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What REALLY Happens To A Game Show Winner

By Annual Adventure Central & South America, Panama

Sometimes life throws you curve balls. I’ve written about the virtues of traveling outside of your comfort zone before, so it would be hypocritical of me to turn down a similar opportunity myself. This, however, wasn’t something scary or dangerous. I was a game show winner, and my prize was a fully guided tour in Panama.

LMAD Game Show Winner
My finest hour.

What’s Wrong With Being A Game Show Winner?

I know what you’re all thinking, I can feel your judgement from here.

This guy won a free international trip and he’s COMPLAINING??

And you’re right. I definitely did not look this gift horse in the mouth as Panama had been a bucket list destination for some time. However, this was a trip with Caravan Tours and, if you’re familiar with either this blog or that company, you’ll realize that we aren’t exactly overlapping demographics.

My original prize as a game show winner on Let’s Make a Deal was a trip to Prince Edward Island. However, due to scheduling conflicts, I had to change it to a different trip. This was fine with me as I had always wanted to see the Panama Canal and explore the Darien Gap, so I picked their Panama tour and off I went!

 Something Feels Off…

One of the first things I noticed when I arrived for the welcome dinner was the crowd. I was the youngest member of the tour by at least 20 years. After speaking to others I found out many of them had children older than me! I was happy to be with other enthusiastic travelers in this beautiful country, but I wasn’t so sure I would get to do much jungle exploring.

Game Show Winner Tour Group
One of these things is not like the other…

Heading Into Panama City

We departed into Panama City on our first day of touring. We enjoyed the sights of the city including Casco Viejo (the old city) and the golden altar at the Church of San Jose. I was a bit frustrated as each stop allowed me enough time to see the sights, but not enough to go explore on my own. However, I was set on making the most of it and enjoyed being immersed in a new country.

Panama Golden Altar
The golden altar at Iglesia de San Jose.

I had scouted out a cafe near the church to see if I could at least enjoy a cup of coffee with the locals, but I was told I wouldn’t have enough time and that it was strictly forbidden to depart from the group. Resigned to my fate, I investigated to golden altar and made it back to the bus right on time, where I waited 20 minutes for the rest of the group to arrive.

The Main Attraction

I had accepted that this trip would, more or less, be a strict sight-seeing tour instead of my usual adventure-seeking trips. With that attitude in mind, I was excited when we reached the Miraflores locks of the Panama Canal. This was it, the most popular attraction in the country!

I was really glad I got to witness these giant container ships squeeze their way through the narrow locks. It was an impressive sight to see and I found myself with a newfound appreciation of the engineering achievement that was involved with building the canal 100 years ago!

Panama Canal Miraflores Locks
Easy… easy….

It was nice to have a few hours to relax, have lunch, and watch the boats go by, but I’ll admit I got a bit tired of being in the same building after a few hours there. With ample time to experience the museum and watch the boat traffic go by, I was ready to move on once our time limit had expired.

More Locks!

The next day we headed to the Gatun Locks in the northern part of the country. We received our daily briefing in the morning, with some warnings for those of us in the group who weren’t as fit or adventurous as others:

“There are 2 flights of stairs at the Gatun Locks. You are not required to climb them if you do not wish to. Please exercise caution”

A warning about STAIRS? I understood that maybe not everyone was as prepared for stair climbing as I was, but who travels to Central America unprepared to exert themselves just a little bit? Thankfully, our group was ready for action and I don’t think anybody opted out of the stair climb. It was worth it, as we had the pleasure of watching two Panamax ships in a row go through the locks just as we arrived.

Panamax Ship Gatun Locks
There’s an inappropriate joke in here somewhere…

I was definitely starting to appreciate the engineering marvels I was getting the opportunity to see. It’s pretty awe-inspiring to see these giant ships cram into the locks with less than 2 feet of clearance on each side. I was, however, yearning to see some of the natural side of Panama.

Cruising

Mercifully, our next stop was Lake Gatun where we stayed at a “rainforest resort.” I took advantage of the location and booked every optional excursion possible, going on a night “safari” ride to spot wildlife and cruising along Lake Gatun the next day, which was my highlight of the whole trip.

We took in the sights and sounds of the rainforest while Geoffroy’s Tamarin mokeys scampered along the roofs of our boats looking for handouts. It’s common for the tour groups to feed them bananas and other assorted treats, so they’re used to hearing the dinner bell when the motor boats show up. It didn’t exactly add to the feel of being out there in the wild, but seeing animals was better than nothing. There was one sight, however, that practically made the whole trip worth it on its own.

Sloth in River
SLOOOOOOOOOOOTTTTTHHHH!!!!!

