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.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Road Trip to the West

We decided to drive the Pan-American Highway to the west toward Costa Rica. Everything went well for the first half the day. We made it through town without getting lost, and then drove over the canal on the Bridge of the Americas. We were sort of trying to check out the beaches on the Pacific. It was a surprise that the road was a four laner and although it had a lot of rough spots, there was a lot of work going on to keep it in semi-decent shape.

Panama is really touristically challenged, as it is very hard if you are a non-native to find anything. There are no signs to the beaches, few road signs, often on identification of the towns you are in, and this is not made easier by the poor maps you might have. A well publicized beach and golf club development is the Coronado. We drove into it and found some very nice homes and some high rise buildings under construction. However, the roads were seriously deteriorated and of course no signs. We were again unsuccessful in finding a beach and got so lost that it took us about an hour to get back out.

Heading back to Panama City we found a freeway that we missed on the way out, so it was a much quicker trip. We cut up on Highway 2 across the Centenniary Bridge and down to the Miraflores locks. This time we went in and watched the ships going through the locks, including the Celebrity Cruise Line’s Mercury. It is fascinating to watch the little train engines (called mules) pulling the ships into the locks. The cruise ship had about 3 feet on each side of the ship, so it was a tight fit. We stayed to watch the history movie which fortunately was in English.

As we left Miraflores we carefully studied the map in an attempt to actually find our way back to the condo. Hope springs eternal! Our planned quick cut on the Corridor Norte went array when we missed the exit and ended up struggling across a lot of Panama City in an attempt to get back to the Cangrejo neighborhood. Mary Ann is getting just a bit testy with the no signs or directions, thus leaving you with a lot of questions of just where you actually are. Each trip out is kind of like entering a maze. We are glad we do not have a car for the whole vacation.

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Panama Presidential Election

Current President Martin Torrijos

Ricardo Martinelli

Balbina Herrera

When visiting Panama you cannot escape the upcoming presidential election. The current President, Martin Torrijos (the son of General Omar Torrijos – the Panamanian dictator in the 1960’s to 1980’s), is not running for re-election. The primary was held last September and the leading candidates are now really slugging it out. There are political signs everywhere. In Panama City there are banner style signs along all the streets and in the rural areas there are huge billboards everywhere. I can’t imagine what will be on all those billboards after the May 3 primary.

At the time of the primary, Balbina Herrera was elected the candidate of the PRD (Revolutionary Democratic Party) which is the current ruling party. She defeated Juan Carlos Navarro, the Mayor of Panama City. She was the Minister of Housing and was expected to be a shoe in for President. But, that is what elections are for. Polls that were released in the last couple of weeks show the candidate of the major opposition party, Ricardo Martinelli has a huge lead of over 20%. Martinelli is a wealthy businessman who owns a large supermarket chain (Super99) in Panama. He is the candidate of the Democratic Change Party (CD).

There are other lesser parties and candidates. The presidential winner, and his or her party assembly candidates, generally do not win a majority, so a government is formed with alliances with minor parties in order to form an operating majority in the unicameral National Assembly.

On Sunday we hear fire crackers and look down on Via Espana and see a parade is forming. This looks like fun so we head down to the street. There are hundreds of cars parked on three of the four lanes all sporting big political flags, wearing logo political hats and t-shirts, signs all over their cars and trucks, and having a grand time. In proper Panama fashion they are blasting music from their cars and honking their horns. It is a parade for Balbina Herrera and the Assembly candidates of her party. After everything was organized they all start tearing down the street, blasting their horns, waving the flags, and the drivers pretending it is a grand prix race. Now this is one political tactic yet to arrive in the U.S.!

The one thing I discovered when researching the material in this post, is that political blogging goes on everywhere, even in Panama. I found several English language blogs that had some comment about the Presidential election. One good source of a lot of political commentary can be found at

While watching the parade we met another tourist couple and struck up a conversation with Mike & Patty. They are here for a week and staying in a VRBO apartment in another nearby building. We are able to explain what is going on with the election and why all the activity. Mike is a retired navy intelligence officer and they are doing some serious travel. It was fun to exchange experiences and to give some Panama City advice.

The Car

Not our car - but just two stalls away at the condo
The "Let's Get Lost" Car

Today I bit the bullet and rented a car. I think I have figured out the main streets and the crazy driving enough to venture forth. Those trusting people at Hertz actually gave me a Nissan Sentra to experiment with! Our criteria for a car here are an automatic transmission, a compact, and air conditioning. Maps are still sketchy. With some suggestions from the desk clerk at Hertz we roared (crawled) off to the Corridor Norte, which allegedly will take you to Colón.

