Exploring Panama & Ecuador, with Filip Pačes

Travel designer Filip Pačes created two holidays combining Panama with Ecuador. He says:

They’re a fantastic combination. In two weeks you enjoy a private island beach holiday, a wildlife safari in Galapagos, plus two very interesting countries.

In this article, Filip explains how he developed this holiday concept and the general itinerary you could follow.

Clients who experienced this itinerary said it was their best holiday for many years, clients with a very long and interesting travel history.

Start in Panama City

Casco Viejo, the old part of Panama City

A mix of old and new, beautifully preserved and looking towards the future. Panama City is one of the most interesting cities in the Americas and a great entry point to this region.

KLM flies between Amsterdam and Panama City, making it a convenient two-leg flight from almost any major city in Central Europe.

I recommend staying at Sofitel Legend Casco Viejo, which I consider the best hotel in the city. It has a great location for exploring the charming old city on foot.

For a relaxed itinerary I suggest two nights in Panama City. The KLM flight arrives at 16:40 on day one, when you should allow some time to recover from the flight and time difference.

Old Panama City is a nice place to visit on your own, with places like the iconic fish market, Santa Ana Park and the old Coca Cola Cafe. It’s not so big and you will quickly get a feel for the vibe.

On day two you can travel from the Caribbean to the Pacific, through the Panama Canal. I can provide VIP Canal Access, you can walk trails in San Lorenzo National Park, visit old fortresses, and see how mega ships move through the canal.

I can also recommend the Ocean to Ocean Heli Experience, so you combine the birds-eye view at the canal with flying above it all. Plus you get a scenic look over the tribal village Embera and Panama City as part of the flight.

Panama City is a juxtaposition of old and new. The canal is a juxtaposition of nature and industry. Both are fascinating places as a first-time visitor.

Now Enjoy a Private Island Beach Holiday

Isla Palenque

Staying at Isla Palenque

Very few people realise that Panama is a beach holiday destination. The entire Panama coastline is amazing, on both the Caribbean and Pacific sides, but most of it hasn’t really been developed for tourism yet.

I can recommend two different destinations. Both are truly untouched islands for people who like to explore nature, on the land or in the water. And they’re very private, with lots of different beaches and only 15 – 20 other guests.

Isla Palenque is a Pacific island island with seven secluded beaches, thick indigenous forest, and a sacred history left behind in archaeological ruins.

You can stay in one of the eight beachfront casitas. But it’s such good value I recommend the Beachfront Villa Estate, which is literally on the oceanfront and in the rainforest. My clients said:

Great activities and great food. With the Beachfront Villa Estate we had our own private chef, so we could eat whatever we wanted and fulfil all foodie wishes.

The sea around the island is quite dark due to dark sand, but the beach was nice and it’s easy to take a boat to snorkel in deeper waters, added Filip’s clients.

Isla Palenque has seven private beaches

You can lay on the beach all day, or spend a whole day exploring the island with local guides.

The activities fit all ages and types of clients. The local guides live on the island and know every leaf and stone!

Islas Secas

Islas Secas

Islas Secas is an archipelago of 14 private islands, epitomising the wild volcanic beauty of Panama’s Pacific coastline.

It’s a place for whale watching, surfing and more than 20 dive sites. A home to 750 species of fish and 80 different birds, a one-hour boat trip to the second longest reef in the Pacific.

Villa at Islas Secas

13 islands are preserved completely as nature intended. The largest island is home to the small Islas Secas Resort, which has secluded villas for families and couples.

Islas Secas is the more premium option with a price tag to match, with an all-inclusive concept includes all activities like scuba diving (including PADI training and certification), cruises on the yacht, whale watching expeditions. And the unmissable hike – kayak – beach – picnic – snorkel – island hopping adventure.

Casita at Islas Secas

For Isla Palenque you’ll first fly to David and then take a short speedboat transfer. Islas Secas is a direct resort plane transfer from Panama City.

Next, Discover a Little of Ecuador

After spending four, five, six, seven days or more on the islands, fly direct between Panama City and Quito, the capital of Ecuador.

When you include a transfer off the island it’s quite a full-day of travel, but there shouldn’t be anything stressful about this journey.

