Tag Archives: Panama

2012 hot spots: Bocas del Toro and Dominican Republic’s Samana Pennisula

I was surprised to see two fairly obscure places we’ve visited on the NYTimes Travel sections list of 45 places to go in 2012. But I have to agree with them:

#1 was Panama including Panama City and Bocas del Toro. Lower down the list was  Las Terrenas, a village on the Samaná Peninsula, Dominican Republic (although no mention of the cool, low-key place where we stayed in 1990 or thereabouts: “The Hotel Tropic Banana” in Las Terrenas, which I gather from my googling is still there – although place seems more built up than when we visited.) 

Below are the details.

1. Panama
Go for the canal. Stay for everything else.

 It’s been 12 years since Panama regained control of its canal, and the country’s economy is booming. Cranes stalk the skyline of the capital, Panama City, where high-rises sprout one after the next and immigrants arrive daily from around the world. Among those who have landed en masse in recent years are American expatriates and investors, who have banked on Panamanian real estate by building hotels and buying retirement homes. The passage of the United States-Panama free trade agreement in October is expected to accelerate this international exchange of people and dollars (the countries use the same currency).

Among the notable development projects is the Panama Canal itself, which is in the early stages of a multibillion-dollar expansion. The project will widen and deepen the existing canal and add two locks, doubling the canal’s cargo capacity. For those who want to see the waterway as it was originally designed, now is the time. The expansion is expected to be completed by 2014, the canal’s 100-year anniversary.

Other high-profile projects include the construction of three firsts: The Panamera, the first Waldorf Astoria hotel in Latin America (set to open in June 2012); the Trump Ocean Club, the region’s tallest building, which opened last summer; and Frank Gehry’s first Latin American design, the BioMuseo, a natural history museum scheduled to open in early 2013. Even Panama City’s famously dilapidated historic quarter, Casco Viejo, has been transformed. The neighborhood, a tangle of narrow streets, centuries-old houses and neo-colonial government buildings, was designated a Unesco World Heritage site in 1997 and is now a trendy arts district with galleries, coffeehouses, street musicians and some of the city’s most stylish restaurants and boutique hotels.

Across the isthmus, on Panama’s Caribbean coast, the Bocas del Toro archipelago has become a popular stop on the backpacker circuit, with snorkeling and zip lining by day and raucous night life after dark. FREDA MOON

2) Samaná Peninsula, Dominican Republic (although no mention of the cool, low-key place where we stayed in 1990 or thereabouts: “The Hotel Tropic Banana” in Las Terrenas.)

Unspoiled beaches, but not for long.

For years, the Samaná Peninsula on the northeast coast of the Dominican Republic was one of the Caribbean’s remaining natural holdouts, largely untouched because of its remote location. But an international airport, El Catey, built near the peninsula’s base a few years ago and, more recently, a highway that shortened the drive from Santo Domingo to two hours from five, are bringing new development.

Balcones del Atláantico, a RockResort that opened last May in the village of Las Terrenas, is the newest luxury resort on the peninsula. Its 86 two- and three-bedroom villas start at $500 a night, supplying a cushy base from which to explore ecotourism. The Peninsula House, a plantation-style estate with just six suites from $580 a night, was named a 2011 Grand Award winner by Andrew Harper’s Hideaway Report. And Auberge Resort’s’ Casa Tropicalia , with 44 beachfront suites and an open-air spa on Samaná Bay, is to open in 2014.

There are plenty of off-resort attractions, too. Just last month, Bravaro Runners, an adventure tour operator, opened a new zip-line tour consisting of 20 platforms and 10 zip-lines.

Go now, before the crowds arrive. MICHELLE HIGGINS

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Hints for Hawaii

Time to start gathering string for our trip to Hawaii in January. YES!

A friend emailed from there the other day with these suggestions: this is my fifth time here. I love it. Oahu, Maui and the Big Island are my favorites. Lots to see on Oahu: Pearl Harbor, Diamond Head, North Shore where the waves are much bigger, Dole plantation. You will have a blast. Stay as long as you can because it’s a long flight. We are on Kauai, Maui and Oahu on this 10-day trip. Aloha!

Also read in AAA magazine that it’s possible to find low key interesting b&Bs on the Big Island for about $150 a night. I’d love to find something akin to Panama’s laid-back hippish Bocas Del Toro in Hawaii.

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For our next trip to Panama City….

Nice to see that the restaurant we chose – after much deliberation –  for our one “splurge meal” got a prominent mention in Sunday’s 36 Hours Panama City, Panama story on the NYTimes Travel section. We were very happy with our meal at La Posta — and apparently the NYTimes was too. But this restaurant wasn’t mentioned in the 2005 36 hours piece on Panama City. I can’t remember how I found it – another travel article or guide – or how I narrowed my fairly long list but glad we chose La Posta. The latest Times story doesn’t mention the entrees we really loved – the “best pork chop ever” – my Kansas husband’s assessment which is saying a lot since this guy knows his pork; and pitch perfect seafood risotto, which I loved.

