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Las Vegas and Death Valley For my kids winter break, we looked up what flights were available for cheap points on Delta. After comparing most of the US, Las Vegas came out cheapest for the days we wanted. I have been all over the US, but have never been to Death Valley so we decided to combine the two.

Thursday midday, we (my mom, my sister, me and three of my four kids) flew from JFK to LAS. We landed midday, rented an SUV and drove to Pahrump, about halfway to Death Valley. We stayed at a really nice Holiday Inn Express that had everything we needed - 2 beds, a pull out couch, microwave and refrigerator plus free breakfast. The hotel was pretty new, clean and the staff was friendly. It was too cold to use the pool. Right across from the parking lot was a casino/bowling alley/movie theater/bar type place and the hotel gave us coupons to get free drinks and tshirts there.

The next morning we drove out to Death Valley. The ride itself is unbelievably beautiful and only a precursor to the amazing views in Death Valley itself. Our first stop in Death Valley was Zabriskie Point - it's a paved path with unbelievable views. The topography is so different from anything I've seen. It's no wonder Star Wars had scenes filmed there! Unfortunately, the weather wasn't very cooperative. It rained most of the time we were there, which is very strange for Death Valley! It almost never rains there. We also drove down to the salt flats and walked on them. It's very cool and very unsteady walking.

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After Zabriskie Point, we checked in at the hotel. We stayed at the Furnace Creek Ranch. It's a beautiful, clean older hotel. We had two adjoining rooms with a terrace and an amazing view.

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On the grounds of the hotel is the Borax Museum, a gift shop/grocery store, restaurants, a pool fed from a hot spring and horses. It was a really nice place to walk around on Shabbos.

Sunday, we were supposed to take a Jeep tour of Titus Canyon, but flooding made it impossible so we changed our destination to Echo Canyon/20 Mule Canyon. We drove up to the mine and were able to poke around a miners shack and see a mine from the outside. The views are breathtaking but the rain made it hard to capture. Then we went to 20 Mule Canyon where my kids loved climbing on the weird hills. We stopped at Borax Works which was okay and drove through mustard canyon.

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In the afternoon, we hiked through Golden Canyon. It was a great easy hike where my kids could climb the walls.

Monday morning, we checked out and drove to the Salt Creek Interpretive trail, a nice boardwalk with a desert river.

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After (and the highlight in most of my family's opinion), was the Mesquite Sand Dunes. You park the car and just walk along these large sand dunes that go on for miles and miles. My kids really enjoyed rolling down them!

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The final stop in Death Valley was Ubehebe Crater. I don't know what I was really expecting, but it is an absolutely enormous crater in the ground. It's extremely windy at the top so hold on to your hats. We originally planned to hike around the rim, but you could really see the entire crater from the parking area. There are no guardrails or anything and it's kind of creepy standing at the edge.

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We drove out of the park and stopped in Rhyolite, a ghost town in Nevada. You can drive around and see the school and some buildings. It's interesting to see, but not worth driving too far out of the way.  Then we made our way to Beaty,  where we stopped at their free museum. It's nothing to write home about, but was a place with a clean bathroom and a place to stretch our legs, followed by the drive to Vegas.

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In Vegas, we had planned to stay at the Fairfield Inn right off the strip. Free breakfast for my kids is a big deal - they eat a lot and it makes the rest of the day easier with respect to food so no strip hotels for us. We had booked a "two room suite" which turned out to be the tiniest suite I've ever seen. They say it can fit 6 people, but if you pull the sofa bed out, there is no way to walk past, blocking in anyone on the beds. I'm surprised fire code allowed that. We spoke to the manager who told us it's a common complaint and put us at the nearby Residence Inn, honoring the Fairfield rate (we are Marriott Platinum members, that might have helped). The Residence Inn was perfect for us - they had a shuttle to the strip, free breakfast and a really nice pool.

