Customized Panama & Costa Rica

By George Anderson
This item appears on page 27 of the August 2015 issue.
The iconic frog of Costa Rica on our guide’s finger, its eyes bright red, its body pale green and its feet orange. Photos by George Anderson

When my wife, Sandra, and I woke up to temperatures around -34°F at our lake home in Minnesota on Jan. 2, 2014, that’s the day we decided that a winter break was in order. I quickly put together a February itinerary for Panama, then added a few days in Costa Rica. Despite the haste, this turned out to be one of our better trips because of the people and the places.

Our arrangements in Panama (eight nights) were ultimately handled by Judy Tovar of Easy Travel Panama (phone, free from US/Canada, 512/800-8099,

Judy is a one-person travel agency and general-purpose whirlwind. She did a great job with our custom arrangements and, despite the short notice in high season, set us up with a couple of outstanding guides. Evening emails were answered almost instantly, and she was constantly on the phone with our guides making sure everything was OK. 

In Costa Rica (five nights) we worked with Andy Goodling of Costa Rican Vacations (Calle 70, San José, Costa Rica; phone, in the US, 800/606-1860, We prefer working with small travel companies because we get personal service, but we were referred to this large agency by friends. To our surprise and pleasure, dealing with Andy was just like dealing with a small operation.

A road trip northeast of Panama City and a ride in a dugout canoe took us to a village of the Embera tribe, where an elder applied a body-dye design to the hand of my wife, Sandra. (The dye wore off after a few days.)

We talked on the telephone and exchanged emails for several days, modifying itineraries and changing hotels until we had exactly what we wanted. As with Judy, evening email exchanges with Andy were common. (Andy gets a bonus with repeat and referral business, so ask for him.)

One nice perk with this bigger agency was that their representative met us at the plane and whisked us through the “diplomats” aisle at Immigration. 

My wife, Sandra, and I really hit the jackpot with the guides we had on this trip. We generally ask for older guides because we want to learn about the country’s politics, history and economics. Young guides are always stuffed full of facts and enthusiasm, but their life experience has not yet given them the perspective we get from the “old guys.”

The other thing about older guides is that they usually seem to be doing the job because they enjoy it, avoiding the more lucrative large-group tours in favor of guiding privately, with the camaraderie that usually ensues. That’s the same reason we hire private guides.

Right: During our stay, hundreds of egrets roosted every night at the Zamora Estate (Zamora Estate Hotel, Santa Ana, San José, Costa Rica; phone +506 2203 8225, This was the view from the restaurant veranda on an evening in late February.

Our first guide in Panama was Daniel Gonzalez, hired for us by Judy Tovar. Daniel was close to his 70th birthday, although he looked to be a spry 55. With in-depth knowledge of his country’s history and economics, he was easy to work with and enthusiastically modified the day’s plans to suit our interests. He was a delight and became an instant friend. 

Our first guide in Costa Rica was another star: Rudy Zamora, who Andy Goodling found for us. A native of Costa Rica and in his mid-50s, Rudy is a well-known birder and has led zoo, Audubon and nature groups. He was enthusiastic, knowledgeable and just an all-around great guy. 

Daniel and Rudy were unquestionably the standouts among the guides on our trip.


Minneapolis, MN