Cheap flights from Panama: Copa Air to Guatemala

One of the great things about living in Panama is its close proximity to a number of countries that have spectacular attractions – Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Costa Rica – and the list goes on.   My plan when I first moved here, thinking that there would be cheap flights to both South and Central America, was to take the opportunity to visit places that may have been too expensive if traveling from the U.S. or Canada – I was particularly excited about South America. I also thought this would be an easy way to update my tourist visa every six months.

Well, I got a rude wake-up call after moving to Panama and began searching for flights, because they are not nearly as cheap as I thought. $500 for a 90-minute flight to Cartagena, seriously? For my family of three, any trip to South America is going to cost us over $1500 just to get there. And, if you’re going to a place like Machu Picchu or Galapagos Islands you need to book two separate flights and then costs escalate significantly.

So, onto Plan B, which for me, meant thinking outside the box in terms of places to visit. One day I was simply searching my favourite travel site for any cheap flight leaving Panama City. I wanted to leave the chaos of Panamanian Carnival and needed to renew my visa. So, I began typing in every destination city I could think of and the dates I wanted (flexible dates), and eventually I ended up with an incredible deal to Guatemala.

For a family of three, the round-trip tickets direct from Panama City to Guatemala City on Copa Air, the total costs was $710! Even when I checked directly on the Copa site this deal was nowhere to be found.

Sidebar: I know of many Canadians (and some Americans) who flew on Copa down to Panama from October to early December of this past year for a total of $320 (direct and round trip from Toronto). So, the deals are there.

Tips for finding cheap flights from Panama:
• Use travel sites such as Kayak, Orbitz, Expedia, Priceline, etc. and use more than one of them as you search;
• Visit the Copa Air site and click on their “Promotions” tab as they list their best deals to a variety of destinations;
• Look at smaller airlines such as Panama Air, Tica Air and other Central/South American airlines;
• Check charter companies (Nolitours and Air Transat, for example) for trips to and from Canada;
• Sign up on a travel site for their “sale” alerts and you will receive emails with updated prices;
• Try to have flexible dates; and,
• Search everyday – prices change and cheap seats are scooped up quickly.
Important tips for flying in and out of Panama:
• Make sure you have an exit ticket to leave Panama when you check in at the airport on your return, or they may not allow you on the plane (ask me how I know);
• If you are using a “fake” plane ticket to prove you are exiting make sure it’s not with the same airline in case they check the reservation;
• If you don’t want to do the “fake” ticket simply reserve a ticket the day before you leave the country and take the reservation with you to the airport – this will be your proof of exit. But, you don’t have to pay for the actual ticket for 48 hours, so just cancel it when you get back to Panama;
• A bus ticket may not be enough to convince the check-in person that you intend to leave Panama;
• Make sure you know exactly what the rules are for your particular visa situation because the people in the country you are visiting likely will not – so, if you need to prove something, you need to have the facts;
• Leave your itinerary and personal info with friends or family in case something happens to you in the other country;
• Get to the airport early – I’ve actually had a friend be refused on the plane because they were not there early enough – she got there 80 minutes before take-off.

And now, Guatemala….
I didn’t know much about Guatemala, so my wife and I did some quick research and spoke with some tour operators. What we discovered was that Guatemala had a little bit of everything and would be a great trip.

We began the trip in Guatemala City. The city is about 5,000 feet above sea level so the weather was a bit cooler than Panama, which was nice. First night was spent at the Barcelo Guatemala City, which is essentially a resort in the middle of the hustle and bustle of the city. It had many restaurants - including a sushi place and a sports bar - a full spa, giant heated pool and even a basketball/volleyball/soccer court!

Having arrived in the early afternoon, and gaining an hour due to the time difference, we were able to spend time touring the city. After checking in to the hotel we quickly sped over to the historic district, which has a giant public square with a fountain, gardens and surrounded by large buildings that were hundreds of years old. It was a busy area with restaurants, stores, lots of people walking about, and even some street performers. After some great food at a local restaurant and a few Guatemalan beer - called Dorado - we were back at the hotel (we took a taxi both ways with no problems).