There, in the distance, was a sloth taking a casual dip (could a sloth do anything that wasn’t casual?) in the lake. He spotted us as we moved in for a better view but either didn’t seem to mind or just moved at his typical pace as he hoisted himself up out of the water.

He was kind enough to pose for a while as he investigated his visitors, and I thought about how easy it must be for a jaguar to crawl down and grab him if it were so inclined. Luckily, our visit was of a friendly nature and we enjoyed his company before we headed back to the hotel. The guided Panama tour was paying off for this game show winner!

Sloth Portrait
What it lacks in athleticism it makes up for in good looks.

More Cruising

It wouldn’t be a guided tour of Panama without a cruise through the locks. We joined a few other tour groups aboard a medium sized canal cruiser and patiently waited through the process of getting to the canal. Cruising out of our departure harbor and under the Bridge of the Americas, we waited in the company of dozens of other ships who were lined up to do the same thing as us.

Bobbing in the ocean, there we sat for a full hour as we waited for a boat to deliver our pilot whom would guide us through the locks. It was a chance to sit and reflect on the trip, thinking about what I enjoyed and what I would have done differently. I realized, as I sat quietly on the cruiser, that this was a feeling I had often on this trip.

The feeling of waiting. I was used to traveling at my pace, and this was a big change for me. One might think of it as a chance to unplug and relax, but I couldn’t help but feel like I was missing out on so many possibilities and experiences.

It was difficult for me to be beholden to other people’s schedules, and while this happens often with any travel, it frustrated me to know that I was in a country I wanted to see and wasn’t able to visit most of the parts I was interested in. I snapped out of my quiet contemplation when our pilot arrived and we set sail (or set motor?) for the Miraflores Locks.

Panama Canal Ship
Next in line!

We only went through one section of the canal, as it would have taken an entire day to do the full canal. I was happy for the experience and enjoyed the first-hand view of this engineering marvel.

Touristy Stuff

One of my biggest gripes about larger guided tours is that they insulate you from having an authentic experience and prevent you from immersing yourself in the culture. Well, my fears were clearly unfounded as we were now going to visit a real rainforest tribe in their native habitat!

“WARNING: There are approximately 20 steps leading up to the village”

Ugh.

After rafting through the jungle rivers, we arrived to full village fanfare, complete with drums and a enthusiastic kind of depressing welcome. We were then led up the brutal 20-step climb to an open-air hut where tribe members performed a traditional tribal dance for us. After the dance we had the opportunity to buy assorted weaved wares from the villagers.

Panama Village Drummers
Hooray, more visitors…

I understand that this village is doing what the tour company asked them to do and that this helps them survive and brings them some much needed income. As a tourist (and prestigious vip game show winner), however, these experiences always make me cringe a bit.

Are we supposed to believe that this is what daily village life is like? Or are we expected to just enjoy the show and see another culture’s traditions? I’m sure it’s more the latter but it feels so inauthentic to me that it’s insulting to both parties involved. I didn’t get to know these villagers at all, and the presentation felt contrived to me. I was, however, in the minority among the rest of my group, so perhaps I’m just cynical.

Concluding The Festivities

We spent our last days of the trip in an all-inclusive resort where I was happy to drink cocktails and sort photos. It was a fitting conclusion to a trip that was well outside of my usual comfort zone, and there were lessons to be learned.

I’m very glad I had the opportunity to do this trip. I had always wanted to see the Panama Canal and I got to go through it! I got a taste of the Central American rainforest and, despite the age difference with the rest of the group, I made some great friends that I still keep in touch with. I would definitely do it over again.

If I got to do it as a game show winner, that is.

I would not have paid for this trip on my own. I feel that for a similar cost (or a little more for a longer trip) I could have done something more my style and on my terms. It’s the same reason why I’m not a fan of cruises: I just want to go somewhere and experience what I want to see, not what a tour guide arranges.

I’m probably being a bit hard on Caravan as I’m really not their target demographic at all. Technically my trip to Antarctica was a guided cruise and it was the best trip I’ve ever taken in my entire life. The difference, however, (besides the destination) was that in Antarctica we were surrounded with adventurous people and guides who encouraged us to explore and make our own experiences. I wouldn’t be opposed to another guided tour, but it would have to be one that agreed to my expectations.

I guess the moral of this story is to pick the trip that’s right for you. Most people in my tour had a great time and loved it; it was exactly how they preferred to travel. I was happy I got to come along, but in the end I learned a lot about why I travel the way I do.

Back in our hotel for our last night in Panama, we received a grand send off with a buffet meal and an authentic Panamanian dance show. I guess you can’t win them all.

Panama Tour Group Photo
But who am I kidding, I’d still do it again.
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