Posts tagged travel reviews
how to do panama - sunday in el valle de anton
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Greetings! I'm sitting on the terrace now with a view of the mist caressing the side of the mountains, drinking my morning coffee and awaiting a breakfast of fresh fruit juice (which most likely came from the fruit growing on property), sausage and pastries. I woke around dawn to get a glimpse of the sunrise, and take some pics. Ran into Becky having her morning walk with the dogs, and she showed me around the place a bit. We stalked an iguana that lives on the property, but didn't catch a glimpse of him, unfortunately. I WAS able to catch some hummingbirds though! And a little later, Monty, the three-toed sloth who hangs out on the property, peeked his head out to say, 'buenos dias'.

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Before leaving El Valle, we did some shopping at the Sunday Market and hit the hot springs. Sunday Market is a weekly event in El Valle, where tons of arts and crafts are for sale as well as fresh fruit and veggies. At the hot springs, we had a chance to soak in the naturally warm pools and give ourselves mud facials. Our visit was cut a little short by the afternoon rain, so we packed up and bid a fond farewell to El Valle.

This afternoon we're off to Gamboa - a rainforest area. Keep ur fingers crossed that we don't have any more traffic mishaps.

how to do panama - el valle de anton
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Amado Mio - The last 24 hours here have been quite magical, with a little bit of mayhem thrown in for good measure.

We started the morning by taking a quick walking tour around Casco Viejo. First stop was a small pizza cafe that we'd passed a couple of times the night before. Even though it's a pizza joint, they serve some pretty good espresso (the owners are Italian), and they also have some fine taste in music. As we sipped our morning brew, funky jazzy renditions of some classic hip-hop tracks played on the stereo system. After pestering the owner, he showed me the CD that was playing - St. Germain...claro!

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After the cafe, we headed over to Plaza Bolivar. Took some pics of the architecture that we couldn't see well last night, and stopped to buy some handmade jewelry from some Kuna indians that had set up their tables nearby. We also wandered over to Plaza de la Catedral, so named for the large cathedral that anchors the square. We went into the cathedral and snapped some shots before heading back to the room to pack up and be out for the 1.5 to 2 hour drive to El Valle.

and THIS is where the drama begins.

I already mentioned the horror of negotiating traffic in Panama City, right? Well what seemed like a pretty straightforward route out of the city became a 20-minute labyrinth excursion. Plus it was Saturday morning and apparently, the whole town was out doing their weekend shopping. Cars wrecklessly navigated the tiny one-way streets, and massive throngs of people spilled over from the sidewalks into the middle of the road. Lanes? What lanes? Crosswalks? What crosswalks?

Anywho - we finally made it out of the city, and before hitting the Panamerican Highway we took a quick detour down the Amador Causeway - a long road that goes out into the bay. Beautiful views of boats and the mountains in the distance from there, but we didn't get out or tarry, since we'd taken so long to get out of the city. Oh! I also got stopped by a police officer at the beginning of the causeway. Nothing serious, he just flagged us down, asked for my license and reminded me to drive suave.... Just call me: leadfoot the best!

The drive to El Valle was largely uneventful - passed through a lot of towns that each reminded me of the crowded, grungy look that you see in the ethnic shopping areas in NYC. The last bit of the drive made me VERY glad that we rented a truck. Steep uphill climb on a slightly wet, potholed road (we'd just missed the afternoon rain in El Valle).

We finally made it to our hotel - the Golden Frog Inn. This place is ABSOLUTELY HEAVENLY! It's an old villa that's surrounded by lush gardens and abundant vegetation - there something growing / flowering / singing / chirping everywhere. As soon as we got out of the car, the smell of mint and cilantro (both grow naturally on the grounds) hit me. Surrounded by mist and mountains, it truly looks like a tropical paradise. From here, we have a perfect view of La India Dormida (a.k.a. The Sleeping Indian Woman) - the mountain that gets its name from a local legend. According to the legend, a young Indian woman was in love with a Spanish conquistador, but a local boy was in love with her. When the local boy realized his love was unrequited, he climbed a mountain and jumped to his death. The girl was deeply saddened by his death and headed for the mountain, lying down with her tear-streaked face pointing toward the sky.

