Saturday, February 14, 2009

Back to Reality

Heading Home!

All good things seemingly must come to an end. As we leave Panama the weather forecast in Chelan is for snow this week. We may not have timed this vacation in Panama quite right. Maybe another two weeks would have kept us basking in the pool rather than in possible snow drifts. In any case, I hope the articles of the blog have been of interest and maybe cheered you up in whatever cold clime you may be in. If you are just arriving at this travel blog, a quick index tutorial is that 2007 was our winter sojourn in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico; 2008 was both islands of New Zealand with short breaks in Fiji and Tahiti, and this year of 2009 our adventure were in Panama. Please enjoy the 15,000 words of scintillating description and several hundred photos on the blog and in the web album.

A Lot of Time Off The Bench

By Judge Thomas C. Warren (Ret.}
Chelan, WA (or somewhere in the world)

The Panama Adventure – Part I

Our travel addiction does have some structure to it. Prior to retirement we decided that we did not want to go the same place each year, nor be tied into a condo in Arizona, or a time-share in Mexico. Our plan was to go to a different country each winter, preferably to a location where the average temperature was not 30 degrees Fahrenheit, like it seemingly is in Chelan during January and February.

Our requirements for a destination condo have been pretty simple. We require a washer-dryer, a safe location (within reason!), a kitchen, a second bedroom so our friends can visit, a neighborhood with a lot of restaurants and things to do, and of course high speed internet access. So far we have been doing pretty well. In 2007 we totally enjoyed San Miguel de Allende, Mexico; in 2008 we travelled and stayed all over both islands of New Zealand; and in 2009 we have had a lot of fun in Panama City, Panama, a country we had never visited before. Who knows what the future will bring? Do you have a suggestion for our destination next year? If so, send me an email ( with your suggestion.

So, why did we select Panama this year? During the summer and fall planning time, I was somewhat concerned with the strength of the dollar versus the euro and the British pound. Little did I anticipate that the dollar would make great gains (or did they come down to the weak dollar) against both currencies because of the worldwide economic downturn. Panama, although its official currency is the Balboa, actually operates on the U.S. dollar. Panama looked like it would have lots to do, with the growth of Panama City, the canal, and its history. The country is considered the safest in Central America and is touted as having no more of a crime problem than the United States. Panama was picked by Budget Travel Magazine as one of the top 10 travel destinations for 2009. Two bonus factors in our decision were that we could fly here with Alaska Airlines partner frequent flyer miles, and it is warm, warm, and hot!

We were delighted to find a very comfortable condo in the El Cangrejo neighborhood of downtown Panama City. This year I used a website called VRBO (Vacation Rentals By Owner). This site is great for finding short or long term apartment and condo rentals all over the world including the United States. The web pages generally give you the price of the rental and a calendar to check on availability. You deal directly, either by phone or email, with the actual owner of the unit. Our owner lives in Silver Springs, Maryland and was very helpful with local suggestions, and the bonus of Enrique, who keeps track of the property and provides airport pickup and departure service.

Our condo was a two bedroom, three bathroom unit on the 16th floor of a brand new high-rise in a neighborhood with a tree lined boulevard, a nearby park and many of the top rated restaurants in Panama City. The building has a swimming pool on the roof (23rd floor) and it has been fun to watch people and furniture moving in as the building has been filling up. You can look at photos and details of Unit 16A by going to the VRBO webpage at:

In Part II of the Panama Adventure, I will tell you about what we thought were the Top 10 things we enjoyed in our months’ stay in Panama City. For an in depth look at our vacation in Panama check out my travel blog at,

For those of you who just like to look at the pictures, Mary Ann has put together a web album on the internet, which I am sure that you will enjoy. It can be found and viewed at:
You can view it as a slide show by clicking “slide show” just below the bold Panama Web Album 2009.

© Thomas C. Warren 2009

A Lot of Time Off The Bench

By Judge Thomas C. Warren (Ret.)
Chelan, WA (or somewhere in the world)

The Panama Adventure – Part II

In my last travel article (expose’) I discussed how we selected Panama and found our condo. We spent 30 days in Panama and so we explored a lot of things, mostly in or near Panama City. We did not do the ecology tourist “thing” and head for the jungle or the outlying islands. Maybe if we had a better experience with driving we would have gone further afield. In any case it was, as any new country experience can be, a wonderful discovery of a different life style and culture. You can get an in depth feel for our “discovery” by reading the travel blog which is cited at the end of this article. As a brief snapshot of what we enjoyed and discovered the following are our “top 10” Panama experiences:

(1) The Canal, the Canal, the Canal: Whenever you think about Panama, the first thing that clicks into your mind is the canal. The same happens in Panama. It is such an integral part of life here (and for tourists) that it is about the first thing you do when visiting. We visited the locks or the canal four times while here for our 30 days. And it is a great spectacle which kind of mesmerizes you as you view the activity. The tourist authorities here justifiably call it the 8th wonder of the world.

(2) Casco Viejo: I have not been to Havana, but I suspect that Casco Viejo might be similar. Old Spanish buildings, narrow streets, classic old homes and a lot of ambience make visiting a must. Because of the native craft shopping opportunities for the “world’s greatest shopper” we visited the old town four times, the last time just to get those once in a life time family gifts.

(3) Panama ViejoBold: Although the first Panama is in a state of ruins, the clean up and restoration of several of the buildings has been a first class archeological effort. The site and the museum give you a good perspective on the founding of modern Panama (1519) and the life of the conquistadors. Visiting Panama Viejo sets you up very well for enjoying the second city of Casco Viejo.

