Panama Series: Loving and Hating the Islands of Bocas del Toro

If you’re one of those awesome people who have followed my Panama Series from the beginning in Panama City up until now, you’ve probably learned a thing or two about me, about Panama and maybe (fingers crossed) I’ve even managed to inspire you to rent a car and travel cross-country Panama, just like we did! Now that would be bloody awesome!    In case you haven’t followed my previous posts and feel like you’ve missed out on something spectacular, here’s a quick summary and link to the posts:

We (my boyfriend, his parents and I) spent a couple of days in Panama City, rented a car and drove to El Valle de Anton where we spent a night in a village with no electricity. We continued our journey to the colorful beach town Pedasi , stayed in a dirty hotel in Santa Catalina, went hiking and learned a lot about coffee production and honeybees in Boquete, visited an archaeological site and stayed at an Ecolodge in Cerro Punta and voila; last stop, Bocas del Toro. Enjoy!

After having spent a week cruising down the streets and up and down the steep hills in our Toyota 4×4, it was unbelievably hard to say goodbye to it – our beloved rental car – when dropping it off in David, a somewhat strange city, good for nothing but shopping and dining. We were planning to spend the night there before taking the bus to Almirante in the early morning. A water taxi would then take us to Isla Colon, an island paradise in the Caribbean sea, where we’d splurged on two junior suites in a gorgeous 4-star resort called Playa Tortuga Hotel & Beach Resort.

If only we’d known in advance that the night at the filthy hotel in Santa Catalina would completely traumatize me, we wouldn’t have needed to book anything fancy. At this point my standards were lower than ever and just cleanliness would be enough to impress me. Fresh towels and a clean bed with no hairs or stains in it was already luxurious to me. In other words, our junior suite was above all expectations and I felt like a queen. It was clean, huge and we had a great view over the pool and the sea. We even had two TV’s in the room….which I never even used.

Isla Colon was different from anything else I’d seen in Panama. Downtown was the ultimate hot spot for hippies, surfers (which my boyfriend refers to as sea-hippies), bohemians (sophisticated hippies?) and yogis (a lot of those are also hippies) and most of the shops, restaurants and bars were decorated and themed to attract people who share their interests. I was totally digging that vibe and I loved every minute spent wandering the streets of downtown Isla Colon, checking out jewelry and clothing and eating delicious organic food at boho chic restaurants.

I’d love to show you all some pictures, but I forgot to bring my camera both times we went downtown (it was kind of far from the resort).

We didn’t get to sleep in, as we had already scheduled in an excursion for our second day in Bocas del Toro. We were planning to go island hopping, dolphin watching, snorkeling and relaxing on a beach somewhere. Now, that sounded fantastic…. until we looked outside and saw all the dark clouds and enormous waves caused by the heavy wind. Great. The boat that picked us up was a tiny little thing with a motor attached to it, and I was certain this would be the day I died. Whatever. I decided to show the Reaper the middle finger and get in the boat and hope for the best. The waves gave the tiny boat quite a few punches and I felt like mother earth was beating my butt into fifty shades of blue.

And then the sun came out…

The tour guides spoke absolutely no English. In fact, they barely even spoke, and when they did it was in Spanish only.  They took us to some restaurant out on the water, in the middle of nowhere, and no one understood what was going on, or that we were supposed to get off the boat and stay at the restaurant for a while. Other boats arrived to the same spot with people just as confused as us. Eventually one guy who did speak a little English, said “Out. Stay. Eat. Drink. Back in boat in 45 minutes”. Seriously? Nobody seemed even remotely eager about it. We had just eaten breakfast and it was too early for cocktails, and most people seemed to agree with us as everyone just sat down, moped around, played Candy Crush and waited to get back in their boats. At least we got some good photos while we were hanging around waiting.

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After 45 very long minutes of waiting, we got back in the boat and hoped for the next destination to be something a bit more interesting. Instead, what happened next, made me feel nothing but furious.

We went to Dolphin Bay to see – you guessed it – dolphins. Everything started out fine. The guide slowed down the speed of the motor boat so that we could all get a good view and maybe take a few pictures of the beautiful dolphins. We were delighted to see a dolphin up close…until five other boats showed up and circled the dolphin. Five boats. Then six more. All together twelve motor boats surrounding one poor, defenseless dolphin. I felt sick to my stomach. And pissed off. I wanted to scream “Stop”, “leave him alone” and even jump into the water to prove a point. My boyfriend could tell how angry I was and tried to calm me down, without luck. Right now, I felt like the effin’ Hulk.      But powerless.