Guatemala City was really only a pit stop, so early in the morning we were up early and ready to meet Hugo Suarez – our tour guide for the next four days. Hugo was the best thing that could have happened to us. I would STRONGLY recommend that if you go to Guatemala and want to do any tours, sightseeing or trekking, Hugo is your guy. Hugo is the owner of the company and was truly enthusiastic about his country and his job. He knew everything, was very flexible, spoke perfect English and has incredible patience – let’s just say he answered about a 100 emails from my wife.
Check out for more info.

Over the course of the next four days we drove through the countryside and mountains in our own SUV. The drive itself was spectacular with beautiful vistas all day long, quaint villages nestled in the highlands and Mayan people going about their daily routines.

Over the course of just a few days we hiked into the jungle and climbed mountains in the Quetzel Reserve; floated down the Lanquin River on an inner-tube; trekked through the gorgeous area called Semuc Champey (waterfalls and calm beautiful pools nestled in a river cascading through a large valley); visited Mayan ruins at El Ceibal (we were literally the only people there, expect for the howler monkeys); and, swam in an underground pool that was deep inside a bat cave.

At the bat cave, located near the small town of Lanquin, we sat at the entrance of the cave at dusk until thousands of bats flew out for their nightly feeding. You could feel the breeze of their wings whistling past your head. First time I’d ever done anything like that, very cool.
Our last stop, and the one that would prove to be most relaxing, was the city of Antigua. This beautiful town, situated about 50 kilometers outside Guatemala City is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its Spanish Baroque architecture, ancient cathedrals, cobblestone roads and its history as a capital city. To make it even more interesting, it lies at the base of three different volcanos.

You could spend days walking around this city visiting all the restaurants, pubs, cathedrals and other historic buildings. It’s a very tourist-centric place, so very safe and easy to navigate – plus lots of expats hanging around.

Since we were traveling in different parts of the country, and sometimes driving for hours at a time, Hugo set us up in hotels each night and took care of most of our meals. The meals we had were nothing fancy, but for the most part very good – picnic basket of sandwiches and fruit, traditional Guatemalan soups and chicken, full course breakfasts, and the odd stop on the side of the road for a Coke and chocolate bar. In Antigua we found a cool Italian restaurant tucked away in a courtyard and an Irish pub where we watched some Champions League soccer and munched on chicken wings.

Hugo arranged all of our hotels but always gave us options to choose from. All of the hotels were unique and provided us with a safe environment to rest our weary heads and have a good meal.

Our Hotels in Guatemala
Barcelo Resort – Luxury resort in Guatemala City ($95 per night and included breakfast).
Ram Tzul – A charming yoga-like retreat sitting atop a mountain near the Quetzel Reserve. Serene environment with lots of flowers, great views and a restaurant/bar (this was included in our tour package).
Carlos V Hotel – Right in the center of the small bustling city of Coban - sits next to a large outdoor market. Although it’s right in town it was still very quiet and provided clean safe rooms. Also had restaurant and bar (this was included in our tour package).
Camino Real Hotel – A beautiful luxury hotel in Antigua. Quite possibly the nicest hotel I’ve ever stayed in ($110 per night).
Even though we were only there for five nights and six days our trip to Guatemala was spectacular. The flight was cheap and the travel easy. Some of the hikes were long and difficult but always worth it, especially the trek up the mountain at Semuc Champey.
We always felt safe and never worried about our security – we took the usual precautions. One thing to keep in mind if you go is to pack warm clothes because you’re likely to spend time in the mountains. One morning we woke up to 7-degree Celsius weather, but thankfully we had packed our long pants and sweaters.

The only bad thing I can say about the trip is that we didn’t have enough time to see everything, not even close. We’ll have to go back and check out the ruins of Tikal and the majestic Lake Atitlan.
Just need to find a cheap flight!

For more details and pictures about the trip you can check out