Panama – Day 4 – PM: Albrook Mall, the Executive Hotel, Dinner and Belly Dancing at Beirut Restaurant

The bus ride back from El Valle de Antón was unfortunately more hectic than the way there.  The driver sped while talking on his cell phone and I thought about complaining, but the idea of being left on the side of the Pan-American Highway was more frighting.  I was relieved when we finally arrived at Albrook Bus Terminal, on the outskirts of Panama City.  Albrook Bus Terminal is right next to the Albrook Mall, so I crossed the street to check out Central America’s largest mall.

Rhino Entrance

Albrook Mall was gigantic (200+ stores) and safari themed, with all of the wings named after different animals and large animal sculptures at the entrances. There were also guards in safari attire, in addition to guards in bullet proof vests.  As evidenced by the safari decor, the mall was family oriented and had lots of children’s rides and games throughout.  There was also a large fast food court with many American chains.

Carousel and zoo train

Bungee jumping for children

Uniformed guard and safari guard

A small Mac store

I walked the length of the mall to the Koala section where I was told the best stores were located.  The floors and walls of the Koala section were sparkling white and gleaming.  However, the stores were extremely disappointing.  Ninety-five percent of the shops were American and not particularly interesting American companies.  There was Tommy Hilfiger, Brooks Brothers, Banana Republic, the Gap, Converse, Crocs, etc. and while I like some of the aforementioned, I was hoping to see some upscale Panamanian stores or at least Argentinian or Spanish chains.  I had a coffee at Juan Valdez and then headed to Panama City to check into my new hotel.

the Koala section of the mall

Colorful jeans

Typical Panamanian shoes

Jeans!  Jeans! Jeans!

For my last two nights in Panama City, I choose to stay at the Executive Hotel because they had a weekend special and came NYTimes recommended.  The Times mentioned that the hotel was dated and while my room’s furnishings definitely needed upgrading, I found the old-fashion lobby charming.  It reminded me of a Graham Greene novel.  I also loved the balcony in my room!

How Graham Greenesque is that sign?!

Lobby

My room

View from my balcony

View 2 (see the construction crane…typical P.C.)

View 3

The Executive Hotel was in El Congrejo, but several blocks away from my first hotel, the Toscana Inn.  I walked around the area and came across Beirut restaurant, which was mentioned in my guidebook and almost every Panamanian tourist site (the restaurant is so popular, it has an outpost in Albrook Mall).  I was initially disappointed when I saw the outside because it looked so cheesy.  I had read there is belly dancing on Saturday nights, so I asked the host if I could make a reservation for 9PM.  He said he didn’t know if they would have indoor seating for one, but maybe they could find a seat for me on the patio (in the 92 degree heat and humidity, I decided this was not an option).  I went back to my hotel room to change and googled the city’s other middle eastern restaurants with belly dancing (surprisingly, there are at least 3), but Beirut had the best reviews by far, so I decided to give it another try.

Beirut Restaurant

I returned around 9:15PM and the host found a seat for me inside, which turned out to be massive.  The belly dancing had already started and talented dancers rotated through the rooms.  I didn’t recognize a lot of the middle eastern dishes on the menu, so I asked the waitress to make a suggestion.  She recommended the Beirut platter, which she said was appropriate for one.  The platter consisted of many different little plates and was probably much more appropriate for two.

Beirut Platter and rose water

The decor was a little Disney-esque, but the food was delicious.  The only downside was that the music was extremely loud and there was a strong scent of hookah drifting from the neighboring tables (I think maybe the host was doing me a favor when he tried to get me to sit outside).  However, the fumes and blasting music were outweighed by the phenomenal people watching.  Although I ate at several other upscale Panamanian restaurants, this was the first one where the clientele looked almost exclusively Panamanian and the diners were dressed for clubbing.  The food, entertainment and fashionistas made this my most enjoyable meal in Panama City.

Belly dancer

Belly dancer and the chef (check out his pants)

Belly dancer in another room

Belly dancer in gold

Stay tuned for my final day in Panama City!

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Panama – Day 4 – AM: Exploring El Valle de Antón: Hot Springs, Orchid Center, Craft Market, and Lunch at Bruschetta’s

In the morning I visited Los Pozos Termales AKA the hot springs.  I read varying opinions online about the sanitariness of the thermal waters, but I figured for only $2.25 admission, I would leave if it was bad.