My clients chose to only stay overnight in Quito before travelling to Galapagos, in which case I recommend a suite at Wyndham Quito Airport Hotel, as it’s most convenient.

Quito has impressive sights, but I’m currently recommending my clients skip Ecuador’s capital.

Quito has better hotels for a two or three-night city stay. Like Casa Gangotena and Hotel Plaza Grande, immersions in the city’s history, located directly on Quito’s original, cobblestone plaza (city square).

However, I’ve had different clients who didn’t feel 100% comfortable in Quito, before the city’s security situation in January. For my client’s January trip I had to quickly adjust some things, so the entire holiday could still go ahead.

My recommendation and the feedback from my clients is to only use Quito as a stopover, staying near the airport. Either travel immediately onwards to Galapagos the next morning, or into Ecuador’s beautiful interior.

Hacienda Zuleta

One option is to discover some of the Ecuadorian highlands and enjoy a hacienda experience. Haciendas are traditional farmhouse lodges, converted into very unique and boutique places to stay.

You spend the days relaxing and exploring, on horseback, on foot, to colourful market towns and areas rich in wildlife.

My favourite is Hacienda Zuleta, owned by a former Ecuadorian President and operated by his grandchildren.

Foodies will love it here! They still host guests for cheese and wine tasting on most evenings, with great stories about Ecuador’s history.

Mashpi Lodge

Another option is to stay at Mashpi Lodge, a real rainforest experience that has received amazing feedback from our clients. Just be prepared for a three-hour transfer on a very bumpy road.

This two-week Ecuador and Galapagos itinerary shows these options in more detail. 

Unfortunately, most of us don’t have time for a holiday of more than 2.5 weeks, so Ecuador’s mainland is skipped in favour of one of the ultimate bucket list destinations.

Finish Your Holiday in the Galapagos

Bartolome island, Galapagos, with Santiago island in the background

And now Galapagos! Snorkelling with seals, walking with endemic birds, seeing the penguins, giant tortoises, lava flows and so much more.

With a four-night cruise program, such as the Elite Cruise, you can explore most of the main Galapagos highlights.

Elite Galapagos Catamaran

Of course, such a rare destination can always be deserving of more time. The seven-night Aqua Cruise is an option I recommend, especially the Owner’s Suite. It’s the first superyacht-style option in the islands.

Aqua Cruise

Families could consider a land-based Galapagos itinerary. You stay in a nice property on Santa Cruz, then do daily boat excursions to different islands.

However, the Galapagos is not for small children and in my opinion it’s better to wait until the kids are older and you can do the cruise together.

Villa Tortuga is an exclusive-use villa on Santa Cruz, another option you have

There are many possibilities in the Galapagos. It’s not only picking the best boat, but also the best itinerary depending on your interests, because every Galapagos island has a unique highlight!

This is where I really get into depth as a travel designer. For every client I can bring a different recommendation in the Galapagos.

Why I Love This Holiday Concept

This Panama and Ecuador holiday idea ticks so many boxes for me.

It’s both adventure and relaxation, a pure feeling of exploration without needing to be hardcore explorers and adventures.

Logistics played a key role in developing the concept, in terms of the order of where you go. Yet there’s still so much space for customisation, be it the choice of island, shorter or longer stays in Panama City and Quito, and just about everything in the Galapagos.

I’ve created this holiday for both a family and a couple. There are differences of course, especially in terms of the best suites and villas, the types of activities and experiences.

Yet overall, this holiday can really really work for both couples and families with older children. Eight years and over is minimum, especially in terms of maximising the Galapagos experience.

The main reason I love this holiday concept is the variation in new experiences, while everything still being very comfortable.

The island holidays are quite different to what you may know in the Maldives, especially the wealth of raw nature and such few other guests. More rustic than the Maldives but definitely at the high level demanded by all our clients.

Panama City and Quito are such interesting cities and they’re quite easy to get around, unlike cities such as Bogota and Mexico City, which are interesting and massive!

And then you have the wildlife safari to end your holiday!

Your Next Adventure Holiday?

I create original holiday concepts for all my clients, just like my fellow travel designers.

Right now I’m almost full to capacity with existing clients, although there is a little space for new clients who want something really out of the ordinary. Is that you?

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