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Dugout canoes are the mode of local transportation in Panama’s Kuna Yala (aka Guna Yala and San Blas Islands). They also become floating markets to sell wares to foreigners sailing in the area. My new bride and I were on one such chartered sailboat, which led to a special encounter. Throughout our honeymoon, we were visited by merchants known by the boat’s owners, Swedish couple Christina and Ulf. Items for sale included lobsters (a local specialty), the catch of the day, mangoes, coconuts, and molas, which are embroidered works of art traditionally worn as vibrant panels on a Kuna woman’s blouse. Most Kuna don’t have electricity, so Ulf often charged cell phones overnight. One transaction led to an invitation by Kuna couple Pricilliano and Adelaida to visit their family island. Known as Gunboat Island, the entire speck of Caribbean paradise was roughly the diameter of a quarter-mile track. Three generations (more than 10 family members) live in two huts with thatched roofs and sand floors. During the day, clothes hang from the ceiling where hammocks drape at night. Meals are prepared over an open flame. An outhouse sits on a pier. But cultural differences only run so deep. Over several hours, we bonded with two young girls, Elaida and A., who played in the water and sand and climbed palm trees with us. I let them shoot photos and see them in my viewfinder, and they squealed with delight. It was the perfect encounter for a young couple with dreams of starting a family.
Off Panama’s Caribbean coast, these palm-roofed cabins perch over a stretch of aquamarine sea. The surrounding Bocas del Toro archipelago is home to sloths, howler monkeys, and scarlet dart frogs. —Brendan Brady Punta Caracol Acqua-Lodge, Bocas del Toro, Colon Island, Panama. 507/6612-1088, puntacaracol.com. From $430, including breakfast, tea, and dinner. Photo courtesy of Punta Caracol Acqua-Logde. This appeared in the September/October 2010 issue. See more overwater bungalows.
The Frank Gehry Museum of Biodiversity is finally finished. The guide on the Panama Canal called it a building from someone who has done too much partying in Panama. I guess he hadn’t been to the Walt Disney Concert Hall.(view from the Panama Canal) For more info, see my post on Panama on my website.
Of the many boat excursions available in the Bocas del Toro archipelago, the trip to Playa Estrella stands out for its numerous multicolored starfish residing in the tranquil, crystal-clear waters. The beach is truly an "oasis" of calm and the shallow warm water is perfect for bobbing around and relaxing.
The anticipated Museum of Biodiversity, designed by Frank Gehry, opens this year, and the Panama Canal will soon double its capacity. To prepare, luxury hotels, such as the Trump Ocean Club and Le Méridien, are cropping up. And in the historic Casco Viejo neighborhood, Spanish colonial buildings are reopening as restaurants, boutiques, and trendy hotels such as Tántalo, home to the city’s first rooftop bar. Photo courtesy of Tántalo/Facebook. This appeared in the June/July 2013 issue.
These little red frog are the namesake of a beautiful stretch of sand on Isla Bastimentos, an island in the Bocas del Toro archipelago in the Caribbean Sea. The island is easily reached by water taxi from Bocas del Toro and has a few good trails across the island where you can spot some wildlife on the way to the beach.
Head to Casco Viejo, the old part of Panama City, a stunning mix of Art deco, Caribbean, French and Colonial architectural styles. Hungry? Look for the Havana Club. I thought I'd walked onto a set. 'Buena Vista Social Club’ was playing on a small screen in the corner of the room. A red barbers chair guarded one of the four wooden doors. I couldn't help but stare at the wall to wall wood panelled bar. The rum stained floor and the overpowering chandelier probably rescued from the ruins of an old ship envelops the room with echo of countless tall tales. No better way to spend a lazy Saturday afternoon.