Entrance

Walkway

Landscaped grounds

I was the only visitor when I first arrived, although a French family came later.  The pools looked a little sketchy, so I decided to just do a mud mask.  An attendant helped me select the proper mud for my skin type from two different options.

My assistant and the mud buckets

Mud mask

While waiting for the mud to dry, I walked around the grounds, which featured a playground and two mysterious half-egg sculptures.  The attendant showed me that the eggs sculptures can carry whispers if people sit facing the wall and talk into painted dots (similar to a whisper gallery).  I am not sure what this has to do with spa relaxation, but my guess is that it provides entertainment for children while their parents soak in the pools.

Thermal waters

Playground

Whisper-carrying egg

After the mud dried the attendant gave me two buckets of fresh water for washing my face and I attempted to clean up.  When I looked presentable enough, I took a taxi across town to the APROVACA Orchid Nursery and Conservation Center.  APROVACA is the acronym for Asociación de Productores de Orquídeas de El Valle y Cabuyais and is a non-profit dedicated to the conservation of native Panamanian orchid species in danger of extinction.  I was lead on a very informative tour by a retired English police officer/orchid enthusiast who was volunteering at APROVACA for several months in exchange for room and board and orchid care training.

APROVACA

Pretty flowers

Orchids

Orchids for sale!

Lady slipper orchid

A vanilla orchid growing up a tree.

Not an orchid, but very pretty…

After the 30-45 minute tour, I walked back to the center of town to visit the fruit and craft market.  The market had a wide selection of mola (embroidered) artwork at less expensive prices than in Panama City.  I bought several items from a Kuna Indian woman to give as souvenirs to my family.

Fruit market

Entrance to the craft market next door

Kuna Indian woman in traditional clothes

Colorful mola artwork

The most famous activity in El Valle is hiking, but I decided to forgo it since I was traveling alone (note – if I had really wanted to, I would have hung out in my hotel lobby and made friends, but I’m not a huge hiking fan).  Instead I enjoyed walking around the town, which was very quiet and pretty.  Other than school children and gardeners working on the large homes, I didn’t see many people around (most likely because it’s a weekend destination and I was there during the week).

Students on their lunch break outside the local discoteca

Cute coffee shop at the end of the road

After my walk I was planning on taking the bus back towards Panama City and stopping half way to visit the beach town Coronado.  However, it was pouring rain, so instead I decided to stay in El Valle for lunch and then take the bus back to the Albrook mega-mall, on the outskirts of Panama City.  I showered, checked out of my room, and ate in the hotel’s restaurant, called Bruschetta’s.  I ordered the classic namesake dish and a house salad (both were larger than I was expecting, which seemed to be a general theme for the food in Panama).  When it continued to downpour, I ordered a hot chocolate and checked my email (the Anton Valley Hotel was my only hotel that didn’t have internet in the rooms, but the lobby access was enough).  Eventually it stopped raining and I  boarded the bus in route to Albrook…

Bruschetta

House salad

Hot chocolate

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Panama – Day 3 – PM: Arrival in El Valle de Antón, dinner at la Casa de Lourdes

I took a bus from Panama City and arrived in El Valle de Antón approximately 2.5 hours later, via the Pan-American highway.  The bus was an air-conditioned mini-van and cost only $4.50 one way (basically the Panamanian equivalent of Greyhound).  Although I received skeptical looks when I told people I was going to take the bus and was even advised by a Panamanian guy to “lose the pearls and sunglasses,” the ride was relatively stress-free, minus the blasting Spanish music (for the record – I did remove all jewelry and my no name sunglasses beforehand).  There were other women on the bus, but I was the only tourist.  At a few stops vendors got on the bus and sold snacks.  The only thing I found kind of bizarre was that the bus picked up and dropped off passengers on the side of the highway.  The last twenty minutes of the ride up the mountain were extremely windy and nauseating, but it probably would have been just as bad if I were in a taxi.  El Valle de Antón was the last stop and the driver kindly dropped me off right at my hotel.

Gorgeous mountains

El Valle de Antón is the world’s only inhabited volcano and many wealthy Panamanians have weekend homes there.  From the drive up, I was immediately impressed by the views of the mountains, which reminded me a little of the Berkshires.  I was also pleased that the weather was much cooler than Panama City, where the temperature was 92 degrees and humid throughout my stay.

