Panama Canal tour, partial review and tips

Panama Canal
We are on the Panama Canal Tour, beginning in Panama City, ending in San Jose, Costa Rica. The First tour on the new ship, Le Champlain. We were at an advantage from the start as we had been on the sister ship, Le Laperouse in the summer and only one of the tour directors had been on that ship. We had a mid priced state room on deck 5. We knew exactly how to use it to it’s advantage because on our previous ship we were in a nearby room. We are near an elevator, it is a silent elevator so do not be afraid choosing a room near one. We found it an advantage to use that instead of the stairs for speed of getting around the boat.
On day three, I started with the symptoms of a cold and did not feel very wonderful for maybe 48 hours and had a cough too. I hardly ever get colds, but there were others around coughing. Today I am fine.
Panama City. Was a great surprise to me, the Hilton hotel is in a central location in the new skyscraper part of the area right on the Bay of Panama. Good rooms, fabulous swimming pool, great treatments at the spa etc. The view from the room was spectacular, look out for turkey and black vultures circling outside your window plus frigate birds too.
We walked into the old city by going across the main roadway via a bridge right outside the hotel onto a bayside ‘promenade’. A brisk 45 minute walk to the old city, a public bathroom halfway there. We strolled around the city enjoying both the very old dilapidated buildings and the renovated ones, plus all the extra painting going on because the Pope is about to visit. We were glad we did this on our own because the Tauck guided tour of the town was not very good in comparison but it would really depend on which group and local guide you found you were with.
Most of the few stores here give ample opportunities to buy Panama hats. Be sure you chose one that is crushable and one that is woven and not just stamped out, check with the vendor about these things. And this will of course reflect the price. The day we were there, there were a few market craft stalls in one of the squares, hats and jewelry the main choices. Dollars are the currency in Panama.
If you have sensitivities and allergies, one thing to be aware of at the Hilton, they have a fairly strong air freshener type sent wafting through the public areas. I am not very sensitive to this but it certainly made my nose twitch before the cold kicked in. In addition the bathrooms have scented toilet paper. I came across this last in Ecuador and I am sensitive to that, be careful!
The ship also has a very strong perfume wafting in the public areas which is totally overpowering. I will be surprised if people do not complain about it. I have not made comment, but it is horrible.
Once we got onto the ship we began to relax. This is the most relaxing Tauck tour we have been on so far, lots of time to chill out, and surprisingly I am enjoying it after a busy few months at home.
The second night was the Captain’s Welcome dinner and we were invited to his table along with eight other people. We have had this privilege before, it depends on your seniority of the number of Tauck tours you have taken, so it’s a great perk for all the tours we have taken and loyalty to Tauck. If you have taken lots of tours with Tauck, you might be invited. The menu is slightly more fancy for you and the wines a little better. You have to sit where your name card is. It was unfortunate that the lady sitting to my left, the wife was having very bad Motion sickness and looked quite green, she ate nothing and hardly said a word, she left the table at dessert and never returned. Her husband, you had to just drag a few words out of him. It was hard work, as surprisingly as regular readers of my posts may find, I don’t find conversations with strangers that easy.
The first two nights on the ship, there was a lot of motion, when walking around you had to grasp the railings in the corridors. My husband and I were fine, but I understand that quite a few people suffered the affects.
Our visit to the San Blas islands was lovely, just like a desert island. There were native people selling Mola crafts and beaded things.
The passage through the Panama Canal was wonderful, far more exciting than I had imagined. You get to see a film about the Canal before the passage in the ship’s theatre and realize what an incredible engineering feat it was and is.
The day visiting the Enbera for us magical. You will watch a video of how it goes and get a talk the night before from the tour directors. The exit from the zodiacs to the beach is wet and can be tricky bit you are in good hands. Take your phone and cameras in waterproof bags. Wear toe covered Teva or Keen sandals for protection and to navigate the walk along the beach and to make your way up the rocky path to the ceremonial enclosure where you will meet the Enbera people, very beautiful, photogenic and welcoming. Be prepared that the people wear very little clothing, the men just a loincloth and the women bare breasted. You will have the opportunity to get a semi permanent ink tattoo from them, I have one, they say it will last about seven days. They do not expect money when you take photos. One lady took pencils and stickers for the children. I asked one of the tour directors if this was appropriate, he said yes, but you must not offer money. I personally did not like the idea of giving out the pencils plus there were a lot of children and your photos looked less authentic because they were all clutching the darned pencils and stickers. The best way to pay back is to buy the crafts. I am not sure that lady bought more than a small trinket, I bought several items, which I always do because that’s a great way of giving money in a meaningful way. The baskets are beautiful and prices vary from say $10 to over $100 for the bigger but exquisite ones. There is beaded type jewelry too.
We partly chose the date for this particular tour because there was going to be a BBC wildlife film maker on board, Tim Martin. He is a great guy, he is readily available to talk to throughout the tour and we ate lunch with him one day. He has given one wonderful lecture and is due to give two more. We are glad we chose the tour for this reason. We think Tauck should offer this again.
I hope Sealord finds this useful. Time to read my book before the origami lesson!


