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The Best Budget Hotels in Central America

Finding great budget hotels is like winning the travel lottery because they allow you to make your travel budget go even further. Over the years we’ve become expert at choosing the best budget hotels and for the first time we’re sharing what we think are the best budget hotels in Central America, gleaned from more than three years of travel through Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Panama. We’ve personally vetted all of these budget hotel options so you don’t have to. Consider them Trans-Americas Journey approved.

Best budget hotels in Central America

San Jose, Costa Rica: Hotel Aranjuez offers a range of spotlessly clean rooms in three adjoining houses in a safe, quiet neighborhood of Costa Rica’s capital convenient to most attractions at extremely reasonable rates which include the best hotel breakfast buffet we’ve ever had in any price point. We stayed here repeatedly and they even have (limited) parking.

Hotel Aranjez - San Jose, Costa Rica

El Tunco Beach, El Salvador: There are two places called Papaya Guesthouse in this beach hangout. You want the one directly across the street from a hotel called La Guitara. Look for the enormous wooden gate. This place is spotless, has a nice little pool and sitting areas with hammocks and offers rooms with A/C and large, stylish rooms with fans and private baths for US$25 plus perfectly acceptable smaller rooms at smaller price points (US$14) with shared bathrooms (that’s what we went for). Toss in WiFi, parking, a great staff and a decent shared kitchen and you can’t beat it.

Panama City, Panama: Hostal Amador Familiar (dorm beds from US$15 per night and private rooms with a fan from $30 for two people) is beyond spotlessly clean thanks to the tireless efforts of the best hotel housekeeper we’ve ever seen at any hotel in any price point.There’s a large, shared, semi-outdoor kitchen which stocks paper towels and  tin foil for guest use in addition to the usual supplies. Breakfast is included.There’s a large and secure parking lot. It’s located in a quite neighborhood from which you can easily access Casco Viejo, the Amador Causeway, downtown Panama City and other areas.

Hostal Amador Familiar - Panama City

Cahuita, Costa Rica: At Cabinas Palmer US$20 got us a clean private double with bathroom, fan, TV, a furnished porch with a hammock, free coffee and bananas all day, use of a shared kitchen, parking and WiFi. It’s right in the center of town, just ask for it when you arrive.

Gracias de Dios, Honduras: We called Hotel & Restaurant Guancascos home while we were in Gracias and you should too. Located just below the Castillo San Cristobal fort, the 17 rooms (US$10 dorm and rooms from US$26) are spotless and well-appointed, the staff is charming, free Wi-Fi works in the common area and in the three rooms under the restaurant, which is excellent. Owner Fronicas “Frony” Miedema, a Dutch woman who’s lived in Honduras for more than 20 years, will be happy to give you information about the area and arrange tours and transportation. When we were there the hotel was also in the final stages of gaining green certification, making it one of only a few eco-certified hotels in Honduras.

Guancasos hotel - Gracias del Dios, Honduras

San Ignacio, Belize: Nefry’s Retreat has four peaceful, clean rooms with WiFi and A/C for around US$20 located about a five minute walk from the bustle of the town’s main drag. We really liked the homey feel. It’s not a rock bottom price, but it’s value for money especially in Belize.

Bocas del Toro, Panama: Hostal Hansi, located just off Main Street in the town of Bocas, has a wide range of different room types from singles with shared bath (from US$11) to private doubles (from US$25). WiFi and use of a spotless kitchen is included. It’s quiet and clean (there is a resident cat) and it’s extremely popular. Hansi does not take reservations so get there as early as you can to see about available rooms.

Hostal Hansi - Bocas del Toro, Panama

Panajachel, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala: Hotel Contemporeneo down by the lakeshore, delivers clean, quiet rooms with a bathroom, a TV, secure parking and a good WiFi signal for 120Q (about US$15). We even scored a lake view (ask for room 4 or 5).

León, NicaraguaHarvest House was created by Jason Greene, a smart, surprisingly young man from North Carolina, and it’s spotlessly clean, brightly painted, comfortably furnished and has a huge shared kitchen. Rooms, which range from singles with shared bath to small private apartments, were irresistible (from US$15 per night or from US$150 per month). We booked a double room with shared bath for a month, spending less and getting more than we would have in any hostal.