In Vegas, we explored the strip. We stopped in many of the hotels to see/do what was unique there. My kids loved the arcade at the excalibur because there was a claw game that you played until you won and only cost $1. They loved seeing the Volcano erupt at the Mirage and the circus acts at Circus Circus and watching people gamble when they could. Our favorite activity in Vegas was the High Roller, the really tall, slow ferris wheel. It takes about 30 minutes to go around full circle. The cars are spacious and the views are terrific and kids can move around inside the cars.

From Vegas, we took two day trips. One was to Hoover Dam, which was an incredible engineering marvel. I'm an engineer for a utility company, and this really impressed me.

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The other trip we took was to Red Rock Canyon. Hiking there is incredible. Everything is easily accessible and you can rock climb all over, with no skill necessary. My 5 year old had absolutely no problem keeping up with her 7 and 8 year old brothers.
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I loved the juxtaposition of the nature at Death Valley and Red Rock Canyon to the glitz and glamour of Vegas. We flew home Saturday night on the red eye and we all survived. My kids even slept on the plane.

March 28, 2017, 10:57:20 PM
Are you a travel snob? When people tell me they are so excited to go to Florida or some other common place I wonder "Really? You are so excited to go there? There are so many fabulous places to go why are you going back to Florida/LA/Lake George or wherever mundane place they've chosen" Nothing against those locations, but after you've gone, there are so many other places to see in the world.

Or when my coworker told me that he and his fiancee are going to Jamaica on their honeymoon and his fiance is so excited because she's never been out of the US. She grew up 3 hours from the Canadian border!

I don't consider myself particularly well traveled and there are so many places I've never been to.  I know lots of people who travel more, have been to more places etc.  But I think I've turned into a travel snob.

May 04, 2017, 08:00:26 AM
Re: Panama TR- a Hidden Family Gem (w/AWESOME restaurants)!
That is funny about the schools but they are probably comparing to free public school and for us 15k is normal (or cheap) for a frum school (especially HS) and they offer the students SO many more educational options and activities!  ;D

+1 Drivers are very aggressive and insane, parking is difficult and Uber is so cheap, I don't think I'd personally rent a car even for a long term stay.

Where did you end up going and staying?  Anything you definitely recommend doing if we go back?

We stayed at the Marriott. It was on point savers so 5 nights was 40,000 points. The hotel was very nice but the area was not great and a decent walk to restaurants. It wasn't bad (like 20 minutes) but annoying enough.  We also used a 1 night anniversary cert and 1 night "regular" points.

We loved taking a boat ride through the Panama Canal.  It was absolutely the highlight of our trip (and really the reason we went to Panama!).

We also did Monkey Island, which was amazing. The monkeys come to the boat to eat.

We went to El Valle and that was great. It has a cool zoo of animals in the region, we went on a hike up a mountain (not for little kids! It was really steep).  They have thermal pools with mud masks (not a must). We missed hiking to the square trees and I so want to do that!

We took a tour of San Lorenzo fort and Soberenia National Park and hiked the rainforest. We saw a ton of animals. That was really fun but not a "must see."

We did an overnight in San Blas Islands. It's like pure paradise with amenities to boot (meaning, the light bulb in our room was considered luxury LOL). I'm not sure I would bring little kids along, though you totally could. We snorkeled and swam and toured deserted islands and saw star fish.

We toured Casco Viejo / San Felipe and that was kind of eh. The colonial buildings are pretty cool but the tour was unnecessary.

I would also skip Prime Grill - the entrees were pretty gross there.

May 25, 2017, 02:00:49 PM
Re: Keeping Up With The Kushners
Confirmed. Modern orthodox is conservative.

Eye roll.

June 16, 2017, 12:42:24 PM
A Man, A Plan, A Canal: Panama - saw50st8 TR When I turned 34, my mother asked me what I wanted for my birthday. I told her that in 1 year, I wanted her to watch my 4 kids while I went on vacation with my husband. We hadn't gone away alone together since we went to Japan back in 2007. We were long overdue for a solo trip! She agreed. We figured at that point, our youngest would be just about 4 years old and really ready for both of his parents to be gone for an extended period of time. We had to work out schedules for both our jobs, my mother's travel schedule and my sister's availability to help my mother and we landed on going in May.