  • OK. Don’t know if you will see this British but you should. We could actually be at the coffee plantation at the same time tomorrow. But, we just did the theater, gold museum, and ox cart factory today. The Costa Rica Marriott is on my top three list. Both Eloise and I wished we had stayed at the ‘resort’ ... fabulous place. I think you will do that ‘theater’ day, day after tomorrow. I think you are really into the art and museum thing, but this is eight hours in a bus for a little art and a little theater. The ox cart really was interesting, and it was the highlight of the day ... other than getting back to this beautiful resort. Just one opinion.
  • Hello Sealord, just saw your message. Our group, the ones staying at the Marriott will indeed be going to the coffee plantation tomorrow Sunday. We have just had our last dinner on the ship.
    Mr B now has the nasty cough that is going around the ship.
    The food has been fantastic. The Cruise Director, Karmel is a hoot, the dancers and singer have put on three great shows.
    We took the Mango cruise and nature walk tour today and it turned out to be wonderful trip, we were extremely lucky to see Howler monkeys and spider monkeys in the same trees, an anteater high in a tree, raccoons, lots of crocs, iguanas and even the elusive Scarlet macaws that we have never seen on three previous tours to Costa Rica. The wet landing requires shoes because you have to walk up a black sand and very stoney beach, it is by a Marriott that we stayed in with Tauck on our first Costa Rica tour years ago.
    We are looking forward to seeing your Marriott that we think we also stayed in on our first Costa Rica tour.
    We toured the Gold museum two years ago with Tauck. We also saw the theatre on our first tour but really look forward to seeing that again as it rivals the Academy of Music in Philly that we have performed on numerous times.
    We do not leave the ship until 9-30am so it looks as if our day will be less than yours was.
    An absolute highlight of the tour for most of us has been the presence of the BBC film maker Tim Martin. We have talked to him a lot and he has really joined in with all of us.
    We have to have our bags ready for pick up at 6-30am and out of our rooms by 8am so they can be cleaned for your tour. Good night.
  • edited January 2019
    OMG Sealord, I feel bad for you. Of course I am getting confused because our whole itineraries are reversed.
    Our two days in San Jose, have been a disappointment organization wise. There was some delay leaving the ship because Customs came on board and wanted to check a good number of suitcases. Our group, the last to leave, were only maybe ten minutes late departing but the earlier ones were delayed more. Even so, it was a very rushed day and we arrived at the hotel at least one and a half hours late. Some of this was because people kept spreading out and were not there when we needed to depart. It was not uncommon for the tour directors have to repeat the same information six times in the space of five minutes because people were either not there, too busy talking, or just I do not exaggerate. Buffets, I dreaded buffets on land because people are so very slow just standing there and deciding what they want to eat. Over half an hour to stand in line and everyone to get their food, and there were only 28 of us today.
    We did the coffee plantation around 11-30 yesterday. We have been to two other coffee plantations in Costa Rica and this one was very inferior in quality of what they had to see. The other two gave either a complete show and a stage presentation of coffee tasting with audience participation...Cafe Britt. The other, I forget the name took us around and we got to see how cocoa beans were processed too. We didn’t even get more than a tooth cup size sample at Doka.
    Personally, it was a long drive to the Ox carts and a gift shop of souvenirs that in past Tauck Costa Rica trips we have been able to buy at a quick coffee Rest stop.
    This has not been the best value Tauck tour and it appears they are bending to giving more shopping opportunities which I could do without. I can easily buy all I want in ten minutes. The beginning and end needs work.
  • Just crossed this trip off our "bucket list" as it appears to be less than what is described on their website. Ce la vie!
  • AshvEd wrote:
    Just crossed this trip off our "bucket list" as it appears to be less than what is described on their website. Ce la vie!