After being greeted by Becky (the owner), and showed to our room by adrian (the cute Argentine concierge), we set down our things and headed down to the center of El Valle for a late lunch at La Bruschetta, one of a handful of restaurants on the main drag in El Valle. I started with another Panamanian staple - sancocho. Sancocho is a chicken soup that's slow simmered with cilantro and other herbs, and it's soooo delicious. I'd like to think I could make some when I get home, but I won't fool myself. For my main dish I had corvina al ajillo again. And even though Mostaza was a fancy-schmancy restaurant, I enjoyed La Bruschetta's much more. And their patacones were absolutely perfect! After lunch, I'd hoped to go on the zip line and visit the hot springs, but by the time we made it to both they were almost shut down for the day. :-( We did get to take a quick hike past El Chorro Macho, El Valle's waterfall.

When we returned to the room, we had a pleasant surprise waiting for us - a little birthday gift from Becky and Adrian. For Mom's bday dinner we headed over to La Casa de Lourdes -  a more upscale hotel / spa / restaurant a few minutes away. The food was pretty good and the service was EXCELLENT! We ended up sitting a few feet away from a group of folks from Villa Rica. Can u believe that!? One of the older gents in that group was celebrating his bday as well.

After dinner it was back to the room for the night. After changing into my sleepwear, I headed straight for one of the hammocks on the terrace, and fell asleep (intentionally) to the sounds of nature. Best. Sleep. Ever.

hugs and kisses,

k

how to do panama - panama city
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Panama is Central America’s other destination. While Costa Rica is the hottest spot among tourists seeking an eco-adventure, its neighbor offers just as many opportunities for an up-close experience with nature plus even more culture, history, and romance. A new world country with tons of old world charm, Panama is only a short trip from home, but is light years away from ordinary.

Though it’s fairly small, the country offers a huge amount of variety – crowded cities, historic ruins, mountains, beaches. In fact, you might call Panama the little isthmus that could. Each region has its own unique cultural flavor and geographic characteristics. On my 4 day / 3 night visit, I got a small taste of all that Panama has to offer by taking a mini-road trip through 3 well-known areas in central Panama: Panama City (Ciudad de Panama), El Valle de Anton, and Gamboa national rainforest.

My experience is shared through a series of fictional letters home to a loved one.

 

Dearest,

Greetings from Ciudad de Panama! We arrived safe and sound, but of course, the adventure began almost as soon as we stepped off the plane. After narrowly avoiding an ugly American moment about a $5 tourist card (I’ll ‘splain later), my Spanish skills were put to the test - first in clearing customs, then in picking up the car I’d reserved, and finally with negotiating Panama's crazy ass roads to get to our hotel downtown. Apparently exit or street signs take away from the natural beauty of the place, so I had to pull over and ask for directions, not once, not twice, but tres tiempos. Can you just imagine the hilarity? Me speaking in halting, broken Spanish just well enough to get my meaning across, and the person I’m asking – when they finally get what I’m talking about – happily and eagerly responding in a flood of rapid-fire Spanish? Please believe though, no complaints here. The Spanish podcasts I downloaded a few weeks ago, have definitely come in handy. I knew the language barrier would be a worthwhile challenge, and with each person I speak with, I’m getting more and more comfortable. I already feel like I’ve earned my merit badge in 'driving while Spanish' and 'gangsta ass street maneuvers' all in one short trip from the airport to the hotel!

Casco Viejo (the part of the city we're staying in) is beautiful, ugly, romantic, and slightly intimidating all at the same time. It sort of reminds me of the French Quarter in New Orleans, or what I imagine Old Havana looks like – a place frozen in time, but not in age. Narrow cobblestone streets file between 17th century structures, all of them in varying states of decay or renewal. Many of the old buildings – including the hotel we’re staying in - are being renovated and turned into modern lofts and apartments. Our room – one of four available for rent from Los Cuatros Tulipanes – is a prime example of the modernization that’s going on...it’s absolutely gorgeous! Casa Mendez is a two-level, one-bedroom flat with beautiful tiled floors, exposed stone accents, and huge two-story windows overlooking a small inner courtyard. As soon as we walked in, we were instantly refreshed from our long airport journey.