(4) Zoom, zoom criss-crossing Panama City by taxi: After we aborted the idea of a rental car, due to the chaos of driving with out stop lights, stop signs, and street signs, we became daily users of the thousands of taxies here in Panama City. Depending on the time of day, the zoom-zoom can become crawl-crawl which just makes it a challenge for the taxi drivers to find a quicker back street. Rarely did a cab fare exceed $5, unless you were headed to the airport or to the Miraflores locks on the canal.

(5) Restaurants: In the downtown areas where most of the gringos are staying, including us you can hardly walk a hundred feet without another restaurant or café. We probably ate at 30 or more different places and had a lot of fun doing it. Native Panamanian dishes are a bit suspect, but like all over the world Italian food is a hit, and we ate in at least four or five different pasta or pizza places. Do you want Mexican, no problem? Steaks or international cuisine, there are many options. If you see photos of us on the blog or web album, you can be assured we have not lost any weight!

(6) Relaxing at the condo: So what is a vacation for? If you are staying in a comfortable new condo on the 16th floor of a new building with fantastic views, you should spend time there. Besides I need a lot of time for writing or surfing the net, and Mary Ann has books to read!

(7) Walking our neighborhood: I don’t think you could stay in a better neighborhood than El Cangrejo. Via Argentina is as good as it gets with a tree lined median, a lot of restaurants and businesses, a public park, and beautiful Panamanians around all the time. Just a short walk to the west is the hotel district and one block to the south is Via Espana, one of the major cross town thoroughfares. We walk somewhere in the area every day and there is always something new and fun to see.

(8) Enjoying the culture: As you can tell, if you read my travel blog, I try to view how different people live. I thoroughly love trying to figure out their politics, read their news, watch and enjoy the children and the handsome men and beautiful women. For someone who likes to cultivate his skills of observation, maybe it will even improve my skills of description.

(9) Isla Taboga: It was fun and a change of pace to take the daytrip to the island south of the city in the Pacific Ocean. We had a kick laughing about our problems of finding a Panama beach. This venture also was neat as we met and talked with a lot of other travelers and learned their perspective on the “Panama Experience”. Taboga is a beautiful pristine island and lives up to their slogan of Island of Flowers.

(10) A beautiful modern city: This city is just exploding with new buildings and they all seem to be going straight up. The city itself is not really very large, but it sure is increasing their density. When you view the skyline, from any direction, it is hard to believe that it isn’t just a mirage. I suspect that the same feeling comes from viewing Dubai. Hmmm, maybe we should check that out next.

For a more in-depth look at our vacation and adventure in Panama check out my travel blog at, If you just like to look at the pictures, Mary Ann, with her love of children and flowers, has put together an excellent web album on the internet that can be found at: You can view it as a “slide show” by clicking “slide show” just below the bold Panama Web Album 2009.

© Thomas C. Warren 2009

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A few websites to help you consider Panama

Any time I am planning a trip, particularly out of the United States, I usually research in two different ways. I always buy a guide book. This trip I used Fodor’s Panama, which was just OK, but is was the newest one on the market. My other source of information is going to the travel websites and English language newspapers for the country. A few of those websites that will help you with Panama are: Click on the U.S flag at the top for English translation

Cafe Dolce & Chef Angel

I had been wandering through a few Panama blogs and had come across two reviews of a breakfast café on Via Argentina, just three blocks from our condo. As a morning change of routine we headed for the café to have a cappuccino and a muffin. We were greeted warmly by a Panamanian young man who had very good English. When we received our order I asked him where he had learned his English. He told me when he was a boy he watched Channel 8 in Panama City and learned his English from Sesame Street. We told him that was how our kids learned their alphabet and numbers, so it is a worldwide phenomenon.

The owner (Chef Angel aka Angie) walked in and greeted us in perfect English (maybe because she is Canadian) and we had a delightful long discussion. She was originally from Toronto. She has been in Panama for twelve years, coming from a business in Costa Rica, with some time out with her husband in Libya, unfortunately where he died. They had come to Panama originally for his job helping build the Centennial Bridge. After returning from Libya, she (already a chef by trade) bought the little café about a year ago.

She obviously is strong of purpose and completely remodeled and staffed the restaurant in two weeks, much to the surprise of the manana Panamanians. She has a “Mary Ann” employer philosophy about service, and training her employees to grow in the job. The café is cozy and fun and also has the benefit of an English language book exchange. We had so much fun we will be heading back for a full breakfast on Sunday (and relieve us of the weight of the books we don’t want to haul home).

P.S. We did have Sunday breakfast, which was excellent, including the breakfast wrap and fruit plate for Mary Ann, and the complete desayuno for me. We had another wide ranging discussion with Angel about life and problems in Panama, which included the local garbage problem to avoiding sudden death crossing the street, amongst many diverse subjects.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Panamanians sure do enjoy their politics!

Oh, no! Are we running out of books?

When we travel for any length of time our suit cases are always about 1/3 full of books. I get in the most trouble if I dare take along a hardback book. You have to worry about the weight you know, but don’t worry about all those changes of clothes! Mary Ann is a voracious reader, in lieu of being a gambler or wild late night dance club fan. My vice instead, is the internet and travel writing, which requires the carrying of a laptop.