    I think that might be premature. I was expecting this tour to have a few rough spots that need to be worked out since it is a new boat ... and it is Latin America where as in Africa things happen a little ‘differently’. In particular, after British and I file our ‘reviews’, I think things will probably change a bit. I deleted my previous post because I hate being negative. I do plan on talking to the cruise director, and the excursion manager about some things, so there may be improvements for next week’s tour. There is no “perfect” even on Tauck, but they do a great job most of the time. We are not unhappy that we booked this trip ... beautiful boat, beautiful hotels, great food, but there are some areas that need work.
  • edited January 2019
    We are back home. On all my tours , I have rarely said much negative about them at all. Latin America? I have been on three different Costa Rica tours with Tauck. One was newish and there were a few timing problems. Other than that, the quality was high on them. This tour has had issues on the land parts for quality of excursions and time at them for us. That appeared to be what I was hearing from others this past week. I even heard about unacceptable issues at the Intercontinental when we met people at the airport this morning. For the first time ever, I am going to email Tauck about things in the next few days.
    The trouble is, depending on the hotels you stay in, the tour directors and tour choices of excursions, you could easily experience something completely different from another guest.
    Tauck is not going to be able to change much this season, the last tour is January 25th
  • I talked with the person who I think is the senior Tauck representive here tonight. He was totally engaged. He was clearly surprised and astonished at the information I gave him. Afterward, we could see that all the Tauck people were having a ‘business’ dinner. Some did not smile in our direction. I think the problems may be with their representitives here “Swiss Travel”. We are not the only people who have had issues. This is a Tauck aberation. Once again, this has been a wonderful experience, but there have been non-Tauck unwonderful events. Today one person fell overboard on a ‘float’ trip in the ‘rapids’. Rapids on a ‘float’ trip. We had a wonderful two hour horseback ride. I will probably delete this one also, so if you wish to comment you will need to be quick. We love Tauck!
  • I am not sure why you want to delete, these are valid issues that people need to know. For instance, we spoke to people that went on the float trip and they were telling us that on their 'float trip' the local guides were deliberately splashing them to the extent that they got pretty wet. They were furious. The tour directors were telling guests before they went that they would get wet, which I thought was so odd for a float, I have never gotten wet on a float trip.
    I think you have hit the nail on the head. Swiss Travel is not the quality we have had certainly in Costa Rica. For instance, in two past tours, we happened to have the same local guide, we have even seen him on TV. In other words, they were very professional. The guides here are good but the operation itself, it just seems less quality. Certainly a couple we had were even hinting at tips, which we have never encountered before.
    Clearly we love Tauck, we have been using them for over fifteen years. In the past calendar year we took six trips with them, so I guess I have a good idea ofwhat to expect. I think it is valid to express some comments, after all, for example, if I am wanting to choose a float trip, I need to know it is not a float trip before I choose it as an option because on all float trips I have taken, I have never gotten wet.
    We enjoyed the quality of the ship, but we go with Tauck to see other countries, not be in a floating luxury hotel, so when a tour on land finishes at 11am and that is the extent of your visit to land for the day, it does not represent I guess, the type of experience we like. The Iceland experience was better.
    So few people read the forums, it's hardly going to affect anything. I have been glad of reading negative and positive comments about tours here because it often helps my expectations. I am not going to make another negative. I'll write, which maybe is the better way anyway. We will continue traveling with Tauck, but other newer customers expressed without even knowing how many tours we have taken with Tauck, that they have had equally as good experiences with other tour companies when they compared it with this particular tour. I do not hear that very often.
    I am not sure if you have been to Panama, but we loved it.
  • I agree that postings can assist potential travelers with their decision making. We don't have good sea legs so we have paid particular attention to rough seas on some of the trips. We also would not want to be intentionally splashed on a float trip, especially if our camera gear got soaked. We have loved all of our Tauck trips and have two more booked. Keep the reviews coming. Thanks.
  • OK. I didn’t delete that post. And I talked with C.C. In customer raleations today. Let’s preface this with the statement that we had a wonderful time on this trip. But there were a few ‘non-Tauck’ moments. The ‘green book’ descriptions of the excursions were innacurate, incomplete, and inadequate. Some excursions that made no mention of ‘stairs’ had hundreds of stairs. And the walk up the hundred foot tower at the end of the ‘tram ride’ ... where did that come from? And the waterfall sounded wonderful, but no mention of the 200 stairs down and back up to get there. My wife enjoyed it. Farewell reception for seventy people wth one bartender. Spent the reception in the drink line then immediately went to dinner where the wait staff was way undermanned. We really loved lots of this trip. The Embera people were a wonderful experience, Le Champlain is a great ship, the food and service was amazing. We did not do the first trip on this ship, because we wanted them to get some learning space. They needed more space. I expect that the people who go next December and beyond will have a great experience in part because I think I lit a bit of a fire today at customer relations. She said she was getting writer’s cramp. The Tauck ‘philosphy’ addresses ‘expectations’. Indeed. Let’s accurately describe the expectations. Looking forward to our next Tauck trip in July.
  • Sealord. I am glad you wrote this. I wrote a longish email to Tauck when I got home highlighting almost the same points as you plus others and suggested solutions for improvement as well as also confirming we loved Tauck. I got a call the very next day and was highly satisfied with what transpired. Customer relations also liked my main suggestion. Also looking forward to our next trip in July.
  • Just received a call from customer relations. They had received the expected call from our new friends who had purchased one of the ‘grand’ suites on Le Champlain (one with it’s own jacuzzi) and he was also ‘concerned’ about some issues with this trip. They are working on it, and it has generated ‘concern’ and there will be more meetings and feedback next week. They assured me that this trip will be fixed before the next one in December. For those who may read this, and not the entire thread, we had a great time! But, there were a few non-Tauck like issues that need to be smoothed out.
  • Thanks so much for all the information that has been posted. My husband and I are taking this trip next January. We are certainly looking forward to it. We have been on 6 prior Tauck trip which we certainly enjoyed, with the exception of the aborted river cruise last year (although it wasn't all bad by any means). I know that they will work hard on any issues reported to them, and thank you for doing so. We are trying to decide if we want to go a day early to San Jose or stay over in Panama. Any suggestions would be appreciated.
  • Deciding on travel is not always easy, and not just about the expense. It is also about weighing the time commitment. Information helps us sort through a myriad of opportunities and make good choices. We've been on lots of Tauck tours, including a Panama/Costa Rica which we enjoyed a great deal, and we have thought of returning. I really appreciate unfiltered opinions and comments, and wish to thank you all for taking the time to be so helpful.
  • Thanks Mazalea, I have been on about thirty Tauck tours but this new itinerary to the Canal fell short. We love Costa Rica and that is why we felt the choices were poor on that part of the tour and the timing was way off. We would certainly consider doing the tour again starting in the opppsite direction. I am sure things will be improved by then. My feeling is that we definitely see more and get better value for money on the land tours. I just don’t want to spend endless amounts of free time in a floating hotel
  • Fortunately, there is something for everyone. I have never met a bus that my legs don’t dislike. My wife is petite, but she does not like bus travel either. Busing is unavoidable when it comes to visiting the sights, but as a means of transport from location to location, that is not for me. We also like keeping the ‘suitcase drill’ to a minimum so we prefer river boats and small ships.
  • British wrote:
    Thanks Mazalea, I have been on about thirty Tauck tours but this new itinerary to the Canal fell short. We love Costa Rica and that is why we felt the choices were poor on that part of the tour and the timing was way off. We would certainly consider doing the tour again starting in the opppsite direction. I am sure things will be improved by then. My feeling is that we definitely see more and get better value for money on the land tours. I just don’t want to spend endless amounts of free time in a floating hotel