I arrived around 4:30PM and checked into my hotel, the Anton Valley Hotel, which was in the center of town.  The room was rustic, but the staff was friendly and the location could not have been better.  My only issue was that there were some bugs in the room, but the whole town was VERY buggy, so I doubt they could do anything to remedy the situation.  I wore mosquito repellent bracelets on both wrists the entire time I was in El Valle and miraculously managed to leave bite-free (thank you JB for gifting me with these amazing accessories).

My room at the Anton Valley Hotel

Cute towel art

Since it was too late in the day to do any major activities, I went for a walk around the town.  I explored a road called Millionares’ Row, which had lots of large modern mansions, very reminiscent of the Hamptons.  I tried to photograph the mansions, but the angles in the photos are a bit off because most of the homes were surrounded by hedges and large fences.

Pretty house and gate

Another view of the pink sprawling mansion

A very modern mansion

A more traditional style house

Modern mega mansion

Stone-accented McMansion

Cool fence

A more traditional stone gate

Quaint church across the street from my hotel

After my walk, I changed for dinner and took a taxi to La Casa de Lourdes, which is a restaurant located in the town’s most upscale boutique hotel and spa, Los Mandarinos.  The restaurant is in a Tuscan-style villa and is not surprisingly a popular wedding venue.  The restaurant had lovely ambiance and the food and service were excellent.  I would definitely recommend it!

Corn cakes with spicy honey sauce

Creole dish with the largest shrimp I’ve ever seen

Tuscan-style dining

My view during dinner

Posing at the pool

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Window Watching: NYC Fall 2012 Trends

I am interrupting my regularly scheduled Panama posts for a fall  fashion post.  As stated previously, I love trend-spotting and I wanted to share some styles I’ve noticed lately in NYC store windows:

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Polka dots – this classic print is featured in the windows of the more feminine and conservative stores (Kate Spade, Ann Taylor, etc…).

Autumn tones – forest green, camel, orange, deep red, burnt sienna, and brown are the oh, so seasonally appropriate colors for everything from shirts to pants.

Fur vests – I am m not in love with this look, but they are all over.

Leather, leather, leather – Leather EVERYTHING!  Leather jackets, particularly motorcycle jackets are super hot right now, as are leather pants, leather skirts, leather tops, etc….

Studding – studded shoes, studded bags, studded shirts, studs continue to be omnipresent!

Animal prints – not my taste, but still popular for shoes and bags.

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Panama – Day 3 – AM: More around El Congrejo, lunch at Cafeteria Manolo’s

For my third day I planned an overnight trip to the mountain town of El Valle.  Before checking out of my hotel, I went for my morning constitutional around El Congrejo.  I was curious to see a Panamanian super market, so I stopped in the mega store El Rey.  It was surprisingly similar to an American supermarket.  Almost all of the frozen foods and packaged products were from American companies.  Some even had English labels.

El Rey

View from above

The most glaring difference from an American supermarket was the armed guard at the entrance who shouted at me to stop taking photos.  Inventory-wise, the only noticeable difference (from my brief assessment) was the huge variety of aloe drinks.  I was also impressed with the large health food selection, which even included my favorite German Mestemacher bread.

Aloe drinks

I bought green guayaba (guava) fruit because I had never seen it before.  It was delicious!

Exotic fruit

I took photos of some interesting buses around the neighborhood.  In Panama City, the older public buses are former American school buses, and many of them are painted with images ranging from Jesus to naked ladies.

Plain bus…you can tell it’s a former school bus

Nicely painted bus

Decked out bus

I checked out of my hotel and then went for a casual lunch at a diner called Cafeteria Manolo’s, which is across from the Veneto Casino.  Manolo’s is considered the place to see all walks of life, from casino prostitutes to businessmen.  It’s also known for being inexpensive.  The interesting people watching, old-fashioned decor, and typical Panamanian menu made it my new favorite restaurant.  I didn’t know what to expect from a $2. sandwich, but the grilled cheese I ordered was huge and very good, as was the house salad.

Cafeteria Manolo’s

House salad

Grilled cheese

This is a short post, but stay tuned for a New York fashion post and photos of my trip to El Valle!