Back to the book problem. When you are going through, on average, a book a day you do not want to have a crisis like running out of books. For this trip to Panama, that requires a whopping 30 books just for Mary Ann, and four or five for me. Now, Mall Boyd left three books, but you just cannot have enough back-ups. My goodness, we might have to talk to each other all of the time. Curses!

As a dutiful husband and travel researcher, I was able to find a very nice independent Panama City bookstore that included a fairly large English language section. The good news was that the ExedraBooks was within walking distance of our condo, at the corner of Via Espana and Avenue Brazil. Whew, we found a couple of mysteries so we might make it back home!

Monday, February 9, 2009

Yikes! Keep your eyes on the sidewalk.

Quirky Living Note: I have, early in our visit to Panama, mentioned some pretty dangerous walking situations, even in our tree-lined upscale neighborhood. The most surprising are the square or rectangular holes in the sidewalk caused by the theft of the metal covers over the gas meters. They look like they have been uncovered for a long time. If you tripped into one of the holes you could surely expect a broken ankle or worse. My suspicion is that the covers have been stolen by those who would resell them to recyclers.

Testimonial to Our Great Hosting Skills!

Leena & Mall in the good old days - prior to the taxi ride!

When we sent our guests, Mall and Leena, off to the airport at 7:30 a.m., there did not seem to be very many cabs about. So, when a cab came by, and it turned out to be a pickup, that was also a crew cab taxi, I flagged it down. Mary Ann when she looked at it says, “Maybe we should wait for another taxi”, Mall says, “oh no problem” and they pile in. And thus the story unfolds:

Dear Tom and Mary Ann -

I'm a bit overwhelmed with the mail on my desk, in my computer and in voice messages - all wanting responses. So this is a very quick, but heartfelt note to thank you for a wonderful week in Panama. I can't believe how quickly the time passed!

And thank you for the memorable send off. It couldn't have been scripted more perfectly. We piled into our yellow pickup truck, remembering Mary Anne's protestations that we should secure a "regular" taxi. It was an adventure! Mall and I are convinced that this particular driver hasn't made many airport trips. Fortunately we were reverse commuters (that doesn't mean he spent a lot of time in reverse, but he certainly seemed to weigh that option accessing the toll road) and traffic in our direction was relatively light. After lots of horn honks (at us) and rumbling over many of the yellow road bumps, and slow downs along the shoulder of the road, we were on the toll road headed in the right direction - Mall with her eyes closed (the wind whipping her freshly coiffed hair into her face and eyes and the fear of a contact lens being flicked from an eye a genuine concern; plus she couldn't see anyway because the line paint on the front windshield was so low); I was snuggled in the back between the 2 suitcases noting there was no dial on the speedometer (not that it mattered anyway). We were able to ask "how much" for the fare by drawing a dollar sign with a question mark - $25.
We truly hoped he was able to pick up another fare for his trip back to the city. Mall had the most astonishing comb over (I'm sorry there's no picture; I almost hated giving her my brush, but then again I was being seen with her.

The rest of the trip was uneventful. We arrived in Houston a little early, easily cleared customs and settled into our seats for Seattle. Both flights (Panama City to Houston and Houston to SEA) were packed. I left Mall at SeaTac and got home before 7PM with a happy husband and to an equally happy dog. I must confess I was in bed between 8:30 and 9; woke at 3 but managed to sleep a little longer and got up 5:45 this morning. It's a nice day - supposed to reach 50.

Hopefully you have, or are recovering from our visit. I can't believe how much we were able to do (and actually how much there was to do) in a week. Thank you so much!

When it begins to rain, which it is supposed to do tomorrow, I'll be thinking of you basking in the 90 degree sunshine, feet up, having taken a dip in the pool, with your rum drinks in hand!

Truly – Leena DerYuen

Hi Tom & Mary Ann – Thank you for a wonderful week – it really was fun – you are such great hosts!

I am wading through my 264 emails before I get to the piles of paper mail stacked on my desk (but only 7 voicemails), but I in getting Leena’s email I thought I had better pause to say thank you and to add my two cents on the taxi ride. As Leena said, getting to the airport truly was an adventure.

I was too tall to be able to see through the front windshield as the top half was painted with an opaque paint so I just saw the area immediately in front of the cab – lots of close up views of bumpers – but even if every car and truck hadn’t blared their horn at us as they careened by too close for comfort, I could tell we weren’t supposed to be stopped on the area striped with yellow and having hobnail style bumps for emphasis, but we were finally able to get onto the exit ramp. But, after going through all that effort to get on that road, the driver decided that it wasn’t where he wanted to be, but totally undaunted and without a perceptible change of speed, we drove over the curb, through the median and then lurched down the other curb into the lane of traffic. But, it all worked out. I’m so glad Mary Ann wasn’t there with her camera – Leena took one look at me when we got out of the cab and doubled over with laughter – I believe my hairdo would have made both Donald Trump and Rod Blagojevich quite jealous. We laughed so hard – it was quite the ending to what had been a great week.

Enjoy your remaining time in Panama and remember to drink lots of rum!

Mall Boyd

(Editor’s Note: We are not really becoming confirmed alcoholics with all the references to rum. Mall & Leena bought us a bottle of rum when our modest bottle was getting low. I don’t know what we were thinking, but we now have a huge 980 milliliter bottle, mostly full, to drink in our last week. I think Enrique will receive a nice present!)

