We booked a 2-resort trip to Panama through Nolitours. The first 11 days were spent at the Royal Decameron resort in Farallon.
We flew to Panama with Air Transat; while the flight was very comfortable, the food was really terrible. Going down we were served a breakfast sandwich that had been overly-nuked to the extent that the cheese morphed into a superglue that bonded the spongy â€œciabattaâ€ bun to the wrapper. On arrival at Tocumen Airport we sat on the tarmac for close to an hour before room was made at a gate for our allegedly larger plane. For some reason that didnâ€™t bother me, nor did the long trip from the airport to the resort. I was however slightly annoyed that our luggage, like most others, came out on the carousel with a greasy black smudge on it.Â Not sure if that happened in Toronto or Panama.
The resort was well organized for our arrival. We pulled up to Lobby 1 and waiting there for everyone was an envelop that held a room key as well as important documentation about the resort. So it took all of about 5 minutes before we were walking toward our room, an ocean view number on the third floor in building 46, next to the adult pool â€“ about as distant from Lobby 1 as possible. From our balcony we looked out over the Pacifico restaurant and pool to the ocean. The room furnishings were modest but clean. The resort has some notoriety for the many steps that lead from the beach to the upper buildings, but the climb never bothered us and in fact we were happy â€“ but delusional â€“ with the thought that we were burning off some fat. The grounds of the resort are beautifully kept. Palms as well as native Panamanian species abound. Flowering bushes line the many paths. The place is huge, and while we were there it was filled to capacity it never felt like others were right on top of us. But there is a problem with the basic design of the resort in that vehicles and pedestrians share pathways, and youâ€™ll find yourself stepping off the path onto the grass to let to avoid being run over. Itâ€™s poor planning but there doesnâ€™t appear to be any more available land to remedy the situation.
Beach The beach at the Decameron is not pristine like those in the Mayan Riviera or Punta Cana, but typical for a beach on the Pacific. In places it is close to spotless while in others thereâ€™s crud mixed in. Some effort is made to keep it neat and tidy and for the most part itâ€™s effective. The public beach leading to Woodyâ€™s Beach Bar was full of black crud that thankfully washed off. The sand is very coarse with a lot of broken shell mixed in. Rough skin on the soles of your feet will be polished smooth by the end of your stay. The heat of the day raises the sand temperature into first-degree burn territory â€“ there were a number of times where my feet were on fire and I had to make a dash for shade. There are lots of palapas for use. A mild form of the towel game was being played, and the resort does have signs indicating that they will remove towels and belongings left unattended for more than 90 minutes, but I never saw that rule enforced. I was up at 7 am each day so finding a spot was never a problem. The ocean water is murky. The waves were on the calm side while we were there, with most days being of the yellow flag variety. The resort doesnâ€™t bother to tie a green flag to their ocean condition poles; presumably theyâ€™ve never been needed. A lot of 4 inch jelly fish washed up on shore during our stay, but I never heard about anyone being stung. But their presence as well as the general murkiness of the water kept me out of it for all but the briefest of instances.
There are an abundance of beautiful pools at the resort, ranging in size from the small adult-only and Sushi Samba pools with their infinity edges, to the much larger pool in front of the Atlantis restaurant. Permanent umbrellas ring the pools and are spaced such that you never sit too close to others, although this of course lessens the amount of shade. They probably could use a bit more shade. Many of the pools have devices that shoot jets of water a considerable distance, and these are a popular feature with the guests. A towel card system is used for beach towels, with the hours of operation being approximately from 8 am to 5 pm. The adult pool and many others close at 5 pm, a bit early to my mind. The Pacifico pool closes at 7 pm.
Food: As many others have pointed out, food is not the Decameronâ€™s strong point. The buffets serve a small but varied selection each day, and none of it will blow you away. There are made-to-order stations serving up freshly made food, but honestly after giving it a few goes I went back to the buffet. The lowest of the low were the burgers at lunchtime at the Kon Tiki beachside restaurant. They were really bad pre-formed things served up on spongy moist buns â€“ my wife got one covered in mould. For dinner thereâ€™s the option of reserving in up to three specialty restaurants each week, and thatâ€™s just what we did the first week. El Cayuco is beachside in front of Lobby 1 and has a menu of meat, meat, and meat. To the English eye it is hard to tell the difference between some of the beef choices. I ended up ordering a sampler platter with beef, pork chop, a couple of sausages, and what appeared to be a pre-gnawed chicken drumstick, since most of the meat was strangely missing mid-bone. Overall it was not enjoyable and the worst of the three. Upon entering the elegant El Canal restaurant, right off of Lobby 1, we were asked if we spoke English and then were told that we might end up sharing our table. Sure enough another couple was trooped over to where we sat and we were asked if we would share; hard to say â€œnoâ€ at that point. Normally I would be severely annoyed by this sort of thing but our tablemates ended up being a very nice couple from Richmond Hill, so it wasnâ€™t as bad as it could have been. My wife and I both ordered salmon, and while overcooked it was presented nicely and overall was a pleasant upgrade from El Cayuco. The service was good too. Our last a la carte experience was at Catch Of The Day, which is at the opposite end of the resort in the part reserved for villa owners, right down near the beach. I had whole fried fish (pescado entero) while my wife had lobster ($15 or so extra). I even ordered a $9.75 half-bottle of Chilean red (Errazuriz?), which of course normally doesnâ€™t go with a white fish, but after days of limp Balboa/Atlas/Panama beer and the red wine in the buffet, it surprisingly did. Our waiter was extremely attentive and I tipped him accordingly, his service and our meals being the highlight of our a la carte experiences. We visited Woodyâ€™s one night; itâ€™s a fun place but I have to say that Woody serves up a plate of extremely scrawny but delicious chicken wings. For all I know it may have simply been Frankâ€™s Hot Sauce on them, but they were good. Woody appears to be the object of some scorn from the neighbour behind him, who was blasting music as we left and was doing the same a few days later when I strolled through Farallon.
