Most use traveling as an escape outlet. Leave all responsibilities, stresses and worries behind and take a week or longer to explore another country, another way of living and learn another culture, responsibilities etc. Unfortunately, people with disabilities either physical or mental don’t get to leave their hardest struggle behind, if anything traveling sometimes enhances their struggles. We’ve become comfortable in our every day life our routines and know what to expect every day. When in “Rome” the day can be full of surprises.
I recently returned from my stay in Rio Hato, Panama. I traveled with a group of 19 people all family and friends. We enjoyed a seven day all inclusive stay at the Riu Playa Blanca.
For the longest time I have wanted to explore Panama. It had come up in a life event and later someone I knew traveled to the country and it enhanced my need to visit this hidden treasure that much more. When researching the resort I encountered something that sparked an interest. The pool had a walk in ramp! I was beyond excited that I could come in and out of the pool as much as I wanted without having to rely on anyone’s help to get in and out. With further research we found out that this 5 star resort was at a decent cost that the large group was able to afford.
This resort was very modern and nicely shaped. Bedrooms being in a hotel like style with 6 floors. Lobby located on floor 2 and most amenities on floor PB (Planta Baja – Ground Floor) . The resort had several stair wells leading to different parts of the hotel unfortunately their was only one location for the elevators however there were 4 elevators which made waiting time little to none.
No stairs/steps around the resort at all other than into the 2 other pools. The resort had 4 pools total. 1 smaller sized quite pool, 1 kids/waterslide pool which had a ramp into it also, one infinity pool with volley ball net and open space with two sets of stairs and last but not least the pool bar with Infinity view which contained the ramp.
The resort offered 3 a la carte restaurants which we could eat at as many time as we wanted and no booking time needed. They had the main buffet which had lots to chose from and had some new items each day.
Our trip was organized by sunwing / red tag vacations. Before traveling I had filled out a special assistance form requesting a wheelchair at the airport and stating that I would not be able to do the 30 steps at the arrival in Panama. Unfortunately Rio Hato has a very small airport that does not offer a tunnel connection from plane to airport.
Upon arrival to Toronto I got a wheelchair and went to the normal check in line where I was then called over to the special assistance check in line. I was able to check in before others and able to bring my family along also. Normally I wouldn’t have liked to bring my family before all others waiting as we are a family of 5 however, with my parents difficulty speaking English I worry not being able to assist them if anything were to go wrong. Both Toronto and Panama were great at allowing my family and I to have special assistance access.
Once we arrived to Panama I was last to leave the plane and seated in an air plane transportation seat where I was strapped across the chest, 2 straps around the thighs and a strap around the ankles. Once I was fully strapped I was carried down about 30 steps by 2 airport staff one carrying from bottom of the seat and another at the back of the seat. Once I reached the bottom I was transferred from the air plane transportation seat to an airport wheelchair and a gentlemen from the Rio Hato airport assisted me through the entire way. Once we got all our luggage we proceeded where we had our own bus with my name on it strictly for our group of 19. The bus was not wheelchair accessible. There is an area on the special assistance form that you can complete if you needed accessible transfer to and from the airport and resort however it is an additional cost. Because we were traveling in a group and I was fortunate enough to have support I was able to be lifted into the bus.
Once we got to our resort which was a 10 minute bus ride from the airport, the resort had a wheelchair waiting for me which was assigned to me the entire week of my stay. We had a late check in due to a 2 hour delay so they were wonderful and opened a smaller version of the buffet strictly for the sun wing flight. The wheelchair that week came in very handy. I feel like a lot of people staying were very confused as some nights I would use it and other nights I would be walking. I used the chair a couple nights that it rained because there is an open lobby and open concept to the resort the nights it rained the water would come into the resort and make the tile very slippery. This helped to avoid falling and injury which would not make the trip very enjoyable.
Panama is very very hot! The country is very close to the equator and the sun is super strong. Due to the heat from outside and then the air conditioning from inside a lot of moisture would occur and I did fall one day in the lobby. It is important to have shoes with good grip or just have someone scope out the conditions of the floor before going about your day and having a fall. The resort is great at warning you of wet floor areas. There are wet floor signs everywhere at the resort. Not aesthetically appealing but very informative and preventive. Along with his/her bathrooms there is also a wheelchair accessible bathroom very spacious with multiple grab bars. I would honestly say they are more wheelchair accessible than they are baby friendly. (No change tables) I did not request a room with walk in shower because I saw in pictures it was only a small ledge to get in however they do offer walk in showers.
The beach is a harder dark sand so much easier to walk in then soft white sand however if your looking for a beautiful calm water beach this wouldn’t be the destination for you.
We took one day of our relaxing week to explore Panama and visited the Panama Canal, old Panama City and the newer Panama City. Transportation was done by a smaller white van which had a seat that would unfold right where the door opened. I would be last on/off (I always hate people waiting on me) I would unfold the seat sit and then transfer my legs over and shift to the actual seat and fold the other seat back up.
At the Panama Canal the escalators were down at the location of drop off however, our bus driver was kind enough to drive me to a separate location which no escalator or stairs were needed.
Upon leaving the resort same thing followed, we had our own bus for our group of 19 and we adopted 4 others (we made some good friends throughout out trip). Once we arrived to the airport I had a gentlemen bring me a chair and push me all the way through the process and then he retrieved me and my family upon time to board the plane. I was wheeled out to the plane and then transferred into the airplane transfer chair and strapped same as upon arrival to Panama this time carried up the 30 steps.
Tipping in Panama isn’t very common or expected in comparison to Cuba or other Caribbean islands. The service was always great without expecting anything in return. I did however tip the two gentlemen both times for their amazing service at making my transfer easy and comfortable. (Also, it’s every girls dream to be carried by two handsome Panamanian men right?)
If there was one thing I realized about traveling with a disability, it was that vacationing was more about confronting my weaknesses and making them strengths as opposed to escaping my reality. I get so used to my routine that it isn’t stressful for me. I know how to do things and how it works best for me but when I’m in a new environment I’m forced to learn new strategies and really put my strength to the test. Strength IS NOT determined by muscle, it IS NOT determined by what you can lift or what you can run. Strength is determined by the love and support you receive and give. Strength is determined by the ability to get through difficult obstacles either on your own or accepting that you need help.
Give to those who can’t give to you, love those who don’t know how to love & travel/explore even if it’s out of your comfort zone.