Our favourite restaurant, bar, hangout – whatever you want to call it – is for sale!
Yes, we are loco for Loco's.
We normally wouldn’t post a real estate sale on our blog but this is our favorite eatery/bar, and this is such a good opportunity for someone that we thought it would be prudent to let folks know.
The owners of Loco’s - David and Stephanie - have turned this little outdoor grill into quite the community hang-out. Starting from scratch last summer, Loco's is now one of the most popular restaurants in the Coronado/Gorgona area. It has great food - mainly Mexican, but also other goodies, like fish and chips and Cuban sandwiches - a great vibe, and attracts a great, fun crowd.
You can find some great reviews of Loco's on Trip Advisor. They have professional and reliable staff. They use all fresh incredients with huge portions. The place is family friendly (Angus loved it there), with a bit of a bar vibe later in the night. It's safe and easily accessible, as it's on a main intersection of Gorgona, only a few blocks from the beach. David and Stephanie are good, community-minded people who have taken great pains to do community outreach through charity work and environmental initiatives, such as their regular "Gringos Go Green" nights, where patrons can bring in their recycled goods (there are no recycling programs in Panama).
Perhaps most importantly for anyone considering buying a business in a foreign country, David & Stephanie are intelligent, salt-of-the-earth people who are trustworthy, honest and willing to go the extra mile to help out a neighbour in need. Their willing assistance in any transition to new ownership would be invaluable!
You can find all the details here: www.restaurantinparadise.com
Just returned from one of the most spectacular adventures we've been on as a family: our five-night, six-day escursion to the paradise known as Guatemala.
We booked our trip through Expeditions Guatemala, and went on blind faith. We didn't really know much about the company except what we had read on Trip Advisor. And I had exchanged a bunch of emails with the owner, Hugo Suarez.
It was the best decision ever. Here's a run-down of our trip:
Guatemala City: The Barcelo Hotel, street performers and Wayne Gretzky (say whaaaat??)
We started our adventure landing in Guatemala City (direct flight from Panama City is about two hours). The first thing we noticed upon landing was how cool it was - a big change from steamy Panama! That's because the city is some 5,000 feet above sea level. Hugo had booked us into the Barcelo Hotel - and it was amazing! It reminded me of the Royal York in Toronto - had that same feel to it. It had restaurants - including a sushi place and a sports bar - a full spa, giant heated pool and even a basketball/volleyball/soccer court!
After checking in, the first thing we did was take a taxi to Zone 1 - the historic district. You don't want to walk around the city if you're unfamiliar with it. In Zone 1, you'll find a giant square with a fountain, gardens and surrounded by historic buildings. We walked the busy streets to seek out a bite to eat. It was packed with Guatemalans (no other gringos in sight!) and even some street performers. Very lively atmosphere. After some yummy appies and Guatemalan beer - called Dorado - we took a few pics and headed back to our hotel.
We had some fun shooting some hoops and then went for a dip in the warm pool before heading to the sports bar for dinner. There we found a surprise: a New York Rangers jersey signed by Wayne Gretzky! Trust me when I say Guatemalans have no clue who Gretzky is.
But that's about as much of Guatemala City as you would want. After a good night's sleep, we were ready to begin our cross-country adventure. Hugo picked us at 9 a.m. right at the hotel in his "Expeditions Guatemala" 4X4. And off we went!
DAY 1 - Purulha: Ram Tzul, the Spirit of the Mountain. Oh, and a stuffed quetzel....
Hugo drove for about three hours into the mountains before we stopped for lunch in a teeny town called Purulha. I had a traditional Guatemalan lunch: Kak-ik. Kak-ik is chicken soup, served with rice and corn tamalitos. It was delicious.
After lunch, we checked in to our accommodation for the night, a place called Ram Tzul.
One word sums up Ram Tzul: WOW.
It had the feel of a yoga retreat - quiet, serene, lots of wood, bamboo, orchids and fountains. There was even pan flute music playing when we walked in! Someone brought our luggage to our cabina - and it was gorgeous. Big picture windows with views of the mountains. No TV! No internet! HEAVEN!
After a quick change of clothes, we were off again. Ten minutes later, we were on a mountain trail in the national Quetzel Reserve.
The quetzel is Guatemala's national bird. It is stunningly beautiful - comes in fluorescent green and red. Unfortunately, this is not the time of year for the quetzel. During the dry season, they migrate elsewhere in search of food. We did manage to see a stuffed quetzel that they keep on site, but that was about it for wildlife on our first day. But still, the hike was beautiful - three hours of lush jungle, incredible mountain views and a majestic waterfall.
By dusk, we were headed back to Ram Tzul for dinner - and it was COLD! We had to put on all our warm clothes that had gone untouched since our move to Panama. We arrived in the dining room to the most delightful surprise: a campfire pit, surrounded by a comfy sofa, right inside the restaurant! We were able to eat our delicious dinner in cozy warmth. It was pure heaven after our invigorating trek up the mountain.
After a couple of cold cerveza - this time Gallo (means rooster) - we called it a night. Hugo had warned us that the next day was going to be a long one, so we packed it in early. But we didn't want to leave Ram Tzul!
DAY 2 - River tubing, bat caves and the INCREDIBLE Semuc Champay
We were up and on the road before dawn the next morning. We were greeted by an eerie mountain fog that was just so beautiful. But, as the the thermometer in the SUV indicated - it was only five degrees celsius.
We stopped in the town of Coban for breakfast at this amazing old restaurant before continuing on the drive to the small outpost town of Lanquin, put our swimsuits on and boarded the back of a rickety old pick-up truck for a quick drive down to the Lanquin River, armed with inner tubes.
I was the first to take the plunge - and it was FREEZING! But our bodies quickly adjusted. What ensued was a fun half-hour coast down river in our inner tubes. Angus was thrilled. There was a slight current, and a couple of small rapids to go through. Great fun!
Then it was back into the 4X4 for another drive to Semuc Champey.
Semuc Champey is a national monument consisting of a natural 300-metre limestone bridge, under which passes the Cahabón River. Atop the bridge is a series of stepped, turquoise pools, a popular swimming attraction. Although it can be difficult to get to, Semuc is becoming more and more popular with travelers.
And one can see why. It is, like, WOW.
From Lanquin it is about a 30-minute drive to the entrance of the park - the drive is very difficult due to it being a mountain pass and a dirt road full of potholes. After a 10-minute hike in, you are at the bottom of the natural pools. There are waterfalls. It is, of course, beautiful.
However, that is but a taste of what's to come.
At the base of the pools is a trail that meanders up through the jungle to an observation deck. Hugo explained that we would be taking a "shortcut" that would shave about 15 minutes off our hike.
We had no idea what we were in for. This shortcut was STRAIGHT UP. It was more of a climb than a hike. It was gruelling, and as Angus and I puffed and panted our way up, up, up, we kept saying "This better be worth it."
Well, it was. When we got to the top, we were standing some 1,400 feet up from where we started!! Think about that - the CN Tower is just over 1,800 feet. That's how high we were. (In the photo above, the little ants you see in the pools below are people - that should give you a sense of how high we are). The view was quite literally jaw-dropping. In all of my travels, I don't recall anything quite so spectacular.
After ooohing and aaaahing for a bit, we headed back down and washed our dirty sweat off in the cool blue-green pools below while Hugo prepared us a scrumptious lunch of chicken wraps. One of the cool things was that you can swim from pool to pool by sliding down the rocky paths connecting the pools, or by simply jumping from the upper ledge to the pool below.
But our day wasn't over - not even close.
Back into the SUV we went, back to Lanquin to relax with a cold cerveza by the river at El Retiro lodge. Then it was off to the bat cave, Batman!
Hugo was very excited to take us to the caves. It is one of his favourite places in Guatemala. Angus, on the other hand - well, not so much. As soon as we entered the cave, he was a little freaked out. When Hugo ventured off the beaten path to take us down, down, down to an underground pool, he was less than thrilled.
Once at the pool, Hugo lit a bunch of candles. The water was freezing, but Chris and Hugo ventured in (I only wet my feet, while Angus stayed dry on a nearby rock). It was so peaceful. The candlelight reflected off the limestone. It was a beautiful moment, and easy to understand why Hugo loves it there.
Just as dusk was arriving, we ventured back up to the surface and sat at the entrance to the cave to wait for the bats. This was the biggest bat's nest in all of Guatemala. We sat for about an hour and watched as thousands and thousands of bats flew out. We tried to video it here.
The entire thing was an incredible experience - although very difficult to photograph! (We made a lame attempt at left to capture the candle-lit pool).
