Panama Series Finale

DAY 6 AM:

Sunday was my last day, though it was just a half-day because I had an afternoon flight.  I attempted to sleep late, but church bells woke me up.

Another shot of pretty Iglesia del Carmen, which provided my unofficial wake-up call

The pretty Iglesia del Carmen provided my unofficial wake-up call

I tried to go to Cafe Shalom for coffee and found it closed, so I went to Cafe Duran at El Rey supermarket instead.  Cafe Duran reminded me of Starbucks, since they had the first iced drinks I saw in Panama and the desserts looked industrial.  I ordered ice coffee and an alfajor because it was my first time seeing my favorite Latin American cookie in Panama (it’s actually a dulce de leche filled cookie sandwich).  The alfajor was mediocre, but the coffee was outstanding.  I bought a couple bags to take home!

Cafe Duran

Cafe Duran

Alfajor and iced coffee

Alfajor and iced coffee

Random final thoughts/advice for potential travelers to Panama:

I had a great trip, but I can’t say Panama City is on my list of favorite places.  As mentioned in previous posts, there is construction EVERYWHERE.  It would be interesting to visit in 5-10 years because the cityscape will look entirely different and it will probably be closer to being “done” (or at least too crowded to build more).  There is also a Frank Gehry designed BioMuseum that is currently under construction and should be interesting to visit in the future.  At present time, I wouldn’t recommend more than two days at most in the city (do a tour one day and spend the second day exploring on your own).

This was my first time traveling alone and I really enjoyed it.  I felt very safe in El Congrejo and would definitely recommend staying there over Casco Viejo, which has more interesting architecture, but a weird vibe.

People were very friendly and helpful.  The only thing that slightly annoyed me was that multiple taxi drivers tried to ripe me off, though this also happened when I hung out with my travel buddy, so it’s not just a single female phenomenon.

My trip to El Valle de Anton was the highlight of my time in Panama.  I also found the Gamboa Rainforest Resort gorgeous, but it was pricey and I was disappointed at the low number of monkey sightings.  I have heard there are many other beautiful places to visit in Panama, but I was only there for five full days and I wanted to limit travel around the country and just relax.  And relax I did!

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Panama – Day 5: Spa visit, lunch at the Coca Cola Cafe, drinks at the Radisson Decapolis, and dinner at Manolo’s

I am sorry for the extreme delay in posting!  I started writing the below text several weeks ago, but then things got very hectic.  I just got back from a Thanksgiving trip to Israel and I will try and post highlights from that trip in a more timely manner.  I hope everyone had a relaxing holiday!

Now, back to the end of Panama.  By my fifth day, I had already visited every site I wanted to see, so I decided to go to the spa at Le Meridien Hotel for an express facial.  I enjoyed using the spa’s facilities more than the treatment itself.

View from the roof of Le Meridien Hotel

Spa!

In the afternoon I was planning on meeting up with a fellow traveler from TravBuddy.com, which is a website that helps you, “[m]eet travelers and locals who are going to the same place at the same time as you.”  I signed up on a whim and paid the one time $9.99 registration fee before my trip, but I was disappointed when I saw that only two members were going to be in Panama City at the same time as me.  One of the two members messaged me and asked if I wanted to go sightseeing or meet for coffee.  I had already seen all of the major attractions, but I was curious to visit the Coca Cola Cafe and I had read that it borders a sketchy neighborhood, so it seemed like the perfect activity to do with a partner.  The funny thing is that I actually recognized my travel buddy, Isreal, on the street about an hour before we were supposed to meet, but this was less serendipitous than it sounds, since most of the city’s hotels are in one area (El Congrejo).  We walked on the Cinta Costera walkway to get to the cafe.  Along the way we passed the entrance of Chinatown, but I read it was a little dicey, so we did not enter.

Chinatown

We then passed through the historic district of Casco Viejo to reach the Coca Cola Cafe, which is located on the border of Casco Viejo and the rougher neighborhood of Santa Ana.  The Coca Cola is oldest cafe in Panama City (c. 1875) and is known for its hearty fare and local clientele.  The Coca Cola is also historically significant, since it was frequented by Che Guevara and was supposedly the first place in Panama to serve the eponymous beverage.

The Coca Cola Cafe

I ordered chicken milanesa and pineapple juice.  The prices were very reasonable and the chicken itself was good, but the sides (salad and lentils) were nothing special.  Several other diners seemed more drunk than is optimal for lunchtime.

Chicken milanesa and rice for three people.

Before leaving we ordered the famous coffee, which was excellent!

Coffee at the Coca Cola Cafe

After lunch we walked back to Casco Viejo and passed some interesting 1930’s/1940’s architecture in the more run-down area bordering the cafe.