Harvest House, Leon Nicaragua

 

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Rear View Mirror: Panama Travel Tips After 7 Months in the Country

We spent 215 days and drove 5,336 miles in this tiny little s-shaped country at the bottom of Central America. Our experiences became nearly 60 posts on our travel blog covering everything from falling in love with Casco Viejo, the hippest neighborhood in Panama City, getting into the nitty-gritty about travel to the country’s top beach destination, including where to stay in Bocas del Toro, exploring the Darien Jungle and driving to the end of the road, sailing through the San Blas Islands,taking you inside the week of madness that is Carnival in Las Tablas, exposing Panama’s best hotels from budget to boutique and giving you the lowdown on how to explore the Panama Canal. As we put the country in our rear view mirror, here are even more Panama travel tips and observations.

Welcome to Panama Paso canoas Border crossing

Panama travel tips

Panama is not the most foreign place we’ve ever been. English is widely spoken and the country uses the US dollar as its official currency. Social customs and things like architecture and fashion seem familiar too. This is not surprising given the fact that the US had a decades-long presence in Panama during the building of the Panama Canal, even establishing a “Canal Zone” that was administered as US territory. The US even invaded Panama in 1989.

Princess Cruise Island Princess exiting Miraflores locks.

In Panama, “summer” is the dry season (basically January to April) and “winter” is the wet season (basically the rest of the year).

Panama is on US Central Time and they never move the clocks forward or back.

Nearly every town square in Panama, no matter how small, has free WiFi thanks to a national program called internet para todos (internet for everyone).

Some locals call Manuel Noriega, the former dictator with the famously pockmarked complexion who is currently in prison in a jail alongside the Panama Canal, la cara pina or pineapple face.

Republican senator John McCain was born in Panama.

Frank Gehry, the Canadian architect who designed the recently opened BioMuseo in Panama City (below), is married to a Panamanian woman.

Frank Gerhy's BioMuseo seen from Panama canal

The lowest temperature ever recorded in Panama City is 68 degrees farenheit (20 degree celsius). You don’t want to know what the highest temperature is.

Despite the fact that Panama grows world class coffee in places like Boquete, the stuff you find in the supermarkets sucks. Virtually the only non-instant brand on the shelves is Duran which tastes burned. If you do a coffee tour or visit coffee producing regions stock up there.

Finca Lerida Coffee Tour - Boquete, Panama

You can buy unlocked cell phones pretty easily in Panama, something that was far less common in any other Central American country. Cell phone service was comparatively cheap too. We put US$3 on our +Movil account and it lasted for weeks and every recharge seemed to come with lots of free time.

Cell phone numbers have eight digits. Land line numbers have seven digits.

Public buses in Panama, called diablos rojos, look like they were decorated by a talented gang of spray-paint-wielding 15-year-old boys (below). Even the wheels are decorated. However, the artistic value of these buses if far better than their value as a form of public transportation. Panama City recently banned all diablos rojos because of safety concerns and pollution issues and replaced them with generic looking (and professionally driven) city buses. We visited the final resting place of Panama City’s diablos rojos as the buses were being taken off the streets of the capital.

Diablos Rojos bus Panama

Unscientific survey: 3 out 3 can openers in hostel kitchens in Panama (including brand new ones) will not work.

The place is obsessed with and full of fake boobs.

Wine is relatively cheap in supermarkets across Panama. A bottle we’d been paying  more or less US$6.50 for in El Salvador and Nicaragua was US$3.95 in Panama for the exact same bottle. Actually, all booze was cheaper and the selection was better in Panama than in other Central American countries because the government doesn’t tax liquor imports, though there is currently talk of re-visiting that policy. For best selection and best prices do your wine and booze shopping at Felipe Mota stores.

Panama Beer - Bocas del Toro, Panama

Though Panama is one of a handful of countries (along with El Salvador, Ecuador, etc) which uses the US dollar as their official currency, the country also has its own national currency. It’s called the Balboa and you often get coin change in both US currency and local currency. A balboa dollar coin looks a bit like a NYC subway token.

Local mass produced beers in Panama include Alta (above), Balboa and Soberana. We defy you to find any real taste difference between them. Luckily, there is also a growing microbrew scene in Panama including outstanding brewpubs from La Rana Dorada (below) and an annual craft brew festival in Panama City. Find out more in our story about Central American microbreweries for TheLatinKitchen.com.

La Rana Dorado microbrewery cerveceria - Panama City

As we reported back in 2011, Panama launched a program that gave all visitors 30 days of free emergency travel health insurance. Sadly, that innovative program has since been discontinued.