Our next stop was a secluded beach, where we’d spend the following two hours doing whatever there is to do at a beach on an isolated island. We went swimming, took pictures of the beach and went back in the water again. I tried to keep my mind off the dolphin situation, I tried to keep a smile on my face and pretend to be fine, but it sure wasn’t easy. At this point, I just wanted to go back to the resort and be miserable.

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On our way back, we were forced to once again spend 45 minutes at the same restaurant as before. What a joke. At least this time we did order something. Cocktails. It was the first beverages we’d had since breakfast. Bottles of water was supposed to be included in the tour rate, but we never saw or heard anything of it.

Included was also the water taxi back to the resort from downtown – as we got picked up at the resort in the morning and were promised to be dropped off at the same spot…which turned out to be yet another big, fat lie. We confronted the guide about it, who appeared to be quite annoyed and mumbled something in Spanish, pointed at the harbor and indicated that we had to get off the boat immediately. We tried to ask him in English and Spanglish what was going on and why he wasn’t going to take us to our resort and got no answer. Nothing. Just get off the boat, was all we got.

Now more pissed off than ever, we went to the front desk of the tour company, located right next the harbor, and complained. The lady at the front desk promised to make it up to us. She called for a water taxi, which arrived after five minutes of waiting, and took us to our resort. We were relieved that our complaint had been taken seriously.

…Until the water taxi driver forced us to give him 10 dollars each.

The next day was spent visiting Playa Estrella, which translates to Starfish Beach. There used to be hundreds of starfish at this particular beach, but sadly most of the starfish escaped the beach and migrated into deeper water to avoid the large crowds of tourists who unknowingly torture them to death for the sake of a perfect selfie. In case you didn’t know; starfish die within seconds once you take them out of the water.

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I witnessed a couple moving two starfish closer to each other, to get a good photo. First dolphins, now this. Again, I was furious. I saw perhaps four starfish in total, on that beach. I had my photo taken with one of them and posted a long rant on Instagram about how it’s perfectly fine to take pictures with starfish as long as you treat them with respect and don’t touch them. In the heat of the moment, I was a radical environmentalist. Right there and then I was ready to join PETA, Green Peace, Sea Shepherd’s, the guy who directed “The Cove” – all of them.

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What saved the day was a man named Ricardo. He owned a restaurant by the beach, as well as a little souvenir stand. He talked about the starfish situation and had the same view on it as us. He offered to rent us snorkeling equipment, so we could see the starfish better, out there in the deep water, where it would be easier to catch a glimpse of them.

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We all loved talking to Ricardo and agreed that nobody deserved our lunch money and cocktail budget more than he did. We were originally planning to go to a completely different restaurant – one with great reviews – but quickly dismissed this idea to support Ricardo and his business instead.

Cajun fish, Cajun chicken, fried plantains, spiced rice – and special made cocktails that weren’t even on the menu (Banana Colada, you guys!) made it an experience beyond all expectations. After finishing the meal and my second Banana Colada, I bought a bracelet from his souvenir stand and thanked him for his kindness, his service, his delicious food and drinks. For everything. Little did he know what I had experienced the day before and how much I needed someone like him to brighten my day. He treated us like friends, not like ATM’s with a pulse. And because of that, we felt good about spending our money in his establishment.

A long hike was scheduled for the following day. A hike through the savage jungle with a local tour guide. Was I ready for this? Inexperienced, clumsy me who was still in really bad shape? Nope. I wasn’t ready. Not only was I not ready, but I was itching everywhere, all over my body, and my legs looked like something you’d photograph and send people as a prank photo to make them lose their appetite. Some of my mosquito bites were leaking liquid, others were filled with pus. It was disgusting. And the fact that I’d been bitten through my pants while hiking the previous week, made it even creepier. Those mosquito’s were savages. I was absolutely certain I’d be a wandering buffet for female mosquito’s (the males don’t bite) while hiking in the jungle.

The water taxi took us to Isla Bastimentos, to what we guessed was the office of the tour company, but looked more like a random house out on the water. We were greeted by three surfers who told us they were expatriates from the Netherlands who now lived out here to follow their passions. And the house was their office. The office was their house. Shared surfer housing. Tour guide housing.

I was jealous. I wanted a house like that too. With a large hammock and multiple bedrooms and a kitchen out on the terrace. I wanted this.  But all to myself.