We found the toll way without trouble and cruised along while Mary Ann read the Fodor book about Colón. This is the city at the Caribbean entrance to the canal, so we were heading north across the isthmus. Little did we know that the toll way ends about midpoint, along with any semblance of signage. Now, I pride myself on having a built-in directional gene, and rarely become lost or turned around. Mary Ann looked longingly for the crow for my dinner, following my having gotten turned around in a bunch of construction, and not realizing the error until we were driving into the east end outskirts of Panama City. I was a bit concerned when I saw a lot of high rise buildings which would have been unusual for Colón.

When we realized the error we weren’t too disappointed after some of the comments from the guide book. A few excerpts: “But it (Colon) spent the second half of the 20th Century in steady decay and things have only gotten worse in the 21st Century.”; “For the most part, the city is a giant slum, with unemployment at 15% to 20%, and crime on the rise.”; “Travelers who explore Colón on foot are simply asking to be mugged….”

So when we stopped back in Panama City, we decided that not getting to Colón was God’s way of telling us we were not intended to go there. Actually, I attributed the shut down of my internal compass, to the day being overcast so I had no sun for reference. It was not a total loss as we visited a supermarket and bought the heavy important stuff like rum, beer, water, and Coca Cola. As we were parking the car in the condo parking place it was an easy delivery. We were also on the east end of Panama City so we drove to the airport and checked things out for an easy pick up of our guests next week. I have to claim that my drive back to the condo was easier and simpler than Enrique’s trip our first afternoon. So where will we drive the car tomorrow and will we get to anywhere?

Saturday, January 24, 2009

People & Country Observations

Kuna Indians escaping from the sun

Plaza in Casco Viejo

I had a comment a couple of posts back asking for our impressions and contacts with the people of Panama. By the way, you are all invited to make comments as I enjoy the feedback. Our contact with the people really is as any tourist might have. We talk with the restaurant waiters, people we bump into in our building, taxi drivers, store clerks, and people that we are asking questions of. Our first realization was that even with nearly 100 years of a huge American presence in Panama, it would seem that very few people are fluent in English.

My suspicion is that this is probably due to the explosion of the population. There has been a lot of immigration from other Central American and South American countries. As with large cities around the world there also have been a lot of rural citizens moving to the city to find employment. There are about 3.2 million people in Panama, and more than half live in Panama City. The population is very young, the median age being 26. You see a lot of children and their families. As this blog continues along, you will see a lot of photos of children, as Mary Ann particularly enjoys kid photos.

The complexion of the average Panamanian is relatively dark, it being a country of mestizo, a mix of indigenous natives and Spanish. The white population is about 10%. As I write this we are watching U.S. television waiting for the inauguration of Barack Obama. What a wonderful time for our country and the world, to make positive steps in race relations. Panama is enjoying a strong democracy and seems to be very prosperous. With their taking over the canal in 1999 it has made a huge difference in their self esteem and prosperity. The revenues from the canal are reported to be 40% of the countries gross national product.

Presently in Panama, they are in the middle of a Presidential and National Assembly election, which culminates May 3, 2009. There are political signs all over the city for the presidential and assembly candidates. The incumbent Martin Torrijos is not a candidate for re-election. Let freedom ring. As we enjoy our additional weeks in Panama I will bring you my impressions and observations.

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Payback

In Casco Viejo
Presidential Palace in Casco Viejo

See how fast the quid pro quo can come around? On Monday we wanted to be active, as on Tuesday we were going to be dedicated to Barack Obama’s inauguration. So we are off to Casco Viejo at the crack of dawn (about 11 a.m.). We are on vacation you know, and nothing really gets busy until about 11. Into the taxi and down toward the waterfront, along Balboa Avenue, by the fish market, then through the public markets and on into the Casco Viejo peninsula. The taxi fare? $2.50. As you can see, for just running around Panama City you really do not need a car.