Driving in Panama road trip tips

For some reason fuel is about 20 cents cheaper per gallon at the two stations in the town of Anton right on the Pan-American Highway. But be warned: the Texaco does NOT take credit cards and when we were at the station there were no signs to that effect. Also, Panama was in the process of switching station signs from gallons to liters. By now we expect that all gas stations will be listing prices in liters.

In general, the price of fuel varied from station to station by as much as 25 cents per gallon so it paid to shop around.

Welcome to the Darien Panama

It was nearly impossible to find a car wash that had pressurized water hoses.

The roads are not great in Panama but they’re better than the pot hole festivals that pass for roads in Costa Rica. Though stretches of the Pan-American Highway from David to Panama City came close to Costa Rican lows with tons of potholes, wavy, rough, poorly laid asphalt and ridge and gap filled concrete.

Thankfully, speed bumps in Panama mostly take the much tamer form of raised reflectors on the road.

Though diesel prices are often listed on gas station signs in the familiar green color, the actual pump handle is sometimes blue with green being used for regular gas. Read the fuel type carefully before you fill up.

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Hostels, Houseboats and Hip Hangouts: 12 Top Hotels in Panama

We spent seven months traveling across Panama. That’s a lot of nights in hotels. While Panama has seen a recent rush of international chain hotels, including the only Trump Hotel in Latin America and many of the other top end business chains in Panama City, we are not interested in those. As usual, we sought out the best locally owned accommodations, including hostels, houseboats and hip hangouts and these are our 12 top hotels in Panama.

Jungle Land Panama is Panama’s only houseboat hotel. It’s located in a secluded section of Lake Gatún which forms a crucial part of the Panama Canal. It’s the creation of Captain Carl, an expat from the US who has connected two houseboats (below), crafted a handful of simple but comfortable rooms and leads boat and kayak tours on the lake for wildlife watching and fishing. The food is terrific and Carl’s stories are entertaining but the best part is sleeping in a totally wild and peaceful arm of the lake just a short distance from the world’s busiest shipping channel. Jungle Land Panama Lodge Panama Canal In 2012, Travis Pastrana, the stunt man/motocross/X-Games/Red Bull-sponsored extreme sports icon, gathered some of his equally amped up friends and opened Nitro City Panama Action Sports Resort in Punta Chame near Panama City. With world class wakeboarding, kiteboarding and BMXing facilities, champion instructors plus a luxury hotel, Nitro is a unique adventure resort. We learned to wakeboard and SUP here and made ample use of our deck jacuzzi to nurse sore muscles. Nascar fans should not miss the Miller Lite theme room (below). We wish the food was better, but you’ll be so hungry from your daily dose of extreme sports that you’ll be ready to eat anything.

Nitro City Panama NASCAR room

Al Natural Resort, on Bastimentos Island in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago, offers stand-alone, water-front, wood and bamboo bungalows on stilts which were built using techniques and materials that the indigenous Ngöbe-Buglé people have used for decades. Bungalows (below) are mostly open air with very, very few walls. Heavy canvas curtains can be pulled shut if you must. Great mattresses, custom-made super-bug-proof nets, cooling fans inside the nets (why doesn’t everybody do it this way?), plus the sound of the Caribbean ensure restful nights. Despite the semi-remote location (it’s a 30 minute boat ride to Al Natural from Bocas Town), the food is amazing–from fresh juices to buttery soft grilled octopus to fragrant chicken cooked with mushrooms and orange peel. All meals, which are included in room rates including wine at dinner, are served family style with the gregarious Belgian owner at the head of the table telling stories and making friends.

Al Natural Resort bungalow - Bocas del Toro, Panama

The hippest of the hip hotels in Panama is Tantalo Hotel in the Casco Viejo neighborhood of Panama City. There’s a living wall next to the lobby bar. Art installations (below) change on a regular basis. The rooftop bar is one of THE places to hang out. Each room was decorated by a different artist. They even have an on staff creative director and it shows. The lobby restaurant is surprisingly nicely priced and you can linger and soak up the cool for as long as you like. Read our full review of Tantalo for iTraveliShop for more.

