I am calling this blog “Untrodden LA” because it is mostly about places I go that are not common tourist places or are even non-tourist places, with a focus on Life Adventure travel. When I travel I like to get down with the locals and see the world from their point of view. Then I share it with my readers. Enjoy.
January 28, 2015
We started the day with a delicious breakfast at the hotel included with our room. The best part was an espresso maker where you could fix your own style of the popular caffeine fix. The menu also included chicken wings, boiled yucca, and guanabana yogurt. The yogurts here are actually something I’d like to have at home. A large container has only 67 calories, according to the label.
Today we explored the new Metro which opened recently in Panama City. We took a train from the Carmen Church stop to Albrook, the huge shopping mall and domestic bus terminal at the end of the line.
Both of us were very impressed with the cleanliness and quiet of the trains which run on an electrified overhead rail like a trolley. The system keeps track of where you enter and where you leave. Right now the cost of a ride is 35 cents, but I am sure that will go up. At midday the trains were crowded so that it was standing room only, but not so crowded that we felt like sardines. I can’t imagine going at rush hour.
At Albrook we were surprised to see that you have to go down to ground level to reach the bus terminal from the Metro. Then you have to go back up to the same level you started at to get a bridge into the mall. Other than that, it looked like a good system.
In the middle of the day, it was pretty crowded at the mall. A lot of young people. Maybe because it’s summer and school’s out.
Albrook Mall, too, has grown–expanded greatly with many upper end stores at the new end. It was sort of like an upper end mall and a lower end mall put together. In the new, upper end mall there were few shoppers while in the rest of the mall there were many.
We also looked at a new Westin brand hotel called TRYP which is attached to the mall at its new part. It seems that would be a good upper end alternative for lodging for a rugged group that wants to be on the canal side of Panama City but also wants to take pubic buses to the interior. I may plan my next trip that way, although it would sacrifice staying in the jungle itself as we did this trip.
We stopped at Super 99 attached to the mall and got lunch for $5 for the two meals in a take out container. We then ate lunch in the large food court in the mall.
Then it was back to the hotel to do laundry, have supper and pack to go home tomorrow morning very early.
The weather during our 9 days in Panama has been superb. Much of the time it has been a little overcast. That cuts down on the tropical heat. And, except for a brief shower at Fort San Lorenzo, there has been no rain. In the evenings, it has actually felt a little chilly a couple of times when the wind kicked up. Of course it’s all relative. It’s probably not been below the 70s.
For our last night here we ended up going to a very nice restaurant right down the street from the hotel called 1985 after the year it opened. It was a combination Swiss and French restaurant with two separate sections. Prices were not cheap, around $30 an entrée. According to the wine menu at one point the place won an international wine magazine award for the best wine menu.
January 27, 2015–We got all our Friendship Force tour participants off and headed to 2 days to ourselves in Panama City.
Jackie saved us thousands as a medical tourist in Panama, visiting her dermatologist and eye doctors and filling prescriptions at a fraction of the cost. Thus, the trip was free.
Looking back, our Friendship Force group definitely had success, building friendships in Santiago. We all felt a let down. The people in Santiago expressing that they wish we stayed longer and want us to come back! We all felt the trip was so good that we were sorry it had to end. I think all in the group learned how diverse the country of Panama is.
On the way back from walking to one of Jackie’s doctors we were approached by a young lady. “Have you moved to Panama?” No, we explained why we were in Panama. She had been a student of mine when I taught English in Santiago several years ago. She went from there to working in a hotel in Santiago. We ran into her in Santiago during our trip there 18 months ago. She said the English we taught her allowed her to get the good job at the hotel desk.
Here in Panama City she now works for an expensive law firm catering to foreigners as a collection person. She works a lot in English. She had originally moved to Panama City to work for Dell in collections, using English.
She is just one example of how I have made a small impact on Panama, and at least on this girl’s life. Who knew years ago that my teaching the importance of speaking English would have such an impact?
Everyone in the Friendship Force group of 14 (including Jackie and me) got sick except for 4. The sickness seemed to be a minor bronchitis thing. Jackie was congested. I was fine until the morning they all left when I felt a sore throat coming. I took a Levaquin (a broad based antibiotic that I travel with to strange places) and gargled with mouth wash. By midday, I felt completely fine. Everyone else in the group quickly recovered. I don’t think anyone got sick from water or food.
I had advertised the trip originally with the admonition that it would include “walking long distances, in very hot weather, on uneven surfaces.” I know that discouraged many people from signing up. It wasn’t as bad as it sounded. No one in the group had a problem except when we walked 5 blocks on an uneven road without sidewalk in Santiago from the farmer’s market to the Escuela Normal at midday some of them found the heat hard to take.
