shelf liquor, though the bartenders tended to lack knowledge of common drinks, and had trouble with consistency. I ordered a simple mix of Malibu and passion fruit juice, which was made perfect; but when I asked for another one, the bartender put in grapefruit instead, despite the fact that he had just made the original 5 minutes before. WE found that this kind of experience was common with the exception of a couple bartenders that were excellent – they were always manning the piano bar in the main lobby. The buffet could use a bit more variety, though it wasn’t awful – just a notch below resorts we’ve been at in Mexico and the DR. Breakfast was always decent, with great service from the guys making omelets. But the people making pasta at night could do with some training – with four burners and lots of pans, it seems they only make one pasta at a time; which means you could wait 15 minutes in line for one of your own. The late night snack table gets rolled out around 11pm; but this consists of sandwiches made from dinner’s leftovers. I couldn’t eat it. Overall, though there were some servers who genuinely made an effort to provide friendly service, most staff at the bars and buffet didn’t seem like they wanted to be there. The hut down by the pool served some food during the day like burgers, chicken nuggets and fries, but had to have the worst quality out of the whole resort – I don’t know how you mess up chicken nuggets, but they were mushy and tasted so bad I couldn’t swallow them. As for the al a cartes, you are guaranteed 3 bookings at the specialty restaurants of your choice; which you do at the orientation session (which really could have half its content in paper format). You can try and book more, but they tend to be fully booked every day. The steakhouse was utter crap. The steaks are small, thin, and have little taste. The ribs are a waste of time – they’re boiled so long that they lack any kind of flavor. The chicken was decent, but not worth the booking. We didn’t do the Italian place as we didn’t hear one good thing about it. But we went to the Japanese place twice – and most people we talked with agreed that this was the best place to eat on the resort. The cooks put on good show for you, but the serving staff really can’t seem to get you out the door fast enough. All I’d recommend in this place is a few more smiles and a lot more courtesy.
Beach/Pools/Grounds: The hotel was not very busy during the week (perhaps because it was in August), but local Panamanians take their families for a getaway to the resort on the weekend. It got much busier, but not overcrowded to the point of being stressful. The pools were great, and there’s a waterslide for the kids. The beach is nice to look at, but the water is quite choppy. Very few people went in. Your small children will likely be kicked out of the water by the lifeguards. We went in the ocean the first day and got so pummeled by sandy waves that the rest of the week we kept finding new grains of sand in our ears with every q-tip. If you like the ocean, this is not the place for you. But outside of swimming, I took out a kayak a couple times, and once past the breakwater, the ocean was fine. However, the guys working the watersports hut have zero personality (except one taller gentleman). Like a lot of the wait staff, they give one word answers and seem to genuinely want you to go away. Perhaps this is a language barrier issue and nothing more. But if I pay a thousand bucks for an all inclusive that rates itself as 5 stars; I don’t need to be treated like a king; but do expect some common courtesy.
Activities on and off the Resort/Hotel:
Because they built the resort in this area, there is little else right now. There are no vendor stands, or any kind of local market that you can walk to. Down the beach is a small fisher village. Next door is a time share condo; with very few people there. You can walk for a couple hours on the beach and see no one. But, this means that you spend a lot of time on a bus. 2 hours from the airport makes for a longer day of travelling on your way into Panama and on the way out. In addition, most day trips will involve at least 4 hours on a bus round trip. A couple tours have you ona bus for 6 hours. Ask in advance how long you’re on a bus for – we found that the bus really tired us out more than anything, and that ‘s one of the reasons we wouldn’t return to Panama at least for a decade or so when more things start to pop up closer to the resort area.
Overall, I am glad I went to Panama. It’s amazing to see the Canal, and unbelievable to see how the city is rapidly changing to embrace big business and tourism. But I wish I had gone in their summer; and it’s not a place I’d go to twice.