Tontalo-Hotel

If you want hip but in a more budget friendly price point, check out Casa Nuratti. Also in Panama City’s Casco Viejo neighborhood, this place was built as an inn in the 19th century and the building was restored into a 14 room, design-centric, mid-range bargain (doubles from US$100). Furniture was made using wood from the original building. There’s a small but appealing roof bar with a long, narrow pool (there for sex appeal, not swimming) and a club-like bar and small plates restaurant in the lobby where a DJ sometimes spins.

Walk into Las Clementinas Chambers & Cafe in Panama City’s Casco Viejo neighborhood and you might forget, just for a minute, that you’re in Panama. The ground floor cafe looks straight out of Paris and the rooms-aptly called chambers–are full apartments that channel the style of Manhattan but with far, far more space (below). Both the atmosphere and the square footage are true luxuries in the city. Read our full review of Las Clementinas for iTraveliShop for more reasons to stay.

Apartment-like room Las Clementinas - Casco Viejo, Panama

Yandup Island Lodge is not your average island getaway. For starters, it’s located on one of the 350+ islands in a chain known as the Kuna Yala or San Blas archipelago because the region belongs to Panama’s autonomous Kuna (aka Guna) indigenous group. It’s Kuna owned and Kuna run and the luxuries here are silence, free time and views not swim up bars and beach loungers. The raised, waterfront bungalows (below) are rustic but comfortable. The food (the place is all-inclusive minus beverages) is simple but tasty. The biggest luxury at Yandup is the chance to get a glimpse into the proud culture of the largest indigenous group in Panama through guided visits to nearby Kuna villages (also on their own islands) and in conversation with Yandup’s Kuna staff. To reach the lodge you have to take a flight from Panama City to the “airport” at Playon Chico on a 6-seater Air Panama plane and that’s an adventure in and of itself given the short runway and its orientation to the nearby coastal hills. See for yourself in our scary landing in this video.

Yandup Island Lodge Kuna San Blas Islands, Panama

We spent around 50 nights in Hostal Amador Familiar during multiple trips through Panama City. Conveniently located in a renovated house in the city’s “American Zone”, the Amador is spotlessly clean thanks to the best housekeeper we’ve seen at any hotel in any price point.There’s a big, semi-outdoor, also-spotless shared kitchen. Breakfast is included. There’s a large and secure parking area. Laundry is US$1 per load (to wash and dry). And room rates are cheap by Panamanian standards with dorm beds from US$15 per person per night and private rooms with a fan for US$30 for two people. Rooms with A/C are just US$5 more and worth it.

 

Canopy Tower bridwatching PanamaIn the late ’90s a decommissioned US Air Force radar tower on the banks of the Panama Canal was renovated into a distinctive round hotel called Canopy Tower (below). Located within the Soberanía National Park, in which more than 500 species of birds have been identified, Canopy Tower has become a magnet for bird watchers. We spent a lot of time gawking at toucans, tanagers and tityras as well as small groups of mantled howler monkeys, Geoffroy’s tamarins, sloths and a bunch of stuff we’re not smart enough to identify right from the window-filled public spaces, rooftop deck (where you can also see the nearby Panama Canal) and even from the huge window in the shower in our room at Canopy Tower which was simple and comfortable with fans and good screens to keep critters out. Electric towel heaters and clothes drying areas help keep the jungle damp at bay. There’s an ear plug dispenser because the all-metal structure can creak and groan but you’re more likely to hear frogs and owls in the night.

The 10 rooms at Boquete Garden Inn in Boquete, Panama are a comfortable bargain but the best part of this place is the garden which attracts dozens of species of colorful birds which flit around bird baths and fruit-filled platforms nearly oblivious to your presence (below). Bring your binoculars to breakfast (included in rates) and enjoy some of the best lazy bird watching in Panama.

Male Red-legged honeycreeper & Male Flame-colored tanager - Boquete, Panama

Naturalmente Boutique Bungalows, opened near Las Lajas beach in 2013, has a handful of stylishly bohemian bungalows (below), a small pool and a great open-air restaurant where owners Chantal and Gabriel, both from Modena, let their Italian roots show with pizzas (baked in an oven imported from Italy), great pasta dishes, homemade bread and homemade Italian sausage. Naturalmente makes a great break journey for anyone making the long haul on the Pan-American Highway between David and Panama City.

Naturalmente Boutique Bungalows - Las Lajas, Panama

Playa Venao, on Panama’s Azuero Peninsula, has a perfect crescent of a beach and some of Panama’s most enticing surfing breaks (below). It also has a new beachfront hotel option. Opened in 2013 by Italian owners, the 14 room Beachbreak Surf Camp (from US$77 private double including A/C and WiFi) is sparkling clean, located right on the beach and guests can use the pool and a large and well-appointed kitchen (a good thing since dining options on this beach are limited). Surf school packages are also available.