But I am happy that I put the admonition in the description for the tour. I kept stragglers away. Some with walking problems would have kept the group from getting such a great experience.
At one point in the trip there was a big uncovered manhole right outside our bus in Panama City where we went to have dinner at La Tinajas restaurant. Now that we are in Panama City we have to avoid such holes in the sidewalk everywhere we go. When walking here, you have to occasionally look 10 feet ahead of you to see what obstacles are in the path. If you don’t you run the risk of taking a fall. At one place we saw a huge opening in the sidewalk exposing hundreds of wires under the sidewalk. At least it was coned off.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the day was where we were staying. Our tour guide set us up at Torres de Alba, 3 high rises in the center of town that operate as a hotel and long term executive apartments. We were assigned one of the suites.
As you walk into the apartment you definitely know you in a place that caters to Panamanian sensibilities, not Americans. The first thing you see is a washer and dryer in a Panamanian style kitchen, off to the side a wash basin in the style you see at most Panamanian homes outside. It is used as a wash basin for dishes and most things you need water for, frequently the only location of running water attached to the house when there is a latrine outside.
The furniture is of the style used in Panamanian homes with overstuffed hand rests. The lighting is much duller than Americans would generally accept. The kitchen is equipped with dishes to make rice and the hard abrasive soap commonly used in Panama to wash in cold water.
Fortunately, the place does have hot water in the shower and a very good air conditioner. We had to open windows to get it comfortable–it was too cold otherwise. TV has cable with CNN in English and some other English programming.
There is a restaurant that serves typical Panamanian breakfast and lunch in a covered outdoor setting, common to the way Panamanians like to live, out of doors. We intend to try the lunch which is only $9.50 fixed for 3 courses!
Also fortunate is very good wi-fi internet connection and free parking which we need for the car we rented at the airport when we dropped off our group.
The floor and much of the trim is marble, but it is laid in a very Panamanian way, that is, not to the US standards of installation and without pattern. Very nice, actually. In fact, throughout Panama you hardly ever see carpet. The tile floors are cooler and easier to maintain with a mop than a carpet would be trying to keep mold from growing in the humidity of the tropics.
One thing is hard to get used to. The noise. Panama City is very noisy, especially in this part of town. There are many casinos around, street walkers, restaurants, taxis honking, delivery trucks, and just city noise. It seemed to die down at night, though, so sleep is not affected.
The day was topped off with dinner with our American friends, Karen and Steve, at their favorite Peruvian restaurant, Machu Picchu, down the street from the hotel. The pisco sours were so strong I couldn’t finish one. The food was good, but not over the top. I had the first salad I’ve had in Panama, something I always miss in the Panamanian cuisine–vegetables.
Anticipation and anxiety. I have to leave for the airport to catch my flight to Panama in about 2 hours. As usual, anticipating the great trip is part of the excitement of traveling. Then comes the dead time when I am ready to leave, but still have 2 hours to go.
It’s January 18, 2015. I am off to lead another trip for Friendship Force International to Panama, a country I know well and love. I’ll be in charge of 12 other travelers. My job: make sure they have a great time while being safe.
I worked this trip with a tour operator in Panama. He seems very good. But, in truth, I’ve never actually met him personally. So part of the anticipation is worrying whether he’ll live up to our agreements about what we are going to see and do. I even worry that he’s taken our money and will disappear. Who ever knows?
Good thing, though. Two of the 12 arrived yesterday. By prior arrangement he was to meet them at the airport and get them to the hotel. By email he confirmed it had been done and the travelers also confirmed their arrival. Anxiety lowered.
We’ll be arriving later today at Panama’s Tocumen international Airport. It’s a modern airport, but there is poor transportation from the airport to Panama City. Taxi is really the only option. When I was in the Peace Corps, I would walk 1/2 mile to the nearest bus stop and get on a rickety old bus with standing room only because the cost of a taxi was prohibitive ($45). I was only being paid $375 a month to live on!
So it will be nice to have a bus waiting for us at the airport when we arrive. I’ll be busy meeting everyone for the first time, calming their nerves while making believe I don’t myself have the jitters.
It’s always a bit scary when you travel to the third world, that colloquial name given to the less developed parts of the globe. Who knows if the electricity will go out? Will there be a major traffic jam? Will we get stuck in customs?
One advantage I have over the other travelers–I speak Spanish. At least I speak well enough to get by. When you travel to a place where you don’t speak the local language, you always feel a little lost because you’re never quite sure what’s going on.
And Panama uses the US dollar as its currency. That means there isn’t a need to exchange money in order to buy the basics, like a bottle of water or a snack.
2 hours and counting. Excitement grows!
January 26, 2015–I really didn’t expect today to be so great.