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Another Canal Perspective

Although we had previously been to the Miraflores Canal locks visitors center, we thought Mall and Leena would enjoy seeing the transiting ships from up high. We and they had gone through the locks at water level a few days ago, but the visitor center gives quite another view. The top viewing deck is four stories above the locks and you can view operations from every direction.
We arrived at a perfect time as two huge freighters were just entering the southern lock and one was exiting the northern lock. We were able to watch the complete operation of both locks for the ships, in both locks, which takes about a half an hour to complete. During the fill time of the lock we were also able to fit in the orientation movie and get back to the viewing level.

On this trip to Miraflores we also were able to go through the museum which is very well done. It is spread over all four levels of the center with escalators taking you up to the next level with windows along the escalator overlooking the locks. On the first floor was the history of the canal construction, on the second floor was an exhibit of insects, animals and other gremlins from the rain forests of Panama, the third floor was a great interactive demonstration of how the locks operate and the ships navigate the canal, and the fourth floor was an exhibit of how the new third lock is being constructed.

A little bit of trivia is that in our condo building the bottom floor elevator button has a designation of PB and the roof top is designated AS. We have humorously referred to them as “peanut butter” and “always sunny”. In the Miraflores elevator, at least the PB was revealed. It stands for planta baja which was translated as ground floor. We are sure that some time AS will likewise be revealed to us!

On the way back from Miraflores we stopped for lunch at the Albrook Mall and revealed to our guests the modern contrast with the other parts of Panama City we have visited. Our taxi fares for the various legs were $20, $10 and $3.50. You just never know!
Quirky Living Note: In many foreign countries you are often accosted, when you are stopped at an intersection, with the young kids trying to wash (or smear) your windshield. Here in Panama, the middle of the street vendors, have put a new twist on the products they are selling. You frequently see young men passing between the lanes of traffic with pine tree car fresheners and little decals with the Virgin Mary inside a heart. You see these decals on the back of many cars. With the driving tactics here you really do need some divine intervention.

A Few More Observtions

Diablo Rojos Bus

Lottery Ticket Sellers

A lot of the fun of foreign travel is just looking at what is different and unusual. Very mind expanding and it completely changes a gringo’s perspective on the visited country.

Cell Phones – Cell phones have certainly changed the world. However, when in foreign countries that previously did not have the hard line infrastructure, cell phone sales and use are just amazing. It seems to me that about every third store in Panama City is a cell phone retailer. Cell phone advertising is all over the TV and on the billboards.

Gasoline Prices – I don’t think that Panama has any gas resources, thus it is imported. The price for 91 octane per gallon is $2.08, somewhat higher than in Washington when we left. Because of buying gas from Venezuela, Central America is creating quite a relationship with Venezuelan President Chavez.

Diablo Rojos – The recycled school buses, with all the bright paint, are called Diablo Rojos, the red devils. The government last year decided to phase out (?) these private entrepreneurs. Funding for 500 new air-conditioned comfortable buses, run by the government, was provided with the first 100 to arrive this spring. The issue has become a big political argument in the national election.

Miami Herald – Panama Edition - The major newspaper in Panama City is La Prensa (the Press). To keep the Anglo English speakers up with all the news that is fit to print, the Miami Herald is at all the news stands every day. It includes two pages at the end of the second section with local Panama news provided by La Prensa. For a newspaper addict like me this is a wonderful service and keeps me up with the world and Panama. The Miami Herald costs 75 cents.

Lottery Ticket Private Enterprise – Worldwide everyone wants to hit it rich. Here in Panama lottery tickets are sold all over the place, mostly by private vendors sitting at tables in front of supermarkets. They have a lot of books of tickets laid out and which the purchasers pour over looking for, I assume their lucky numbers. You also see vendors in street intersections, with strings of tickets, selling to drivers on their way to some destination. I have not yet figured out how to determine if you have won!

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Eating Splurge

I do not write a lot about what we eat, or where we eat, but one restaurant we have enjoyed deserves some comment. Mall and Leena wanted to take us out for an upscale dinner, so who am I to complain! I of course picked the TripAdvisor number one rated restaurant for Panama. It is also referred to in Fodor’s as the most elegant of Panama’s Spanish restaurants. The restaurant is the Angel Restaurante, and fortunately for us, is located just a couple of blocks up Via Argentina.

The format for most Panama City restaurants is a combination of air-conditioned inside and open air deck or patio along the street. The Angel is a traditional inside white table cloth, elegantly decorated, beautiful paintings, dark wood, and exquisite service top end restaurant. As typical gringos we seem to arrive before anyone else, about 8 p.m. It was nicely filling by the time we finished about 9:45 p.m. Our dinner began with a very nice Spanish red wine, then onto lobster bisque, seafood soup, and shared white asparagus (at least shared by Mall and Leena).

Our entrée’s included filet mignon with port sauce and mushrooms, medallions of beef, two versions of grouper, and side dishes of rice and boiled potatoes. By the time we finished we were full to the brim, but did salivate over the desserts delivered to our table, but which we were able to show admirable restraint. All in all, it was a great dinner for a total of $115 for the four of us. Food, even at the top of the eating scale, is very affordable in Panama.
A second spurge later on in the month was to 1985. This is a restaurant near the hotel district that is designed as a swiss chalet (and a swiss owner-chef I presume). It was an excellent dinner with great decor (translate that as good art) in an elegant dining room. The chicken and veal entres' and soup appetizers were superb. It however was a little more pricey than we usually found.