Playa Venao, Panama

The ones that got away: Even after seven months in Panama there were two enticing hotels that we never made it to. The first is The Resort at Isla Palenque which seems to have come enticingly close to truly marrying “eco” and “luxury”. The second is the American Trade Hotel in Casco Viejo which was still under construction when we were there but was shaping up to be another cool option in that ‘hood. It’s now open and being run by the very cool Ace Hotel group, so our hopes remain high. If you’ve stayed at either (or both!) of those places let us know your opinion in the comments section below. If we’ve somehow left your favorite hotel in Panama off this list, let us know that too.

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Beyond the Beauty of the Kuna – San Blas Islands, Panama

The world is increasingly full of hotels and resorts run by local communities and indigenous groups. Many claim to give guests the chance to gain true insights into the cultures they’re visiting but, too often, what travelers get is a pre-packaged, buffed up, sideshow version of reality. Yandup Island Lodge, run by the Kuna (or Guna) people, goes beyond the beauty of the Kuna by actually delivering on its promise to help guests understand Kuna life, traditions and challenges in the San Blas Islands of Panama.

Kuna San Blas Islands - Yandup Island Lodge, Panama

Our destination: Yandup Island Lodge in the Kuna Yala, or San Blas Islands, of Panama.

But first you have to get there

The only way to reach Yandup Island Lodge is to fly from Panama City to the Playon Chico air strip, then take a short boat ride to Yandup island in the San Blas Archipelago of islands, also known as the Kuna Yala. Our Air Panama plane carried just six passengers and was piloted by what appeared to be interns. They applied sunscreen before take off and warned of a bumpy ride. A sign near the plane’s control panels said “You have to step outside to smoke.”

Flying over Plyon Chico, Kuna Yala, Panama San Blas Islands

Though most of the islands in the San Blas Archipelago, also known as the Kuna Yala, are uninhabited, some are packed with Kuna villages, like this island we flew over on our way to Yandup Island Lodge.

Any time you get into a small plane you know that take off and landing are going to be extra exciting. Still, we weren’t quite prepared for the fly-straight-at-the-mountain-bank-hard-then-drop-straight-down-onto-the-ground landing that the pilot artfully made into the dinky, waterside Playon Chico airstrip. 

flight to Playon Chico San Blas Islands Panama

Safely landed at the Playon Chico air strip on our way to Yandup Island.

Back on solid ground, we got our first glimpse of the San Blas Islands or Kuna Yala archipelago, the name given to a chain of more than 350 islands, mostly uninhabited, that is governed by the autonomous Kuna people within Panama.

Deserted islands -Kuna Yala, Panama San Blas Islands

One of the many tiny uninhabited islands in the Kuna Yala archipelago of Panama, also known as the San Blas Islands.

While most of the islands in the Kuna Yala are uninhabited, some are packed wall to wall with Kuna villages. A few others, like Yandup Island, are used for hotels.

Boat Yandup Island Lodge Kuna San Blas Islands, Panama

Transportation at Yandup Island Lodge.

 A different kind of luxury

After a five minute boat ride from the air strip we arrived at Yandup Island Lodge which occupies a small island owned and run by a Kuna family. The round, stand-alone, stilted bungalows are basic but comfortable with nets over the beads, private bathrooms and hammocks on the porches.

Yandup Island Lodge Kuna San Blas Islands, Panama

Bungalows at Yandup Island Lodge.

The island is picture perfect with lapping waves, swaying palm trees and gentle breezes and no WiFi or TVs. The place is partly run on solar power and water is piped in from a waterfall on the mainland. If you can’t relax here there’s no hope for you.

Kuna mola pillow

A traditional Kuna mola decorates a bed pillow at Yandup Island Lodge.

Beyond the beauty of the Kuna: culture today

The Kuna, the largest indigenous group in Panama, came to Panama from Colombia and successfully resisted assimilation during Spanish colonial times and thwarted later Panamanian efforts to suppress their culture. In 1925 the Kuna staged a revolution and were officially granted cultural autonomy by the Panamanian government.

Kuna mola blouse

A Kuna woman wearing a traditional top which incorporates vibrant, geometrically designed, hand-made fabric squares known as molas.