We considered many different places but wanted the following criteria:

1) Bucket list item
2) Easy to travel to (language, currency, access)
3) Lots of activities and things to see
4) Kosher food (We don't normally mind the tuna packets, but wanted to with a nicer vacation this time)
5) Good for a week of travel, including travel time

Panama hit all the items on the list. I have always been fascinated by the canal, how well designed and built it was, how simple gravity helps ships navigate through the mountain ranges in Panama. Panama also has no visa requirements for US citizens and uses the US dollar as currency, so no changing money. They officially have their own currency, the Balboa, but no one uses it.

Since our schedule was flexible, we were able to book United Saver award tickets EWR-MIA-PTY for 35,000 United points each.

The Panama Marriott was also on point savers, so we book 5 nights for 40,000 points. Our original plan was to fly in PTY, spend 5 days exploring the area and then fly up to David to see the coffee plantations and do some amazing rafting and hiking, but by the time we tried to book those flights, they were very expensive. We decided that instead of doing a day trip to San Blas, we would rather stay overnight in San Blas.
We wanted to plan a relatively active trip, but didn't really feel like renting a car so we decided to book day tours. We looked into a lot of different tour companies and finally settled on Almeza Tours (also known as My Friend Mario). Our friends had recently come back and used them and been very happy. They were also willing to negotiate on price and provide us transportation to and from the airport. This checked off our easy to travel requirement!

With our plans in pace and childcare settled, we were ready to go!

For those of you who are interested in this sort of thing, our pictures were taken on a Samsung Galaxy S5, an iPhone 5s or an Olympus TG-5. 

Leaving from Newark


Our first view of Panama City

When we got to Panama City, we were greeted by Mario, who would be our tour guide for a few day trips. His car had many license plates stacked up on top of each other but we never asked him why. Sometimes, you just don't want to know the answer.

He dropped us off at the Marriott and we checked. We chose the Marriott because we had enough points and was on point savers discount. The hotel itself is beautiful. It has that old world colonial charm. We got a standard room which was quite spacious and had a mini fridge. The bathroom was perfectly nice and clean, the beds were comfortable and everything was as you expect from a full service Marriott. The hotel had a really nice pool area with a pool, hot tub, hammocks and lounge chairs. It's fully enclosed and you can enter through the gym. We requested a low floor and were put on the third, right next to an accessible staircase. It worked out very well for shabbos.  However, if I were going back, it would not be my first choice of hotels to stay at. The Hotel is sort of in the middle of nowhere. The kosher restaurants are a 20 minute walk, the shul was a 30 minute walk and wans't in the eruv. We knew all that before going, but I didn't realize just how humid Panama was.

After settling in, we walk to Jeffrey's Bakery, where we picked up empanadas for breakfast and lunch for the next day. Then we went to Aroma Cafe for dinner. Aroma is a beautiful restaurant and very white. We walked in during early dinner hours so the restaurant was empty. The staff didn't speak a word of English (and we speak enough Spanish to ask for cerveza fria), but they had an English menu. Fish is amazingly cheap there, so a large portion of sea bass was around $16. They served delicious bread to start and we ordered focaccia, sea bass, fried mushrooms and a margarita. Everything was delicious - it was one of our favorite restaurants.

July 18, 2017, 08:56:09 PM
Re: A Man, A Plan, A Canal: Panama - saw50st8 TR Day 2:

Mario picked us up at our hotel at 7 am and we drove out to the boat dock on the Chagres River. The scenery is amazing. The blues and greens are so vivid everywhere!

We boarded the boat, which took off in the direction of Lake Gatun and Monkey Island. On the way, we passed large cargo containers traversing the river and you can see many barges and cranes for boats to load/unload their cargo. Once we made it out to the Monkey Islands area, we drove around to a few different island to see the monkey. The monkeys come right on the boat to eat peanuts and fruit and will snatch it directly from you. One monkey defecated on the boat. They are direct and a little aggressive but not harmful and it's a lot of fun to feed them. Make sure to go early in the morning to make sure the monkeys are still hungry! We also saw iguanas, turtles, birds and alligators.