In the farmer's market in Boquete, Panama, I tasted my first tree tomato. Yes it is a tomato that grows on a tree. And no, it hardly tastes like a tomato. it's more like a sweet fruit. You slurp the delicious juicy pulp out of the skin and throw away the peel. Of course, part of the magic of discovering a new food in a remote corner of the world is that you are in a remote corner of the world. Boquete is a mountain town in the cloud forest of western Panama, very close to the Costa Rican border. Until about 20 years ago, Boquete and its surrounding Province of Chiriqui, was cut off from the rest of the country. Boquete was connected only with the city of David by rattly trains. It was not until the Pan American highway was built through the area that Boquete linked up. From its history of isolation, Boquete had developed its own unique character, culture - and foods.
You can’t travel far in Boquete, a coffee-growing region in the highlands of western Panama, without hearing about geisha beans, reputed to be the world’s best coffee. Farmers here credit Boquete’s alpine microclimates and rich volcanic soil for the geisha’s singular profile—robust with notes of tangerine and jasmine. Boquete is a 45-minute drive north from David, which is an hour west by plane from Panama City. Sample geisha beans at the source on Boquete Mountain Safari’s tasting tour. Visit three family-run estates, where owners walk you through the production process from planting to percolating. At the sprawling Finca Lérida plantation, founded in 1922, you can sip several types of coffee. There, Andrès Lopez, who oversees quality control, instructs newcomers on how to evaluate the various varieties for color, aroma, body, and taste. Lopez’s sense of smell is reportedly so refined that he can tell if the beans were transported by a horse or a truck. —Victoria De Silverio $55 per person, 507/6627-8829, boquetemountainsafaritours.com. Photo by Mark Guitard. This appeared in the September/October 2010 issue.
Panama City's colonial neighborhood, called Casco Viejo, is a beautiful peninsula full of a mix of crumbling colonial decay and dutifully restored colonial dreams. The area is great for a day of strolling and stopping for occasional drinks when the tropical sun becomes oppressive. Look out for indigenous Embera and Kuna women selling their vibrant multicolor handicrafts.
Panama City is best known for its fish market, but a few blocks away on Avenue B near the Chinatown Gates lies the equally interesting Mercado Público. The market is divided into four main sections: meat, produce, dried goods, and a court full of fonda food stands. The market is a great place to get a sense of Panamanian cuisine and a cheap place to buy food. After exploring the market, I recommend cutting across Calle 15 to the bustling Avenida Central, a festive street full of cheap clothing shops, rowdy vendors, and food markets.
En route to the cloud forest and waterfall trails north of Boquete lies an abandoned castle in a lush and magical clearing. The story goes that a man finally started building the dream home for his wife when he retired, but she died before it was done. He too eventually passed of a heart attack and the project was left uncompleted. The family has since put the land up for sale hoping a buyer would be interested in turning the lonely castle into a spa or resort hotel.
Casco Viejo (the old city) is currently undergoing a massive revitalization. Everywhere you look new construction and remodeling is underway. Already a major attraction of Panama City, this charming, colonial location will soon be able to host even more hotels, restaurants, and bars. As I strolled around Castro, I was reminded of Havana, Cuba. Indeed, the city consists of Spanish Colonial architecture, and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. Being that I love rooftop bars, I was more than delighted to stumble on Tantalo, a new, modern bar and restaurant with great views of Panama city. Get there early, at sunset the place is packed!
As a resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, I live in what might be the birthplace of foodie-ism. Surrounded as I am by world-class restaurants and beautiful local food, I still dream about the meals I experienced at a secluded treehouse on a protected island in Panama's Caribbean. La Loma Jungle Lodge is tucked serenely away on Isla Bastimentos, accessible only by boat. Our accommodations were an open-air platform in the rainforest with nothing but romantic netting to protect us from Jurassic insects and nocturnal creatures while we slept. By day we paddled through mangroves, explored bat-lined caves, and body-surfed crystal waves. Come evening, we were treated to dinners the likes of which I have yet to experience in the Foodie Capital of California. Every bite - animal, vegetable, and many of the spices - was grown on the island and much of it on the property itself. Try this out: a starter of stuffed green plantains with a pepper cocktail followed by carolla chicken with fresh tumeric, plantain, and taro paired with cinnamon and cardoman rice and banana-coconut chutney with habanero. What just happened in my mouth?! Our hosts showed us more than good meals and enviro-luxuries. They were social, knowledgeable, and supportive. They wanted us to have more than just a good time, but a life experience. Back in the Bay Area fog, we recall the evening of dominoes and rum with locals followed by a night walk on the premises to spy on anteaters. That and home-grown chocolate.
