Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Adventures in Panama, Part 1

Hi readers! This week, we are so proud to bring you one of our members, Chris.  Earlier this year she had the opportunity to go on an amazing trip to Panama! So, sit back, grab a cup of coffee, tea or an icy cold glass of whatever you like best and let her take you on a virtual tour of Panama!

I love to travel, as in I REALLY love to explore new places, see new things, meet new people, and try new foods. So, when the opportunity to take a trip to Panama arose in March of this year, I was totally on-board. I thought about it for about 2 hours...then I was online, tax refund in hand, searching for flights and hotels. I'm usually a huge "planner", but this trip was a last-minute decision and I'm so glad that I took the chance.

Panama is a beautiful country with a very interesting history. The people are genuinely sweet, and they have a certain place in their hearts for us Americans. It all goes back to the construction of the Panama Canal, when there were so many Americans living and working daily with the local Panamanians. Almost everyone that you talk to in the Panama City/Canal area has a story of how their family was involved with the Canal building. It was actually very eye-opening to me, as I knew "of" the Canal, but I had never really understood the impact that we had on the country overall.

Panama City skyline
I made the trip to Panama with my Hubs, "S", and another couple. We flew from Houston to Panama City and were pretty much based out of P.C. for the duration of our trip. The other couple was actually in PC on a business trip, so we split up quite often and "S" and I did our own thing. The arrangement was awesome, as we could go and explore, do what we wanted, then all meet up for dinner and drinks. We stayed at the Courtyard Marriott near the Multiplaza Mall. Not "authentic", but comfortable by U.S. standards. The mall is a bit upscale, but it had everything that you might need, including a drug store and a grocery store.

We flew into P.C. on Sunday and made a beeline to Tony Roma's. It was right by the hotel, we were starving, and we wanted a drink to start our vacation off right. We sat at the bar and had a nibble. It was just like it is here in the States, except the menu is in Spanish. They were nice and included pictures, so you knew what you were getting. Also, in Panama you can use your money from the States. The U.S. Dollar is equal to the local currency, the Balboa. American dollars are used, American coins are accepted, but any change you receive (coins) may be a mix of the two. The coins are pretty much exactly like our coins, same denominations and sizes, but not American.

Sunday evening we hired a cab and went to check out the Amador Causeway. This is an area near the Canal that was created by stacking up the dirt/sand/dredged material that was displaced when digging the Canal. It is a string of islands, all connected by one major road. There are walking/bike trails on either side of the road (and water/ocean) and there are shopping and eating areas on most of the islands. There is also a yacht basin and a branch of the Smithsonian located here which is dedicated to the marine life in the area. Here's a cool fact: The Panama Canal runs large vessels through from one side to the other in the morning. In the afternoon, the direction is reversed for large vessels. At night, the Canal opens up in both directions to allow smaller ships through at the same time. All vessels that pass through are charged based on weight. Pretty neat, huh?

We asked our cab driver for a dinner recommendation and he took us to a place out on the last island called Bucanero's. We sat on a lovely patio and feasted on fresh seafood - salmon, shrimp scampi, curried prawns, and grilled octopus (the octopus was perfection on a plate!), all washed down with some unique adult beverages (the Mango Daiquiri was outstanding!) Then it was off to the Hard Rock Casino for some Black Jack and Slots. Not too bad for a first impression!

Monday morning came quickly, and the four of us jumped into a cab and headed over to Casco Viejo, the "old" part of Panama City. We walked around, took some pictures, saw a beautiful cathedral and did some shopping. Then we were hungry! We stopped in at Tantalo's, a cool little place that has a restaurant downstairs, hotel rooms above (this is where we are staying on our next trip!), and a rooftop bar that is open at night. For brunch we had quite a few good things. An omlette with a local type of bread (similar to Native American Fry Bread), and a grilled 3-cheese and bacon sandwich. OMG, that grilled cheese was a marvel! It was made with local cheeses, so there is no way to duplicate it here, although I've tried. Also, the coffee here was outstanding.

Large barge passing through the Panama Canal
We managed a quick trip to go and see the Canal. We had been told there was a restaurant overlooking the Canal that would be a great place to dine. The restaurant itself had been rented out for a private event, but we were offered a table on a patio for drinks and it was amazing. We got to see a large barge passing through, got some good pictures, and enjoyed ourselves immensely. We were lucky enough to be visiting during the 100th year anniversary of the Canal being built.

While strolling around that morning, we happened upon a restaurant called Diablico's. They advertised authentic Panamanian cuisine and it looked really cool, so we decided to hit them up for dinner. We went with the Lechon (a pulled pork dish in a tomato sauce of sorts), a Bisteak (beef steak, in a similar tomato-based sauce), a Ropa Vieja (my golden standard of Latin American cooking), and a fried fish. All were served with rice, beans and
Fried fish, Panamanian style!
tostones/Patacones (deep fried, smashed plantains.) It was wonderful, but be forewarned - fried fish around these parts means head-on, eyes staring at you! The other lady in our group had ordered the fish, and she ended up trading "S" for his Lechon. She couldn't handle the presentation of the dish! Luckily "S" was more than happy to trade. So, we all had a fine dinner, Panamanian style. 

After dinner, our friends returned to the hotel, but "S" and I wandered around the area and found a local little gem of a bar called Cedros. They serve "Gringo" food (pizzas and hamburgers) and keep U.S. sports on the TV. We just had a few drinks. I must say that Panama has the BEST daiquiris that I've ever tasted. Then we wandered along a few blocks more and found Tantalo's again. We were pointed to the rooftop bar, and man...what awesome views! And drinks. And views. Did I mention the views?!? Spectacular!!!