Next, we drove to San Felipe/Casco Viejo. Parking is really hard to find in San Felipe. The streets are really narrow and there just aren't many spots. Finally, we parked in a lot and found a car that basically used saran wrap to keep the back half on.

Honestly, I found it to be one of the least interesting parts of our trip. It's the old part of Panama and has a nice, colorful history, but it wasn't amazing. We liked looking at the juxtaposition between the old, dilapidated buildings that weren't updated and the newly fixed up in old world style buildings. It has a lot of cafes and bars and apparently the nightlife is fun, but we never made it back for the night. The views of Panama City are beautiful and there's a small market near the water. We enjoyed our time there but I don't think it's a must see (ducking the rotten tomatoes).

After San Felipe, we decided to have a rare early afternoon. We were originally going to go to Amador Causeway but decided that since we were going on Sunday when we went for a canal boat ride, we would rather relax at the pool. After a refreshing dip in the pool, we went to Metsuyan for dinner. I don't remember what anything we ate was called, but everything was delicious. We ate early again and the entire restaurant was empty. We stopped at Jeffrey's to get more (amazing!) empanadas.

July 18, 2017, 09:33:09 PM
Re: A Man, A Plan, A Canal: Panama - saw50st8 TR Day 3:

Mario picked us up at 7 am for the drive to El Valle de Anton. It's about a 2 hour trip outside of Panama City. The initial roads are fine, but once you get up near El Valle, the roads are windy, curving and climbing. There aren't too many guardrails either. We didn't do the driving ourselves but the roads were good. El Valle is a town that was built inside a Volcano crater. Our first stop was the zoo. Inside the zoo, there are lots of animals that are indigenous to the area and some that aren't. We saw toucans, macaws, emus, monkeys, frogs, jaguar, and lots and lots of chickens for some reason. I even saw one of those crazy stick bugs in the wild! I find it really creepy that the bug looks exactly like a stick but it moves. The views from the zoo was amazing and we enjoyed our stroll through. We were there for roughly 1-1.5 hours.

Next, we went on a hike up to the Sleeping Indian. It was billed as a moderate hike, but boy was it rough. The incline is 45 degrees on wet, slippery leaves and you hike through the rain forest. It's really slippery and the air is humid. Once we got above the trees, the views were breathtaking. It feels like you can see the entire world from up there. We decided to eat lunch near the top and then work our way back down, my husband jokingly cursing me the whole way for having him dragged him up such a crazy hike.

We stopped at the town market (eh, we bought a pineapple, the rest of the stuff was chinese junk). Then we went to the thermal pool. We put on mud masks and soaked in the warm pools. They weren't very warm though, much more like tepid. There were a whole bunch of other tourists there when we came. It was enjoyable. The place had changing rooms, bathrooms and some facilities for kids.

Unfortunately, we didn't have time to see the square trees. We drove back to Panama City and went straight to Hilel Sports Bar and Grill. The food there was fantastic. We had tacos, fajitas and some sausage dish. The staff was very attentive and kept refilling my agua caliente.

July 18, 2017, 10:05:30 PM
Re: Writing a trip report? Here's how to add pictures.
Moved them to Flickr!

I misread your first post.

That's what I ended up doing, but that's annoying when they are already hosted.

July 20, 2017, 07:52:28 AM
Re: A Man, A Plan, A Canal: Panama - saw50st8 TR Day 4:

Our original plan was to go to Lake Bayano and go in the caves, but after the strenuous hike the day before, my husband asked if we could redo the plans for something easier.  We decided to go to Colon instead.  Mario picked us up, we picked up two of the most annoying women I've ever met, and then we drove out to Colon. Colon itself is just a regular city but we got the narrative about the businesses in the area. Apparently, Jews own most of the businesses, followed by a lot of middle easterners. There is a staunch juxtaposition between the wealthy and the poor. 