Casco Viejo was the second Panama City. The first city, called Panama Viejo, is in ruins from the dastardly deeds of pirate Henry Morgan in 1671. Two years later the city relocated to Casco Viejo which on the peninsula was more easily defended. Panama City has had its ups and downs, depending on the coming and going of the Spanish, the California gold rush, the failure of the de Lesseps canal, and then the Canal Zone isolation of the Americans. The 20th Century was not kind to Casco Viejo. The beautiful French buildings, built in the late 1800’s, were allowed to deteriorate so it became very run down. Currently, many of the buildings are being renovated, including the public buildings such as the Municipal Building, the Interocean Museum, the national theater, and many others. A lot of work is going on, but it looks like it will be a long and expensive job.

The attraction for tourists is that it is very walkable, with promenades around the peninsula, very nice plazas and squares, flowering trees, and spectacular views of downtown Panama City. There appears to be several new upscale restaurants, although we opted for home made French ice cream suggested by the Fodor’s guide. You know, if you walk long enough, you will find the top end Panamanian handicraft store. When a store is titled “Reprosa – Treasures of Panama” (, the payback is about to slap me across the face. Their brochure says “I am ancient land of legend/In my veins run golden rivers/Gods and heroes tell my story…I am Panama”. Oh lord I am cooked! My greatest fear is that this will not be the last trip to this store.

The NFL Conference Championships

Sometime you just have to set your priorities and stick with them. That includes just sitting down and watching 7 hours of football, even though you are in a foreign country, and supposed to be soaking up all the culture. I figure that there will be a payback and it will come soon!

As we are in the Eastern Time Zone the games come on pretty late in the day. We thus do some serious walking heading north on via Argentina until it dead ends at the University of Panama. Sunday is interesting as there is a lot less traffic. We do see a lot of people in the restaurants for breakfast or brunch. You would expect our neighborhood park to be a busy place, but it was much quieter than normal, in fact nearly empty. I don’t know what the locals did with all those children and dogs all day.

Our neighborhood is very densely inhabited, both with the high rises like our condo, but also with the normal three or four story buildings which have businesses or restaurants on the ground floors and apartments on the upper floors. The urban village is certainly much busier, no matter the time of day, than Webster Avenue in Chelan, Washington.

Now I really could not get Mary Ann interested in the football games. She seemed to need a long nap and to read books all day. I was able to beg for food and appropriately received the sustenance of hot dogs and diet coke. What a woman!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Straying Further From Home

Without a car it is necessary to explore alternative transportation. Thus it is time to experience the Panama City taxies. The first of any such trip is always with a few questions. When asking others how the taxies charge, we have been told they are metered, they charge by the zone, or you have to negotiate. That sure settles that question, huh.

There are a lot of taxies in Panama City and a lot of street noise. We have discovered early on that much of the honking is from the taxies, which honk as you are walking along, in order to get your attention to see if you want a taxi. No stinking “vacant” lights for these guys! We decide to go to one of the huge new malls on Saturday morning, so as we walk out of our building, as our street is a busy one way shortcut for every driver, the first car is a taxi that honks at us.

Of course as I climb in next to the driver, it is beyond our joint communication skills to discuss the method of charge, but I do manage to impart where we want to go. Off we go, with me again paying attention to the winding ways, so someday I can brave the “car” thing. We are headed to the Multiplex Pacific Mall which is south of the downtown in a large new developing area. It was about a 10 minute ride. I have no idea if it was one zone or more. There was clearly no meter in sight. To our great relief the fare was $2. Now these kinds of charges we can handle, to most anywhere in Panama City.

The Multiplex is a mall that compares to any that we have seen in the world. There are over 200 stores, food courts, movie Cineplex, and a wing of high end stores like Cartier, Ferragamo and the like. Everything looks very new so I suspect it probably has not been open for long. The “Worlds Greatest Shopper” found a very spiffy department store, called Felix Maduro that could cause serious damage if we get back there very often. The taxi back to the condo, in the exact same distance, cost $3. I may have paid a gringo tax!

The afternoon was spent initiating our pool up on the roof. We met a couple of guys from Vancouver, B.C. who were likewise soaking up the sun. It is nice to talk with someone who has been around for awhile. The great discovery was that we can drink the water! No need for stocking up on all the bottled water. Of course they were drinking beer, so who knows if they drink the water straight.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A Lazy Day

Views from our Condo

Following marathon days, like the tour day, we often seem to need to sort of catch our breath. We do however need to seriously stock the condo with food in order to avoid starvation. You know, we could just be wasting away! The stop on the first evening at the mini mart, up via Argentina, was just not going to cut it. Thus we grab all the grocery bags and head for the Rey Super Mercado on Via Espana.