It was late by the time we arrived at our hotel back in Coban, and we were exhausted. A quick bite to eat and a cerveza and we were done!
On to day 3......
DAY 3 - El Ceibal: the Coban market, Mayan ruins and ANNOYING SPEED BUMPS
Before getting back on the road again the next morning, Hugo took us for a venture into the HUGE Coban marketplace. What a zoo!! It was really interesting to see the entire economy of the city hard at work in this place. An ecclectice mix of stuff for sale - fresh produce, live turkeys, different types of meat (not sitting in ice or coolers), spices, etc.
Then it was back into the 4X4 for our three-and-a-half hour drive north to the site of some Mayan ruins known as El Ceibal.
This was the one part of our trip that, were we to do it over again, we would change. Why? Not because the ruins weren't amazing, but because of the drive. Specifically, because of the "tumulos" - speed bumps. In Guatemala's Mayan regions, every single little town and hamlet you drive through has speed bumps. So what should take you an hour will probably take you two hours because of all the stopping and starting required as you venture over the speed bumps.
By the end of the day we had endured more than 6 hours of speed bumps. Try to wrap your head around that. I thought Angus was going to explode by the end of the trip.
Anyway, about the ruins.....
What was great was that we were ALL ALONE at the site. We stood atop 1,200-year-old structures with howler monkeys as our only companions. The hike in was riddled with mosquitos, so Hugo carried a pot with smoking coconut seeds. Best bug repellent ever!
As we walked, all you could hear was what sounded like big dogs barking. But it wasn't dogs - it was the howler monkeys! Sitting high above us, but still threatened by us. We had seen howler monkeys before, but this was the first time Chris and Angus had ever heard them howl. It was quite exciting. You can experience some of it in this short video.
We encountered spiders and snakes, birds and iguanas. And then it was time to go. By the time we got back to our hotel in Coban, it was late and dark again, and Angus was so spent that he didn't even want dinner. It had been an exhausting two days.
FINAL DAY - Antigua: The Camino Real Hotel, cobblestoned streets and beautiful tapestries
Coban was still a five-hour drive to our final destination of Antigua. But after the speed-bumporama of the day before, it was like a walk in the park. And when Hugo - who lives in Antigua - pulled up to our hotel, we couldn't believe it. The Camino Real is beyond beautiful.
Antigua is one of the coolest cities we've ever been in. It is a square city - seven blocks by seven blocks - chocked full of old Spanish architecture, much of which was severely damaged by the notorious 1976 earthquake, when some 25,000 Guatemalans lost their lives.
Every street is made of cobblestone, and the number of super-cool shops and restaurants seemed infinite. It was hard to choose where to go for dinner, because every place has its own charm - beautiful inner courtyards, architecture, gardens, etc.
We really wished we could have spent more time there. After a dip in the hotel's huge outdoor jacuzzi pool, we hunkered down again for a good night's sleep - exhausted again, but also utterly exhilerated by our adventure.
Click here for more videos.
So, I've been talking to folks back home about the crazy February winds that have made their annual pilgramage to Panama. LIving in a beachfront condo gives you a front seat to these sometimes hurricane-like gales that blast their way through our living space every day.
But it's hard to really explain wind. You simply have to witness it. So we did this short video that, I hope, will give you an idea of what I'm talking about. Maybe not. Maybe you just have to be here to get the full effect. Anyway, have a look and decide for yourself:
The house is located about a five-minute drive from where we
are now in the town next door called Chame (pronounced CHA-MAY). It is in a gated community called
Villas Campestres del Sol. There are maybe 30 homes in all, but not many full-time
We've already met our new neighbour, Gus. Gus is a very good neighbour to have. English-speaking Panamanian, so he speaks Spanish should we need it, retired, so he's there all the time (good security measure), and very handy, so, we are told, he is the guy to call upon should anything go wrong.
Our landlords, Tom and Carola Mueller from Vancouver, love him. They say he is the best neighbour you could ask for. He has three of the most ADORABLE little dogs I've ever seen. You know those little Yorkshire terriors. They are as sweet as can be. Incredibly, he also has two GIANT cages in his backyard with four macaws and a parrot. I'm not sure where he got them - or if he's legally allowed to have them! - but they are quite amazing. His backyard is an absolutey oasis - you could live there. Inground pool, bohio with bar. He even has his own thatch-covered yoga platform!
Anyway, Villas Campestres also has a gorgeous and huge pool area with a waterfall. Not many people live there, so most of the time we'll have it to ourselves - which will be a nice change!
Finally, we've also been told that there is a Canadian family that lives down the street with five children - including a boy Angus' age. If there's one thing Angus misses, it's having good friends around. There are not a lot of kids his age here, so hopefully he will make a connection with this boy.
Like I said, our condo has been amazing. It's just time for a change of scenery. Oh, and did I mention the house is going to save us money?? Our rent includes our TV, internet and electricity! Click here to see more photos of our new casa.
Peña comes to us from Colombia. He trained at the Gato Dumas Colegio De Cocineros in Barranquilla, Colombia, and has worked in Cartagena, Colombia and Panama City.
For Thai night, he served wonton appetizers filled with crab and served with a sweet chili
sauce. The main course consisted of a chicken skewer on a bed of basmati rice
and lightly coated with a Thai coconut sauce.
A side a grilled vegetables completed the plate. The wontons were scrumptious and the chicken was tender but we all noted that the meal was missing that distinct Thai spiciness.
As is standard at Ranchos, Joe made sure our wine glass was never empty! He filled our glasses all night with some yummy reds from his fabulous wine cellar.
The next night was sushi night. Although we missed it (we had other plans), we are going to try again in the near future. Chef Peña prepares a sushi menu of tempura, langostino (shrimp), tuna and California rolls - with all fish caught fresh that day, of course.
Last night (January 19th), we attended the wine dinner. It was my second, but Chris' first. Although he doesn't even drink wine (and, in fact, is completely on the wagon at the moment), he thoroughly enjoyed the delicious food.
It started with appetizers of gouda cheese melted on pieces of baked baguette and topped with slices of red pepper and prosciutto. It was perfectly accompanied with a Merlot. Then it was on to a cheese and olive platter, with marinated garlic cloves and paired with my favourite wine of the night: a Chilean Carménère. I'd never had a Carménère before - but I certainly will in the future. It was just so smooth.
Our sommelier then pulled out a Chardonnay for the salad course - a warm capri salad. I'm not a big Chardonnay fan - prefer a Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio - but it was still good.
The main course was scrumtious - grilled pepper steak with a creamy mushroom sauce, with crusted smashed potatoes on the side. It's hard to get good steak in Panama, but this was FABULOUS. And, of course, steak is only steak when there's a yummy Cabernet Sauvignon with which to wash it down.
Finally, the dinner was capped off with homemake chocolate cake and a flute of sparkling Rosé wine from Spain.
We were stuffed and I was drunk - perfect!
Joe is really trying to bring something different to this area, and god love 'im for that! With the right marketing and consistency, his place could really take off. We are so committed that I have offered my services to help him out at his next wine dinner. God knows he's always looking for good staff to help out.
Bocas del Toro has some big hype around it here in Panama.
Everyone talks about it. An archipelago of around 200 small islands,
Bocas del Toro is known as a cool backpacker haven. Based on what we'd heard,
our expectations were high.
We were staying at a place called the Buccaneer Resort on one of the islands. Getting there was all part of the adventure.
First we had to get to a port town on the mainland called Almirante. That was about a 3-1/2 hour drive from Las Lajas through the Chiriqui mountains. Stunning scenery.
Once in Almirante, we had to figure out where the ferry was - or, more specifically, where to catch a water taxi. You can take a car ferry to the main island of Colon, or you can catch a water taxi. Since we were going to be crossing the border into Costa Rica later in the week, and bringing your vehicle over is waaaay too much of a hassle, we needed to leave our good ol' Rexie behind in Almirante.
In typical Panamanian fashion, signage was non-existent. There is no way of knowing where you can park your car, where the ferry is, where to catch a water taxi. We drove around like blind idiots for about 10 minutes - until we noticed these guys riding around on bicycles flagging down cars.
From there, Miguel took us to the most popular beach in all
of Bocas - Red Frog Beach.
We paid $3 apiece to get in and stood there wondering what the big deal was. It
was nice enough, but VERY crowded and completely unswimmable! The water was
very, VERY rough.
So, we turned around and went back to our boat and headed back to town.
Like I said, it was nice to be out on the water for the afternoon and check out the area, but we couldn't help but feel a little ripped off.
