Author Topic: A Man, A Plan, A Canal: Panama - saw50st8 TR  (Read 5687 times)

Offline saw50st8

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A Man, A Plan, A Canal: Panama - saw50st8 TR
« on: July 18, 2017, 08:56:09 PM »
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.
Google
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

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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.














« Last Edit: July 18, 2017, 09:36:28 PM by saw50st8 »

Offline TimT

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Re: A Man, A Plan, A Canal: Panama - saw50st8 TR
« Reply #1 on: July 18, 2017, 09:00:35 PM »
Nice start. Thanks for taking the time.

Offline JACKBLUE

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Re: A Man, A Plan, A Canal: Panama - saw50st8 TR
« Reply #2 on: July 18, 2017, 09:08:06 PM »
Wow 2007 till 2017! That's a long time for a DDF'ER!

Offline saw50st8

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Re: A Man, A Plan, A Canal: Panama - saw50st8 TR
« Reply #3 on: July 18, 2017, 09:12:22 PM »
Wow 2007 till 2017! That's a long time for a DDF'ER!

We've traveled to other places, but not just me and my husband! Since that trip, I went to Israel, Iceland, Mexico, Arizona, Tennessee, California twice, Florida twice, Oklahoma, Niagara Falls, Vermont, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Vancouver, Nevada, Texas, Louisiana and probably some other places I'm forgetting at the moment.

Offline JACKBLUE

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Re: A Man, A Plan, A Canal: Panama - saw50st8 TR
« Reply #4 on: July 18, 2017, 09:13:38 PM »
We've traveled to other places, but not just me and my husband! Since that trip, I went to Israel, Iceland, Mexico, Arizona, Tennessee, California twice, Florida twice, Oklahoma, Niagara Falls, Vermont, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Vancouver, Nevada, Texas, Louisiana and probably some other places I'm forgetting at the moment.
LOL!!
A real DDF'ER then!!!

Offline TimT

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Re: A Man, A Plan, A Canal: Panama - saw50st8 TR
« Reply #5 on: July 18, 2017, 09:26:58 PM »
We've traveled to other places, but not just me and my husband! Since that trip, I went to Israel, Iceland, Mexico, Arizona, Tennessee, California twice, Florida twice, Oklahoma, Niagara Falls, Vermont, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Vancouver, Nevada, Texas, Louisiana and probably some other places I'm forgetting at the moment.
Now that's more like it. :)

Offline saw50st8

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Re: A Man, A Plan, A Canal: Panama - saw50st8 TR
« Reply #6 on: July 18, 2017, 09:33:09 PM »
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.






Offline saw50st8

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Re: A Man, A Plan, A Canal: Panama - saw50st8 TR
« Reply #7 on: July 18, 2017, 10:05:30 PM »
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.







Offline Denverite

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Re: A Man, A Plan, A Canal: Panama - saw50st8 TR
« Reply #8 on: July 18, 2017, 10:11:36 PM »
This is all amazing and thank your for writing it up and the awesome pictures! You are making me nostalgic and wanna go back ASAP (and this time go to El Valle)! We also loved Aroma Cafe although didn't get any drinks so that Margarita is on the list for next time too!  :P

Looking forward to the rest and all your info on San Blas.  Also, all I have to say is ROFL laughing about the multiple license plates and good call not asking any questions!!  ;D

Offline Something Fishy

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Re: A Man, A Plan, A Canal: Panama - saw50st8 TR
« Reply #9 on: July 18, 2017, 10:55:38 PM »
Great report, looking forward to the rest.

This and @Denverite's TR just reinforces the idea that after two (extremely) short trips it's time to explore the country properly. Wonderful nature, activities, adventures, close by, great kosher food... what's there not to love?

Offline saw50st8

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Re: A Man, A Plan, A Canal: Panama - saw50st8 TR
« Reply #10 on: July 19, 2017, 07:26:21 AM »
Great report, looking forward to the rest.

This and @Denverite's TR just reinforces the idea that after two (extremely) short trips it's time to explore the country properly. Wonderful nature, activities, adventures, close by, great kosher food... what's there not to love?

It really lives up to the hype. It's a small country but I could have easily spent 2 weeks there, more if I would have gone down to Darien Provence.

Offline rileywiles23

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Re: A Man, A Plan, A Canal: Panama - saw50st8 TR
« Reply #11 on: July 19, 2017, 01:19:59 PM »
Great report, looking forward to the rest.

This and @Denverite's TR just reinforces the idea that after two (extremely) short trips it's time to explore the country properly. Wonderful nature, activities, adventures, close by, great kosher food... what's there not to love?
I hate zika
Life is as good as you make it...

Offline Denverite

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Re: A Man, A Plan, A Canal: Panama - saw50st8 TR
« Reply #12 on: July 19, 2017, 02:10:03 PM »
I hate zika

Okaaay, but the cases there have been in the far jungles with indigenous tribes.  Would people not go to Orlando because there were a few cases in a neighborhood north of Miami?  People also forget that a good percentage of cases are from people who essentially contract it as an STD, not from mosquitoes . A lot of the Zika hysteria on here is way overblown...

Offline yuneeq

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Re: A Man, A Plan, A Canal: Panama - saw50st8 TR
« Reply #13 on: July 19, 2017, 05:45:53 PM »
Great report so far! Following.
Live forever or die trying.

Offline saw50st8

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Re: A Man, A Plan, A Canal: Panama - saw50st8 TR
« Reply #14 on: July 23, 2017, 07:51:05 AM »
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:  https://1drv.ms/v/s!At4HWeqiFYNvh6NsRHro0_IwdUIbUw

On the Ferry:


Sloth in a tree:



Monkeys in the wild:



Termites!:


We even found a monkey skull!



Rainforest:


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!