Friday, February 6, 2009

View Mary Ann's Web Album

My favorite photographer Mary Ann, has put 116 Panama photos onto a web album that you can access on a separate website. So, if you prefer photos to words, this is the deal for you! The photos have been organized by various categories for easy viewing. Some have been or will also be seen on my blog. Enjoy! Here is the internet address:
To operate the slide show, just click slide show below and to the left of the bold "Panama Web Album 2009".

Hurrah! We Found a Beach.

This time though, we went by water which I think really increases the odds. About 12 miles south of Panama City in the Bay of Panama are several islands, one of which is the Isla Taboga. It is a gem of a destination with one little town, few cars (only delivery trucks) and golf carts to wander the streets, which are really just sidewalks. There is a daily ferry which on the weekends goes to and fro three times, so you can easily decide how much beach time, or walking time, or eating time you want to spend. The ferry leaves from Isla Noa on the Amador Causeway.

The ride just costs $11 round trip for the 45 minutes and can handle about 150 people on the Calypso Queen. When you buy your ticket they also require you to select the time and day of your return, so no one gets disappointed about not being able to return to Panama City. On the way over we had a delightful talk with a U.S. Naval captain from Washington, D.C. who has been to Panama many times. I started the conversation because he was wearing a University of Virginia logo t-shirt that just shoes the two color V, so he was pretty surprised someone recognized it. Visiting Amanda in Charlottesville all those times was good for something. To complete the family connection he had gotten his graduate degree from William and Mary. In all his time in Panama he had never before been to Taboga. Now you know how the travelling Warren’s are on the leading edge of adventure travel!

A real saving grace for the day was that it was overcast, so the temperatures were pleasant and I think the daily temperature was in the mid-80’s. We did have a 10 minute shower around lunch time. The ferry cruises in an out of all the freighters waiting in the Bay for their transit of the Canal. At anchor was a large cruise ship that was disgorging its passengers for day trips to Panama City venues. A tip off was that when our taxi entered onto the causeway about 9:30 a.m., the large air conditioned buses were headed down the causeway from Flamenco Marina.
Taboga is a very nice day trip for the tourists, and the native Panamanians. The locals are carrying their coolers, food bags, and all the stuff you need for a grand day on the beach. When you get off the boat you are greeted by beach umbrella rental salesmen, all gesturing with their arms like they are singing the YMCA song. It must be an easy to understand universal language. If you are staying at one of the two or three hotels you are greeted by a pickup or golf cart that hauls you and your stuff down the sidewalks.

The town, San Pedro, is spread out above the beach and can’t stretch for more than a mile. We walk all the paved sidewalks to the end of town and out to the beaches. It is very charming and they have some nicely designed new homes. We bumped into a nice lady from Baltimore who now lives in Taboga. She said she can’t stand the cold of the north, and when it gets down to 50 degrees, she is soaking up the Panama heat on the island. The island natives seemed very laid back, smiling and in no rush. There were some workmen pouring concrete on the Promenade and I suspect that they will finish sometime around Saint Patrick’s Day. All counted, I think that there are less than 1000 people living in Taboga.

We were not planning to swim, so in our setting of priorities, we searched out a nice place for a leisurely lunch. By luck we ended up at the Vereda Tropical Hotel, which is the top rated restaurant by Fodor’s. At the next table was another gringo couple which I had spoken with on the boat. They were from Dubuque, Iowa and had been in Panama since mid-December, mostly in the northern island areas and eco areas of the Panama states near Costa Rica. Surprisingly, he just retired as a trial judge. Small world! Lunch was great, with the breezes off the Pacific and the views of the harbor.

When we got back to the pier (there is only one so it is hard to get confused), we sat in the shade read or talked and waited for the boat in a very relaxed attitude. We met a guy from Toronto who had been on extended travels. My harem of ladies is still panting about this very handsome guy. He could have been Bret Farve’s brother. I was also talked to by a young Panamanian about how to get into the package tour business. I of course gave him suggestions, worth all of the price of the advice. On the returning boat all the local teenagers were all hyped up singing, dancing and playing around with there digital cameras. Like kids everywhere! It was a great day and a very nice inexpensive day trip.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Political Update

Two events happened last week that seem to be dominating the local political races. The CD candidate Ricardo Martinelli struck an alliance with Juan Carlos Varela of the Panemeňista Party. Varela was running for president supported by his party, but now will be the Vice President candidate with Martinelli. In the 2004 election the Panemeňista Party received 19.2% of the popular vote and had 17 of 78 seats in the National Assembly.

It was also reported that recently Balbina Herrera of the PRD party received a $550,000 legal settlement from the government dating from her prior business contract with the Colon Port having been cancelled. The opposition claims this is just more of the ruling party corruption. As I watched the Super Bowl on ESPN Desportes in Spanish, I saw that the CD was running political negative attack ads against Balbina over this issue.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Quirky Living Note: We all know what the yellow paint is for on a street corner. But here in Panama it surely does not mean “no parking”. It apparently means that it is reserved for a car wash. You will see on many busy corners (and our corner on Via Argentina is one hummer of a busy corner) a man sitting at the corner with a plastic bucket and some bottles and rags. You just drive up, park on the corner in the yellow zone, go have coffee at a café, and have your car washed. It is so practical I don’t understand why this free enterprise opportunity has not caught on in the United States!