I had never been to Tobago Island. A small sleepy village there with a beach is an attraction for Panama City residents and visitors from around the world. It’s the closest nice beach to Panama City.
Used to be that you had to catch a 7:30 AM ferry to get there and spend the day until the 4 PM ferry returned. The ferry, which we saw docked in Tobago, looks a bit sketchy. The launch site for the ferry is on one of the 3 islands of Amador, a bit inconvenient to get to.
We went, instead, on a luxury motorized 68 foot all wood sailboat which had 4 bedrooms with full baths and double beds as well as crew quarters. It was huge. Although we never put the sails up, the experience was wonderful. The boat launched from the Balboa Yacht Club next to our hotel, another great advantage. Because of its size to board we had to take 7 people at a time to it by small motorized rowboat.
Once on board there was an unlimited supply of drinks, a cool breeze, good conversation, and a wonderful view of the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal which we had to cross to get to Toboga. Really the trip on this boat was even better for me than being on the beach itself which I found oppressively hot under the midday tropical sun.
In Tobago we explored on foot the second oldest church in this part of the world and walked along the sandy beach. It was very hot, so I tried to stay in the shade, without much success. Others in the group snorkeled. You could also rent a kayak.
We met by prior arrangement at the restaurant of a Canadian lady who also runs a bed and breakfast. The lunch was, again, corvina fish with two sauces, garlic butter and creole; both delicious.
The hot sun tired me out, so I caught some shut eye on the way back. I was up by the time we celebrated our tour guide’s 26th birthday with a delicious cake from Momi’s.
Once back at the yacht club we had an inordinate wait for the small boat to take us onshore. Usually there are 2, but only one was working today. As is frequently the case with anything in Panama, the other was “danado,” or damaged, at the moment.
With time to shower off all the sunscreen and rest up a bit, we prepared for our farewell dinner at Diablico’s in Casco Viejo at 8. It’s a newish place that opened after we left Panama in 2010. It serves “typical” food.
We sat at a long table in front of the restaurant in the open air, Panamanian style, in the heat, which wasn’t too bad as the sun had set . I would have preferred a table inside with air conditioning, but the tour guide, Daniel, made the plans. Food was ropa vieja, chicken and rice, or pork. As we’ve come to learn about Panamanian food, it was consistently good, but nothing fantastic. While we ate, a group of residents from the neighboring poor and dangerous neighborhood of El Chorrillo marched in the adjoining street for something, although it wasn’t clear what.
It’s sad that our Friendship Force adventure is over. The people in the group were really great to travel with, and I will miss each of them. I hope to see them again.
January 25, 2015–Leaving Penonome at 8:30 we headed back to the big city.
We first hit Veracruz Beach where we lingered and lunched. Then it was on to the beautiful Casco Viejo. Our tour guide, Daniel, gave a great tour. We even got to peek into the Presidential Palace, something I have never been able to do before.
We were going to visit Ancon Hill but the road was under construction. The 40 minute walk up and 40 minutes down was too much for the group members to contemplate after a long day of sightseeing. Se we headed for a quick spin around Amador and to the hotel.
Arriving at the Country Inn and Suites in Amador around 4 PM was delightful. It gave us all a chance to rest a bit and grab dinner. Jackie still was under the weather, but we dined at the Balboa Yacht Club next to the hotel. Very good.
The hotel itself was a relief after several days dealing with Panamanian sensitivities. At the last hotel you had to put your card key in a slot to turn on the electricity. Here, too, only the air conditioning isn’t controlled by the system, meaning you don’t walk into a steaming hot room each time you leave.
Also this American oriented hotel had English language TV, a bathtub (rare in Panama), and an ice bucket and glasses. The Hotel Cocle didn’t have any glasses meaning you had to cup your hands to rinse your mouth after brushing.
Having been at the Country Inn before, I am sure the breakfast will be fabulous in the morning.
I am really looking forward to a trip to Toboga Island for the day tomorrow, our last in Panama with the group.
January 24, 2015–We got an early start and headed to our 8AM appointment at the local sugar factory a little out of Santiago for a tour.
The cane fields surrounding Santiago are in full bloom, you can tell. As I told the group, that isn’t cane, it’s rum. It was a good time to see the sugar-making process. The tour of the plant was fantastic! The plant makes unrefined sugar for commercial and retail sale (it’s brown or off-white) and molasses for rum, a by-product.
Following the tour we drove to Nata to see the oldest church on the Pacific side of the Americas. It was started in 1522 and took 100 years to build. It’s absolutely beautiful. Imagine that it was started about 30 years after Columbus discovered the Americas!
We proceeded to Penonome expecting to stop on the way for lunch, but we arrived without having seen anything. So we stopped for lunch at Dos Continentes where the daily specials with a huge plateful were only around $5. I explained the retired price and some tables took advantage of it.