Then we took a vehicle ferry to drive to Soberenia National Park, a rainforest on the Caribbean side of Panama. There's a paved road throughout and we tried to find animals as we drove. We say many - toucans, monkeys, butterflies, sloths, lots and lots of insects. After driving on the road for a while, we all go out and took a hike through the rainforest. The rainforest is very noisy - the monkeys are shouting, wild pigs are snorting, every insect is humming and the birds are chirping. It's really serene and enjoyable to just stand and listen to the sounds of nature. One of the most amazing things we saw was a huge line of ants marching through the rainforest, each holding a sizable piece of leaf. Every day, the ants replace the lining inside their anthill with fresh leaves. It was incredible to watch the synchronization and order of these tiny ants that each know their part. Here's a video that shows a tiny portion of the ants running:!At4HWeqiFYNvh6NsRHro0_IwdUIbUw

On the Ferry:

Sloth in a tree:

Monkeys in the wild:


We even found a monkey skull!


After we finished our hike, we went back to the car. We started driving and our guide stopped and pulled over. He starting feeling his neck and pulled off a tick! He was the only one in the group who didn't douse themselves with bug spray. We had all used the super strong, deet filled off and were glad we did. No one else in the group got a tick and the guide used our bug spray after that.

Next up was Fort San Lorenzo. The fort had been the main protection to Panama City way back when because it guards the Chagres River, which was the easiest route to attack Panama City. There's a long history of pirate attacks and failures, until the pirates banded together and decimated Fort San Lorenzo. One soldier escaped and warned the people in Panama City, who escaped to South America. The pirates didn't have much to loot when they finally got to Panama City. The views from the fort are incredible - you can see the Chagres River and the Caribbean and the view goes on for miles.

We found bats!

After a tour of the fort, we drove to the new Agua Clara locks. The new highway isn't built yet, so there is a road that drives right over the lock during times that the boats aren't moving. We drove across and got to the see the locks up close and personal. The road is not always open so check on the times, but it's worth a trip across the road. When you get to the other side, you can turn around and go back.

We drove back to Panama City and then got ready for Shabbat. A few days before, we had stopped at the shul for them to photocopy our passports. Since we weren't staying in the eruv, we couldn't carry them to shul and you need your passport to get in. When we were there, we met Rabbi Laino and his wife and they invited us for dinner friday night. We went to shul friday night (services were long!) and then went to the rabbi's house. The rabbi also had another couple who was traveling from NY, a woman who was traveling on business and a local family, who were immigrants from Canada. When we mentioned that we were going to San Blas, they told us their long horror story about going to San Blas, including having to bribe their driver on the way out. We were kind of concerned about our upcoming trip, but they gave us some advice that turned out to be helpful, like bring your own towels. We also had an opportunity to talk to them about life and Jewish life in Panama, which was really interesting to hear about. Yeshiva tuition is a fortune there too!

July 23, 2017, 07:51:05 AM
Re: A Man, A Plan, A Canal: Panama - saw50st8 TR Day 5:

For Shabbat, we went back to shul. The shul itself is amazing. There's a large courtyard in the building, a small sanctuary, a large sanctuary and lots of rooms. Everything is clean and beautiful. The main sanctuary is stunning. The women's balcony overlooks the men's section below, and you can see the Torah reading. Services were very interesting - after every aliyah, someone else got up to give small dvar torah (in spanish, so I have no idea what they said). The sanctuary is enormous but only a fraction is filled.

After shul was over, everyone went downstairs for kiddush. When I say kiddush, I mean a full, sit down lunch called a kiddush. The food was great and people were so friendly! A nice family invited us to sit down with them. Turned out we had friends in common (hey, Jewish geography!) and one of them was originally from NY. They expanded on life in Panama and we had a really nice time. I highly recommend going to shul if you are there.

Saturday night, we went out to Kava. The restaurant is located on the ground floor of the Sortis and is a very funky restaurant, with nice decor. You can sit inside or outside, but we opted for inside with air condition. We aren't panamanian and are definitely not used to the crazy humidity!!  It's a definite scene on saturday night. The food was incredible!  We had sushi pizza (an absolute must!), fish nachos (delicious, but once was enough) and a sea bass dish with mashed potatoes (also delicious, but a small portion).

July 23, 2017, 07:59:56 AM