We then do some serious grocery shopping, mostly to cover breakfast and lunch, as Mary Ann really likes to avoid cooking with limited utensils, and she enjoys eating out (maybe me too). We learn when checking out that they are really sensitive about U.S. $50 bills. You show I.D., they write down numbers from the bills, and the numbers from the I.D., have you sign stuff and ask you (I think that this is what they asked, but it was in Spanish and I may have been confused) to pledge your first born child (sorry Katy).

Next we play pack mule back to the condo. Where is Carol Cooper with her back pack when you need her? After collapsing after this two hour work session, I retreat into a two hour nap. Isn’t this what a vacation is all about? For dinner we decide, rather than the hot dogs from the Rey, to go to the corner restaurant which is the icon for where to turn for our street. This is the El Prado and if we had not eaten there on the open deck, it would be un-Panamanian. I ordered a filet mignon, which might be a little suspicious at $12.95. It was however tender, tasty, and covered with mushrooms. Mary Ann had a shrimp omelet which was more like a frittata. All very tasty, including drinking the Panama (brand) beer.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The City Tour

The city tour was a nice one, in that there were just two couples. The other people were from Bellevue and were here a couple days early before starting a Cruise West voyage through the canal and on up to Costa Rica. He was a retired power consultant and had done some work for the Chelan County P.U.D. The tour was in an air conditioned Cadillac so we were very comfortable, especially for a modest price of $35 per person. The driver and guide Eduardo was represented as an excellent English speaker but that may be by Panamanian standards. He did not overwhelm us with information but we got all the essentials.

The ride started with a visit to Ancon Hill which overlooks the entrance to the canal, the canal headquarters, what was the canal airport until it became the airport for domestic flights, all on one side of the cero. On one of the other sides were great views of the Amador Causeway which is a long peninsula built with the dirt removed from the canal in 1913 and now is becoming an upscale restaurant, recreation, and marina area. On the city side the view is of the new city and the old city of Casco Viejo.

We moved on to the Miraflores locks, which are the first locks on the Pacific side of the canal. There was a huge cruise ship going through the lock. We elected to skip the museum and viewing platforms as both couples would be returning to the site in the future. As an alternative Eduardo took us up the canal to the second set of locks, the Pedro Miguel, and crossed the beautiful new Centennial bridge just north of Paraiso.

Next it was off to Casco Viejo, the old city of Panama. It is actually the second city, as the first Panama City, which is referred to as Old Panama, is in ruins. Casco Viejo is under serious renovation and contains some very gorgeous buildings and homes. These include the president’s home (Palacio Presidential), the city hall, the Catholic Cathedral (Catedral de Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion), the national theatre, and many beautiful squares. The area is becoming a very nice restaurant and high end housing area. We will certainly be back!

The tour concluded with a drive out the Amador Causeway. There are beautiful views from all along the causeway, and at the end on Flamingo Island, there is a marina with those yachts you can only dream about. All in all, it was a good orientation of the city and I am starting to recognize the main streets. That should hopefully be a help in the future!

Monday, January 19, 2009

Our First Full Day

Travel is Hard Work

Near our condo building, within a couple of blocks, is one of the major east-west thoroughfares. The Via Espana is a one way three lane street which separates the banking downtown from the hotel and resident part of the downtown area. This street is a major shopping venue, kind of the historical downtown retail before the malls were built. The first good news was finding the huge grocery store, the Rey. It has everything you would want from a U.S. supermarket, plus a lot of products a gringo might not recognize.

Next we check out a large cell phone and electronic store where we connected to the world. When we go on these foreign jaunts we take our cell phone, which is an unlocked variety, so we can buy a local sim card to access one of the local cell systems. We then buy a card with calling minutes on it, so we can now call out and can be called by the family and friends if they need to get in touch with us. This is just a bit of foreign insurance for the temporary expats!

As we are on an exploring mission, we cross the street and at this point there is a nice pedestrian overpass so we are not risking our lives as usual. Close to the crossing is a McDonald’s where internationally you can always find clean bathrooms. We find that this McD’s has a McCafe so we can relax with a Mocha Cappuccino and read the Panama edition of the Miami Herald. Then we walk on up the hill to the hotel district. We are really researching the finding of a city tour and looking for rental car agencies. We find all the rental car companies and do some price comparisons for when we work up the courage to drive in Panama City! In the Wyndham Veneto Hotel and Casino we find a tour desk and sign up for an afternoon city tour.