Nobody had told me that part of the itinerary was going to the beach to go swimming, and I hadn’t brought any swimwear for the occasion. Bummer. A beautiful surfer girl who was basically a Dutch Margot Robbie, offered to lend me one of her bikinis. Could fat me really fit into Margot Robbie’s bikini? I had my doubts. Still, I tried it on and strangely enough it fit – except, I looked almost pornographic as the bikini was teeny tiny and barely covering anything on me, compared to someone with an athletic body.

One surfer guy introduced himself as our tour guide and shared his story about how he’d ended up in Panama and how happy he was to be able to run his own business on Isla Bastimentos.  He was already quite experienced backpacking around the world and living abroad in different countries for different reasons, before settling down in Panama. The tour company was his calling. I admired his positive attitude and confidence. Starting a business is hard – and so is starting a new life abroad. But this guy’s story was a real sunshine-story!

The conversation took a darker turn when he told us about an on-going murder investigation that had shaken up the community. “Bocas del Toro is such a peaceful region. I don’t understand how this could happen here”, he said, after telling the story of a female solo traveler who had been strangled to death while hiking near Red Frog Beach. Her body was found washed up on Isla Bastimentos. Such an awful  tragedy. May her soul rest in peace.

The hike started out just the way I like it: Slow and easy. And involving food. The guide introduced us to a wide range of exotic fruits growing on site – some of which I had never even heard of – and took a few of them with him so that we could taste them and learn more about them. One of those fruits were the famous cacao fruit, which is where chocolate comes from. Another one was jack fruit – a fruit I had already heard of as it’s quite popular among vegans as a replacement for pulled pork. The other fruits…don’t even ask. I have no idea how to neither spell nor pronounce their names. Whatever they’re called, they were oh so delicious!

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After a mild start came the challenging part. Hills, more hills and a whole lot of slippery mud. The humid climate made me sweat like a pig and smell like I hadn’t showered in ten days. We walked approximately ten kilometers, and it felt closer to a hundred. A few adorable distractions along the way, sure helped on the mood, though. By adorable distractions, I mean sloths, monkeys and an iguana!

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After having asked “are we there yet?” a million times (like impatient little brats) followed by the obvious response “almost there” for quite some time, we finally made it to Red Frog beach. Here, we’d have a quick break before moving on to another beach to eat lunch and drink coconut water (straight out of the coconut, obviously).                     There’s no better spa treatment than the sea. And there’s no beverage as refreshing and cleansing as coconut water (in my opinion). This was my reward after the long, exhausting hike.

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This was the last day before our last day in Panama. Our last real Panamanian experience before heading to the airport hotel in Panama City, for our last cocktails, last dip into a Panamanian swimming pool – and last chance for mosquito’s to feast off me.

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Panama Series: Archaeological Sites, Hikes and Ecotourism in Cerro Punta

In recent years, tourism has become a great source of income for Cerro Punta.

Hikers come to explore the flora and fauna of the Parque Internacional La Amistad, a national park geographically located in both Panama and Costa Rica. Ecotourism – which seems to be a growing trend worldwide – is booming here, and who are we to pass up a chance to spend a night somewhere where protection of the environment is the main focus?

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Our guidebook recommended an ecolodge called Los Quetzales Lodge & Spa – a charming wooden lodge which has some kind of glamping (glamourous camping) vibe to it. What caught my immediate attention at the check-in counter, was the free hot chocolate with marshmallows, offered to guests at the lodge. While my boyfriend and his parents were asking about excursions, hikes and hotel facilities, I was busy indulging in hot chocolate and that sweet fluffy campfire-delight, also known as marshmallows. If this is what eco-glamping feels like, this fat lady was loving it!

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The wood furniture in our room was kind of dated, and one of the chairs were actually broken, but that’s just part of the charm, right? As a kid growing up in Norway, I was raised in a big, wooden house and spent quite a few vacations going camping in log cabins, which is probably why I love wood furniture (broken or not) and see past the fact that it’s not stylish or sexy. Whatever. It has a charm. A campsite-marshmallow-munching-bunkbed-sleepover-wool-socks-wearing kind of charm. And for one second there, I forgot I was in Panama.

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…Something you’re quickly reminded of, once you open the front door and take a look outside. Colorful, tropical flowers and hummingbirds fluttering in full speed, sipping nectar and teasing us humans who hang around, impatiently trying to get the perfect photo of those beautiful little creatures, before they take off – faster than superman.

