Panama has many tour operators and guides, of wildly different quality. Companies appear and disappear constantly, and I’ve encountered many a “guide” who hasn’t a clue what he or she is talking about. Even the more established companies can be hit or miss.
The ones included here are among the most prominent and well established, and I have indicated the ones I recommend highly. In addition to arranging tours, many operators can also make hotel and travel arrangements. Those especially interested in nature travel should be sure to sign up with a group that uses qualified naturalist guides; ask about credentials.
In addition to the guides and services described here, a couple of other individuals are worth mentioning. A naturalist guide and environmental activist named Guido Berguido works with a guide outfit called Advantage Tours (tel. 232-6944, www.advantagepanama.com). They typically offer 10-day birding trips, but other tours are offered. They have a field station in Gamboa and can take groups to two sites in the Darién.
Iann Sanchez (kayakinn [at] hotmail [dot] com), the son of Hector Sanchez of Chiriquí River Rafting fame, also has a good reputation. He’s worked as a U.S. park ranger and a rafting guide in the United States and Panama, and he is known for being knowledgeable and safety-conscious. He offers some unusual trips, including kayaking tours around Lago Gatún. He is completely bilingual.
Ancon Expeditions (P.O. Box 0832-1509 WTC, Panama City, Republic of Panama, tel. 269-9414 or 269-9415, fax 264-3713, www.anconexpeditions.com) is Panama’s top nature-tour company.
It’s known for employing some of Panama’s best naturalist guides, particularly in the Darién. These include Hernan Araúz (www.hernanarauz.com), Rich Cahill (www.richardjcahill.com), Iván Hoyos (ivan [at] panamensis [dot] com), and Rick Morales (morales.rick [at] gmail [dot] com), all of whom I’ve traveled with and can recommend. They’re all fluent in both English and Spanish.
Hernan (one of Panama’s top birding guides and Darién experts) and Rich are particularly experienced, with multiple trans-Darién treks and many shorter adventures to their credit. They’re a blast to travel with: filled with a sense of fun and adventure, but always responsible and safety-conscious. I’ve learned a lot from both.
The company occasionally organizes ocean-to-ocean adventures through the heart of the Darién. It also offers a weeklong trip that includes a multiday hike along what remains of the historic Camino Real, which once stretched from Panamá La Vieja across the isthmus to Portobelo.
Boquete Outdoor Adventures
Boquete Outdoor Adventures is a fairly new operation led by John Miller (cell 6474-0274, www.boqueteoutdooradventures.com), who worked for 10 years at the Nantahala Outdoor Center as a rafting guide and kayak instructor. It offers a variety of trips but specializes in weeklong white-water kayaking adventures in western Panama.
Chiriquí River Rafting
Chiriquí River Rafting (tel. 720-1505 or 720-1506, cell 6618-0846, www.panama-rafting.com) is a safety-conscious, highly professional operation that I’ve had great experiences with. It primarily runs white-water rivers in the western highlands, but it also offers tamer river trips.
Ecocircuitos (tel./fax 314-1586, www.ecocircuitos.com), based at the Country Inn and Suites in Amador, offers a wide range of short and multiday tours around the country. It hires friendly and accommodating guides who speak English and Spanish.
Exotics Adventures (tel. 223-9283, www.panamaexoticsadventures.com) is led by a Frenchman named Michel Peuch who comes highly recommended. Unusual offerings include a fast and arduous ocean-to-ocean Darién trek and a kayak trip in Bocas del Toro. His Darién trips focus on the western end, relatively close to Panama City and far from the dangers of the Darién Gap. These include hikes along the El Llano–Carti Road to Kuna Yala. Other offerings include a day hike along a part of the Camino de Cruces.
Gold Coast Expeditions
Gold Coast Expeditions (tel. 441-4339, cell 6635-2292, http://goldcoastpanama.homestead.com) is run by Skipper and Jill Berger, longtime residents of the Caribbean side of the former Canal Zone. They offer a variety of snorkeling/diving, sailing, and sightseeing trips around Panama, with the Caribbean side of the canal area their specialty. Popular trips include kayaking excursions around Portobelo and the lower Río Chagres.
Iguana Tours (tel. 226-8738, 226-1667, or 226-4516, fax 226-4736, www.nvmundo.com/iguanatours) specializes in trips to Isla Iguana off the Azuero Peninsula, but it offers a range of tours all over the country.
José Saenz(based in Panama City, cell 6614-7811, tel./fax 399-4003 or 251-0698, www.goldenfrog.net) is a taxi driver, but if you spend any amount of time in Panama you’ll realize he’s an important part of the tourist infrastructure. I highly recommend him. He’s punctual, responsible, polite, dependable—and a safe driver. These are qualities to prize among Panama taxi drivers.
He charges US$25 for transfers to and from Tocumen International Airport. Transfers to or from most Panama City hotels to the domestic airport at Albrook is US$5. With enough notice, he can make hotel and domestic airline reservations. He charges US$12 an hour for Panama City tours. These prices are for one or two people.
José also offers tours all over Panama, including Chiriquí, the Azuero Peninsula (his specialty; that’s where he’s from), and Bocas del Toro. Rates for this vary. Besides his air-conditioned cab, he has access to a minibus and pickup truck. He speaks pretty good English.
Nattur Panama (tel. 442-1340, fax 442-8485, www.natturpanama.com) is headed by Willie Martinez, who is recognized as one of the best birding guides in Panama. The company offers a range of nature tours throughout the country. Its unique offerings include stays at Martinez’s own ecological retreat, Willie Mazu, in the species-rich Fortuna area.
Unfortunately, the lodge was badly damaged in a terrible storm and is temporarily closed. The owners plan to rebuild it eventually.
Panama Travel Experts
Many offerings from Panama Travel Experts (tel. 265-5323, fax 265-5324, U.S. tel. 877/836-5300 or 707/226-2640, www.panamatravelexperts.com) are higher-end multiday packages that include stays at luxury hotels, but the group also offers less expensive day tours.
Pesantez (tel. 223-5374 or 263-7577, www.pesantez-tours.com) is a long-established company that enjoys a solid reputation. It specializes in tours of Panama City and cultural tours, rather than nature trips.
San Blas Sailing
San Blas Sailing (tel. 314-1800 or 314-1288, www.sanblassailing.com) arranges memorable multiday yacht tours of Kuna Yala (San Blas Islands). Though not cheap, these trips are not as expensive as one might expect and offer good value. For those who don’t have yachts of their own, it’s the best way to explore and enjoy the islands.
Scubapanama (tel. 261-3841 or 261-4064, www.scubapanama.com) is Panama’s biggest dive operator. Common offerings include diving around Portobelo, a dive in both oceans in a single day, and diving in the Panama Canal.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition