When Kay Michaels began planning vacation for her and her husband, Dean, she had some specific criteria, mostly related to geography.
“Dean gets limited time off work each year, so we can’t spend too much time getting to our destination. When I realized that we could fly from our hometown of Durham, North Carolina and land in Panama within 4-5 hours, I knew Central America could be perfect for us,” she said.
And of course, those Raleigh to Panama City, Panama flights would be purchased with points.
Kay and Dean started collecting points and miles seriously about 14 years ago, stashing a bundle of United miles and Chase Ultimate Rewards points before capping out with the recent 5/24 rule. “We pay everything on our credit card except our mortgage,” she said.
Their points collecting paid off with an unforgettable trip to this vibrant Central American metropolis.
The Michaels booked their flights to Panama using AA points earned through credit card bonuses. The trip from Raleigh to Panama City cost 37,500 points in economy class. Their trip home cost 65,000 points in business class, for a total of 102,500 points plus $72 tax per person.
“It was a lot of points to use, but we knew where we wanted to go, and it we had the points to spend, so it was a good fit,” Kay said.
The Michaels used their Club Carlson points to book the Country Inn & Suites by Carlson, Panama Canal, for a five-night stay. They exercised the Points and Cash program, using 25,000 points plus $87 per night ($478 total) for a one-bedroom suite with a direct view of the Bridge of the Americas and the continuous parade of cruise and cargo ships in route to the entrance of the canal.
“It wasn’t the fanciest hotel but the view was superb and the staff was incredibly kind,” reported Kay.
The nightly price included a full buffet breakfast each morning, along with amenities like a kitchenette, two balconies, and a hotel swimming pool. The proximity to the Sea Las Perlas ferry to Contadora Island was also a huge bonus.
After five nights, the Michaels packed up and walked to the ferry for their trip to Contadora Island, meaning “counting island.” The Spanish used the island to resupply and count their spoils from the Americas before returning to Spain. The Michaels found the island to be a beautiful escape from city life. Several seasons of Survivor have been filmed there, and no cars are permitted on the island. Golf carts provide transportation to locals and visitors alike.
The pair didn’t use any points on the island, staying instead at The Hibiscus House, a bed & breakfast for $100 per night.
Their final night in Panama was spent at the Crowne Plaza near the airport. The stay cost just $99, so Kay opted for cash over IHG points.
Kay spent meaningful, quality time on Trip Advisor researching the vacation and all potential tour options. The highlights included:
Panama Canal Tour
The Michaels booked through Barefoot Panama and took the “half-day partial transit” tour. Kay reported an excellent experience and recommended fellow travelers schedule a full day for the tour. At $150 per person, Kay said it was “pricey but totally worth it!”
“The canal is an incredible engineering feat and this tour really lets you experience it as a captain would. We went through three different locks, and when we were inside, we were positioned right next to a luxury yacht from the Bahamas, then right behind us, a huge tanker that got within 15-20 feet of our boat. You’re all wedged into this tiny lock with literally inches between you and the side of the canal. It was truly incredible.”
Private Birding Tour
Our travelers found birding legend Kent Livezey through research and booked his private tour. Including pick-up at their hotel about 45 minutes away, the tour cost $250 for the couple (with the rental of high powered binoculars). The adventure took the Michaels and their guide to Pipeline Road outside Gamboa, Panama, a region famous for its species diversity.
“Neither of us had ever done bird watching before, but we found this recommendation and booked the tour. It ended up being a real highlight of the trip. We spent the morning spotting birds, howler monkeys, and just missed spotting an elusive tayra. He brought great binoculars, which we learned are a must for a good birding experience.”
Fortaleza Walking Tour
At just $10 per person, this walking tour of historic Casco Viejo was one of the cheapest, and most meaningful, experiences of the Michael’s trip.
In Kay’s words, “The Casco used to be overrun by gangs. Realizing revitalization was incompatible with gang activity; a developer and other business leaders encouraged and assisted the gang members in swapping gang life for entrepreneurial endeavors. So we went on this tour started by former gang members of their old stomping grounds. One of them had just finished law school and was going to be a civil rights lawyer.”
The Frank Gehry designed Biodiversity Museum completed construction just two years before the Michael’s visit. The museum highlights history, geography and the culture of Panama throughout its 43,000 square feet of exhibit space.
“It was incredible. We learned so much about Panama and how important this land bridge was to the biodiversity of the Americas.”
Kay also reported the museum features a great little cafe with “stupendous views” of ships cruising towards the canal.
In addition to eating their weight in papaya and snagging an authentic Panama hat from a local hat maker (fun fact: Panama hats are actually constructed in Ecuador), the Michaels reported that some of their favorite mem
ories from the trip were the people they met along the way.
The walking tour with gang-members-turned-entrepreneurs was a real highlight for this traveling duo. The Michaels also had a memorable evening at Donde José – ranked #1 of 848 restaurants in Panama City.
Sitting at the chef’s table in this 10-seat restaurant, the couple enjoyed a “Breakfast for Dinner” theme, mesmerized by the stories the Chef shared for each course. Their seatmates that night were two brothers from Quito, Ecuador. The Michael’s dining experience was made all the richer learning more about their lives and business in South America
“It was a great experience getting to know them over these amazing small plates of food,” Kay said.
Another unforgettable moment came on Contadora Island when the Michaels dined at a small Italian restaurant called Casa Tortuga just outside their bed & breakfast. The chef, Piero, came out of the kitchen to welcome the Michaels at their table. He mentioned that his family was from a small Italian town called Forli.
“In 1968, when he was 11, Dean was selected to be a child ambassador from his hometown for the Children’s International Summer Village in Forli, Italy,” Kay said. “Turns out Piero’s aunt still runs that program in Forli.”
The next day, the Michaels returned to the restaurant and met Piero’s uncle – the brother of the woman who still runs CISV in Forli. Dean described his experience in their hometown – the building he stayed in and the surroundings he remembered from his childhood. The pair had a great conversation about their memories in Forli.
“It was amazing that on this speck of an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, you find a family from a small town in Italy you visited when you were 11 years old,” Kay said. “What a small world.”
Your turn! What’s your favorite retreat in Central America? Share your experience and help other travelers choose their next vacation destination!
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