We also dined one night at La Fogata, which is about 100 yards from the Lobby 3 end of the Decameron and easily seen at night with its attractive icicle lights. The owner offers up local seafood at back-home prices, which is a great racket for him. My wife and I both had the same dishes: a small salad with a delicious home-made dressing, garlic bread, a shrimp salad, a half lobster with more shrimp, and coffee and desert, all of which set me back $70 bucks or so. Itâ€™s a pretty setting under the big palapa and a good meal, especially for those looking for a change and donâ€™t mind paying. Recommended.
Drinks After reading so much about the red wine at the Decameron I summoned the courage to try it and found it to be on par with badly made homemade wine. I never did try the white. All the Panamanian beers are unsurprisingly wet air. Atlas I believe comes in at around 3.5% ABV, the other two, Panama and Balboa, are at 5%. We really enjoyed the Panamanian coffee and ordered it at every opportunity despite the oppressive heat. Many of the servers pour a cup thatâ€™s half coffee, half milk, so keep an eye out if thatâ€™s not, er, your cup of tea. Drink service at the beach and around the pools was very good. We brought insulated mugs but barely used them. The staff at the bars had a good eye for who showed up first and therefore deserved to order first. I had planned on going down the drink list to determine my favourite, but I couldnâ€™t get past the Farallon, which was a banana/rum/amaretto concoction. Even my booze-avoiding wife liked it.
Weâ€™re not show fans, so we didnâ€™t go too often. Most nights we were there included a â€œhey, who hereâ€™s from Colombia? Whoâ€™s here from El Salvador?â€ call and answer kind of routine. The MC, who looked like Flavor Flav, had two dancing assistants who reminded me of Milli Vanilli, all of which of course are Â unwritten no-nos. The highlight was the Panamanian folkloric show. More often we were down at the beach listening to the live music performed by 2 or 3 guitarists. I would rate them as just â€œOK.â€ Plus they have an annoying habit of goofing around for 2 or 3 minutes between songs. Other than that, the resort seems to roll up the sidewalks at night and doesnâ€™t appear to be the place for partiers. Perhaps things were rocking over at the casino but I never stuck my head in there.
Tours: Our first outing was the Arts & Crafts tour. We visited a small cigar factory, a cashew nut processing plant, the purported oldest still-functioning church in the new world, an archeological site with pottery shards and bones, Â a Panama hat maker, and at the end made a short stop in PenonomÃ©. The cashew nut plant, the highlight of the trip, completely lacks automation, and after seeing what the employees do each day I took a since-discarded vow never to moan about my own job. The archeological site for me was a bit boring, but the local mosquitoes enjoyed my blood. Take repellant. Our second outing was to El Valle de Anton, which is a community high up in the crater of a long-extinct volcano. The altitude provides some respite from the heat. We visited the Nispero Zoo and saw all kinds of indigenous wild life. The famed golden frogs were there but unfortunately the building that houses them was locked, so the best we got was a peek through glass. We then went to the El Macho waterfall with steep paths, swinging bridges, and a zip line. A small side trip but nice just the same. We then visited the market in El Valle where I bought a Panama Beer T-shirt for $6 and my wife bought a beautiful mola from a Kuna woman (she later bought an even nicer one on the resort grounds during one of the market days for even less). Our final outing was the Panama City & Canal Tour. This took place during the week of Semana Santa (Easter), which as were warned many times is a week during which Panamanians go on vacation. So there we were the day before Easter trying to drive past the fish market in Panama City. Easter. Catholic country. Fish market. Not a good combination. In fact the traffic congestion was a constant nightmare throughout this tour. Our first stop was at Panana La Vieja, the original Panama City settlement fought over by pirates and eventually burned to the ground. Except we werenâ€™t told this. Nope, it was a bathroom break and a chance to buy some souvenirs. Iâ€™m glad that I stayed outside and snapped some quick shots of the ruins. We then visited the second iteration of Panama City, Casco Viejo, with the in-progress renovation of its balconied buildings that overlook the street in a New Orleans sort of way. Very picturesque and it will be interesting to see what Panama does with the final result. We visited a few churches but were uncomfortable interrupting worshippers on the cusp of the holiest day in the Christian calendar, so I only got off a few interior shots before beating a hasty retreat. We had lunch a pleasant lunch with one beer (two if your wife doesnâ€™t drink) included at a restaurant on the Amador Causeway. I had fish and it was good. Our last stop was at the Miraflores locks and it was an absolute mob scene, everyone jockeying for a front-row spot to see the big ships in the locks. Thereâ€™s a museum inside that for the most part I didnâ€™t find interesting, except for the â€œhelmâ€ simulation where you experience what itâ€™s like to be on the bridge of a ship passing through the locks. The floor even moves to mimic the roll of a ship on water.
The trip back was like being of Highway 400 on the May 24 weekend, or getting on the Gardiner on a Friday afternoon of the same weekend. Everyone in Panama City headed for the countryside as we tried to get back to the Decameron, resulting in a 90 minute trip being doubled. Some inventive locals sold bottled water at the side of the road, while bolder ones sold it while standing between lanes – thatâ€™s how slowly traffic was moving. Bottom line: donâ€™t visit during Semana Santa unless you have to. Oddity: three tours, three different bus drivers, all named Jaime. Oh, and by the way: saw many â€œpush buttonsâ€ in our travels throughout the country â€“ Google it for an explanation.