On Tuesday morning, "S" and I decided we wanted to find an authentic Panamanian breakfast/brunch. Oh my goodness, be careful what you ask for! We had searched online for ideas and only found one place that advertised itself as a "brunch" place. So, we grabbed a taxi and told the driver where to go. He had never heard of it. Now, this is either a shining example of how friendly the people in Panama are, or it shows how much they appreciate it when foreigners speak their language (I speak fluent Spanish.) Or, maybe this guy was just super nice...

The sweet guy pulled over, called his wife and had her Google the place. He then called to get directions and they were closed. A brunch place that didn't open until noon! Since we were starving and, well, already kind of just winging it, we told him to take us to a place where the locals eat breakfast. And so he did. 15 minutes later he pulled up to a place with a really cool patio. Guess what? Closed! So, he thought for a minute and then we were off again...

We drove through a few neighborhoods and got a glimpse of the "local" lifestyle. We eventually landed at a place in one of those neighborhoods, called Bon Vivant. The neon sign in the window said "Open", but it looked like there was nobody there. Well, at this point what did we have to lose? So, we paid a whopping $5 (plus a generous tip) cab fare and were dropped off in "No-Man's Land." We walked inside, and the place was absolutely beautiful. Hardwood floors and an upscale cheese and meat case. Over in the far corner there was one large table occupied by about eight loud and obviously drunk men, all talking and singing - in Italian! Quite a bizarre moment. "S" and I just looked at each other and tried not to laugh.

The owner (yes, one of the loud Italian guys) jumped up to greet us. Why, yes, they were open, but none of the staff had yet arrived. So, we were offered a complimentary drinks while we waited. We went with the coffee rather than wine, but I was starting to wonder if wine wouldn't have been better. We sat on the patio (it was a great people-watching perch) and waited. We eventually got our coffee and a menu, although still nobody was there to cook for us. About 30 minutes later, a waiter appeared. "S" ordered a Chef's Speciality Pizza, and I had an Argentinian sausage sandwich with an avocado cream sauce and roasted red peppers. And wine. We had totally earned a glass of wine at this point! It was all very, very good. The pizza had some odd (to us) toppings - Italian cold cuts, corn, artichoke hearts - but it worked.

When we had finished, we hailed a cab back to the hotel. This was when we learned about cab sharing. If there is room for four in a cab but only two are in it, guess what? You will stop and pick up other passengers. Like it or not, you might have company. And you might have to drop them off first, even though you were in the cab first. And you might pick up other passengers. And a 5 minute ride will become a 25 minute ride. But, it's all an experience.

Tuesday afternoon we all visited Panama Viejo. We saw the ruins and visited a market that
Panamanian masks
is run by the native tribes of the area. Then we went back to Casco Viejo to the French Market, which is located outside of the old French Embassy. There is a huge statue with a rooster on top (the rooster is a symbol of France), a beautiful panoramic views of the city and the ocean, and a really cool open-air market. The market is one big walkway covered in pink bougainvillea, with locals selling their crafts. That evening we hit the Hard Rock Hotel for dinner and drinks and the people-watching was fantastic!

On Wednesday, we grabbed some coffee and bagels from the hotel and rented a car. Now, some people will think that we are crazy. Or brave. Or stupid. Maybe all of the above. But, being used to Houston traffic, speaking Spanish, having seen the main routes when in taxis, having GPS and two physical maps in hand, we did it. Not for the faint of heart, but not impossible either. We did get lost in a Barrio before getting out of town, and yes, two police officers on motorcycles jumped out and waved machine guns at us. No Biggie, but a Surprise to say the least!  But, they actually got us back on to the main road, and we made a beeline for the countryside.

Exit roads are not well-marked (if at all!), and if you happen to miss your exit, you will drive 10-15 miles before finding a turn-around. And the speed limit signs are in KM, not MPH. So you are allowed to drive 100-120 KMPH. That was fun, seeing the speedometer hit 120!

We drove to a small mountain community called El Valle de Anton. We had some good leads in terms of food, but for some reason many places were closed on Wednesday. We puttered around, looking for a good meal and we decided on a small mom & pop place on the main road through town. No name, just a lot of cars outside of a house with an open-air patio. We had a couple of beers, then "S" ordered the steak with potatoes and I had the fried chicken. This was probably the MOST authentic meal of our trip. His steak was pounded flat and doused in jarred, minced garlic. Potatoes turned out to be frozen French fries. My chicken was indeed fried, but no batter. Only skin and a few feather plumes remained. I ordered the "bananas" as a side, which, of course, were patacones (smashed and fried plantains). No problem there, but I did wonder about the ketchup packets that I was given. Bananas and ketchup? Was I missing something here?

After lunch, we hit the road and found the local "zoo." We also found Ismael, a local teen, who gave us a tour of the zoo. The zoo was originally a rehab area for a well-known veterinarian. Before that the property had been a loquat orchard. Very interesting. And we got to see the infamous Golden Frog, which is on the endangered list. And there was a chicken coop. To provide food for the other animals. No biggie to us, but folks with children, you have been warned!

After the zoo, we let Ismael take us on a tour. We saw some amazing waterfalls and an honest-to-gosh sloth. Just hanging out. We saw a sloth. Our lives are now complete. Really, it was very cool! Then he took us up to the top of an inactive volcano where we could see the whole town and the surrounding valley. Awesome. Just awesome.

Watch for Part 2 of  "Adventures in Panama" coming soon!


  1. I feel like I was with you! Sounds like bit was a fantastic trip.

  2. I just wish I were sitting with a daiquiri in hand. I could envision all of your trip!

  3. Sounds like an awesome trip, yo !