After lunch we picked up a Peace Corps volunteer serving in Penonome and headed to La Pintada to see how the famous Cocle hats are made and to the cigar factory. The Peace Corps volunteer wasn’t familiar with either but she pointed out some things in Penenome on the way.
By this point everyone was tired. So we called it quits for the day, exhausted. Fortunately we have a nice hotel with hot water to stay in. The room is nice but there is only one lamp in the room and it is next to the airport where there is a loud air show going on.
Unfortunately my wife remained the only one sick on the trip, and by evening it appeared to get worse, not better, even though she sat out the after lunch activities.
Hope she feels better tomorrow. At least the day was another great one otherwise.
January 23, 2015–The group met at 9 after a little extra time to sleep in.
One of the group was ill at the beginning of the day. By the end of the day we had 3 others who were feeling a little ill. Hopefully everyone will get a good night’s rest and feel better in the morning. We leave Santiago at 7 AM tomorrow.
We did have an exciting day, however, for those that could enjoy it. Starting at Super 99 everyone was free to walk Avenida Central and meet at 10:30 at the cathedral. From there we walked across the park to the museum and got a great tour (in Spanish with Spanish language signs) from on of the docents. Music lessons were going in in violin and majorana in the background. Art class for youngsters was in the courtyard. After all it is summer here and school is out.
Next we walked to the market where everyone was given about 10 minutes to explore the meat and fish market and the fruit and vegetable market aside it.
From there we walked to the Escuela Normal where we looked at the lobby sculpture and auditorium paintings. The temperature by midday had risen quite a bit. It was good to be inside. From the Normal we caught our Coaster and took the group plus 15 Panamanian friends (8 adults and 7 children) to Puerto Mutis where we enjoyed a leisurely lunch and most took a boat ride out of the cove area toward the sea. I did not go because Jackie was one of those feeling a little ill. When everyone got back they said it was nice but very hot out on the water.
We headed to the drop off point at Super 99 where host families picked up the travelers. Most were going to treat their hosts to dinner out tonight. I worked a bit with Joel, the organizer here, to brainstorm how to handle the ones feeling ill. I spent the night home with Jackie.
Perhaps the day was too filled for some walking under the hot tropical sun.
January 22, 2015–What a super day! We headed to Chitre to visit Jose Gonzalez in his home workshop. A big hit. I bought a BIG mask, $90. He told me to see his Facebook page at Mascara Jose Gonzalez, but I couldn’t find it. He is one of two remaining Devil Dance mask makers. They’re getting old. Their trade is dying as there are no young people there to succeed them.
We finished early and headed to Bonnie Birker’s B&B in La Enea arriving an hour earlier than anticipated. That was great, though, as it gave the group time to wander the shore where the tide was at a low point. The black volcanic sand beach stretched about 1/4 mile at low tide. The group really loved hearing Bonnie’s stories of her days in the Peace Corps and how she ended up retiring in La Enea where she had served. An interesting fact–nearby Las Tablas was recently listed as the second best place to retire by the New York Times (I think) she said.
We lunched at the seashore restaurant about 6 doors down from her home. Delish! For $10 we had a choice of shrimp and vegetables, whole fish or filet fish with family style patacones, yucca fries, and French fries. Many of the group enjoyed the $1.25 beer.
After lunch we visited the leading pollera maker at her home workshop where she explained the intricacies of making a pollera. I had no idea of how difficult the work is. Bonnie had written a book on the pollera with great photos, so she was quite knowledgeable and knew the right questions to ask.
Final stop was at the local museum where they put on a great demonstration of the mejorana and Devil Dancing.
Home in time to rest before the hosts’ reception at 7 at the Latina University. Everyone arrived Panamanian style around 7:30. Young performers demonstrated pollera dances. I swear they were better than the professionals we saw at Tinajas in Panama City!
What a day!
Up early to pack. We left at 8AM for the mountain community of El Valle de Anton, which I describe as the Beverly Hills of Panama, my favorite tourist place in Panama.
It’s hard to keep hitting home runs day after day, but we did it again! With a visit to the cloud forest trail with zip line, the zoo and the new beautify zoo, we were ready for lunch.
But no one could know just how grand it would be. La Casa de Lourdes has the reputation as the best restaurant in Panama, the site of many weddings and other occasions. It definitely lived up to that reputation. I had a great chicken tamarind dish followed by a brownie and ice cream dessert The accompanying salad, too, was perfect with figs and walnuts and a dressing that did not overwhelm.
We had planned on visiting the hot spring baths but time was running short, so we just looked at some of the mansions, made a quick visit to the market, and headed to Santiago.
There our host families were waiting with big smiles.
Everyone scattered to reunite in the morning.