When we got back to town, we realized we had to book our shuttle to Costa Rica. Many companies in Bocas offer this service to Puerto Viejo, where we were going. Backpackers flock there too. So for as little as $25 a person, they take you by water taxi back to Almirante, by bus to the border, then by another bus to your accommodation in Puerto Viejo.
On our last night in Bocas, we abandoned the Buccaneer for something more luxurious and closer to where we had to catch the early-morning taxi to Costa Rica. The Tropical Suites in Bocas Town was expensive but worth every penny - we slept like babies!
At 8:30 the next morning, we were back in the water taxi to start our journey to Costa Rica. Everything went smoothly until we arrived at the border about 90 minutes later. There was a HUGE lineup to get out of Panama and, in typical Panamanian fashion, only ONE kiosk open.
We melted in the scorching sun for about an hour before finally getting through. NOT FUN. We grabbed our bags and lugged them across this rickety old wooden bridge into Costa Rica. It was quite hilarious, really.
Thinking we were in the clear, imagine our dismay when we got to the other side of the bridge and found an even BIGGER line-up to get into Costa Rica. Another hour of nearly unbearable heat - and loads of whining from Angus - and we were officially in Costa Rica.
Back in the bus, we settled in for the half-hour ride to Puerto Veijo. And when the bus pulled into our resort, we breathed a big sigh of relief - it was gorgeous!
La Costa de Papito
Thankfully, by the time we were scheduled to leave Costa Rica
three days later, the boys were well enough to travel. I couldn't stop thinking
about those border line-ups and what a nightmare it could have been if they
were still sick!
This time, we hired our own taxi to take us to the border (it ended up costing the same and was more convenient). We were crossing our fingers that, because it was early morning, the line-ups would be lighter.
Getting out of Costa Rica wasn't too bad - we waited maybe a half-hour. But our hearts dropped when we got to the other side - there must have been almost 200 people lined up at ONE kiosk.
Even if every one of those travellers managed to get through the process in just one minute - and it NEVER just takes one minute (this is Panama, remember??) - well, you do the math. We were facing two, maybe three hours in line. Again, in the scorching sun.
By this time, Chris had had enough. Leaving us in line with our luggage, off he went in search of someone to bribe.
Slipping a $20 to an official - whether police or government - is as commonplace as long line-ups in Panama. There's not a gringo who lives here who hasn't done it. It's funny to think you get used to a system like that, but you do. You get pulled over for speeding? Just slip the cop a $20. In fact, there's a good chance he will outright ASK you for $20. If he/she is not into that sort of thing, they will simply say "no thanks" and do their duty. In other words, no one gets into trouble for it.
Anyway, a few minutes later Chris returned to us in line and said "Come with me." We followed him into an office where two officials sat before computers. WIthin five minutes, our passports were stamped and we were on our way!
Turns out, Chris simply said to the guy "Mi hijo - mal," while rubbing his stomach. He simply said "My son - sick." And the guy told him to come get us.
Hope everyone had a great Christmas!
Our first Christmas in the tropics was a success, as you can see from Angus' big smile. He was pretty excited about getting his first cell phone, as well as oodles of gift cards to buy more video games (ugh!)
We had a quiet day at home Christmas Day, then late in the day we headed over to our friend's place, Lee & Tim and their son Angus' age, Gavin, for some appies and drinks. Then we all piled into the golf carts and headed over to Coronado Bay tower for a Christmas party - expat style.
Coronado Bay is beautiful - has a rooftop pool that is quite spectacular, and offers the most stunning ocean views 23 stories up (see below). So the kids swam, the grown-ups ate and drank, and everyone was quite happy!
Next up: New Year's Eve! The festivities just keep on going around here.....
Isn't that amazing?
So Chris went over and met him and invited him over for dinner last night. The poor guy has not had an easy time of it. His bus has broken down many times since Chile, but this latest breakdown is the worst. He's now been stuck here in Gorgona for more than a week and has no idea when he'll get out.
But he's determined to give it his all. He figures after everything he's been through since Chile, there's no way he's going to give up now! Even if he can't get the bus going again, he is determined to make it to Alaska somehow.
What an adventure!
But living in a broken down bus in someone's messy yard in Gorgona (it's actually a car repair shop, but it's pretty run down) is tough. He's been living off beans and toast, bathing in the ocean (!) and sweating over his vehicle all day long. He and Alaska came to our place last night and the very first thing he wanted - even before a beer - was a shower!
He was so nice and polite that he didn't even want to use the towel I gave him because he was afraid he still had a lot of oil and grease on him. So he brought his own dirty towel! He was incredibly sweet. Angus particularly took a shining to him. And, of course, he LOVED Alaska, who was also very, very sweet and well-behaved.
I fed the poor guy coconut chicken, grilled vegetables and cold pasta salad, and I'm pretty sure it was the best meal he's had in quite some time! We'll see how long he sticks around. With Christmas only six days away, I'm prepared to invite him over if he's still here - poor guy!
But just think of the stories he'll have to tell his kids. And that's what it's all about, right?
When most people dream of Panama they usually picture themselves sitting on the beach sipping a marguerita, or they may see themselves trekking through the rainforests in the mountains. Well, there’s a whole other landscape in the country that you may not have thought of: cattle ranching and farming.
That’s sort of how we ended up at Rancho
Los Toros. Yes, “rancho” means ranch, although this particular rancho doesn't raise cattle or horses.
Set in the sprawling lowlands about 10 kilometres
from the ocean, this is a new hostel/hotel, restaurant/bar about 20 minutes from Gorgona. It is surrounded by rolling fields, towering green trees
and a winding river, which runs through the property. What’s very cool is that you can see the
volcano of El Valle off in the distance.
Something a bit different from what we’re used to in Panama, which is one reason we wanted to go visit.
To make it even more interesting and fun,
we happened to be going the same night as the owners of our favourite hangout
(Locos Backyard Grill), David and Stephanie, who happen to have become our good
friends. So, a little carpooling, and
now the good ol’ Rexton was filled with the five of us.
After a meet-and-greet with Joe Wilmoth,
Rancho’s owner, we checked in and immediately ended up at the pool, where we
ran into Isabelle and Sean, who were vacationing and staying at the hostel part
of the ranch.
And guess where Isabelle and Sean are from? Yep, Ottawa (Gatineau to be precise). Sean works at RCMP headquarters, and if I were still at OC Transpo, we’d be working about one kilometre from each other. Isabelle owns a B&B in Hull, right across from the Museum of Civilization, called Auberge un pied à terre.
The thing you have to understand about Rancho Los Toros is that it is very new. Only been open about a month, and he’s still working on the marketing and promotion side of things. What this means is that although local expats know about it – because of its dining room and wine tastings (I’ll get to that later) – it remains pretty unknown by tourists at this point.
The only way Isabelle and Sean found out about it is because Sean went for a surf lesson at the Panama Surf School at El Palmar beach, about 10 minutes away. The school’s owner, Flor (who just happens to run Angus’ weekly soccer group), told him about this great hostel just up the road.
They came for a night, and ended up staying for a week. That should tell you how nice it is.
For $25 per person per night, you can get a really nice room in the hostel. They were the only ones there, so they had the whole place to themselves. It is quite possibly one of the nicest hostels I’ve ever seen. Lots of clean bathrooms, outdoor grill, a huge common area and even a small library.
On the other side of the property is where
the inn and pool are located. (Hostel guests can use the pool) That’s where we
decided to stay because we had a king bed and bunk beds, large screen TV, AC
and a really nice bathroom.
Let’s just say we like our creature
After frolicking about in the pool for awhile – and after a few bevvies – Joe called us to dinner.
Joe is definitely the best thing about this place. A big bear of a man with an easy smile and sunny disposition, he is chef, chauffeur, tour guide and sommelier all rolled into one.
Oh, did I mention Joe has an amazing wine
cellar?? Doesn’t really excite me, ‘cause I don’t drink wine. But Jacki was
practically drooling when she saw it.
This place has become known locally for its
monthly gourmet wine tastings. For $40 a
person, Joe pulls out five different vintages to go with five different courses
for a fantastic wine-tasting experience.
Since I don’t drink wine, Jacki is likely going to the one this weekend with her friend, Lee, a fellow Canadian wine lush.
Joe’s approach to his restaurant is unique.
He doesn’t have a set menu, but, rather, decides on his menu each morning based
on how many guests he has.
We were nine for dinner and, with the help of Stephanie (who is a great cook in her own right), we were served a scrumptious multi-course dinner with a different wine for each course: olives and cheese as an appy, followed by a yummy cabbage-feta salad, steak, grilled veggies and Russian potato salad as an entrée, and some chocolate truffles for dessert.