We have enough time to get some lunch and end up in the Crowne Plaza restaurant. It is obviously a meeting and convention hotel, as all the young professionals start streaming in for lunch. We discover that no one here really believes that they live in a hot humid climate as they all are wearing dark suits (both men and women) and seem to want to wear a lot more clothes than are really needed in Panama. The business community is much more formal than you would find in the U.S. workplace.

Our travel format is to try to always get a city tour early on any trip. This is to get some geographical perspective on where we are living and what we will want to do in the days to come. That will be next.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Exploring the Neighborhood

I can't wait to rent a car!

One of the first things we do after getting unpacked is to find out what is around us. We are living in the Congrejo district which is a very nice residential area on the edge of the downtown. Just half a block from the building is a bustling street of stores and restaurants. We were actually looking for a grocery store so we could stock up on the essentials. We found a small neighborhood food store to start our kitchen, knowing that the next day will reveal a Super Mercado somewhere near. It is discovered in our first Panama purchase that they also use U.S. change. The Panamanian balboa, their alternative national currency shows up only in the coins in the same sizes and denominations as U.S. coins and both are interchangeable. So easy! We also discovered a bakery around the corner, for fresh breakfast goodies. Doesn’t get any better than that!

After hauling all the stuff back to the condo, we head out for dinner. There were a lot of good selections and we end up at Mama Mendozas. It turned out to be Mexican, rather than Panamanian, so the first meal in Panama was some very good nachos and quesadillas. Don’t ever say we are not totally international.

By the finish of dinner we are seriously fading so head back to the condo. One thing you need to watch, especially at night, are the sidewalks, or what are represented as sidewalks. Not a lot of money has gone into some of the infrastructure (no street signs, no stop lights) which include a lot of defective or non existent sidewalks. You walk around a lot of cars, go into the street, back to the edge of the building and be sure to watch your feet. If you do not pay attention to the elevation changes, grates, gaping holes, etc., you can surely end up injured. Thus, walk slowly or stop when you want to check out the views. Back at the condo, it is time to try out the bed. Wow, slept like a log for eight hours without waking or moving. Maybe we should think about a new bed at home or not so many flight legs!

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Panama City Indoctrination

The view of our condo from the ground - count down 6 floors from the top

As we plan to, on occasion, rent a car I was paying close attention to the roadways to the condo. This worked great on the toll way from the airport, then the south corridor highway along the Bay of Panama, and then…traffic got heavy so Enrique started using back streets to get to the condo. Uh oh, I could never repeat that part of the trip. I will have to concentrate on reading maps from now on, if we can ever actually find a city map. Well, that would really help if any of the streets actually had street names on them. I guess it will just have to be dead reckoning by north, south, east and west and have a lot of patience for when you become lost. If neither one of us knows where we are located, and where we are going, it will cut down on those navigation arguments. Now if I can just remember that Panama is laid out east-west rather north-south as you would expect we will be on the right track. It is a bit strange to get it straight that the canal actually crosses the country from north to south with the Caribbean on the north and the Pacific Ocean on the south. Panama City is located on the south end of the canal on the Pacific.

Enrique checked us out on the condo. It is so new, there seem to be very few people actually living in the building yet. There is a full time security guard, locked lobby doors, and the protective coverings have not even been removed from the elevator doors. The first five floors are parking garages and then residence floors going up to the 22nd floor with a swimming pool and meeting rooms on the roof. We are on the 16th floor with wonderful views in three directions. Our condo is located on the northeast corner so we are not getting the hot sun either in the morning or afternoon. There are four condos on each floor so everyone has a corner.

Unit 16A is about 1100 square feet with a combined dining room-living room, kitchen, a master bedroom with bath, a guest bedroom, and two additional bath rooms. There is a small emergency bathroom off the kitchen. I really don’t think Mary Ann the chef, needs this emergency location, but who knows? The condo is finished off with a small outside deck, just enough to check the weather (hot!) and maybe enough for one chair. You are probably wondering about the most important amenity. It is blissfully air conditioned! As all of our trip rentals must have, we are set up with high speed internet, both by cable and wi-fi but the wi-fi is a bit weak. There are two flat screen TV’s, so Mary Ann will not clobber me when I am flipping channels and watching sports. We have 120 channels which includes the NFL channel. How good can it get? We do not even have the NFL channel in Chelan.
We rented the condo through VRBO, an internet vacation rental website. You deal directly with the owner. It has an advantage as most properties post their rates and you can click on an availability calendar, so you do not waste time contacting people when it does not fit your schedule. You can view the listing for our unit and how the owner describes it at

Friday, January 16, 2009

Why Panama?