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Thanks to the macro lens I inherited from my late father, we managed to get some decent shots. But it took us a lot of time and patience to get there. Trust me!

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A hike was scheduled for the following day. I hadn’t even been aware of it, as I’d been to busy stuffing my face with marshmallows and hot chocolate while the others spoke to the receptionist and made the arrangements. I assumed we were going to the La Amistad National Park – and I was right.

A 4×4 picked us up in front of the lodge. Our tour guide spoke absolutely no English and no one in our party spoke any Spanish. All communication would be solely based on gestures such as thumbs up, thumbs down, stop, face palm, you get it. The tour guide didn’t get it, though. He spoke to us in Spanish the entire time. Strangely, the slower and louder he spoke – and the more he said – the more I understood. Or at least I think I did.

Boots. Walk in water. Wet. Change. Toilet. Go. Easy hike or extreme hike? Waterfall. Good.

The 4×4 took us to a cabin and we had no idea what was inside of it and why we were going there in the first place. Were we gonna buy snacks? Was it a lounge area? Was all of this just a scheme? Was he planning to murder us? We let the men enter first. It was safer that way.

Inside of the cabin there was a kitchenette, a large trashcan – and hundreds of pairs of rain boots placed on a shelf. The guide wanted us to change into the rain boots. We were already wearing hiking boots and couldn’t quite understand how uncomfortable low-quality rain boots would be a better option for a hike up the waterfall trail, but we assumed there was a good reason for it.

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We walked through a stream. Once. That was the only time the rain boots felt somewhat useful and comfortable and not just sweaty and all wrong. During the rest of the hike I was even asking myself whether it would be more comfortable to go barefoot on the way up, and roll down the hill on our way back. But I decided to just leave the boots on and act like a civilized person. As soon as we reached the waterfall, we all forgot about our discomfort for a brief moment, and got busy taking pictures to document how fit and healthy we all were (lies).

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The highlight of the hike was surprisingly not even the hike itself, but what happened on our way back to the lodge. The 4×4 that picked us up in the morning had not yet arrived, but another one was there – but to our disappointment, it was just a two-seater. My boyfriend’s father jokingly suggested that we could ride with him. In the back. Standing up. Now, let me tell you one thing. This may be totally legal in your country, but it sure isn’t legal in the country I’m from nor the one I live in. Because of that, I was a bit hesitant at first, but once the vehicle started going down the (bumpy) hill  and we passed the wicked jungle landscape and felt the wind blowing in our faces, it felt nothing but magical….until my boyfriend’s mother, who stayed in the passenger’s seat, vomited out the window.

Our hike was done, but our adventures were far from over. Tim, the friendly receptionist back in Boquete, had told us about an amazing archaeological site and museum in Volcan (close to Cerro Punta) and we were eager to visit!

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Sitio Barriles is an archaeological site on a local family’s property. Here, National Geographic and several universities have participated in the discovery of many hidden Native American artifacts. Edna, the owner of the land, the museum – and guardian of all the archaeological discoveries made on her property- gave us a fantastic tour and a lot of interesting information about not just the pottery, statues and other items found, but also about her beautiful garden and all the different plants.

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The place is in need of funding, as there’s a lot of maintenance work to be done, so if you decide to head over to Sitio Barriles, please donate a little while you’re there. For a good cause. For history!

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Other things you can do in Cerro Punta or nearby… And why I didn’t do it:

  • 11 hour hike to catch the sunrise and climb the Volcan Baru – I’m not fit for those things. Sign me up for the next season of ‘the biggest loser’ and maybe then….maaaybe…I’ll be able to do HALF that hike.
  • The spa treatments at our ecolodge Los Quetzales Lodge & SpaThe prices were the same as spa treatments back home, so we prioritized our budget differently. I’m all up for sponsored spa treatments, though. Anyone? Yes? Maybe? No?
  • Finca Dracula (Botanical garden for orchids) – We wanted to visit, but it was closed for renovation.

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Sitio Barriles:

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Hiking in La Amistad:

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Next post will be the last one on Panama – and it will be from the beautiful islands in Bocas del Toro!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Panama Series: Educational Ecotourism in Boquete

If anyone ever asks me what my favorite part of Panama is, I’ll without a doubt say Boquete. Which may seem shocking to some people, as it’s not by the coast, it’s calm and quiet and absolutely not the place to go if you’re planning to party all night and sunbathe all day. In fact, your grandma might have a lot more fun than you will, as a lot of the people who have settled down in this idyllic little town are old, retired North Americans. 