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Panama – Day 2 – PM: Lunch at el Mercado de Mariscos, walk around Casco Viejo, and dinner and a dance show at Las Tinajas

After my excursion to the Gamboa Rainforest Resort, I asked my driver Luciano to drop me off at Panama City’s fish market, El Mercado de Mariscos for a late lunch.  I had read in my guidebook about the top floor restaurant, which naturally has the freshest seafood in the city.  Upon entering the market, I was overwhelmed by the fish smell and afraid I wouldn’t be able to make it through a meal there, but very quickly adjusted to the stench.

The fish market

The restaurant overlooked the below market.  I ordered a plate of mixed seafood, which came in a tomato sauce.  It was OK, but the sauce was a little too salty for my liking.

Fish market restaurant

Mixed seafood in tomato sauce

On my way out, I stopped at one of the many stands outside the market and bought a cup of ceviche for $2.25, which was outstanding.  If I was to do it again, I would try several types of ceviche at the different stands instead of eating at the restaurant.

The beginning of a long row of ceviche stands

Ceviche and accompanying cocktail crackers

I walked along the waterfront from the fish market to Casco Viejo, which was just a short distance with lovely views.

Casco Viejo in the distance

Miami-esque skyline

I wanted to further explore Panama City’s historic neighborhood, Casco Viejo, since I only saw it briefly on my historic trolley tour.  As mentioned previously, I found the area to have a very strange vibe.  The lovely French and Spanish colonial architecture is reminiscent of New Orleans and Cartagena, but the area is undergoing major transition.  Many of the buildings are owned by foreign investors and are being renovated, but there is still at least one dilapidated building on every block.  There are upscale hotels, boutiques, and restaurants, alongside rundown homes with squatter-ish looking people lingering around.  Casco Viejo is a big tourist attraction and the location of the President’s Palace, so there is a strong police presence.  However, Casco Viejo also borders three of the poorest neighborhoods in Panama City and until those areas receive aid, I think the district will remain dicey.

Typical street in Casco Viejo

Casco Viejo

I tried to photograph some of the charming architecture, but there were literally construction projects on every block, which took away from the picturesque potential.

Casco Viejo

The renovated portion of one block

Casco Viejo

I walked around Casco Viejo for awhile and visited some cute boutiques.  I liked the store Reprosa for reproduction pre-Columbian jewelry and Karavan Gallery for local design pieces, though the latter was a bit pricey.  I also stopped at the much heralded French ice cream parlor, Granclement, which lived up to its reputation, but was difficult to find due to the construction project in front.

Granclement

Around 5PM I decided it would be a good idea to head back to my hotel before it got dark and I started the arduous task of finding a taxi.  There are a lot of taxis in Panama City, but it could be challenging to find one around rush hour.  Another issue, which I experienced at heightened levels in Casco Viejo, is that Panamanian taxi drivers like to overcharge.  Taxi fares in Panama City are set by zone and should never be more than $2-3 dollars.  I always asked the cost of a ride before getting into a taxi and usually passed on too-high rates.  However, in Casco Viejo all of the taxi drivers were quoting me ridiculous fares ($8-10) and eventually I settled/bargained down to $5. because I was tired and just wanted to get out of there.

Colorful trash cans in Casco Viejo

I went back to my hotel and rested before heading out to dinner and a folkloric dance show at Las Tinajas, which is one of the city’s most famous restaurants for traditional Panamanian food.  I had wanted to eat at Las Tinajas on my first night, but the dance show dining room was booked (note – you need reservations for the dance show, because it’s a popular tourist activity).

Las Tinajas

I ordered fish soup to start (in retrospect, this day could be called fish, three ways).  For my entree I ordered the “typical plate,” which was probably not the best choice for me since I don’t eat ham/pork, but there was enough food so that I didn’t leave hungry.  The plate featured a meat I don’t eat, rice and chicken, a grilled plantain, and an unidentifiable, but tasty side dish of orange mush with olives.

Fish soup

Typical Panamanian platter

I enjoyed the folkloric dance show, which was fun without being too cheesy.  I especially liked the women’s traditional pollera costumes.

Pretty costumes!

Folk dancing

After the show I headed back to my hotel room to prepare for my upcoming trip to El Valle de Anton.

