How do I begin to capture a three-and-a-half week trip in one blog entry? Well first off, here's a brief summary of our itinerary, with links to my hotel reviews on TripAdvisor:
- 1-night stopover in Miami (hotel wasn't memorable enough to warrant a review)
- 1 night at the Canal House in Panama City
- 1 week at the Garden of Eden Resort in Bocas del Toro, on the Caribbean coast
- 3 nights at the Coffee Estate Inn in Boquete, a beautiful mountain town
- 2 nights at Pacific Bay Resort, in the Chiriqui region of the Pacific coast
- 2 nights at Villa Romano near Pedasi, in the Azuero peninsula (the "heartland" of Panama)
- 1 night at the Anton Valley Hotel in El Valle, another mountain town on our way back to Panama City
- 1 week at a rental apartment (Patty's Casita) in Panama
During my previous travels I have blogged as I went along, which provided a natural framework for capturing my experiences. But while it's one thing to blog during a five-month around-the-world trip, or a four-month assignment in Hong Kong, I've learned that blogging, and the thought behind it, has a way of dominating my travels. Much like always carrying a camera, I find myself on the alert for stories to tell, thinking how I will shape this experience or that encounter into a witty anecdote, before the experience is even over.
This was also Dave's and my first big trip together, and I wanted to enjoy our time together, not hole up on a computer composing posts and editing photos. (And by the way, for the curious among you, we happily turned out to be very compatible travel companions.) So this time around I decided to be more in the moment and save the blogging for afterward.
The trip was fantastic - Panama is so diverse, and our experiences were many and varied. From relaxing in a hammock with a rum drink in hand in Bocas Del Toro, to exploring mountainside coffee plantations in Boquete, to enjoying late-night salsa music in Panama City, we did it all. I suppose the easiest approach to capturing the trip is the "highlights reel" method, so here you go - the good, the bad and the ugly:
First class rocks (mostly).We used frequent flyer miles to fly business class to Panama, and for one segment we lucked out and got seats in full-on, ridiculously spacious, lay-down-in-your-flat-bed first class, fresh-baked-chocolate-chip-cookies international first class (on a Boeing 777, if that means anything to you). We were so giddy it was practically embarrassing.
Bag down!Unfortunately, flying premium class didn't stop American Airlines from losing Dave's bag somewhere along the way. It took a couple days for them to get the bag to Panama, and another couple days to find a way to get it up to Bocas del Toro, where we were at that point. Thankfully, we'd packed the basics in a carry-on bag, and picked up some cheap swim trunks for Dave at a Panama City mall, so all was okay.
Muy Poquito country. Slightly smaller than South Carolina, and shaped like a sideways S, Panama is a small but diverse country. Flying in, you could literally look in one direction and see the Caribbean coast, and in the other and see the Pacific coast. Where else can you see two oceans at the same time?
Ay, caramba!Dave's addiction to over-the-top Latin television started with the morning shows on our stopover in Miami, and continued throughout the trip. I'm just waiting to see Spanish soap operas show up on our Tivo now that we're back.
A billion points of light. Bocas del Toro was exactly what we needed to kick off the trip - pure relaxation in a beautiful setting. There are lots of moments from that week that I'll cherish, but a standout was waking in the middle of the night, stepping out on our porch, and seeing billions of stars in the sky above us (thanks to no light noise), and shimmering phosphorescense in the water below - like a second sky. Such a sweet moment. We also greatly enjoyed watching the hummingbirds play on our porch every day.
Yum, seafood!Panama means "where fish abound" in Native American language, and we lived up to this namesake with our consumption. We were dedicated to the dual causes of eating as much lobster as possible (primarily on the Caribbean coast) and exploring as many ceviches as possible (this is a core Panamanian dish, and one that we greatly enjoyed).