It was fantastic. We lost count of how many
bottles of red wine he opened. David and I stayed away from the vino, but
everyone else had black teeth by the end of the night.
Joe regaled us with his stories, giving us a complete history of the hotel (he’s been working on it for five years). His bar has a big screen TV for Superbowl parties and the like, and he has some big plans for the property, including a housing development, a “River Club,” a mountain biking trail – his list of ideas seemed endless.
But for now, Joe is doing what Joe does
best: entertaining his guests and catering to their every whim. We even learned
from Sean that Joe had been giving them rides into town to buy groceries or to
do some surfing.
With all that wine flowing, and beers for
those of us not so keen on the vino rojo, it turned into a long night (in a
Morning came too early, but we all dragged
our hungover butts to the dining room and were met with a tasty breakfast with
all the North American staples, including bacon. We hung out around the pool until after noon
– Joe told us not to worry about a check-out time.
Our first thought as we were getting ready to leave was that we should have booked for two nights. At some point we’ll get back to the ranch. I’m thinking their Super Bowl party is going to be pretty sweet.
I'm wishing I had thought to pack just a bit of our Christmas decorations in my suitcase. Panama is fully into the holiday season - the stores are jammed full of Yuletide madness. Here is my first purchase to try and bring some Christmas to our condo. That will be Angus' stocking.
Next up will be a tree. I'm told they sell real trees in Coronado - imported from Nova Scotia! I'm waiting to see how much they are before fully committing to a purchase....
One of the great things about where we live is that there are a number of day trips that are a relatively easy drive away. One of the trips we’ve been waiting to do was an adventure into the Gamboa rainforest.
With family visiting from Canada – Jacki’s sister Jayna and her cousin Michele – we figured now was as good a time as any.
Gamboa is a very small town north of Panama City, and sits along the Panama Canal near the entrance to Gatun Lake (the Canal goes through Gatun Lake). Originally, the town was used to house canal workers, but the only real activity there now is tourism.
There are a myriad of tour operators in the area, but we chose to go with the Gamboa Rainforest Resort for one reason – the aerial tram.
With Google Map printouts, bug spray, sun screen and rain coats in hand, we were off - the drive in our air-conditioned SUV to the resort took approximately 75 minutes (lots of signage helped us once we were off the main highway).
At the resort where we had to check in, it was beautiful. Looked to be about a three- or four-star resort.
When we got out of the car at about 8:45 a.m., the stifling heat hit us like a wall. It was really humid this day.
We had basically guaranteed Jayna and Michele that it would rain, and in fact we told them “it will probably pour down like the apocalypse.”
Umm, well, it didn’t rain a drop all day, and the sun beat down like it hated us. I digress…
As I said, the resort is pretty grandiose and has a very welcoming character about it. It sits on a hilltop overlooking the Chagres River and Panama Canal; huge windows and beautiful outside patios provide visitors and guests a great view of the area.
After checking in, coating ourselves with bug spray and sun screen, and making sure we had some water, we were off on a shuttle bus taking us to our first adventure of the day – the aerial tram.
We didn’t realize beforehand that Michele, prior to this excursion, was terrified of aerial trams. She apparently had a bad experience at the Calgary Stampede and, well, kudos to her for being a trooper and trying it again.
This tram was really, really safe. It was like an open-air cage, really. It traversed up the side of a mountain, over the top of the lush green jungle (knocking branches of trees as you go), and finally settling at a lookout tower 1.2 kilometres from where we started.
We certainly never felt unsafe – not in the least – but, still, it was not for the faint of heart. It is very high, stops and starts, and is a bit wobbly.
You quickly get over any uneasiness once the tram starts rolling and your senses take over. The view is spectacular on the way up, and only gets better when you debark and climb the 10-story observation deck to the top.
Once there, we could clearly see the Panama Canal, an indigenous Embera village along the Chagres River, and miles upon miles of dense jungle foliage. And we could hear howler monkeys somewhere off in the distance.
Jacki’s only complaint was that it was too short – the entire tram ride and hike up the observation deck took less than an hour. (And at $53 per person, some might argue it was wildly over-priced).
Still, we really, really enjoyed it.
After the tram, we were taken on a tour of the resort’s ecological facilities – an aquarium of fish, crocodiles and turtles, reptiles (thank God that building was air conditioned), and orchid garden and a butterfly farm.
All in all, pretty cool, but there was one thing missing that we had been really looking forward to – animals in the wild.
Fortunately, we also booked the Gatun Lake boat tour.
With the first part of the day over, and our bodies craving some shade, we headed back to the resort for some lunch. We sat on one of those patios overlooking the Chagres River and enjoyed a good buffet meal (of course Angus skipped the buffet and had pizza). The food was delicious, and the view to die for.
With some food, water and cervezas in our stomachs, along with an hour in the shade, we were ready for part two, which was the Gatun Lake expedition.
This expedition was the highlight of the trip for us. There were 12 people in the small boat, including a couple from Holland, the tour guide and driver. We were immediately taken under a small bridge and – voila – there we were on the Panama Canal!
How many people can actually say they were ON the Panama Canal?
We cruised right past two huge cargo ships traveling from the Caribbean side of the Canal to the Pacific side – and this was just the start of the amazing things we would encounter.
Within the first ten minutes out on the water our driver spotted something on the shore – how he saw it from 100 yards away in a speeding boat is beyond me.
He turned the boat around and began creeping closer to shore. He and the guide pointed – there, along the shore, was one of the biggest crocodile they had ever seen on Gatun Lake.
We crept closer and closer until we were only about 20 feet away. The big croc yawned a few times to show its teeth but didn’t seem too concerned with us. We knew we were seeing something special because the tour guide was excited and the driver was taking his own pictures!
It’s safe to say that this was a great start to the
trip. Once we said goodbye to Mr. Croc
we began winding ourselves through a number of small tributaries that branch
out from the lake. It was along these
rivers, with the lush jungle towering above us, that we had to have our eyes
and ears wide open.
It wasn’t long before we saw our first capuchin monkey in the wild – amazing. He came down from on high in the tree to check out our boat. He stared at us, we snapped our cameras.
Over the course of the next hours, we also had close encounters with howler monkeys (two different packs), turtles, snakes, more crocs (smaller ones) and a number of beautiful birds. We didn’t seem to go more than five minutes without seeing something.
The funny part is that it was so hot that every time we stopped to look at an animal everyone just starting sweating – with no breeze and sitting out in the sun it was probably 100 degrees. It got to the point where we didn’t want to stop and see any more animals – just keep the boat moving!
Returning to the resort we realized we’d had a pretty good day. Not many people can say they traveled on the Panama Canal, came close to a large crocodile and flew along the jungle top in a tram. Our guests were mightily pleased.
And, to top things off, we were back to our condo by 4:30pm – all in a day’s work.
We've been past the historic Panama Canal a few times, and we've seen it from the bridge before, but never stopped to really have a close look.
So, since I have Fridays off from school, my dad and I decided to go check out one of the Panama Canal locks called Miraflores. These locks are on the Pacific side of the Canal just on the outskirts of Panama City. It took us about 1 hour and 15 minutes to drive from our condo building in Gorgona.
When we got there, there was a ticket booth, so me and my dad got our tickets, which included a pass to the museum, the theatre and the observatory deck.
First, we went to the museum, which had four floors. The first floor was all about how they built the Canal and how the French started it and then the Americans finished it. On floor two there was all the boats and trains that were used to build the Canal. Floor three had all the fish and bugs that were near the Canal (dragonflies, mosquitos, cockroaches, etc.). Floor four was about the expansion of the Canal.
Next we went to the observatory deck until the English movie was ready to be shown. There wasn't much to see at this point because there were no ships yet.
About three minutes later we went to the theatre to watch the movie, which was only 10 minutes long and was about the construction of the Canal. At the end of the movie the host in the theatre said that there was a big U.S. navy ship coming, so my dad and I went to the observatory deck and waited about 45 minutes for the boat to arrive.
While we waited we went to the snack bar and had lunch. We had hotdogs. After we waited for a while, we noticed that a big grey ship was approaching. Turns out it was a giant U.S. navy ship that was going to go through the locks.
When the Navy ship got there it took about 15 minutes for it to get through the locks. We were very close to the ship and could see the sailors standing on the deck. Some of them waved at all the people watching them. We also had a good view of the locks moving, which meant we could see the doors opening and the water rising/descending.
This was the highlight of the trip because it was cool and we could actually see how everything worked. After the big navy ship went through we decided to go home because it was very hot.
I thought it was a lot of fun. I found it interesting. I want to take my Canadian friends, Max and Cohen, there when they come to visit next March.