Transiting the Canal

Leaving Gamboa & Gatun Lake

Under the Pan American Bridge over the canal

The mules which pull the ships in the locks

Crammed into the lock

Through the Gallaird Cut & under Centennial Bridge

Passing ship with mandatory attached tug

Miraflores Visitor Center viewed from the canal

Well, technically we did a partial transit of the canal. We had been waiting for Mall and Leena to arrive before we actually did what has to be one of the highlights of any visit to Panama. In our case, we signed up for a tour boat that started at the Flamenco Marina on the Amador Causeway. We took a bus from the marina along the canal to Gamboa, which is located at the southern end of Gatun Lake. Gamboa is where the Chagres River flows into the lake. The Chagres is the source of all the water for the canal and provides for the gravity flow locks at both canal entrances.

In Gamboa we boarded the tour boat, the Pacific Queen, which handled about 300 passengers. We then proceeded south into the Culebra Cut, which was the major excavating part of the canal construction. This was where the canal crosses the continental divide before arriving in Panama City. Our transit was timed for arrival at the Pedro Miguel locks for the direction change which occurs at noon. In the morning the ships in the canal are going north through the canal and locks towards Colón, and then at noon the direction switches to permit a south transit.

As we reached the Pedro Miguel locks, just past the Gaillard cut (which caused the French downfall and end for their canal construction efforts) we were served lunch as we were one of the first ships into the canal, along with a freighter who had bad timing, and was waiting for 12 hours. As we were cruising through the cuts, the new construction and widening was pointed out for the new 3rd lock which will handle the super ships. The new lock is scheduled to come on-line in 2014, the 100th anniversary of the opening of the canal, and after an investment of $5.6 billion dollars.

After completing the Pedro Miguel lock it is a very short trip to the Miraflores lock, where you have a double lock, requiring two separate drops, to get to the level of the Pacific Ocean. Leaving the lock we entered Panama Bay and the Pacific for our return to Flamenco Island and the Marina. As you exit the canal area the boat passes by all the ships waiting for their north transit to begin at midnight. The system of priority is that when they reach the waiting areas, they contact the Panama Canal Authority and you are put into the queue. Depending on how many ships are waiting (they take 36 ships each day) it could take several days until the transit. To avoid destroying fragile cargoes the ships can make reservations up to 18 months ahead, but you must arrive on the day of your reservation, or you go back to the end of the queue, and you lose your original fee (everything is paid in advance). I have to assume that this is what the cruise ships do, to keep on their sailing schedules. When the ship is told to proceed they are given a set time to be at the Miraflores lock, and the ship takes on the canal pilot who is the Captain of the ship until it exits at the other end of the canal.

Our 4½ hour experience was well worth the $115 per person. You can access more information and photos at the tour company website:

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Quirky Living Note: I have been seeing McDonald’s Restaurants (and using their bathrooms) all over the world. But, Panama City has what has to be the smallest McDonald’s ever. There seem to be several of these scattered around town. The one above is located in front of our Supermercado Rey on Via Espana. All they sell are two or three ice cream selections. Will we see these in U.S. cities and malls soon?

The Panama Deathmarch

Panama Viejo

Casco Viejo

Casco Viejo
We wanted to make sure Mall and Leena received the real history indoctrination about Panama City. Accordingly we began with the Visitor Center museum at Panama Viejo. Off for the walk along the bay and old city to the convent and cathedral. Today the Artesania Handicraft shops were open so we had to spend time in a very hot building (well they did, I sat outside and tried to find a cool breeze).

At the cathedral tower the building guide took a shine to us and walked the building, I think working on his English. To keep him going I started asking all the personal questions and found out he was 29, not married, the average marriage age in Panama, his grades in school, how many times a day he climbs the tower (only 2 or 3 as he has a bad knee) and all sorts of other really important information.

Next we took a cab all the way across town to Casco Viejo and spend another two or three hours exploring the old town. This time the canal museum was open so we check out the building of the canal, but only with Spanish story boards and signs. The building itself is beautiful and it was a pleasant air conditioned hour. We topped off the walk with visiting the French ice cream store for a second time.
Mary Ann did some shopping, but Mall and Leena really haven’t properly stepped up to the shopping plate yet. I don’t know what is going to become of the Panama economy!

Monday, February 2, 2009

Visiting Friends

Yesterday, Mall Boyd and her sister Leena Deryuen, arrived on the direct route, as compared to our scenic route that wandered around America. They flew to Houston and then on to Panama City on Continental Airlines. I followed them on their flight status website. Thus, I knew they were arriving 15 minutes early so we should get to Tocumen Airport a bit early. The flight actually arrived according to the arrivals board 25 minutes early, but there did not seem to be any Mall and Leena coming out of the customs doors. We waited and watched for nearly an hour. Did they miss the flight?

It seems that the Panama City International Airport is a bit small for some of their busier times. They ended up spending over 20 minutes on the runway waiting for a gate. After getting in the airport things went a bit better. With our car experiences, we had opted to go out to the airport by taxi. Even in evening rush hour, and a cautious taxi driver with an old car (we were passed by everyone), it only took us 30 minutes. The fare was $25. On the trip back we were given a van that was comfortable for all four of us, so Mary Ann was very pleased with the decision to forego a car.