So what is the deal with selecting Panama for the winter adventure? This year (2009) we thought it would be best to go to a country that uses the U.S. dollar for its currency. We were going to beat the weak dollar against most of the other world currencies. How could we know that the whole world would go into the tank, and result in the dollar rising against the pound and the euro and most other currencies.

In any case, off to Panama we have gone. Following the usual format of searching for a condo on the internet, I used which has properties all over the world. We hooked up with an owner in Maryland who had just taken possession of a brand new condo in the heart of Panama City. We communicated with him for a couple of months and he was very helpful with information about the neighborhood, the city, and information about the condo. Our rental even included being met at Tocumen Airport in Panama City by his Panama City manager. This really takes the tough edges off an arrival in an airport and city that you have never been to. So reassuring to come out of customs and have a gentleman waiting with a sign with your name on it.

Always being the frugal traveler, I booked this trip with Alaska Airlines frequent flyer miles. It is always a bit problematical finding seats when you want them. This can make for some very unusual flights. Rather that a direct flight to Panama City (like from LA to Panama City) we were booked on American from Seattle to Dallas, Dallas to Miami, and then Miami to Panama City. Needless to say Mary Ann sometimes questions my travel planning when I end up with a routing like that. But as our friend Les says, these were very lucrative flights for us on a flight mile per frequent flyer mile invested! Good work Tom. We started on Horizon from Pangborn and were very lucky to be the first flight out of Wenatchee due to two days of fog! Dumb luck really helps.

It is quite a change to leave freezing weather on one afternoon and arrive the next afternoon in a place in the low 90’s. Finding Enrique waiting for us with an air conditioned car was a nice way to introduce ourselves to Panama City. Slow acclimatization would seem to be the way to go. Fortunately, we both felt no worse for the flights, as we both got some sleep on the overnight flights. Again great luck for me, as Mary Ann said little about the marathon flight plan!

Friday, January 9, 2009

The Recollections

Following our return from New Zealand I wrote two articles highlighting the Top 10 things we did in New Zealand. They have been published in various publications and are now here for your enjoyment.
A Lot of Time Off The Bench

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

The New Zealand Top Ten – Part I

Our winter/spring retirement plan has been to go to a new country every year. This year was 6 weeks in New Zealand. (For an in depth look at our stay in the top ten and other locations go to my blog at where there are over 60 postings on our adventure.) I have found that visiting “places” is interesting, but talking with the natives is more fun. You really have to push yourself to meet others, as we all are a bit shy when it comes to starting a cold conversation with a stranger. My experience has been that visiting your service club and local churches in a foreign country is a great way to meet people who are ready to talk to strangers. So, what were our top ten experiences in New Zealand?

Visiting Parliament and the Capitol: Wellington is the nation’s capitol and it is very easy to get a tour of the capitol buildings and visit Parliament when it is in session. New Zealand has fewer people than the State of Washington, but they take their politics seriously with a year around parliamentary session. The government follows the British model but they start every daily session with Questions for the Government, so if you like Questions for the Prime Minister on C-Span, you can see a similar rough and tumble debate live in New Zealand. I think I now know more about how the New Zealand government operates than I know about our Congress!

The Beauty and Activity of Auckland & Wellington Harbors: When you talk to a Kiwi they are always very proud of their city and often can’t believe you would spend any time in their competitor. We enjoyed all of the cities we stayed in. Our apartments were in Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch so we intimately learned about these cities. We then used the cities for excursions to other parts of the North and South Islands. Particularly dramatic are the harbors of Auckland and Wellington. They are positioned on beautiful natural harbors and they take advantage of this. Both cities have adapted their waterfronts for people activities, to include the water, restaurants, ferries, museums, and culture venues. In Wellington be sure to visit the Te Papa Museum and the Museum of City and Sea. When visiting Auckland you must experience the party that is going on at the America’s Cup Harbor.