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Panama – Day 2 – AM: Gamboa Rainforest Resort

The main building of the Gamboa Rainforest Resort

On my second morning I went on an excursion to the Gamboa Rainforest Resort.  The small town of Gamboa is located in the formerly American-governed Canal Zone and is about a 30-45 minute drive from Panama City.  I was going to take a taxi, but for $10. more my hotel concierge suggested that I hire a driver/tour guide, and it was definitely worth it.  My driver and guide Luciano Granie drove me through a few of the former U.S. Canal Zone towns (Ancón, Balboa and Gamboa) and pointed out places of interest like the old YMCA, an English-language church, a French colonial cemetery, and the jail where Noriega is currently living out his days.  It was interesting to see the architecture of the old “Zonian” (American) wooden bungalows and the English street names.

The grounds of the Gamboa Rainforest Resort

The Gamboa Rainforest Resort is a beautiful resort located on the Panama Canal and inside of the Soberania National Park.  They offer a variety of nature activities for guests or day visitors, such as birdwatching, boat tours, and an aerial tram tour (in addition to a Clarins spa).  Apparently the historic-looking main building of the resort is new-ish (c. 2000), but the wooden “villas” (AKA bungalows) on the grounds date back to the 1930’s and were previously the homes of American Canal Administration officers.

Gamboa Rainforest Resort

Lobby

Luciano is at the top of the stairs

I had wanted to visit the resort since watching the Samantha Brown Panama episode where Samantha visits the hotel and goes on a boat tour of the nearby animal sanctuary Monkey Islands.  I bought a ticket for the Gatun Lake Exploration tour, which included viewing the Monkey Islands in the description.

Tour boats

The one-hour boat tour took us through Gatun Lake, which is a huge man-made lake that serves as one of two water sources for the Panama Canal.  We saw a lot of gigantic Chinese freight ships from the Canal.

Gatun Lake

Huge freight ship

Another huge freight ship

Sadly, I found out on the tour that the Monkey Islands do not really exist anymore.  The Canal is currently being expanded to fit larger vessels (called Post-Panamax ships) and the landfill from the construction project has merged the islands with the mainland, resulting in the monkeys walking/scattering.  While we still saw some monkeys, it wasn’t the plethora that I was expecting 😦

Howler monkeys

We did, however, see several alligators and an iguana (not cute).

Alligator!

When the tour finished, I thought about having lunch at the resort, but I heard the restaurants were overpriced and not that great.  Instead I decided to have a drink at the Monkey Bar to make up for the low number of monkey sightings (I will say that the bar had a reasonably priced menu, but I wasn’t in the mood for fried bar-ish food).

Enjoying a fantastic piña colada 

Happy to be at the Gamboa Rainforest Resort!

After my cocktail, Luciano drove me back to the city and dropped me off at my next requested stop, which will be covered in Panama post #4.

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Panama – Day 1 – PM: Walk around El Cangrejo, dinner at La Posta

As mentioned in my previous Panama post, on my first morning I took a walk around the El Cangrejo neighborhood, which is where my hotel was located (along with most of the city’s hotels).  The area was a nice mix of residential buildings, stores, hotels and casinos, though I have to admit I found the architecture disappointing.  The gorgeous latticework strewn Iglesia del Carmen was the only building that stood out in my mind as being exceptional.

Colorful residential buildings

Iglesia del Carmen

Side view

As someone who loves visiting historic hotels, I also found the city’s hotels to be a letdown.  There were some very upscale hotels like the Rui and Le Meridien, but they were all new and glitzy looking rather than grand and elegant.  Even the city’s oldest hotel El Panama was renovated to look like a home furnishing catalog – nice, but completely lacking style.  On my walk around El Cangrejo I also got a preview of what I would see all over Panama City: construction, construction, construction!  There was literally a work site on every other block.  I have never seen anything like it!  Unlike in NYC, there were rarely walkways around the construction sites, so you just had to walk in traffic.  I am curious to know how many tort cases are filed per year because there are so many accidents waiting to happen.  On a more positive note, other than the many construction sites, I felt quite safe walking around El Cangrejo, which was most important!

El Panama Hotel (the oldest hotel in PC), a shopping strip, and of course, a construction site

Shopping center with a cool name and one of the city’s more unique skyscrapers in the background

After going on the previously described historic trolley tour of the city, I had a late lunch in the neighboring area of Marbella.  I ate at my favorite Columbian chain, Crepes & Waffles, which sadly seemed much better in Columbia.  It started pouring as I got to the restaurant, but luckily I missed it, which was a common theme of the trip since it rained every afternoon for about an hour or less.  Following lunch I explored Marbella, though the 92 degree heat and extreme humidity made it a bit unpleasant.