To break in the visiting gringos, we spent the day exploring the El Cangrejo neighborhood and wandering in and out of the stores on Via Espana. They adapted to the sidewalks and heat just fine. Their only concern today was why we did not have any water in the pool! Enrique, our condo contact checked it out and found that there was a leak that was being fixed. Should be open in a couple of days, hmmm we’ll see. Mall and Leena are bridge players so we spent a couple of hours tuning up our bridge skills. Yikes, I don’t get any better hands in Panama than I do in Washington.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

More Panama Observations

One of our condo security guards

A tourist police man at Panama Viejo

As I promised, here are a few more of my personal observations about Panama:

Security – When you announce to people, prior to coming to Panama, and that you are going to actually live here for awhile, the first advice is to watch out for your safety. The protection here is kind of interesting. It is mostly private security. You do see police officers, police cars, and tourist police at the various visitor areas. However, the predominant police presence is the ubiquitous private security guard in front of various buildings and stores. I don’t know about their training but many of them carry weapons. The guard will be by the door even though you have to be buzzed into the store! Go figure? Such protection is kind of unusual, in that some stores that don’t even handle cash, like Hertz, have a guard and a buzzer locking system. However, a half a block away will be the Avis store with their door open. I suspect it is more for the personal feeling of safety for the gringos, rather than for any other reason. Your biggest risk here is being run over by a car! Oh, our condo building has a 24 hour security guard.

How formal should you dress? – We assumed that because we were coming to a very hot humid country, near the equator, that everyone would dress for the climate. I guess they either are really acclimated to the heat or just like to dress well. Rarely during the week do you see anyone wearing shorts, unless they are a gringo. All men wear tasteful dress or sport shirts and long pants. Most businesses have their women employee’s either in suits or uniforms of matching golf shirts. Panama reinforces my opinion that the United States is one of the worst dressed countries in the world.

Geography and destinations – I have alluded previously to the difficulty of getting around Panama City. There are really no addresses, few street signs, and fewer stop lights. If you are going to tell a cab driver where you want to go you just give him a geographical reference. For instance, if you want to get back to our condo, you just say “via Argentina – del Prado restaurante”. You will then be deposited a half block away from our condo. If you tell him our actual street number or the name of the condo you will get a blank stare. Therefore, a little prior planning is required. Write down the name of where you want to go, or some large building or site nearby, i.e. Casco Viejo, Miraflores locks, via Veneto, etc.

Canal Expansion Referendum – As I understand it, the Panamanian government dithered for several years about authorizing the expansion of the canal locks. Presently many of the super freighters are too big to go through the locks and so they are off loaded at one side or the other and the containers are shipped by train across the isthmus and reloaded at the other end. Finally in 2006 President Torrijos presented the expansion proposal to the citizens in a referendum. This was a big financial deal as the expansion will cost $5-6 billion dollars. The plan is to add a new third lock at Miraflores and Gatun which will be large enough to handle the larger ships. The new locks will be handled by water from holding bays and the locks will be large enough that ships can be moved in and out with tug boats, thus speeding up the transit process. The current locks can handle a ship with 5,000 containers. The new lock will be able to take a super ship with 12,000 containers. Amazingly the referendum passed with a 78% approval vote. The politicians were off the hook and the work could proceed. The website for the Canal Authority, which shows interesting photos and information about the expansion, is:

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Quirky Living Note: Having now traveled many, many times in Taxis, it seems that taxi drivers must be very patriotic. In nearly every cab there are little Panama flags stuck to the front windshield, with little suction cups just below the rearview mirror. I do believe most everyone is proud of their democracy and the progress of their country. What I want is the concession on all those little flags!

The Trifecta

Today was like winning the Trifecta as we visited the third of the huge mall complexes. This is a complex built up instead of out. It is a four story building combined with a large casino hotel in a neighborhood of new high rise apartment, business and condo buildings. The neighborhood is called Punta Paitilla. The neighborhood is sort of a bulge out into the bay. The mall is right on Avenida Balboa which is a main thoroughfare that runs along Panama Bay.
The area is very busy with a lot of construction due to a freeway with several overpasses being added to the area. Immediately adjacent to the mall building on the west side they are building a 23 story resort hotel. As with construction in the U.S. the government and press are concerned about the specter of overbuilding. From the number of apartment/condo complexes under construction all over the city the real estate speculators must be expecting a huge influx of immigration with a lot of money in their pockets. Some of the buildings already look like the pace of building is already feeling the pinch of the worldwide recession.

And did we buy anything at the mall? Mary Ann is often nagging me about my nearly bald head being exposed to the very hot sun. Thus, I broke down and finally bought the proverbial Panama hat. It says on the tag that it is a “genuine Panama hat” so I can only hope it came from Ecuador rather than China! I don’t really see too many men wearing Panama hats, so I can now be identified as a real gringo, assuming you could not spot me anyway. In any case the hat will be terrific for the hot summer at Lake Chelan.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Panama Viejo

Panama Viejo Convent of the Immaculate Conception

Panama Viejo Cathedral Tower

Our Taxi Driver assistant

Today the adventure was to the first founding site of Panama City. It was located on a native village (the tribe was called the Panama) by one of the Spanish conquistador’s in 1519. As it turned out they could not have found a poorer place to locate the city. The site did not have good water, it was not on a river (like the Spanish King had directed), could not be easily defended from attack, and was a cesspool of disease. How about that for urban planning? In the 1520’s and 1530’s Panama Viejo was the starting point of the expeditions to the Central and South Americas. The most famous was Francisco Pizarro’s to Peru.

For the next 160 years they struggled on at this location by adapting to the problems. They actually brought in drinking water in big jugs (the original bottled water?), dug drains to move off the rain water, constructed rain water cisterns, and built some significant stone buildings. The best ruins that remain are the churches and convents.