Benefits building

Back in Casco Viejo, we visited the Iglesia San Jose, which is known for its gorgeous gold alter.

Gold Alter at the Iglesia San Jose

We took a taxi back to El Congrejo and rested before meeting up for drinks.  I had read about the sushi and martini bar at the Radisson DeCapolis Hotel, which was supposed to be the hipest places in Panama City.  However, when we arrived around 8PM, it was almost completely empty.  We thought maybe we were too early, so we visited the Multiplaza Mall across the street and then the Hard Rock Cafe and Casino next door.  The stores at Multiplaza were similar to Albrook and not particularly interesting.  The Hard Rock had a ton of famous musician’s memorabilia, which was fun to view.

Hard Rock Casino and Hotel

We went back to the bar at the Radisson and it was still pretty empty, but we decided to stay and order drinks.  I asked the waiter why it was empty and he said it’s more popular on Fridays.  I don’t know if that is the case or if it just peaked in coolness.

Radisson Decapolis Bar

Eye chairs at the Radisson Decapolis Bar

After drinks I suggested we go to Cafeteria Manolo’s because I liked the people watching and wanted to have a traditional Panamanian dish for my last dinner in P.C.  I ordered Sancocho, which is Panamanian chicken soup.  It was more flavorful than American chicken soup, but it was a bit too salty.

Cafeteria Manolo’s

House salad

Sancocho soup

Post-dinner we walked across the street to the Veneto Casino because I wanted to try gambling for the first time.  I bet a dollar in a slot machine and after repeatedly pressing the very confusing, though all English buttons, I won $3.  I decided to call it quits while I was ahead.  We also left the casino quickly because it was pretty depressing.  The Via Veneto Hotel strip is known for prostitution (which is legal in Panama) and there were dozens of prostitutes walking around the casino floor.  The scene was very sad and it was already rather late, so we headed back to our respective hotels on the other side of El Congrejo.

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Back to School: Bumble and bumble University

I recently got a free blow dry at Bumble and bumble’s hair school, Bb. University, as part of the Bb. U Model Project.  All services at the Bb. U Model Project are free of charge.  Models also receive a $10 product credit for each styling session they attend, so I was excited to not only get a free blow dry, but also Bb. products to try!

Models checking in at the reception desk

Bb. University is located in a large industrial space in the Meat Packing District.  Upon entering, I was impressed by the sleekness of the facilities and the floor-to-ceiling windows, which offered stunning views of the surrounding area.  The school was actually fancier than most salons!

Views of the MPD

In order to enroll in the Bb. U Model Project, potential models must attend a model call, where their hair type is assessed to determine if they are appropriate for upcoming classes.  If so, the models can get free haircuts and/or styles (Bb. University also offers free coloring, but models have to get a free haircut first).

Before

After my assessment, I was offered the Long Layers Razor cut and several styling services such as a Round Brush Blow Dry, Flat Brush Blow Dry, or an Updo.  I opted for a Round Brush Blow Dry, since I usually have my hair blown out with a flip at the end.

Upon arriving for my styling session, I was given a Hairmiles Booklet and one Hairmiles sticker as part of the Hairmiles Frequent Stylers Club, which is an incentive program that rewards models with Bb. product credits once they accumulate enough Hairmiles.

Models awaiting the start of class at Bb. University

At the beginning of the class/styling session, I met with an educator (a Bb. stylist) and my student stylist, Paula, who evaluated and discussed my hair type.  Paula was friendly and also very experienced, since all of the students at Bb. University are licensed hair professionals with a minimum of two years experience (the program is the equivalent of graduate school for hair professionals).  Paula works at an upscale salon in the South and was visiting NYC to attend the two-day styling workshop.

Paula washed my hair, blow-dried it, and then methodically wrapped it in loops and pinned them around my head.  While I have had my hair blown out many times, I have never experienced such an intricate procedure.  The process was longer than I am used to (about 1.5 hours), but at the end result was the most voluminous hair I’ve ever had.

the process

I don’t think the after photo shows just how full and glamorous it was…I felt like I was ready for the Oscars!

After

At the end of the session Paula wrote down Bb. product recommendations for my hair type and notes on how to use them.

The only downside to the Bb. U Model Project is that I had to wait between my assessment and my styling session, since the Round Brush Blow Dry class was not offered for several weeks (however, I did receive emails whenever there were openings for other styling sessions).  On a related note, Bb. U is only open during weekday business hours, so the program works best for people with flexible schedules.

Based upon the price (free!), the professional level of styling, the gorgeous facilities, and the incentives program, I would definitely recommend participating in the Bb. U Model Project.  I look forward to trying more styles and maybe even a cut in the future!

If you are interested in participating in the Bb. U Model Project, please visit www.bbumodelproject.com for more information.  Happy styling!

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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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