I wish this article had come out before our visit because I was looking for a hotel on our last night – and ended up with a dud.  The NYTimes recommends the Canal House Hotel in Casco Viejo or the new Manrey Hotel (both are $200 and up which is more than we wanted to spend. we probably got the best we could for $100.)

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bye bye Bocas

Bye Bye Bocas

By betsyrubiner

Having a knowledgable generous b&B owner is a great thing – and that’s what Douglas, the owner of  the lovely Cocomo on the Sea B&B in Bocas del Toro was like.  He not only patiently answered my questions about where to eat and what to do – but took the time to really fill us in, giving us several options. This morning, after a delicious breakfast with four other guests (three who were Russian, another from Connecticut), he invited us into his living room – of sorts, a breezy room overlooking the ocean filled with antiques and knicknacks from various adventures, put on a little Billie Holiday and discussed our options. Then he rode his bike into town to find us a water taxi driver and minutes later, the boat pulled up to the dock at the B&B and off we went speeding across the ocean to a neighboring island with the beautiful Red Frog Beach. There we met a trim enthusiastic yank in a golf cart who offered to drive us to the beach which was only an eight minute walk away from the marina (which had nothing but boats and a welcome desk where we gladly paid $3 entrance fee). She showed us another beach just beyond Red Frog (Turtle beach)  that was even lovelier than Red Frog – and we had all to ourselves for awhile. She was a former Minnesotan who now works at a resort on the island we were visiting – doing massages and yoga and she’s also a “fire dancer” who performed recently for Jimmy Buffet when his boat passed through. these are the kind of people you meet in places like Bocas and it’s fun – and of course makes you question your choices and in my case why I didn’t take the next big step after world wandering — by becoming a bonafide ex pat.

More later – we’ve just landed at a mediocre hotel in panama city that we picked because it was cheap and near the airport which we fly out of tomorrow to return home. But first, one last dinner in Panama City – at La Posta.

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Yes, we’re still in Panama

sorry for the gap in blogging – didn’t have internet access at our lodging in Boquete and just got it here in Bocas Del Toro. We spent three days in Boquete at a coffee plantation high high high on a mountain overlooking a gorgeous valley and adjacent mountain range. Will blog more when have more time. Today, within three hours drive, we were in a completely different world, the afro-caribean beach town of Bocas Del Toro. last night  I was cold when I went to bed. Tonight, I’m hot. Competely different scene as well.

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Chance encounters with young travelers in Panama City

We met two bubbly American girls last night outside the famous Panama City restaurant Tinajas and listening to their stories, told with smiles and laughter and a sunny self-asssurance, reminded me of myself at their age. Once, long long ago, I was a college junior on a  semester abroad (in London, not Panama City) and I knew, just knew, that this was not only one of my happiest chapters to date but would be one of my happiest chapters in my life to come.

The girls were both juniors studying to be port inspectors at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy – and had a one-month internship to work at the Panama Canal. They got to climb aboard huge freighters from Turkey and Russia and presumably see them through the canal – how cool is that? They were two of only four girls in a group of 12 doing this internship and apparently ports are still primarily staffed by men but they seemed completely unfazed by this and confident that they could do whatever they wanted. Good for them!

This morning, my stomach finally succumbed to whatever the Panamanian version of Montezuma’s revenge is. Maybe not that bad. I just had the runs and beyond that was dragging around with little energy in the intense heavy heat. Bit of a bummer since this was the morning for a guided tour of Panama City – but I made it and as expected really liked the faded glory of the Casa Viejo, the former colonial zone, which is undergoing a slow painstaking revamping. For every four or five crumbling building with peeling paint and sagging balconies, thereis an impeccably renovated colonial beauty – reminded me of how much fun New York City’s Soho neighborhood was in the 1970s when my mom took me there to meet artists she was scouting out to show in my parent’s gallery in suburban Detroit. There was a surprise on every other block – a great restored loft or cool boutique or gallery surrounded by rundown buildings. Now that element of surprise is way past in Soho and I hope that doesn’t become the case in Casa Viejo.

To my amazement, the sun has just come out in full force and everything is green and lush again, minutes after an intense rain storm that made the islands outside our hotel and the freighters lined up to enter the canal disappear into a grey and cloudy haze. I sat on the balcony and watched the storm roll in, listening to the sound of the wind blowing it past and couldn’t have been happier.