And that was our adventure to the Panama Canal. You can view more pics here.
A trip to the San Blas Islands was pretty high on our list of "places to visit."
We had met Chris and Lita Huber at Angus’ school (their kids used to go there) and they first told us about this place and how amazing it is. They own a charter company called Yacht Latina that organizes trips out to the islands via yachts - yes, I said YACHT!
After many discussions with others who had taken the tour, we decided we couldn’t resist. So Lita planned our two-night, two-and-a-half-day trip for us (Nov. 2-4). She hired the drivers to take us from Gorgona out to the yacht, and put us in touch via email with our captain and his wife aboard the Blue Sky, a 52-ft. sailboat.
People generally go for a minimum of three nights – up to a week – and many folks fly to the region from Panama City. But that can get quite pricey, so we chose a lesser trip and we took ground transport. Big mistake on that last point.
The drive was nothing short of brutal. Up at 3:30 a.m. for our first driver, Castillo, who took us to the Albrook Mall in Panama City. At 6 a.m., our second driver – a Kuna Indian named Tito – showed up in his 4X4 for the three-hour drive to the Caribbean port of Carti, where we would catch a boat to take us to our yacht.
His part of the journey was horrible. In order to get to San Blas, you have to traverse over the San Blas mountains. This involves a couple of hours of winding bumpy roads – and Tito was a really fast driver.
Picture yourself on an old wooden roller coaster for about 80 minutes. Jacki, Angus and I were both nauseous to the point of almost being sick. We should have taken that Dramamine as someone had suggested.
Next time – if there is a next time – we will definitely fly. Air Panama offers daily 30-minute flights from Panama City – bada-boom, bada-bing.
The drive did provide us with our first contact with the Kuna. They have a checkpoint about two-thirds of the way through the mountains. At this point we paid $6 each to enter the area, and in return they provided us with a paper pass. They didn't check our passports or luggage but we were told sometimes they do. Tito is Kuna and seemed to know everyone at the checkpoint, so that probably helped.
Once we reached the Carti port – not really a port, so much as a strip of beach with a couple of docks – our next leg of the journey was to take a boat taxi to our yacht. Tito was all over it. We didn’t have to worry about a thing. Our cargo – luggage, backpacks, a box of food – was loaded on one of the “launchas,” which are elongated wooden or aluminum motor boats, and off we went. We only waited about 15 minutes, which was nice.
We can honestly say that the guys helping us (going there and back) were awesome and always made sure we made our next connection. That was made even more difficult because this particular weekend was a national holiday in Panama, which meant that the boat launch was very chaotic and crowded.
As we sat back for the ride, we were immediately awed by our surroundings. It was like a postcard from Tahiti or some other exotic South Pacific region – warm blue-green crystal-clear water, small white-sand islets scattered about, thatched huts perched on their shores.
It was unbelievable.
The launcha took about 45 minutes to get us to the Blue Sky, which was moored just off an island called Elifante. Captain Ken “Breeze” Filina and his wife, Debbie, scrambled to greet us. What was particularly cool about this trip is that we had a boat all to ourselves – just Jacki, Angus and I, plus Breeze & Debbie. Most other charters take four or more people. This was going to be awesome.
We climbed aboard and were warmly greeted by the couple, who are Florida natives that have been living in San Blas for the last six years. They have actually lived full time at sea for more than 25 years – their son, Josh, now 28, was raised at sea. (He now attends university, getting his Master’s Degree in Marine Biology).
from the moment we stepped on deck, Breeze and Debbie were amazing, catering to
our every need and doing everything possible to entertain us.
Breeze gave us a quick tour of their home – a 52-ft. cutter rigged pilot house
ketch (umm, that's fancy talk for big boat) – and laid out some basic safety
instructions, we could hardly believe we were here. Finally. It was
only 10:30 a.m. – seven hours since we had started our journey – and it already
felt like we had been travelling for two days. We were sweltering, starving and
exhausted – beyond exhausted – but also exhilerated. Even
Angus could barely contain his excitement. It was just so different from
anything he had experienced before.
After a quick lunch and a refreshing Balboa (Panamanian) beer, we sat back on deck and relaxed in the sun while Breeze and Debbie got Blue Sky ready to move. This, you see, was only our starting point – how exciting is that??
They pulled the anchor and started up the motor (the almost non-existent winds meant no sailing our first day). As we cruised along, we took in the stunning scenery.
The San Blas islands dot the turquoise blue waters of the Caribbean side of eastern Panama (towards Columbia). The 350+ islands are officially governed by the Kuna Yala tribe, the indigenous natives of the area.
Island after island was alive with palm trees and sandy beaches, surrounded by blue, green and turquoise waters. Large pelicans and gulls floated overhead, waiting to dive into the ocean for lunch. Some of the islands were deserted, a few had thatched-roofed huts and a handful of the bigger islands had rustic thatched-roofed homes and small cantinas.
We could see tents dotting some of the islands – these are where the foreign backpackers and vacationing Panamanians camp.
And, of course, there are the yachts. Sailboats and catamarans – some of them HUGE. I wouldn’t say there were a ton of them – it’s not like we felt crowded – but by the time we reached our destination at the series of islets called the West Lemmon Cays, we could spot probably a dozen beautiful sailboats, some near, some far, and from all over the world: the U.S., Switzerland, Montreal, Panama.
We anchored off the shore of an island called Tia Dup, and the very first thing we did was the main thing we came here to do: go snorkeling.
Our first excursion was around a “manmade reef,” as Breeze called it – a shipwreck.
It had grounded on the shallow rocks close to a small island called Dog Island. The boat had turned into a coral reef literally bursting with sea life – lots of bright red and orange coral, and of course, more bright tropical fish than you could imagine.
Our second excursion was in the East Lemmon Cays, another 20 minutes out. After anchoring near two islands, Bana Dup, where there was a campground, and Nuinu Dup, where a native Kuna family lived, we were back in the dinghy again being motored to a spot that seemed to be in the middle of nowhere.
We anchored, geared up and jumped in the water to find a HUGE reef. It took us about three hours to span the entire thing. It was just amazing.
Breeze and Debbie were always on hand to educate us about what we were seeing. They even had books on board that we would examine afterwards to see which fish we had seen that day. And, as experienced divers, they were able to spot things better than us, like the lobster hiding in the rocks.
Angus has turned into quite the little snorkel king. The first day, he wouldn’t even wear the fins – just the snorkel and mask. But Debbie managed to convince him on the second day to try them. What a difference it made. Now he was able to dive under with his mask and snorkel on (after a quick tutorial from Debbie, that is).
At one point, they waved at us and told us to “watch” him underwater. We watched as Angus, with Debbie’s glove on, dived downwards to the reef – probably a good 10 feet – and touched one of the sea creatures attached to the coral. As he did so, the creature folded up and disappeared – cool! We were quite impressed with Angus’ snorkeling prowess. He just shrugged modestly, as though he had done it a thousand times.
The snorkeling was definitely the highlight of our trip, but there were other cool things on the agenda.
Breeze and Debbie knew many of the Kuna people. Kuna families are required to live on certain islands for three-month periods to keep the islands occupied, and in some cases, ensure that economic opportunities are addressed – some islands have camping and cantinas, most have touristy items for sale, etc.
On Saturday, we were able to take the dinghy to one of the small islands to visit a Kuna family. The family seemed to consist of two men, three women and a few kids. They lived in very basic huts with no power and collected rain water in barrels for drinking.
Funny thing is that one of the women gave Breeze a cell phone to charge on his boat – they paddled out in a dugout canoe later in the day to pick it up.
We were allowed to take a quick tour of the huts and, after making sure they didn’t mind, we took some pictures. We also bought a few little trinkets – beaded bracelets, a miniature wooden boat
The Kuna people are very poor, and it was quite the contrast to see this family on this small island right next to these luxury yachts.
Another quick trip in the dinghy took us to another island where a campsite and cantina were. We just went over for a beer and a quick tour of the island.
It wasn’t until our last day that the winds picked up enough to actually pull out the sail. I took my instruction from Breeze as we hauled ropes and turned cranks, and eventually we were underway.
We took about 45 minutes to sail back to Elifante, which was where our launcha was picking us up later in the afternoon. Once anchored, we just did more swimming, snorkeling and just relaxing on deck until it was time to leave.
In the evenings, we really enjoyed Blue Sky. Debbie and Breeze had all the comforts of home on board.
Jacki and I had a cabin and bathroom ("head," in sailor talk) all to ourselves, which was located at the bow of the boat. Angus slept on a couch that morphed into a bed, which was inside the main cabin area, where there was a small living room with stereo, computer, desk and a deep freeze where we kept our own food and drinks. Breeze and Debbie had a separate cabin and head at the stern.