After getting settled in, we ventured out to explore the surrounding area. About a block away from our room is Plaza Bolivar, one of several squares in Casco Viejo that’s home to a sprinkling of cafes and shops, and a public monument of some sort. First order of business was celebrating our arrival with a couple of drinks and a light bite. After checking out the few restaurants in the plaza, we settled on Casablanca, for no other reason than it seemed to be the most populated. Our server, who thankfully spoke more then a little English, informed of us a few Friday-night hot spots in the surrounding area that we might want to check out later. Mental notes were made as we settled back in our patio chairs to enjoy the early-evening sights of the plaza and savor the food. Mom chose a dish that looked and tasted like huge, fresh fish sticks, while I went with for patacones – twice-fried, smashed green plantains; the Panamanian version of tostones – with an accompanying tomato-based seafood sauce.

Our snacks finished, we set out on a quick walking tour. At first, we were a little cautious, since the sun was setting and some of the streets looked sketchy, but the presence of M-16 toting policeman on almost every corner gave us at least the semblance of safety. We ducked into a bar / club named Platea that was rumored to have live jazz most nights. Since it was still early, the place was pretty much empty - just the bartenders there setting up for the night, and us with no place else to go. So what better to do than have a drink? As the bartenders served us, they urged us to come back later that night – a live band would be playing salsa and there would be a nice crowd. Taking their advice, we decided to make our way back to Casa Mendez and relax until the nightlife had picked up a bit. But just as we rounded the corner on the block leading to our room, the sound of men’s voices accompanying acoustic guitars wafted down from the windows of the building across the street from our place.

The building – Casa Gongora – is an old government structure that’s been converted into an art gallery and performance space. We tipped in, not sure if the place was open to casual passersby, but the old man at the desk inside simply motioned for us to sign in. On display downstairs were several photographs of some very sensual body art by Ramon Almanza. I lingered for a while checking out the photos, before the music drew me up the grand wooden stairs, where a real-life ‘tres caballeros’ was entertaining a small crowd seated at patio-style tables. We grabbed one of the open tables and enjoyed as the trio sang song after song, while a pleasant breeze invited itself in via the large windows surrounding the crumbling interior. I recognized at least one of the songs – a passionate, acoustic version of Celia Cruz’s La Negra Tiene Tumbao. But another that I’d never heard before was so enchantingly beautiful, that I just had to lean over and ask one of the older ladies at the table next to us, what the name of the song was. She told me: ‘Contigo en la Distancia’, which (in my bad Spanish) translates as: ‘With You in the Distance’.

By now, our snack had worn off and we were ready for more substantial fare, so we headed over to Mostaza for dinner. In my pre-trip research, I’d read that Mostaza was one of the best restaurants in Casco Viejo, so I was excited to give it a try. A beautiful, all-white colonial style exterior gave way to a cozy, slightly rustic interior with a bustling waitstaff and a steadily growing crowd. Our waiter seemed just the tiniest bit thrown that we didn’t have reservations, but we were seated quickly at a table near the door. A live band was playing on the other side of the room, but unfortunately we couldn’t see them from where we sat. For dinner, I ordered corvina al ajillo and mom ordered langostinos. Before my trip I’d gotten the lowdown from a Panamanian native on the best local dishes to try, and at the top of her list was corvina – a fish with a taste / texture between a sea bass and a tilapia. Al ajillo is perhaps the most popular Panamanian preparation, with the fish being simmered and served in a garlic and oil sauce. Mom’s langostinos were prepared the same way. Our dishes came with rather uninspired sides of steamed broccoli and carrots and a mound of white rice, but the main features were plenty tasty.

Back on the street, we considered taking our full bellies to bed, but realized we were on vacation and headed back to Platea, to see if the bartenders were right about the expected crowd. Boy, were they! The place was absolutely PACKED. At the front of the club, a live salsa band was whipping dancers into a frenzy, while the rest of us shuffled for a comfortable standing position that wasn’t in the path of people milling to and from the bar, to the dance floor, to the few already occupied seats at the rear of the place. We stayed to hear the band play one set, before giving each other the, ‘I’m ready if you’re ready’ look, and heading back to our room for the night.

Needless to say, I’m exhausted, but I wanted to drop you a line (or a few hundred of them) so I could share the day’s exploits. I can’t promise that tomorrow’s missive will be any shorter, but I do hope it’ll be just as entertaining….

Ok – I’m going to go pass out now.

besos,

k