    I just received a call from Customer Relations, and we had another productive half hour conversation. They have taken all of our comments (three couples that I know of) quite seriously. For those on or considering a future trip, they have assured me that the issues that we encountered will be corrected before the next tour to the Panama Canal. British, I think you might enjoy doing the trip starting in San Jose, as there is something of a ‘buildup’ toward what I considered the high point of actually transiting the Canal. I did tell them that we enjoyed the trip a great deal in spite of a few ‘rough’ spots. They expressed both concern and understanding, and said corrective measures are underway.
  • I am glad that I also have also communicated with them but I have had no further communication with them since they originally called me, I provided most of my concerns in my email and a couple of suggestions that they liked. I assume they took me seriously as I have been traveling with them since at least 2003 and it’s not usual for me to call about anything. But maybe I was the only one who called from our tour. There were many people who were on their first Tauck tour on ours, so have nothing to compare it with and saying they had traveled with other tour companies that were just as good. Were you ‘satisfied’ with what they did for you? See, I told you not to delete your original comments. This tour needed big improvement. I hope we find our upcoming first river cruise is not too much down time. I know you don’t like coach travel so I suggest you don’t do the Iceland cruise because that’s a lot of time on the bus. The same with Patagonia, long time on the bus. When it is a scenery destination I love to look out of the window when we are in the bus, because there is no way we could see it all without that, but then I am short.
  • Thanks British and Sealord! We are leaving on this trip westbound on Jan 28, 2020. Great information, helpful. We have "the gift of time" and so need to choose an extra day in Panama City or San Jose. Do you have a recommendation?

  • We loved Panama City. Had been to San Jose before, it’s not so safe there. But the hotel in Panama is a great location and wonderful views from your room. We did a lot of walking and saw more than what was included on the tour

  • I have a very similar picture, but yours is better. We may have had the same room.

  • Thanks guys. Guess we'll pick the extra day in Panama City instead of San Jose.

  • We actually loved the Marriott in San Jose Costa Rica. I have been to both Panama City and San Jose before. We actually did not like the Hilton in Panama City. (Pictures). Nice views, but we did not care for all the stone and glass ... very sterile. We just enjoyed our extra day in the Marriott San Jose. Very nice.

  • Just to point out that the Marriott San Jose is no where near the city. I’ve been to that hotel twice and San Jose three times now and feel Panama is more ch safer or walk around.

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