For many years the Spanish argued about moving the city to a better site. A catalyst for the move was the attack in 1671 by the English pirate Henry Morgan, who seized and destroyed the city, along with a great loss of life. The decision was then made to move the city to what is now known as Casco Viejo. Much of Casco Viejo was built with the stones and materials from the first city. The new city started with city walls and a defensible perimeter, thus protecting it right up to the present.

As vacationers we don’t really get an early start. The guide book suggests you get to the ruins by 9 a.m., as it gets very warm walking the old city between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Who are we to take such practical advice? We head out about 10:30 a.m. and thus spend two very hot hours exploring. Until recently the ruins of the first city had pretty much been ignored and had become covered with moss and trees to the point of hardly being recognizable. Around 1999 various interests came together to start restoration of the original city.

There is now a very nice visitor center which includes a museum of recovered artifacts, and the archeological center for ongoing restoration projects. After going through the museum we then spent a couple hours exploring the ruins. Various large Panamanian banks have invested in helping rebuild and restore some of the ruins. One of those occasional daily highlights occurred when we hailed a cab to get back home. The cab driver was obviously in charge of baby sitting today, so he had his darling little daughter helping drive today. Check out the photo above!

Thursday, January 29, 2009

How do all these American retailers get here?

The Albrook Bus Terminal

Central Food Court & carousel in Albrook Mall

The Zebra entrance to Albrook Mall

There is another huge, and I mean really huge, shopping mall in western Panama City. It is the Albrook Mall. Adjacent to the mall is the very big and very new bus terminal, where hundreds of both local and long distance buses, are coming and going. There are actually modern food courts in this exceptionally rider friendly terminal. The buses here are very rustic and not really for the gringo faint of heart. There seem to be a lot of old U.S. converted school buses. They are often, however, very gaily painted.

Albrook is in an area that was part of the former Canal Zone in the Balboa area. The mall and the bus terminal are next to the airport that was used by the Americans within the zone and was called the Albrook Air Force Base. It is now the domestic flights airport. As I study the ways “to and from” in Panama City, we generally are taking taxis. It is always surprising how the taxi drivers know the subtle short cuts, often through residential areas. Returning from Albrook, I swear it didn’t take more than 10 minutes to return to our condo, and this was across most of the downtown. It cost the grand sum of $2.50. The other day when we were returning from Miraflores in our rental car it probably took us a half an hour, but of course we got lost! There are so many taxis around (I don’t think the natives much like driving here either) the trick is to time your selection to match one with air conditioning. The key is whether their windows are up or down.

Well, back at the mall, the place is so large and has so many entrances, that they have very cleverly “signed” them with animal associations. We entered the pink hippopotamus wing and immediately were confronted with a very cute six foot plaster pink hippopotamus. Other entrances are the zebra, elephant, giraffe, lion, rhinoceros, panda, porpoise, panda bear, penguin, gorilla, wolf, and tiger. The animals are a big hit with all the kids and parents. A lot of photos were being taken. Mall Security is guys dressed like safari guides. The mall is so large that other employees are moving around on segway scooters. Very clever!

It can be truthfully said that the Panamanians really do like eating out. The mall has catered to this desire by having three food courts (not counting the food courts in the bus terminal across the street), plus separate sit down restaurants. The foot courts are packed by about 1 p.m. There are so many stores, shops, and carts that it is pretty overwhelming. Interestingly most products and stores are American brands. There does not seem to be any separate retail Panama culture. The prices are pretty comparable with U.S. prices. The “world’s greatest shopper” figures she can buy most of what is available in the U.S., so we got away with a nice lunch and a $3 children’s book.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Camera & the Haircut

Today, to the relief of Mary Ann, we returned the car back into Hertz, no worse for wear. She was so excited that she was still alive, and in one piece, that she started shopping for a new camera. Actually she had been thinking about it because of some spots showing up on her Sony Cybershot photos, that were not because of something on the outside of the lens. Surprise! She found a new Sony with increased zoom, new features, and which used the same battery and photo card as her old one. She explained that this made it a good deal as it saved lots of bucks. Who am I to question the logic of a woman spending $200?

Oh, by the way, a couple of nights ago Mary Ann was cooking dinner for us in the condo. She was frying some bacon and managed to set off the smoke alarm. At that point we cleverly found how to turn on the vent above the stove, open the kitchen window, open the door to the deck, and have me standing on a chair fanning the smoke alarm. Fortunately, it turned off and no fire trucks arrived. Usually, these types of events are my fault, but I escaped the blame on this one. Unfortunately, she is now claiming it is just too hard to cook dinner in this kitchen so we need to go out to dinner every day. Geez!

For those who are long term readers of my blog, from Mexico and New Zealand, there always comes a time when I am brow beaten into getting a haircut in a foreign country. You would think with the length of my hair this would not be necessary, but it does seem to grow in a bit funny and I start to look like one of the guys from the Dilbert comic strip. Well, today was the day. Now, selecting a barber shop is a big deal, as there seem to be hundreds of places in El Cangrejo to be styled! You might remember my embarrassment of being dragged into that salon in El Paso.

On one of our walks I spotted a large real man’s barber shop that would work just fine. I had a very experienced older barber (probably older than me) who knew just what I needed. The first conversation was whether I wanted numero uno or dos. Can you believe it, barbers world wide understand how close to cut your hair! In addition to the cut, here you get your head washed and in my case probably polished. Amazingly, it cost about the same as in Chelan.