This destination review will cover a day trip from Panama City to the Portobelo forts and tropical Isla Mamay.
Independent travel vs. group tour
I’m a big fan of independent travel and generally dislike crowds when travelling (with the exception of the local pub to take a pint and have a chat). Because of this, I rarely take tours as in pretty much all cases you can easily arrange everything by yourself. In some situations, a tour can however be a necessity – and today was such a case.
There are many things to see in Panama and to get the most out of my short stay in the country, a day tour would be more convenient. Especially as it would be my last day, I thought a tour would make sense as it would allow me to cover more ground and combine two things which I wanted to see and do: the UNESCO world heritage site of Portobelo, and having some much-needed R&R on a tropical beach.
Panama Travel Unlimited
I found a local tour agency called ‘Panama Travel Unlimited‘, which had good online reviews and nice-looking tours. A few days before I embarked on my trip to Latin America I inquired if there were any tours available on one of the three days I would be staying in Panama City.
Unfortunately, the Portobelo and Isla Grande tour they advertised on their website for 85 USD was not offered on any of the three days I would be in the country. The tour agency however offered me some alternative group tours which I could join on one of these days, although none of these really attracted me.
Panama Travel Unlimited did however write me that they would be able to arrange the Portobelo and Isla Grande tour or me as a private tour, but it meant that if they could not find anyone else to join the tour I would need to pay the full price of 170 USD given the minimal requirement of two persons for a tour.
I decided to reserve it. If nobody would join I would have a private tour and would not care too much about the one-time splurge, if others would join, I might have some nice fellow travellers hopping along and would still pay the originally intended price.
Communication with Panama Travel Unlimited were great. Even before I arrived in Panama, the tour outfit informed me that they decided not to go to Isla Grande due to security concerns as there are some safety issues in and around the city of Colon on Panama’s Caribbean Coast.
The tour outfit however offered an alternative, saying they would instead combine Portobelo with the tropical island of Isla Mamey, which they told me would be just as beautiful as Isla Grande and most importantly perfectly safe. To me, this seemed a great decision and I didn’t mind the change at all.
I had to pay a 20 percent fee in advance by credit card via Paguelo Facil, which is a Panamanian payment system which is super easy to use (it accepts foreign credit and debit cards). I had to pay the remaining 80 percent to the driver and tour guide for the day.
As Panama Travel Unlimited communicated a day before the trip that they managed to sign up two Portuguese girls for the tour as well, it meant that in the end I just had to pay 85 USD for the entire tour instead of the 170 USD.
Starting the tour
Due to the early start of the day trip, I woke up early in my Panama City hotel. Just like the previous days, I started the morning with a dip in the hotel’s rooftop swimming pool followed by some breakfast. The views from the rooftop over the Panama City skyline were again gorgeous.
Driving to the Caribbean coast
The driver, who would also be our tour guide for the day (I unfortunately forgot his name), arrived just shortly after 7.30am in the lobby of my hotel to pick me up. He was a friendly and talkative guy who previously lived in the US, speaking fluent English with a tick American accent.
Even though we would have an entire minivan for the three of us, I opted to sit next to him up front in the van as he knew a lot about Panama and had some interesting tales to tell. We were all given some complimentary bottles of water and drove off on a modern motorway towards Colon on the Caribbean Sea.
Just before we reached Colon we turned off the motorway and ventured east along the Caribbean coast on a gorgeous country road. We stopped briefly at a supermarket to purchase supplies for the day as there would be no restaurant or bar on Isla Mamay.
Luckily, we had a cooler filled with ice in to keep the beers which I bought cold! After buying a few empanadas from the local bakery I was all set and we could continue our trip.
The Portobelo forts
Our first stop was one of the Portobelo forts built by the Spanish as a defence against the pirates roaming the Caribbean coastline. There are several forts and batteries across the bay and during our tour we would stop at two of them.
Back in the Spanish colonial days, a stone road linked the Portobelo forts through the interior with Panama City on the Pacific Ocean. This road was of vital importance for the transport of the gold and other riches which the Spanish looted from the Andean countries in South America.