Dolls in traditional Pollera dresses in the window of a souvenir shop

For my veg friends

Beauty parlor price comparison

No, this isn’t an art museum.  Hint: notice the stalls…it’s the bathroom at the Rui Hotel!  The tiles looked golden in person.

Cute coffee shop

I returned to my hotel to rest and shower before dinner.  I then took a taxi back to Marbella to eat at La Posta, which is considered one of the city’s most popular restaurants.  I can definitely see why!  The food was Latin American-European fusion and was exquisitely presented.  I also loved the atmosphere, which was evocative of old Cuba.  The waiters wore guayabera shirts and were very attentive.

Tuna tartare appetizer at La Posta

My table featuring an outstanding bread basket, fried shrimp and eggplant dish, and a complimentary mojito.

The best thing I ate in Panama.  This was a dulce de leche/brownie creation, which was described as an alfajore (note – it looked nothing like an Argentine alfajore, but it was equally delicious!).

La Posta Restaurant

After dinner I decided to call it an early night so that I would be well rested for my day 2 excursion to the Gamboa Rainforest Resort.

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Panama – Day 1 – AM: Historic Trolley Tour of Panama City

Hola!  I recently got back from a five-day solo trip to Panama.  I will be writing about the trip in the upcoming weeks.  Hope you enjoy!

Panamanian Souvenirs

DAY 1:

I arrived in Panama City late Monday night.  Upon clearing customs, I was given a card for one-month of free health insurance, which is provided for all visitors.  I immediately decided that I liked the country.

A half hour taxi ride later, I checked into my first hotel, the Toscana Inn.  I chose the hotel based on positive online reviews regarding cleanliness, safety, and location.  I figured it would be decent, but I was pleasantly surprised by the décor and the helpfulness of the staff.

My room at the Toscana Inn Hotel

For my first full day I wanted to do a city tour and the concierge recommended Tranvia Tour, which operates tours on historic trolley cars.  Forgetting about the one-hour time difference, I woke up at 6:45 AM to reserve a 9AM tour.  After hitting up the breakfast buffet, I went for a walk around the surrounding neighborhood, El Cangrejo, which is a commercial and residential district where most of the City’s upscale hotels and casinos are located  (look for photos of my walk and more about the neighborhood in Panama post #2).

My selection from the complimentary breakfast buffet (I stuck with the cold foods, which were good.  The hot food looked a bit strange and not particularly Panamanian, unless chicken nuggets are a delicacy that I don’t know about).

The Tranvia Tour trolley picked me up at my hotel at 9:15 and then we picked up the other passengers at their respective hotels.  Due to traffic, this took awhile, but I enjoyed the scenic tour of the city.  There were about eight other people on the tour who were all from neighboring Latin American countries.  The tour was supposed to be in Spanish and English, but after ascertaining that I speak/understand Spanish, the tour was only in Spanish (note: I think that if I had requested English the tour would have been in English as well, but I decided it would be a good exercise to just hear it in Spanish).

Tranvia Tour Trolley

Our first stop was Panama City’s #1 tourist attraction, the Miraflores Locks Visitor’s Center, which overlooks the Canal.  The tour dropped us off for one hour.  I purchased the complete ticket package for $8., which included access to the observation decks, exhibitions, and a short introductory film.  Unfortunately, half of the visitor’s center was under renovation, so only the first two floors of the center and observation decks were open.  I enjoyed the exhibits on the construction of the Canal and native insects of Panama, but it would have been nice to see the whole center, since I heard the exhibits are fantastic.

A ship passing through the Panama Canal

The Panama Canal – an amazing engineering feat at the time of completion in 1913 and today!

Adorable school children dressed in traditional costumes for a class trip to the Canal

Next, we made a brief stop at the Amador Causeway to take photos of the panoramic views.  The tour also gave us time to visit a duty free shop, which wasn’t that exciting.

View from the Amador Causeway and a few of the many yachts docked there.