So how can I possibly prefer Boquete over places like Panama City or any of the beach towns with a young cool vibe?

I have plenty of reasons for that.

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First of all, I’m not a party girl (anymore). My days of clubbing until dawn and daytime drunken shenanigans are way behind me. I’m turning thirty in two months. Thirty. That number tastes bitter on my tongue, even more bitter than the lemon or lime or whatever it is they serve with your tequila shot. I’ll rather sit down and enjoy an ice cold draft or bottled beer at Boquete Brewing Company (photo above) over a fun conversation with my travel partners (my boyfriend and his parents in this case) and move on to dinner and cocktails (or wine) at one of the amazing restaurants in town – such as Argentinian restaurant La Posada Boquetena (side note: they have the best coconut lemonade imaginable) and Italian restaurant RetroGusto Restaurant & Bar (excellent place for a romantic date). And the coffee shop in our hotel, Hotel Central Boquete, serve the most amazing coffee ever. You must try their raspberry mocha. It sounds weird, I know, but it’s magical. So is their plain, non-fancy black cup of Joe. Coffee in Boquete – no matter what coffee shop or restaurant you go to – tastes a hundred times better than any coffee I’ve ever had before. Trust me, I’ve had a lot of coffee these past fifteen years.  And no, frappuccino’s are not coffee. It’s liquid candy.

I will talk more about coffee later in this post, but first I’d like to talk a little more about our hotel – which brings us to my second reason for loving Boquete:

Tim, the owner, and his lovely wife.

After a night at the “strangers’ bodily fluids and hairs fest” hotel in Santa Catalina, it felt amazing to be greeted with kindness and professionalism, when arriving at Hotel Central Boquete. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from living in the US, it’s how easy it is to bond with Americans. Tim was no exception. He had a look at my ID and was pleasantly surprised to find out that I was Norwegian (at least half, anyway). “I am Norwegian too”, he said, and told me about his family in Norway, where they were from and which Norwegian specialties he’s particularly fond of. I love talking about food, and I love talking about my country, so my frown was turned upside down within seconds. Even more so when I got my coffee.

“Our room is so clean I can still smell the cleaning products!”. I couldn’t hide my enthusiasm. A clean room. What a luxurious feeling!

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After a night in the dirtiest hotel imaginable, I was probably scarred for life.

We returned to the reception and asked Tim to help us book a couple of day-tours for the following days in Boquete. We wanted to go bird watching and were also interested in booking a coffee tour. A lot of the tours scheduled for the following day were already fully booked, but as luck seemed to be on our side, Tim didn’t give up on calling every single tour company he knew – and managed to schedule us in for a bird watching tour the next day, followed by a butterfly, bees and honey tour in the afternoon, and a coffee tour the day after that.

The birdwatching tour (which I would’ve posted a link to, had I known the name of the company) was a 4 km hike up the pipeline trail in Boquete. It’s an easy hike as long as you’re not stuck hiking in the pouring rain….like we were. Whether it was because of the rain or just a matter of bad luck, spotting any birds was not an easy task. We were kind of expecting to see the beautiful quetzales, after reading guidebooks and articles basically guaranteeing that we’d spot these fascinating birds when in Boquete. We didn’t.

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What we did see, were the occasional bright green birds, yellow and some red ones (itsy bitsy teeny tiny birds) – and on our way back we discovered a family of monkeys jumping from one tree to another. My partner managed to capture a few shots from afar, although the quality of the photos are rather questionable and we had to be quick to avoid heavy raindrops from attacking the camera.

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We found a little lizard, as well. The little guy escaped quite rapidly, but we managed to take a photo with him before he took off. The rain seemed to be getting heavier and heavier, and the ground more and more slippery. Dragonflies the size of my index finger, hovered like helicopters before flying away. Thirsty mosquito’s attempted to come close but flew away when sensing the awful scent of the insect repellent.

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Although we hadn’t seen as many birds as we were hoping to see – and even though it was raining during the entire tour – we were still very pleased with what we’d seen. It was an amazing hike and the guide was professional and clearly passionate about bird watching.