Kuna their culture remains remarkably intact including the beautiful traditional dress of Kuna women and their hand-made fabric molas which are known around the world.

That’s about all we knew about the Kuna before we arrived at Yandup, but that was about to change thanks to the lodge’s wonderful Kuna staff who were open, friendly and patient as we peppered them with questions.

Colorful Kuna indiginous tribe Panama

When we asked these Kuna employees of Yandup Island Lodge why they didn’t wear the traditional arm and leg beads they proudly explained that they were “modern”.

For example, when we noticed that some of the female staff members did not wear the traditional Kuna leg beads (called wini) and arm beads (called chaquira) and we asked them why. Ruby, who could make a stone smile, proudly answered soy moderno (I’m modern), then laughed. Another female employee explained that she had chosen not to cut her hair for the same reason even though short, almost mannish hairstyles are common among Kuna women mostly, we were told, for comfort in the heat.

Examnples of Kuna Beaded Bracelets (Chaquira)  and leg beads (Wini)

It takes Kuna women about a day to make each of the traditional beaded leg and arm wraps, called wini and chaquira respectively, though some Kuna women are choosing not to wear them at all.

 Playon Chico, life in a Kuna village

While it was easy to imagine an idyllic Kuna lifestyle while relaxing at Yandup Island Lodge with its views and spacious lawns we saw a different reality when we visited Playon Chico for a guided look at life in a Kuna village. The first thing we were struck by was the crowding. When the majority of your land is composed of islands, many of them tiny and some of them sinking and eroding due to environmental pressures, space is a luxury.

Kuna woman sewing a mola, Panama

A Kuna woman in Playon Chico works on a mola which is traditionally made using two colors depicting a geometric pattern which can be abstract or represent individual animals or more elaborate scenes.

Playon Chico is the largest Kuna village with more than 3,000 people living shoulder to shoulder on a small island which seemed as if every square inch was covered in something man-made. Kuna families typically have five to seven kids, so children make up more than 60% of the population in Playon Chico which gave the village a “Lord of the Flies” vibe.Garbage was a problem and visible everywhere and the community was struggling to find garbage management options that were better than simply making huge piles along the water line.

Kuna crafts and molas Playon Chico Panama San Blas Islands

Kuna women on Playon Chico set up stands along the village’s sand roads where they sell their hand-made molas, traditional beaded leg and arm wraps and more.

Mixed in among the traditional thatch-roof houses, tiny shops selling daily necessities and the volleyball courts (the Kuna love volleyball, perhaps because they don’t have space for soccer fields) we walked past a number of make shift open-air shops where Kuna women were selling beads and items made from their most famous handicraft, the mola. Made almost exclusively by women, each vendor seemed to have her own particular style when it came to colors and designs.

Though Kuna men have mostly stopped wearing traditional clothes in favor of jeans and t-shirts, most Kuna women still wear blouses made from molas and elaborately patterned sheer fabric, colorful arm and leg beads and bright head scarfs. In Playon Chico we learned that even within this traditional outfit there was room for fashion with colors going in and out of style and women making trips to specific fabric stores in Panama City to get the latest patterns for blouses.

Children Playon Chico Kuna Yala Panama San Blas Islands, Panama

Kids make up 60% of the population of the Kuna village of Playon Chico.

Other things we learned during our visit to Playon Chico:

  • Kuna men and women attend church services separately (men in the morning and women in the  afternoon)
  • It takes about a day for Kuna women to make new leg or arm beads and they do this frequently to keep up with changing fashions
  • Albinos are revered in Kuna culture
  • When a Kuna dies they are placed in a hammock for 48 hours then buried in their hammock along with some of their favorite possessions
  • The word for “thank you” in the Kuna language is “nuedi” and they say it a lot

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Flying Fingers of the Lace Maker – Azuero Peninsula, Panama

The most famous handicrafts in Panama are molas, the intricately stitched, brightly colored, geometrically patterned squares of fabric made by the Kuna (or Guna) people, Panama’s largest indigenous group.They are gorgeous, but they are not the only culturally authentic handmade art being produced in Panama. In the Azuero Peninsula lace makers with flying fingers create intricate components of the perfect pollera, the national dress of Panama.

Polleras in Santo Domingo, Panama

Polleras, the traditional dress of Panama, on parade in the Azuero Peninsula during annual carnival celebrations.