The Conversations: Throughout New Zealand I visited five different service club meetings in Auckland, Wellington, and Queenstown. If was fun to talk with the local members, see what kind of charitable projects they were involved in, and how different they run their clubs as compared to the U.S. In Wellington and Christchurch Mary Ann and I also had interesting experiences attending local Methodist and Anglican churches. We were in New Zealand though-out lent, Palm Sunday and Easter. It was a great way to meet local residents and talk about what was going on with their lives and communities. Don’t miss the Christchurch Anglican Cathedral on the square. One of the fascinating subjects that came up nearly everywhere we went was being asked our opinion about the U.S. presidential nominating races. The Kiwi’s have a very keen interest in U.S politics and several people I talked to were following the primary races state by state, and could tell me how each had turned out.

The Ferries: When your country consists of two huge islands, surrounded by a whole lot of smaller ones, you get into the ferry business big time. The fun of ferry riding is that you get great views and inexpensive boat rides. We did three different ferry rides. Everyone should visit the Bay of Islands north of Auckland. They have a great little ferry that takes you to the quaint village of Russell where you can relax, have a leisurely lunch on the beach and watch the sail boats. Auckland has several easy ferries leaving from the downtown waterfront. We took one to the arts and craft community of Devonport, just across the bay. The ferry company, Fuller’s, runs most of the small ferry routes, and with very good new equipment. The big deal ferry is the Interislander, which is the main transportation link between the North and South Islands. It is about a three hour trip from Wellington to Picton and takes passengers and/or cars and freight. On the trip back we were sandwiched in between rail cars. If you have sun and good weather it is a great trip with stunning views and photo opportunities.

A Lot of Time Off The Bench

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

The New Zealand Top Ten – Part II

When we last met I was reviewing the top ten experiences in New Zealand. In Part I we discussed four of the ten. Here goes the final six:

Magnificence of the Changing Countryside: Our travel plan called for driving over a large part of the country. We ended up putting 3500 miles on our modest Mazda compact. With that many miles you have seen a lot of the countryside. And is it ever glorious countryside. The interesting thing is that you see a huge variation of rural countryside. It is a beautiful farming country with immaculate ranches. You see thousands (millions?) of sheep, cattle and domestic deer kept either in confined fenced areas, or just wandering over the hills. Pristine fresh water lakes and towering mountain ranges are around every curve. When on the coasts you see rocky mountains right down to the water and beautiful coastline panoramas.

The TranzAlpine Train: New Zealand has several exceptional train routes giving you the option of taking the train all the way from Auckland to Christchurch. Our train experience was taking one of the world’s finest view trips from Christchurch through the Southern Alps to Greymouth on the Tasman Sea west coast. It is remote mountain scenery after passing through the Canterbury Plain around Christchurch. A very enjoyable one day excursion over and back.

The Golden Shears & Confronting the Sheep: Because of a great suggestion by a native, we attended the Golden Shears Sheep Shearing National Championships in Masterton, located a couple of hours north of Wellington. What a fascinating experience watching the competitive sheep shearing, wool pressing and wool handling. It is hard to believe a professional can shear a sheep in less than one minute and when working can shear over 400 sheep in a day. In addition, on two separate occasions we were stopped on highways by farmers moving hundreds of sheep on the public roads. You should see those sheep dogs move those critters!

Christchurch river walks and Botanical Garden: Christchurch has historically been very British. Canterbury University, the Avon River and many places and streets named after British locations. The Avon River winds its way through the downtown area including parks, river walks, and cultural sites all in a pedestrian friendly way. It is very picturesque and a very relaxing time. To top it off and make it tourist friendly they have a historic tram system circling the entire downtown core with part of its route on its own street between restored buildings. At the end of what they call the Cultural Precinct you find a huge park system crowned with the Botanical Gardens along the river.

Driving through the Coromandel Peninsula: A day trip southeast from Auckland brings you to the Coromandel Peninsula. Narrow roads along the shore, hundreds of varieties of huge trees, cute villages with arts and crafts shops and pleasant restaurants for lunch. The area, which is only about 60 miles from Auckland, is very rugged, mountainous, remote and without a lot of visitors. The area is the center of the Green political movement in New Zealand.

The Incomparable Queenstown and the Gateway to the Fjords: What can you say? Queenstown is a gem on a pristine lake, surrounded by majestic steep stone mountains. It is also the most touristy city we visited, due to all the backpackers looking for their adventure. I can’t tell you how many foreign languages I heard being spoken by all the young people. The town and location is however, just drop dead beautiful. It is also the starting point for visiting the Milford Sound, Doubtful Sound, Lake Te Anau and then on up the west coast routes to the glaciers.

Whether you drive, take the train, or just fly into the top spots of New Zealand it is a great place for a vacation. And besides, they speak English – sort of!