Picture-perfect Zapatillas.We took a day trip to visit Dolphin Bay, a chocolate farm, and the twin islands of Zapatillas. That was the first time in my life when I've seen the stereotypical white sand and turquoise blue waters of the Caribbean, and it was utterly gorgeous. It's also the first time I've really enjoyed snorkeling (thanks to crystal clear waters, shallow-water coral and calm seas), and now Dave and I are both hooked.
Bite me.We did a pretty good job at fending off the bugs most of the trip, but we slipped up in a big way on the day we went to Red Frog Beach. We were thinking fun in the sun, so we slathered on the sunscreen, but we didn't anticipate the chitras (aka sand fleas), and a couple days later we were suffering the aftermath. Chitra bites are hell incarnate - you itch so bad, you give serious thought to the pleasure that would come from scratching your flesh right off your body. We got hit by a few mosquitoes during the trip as well, and compare to the chitra bites, mosquito bites are like an amusingly pleasant tickle.
Road or riverbed?I was fortunate in that Dave did all the driving in Panama, but being a passenger had its fair share of "fun" too. Some roads were in great condition, but sections of the Interamerican highway had us dodging potholes so big they had micro-climates, and in smaller communities we had many opportunities to debate where we were on a legitimate dirt road, or if some sadistic monster had declared a dry riverbed a road.
Ninja maids.We stumbled into the mountain town of Boquete on Dec. 30 with no reservation, naively thinking we could get a hotel with no problem at the last minute. Turns out that's a bit more challenging than we anticipated, but fortunately we lucked into a last-minute cancellation at the Coffee Estate Inn. The Inn was fantastic in every way, but the service especially was like nothing I've ever seen. Any time we left the room, no matter how briefly, we'd come back to find it fully refreshed and tidied. We started to joke that "ninja maids" must be hiding in the ceiling.
Monkey business. Our next stop was the Pacific Bay Resort, which is located 20 minutes past the middle of nowhere. Accessible only by boat, the resort is on a huge swath of wild forestland, where we saw iguanas, hermit crabs, parrots, deer and - best of all - howler monkeys. Dave got a little wild himself, and went skinny dipping (on my dare, I admit).
Un poquito pool.After leaving Pacific Bay Resort and driving through the Azuero peninsula - known as the heartland of Panama - we ended up in Pedasi at Villa Romano. Perched on an oceanside cliff, Villa Romano feels like an Italian villa dropped onto the Panamanian coast. The setting and villa were beautiful, and nearly everything about the place was perfect - but we couldn't help laughing at the hotel's very tiny pool. So tiny that we made up a little song about it: "Un poquito pool."
Boogie days.Probably our favorite day of the trip was when we went to Playa Venao, a surfer beach about a half hour from Pedasi. We went boogie boarding (a first for both of us), watched the surfers, and enjoyed delicious fresh seafood and cold cervezas. We'd both like to come back here someday and explore more of the beaches along the southern end of the Azuero peninsula.
Caliente Salsa!We wrapped up our trip with a week in Panama City, where we did the typical tourist things (walking tours, Panama Canal, etc.), and explored the city's great restaurants and night life. A highlight was salsa night at Platea bar in Casco Viejo, where we got to witness the amazing transformation of schleppy guys into love gods when they hit the dance floor. I suspect salsa lessons may be in our future.
Home sweet home.Thanks to the combination of mild homesickness and slightly-less-mild travel sickness, by the end of the week in Panama City we were both ready to head home. Though we suffered some delays on our long trip home, all our bags made it with us (even the one Dave took to dragging behind him, in his state of tired delirium).
This week it's back to work for me and back to school for Dave, as he heads into his final semester, senior thesis project, and ultimately the hunt for a "real" job. Hopefully we can hold on to at least a bit of the relaxation (and tans) we took away from this trip in the busy months ahead.
To see all 715 of my photos from the trip, click here, or for the slightly more manageable highlights version (232 photos), click here. You can find Dave's photos here, and all of my trip videos are on YouTube.