We are not craft people. We don’t seek out craft markets. We don’t buy “traditional” “indigenous” or “locally made” key chains or coin purses or headbands to commemorate our travels. If you offer to show us some handicrafts we are sure to walk swiftly in the other direction. Too often “handicraft” is just code for “Chinese-made crap you could buy in any tourist market in Bangkok, Boston or Budapest”.

But sometimes not.

When we took part in the annual carnival celebrations in Panama, which is at its most carnivally in the Azuero, we were impressed by the country’s elaborate national dress called a pollera. Turns out, some of the complicated ingredients to this strangely chaste yet sexy get up are handcrafted in the traditional way by artisans in the Azuero.

Las tablas Panama Calle Abajo queen pollera

One of the 2013 Las Tablas Carnival queens shows off in an elaborate pollera.

From Peace Corps to polleras

Bonnie Birkin knows the Azuero and its artisans better than most. The Iowa native was a Peace Corps volunteer in the Guararé area of the peninsula in 1967, then she returned to the US where she pursued a career in international economic and community development. But she never quite shook the people she met in the Azuero and in 2005 she returned to live near Guararé full time. In 2009 she started a foundation and guest house called Casa del Puerto to promote and preserve the work of the many craftspeople living in the area.

Once you’re at Casa del Puerto, with its seafront location, homey rooms and full apartments, Bonnie’s knowledge and enthusiasm for the area’s crafts will soon infect you too. It won us over pretty quickly and one afternoon we headed out with Bonnie to see some handiwork first hand.

The modern day pollera is a souped up version of the flouncy skirt and off-the-shoulder blouse which was a common costume in Spain and one imposed on indigenous servants who worked for the Spanish who were busy conquering Latin America in the 1500s. Fed up with sweating it out in their European finery, Spanish women living in the region started wearing the much breezier skirt and blouse combo themselves, but in richer fabrics and with increasing amounts of jewelery, detailing and other finery.

One important new element to the outfit was fine, hand-made lace and that tradition is alive and well in Panama as we saw when Bonnie took us to see the flying fingers of Jessica Hernandez, a second generation lace maker.

Pollera-lacemaking-Panama

Most elements of a pollera, the traditional dress of Panama, are still made by hand including strips of intricate lace which are made on this padded wheel called a mundillo.

The lace maker’s magic

The ingredients were simple, a few wooden toggles (called palos), some thread,  some straight pins and a wheel-shaped, padded contraption stuffed with sawdust called a mundillo. But what this 16-year-old girl was able to do with those humble ingredients was incredible.

Pollera-lacemaking-Guarare-Panama

These simple tools plus crazy traditional skills equals intricate hand-made lace.

Jessica’s fingers instinctively moved and arranged the toggles of thread, pinning some in place before moving on to the next configuration. As she worked, the toggles collided making a pleasant wind chime-like tinkle. She rarely bothered to look at her hands.

Guarare-lacemaking

A rare moment of pause in Jessica’s lace making work.

Before long, Jessica had deftly added to the strip of lace already in progress on her mundillo. Depending on the intricacy of the lace, it can take two days to make a three foot (1 meter) long one inch (2.5 cm) wide piece of pollera lace. This handmade lace goes for up to US$35 per yard and a well-decked out pollera could include 30 yards of the stuff.

Pollera-lacemaking-Guarare

This photo is in focus but Jessica’s hands are a blur of activity.

lacemaking-Azuero-peninsula-Panama

Narrow strips of hand-made lace like this can go for up to $30 per yard for use in a traditional pollera.

See Jessica’s flying fingers for yourself in our video of her lace making process, below.

But lace is just one piece of a pollera

As impressed as we were with the lace, Bonnie was quick to point out that there are dozes of other handcrafted components that go into a pollera, from the hand embroidered two-tiered skirts to the elaborate hair combs and head jewelery, called pajuelas and tembleques, to the solid gold necklaces (the more the better), to the large, fluffy wool pompoms, called motas, which must match the color of the traditional flat shoes.

Las tablas Panama 2014 Calle Abajo queen Daris Nicole

When all of the hand-made elements of a traditional pollera come together the results are stunning, as seen on one of the 2014 Carnival Queens in Las Tablas during her coming out last year.

When all those pieces of art come together, a process which can take up to six months and end up costing tens of thousands of dollars, the results are stunning.