Debbie cooked us delicious meals in her galley kitchen – barbeque chicken, fish tacos, banana pancakes and Angus' favourite, grilled cheese. We never went hungry.
Breeze always had the music going and it always seemed to fit the mood. A little Jimmy Buffet, some Bob Marley, lots of country rock, and a little bit of Spanish thrown in.
Speaking of Breeze, what fun he was. Jacki declared he was one of the sweetest people she’d ever met. He was like a big kid – he even pulled out a big box of Lego for Angus that had been his son’s collection from years ago, and proceeded to spend about two hours building stuff with Angus. It was hilarious to listen to them.
He also pulled out an old Milton Bradley game that none of us had ever heard of – called Pass the Pigs. It was hilarious – you roll these little plastic pigs, and score points depending how they land. Angus thought it was mucho fun.
While they played, Jacki and I would sit on deck, beer in hand, watching the gorgeous sunsets, and then we’d all gather to dine under the stars before packing it in early.
The drive home wasn't nearly as painful, thanks to the Dramamine. Angus and I slept the whole way. So, you ask, was the gruelling trip there worth it? Do we really need to answer that?
Check out all our amazing photos here. Best way is to "View as a Slideshow"
It’s been almost three months since we packed our bags and headed to Panama. One of the things that we had talked extensively about, but had not really planned for, was how we were going to renew our passports.
We’ve been told, and have read many variations of, what is required to renew a tourist visa, but the following is what we’ve been living by:
So, having been here almost three months it was time to renew the driver’s license. The issue is that if you get pulled over by the Policia or you go through a roadblock you need to prove that you have a valid passport and driver’s license (if you’re driving the vehicle).
If you don’t have the valid driver’s license – proven by showing your home country’s license plus the stamp in your passport that is less than 90 days old – you could face a number of penalties.
Maybe the cops just give you a warning; maybe they give you a ticket; maybe they take your car until you get your stamp; or maybe you need to slip them some money to get out of the situation.
Playing it safe, I decided that it was easiest to simply
drive to Costa Rica, cross
the border and return to Panama….all
in the same day.
Leaving at 5 a.m. on Oct. 31, I was fortunate to have some company. Our friends Robin and Josh were also at that 90-day interval so we decided to team up and make a road trip out of it.
The driving itself was uneventful. Straight down the Pan American Highway through Santiago and David – same route we took to Boquete, expect at David we kept going straight instead of heading up into the mountains.
We passed through two checkpoints where we had to show our passports and answer some basic questions. Besides that, not much to report from the road.
The Rexton diesel is working out very well - $60 worth of gas (paid for Josh) for 11+ hours of driving.
The drive to Paso Canoas (the border) took about 5 hours and
45 minutes. We made better time on the
way back clocking in at around 5 hours and 30 minutes. That's nearly 11.5 hours of driving in one day. Yeesh.
The town of Paso Canoas itself is split down the middle by the border, with a kind of “no-man zone” that stretches about 200 yards in between the two border check points.
We parked the car in front of a store along the main street on the Panama side and walked up to the first check point. Thankfully, we had Robin because he had done this before and knew where to go and what needed to be done. Otherwise, I would have been completely lost.
Here’s where things get interesting…..crossing the actual border. The first thing you notice is the chaos and general lack of signage or direction. There are trucks and buses everywhere. People are seemingly walking freely everywhere.
First step was to officially exit Panama. This required us buying a sticker for $1 from a lady who was walking around making sure everyone had one – this gets stuck in your passport. Then we had to line up, fill out a short form (name, passport number, etc.), answer a few questions from the customs agent and get the exit stamp.
We were done in about 10 minutes.
Now that we had exited Panama, we had to walk through the no-man zone and find the Costa Rican entry point. If Robin had not been with us this would have been very difficult – no signage, no one directing people, cars and trucks driving everywhere, shops and vendors open for business, etc. It’s like there is no border.
So, Robin led us about 200 yards away to the lineup to “enter” Costa Rica, which is in a small concrete building hidden from the rest of the area. That required another short form to fill out and a 10-minute wait in line. After a few easy questions – our profession, how long we’ll be in the country – we were officially in Costa Rica.
Exiting Costa Rica required another short form (same as the previous one) and then we shuffled over six feet to the exit line. This was even shorter and took all of five minutes.
So, in the span of about 20 minutes, we’d left Panama, entered Costa Rica, and then exited Costa Rica.
At this point, I’m thinking this is going just a little too smoothly. I never have this kind of luck. I was thinking about how Robin had told us the last time he did this – the computers went down and he stood in line for five hours!
But, not to worry – my luck was about to end. Sort of. We walked back to the Panama side to line up at the entrance kiosk. There were only about 20 people in front of us so we weren’t too worried.
There was only one kiosk open, even though they probably only pay the agents $2 or $3 an hour. Surely they could open another one if they wanted to? To make matters worse truck drivers are allowed to go to the front of the line, and there’s lots of truck drivers.
So there we stood, the clock slowly ticking. Oh, and did I mention that this is Panama and it was sweltering hot?
It was nearing the 90-minute mark and we were feeling pretty miserable at this point – until we saw what happened to the guy in front of us.
The rule to enter Panama is that, if you are on a tourist visa, you must show proof that you are eventually leaving – a plane or bus ticket with a future date on it is the easiest thing to show.
After standing in line for 90 minutes with his wife, this guy did not have a ticket – they refused to let him in.
Robin warned us that this might happen. We made sure we have a copy of our e-ticket to show. But even if you don’t, there is a solution – the man simply walked over and bought a $15 bus ticket to Costa Rica. I’m assuming things were fine for him after that, but I’ll never know for sure.
Now, some cynics might suggest that this is simply a scam to force people to go buy bus tickets at the border that they’ll never use. You may even say that the guys walking around asking if you have a ticket is part of this scam. You may be right.
The other thing we had to do entering Panama is show them proof of money. All this meant was showing the agent that a credit card in our name.
So after “visiting” Costa Rica for about 100 minutes we were now back in Panama. No real hassles, no strip searches, no bribes, just a lot of patience.
If you are prepared, and know what is required of you, there
shouldn’t be any issues.
After another amazing night’s sleep in the Chiriqui Highlands at our casita at Boquete Plantation, our final day began with a visit to the infamous Finca Lerida Coffee Plantation and Boutique Inn. Thankfully, it was located only 500 metres uphill from where we were staying – more than 5,000 feet up.
“Finca” means farm in Spanish. Those who run the place aren’t really sure why the original owner named the place “Lerida,” except that it was named after a town in Spain.
No, the original owner was not from Spain. He was not even Spanish. He was Norwegian.
Anyhoo, a lovely Panamanian woman, Doris Gonzalez, was our guide at Finca Lerida. She gave us a tour of the coffee plantation – complete with a coffee tasting for me! – the gardens and the GORGEOUS rooms they offer.
We visited the original building on the property – Casa Centenario (Centennial House) – built for the owner in 1929. They rent it as a “historic suite.” They have left it as authentic as possible.
Doris also showed us some of the basic rooms – which were not basic at all! Chris and I want to go back and actually spend a night there.
Finca Lerida offers three types of tours: guided bird watching, a coffee tour, and a guided hike up the mountain to a stunning waterfall.
We sooooo wanted to do the latter – we just didn’t have time.
So we wandered the beautiful garden, taking in the rainbow of flower beds and breathtaking views all around.
Now, for those of you who know me, you know how much I love birds. This place is a birder’s paradise – particularly for hummingbirds.
Did you know Panama has some 90 different species of hummingbird? And I swear they were ALL here on this day! They were constantly buzzing around, flitting across your path, but never sitting still long enough to get a really close-up view.
Still, I managed to shoot a couple of not-bad shots of a couple of birds.
Learning about the production of coffee was really cool. We learned that when you pick a coffee bean off the vine, you have to leave the teeny, tiny stem that’s attached to it – otherwise, a new bean will never grow in its place.
I can’t even imagine how time-consuming and meticulous the job of picking must be.
Doris invited me for a coffee tasting. When you go for a tasting, it’s not just a matter of sitting down and sipping a cup of coffee. First you have to smell the grounds of four different types of beans before the water is added, then smell it again after the water is added, then take a teaspoon of each and swish it around your mouth to try and decipher the difference.
I got to sample their famous “geisha” coffee, which sells for a whopping $50 a pound on site!
Yes, I brought some home with me. Chris, the non-coffee drinker, thought I was crazy.
Non-coffee drinkers just. Don’t. Get it.