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Panama – from a cashew farm to Panamanian dancing

Very full day which began at 8 a.m. in a minibus full of game-for-anything Iowa farmers, who set off to visit some Panamanian farms about 120 miles west of Panama City on – as Panamanians would say – “the Pacific side.” The ride was bumpier and longer than expected – almost three hours – but we did get to see stuff your everyday tourist doesn’t. In this case, first stop was a cashew “factory” – a very small operation. We learned that cashews grow on trees, in the form of a fleshy, fist -sized creamy yellowish-orange fruit with a cashew-shaped shell-encased nut growing out of the bottom. Very strange. Our host – who owns the company – picked one of these fruits for us to taste – and then we walked through a very small rudimentary “factory” where we watched a few young men working to shell the cashews, using a foot-pedal operated machine, almost like a vise, to crack open the oily shell and pick out the nuts. These guys do this for hours on end for pay that, if I understood the guide correctly, amounts to $1.25 per hour. Yeesh.

From there we went to a sugar cane operation – driving our bus down rutted dirt roads with high fields of leafy sugar can stalks on either side and the occasional field of onions. As a fire burned in the distance – sugar cane fields are best harvested after they’ve been set afire, we learned – we watched a guy operate a combine-of-sorts to cut the cane. And our guide took what looked like thick sticks, shaved them with a knife until they were a yellowish core which – amazingly enough – tasted wonderfully sweet with odd woody texture. Sugar in the raw!

We stopped on the way back at a remarkable restaurant that was an homage to horses – I’ll try to get the name – and sat in big wooden chairs at long wooden tables with a vaulted ceiling made of rough-hewn wood beams and what looked an awful lot like thousands of pieces of sugar cane but probably wasn’t. We had ceviche, rice and a creamy chicken dish (always these heavy dishes on very hot days) and salad.

Tonight we went with another couple into Panama City to the famous Tinajas Restaurant – okay very touristy but such fun. We ate ceviche (can’t get enough of the stuff) and jumbo shrimp in coconut sauce and drank pina coladas and Balboa beer and best of all, watched a floor show of Panamanian dancers accompanied by percussion players (bongos, maraches, accordion, a tiny female singer who could really belt out those traditional songs.) Great performers – one of whom pulled me up to dance with him, which was a kick – and interesting that the crowd included not just American tourists but what appeared to be many Panamanians and/or people from other Latin American countries.  At the end of the evening,we met two adorable college girls from the Massachusetts Maritime Academy who are doing an intern here  – working at the Panama Canal. They’re studying to work for the port authority – and have gotten to board some of the massive vessel, one from Turkey, another from Russia, that crawl through the canal. How cool is that? Makes me feel like a young carefree explorer again – which isn’t something I’ve felt in some time.


Filed under Agritourism, DINING, Panama

Panama at last!

Sorry it’s taken me a few days to blog – been on the run nonstop and didn’t have internet access until just now. We’re having an incredible time. Spent first two days based at the Gamboa Rainforest Resort – set in a lush steamy tropical jungle along a muddy river with gorgeous grounds. Went on a guided trip to the Embera Indian Village – which we got to via dug out canoes with outboard motors where we were greeted by scantily clad native people who served us fish and plantains wrapped in a banana leaf, performed some dances and explained their culture. Today was a daylong visit to the Panama Canal – starting with breakfast overlooking the miraflora locks and a presentation by U.S. Embassy Ag staff, then a ride – very long and slow but fascinating – down about 1/2 of the 50 mile canal. Behind us – and i mean right behind us when we got to the locks – was an absolutely enormous freighter (pretty spooky to have that gaining behind us) and in the channel and lock beside us an enormous cruise ship. Tonight we had a lovely dinner at Cafe Barko on the Amadeor Causeway. Now we’re happily settled at our latest incredible hotel – the Intercontinental Playa Bonita Resort on the Pacific, about 20 miles west of downtown Panama City. I could get use to this!!!

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Dreaming of: Panama

What better way to spend a gray, snowy, very cold January day in Iowa than reading up on Panama, where we’ll be in less than a month. I’ve got most of the itinerary nailed down except the last day or so when we have to somehow get from Boquete in the western highlands to the Bocas, del Toro, the Caribbean town to the north and west. Driving our rental car appears to be out since there’s no drop off. So we’ll either take a bus or hire a driver. It’s the one place I’m not sure we’ll really like so won’t be there that long – only one night – but am curious to see.

I did find about that with the rental car, buying the agency’s insurance is mandatory – unless your credit card company covers. Which I think ours does. But need to check.

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Boquete, Panama – where to stay

This tends to happen – I narrow down our choice of lodging to two options, then am completely torn on which to pick.  And I’m left parsing guidebook descriptions and over-analyzing website photos. My choices in Boquete boil down to two places – one a little more upscale and expensive than the other.  Do we go for the small inn – only three bungalows spread out across a six-acre coffee farm – for $145 per night, with gorgeous grounds or the larger livelier less-secluded eco-lodge/old farm-house w/16 room on a 500-acre coffee farm-  for $99 a night, not quite as gorgeous grounds but still stunning views, with more people around and an on-site nature guide? Oh and one more thing – we’re running up against the non-refundable deposit issue. With the inn, if we have to cancel we’re out $145 (our first night’s stay); the other place doesn’t have that kind of penalty.


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