I have for most of my travel years traveled independently. Pre-internet, I would use travel agencies to buy tickets, and the like. In recent times, though, I’ve had occasion to develop what I call hybrid travel plans, where I still travel independently, but I use local travel agents to organize parts f my trip. I started doing this after a trip to Japan in which I discovered that in Japan travel agencies receive deep discounts, priority tickets, and finally they are a necessity to pay businesses that lack online payment systems and English-language websites. We also worked with an Alaskan company for a DIY trip that also included tours.
With this trip to Panama, my Frommer’s guide recommended hiring a guide if one isn’t renting a car. As it turned out, hiring a tour operator or joining a group during the rainy/off-season isn’t necessarily simple, as many tourist-related activities shift into low gear. Many of my email requests went without response. I did finally find Ecocircuitos.
However, though they had a tour listed on their website that matched my interest, I was told that it would not be available as a group tour since not enough people had signed up. But, they would work with me to do a semi-private tour. After a day of emailing, we settled on an itinerary. This would include: 1) A partial transit of the Panama Canal; 2) Transcontinental train and a visit to Portobelo; and 3) A visit to Barro Colorado Natural Monument; 5) Five nights of lodging and transportation. All for $1430. (In Central and South America you are also charged 5% if you use a credit card which you will likely have to use).
Case closed, correct? Well not quite. As I was busily transmitting my payment info, my agent emailed me that the Smithsonian would cancel the trip unless there were four people. Arghh!!! Stay tuned!