We capped off our visit with a delicious lunch on the exquisite patio of Finca Lerida’s Monniche Restaurant – with views to die for.
So, an excursion that we expected to take an hour or so ended up taking three hours – and even then, we did not want to leave. Even Angus found the whole experience fun and interesting.
From there we headed to meet up with our realtor friend, Mike, who took us up the mountain on the other side of town to a new golf development.
Mike has partnered with David & Elizabeth Whittington to try and sell lots at the Lucero Golf & Country Club.
The Whittingtons are from Whitby, Ontario! They’ve been here about three years now. David is the sales manager of Lucero, and Elizabeth is the course’s golf pro.
They were long-time members of the Oshawa Golf Club that my late mother was a member of. Small world, huh?
Anyway, we visited their gorgeous Mediterranean-style home right on the course. And this is not just any golf course – it’s enough to make any golf lover drool.
This is a championship golf course, one of the finest in all of Central America. It was designed by J. Michael Poellet, and stretches over 7,200 yards from the black tees – a tough test, to say the least.
Each hole at this par-72 course is unique as it cascades down the mountainside, crests along plateaus, and rides back up into the hills. Panama’s picturesque Baru Volcan is always visible.
At every hole, we were left speechless at the panoramic views. You can see the Pacific Ocean off in the distance, where the Boca Chica islands are visible. You can see Costa Rica!
Chris and Angus wanted to move there. I’m not a golfer, but even I was impressed. How could you not be? Angus was extremely thrilled when David let him drive the golf cart around the parking lot – that was the highlight of the trip for him.
You can witness his skilled driving prowess in the video clip below.
After Lucero, we headed back to our casita to freshen up for dinner, and managed to catch this spectacular pink sunset from our balcony.
Then we headed to Mike’s Global Grill for a casual dinner of Pad Thai for me and sausage-on-a-bun for Chris. It was open mic nite, so there was a band playing during dinner.
Poor Angus was spent. He was so tired, he couldn’t eat – heck, he couldn’t even sit up. He sat at our table with his head on his hands as we quickly gobbled up our meal so we could get him home to bed.
Then we all slept like a log again before heading home the next day.
What a beautiful place……click here for more photos of our last day in Boquete.
After an amazing night’s sleep in the Chiriqui Highlands at our casita at Boquete Plantation, our first order of business on Day 2 was a visit to the international school in Boquete.
But first: the bug.
Yes, the bug. The giant beetle thingee that greeted us in the kitchen. I thought Angus was going to have a heart attack. He could barely look at it.
After snapping a quick pic, I scooped it up with a cup and freed it outside. Yuck.
But on to the school.
We were curious to compare it to Angus’ school here in Gorgona.
The Boquete International School is much larger – 160 students – and, unlike our school, it followed the Panamanian school year (February to November) and the Panamaniam curriculum.
It was a nice building that is about to get nicer – they’re undergoing a HUGE expansion that will take it from a one-building school to a multi-service compound, complete with indoor pool and gymnasium.
Who said Boquete was just for retirees??
For lunch, we hit up a place our realtor friend, Mike, had suggested – called Sugar & Spice.
It was a small, cute little eatery owned by an American graduate of the pastry arts at CIA – that’s the Culinary Institute of America in NYC.
This reminded me of the kind of bakery you’d see in Westboro in Ottawa. Very trendy-looking, but not just a pretty face. The food is TO DIE FOR.
A half dozen different kinds of specialty breads baked daily; red velvet cake; French coconut and walnut cranberry pie; traditional New York-style cheese cake with a chocolate crust.
And the absolute best sandwiches you could imagine at non-Westboro prices ($4).
We then did a little walk-about in Boquete. It’s a bustling little town, and quite noisy for such a small place.
One thing about Panamanians: they like to make NOISE.
At Boquete’s only park, we came across a group of about 25 young men with drums. Big drums. All drumming in unison. I figured they were practicing for some public event, maybe a parade or something.
But no. They just hang out in the park. And drum. For no reason other than to make lots of NOISE.
Very strange. But also very Panama. I had to admit, it was kinda cool.
We met the co-owner, Andrew Wilkins, and quickly learned he was Canadian, from B.C. Very nice fellow.
This place sits right on Boquete’s main river, the Caldera, and we learned that both buildings – the inn and the restaurant, which sit side by side – have been COMPLETELY washed away by flooding from the river.
Not once, but twice. Can you imagine?
Welcome to the jungle, folks.
He showed us around the inn – also gorgeous – then we capped off our evening with a delicious dinner at The Rock with Mike.
The Rock is quite famous in Panama. Folks come from all over the country to eat here. I can see why. I am quite picky about restaurant pasta – 90% of the time I’m disappointed – but their angel hair shrimp pasta was mouth-watering!
It was a long and busy day, so two glasses of red wine with dinner and I was ready to pack it in. So, after dinner, we headed to the supermarket for some supplies – beer, wine, breakfast food – and headed back up the mountain to our lovely casita and just chillaxed. The boys wanted to watch the Panama vs. Honduras soccer match.
By now, we were hopelessly in love with Boquete. Even Angus. He is determined that we will move there.
Early to bed again, and on to Day 3……click here for more photos from our second day in Boquete.
Ah, Boquete!! What a sight to behold.
It was clear as soon as we entered the outskirts of Boquete that this region of the country – known as the Chiriqui Highlands – is completely unlike where we live in Gorgona/Coronado.
Where we have beach, sand and humidity in Gorgona, Boquete has lush, green jungle and cool mountain breezes.
Where we have highways and condo towers, Boquete is an oasis of scenic backroads and quaint pink, yellow and orange homes that dot its hills.
But definitely the most noticeable difference is the weather. Although it was sunny when we arrived, we had the windows of the SUV down to feel the relief of the low-20's temperature. This is something we never do in Gorgona because it’s just too hot.
Even sleeping is different – kind of reminded us of Canada in June. Whereas in Gorgona, you have fans or A/C blowing on you all night – you are never covered in anything more than a sheet, ever – a night in Boquete gets really cool. Many homes here have fireplaces. And sleeping with a duvet is a must.
This burgeoning development high in the hills above town has a casita with two townhomes and two, two-bedroom apartments.
Our place was beautiful - two large bedrooms; three splendid bathrooms; granite and tile throughout the house; and a cozy living room and kitchen.
And even here, 5,280 feet above sea level, we had wifi and satellite TV!
But the very best part was the view. It's hard to tell from photographs, but we're really up there, and the balconies on each floor offer stellar views of the foliage, not just below but also above. We're high enough that the crest of Baru volcano is peeking out overhead! As I often say about this place, photos simply don’t do it justice....
Carolina Santa Marina (how’s that for a great name?) works for Inside Panama Realty, has been part of the Boquete Plantation development for the past few years, and was able to meet us at the house and help us get settled. She was a wealth of information and gave us the inside scoop for planning the weekend.
The Boquete Plantation is the brainchild of Jack Metzger, an architect and developer from Monterey, California. Jack is a very interesting guy: his uncle was a Brigadier General in the U.S. army back in the 1940's when the U.S. was in charge of the Panama Canal. We talked at length with him about the development, the economic crisis in the U.S. and the upcoming election. He kept calling Obama "our President," even after we told him we were from Canada :)
The development itself is 25 lots nestled within a small coffee plantation - so there is basically a coffee farm right outside the house we were staying in.
This place is really cool: when people buy their lot and build their house, they become part of a coffee "co-op.” The plantation isn't big enough to make any real money, so it's more of a bragging right than anything else, which is still pretty awesome. You could actually make your own coffee from the beans growing in your backyard!
After we settled into the house and got cleaned up, we headed back into town for an early dinner. We went to a place called the Panamonte Inn & Spa.
Now, you have to remember that there aren't a lot of historic, high-end places in Gorgona or Coronado. In fact, there aren't any.
As we walked into the Panamonte, we could tell we were in for something special. It has a style of a New England retreat: nestled into the hills; wooden buildings; bungalow-style rooms spread throughout the property; a calmness; beautiful gardens; and birds singing in the background.
There are pictures and news stories adorning the walls of the lobby outlining the history of the hotel, which dates back into the early 1900's. This place is so prestigious that dignitaries such as Teddy Roosevelt and Charles Lindbergh have stayed here and it's Panama's only member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World.
Our friend Mike arrived to join us. He’s eaten there many times. The restaurant is fine dining and the ambiance of the main dining room reflected that – white-linen tables, chandeliers with subtle lighting, opulent drapes over the windows and tie-wearing waiters.
But this was not where he wanted to eat.