The Panama Canal, an early 20th-century industrial marvel, continues to amaze engineering, construction, history, and maritime buffs. An expansion to double its capacity is in progress and slated for completion in 2015. The upper deck of the Miraflores Locks Visitor Center, on the Panama City side, offers views of massive cargo ships being raised and lowered (depending on the direction) through the giant lock gates.
Where to stay in Panama City? Casco Viejo, the old district, is the edgy, cool area where the creative restaurants, historic squares and native markets convene. Tattered neglect is rapidly giving way to tasteful renovations and vibrant renewal. Think of photos of Havana, Cuba’s crumbling colonial manses of faded glory. Picture heavy stone buildings with missing roofs and woody weeds rising to the sky. In Casco Viejo, trash-strewn shells are being revived with polished wood and buffed ironwork, with sparkling lights, sophisticated foods, music and goods. We stayed in Casa del Horno, a boutique hotel in a refurbished bakery. An Italian designer couple exposed the brick walls, created apartment suites with balconies and iPod speaker-decked sitting rooms. Breakfast is delivered on a beautiful tray by a smiling gracious concierge. It’s a lovely little place just steps away from historic churches, squares and the Presidential Palace. (And yes, I should have straightened the bed).
Authenticity has a smell. And Isla Colon smells like a real place. Can’t put a finger on it but you won’t find it in suburban gated communities. It’s the smell of burnt rubber from the sudden breaking of vehicles to make way for errant pedestrians, the aroma of deep fried- cholesterol laden-but absolutely delicious food being cooked in a corner kiosk. It’s the smell of freshly cut watermelons being sold on a cart. At my annual medical check before this trip, I was diagnosed with a Vitamin D deficiency. Apparently, sitting at my desk in Manhattan had taken a toll on my immune system. Here very close to the equator. I’ve been hoping I’d get a natural dose of my prescription. But the weather here had been moodier than a 2 year old without a nap. 9 degrees north of the equator and the hot air would hit you like a blast from a 425-degree oven but then just as suddenly the clouds throw a tantrum and lash rain. Clearly Panama Tourism struggles with this too because they never seem to commit to anything in their brochures.
Casco Viejo is a UNESCO site located in Panama City, Panama. We stayed in the quarter at Las Clementinas (www.lasclementinas.com), a really lovely and comfortable hotel with an amazing rooftop patio and view of downtown. Casco is a great mix of locals and visitors. As we enjoyed the sun on the balcony of the hotel, we could see the locals gather down below on the sidewalk to play an informal game of bingo. Casco is in the process of being revitalized but it still has the old colonial feel and is a great spot for unique restaurants and nightlife.
While visiting Boquete, dinner at Madre Tierra is a must if you want to enjoy creative cuisine paired with incredible views. The poolside restaurant is perched within the mountainside of the eco-resort, Rancho de Caldera. Chef Craig Miller prepares intimate, exquisite dinners composed of locally produced food while guests enjoy the sun setting over the lush Panamanian valley. Reservations are required for the restaurant's fixed-price dinners (around $30) with a choice of meat, vegetarian or vegan tasting menus.
