Extended travels in Latin America

My wife, Elaine, and I traveled in Ecuador and the Galápagos Islands at the end of January and beginning of February ’04 for two weeks. We then spent several weeks in Peru and finally a month in Panama. Here are a few comments that might be of interest to readers.

It seems most travelers head over to the Galápagos Islands by way of Quito, Ecuador. I would suggest that the city of Guayaquil is also a worthwhile stop. The plane to Guayaquil always stops in Quito, so there is an opportunity to see both cities.

Although Guayaquil, located on the coast, is the country’s largest city, it is mainly ignored by travelers. There is much to see, as the riverfront has been upgraded and made attractive to tourists. And at the unique iguana park, tame tree-dwelling iguanas will sit on your lap for a chance at a bite of banana.

We took a 3½-hour city tour with Ilse Tvgendhat and her husband, Fernando (e-mail traveltips@gu.pro.ec), for $25 each. We highly recommend their service. In their brand-new vehicle, Fernando would drive us to a location and drop Ilse and us off. After we walked around for a half hour or so, he would appear and we would be off to another site. In this very efficient manner we saw most of the riverfront and other sights.

They finally dropped us at a restaurant famous for churrasco; each hearty plate was piled high with slices of beef, two fried eggs, vegetables (beets, carrots and beans), fried potatoes, a slice of avocado, tomato and a side of rice. (Try that on your carb-conscious friends!) The cost of that humongous and delicious meal was $5.30 each. Beer and wine were extra.

We ate in other restaurants and the entrées usually cost under $10 each.

In Guayaquil we stayed at the private home hostel Orilla del Rio, located in the Miraflores section of the city — very colorful and safe. The owners provided a clean, air-conditioned room and a large breakfast and even drove us to museums and restaurants. The price was $38 including breakfast.

Our hostel stay was booked by Forum Travel (Pleasant Hills, CA; phone 925/671-2900). Jeannie did a great job for us in booking this, a visit to the Galápagos and a jungle trip to view the macaws at the Tambopata Research Center in Peru.

On our week in the Galápagos ($1,200 each), we had a very deluxe catamaran named Millennium. Our cabin was spacious, measuring 12'x16', with bath and shower en suite as well as a private side deck. All equipment, such as life vests, snorkels, masks, wet suits and fins, was in new condition.

The ship could hold 16 passengers, but we had only 11 at any one time, with as many nationalities represented. Our naturalist, Jaime, was a professional underwater photographer who had made videos for the BBC.

PERU — In Lima, we had an exceptional dinner at Restaurant Huacp Pue’llana, including a traditional Peruvian starter of cubed pieces of marinated beef heart plus excellent fish and lemon chicken. Dining with guests, we each had a pisco sour (one of us had two), a bottle of wine and various seafood entrées, Caesar salads, etc., and the total bill, with gratuity, was $120. We paid by Visa. Chef Marlu Madueno presented us with a complimentary bottle of pisco sour.

The restaurant is located on the site of an ancient excavation that is lit at night — very impressive.

PANAMA — We spent a month here, making our own arrangements. The highlights included a full transit of the canal, Panama City itself and the San Blas Islands.

In San Blas we stayed on a Kuna Indian island with only 10 small bamboo huts. This cost $675 for the two of us, including airfare from Panama City, boat transfer to the island, accommodations and all meals for two days, and a tour to a Kuna village on another island. Although you can book direct by phone (Isla Turistica Kuanidup Kuna Yala; phone 226 9858 to send a message to owner Pasquel Archibald), we booked it through the travel agency located in the Hotel Costa Inn. This agency was very good.

When we wanted to go to the Darien Gap, the agency booked us with Ancon Expeditions of Panama (P.O. Box 0832-1509 WTC, Panamá, Rep. de Panamá; phone 011 [507] 269-9415, fax 011 [507] 264-3713 or visit www.ancon
expeditions.com), a Panamanian conservation and research group. When we tried in the States, we were never able to locate anyone to take us to the Darien.

Our trip to the Darien Gap to see the harpy eagle was remarkable but is not recommended for the timid. It’s pretty much an off-limits area. We traveled with a biologist from Panama City to La Palma, regional capital of Darien. From there we took a small boat to the research center on the Gulf of San Miguel. The following day we took the boat down the Mogue River to an Embera Indian village.

A native guide led us on a 12- to 15-mile round-trip hike through the jungle to the nest of the harpy eagle. There was one young bird about to fledge. We viewed the nest through a spiderweb measuring some 10 by 20 feet that was home to dozens of large golden orb spiders.

The temperature in the jungle was in the low 100s with humidity in the high 90s — a killer hike. This is a dangerous place due to almost impassable terrain, diseases, venomous snakes and drug traffickers. My wife and I both received small scratches that turned into major infections.

In a most relaxing and beautiful part of Panama near the mountain town of El Valle, about two hours by road (50 miles) east of Panama City, we stayed at the lovely Los Capitanes (P.O. Box 87-4381, El Valle, Anton, Panama 7; visit www.panamainfo.com/loscapitanes). It cost $68 for two per night including meals. Owner Manfred Koch was a most interesting personality.

We also rented a car and drove to Los Santos Peninsula, where we spent time during Carnaval in Pedasi at the Dim B&B, a wonderful old house with air-conditioned rooms for $20, including a huge breakfast.

There were only two restaurants in town. Dinner, including two cold beers, a Coke, salad, soup, rice and fish, came to a grand total of $4.65. The area has great beaches, fresh seafood, low prices and few tourists — hard to beat.

Bocos del Toros is another favorite destination on the Caribbean for snorkeling and diving. If you’re a fisherman, Lake Gatun has rainbow bass, and the Pacific has some of the best marlin fishing anywhere. We drove along the canal from coast to coast, took a boat one way and rode the bus back. You can also take a train one way.

While in Panama City we used the conveniently located Hotel Costa Inn (Ave. Peru & Calle 39, Panama City; phone 507 227 1522 or fax 507 225 1251) for our headquarters as we made excursions in and out of the city. This is a very nice 3-star hotel with air-conditioned rooms with refrigerators and safes; a 24-hour restaurant; rooftop pool; laundry service; Internet access; private parking; transportation from the airport; in-house taxi; a travel agency, and, best of all, two friendly, English-speaking staff members, Manager Carlos Ledo and Desk Manager Rita. The room cost $33.

On driving in the city, DON’T! You can take a cab anywhere for $1.50-$2. We have driven in dozens of major cities around the world, but this was madness — in addition to our having poor maps, there were unsigned streets and crazy drivers blaring horns, sirens and whistles. A stop sign was “merely a suggestion” and a signal was a “maybe.” We did rent a car and survived, driving in and out of the city daily for a week or so.

We rented our car through Avis. They tried to charge for insurance we had declined, and they charged us for damage in spite of the fact that the sheet indicated the damage was already there.

I think Panama is a neglected destination. Compared to Costa Rica, it has certain advantages while offering the same benefits. An excellent birding country, it has lonely beaches, is inexpensive and offers safe water everywhere. English is spoken quite a bit, the U.S. dollar is accepted and its friendly people are not opposed to Americans.

Kettle Falls, WA