“You have to come see the bar,” he said, and we followed him to the back of the property.
Then we were there – and we couldn’t believe it.
It was one of the coolest, most gorgeous spaces I think I’ve ever been in. It is definitely one of the great rooms in Boquete, with an ambiance second-to-none: two roaring stone fireplaces, Spanish-style iron lamps, candles, long, sheer drapes, plush couches and wicker chairs, ecclectic artwork on the walls. Half of it is “indoors” (hard to classify when you have no doors), and half “outdoors.” It’s sophisticated but earthy all at the same time.
But now it was on to the food.
We started with some drinks and a corvina (sea bass) ceviche appetizer. I’ve never been a big fan of ceviche, largely because it’s usually not done well. Chris was the same. But we both agreed: this was fantastic. It came in a vase-like globe filled with chunks of fish, red onions and tomatoes, marinating in oil and pepper.
By the time the main course arrived, it was about 5:30 and it had begun to cool down. The staff at the pub lit both fireplaces and we put on our jackets – not something we’ve had to do since arriving in Panama!
I had the mushroom ravioli, which was awesome, although I wished for a larger serving. Chris had a giant burger complete with bacon and avocado, and Angus had a grilled ham and cheese sandwich that weighed about a pound - he loved it.
Now, you can take this as gospel as it comes from a professional: Angus says the best french fries anywhere in the world come from Panama.
The cool thing about this place is the grounds surrounding the inn and pub. There are gardens everywhere; huge trees sprawling upwards and sideways; and cute little pathways connecting the rooms of the inn.
We must have snapped a million pictures. It was spectacular.
As cool as Boquete was, we were bagged by the time we were finished dinner. After we left Panamonte, we ventured over to the local grocery store – the mercado – and bought supplies for the weekend (breakfast, snacks, beer, wine, etc.). The grocery store was small but it seemed to have everything anyone would need.
Having only been in Boquete half a day, we already had a sense that the people here were just as different as the geography when comparing it to Gorgona/Coronado.
We noticed that many more Panamanians spoke english, at least a small bit.
And, we noticed many more "natives" or "indians" here, as they tend to live in villages up in the mountains. The Ngöble-Buglé natives are the people who take care of the coffee plants on the many plantations in the area. The native women wear traditional dresses that are extremely vibrant and colourful.
Once back at the house we settled in for some TV, which had enough English channels to make anyone happy (even Chris and Angus).
Maybe the best thing about Boquete was the quiet....so
nice. Early to bed and onto to Day 2....click here for more photos from our first day in Boquete.
Our second major road trip since moving to Panama came courtesy of a working partnership we formed with Inside Panama Realty. Mike and David, the guys in charge, asked us to travel to Boquete and write a few stories on our experiences and to review a few of the new developments. You’ll find stories of our exploits in the coming days, so check back regularly.
Fortunately, this was one working vacation that was well worth it.
The road to Boquete can be daunting. From where we are in Gorgona, it is 5-1/2 hours down the Pan-American Highway towards Costa Rica, and then up into the mountains.
The Pan-American Highway is four lanes to Santiago, which makes it a relatively easy drive, with the exception of the speed traps – we passed about a dozen (!) of these over the course of the day.
The thing with speed traps is that it’s usually difficult to determine what the actual speed limit is – signage is sparse and tends to change for no apparent reason. The police tend to sit at spots where the limit decreases so by the time you realize you’re speeding it’s too late.
Having said that, we’ve yet to get a ticket (knock on wood). Our realtor friend, Mike, was not so lucky on his drive home.
We’ve heard the horror stories about the police but have yet to have any issues. In fact, they’ve been polite and friendly whenever we’ve talked to them.
For example, there is a checkpoint when you cross from Panama Province into Chiriqui Province on your way to Boquete. The police officer, who spoke a bit of English, checked our photo-copied passports (in colour), asked us where we were going, and then told us to have a good trip. He even complimented us on having our stuff photo-copied instead of carrying the actual documents.
“You could lose,” he said.
On the way back through the checkpoint, they just waved us through.
Anyway, at the city of Santiago – about half way – the highway turns into two lanes and the road surface is rather miserable for the next 50 kilometres or so. This makes for a slower pace, as you’re sure to get trapped behind numerous trucks and winding roads (although there are some passing lanes).
It’s at this point that the road starts trending up into the hills. We took this route until the city of David where we then veered north towards the mountains.
Both Santiago and David are major Panamanian cities. David is about to complete a major expansion of its international airport, which will make travel in this area of Panama much easier. One of our friends likened this to how the airport in Liberia, Costa Rica, changed the entire tourism industry in the northern part of that country.
Although the drive was long, it was filled with many beautiful and interesting sites. As we approached David, we could see a large waterfall cascading from the top of a mountain plateau.
We saw traditional Panamanian clothes and accessories being sold in huts along the road by Panamanian natives.
After Santiago the mountains were continuously in view to the north, and the air got blissfully cooler as we went.
However, nothing compared to the views as we came into the area around Boquete. Approximately 30 minutes after David, and driving up into the mountains, we entered the quaint town.
It has a sense of a ski village, sans the snow – a main road dotted with restaurants, pubs and inns. There are restaurants with names like Sugar & Spice, and hotels like the historic Panamonte Inn and Spa.
The town is surrounded by jungle-covered mountains. Sidewalks line the street, a gardened public square anchors the area, lots of people out and about. It is a very bustling little village.
But this was not the end of our trip. Our accommodations were still another 15 minutes up the mountain.
At the far end of town is the road leading up to the coffee farm called Boquete Plantation. We had a two-bedroom mountain casita waiting for us at the top.
The road going up was paved and in great shape – a nice surprise. It was lined with reflectors for night driving, and it wound up the mountain in switchbacks.
Come back here tomorrow for our continuing story of Boquete.......in the meantime, check out this video of some of our drive. Just stunning scenery.....
Angus had his first surfing lesson with Ricardo today. Just look at him! He had so much fun. And, as you can see when you click on the video link below, he almost got up! Chris tagged along for his second lesson - and he still hasn't managed to stay standing!
Did I mention that surfing is really hard??
Well, here we are, settling in nicely to our new condo in Gorgona!
Our trip down was unbelievably smooth - flight arrived in Panama City early and our driver was ready and waiting for us. Drive to our condo was just over an hour. The scenery along the Panamerican Highway is beautiful - green mountains all around.
At our condo, we were greeted by Juan - very sweet property manager - who got us settled into our new unit almost right away. Of course, we were exhausted! But also exhilerated. Especially Angus. He had never been here before, and despite our repeated assurances that he was going to love his new home, he was his usual sceptical self.
But once he saw this place, that all changed. He was beside himself with excitement at just how nice the condo is. The bedrooms, the bathrooms, the kitchen, the huge living area - the big flat-screen TV! - and, of course, the fantastic beach. Everything so modern and new. High-end kitchen and bathrooms. Super-comfy beds and pillows. All the linens, towels, etc. you could possibly need. And much larger than we remembered - plenty of room for guests!
But the creme-de-la-creme of this place is on the balcony - THE VIEW. I have been trying to wrap my head around the fact that I will be waking up to this view every day - that we're not just a "visitor" - but it still hasn't sunk in. I can't imagine ever getting tired of a 180-degree blue ocean view as I type away on this laptop. It is truly spectacular, and no pics or video can really capture it completely.
I should mention that one
of our very first impressions upon stepping outside in Panama was JUST
HOW UNBELIEVABLY HOT IT IS. I'm talking stinking, steaming, stupid hot.
It is the rainy season here, and during the rainy season the humidity
shoots up. It is nothing like back home. It doesn't cool down at night
like back home. It is very tempting to run the A/C 24/7, but that's
waaay to expensive. So we contain ourselves - we run it a couple of
hours before bedtime and keep all fans running at all times. And, of
course, the windows and doors all come wide open and the ocean breezes
flow through the place. But even then, IT IS JUST SO HOT.
Anyway, besides getting used to the heat (yes, your body does adjust), we've spent the last few days getting what we need for day-to-day life.
has given us the name of his Spanish teacher so we can sign up for
lessons. They're $5/hr. Can't beat that! But he is also a surfing
instructor, so we're trying to work out a deal for both things. Will
keep you posted on that.
We also have the name of a good doctor at a nearby clinic. The clinic charges anywhere from $7-$10 for a visit. Again, can't beat that!
We just learned about a fish market down the beach where you can get fresh seafood, so we'll be visiting there today or tomorrow.
On the agenda today is to go visit Angus' school. He and his new principal, Kathy, will meet each other for the first time! I'll let you know how that goes.
Ok, gotta go now - time for a swim!