Travel Diary: Panama with the Chicago Bears

Every year, Apple Vacations and the Chicago Bears partner up for a fan trip to a tropical-beach destination. Together, the two companies have conquered Mexico, Jamaica, and Costa Rica. This year, they took on Panama. Thanks to my lovely travel agent, and mother, at Millennium Tours, I was able to participate in this epic adventure: a seven night stay at the five-star resort, Riu Playa Blanca, with four bears players, a TV crew, my best friend, and a bunch of super fans.

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Day 1: Arriving in Panama

After counting down the days, Nicole and I were finally off to Panama. We arrived at the airport at 6:30am for our flight (not without a problem, however, as I accidentally left my cell phone in her mom’s car). By 8am, we were sitting at the gate, anxious to be off in paradise. We thought that within minutes of landing, we would be on a bus and on our way to our nearby resort, the RIU Playa Blanca. Boy could we have been more wrong.

The five and half hour flight from Chicago to Panama City was more than manageable. The flight attendants on Copa Airlines were very accommodating, the plane was very clean and modern, and we had in-seat entertainment! The food, however, was not edible. Square eggs are not my cup of tea, and the bread had a weird taste to it, so I snacked on fruit and some strawberry yogurt. As the plane hovered over Panama, a flight attendant went over the intercom to announce in Spanish, that the Panama Canal could be seen on the left side of the plane, and shared some of the country’s and canal’s history. My Spanish isn’t that great, but whatever I understood, I tried to translate for Nicole. We were seated on the right side of the plane, but were able to see a bit of the Canal as the plane prepared for landing. By the time we landed, I was starving!

After going through customs and immigration, we met our representatives from Apple Vacations/Balboa Tours. The Balboa representative was very confused because nobody in our group’s name was on the list for transfers to the hotel! It took over an hour to gather everyone and be on our way to the hotel. As we got on the bus I heard chatter from other people in our group saying the ride would be 2 hours! TWO HOURS?! I was going to die of hunger.

As we got on our way, the man from Balboa Tours, Thomas, began to tell us about the history of Panama. Nicole fell asleep, but I stayed alert, observing my surroundings and trying to take in as much of Panama as possible. We passed by the canal and saw the Miraflores locks from a distance. About an hour and a half into the journey, Thomas stopped the bus at a rest stop, with bathrooms and food!  Most people went to buy the various Panamanian beers Thomas had mentioned. The bathrooms were clean, but they did not have any doors on the stalls! I quickly purchased a can of Pringles for Nicole and I to share, and ran back to the bus.

As the bus ride down the Pan-American highway continued, Thomas discussed the various flora and fauna found in the region. We witnessed several forest fires occurring in the tropical rainforest. Thomas also pointed out the elephant grass which grows in the area that was brought in from Vietnam.

Fun Fact: The Pan-American highway starts in Panama and continues through Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Belize, Mexico, into the USA, and up to Canada!

About an hour away from the resort, we passed Altos de Campana National Park, which is a dry forest with mountains that reminded me of Jurassic Park, without the dinosaurs.

Finally, almost a full three hours later, we reached our resort! Nicole and I got changed and headed out for dinner. After dinner, we explored the resort and went to our room to watch a movie. We had a long day ahead of us, after all it was Nicole’s birthday and the rest of our group was about to arrive!

Meeting the Bears

On our second day, Friday the 27th of February, we spent the early morning on the beach. But do to the set up of the beach (there are vendors between the beach chairs and the water) and the hot black sand, we quickly moved to the pool by 10:30 am. It was way to hot on the beach and we needed some shade.

We spent the late morning and early afternoon celebrating. After lunch, Nicole headed to our room to relax while I went back to the pool. I introduced myself to some of the other members of the Bears group and then headed back upstairs to check on Nicole.

Nicole did not feel well enough to go to dinner, so after eating by myself I headed to the Bears Welcome Party! I was introduced to some people who work with the Chicago Bears, by Sue, the Apple Vacations representative. The welcome party was a time for the fans on the trip to mingle with and get autographs from the Bears players. I’ve never been a big football fan so I wasn’t really there to get autographs. The four players on the trip were Kyler Fuller, Marquess Wilson, Jeremy Langford, and Willie Young. The co-hosts of Inside the Bears Anthony Adams, who is also a former player, and Lauren Screeden were also in attendance and filmed a segment for their show. I enjoyed meeting the guys and their wives/girlfriends. They were all very down to earth and excited to have a fun week in Panama.

Activities with the Bears

The morning after the welcome party we had football clinics on the beach. Each player taught us how to “play” their position. Mostly we did drills catching the ball, running, and learning different stances. We were on the beach and sand was so hot on our feet that hotel staff hand to keep spraying the ground with water.

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The next evening there was a Bears Q&A night, along with a raffle. Antony and Lauren asked the four players football related questions, and other more personal questions (including what embarrassing shows they watch on Netflix!) Following the Q&A, the hotel was hosting a beach party. Let’s just say our group took over the beach party. Everyone was singing and dancing; it was an overall great time!

The morning after we participated in Beach Games. Participants were divided into five teams, with the players as captains. This was a lot of fun, since everyones competitive sides really came out! We played several games, including:

  • Water Balloon Volleyball– played using a towel-slingshot
  • Musical Towels– like musical chairs, but instead of switching chairs, our entire team had to stand with both feet on a towel, and the towel got smaller and smaller each round
  • Run the Magic Carpet– we had to run across a long “magic carpet” (a pool float) and throw a football through a hoop before we sunk into the water! This was much harder than it sounds. 
  • Blind Volleyball– where a sheet covered the net and we had to use our best judgement guessing how to score on the other team/defend our side

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On our last night, which was my birthday, we had a good-bye party on the beach. Nobody really was ready to leave the warmth and head home to snowy Chicago.  The resort set up a mini-buffet of appetizers and provided us with our own bartender and DJ, even though Bears’ player Marquess Wilson did take over that role for a bit.

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Downtime

In our downtime, the entire group spent time at the swim-up pool bar, lounging by the pool, and getting to know each other. There were people in our group who chose to do numerous activities including: scuba diving (and getting stung by jellyfish!), horseback riding, going to a nearby town, and visiting a nearby casino. I can’t deny that I may have gone on the child-friendly waterslides at the resort several times, but its okay! The Bears did too!

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We also were given the opportunity to participate in various excursions. Nicole and I chose to go on a city tour of Casco Viejo (Old Panama City) and the Miraflores locks of the Panama Canal. My post about Casco Viejo can be found here.

Sponsors

I have to thank the Chicago Bears, Apple Vacations, and RIU Resorts and Hotels for this unforgettable experience.

For an even bigger look into my trip, visit this link to see an Inside the Bears: Special Edition, where Lauren and Anthony cover the trip to Panama.

1 Comment

  1. March 16, 2016 / 8:27 am

    This trip looked like so much fun! I’m glad you got an escape from snowy Chicago.