The third stop was Casco Viejo AKA Casco Antiguo AKA San Felipe, which is the historic district of the city.  This is the area I was most excited to see, since it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and sounded charming based on my guidebook and various NYTimes articles.  I had wanted to go on a group tour in part because I had heard the area was a little dicey and I wanted to see if it felt safe enough to explore by myself.  I will write more about Casco Viejo in a later post, since I did end up going back, but overall I found the neighborhood to have a weird vibe.  The architecture was lovely French and Spanish colonial à la New Orleans and Cartagena, but EVERY block had at least 1-2 construction projects, a couple beautifully renovated homes, and a few dilapidated buildings with possible squatters lingering around.

Church in Casco Viejo

Casco Viejo (notice the construction cones that were EVERYWHERE)

A renovated building and a building shell in Casco Viejo

Park in Casco Viejo

Colorful buildings in Casco Viejo (note – I think this is the only completed block, since it’s the location of the President’s Palace, which is used for ceremonial government functions).

The Panama City skyline from Casco Viejo looks just like Miami!

Our last stop was Panama Viejo, which are archeological ruins from the earliest Spanish settlement in Panama (c. 1519).  We walked around a former monastery, but we did not climb the famous tower, since it was not included in the tour and the temperature was super hot and humid.

The tallest building in Panama Viejo

The former monastery in Panama Viejo

The Virgin in Panama Viejo

Tranvia Tour dropped me back at my hotel around 2:30PM.  I enjoyed the tour and we visited all of the sites that I had been most interested in seeing, but unfortunately I was left with negative feelings towards the company after the guide increased the price by $10. at the end.  When I complained/tried to protest in Spanish, I was told the price change was due to the fact that we had done a full day tour and I was originally quoted for a half day tour, but even if the tour had been extended (which it wasn’t), they should have announced it beforehand.  I do not like using my blog to complain or badmouth companies, but I feel I should mention this because it prevents me from wholeheartedly recommending Tranvia Tour.  Otherwise, I had a great time and it was a nice way to visit all of the major sites early on.

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A Chat with Renee Garrison, co-author of “Home: Celebrating the Spaces of Your Heart”

One of the most gracious hostess I know, writer Renee Garrison recently co-authored an e-book with architect Tom Szumlic titled, “Home: Celebrating the Spaces of Your Heart.”  The very enjoyable and inspirational book features tips on how to create a welcoming home environment.  I recently sat down with Renee to discuss the book:

Rose: How did you decide to write “Home: Celebrating the Spaces of Your Heart?

Renee: I had interviewed Tom Szumlic for a couple of residential projects that I’d written about for The Tampa Tribune. We were having lunch one day when he asked if I‘d ever considered writing a book? I hadn‘t, but when he suggested a gift book I was on board! His expertise as an architect and mine as a reporter worked well together.

Rose: Who is the target audience for the book?

Renee: Anyone who buys their first home or a recent college graduate who rents their first apartment. We hope realtors could give this as a gift to clients- instead of a rubber plant! It appeals to retirees who are downsizing – this book is designed for anyone who is lucky enough to live under a roof.

Rose: What is your favorite tip from the book?

Renee: The most essential piece of garden equipment is a hammock. (Editor’s note: my personal favorite from the book is, “[p]ersonalizing your porch or rentry with a wreath, mailbox, or planter has been proven to be an effective home security system.  There are fewer break-ins.”)

Rose: Which tips do you follow in your own home?

Renee: Stencil your favorite quotation somewhere in your home for inspiration.  Keep candles on the table and use them, for all occasions.  Make your kitchen big enough to hold a table – a place for kids’ construction projects as well as a place for guests to make memories.

Rose: What was your writing process like while working on the book?

Renee: Tom and I met for lunch once a month, with notebooks full of ideas!  I’d edit/rewrite our concepts into a more conversational style.  Ultimately, Tom chose the photographs that accompany the text.

Rose: I know you come to NYC with some frequency for Fashion Week.  What are your favorite places?

Renee: I like Union Square and the ABC Carpet & Home store.  I also like Chelsea Market where the Food Network has offices and I always find nifty gifts at the NY Public Library gift shop. The “Literary Lions” guarding the front steps are pretty amazing – actually, the entire building is an architectural wonder that should not be missed!

The e-book, “Home: Celebrating the Spaces of Your Heart” can be purchased for only $2.99 at the itunes store here.  Renee’s blog, aptly titled Renee Writes Now, can be visited here and features her architecture and fashion articles and daily musings.

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