These treasures would first be shipped along the Pacific Coast from nowadays Peru and Ecuador to Panama, from where it would be transported by road to Portobelo, where the cargo was loaded into ships bound for Spain.
Portobelo eventually fell into decline after several successful pirate attacks, after which the Spanish left it in a state of neglect after their colonies fell into a decline. The forts are currently still in a crumbling state, with only the outer walls and a few cannons remaining. The fortifications are however still impressive to see, as is the view from the ramparts over the clear blue Caribbean waters and lush jungle.
Second Portobelo fort
After the first fort, we headed for five minutes down the coastal road to a second fortification, which was quite a bit bigger than the first one. This is the fort which is closest to the actual town of Portobelo, of which you could see the colourful houses from the fortress ramparts. There were some equally great views over Portobelo Bay as well.
A short walk around Portobelo town
From the second fort we wandered into the actual town of Portobelo, which did seem like a lovely peaceful community. It was certainly a far cry from the militaristic times of the Spaniards and pirates! I did especially love the colourful building facades all over town.
The highlight of Portobelo town is the Iglesia de San Felipe, a church which is famous for its ‘Cristo Negro’ or Nazereno (Black Christ). It is a popular local pilgrimage destination which is well known throughout entire Panama. Each year on 21st October, the town celebrates the festival of the black Christ and attracts thousands of pilgrims from all over the country.
There were some cool buses parked around the church as well. Panama has a lot of the old American school buses which are commonly used throughout the country for public transport. They are all painted in a colourful motives and texts – which reminded me a bit of jeepneys which form the linchpin of public transport in the Philippines.
Towards Isla Mamay
After a quick cup of coffee in a local cafe we left Portobelo and drove the last few miles to our embarkation point for Isla Mamey. While the coastal road was smooth and went through some lovely greenery, the harbour village itself seemed to be a bit of a mess being littered with rubbish and weeds from the sea.
We were told to wait next to our van while our guide would arrange the boat transfer to Isla Mamay. Within minutes he was back, telling us walk to the jetty and wait for the arriving boat. We took the cooler box with us, and to my surprise our guide had also brought a few folding chairs and a hammock along.
After putting on our compulsory life jackets, we stepped into the small motorboat for the short 15 to 20 minute ride out of the bay to Isla Mamay. The open sea was a bit choppy after we left the sheltered port, but the ride was not too bad.
Getting closer to the island, my excitement started to grow. While the beach at the small harbour village didn’t look like much at all, Isla Mamay did definitely look like one pretty little island.
First impressions of Isla Mamay
We disembarked from the boat and anchored it onto the beach. We took our folding seats and cooler box to a nice shady spot under a palm tree to set up camp for the next few hours. While our guide set up the hammock, the two Portuguese girls decided to take a swim, while I went for a walk to explore the island.
Isla Mamay is rather small and you can easily walk around the island in 15 minutes. The first thing you notice on arrival is how secluded the beach is. The sides of the island which faced the open Caribbean Sea did have some big waves making swimming there impossible.
Due to some natural banks and breakers, the secluded beach side of the island which faced the Panamanian mainland is however perfectly calm with almost no waves whatsoever at all, making it a perfect place to swim.
Exploring the island
Isla Mamay is a popular destination for tourists and locals alike, although it never really gets crowded. During our stay on the island, there were maybe 15 to 20 other people spread around the island – mostly Panamanian families with a few European yachties thrown in.
There are no facilities at the island, so you do need to bring all food and drinks you need from the mainland. There were public toilets just off the beach in the form of outhouses, which were however very clean. It is well worth it to walk a bit away from the beach along the coastal paths for some lovely tropical views of palm trees and the azure blue sea.
Having completed my walk, it was time to hit the beach for some sunbathing and swimming. Due to the shallowness of the water and secluded character of the sea, the beach is also perfect for families with young children who want to take a swim. If you walk towards the far end of the beach you will see that the sands have a lovely pink and purple colour.