Walking the narrow, cobbled streets of Casco Viejo—Panama City’s colonial quarter—is, these days, like exploring a vibrant art gallery. The neighborhood has suffered a bad reputation as dangerous since it became inhabited by undesirables after the 1989 invasion flattened it and chased out most legitimate residents. But significant investments in restoration and security in recent years have transformed Casco into a safe, charming, and hip enclave of quiet shops and coffee houses on the historical plazas, and local artists are responding and adding to the beautification effort. With all the reconstruction underway, construction sites abound, and scaffolding and safety walls are bedecked with humorous paintings of voluptuous dancing ladies. Trashcans are all painted with bright patterns and scenes. And on Avenida A between Plaza Herrera and the Iglesia San Jose, muralist Rolo de Sedas has adorned the wooden shutters on the street-level windows with his coquettish series “Mamis, Panamá Siempre Verde,” the Mamas of an Evergreen Panama. Each window frames a face of a different color, with different features, all within the spectrum of “typical Panameñas.” These ladies were painted after the dramatic 2011 protests against copper mining in Panama, and serve to remind us that Panama’s “green heart” is an environment that we should love and care for like a mother.
These impressive stone ruins are all that remain of the original Panama City, founded in 1519 by the feared conquistador Pedro Arias de Ávila. Although the Panamá Viejo (or Panamá La Vieja) remains are now skeletal, a tour of the site is a crash course in local history. The looming cathedral tower is a national symbol, and the on-site museum is a veritable pantry of history, stocked with centuries-old pots and pans, plates, and household items left over from the Spanish, as well as extensive indigenous artifacts. Photo by Mónica Mora/Flickr.
So many stylish restaurants are popping up on the gourmet scene in the old quarter, and Veggie Moon is a fairly new one with quite a following. The decor of white chairs and tables against a backdrop of stone walls creates an inviting setting for a meal of healthy and beautifully presented dishes. The creative pasta, seafood, vegetarian, and vegan dishes featuring seasonal and local produce will take you on a gastronomic journey, from starters like lentil soup to the entrees of risotto and shrimp salad to desserts such as creme brûlée. Champagne complements the courses. Image courtesy of Veggie Moon.
The old quarter of Casco Viejo is not only a UNESCO World Heritage site but also the emerging gastronomic epicenter of Panama City. There are myriad trendy bars and restaurants to choose from, but when it's time for dessert, head to Granclement. Try the all-natural, French artisan ice cream in flavors such as coco (coconut) and dulce de leche. Order yours on a crispy waffle cone or take a tub of sorbet to go.
Avenida Central is a lively street outside Casco Viejo, full of discount clothing stores, cafes, restaurants, and food carts. Many of the businesses feature hand-painted signs, which add to the festive atmosphere of the street.
Panama! Panama City has everything modern urban spaces have but with a touch of its own unique Latino flair: the Trump sky scraper rising above palm trees and flying seagulls, the man-made waterfront behind the Spanish old town, the hand painted buses driving on the super highway winding over tin roofs. When I hiked up Cerro Ancón on the far side of the city, I could see all of the crazy mixture that is Ciudad Panama right before my eyes. There is sign at the summit triumphantly proclaiming the spiritual satisfaction of the discovery of this magical city of two worlds: "Cuantos años de incógnitos pesares mi espíritu buscaba mas allá a mi hermosa sultana de los mares, la reina de dos mundos, Panamá!"
Visitors who want a change of pace from the busy city can sign up for a half-day excursion to Gatun Lake. Trips to this lake, which are made via high-speed motorboat, typically include stops at Monkey Island, so named for its principal inhabitants: capuchin and howler monkeys. The island is also a protected habitat for sloths and tropical birds, including the toucan. Many excursions also include a stop at a second island, named Sounds of Silence, where guests can relax and enjoy a picnic lunch before returning to the capital. Photo by Tom Long/Flickr.
In the heart of Casco Viejo, Bajareque provided a perfect location for a timely break in the day. The outdoor seating combined with a fresh cup of coffee (or wine) created a lovely afternoon.
The public buses on the streets of Panama City are recycled school buses which used to chug along suburban streets in the United States some thirty years ago. Plain yellow has been traded up for brilliantly multicolored designs of birds, flowers, sexy women, Carlos’s name…whatever… The city is phasing them out, slowly replacing the old school rattlers with sleek air conditioned coaches with sun-glazed windows. In the meantime, the city buses are shots of brightness, sometimes even trimmed with flashing disco lights at night.
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