Before you write me off as a crank, know that we were comparing her to the girl who was our guide on a MUCH cheaper private excursion the day before in Costa Rica, who was as proud of her job and country as any US Marine could be, so Panama Pam (not her real name) here had a lot to live up to, and failed spectacularly.
After a 40 minute or so ride we stopped at a police station at a run down road crossing where the guide and driver went in to pay our group admission to the National Park (included in excursion price). We cooled our heels outside the station for a few minutes and then drove a few more minutes into the jungle. The van was parked alongside a few other vans at a creek/river (Rio Pilar? I believe). We piled out and stood in line along a gravel trail to get our life jackets for the canoe ride. A woman from our van wearing Crocs stepped slightly off the path and had a sharp stick go right through her shoe and deep into her foot. It looked awful but a little Bactine and a Bandaid and the woman was raring to go again. (I'd be going for a tetanus shot, but that's just me I guess). There was a small wooden landing used to board the dugout canoes, which seat 14 to 18 Embera people, or 6 to 8 persons of size as luck may have it. The "seats" are loosely placed 2x4's or 2x6's placed across the width of the canoe, and are free to slide around/off if you are unsteady during your entry/exit. Some of these rotted planks looked like they could have been salvaged from the Pinta. This became a much more important detail further upstream. The back of the dugout canoes have a 30hp outboard motor attached (for authenticity), and the older/more "leaky" of the craft have a cute small Embera child assigned as bilge bailer/photo op provider. (Beware the craft with the small kids if you want dry calves/socks/shoes/etc, they frequently abandon bailing duty to dive in and play. While this is fun to watch, the river doesn't take breaks and continues to fill the canoe in their absence).
The river rarely appears greater than 4 feet deep and the current is not swift, so I never felt in danger should we capsize/sink. At one point about half way upriver it gets so shallow they make most everyone get out at a gravel sandbar (no steps/railing/platform/etc here) and hike for about 30 yards, then walk out on a pair of split logs to reboard. Minor wading over slick stones was required. The stick-in-Croc lady had herself a 2x6 malfunction upon reboarding, with her rotted seat plank loudly failing to hold it's rigid shape, depositing her bloody foot and muddy bottom loudly into the canoes bilgewater.
From this point forward we really really enjoyed the trip. After getting all the survivors back on board we went a few more minutes upstream through some spectacularly lush rain forest. Photos and movies couldn't possibly do it justice. Visible wildlife was minimal, but I expected that being the 4th or 5th successive loud motor launch to pass upriver in a short while.
The Embera village itself was wonderful, almost too picturesque, with a Disney Jungle Cruise ride type of feeling. I kept looking for the rubber Hippo's. The Embera took our life jackets and herded us into the central village Palapa (I don't know what they called it, but in Mexico it's a Palapa) for an introduction speech by the chief, translated by a guide from one of the other van's. They played music, sang songs and danced for us. Then they invited us to shop their handicrafts, which were primarily carvings and woven baskets, all beautifully made. I spent more money there on souvenirs then I have in my past 4 cruises combined, completely cleaning out one vendor of their carving work. If they accepted Visa I would have needed my own canoe to get it all back downriver.
The trip downstream was easy, with the motor off in the shallows and no wading required. We followed the same route back and except for experiencing the peak of traffic heading into Colon (40 minutes to go 5 miles), we made it back with about an hour to spare before we had to reboard.
Our DM Miguel and his helpers were terrific, very attentive and patient without being pushy. His spoken English was very good and the boat ride out/back was very short (5-10 min tops at a leisurely pace), leaving a long time on the reef. Snorkeling was $30pp and he also offers a resort course scuba lesson with shallow reef time for $90pp. I'm a die hard snorkel guy and no one in our group was scuba certified, but he talked our entire group into the resort scuba lesson, smartest money I've spent on a vacation ever. I would have enjoyed the reef snorkeling the same area (15 to 25 feet), but a solid hour (maybe more) of bottom time on that reef was just spectacular. FYI free bottled drinking water was provided while on the boat.
Get yourself to Palancar if you can.
We first stopped at a fruit stand to try out local varieties of tropical fruits. I thought that this would be boring (a fruit stand, really ) but we all enjoyed it very much.
Then on to ziplining -- 10 platforms that included a high altitude zip across a river gorge (yikes). A minor strenuous bit of gravel trail/stair climbing is required before the first and before the 2nd platform.
After ziplining Danilo talked to the other tour operators there and found out where the Howler monkeys were hanging out that day. A short drive later into the middle of farm country we piled out of the van to take photos of a troop of Howlers hanging out in the treetops. A cute local kid who lived in a modest home across the street came out and offered to show us where iguanas hung out a few yards away. After we took photos of the iguanas he wouldn't take a tip but he did accept the offer of my submarine hat.
We then opted to skip the banana plantation tour (did a drive-by photo-op instead) and headed directly to the beach for an al fresco seafood lunch of shrimp ceviche, fresh caught whole red snapper, and Imperial cervezas. Yum! (They had a full menu if seafood isn't your thing).
Then back to the port for shopping and to bid goodbye to the best run tour (and best tour bargain) we've ever had. $60 pp paid for everything (except lunch on the beach). My large snapper was $13 (included mashed fried plantains), the shrimp ceviche was $8 or so, Cerveza's were $2 each, they added a 15% service charge automatically, so check your bill before you tip. Our service was quite spotty, with the first round of beer barely below room temperature, but the food was very good and worth the wait. The local brand of hot sauce was so good we went through 2 full bottles between the 8 of us, and bought 3 more to take home.
Danilo was constantly stopping the van to run over to the bushes and point out beautiful varieties of wild flowers, or fruits, or herbs, etc. It was like the world's coolest Botany lecture.