What can make this great beach experience even better? Yes, you guessed it right! A cold beer would certainly do!
We spent a lovely afternoon on the island and in the end I didn’t do much else than swimming, drinking beer and napping a bit. What a great way to relax! Before I knew it, our guide told it was time to say goodbye again to Isla Mamey as we needed to head back to Panama City.
Taking the boat back
Fortunately, the boat ride back to the small harbour on the mainland was less choppy on the return. I looked behind me for some last views of the wonderful little island that is Isla Mamay.
The drive home went by quite fast as the scenery was again diverse enough to keep me glued to the window and again I had some interesting talks with our guide. All went well until we arrived back in Panama City – at rush hour.
Unfortunately, Panama City rush hour traffic is absolutely horrible and we spent more than one-and-a-half hours stuck in traffic on the way to my hotel after having dropped off the Portuguese girls in their accommodation on the outskirts of the city.
A last dinner
Finally being dropped off at my hotel, I thanked and tipped my driver/tour guide and thanked him for his services as I really enjoyed the excellent tour. Even though I wasn’t too hungry and was rather tired from the long day, I forced myself to go out and at least have a small bite.
In a nearby restaurant I ordered some ceviche, which unfortunately was a far cry from the great ceviche I had the day prior on Taboga Island.
After an evening swim back at the hotel swimming pool and some rooftop beers I called it a night, ending an extremely fun three days in Panama. With an early morning flight the next day to neighbouring Costa Rica, I could surely use some sleep.
Panama has some great tropical islands and beaches (such as the San Blas islands), but seeing them would take quite some more time in the country, time which I unfortunately did not have. If you are limited in time and still want your share of tropical beaches, a day tour can make lots of sense. It allows you to cover lots of ground, which you probably would not be able to manage if arranging all logistics on your own.
Portobelo and Isla Mamay are two fantastic destinations which are definitely worth seeing. They are easy to combine given that they are located along the same coastal road, thus limiting the time spent driving and maximising time at the destination.
I was extremely satisfied with the services of Panama Travel Unlimited as they delivered on all fronts. They were easy to communicate with prior to the tour to set up the day trip and I ended up having an amazing driver-guide. Besides this tour of Portobelo and Isla Mamay, the travel agency also does a big number of other day tours as well as multi-day itineraries around Panama. I can certainly recommend them!
Trip report index
This article is part of the ‘A Piece of Panama With a Bit of Bogota and a Slice of San Jose‘ trip report, which consists of the following chapters:
1. Review: Air France Economy Class Bucharest to Paris (Airbus A320)
2. Review: Air France Business Lounge Paris CDG Airport Terminal 2E – Hall K
3. Review: Air France Economy Class Paris to Bogota (Boeing 787)
4. Review: Hotel Morrison 114, Bogota, Colombia
5. A Short One-Day Stopover in Bogota, Colombia
6. Review: Copa Club Bogota Airport, Colombia
7. Review: Copa Airlines economy class Bogotá to Panama (Embraer RJ-190)
8. Review: Tryp by Wyndham Panama Centro
9. How to Visit the Miraflores Locks on the Panama Canal
10. Into the Casco Viejo – Exploring Panama City’s Old Town Centre
11. Isla Taboga: A Day Trip to the Island of Flowers
12. A Panama Day Trip to the Portobelo Forts and Tropical Isla Mamay (current chapter)
13. Review: Copa Club Panama Tocumen International Airport
14. Review: Copa Airlines Economy Class Panama to San Jose (Boeing 737-800)
15. Destination San Jose: A Day in the Capital of Costa Rica
16. Review: VIP Lounge Costa Rica, San Jose Airport (SJO)
17. Review: KLM Economy Class San Jose to Amsterdam (Boeing 787)
18. Review: KLM Crown Lounge (Non-Schengen) Amsterdam Airport
19. Review: KLM Economy Class Amsterdam to Bucharest (Boeing 737-800)