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5 Things I Discovered About Adventure Travel

Posted: Oct 16, 2016

Let me start by saying that I don't consider myself a consummate Adventure Traveler. I've never really liked camping and "roughing it". I found out long ago that I liked the comfort and consistency of a hotel - probably a big reason I work for a legendary luxury hotel company. When I found out my company was opening a new hotel in Panama City, I figured that it must be an up and coming cosmopolitan gateway. So began my research on traveling to Panama to celebrate my boyfriend Davey's birthday and of course to get in some diving along the way.

There is not much information available on the internet to guide you to the perfect scuba diving vacation in Panama. No travel packages seem to exist to make it easy, so essentially you're on your own. We decided to go to Panama City, Bocas del Toro (Caribbean) and Santa Catalina/Coiba Island (Pacific). Trip Advisor is an amazing resource to get a sense of others' experiences and I was able to gather some good morsels of information to ease the path. Some of the things that weren't said were informative as well.

Here's what I learned:

Consider flying First Class to your destination.

Sometimes when you're traveling in what may be considered slightly "off season" or to a less well known location, the difference in fare between First Class and Coach may be quite small. This was my second experience with finding this out. Two years ago, we traveled to Belize and the difference between First and Coach was only S200. This again happened on our trip to Panama. The major benefits that help you recover the difference in price can be extensive. We both got two free bags - all the way. Meals and beverages during the flights and access to the flight lounge made a huge difference in the experience. Okay, so that doesn't sound much like adventure travel, but it is proof that you don't have to rough it all the time to make economic sense.

Traveling within the country of destination can take many forms.

When planning our trip, we took a careful look at the topography of the country. Initially, I was inclined to rent a car and drive through Panama, taking in the stunning countryside on the way to our dive destinations. Looking at a map, the dream soon fizzled as we saw huge mountains and nameless, numberless roads, some that came to an abrupt end. Panama had never looked that big to me on a map before, but clearly the best course of action was to fly to our destinations.

Panama has only one airline that flies internally in the country. This is when you learn patience and to go with the flow. Without competition, the airline moves at its own pace. It is not a simple commuter flight - there are many bag and ID checks along the way. Fortunately, we all know the airline safety speech, because you will not be able to understand their English translation. We found out that ukuleles are considered an "Irritating Item" and have to be checked to the final destination - not brought as carry-on. I would consider my playing irritating, but Davey plays really well and they never got a chance to hear him.

We did have to rent a car to get to our second destination since there were no airports nearby. Although I am a Hertz Gold member in the US, apparently none of the benefits apply internationally - so be prepared to fill out many forms and endure multiple car inspections despite purchasing the full liability insurance option. Consider bringing your own printed, detailed map. Don't plan on GPS working especially since the roads don't have names anyway.

Embrace your Visa or MasterCard

They don't take American Express. For the first hotel we stayed in, I had checked before arrival and found out they don't accept Travelers Cheques or American Express as payment and I could actually get a discount by paying in cash. In Panama, they accept US dollars the same as their national currency as it is tied one to one. I agreed to pay in cash on arrival via e-mail before my arrival. On the Caribbean side in Bocas del Toro, we stayed at Eclypse de Mar [link] a small hotel with six wonderful overwater bungalows. When we arrived, I found out the proprietor had already charged my Visa card, so I didn't need the cash - but it is good to have cash to travel with anyway. You have to take it all in stride.

The most amusing thing was when we arrived by water taxi and the proprietress greeted us at the dock but seemed unable to find our reservation. There are six rooms. Where could it be? Upon reviewing her register, she found our reservation and we could relax. This was my first time staying in a hotel with overwater bungalows. One thing you learn is that the toilets are like marine heads. In fact, the whole town of Bocas del Toro is overwater and all the toilets in town are like this. I'm glad I had already learned marine head protocol on the Maui Diamond II (if it didn't go through your body, it doesn't go in the potty).

Bring Gifts

I remember a friend telling me how she would bring small knickknacks to give to the dive guides or instructors. I felt bad that I remembered this only after we'd gotten there. However, my buddy and I did bring our new blue lights to do a fluorescent night dive - we also brought two extra, so we were actually able to bring a new experience to the dive crews that they very much appreciated. I believe it is important to bring something to them - one of the main reasons being due to the fact that there is very limited postal service. The nearest post office could be two hours away. For this reason, a lot of the dive shops don't sell retail equipment - so make sure you bring everything you need and your save-a-dive kit as well.

Also, if you have a camera with a battery, consider buying and bringing an extra charged battery as you may not have electricity readily available. Having the extra baggage allowance was beneficial since we brought our own dive gear. You never know what condition the dive gear will be in when you're diving in a remote location. Whether dining out, diving or taking a taxi somewhere, remember to tip as well. In Panama, it is customary to only tip 10%, but that 10% is very important to them and may determine whether they feed their family that night.

One thing I wanted to help out with was doing something for the animals. There were a lot of stray dogs that looked like they could use a good meal - so maybe consider buying some dog food and providing it for a stray. One thing to consider as well is to limit your purchase of plastics. In Panama, they don't have the convenient trash removal that we do, so be aware of what you buy and what you throw away.

The biggest lesson I learned was just to take it easy and have fun.

You will laugh at the little annoyances that happen along the way - someday. One example that tested me was when the rental car battery died at night in the remote hotel location. We were fortunate to be at the hotel; however, the hotel had no phones in the rooms and the proprietor was nowhere to be found. Although I had planned to be off-grid during the trip, I did buy an add-on international plan with AT&T if needed. At the time of this blog, they have three options at $30, S60 and $120 for a month of coverage that allows you different levels of data and phone usage. I needed it to call Hertz when I was using my Americanized Spanish to explain that we needed someone to replace the battery and we were in a place they had never heard of. Finally, we were able to get someone to drive two hours in the rain to replace the battery. We tipped him nicely!

On the last day of our trip, our flight to Houston was cancelled due to flooding. The silver lining was that we got a direct flight to Los Angeles on an even better airline. Because I had purchased trip insurance, I rechecked in to our hotel in Panama City for the day and we toured the old town and enjoyed a nice lunch that was covered fully.

Our trip certainly wasn't like an episode of "Survivor'' but we did travel to rather remote locations. The diving was EPIC; we saw a whale shark, giant manta and seahorses. It's great to get out there and explore new places. Remember to review any of the businesses that you enjoyed on Trip Advisor, not only to help others plan, but to help the business as well. Know your limitations, take it easy and go with the flow.

Aloha, Kelvin

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