If you want to really binge on polleras, plan to be in Panama during the annual Parade of 1,000 Polleras held in the streets of Las Tablas on the Azuero Peninsula every January. Then go see Bonnie in Guararé.

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Better Than Boquete? – Cerro Punta, Panama

Boquete is beautiful. The coffee plantations. The bird watching. The hiking trails and natural climbing walls. The refreshing weather. The expats (or at least the diverse restaurants they attract). However, Cerro Punta–with its awesome agriculture, Swiss chalet architecture and proximity to Volcán Barú National Park (home to the tallest mountain in Panama) and La Amistad International Park (a UNESCO World Heritage Site that’s shared with Costa Rica which is the largest nature reserve in Central America)–may be even better than Boquete for travelers who are into nature and bird lovers.

Quetzal Cerro Punta Rainforest Panama

Just one of the resplendent quetzal birds that we saw in the cloud forest around Cerro Punta, Panama.

Fastidious farmers

There’s something rejuvenating and reassuring about being surrounded by fields of thriving fruits and vegetables. Potatoes, tomatoes, carrots, onions, some mysterious green stuff we couldn’t identify, strawberries (which are sold in town by vendors who whip up strawberry smoothies, strawberries and cream, strawberry bread, etc) and more deliciousness blanket the slopes around Cerro Punta like edible carpets. No risk of starving to death here.

Everything you shove into the ground seems to flourish in the rich soil and tender climate at 5,905 feet (1,800 meters). However, Cerro Punta farmers don’t just shove things into the ground. Each field is tidier and more picturesque than the last. With neat rows, not a weed in sight and borders planted with flowers, they all seem to have been groomed by the world’s most fastidious farmers in prep for a Martha Stewart photo shoot.

Adding to the agricultural bliss of Cerro Punta is Haras Cerro Punto, a five-star horse farm which opened in 1977 and has produced top of the line race horses and show horses. Even if you’re not in the marketing for a million dollar horse you can take a tour of the pristine paddocks for about US$5.

Los Quetzales Lodge Spa Panama

Los Quetzales Lode & Spa offers everything from camping to private forest houses and has great value spa treatments.

Sleeping and spa-ing in Cerro Punta

Speaking of horses, a brand new colt was frolicking in the central lawn at Los Quetzales Lodge & Spa, in the town of Guadalupe just a few miles from Cerro Punta, when we arrived. Good sign.

The lodge offers something for everyone from camping to motel-style rooms to stand alone cabins. The place looks and feels like a cross between a Swiss chalet and a boy scout camp and is run as sustainably as possible. Most produce comes from their own organic garden (their salad bar is famous). Dairy products come from their own cows. More than 7,000 trees have been planted on the lodge’s 980 acre (400 hectare) private reserve. No plastic water bottles are sold. More than 90% of the staff lives within walking or biking distance of the lodge.

Hiking in Los Quetzales rainforest

Lush cloud forest in and around Cerro Punta, Panama.

Resplendant-quetzal

Another quetzal spotted near Cerro Punta. This is a male but he doesn’t have the bird’s signature long tail feathers because it’s not mating season.

Every morning at 8:30 am there’s a free guided tour so guests can see some of the lodge’s property in a super bad ass custom-built vehicle. We had the added bonus of seeing resplendent quetzal birds in the lush cloud forest which butts right up against Volcán Barú National Park.

During this tour you will also see the lodge’s best kept secret: About 10 minutes up a rough dirt road beyond the main lodge Los Quetzales also offers spacious wooden cabins built into areas of the cloud forest that were deforested decades ago so no new trees had to be cut down.

Quetzal with nest Panama

Yet another quetzal bird in the cloud forest around Cerro Punta.

Los Quetzales Rainforest Cabins Cerro Punta, Panama

Los Quetzales Lodge & Spa also offers a handful of large wooden homes in the cloud forest.

Each cabin has multiple bedrooms, WiFi, full kitchens and fireplaces (at over 7,260 feet/2,200 meters it gets chilly up there). They’re the perfect family or romantic hideaway. Bring your own groceries or arrange for the chef from the main lodge to come cook for you.

Hummingbird Panama

It’s easy to get distracted by the flamboyant quetzal birds, but the cloud forest around Cerro Punta is home to any other species as well.

Los Quetzales Lodge & Spa also has a top value spa which uses all natural products. It’s not fancy but you can get a superb deep tissue massage for 1.5 hours for US$45 in an open air spa room with the sound of a creek gurgling by.

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