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Crowdsourcing a Panama trip

Panama: Off the beaten path Nancy Trejos discovered Panama's hidden gems thanks to recommendations from her online social network. By Nancy Trejos

travel Updated: Mar 09, 2011 17:05 IST

"Bocas del Toro!" said Seth, a guy I'd briefly dated, directing me to an archipelago in the Caribbean.

"Stay the hell away from Hotel Tropical," warned William, a grade-school classmate.

Never mind that I hadn't seen these people in years. They were my Facebook friends, and I was willing to take their advice. I am, after all, a Facebook junkie.

Which is why I was thrilled to discover several new Web sites that merge my two favorite things: social media and travel. TripAdvisor recently integrated its site with Facebook so that you can see where your "friends" have visited and read any reviews they've posted. Other Web sites - Gogobot, IgoUgo, Travellerspoint and Tripping, among others - are creating communities of travelers Facebook-style.

So I wondered: Could I toss aside my guidebooks and plan an entire trip based on tips from virtual friends? Could I, in social media lingo, crowdsource a vacation?

Surely I could glean some good advice from my 1,321 Facebook friends and 1,860 Twitter followers. To expand my network, I started accounts with the aforementioned travel planning Web sites plus Tripit, Tripline, Foursquare and Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree.

Panama's the type of off-the-beaten path place where you need help figuring out what to do. But I worried: Is it so off the beaten path that none of my friends will have been there?

Turns out that some of my friends had been, and some of their friends had been, and so on and so on. Even better, some of my friends had friends in the country. A Facebook friend put me in touch with the three Panamanian sisters she'd lived with while teaching English in Panama City. Another introduced me to an American friend who lives there. Seth hooked me up with a former classmate working for the United Nations there. I contacted each of them, and before I knew it, I not only had restaurant and hotel tips, I also had dates.

You know what they say about six degrees of separation? If you ask me, it's more like two.

Jose was holding up a sign with my name on it when I exited customs at the Panama City airport. "He's the most reliable and nicest cab driver in Panama," Seth's U.N. friend Jan had assured me when he told me that he was arranging to have me picked up.