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The second tour that day was even better. And it stopped raining. Now, here’s yet another reason why I love Boquete: the educational aspect. I don’t travel to “switch off my brain” and just rest. In fact, I hate resting – sleeping excluded. I love sleeping. And when I’m done sleeping, I just wanna get dressed, eat a nice big meal and get out there and learn some interesting facts that may or may not change the way I see things in life. Our tour with Boquete Bees taught me that there is such a thing as STINGLESS BEES. People who know me, know I’m terrified of wasps and bees – even adorable bumblebees. If they had seen me standing in front of a beehive without any protection, without freaking out and making a scene, they’d probably say the beehive is fake and the insects flying around are probably just flies or something. As soon as the guide informed us that the bees on this farm were all stingless and completely harmless, I managed to let go of my fears. Maybe this will even help me relax a bit more around the bees we have in Europe. I know how important bees are to the ecosystem. Without them, all life on earth will die.

The tour continued to a butterfly conservatory, similar to the one we had visited in El Valle de Anton. We spent a while admiring the beautiful creatures and photographing them as they were resting, eating or fluttering gracefully. I enjoyed every second of it – obsessed with butterflies, as I am.

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The garden of the property had a small coffee plantation, vegetable garden, pineapples and plenty of gorgeous, colorful flowers. Have you ever eaten a flower? We tasted some. Yup, they were good. No, I’m not crazy (not more than the average woman, anyway).

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We finished the tour with a grand finale inside of the main building. It was time for a real honey tasting experience! I don’t even remember how many different kinds of honey we had lined up in front of us, but it was a lot. Maybe thirty different ones?

Fun fact: Did you know that honey is actually bee vomit? 

Our honey tasting didn’t consist of just plain honey. There were blends of honey/cacao, honey/chili, honey/lavender, honey/ginger and a lot more. Even the basic honey didn’t taste “basic” or “plain”. It tasted divine. The guide poured us a glass of some sort of honey wine and some honey liqueur. I wasn’t a fan. We ended up buying some honey to take home, though. We would have been fools not to support these amazing people who work so hard to educate visitors on the importance of the protection of bees, protection of different butterfly species, growing organic coffee and vegetables. It feels good to spend money on good causes!

Our last tour in Boquete was another educational experience – and I can’t decide which tour was my favorite, between the previous one and this one. This was the coffee tour I had been looking forward to ever since we made it to Panama. I love coffee and I was interested in learning more about the farming, production and marketing of Panamanian coffee. Our tour was with a guide named Carlos at Cafe Ruiz. Carlos was the funniest tour guide I’ve ever met and I’m surprised he doesn’t consider becoming a stand-up comedian – because that guy has skills (check out Cafe Ruiz on TripAdvisor and you’ll see I’m not the only fan). Even when talking about serious subjects, such as how the coffee production in Panama is decreasing due to locals who sell their land so that North American migrants can build their gated communities there, he still added a little tongue-in-cheek humor to even the touchiest subjects. I can’t help but feeling sad for the locals, and I admire his ability to speak so lightheartedly about it.

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I didn’t know that little white flowers grow on the coffee trees. Nor did I know that coffee beans are green before they’re roasted. And I definitely didn’t know that light roast coffee is the strongest in caffeine and has no bitter aftertaste, whereas dark roast contains way less caffeine and has a strong, bitter aftertaste. You know, the taste that makes a lot of people put milk and sugar in their coffee.

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The tour finished with a trip to the coffee shop, where we did a coffee tasting. As you may have guessed, the light roast came out as the big winner. As if the coffee tasting and the stand-up comedy wasn’t already 35 dollars well spent, Carlos gave us a goodie bag with our own bags of coffee, some biscuits, a postcard – inside of a really cool Tote bag made from an actual coffee sack. We’ve kept them and use them for our groceries. Strangers have even complimented me on them. Thank you Carlos – for everything!

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Now that you’ve read this post, I’m sure you have a better understanding for why I love Boquete and why some of my most wonderful memories from my trip to Panama, were made here. I feel educated. I feel like I spent my money on things that matter. People that matter. People that contribute to making this world a better place.

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Next: Hiking and chilling in an ecolodge in Cerro Punta 

 

 

 

 

Panama Series: Cool and Colorful Pedasi

Headed 210 kilometers, direction south, ready to exchange the steep hills and windy weather with sunshine and sandy beaches on the Pacific coastline. We had absolutely no activities planned for the day, besides drinking cocktails, soaking up some sun and cool down in the water. I’m fine with that…When it’s just for a day. What you should know about me is that I’m someone who gets easily bored and I actually hate sunbathing (which is why I’m always pale) and swimming in the sea gets kind of boring after a while, when there’s no other activity involved (such as snorkeling, volleyball or whatever).

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We made it to one of the most colorful towns I had ever seen. Modern street art on every white wall, vibrant colored houses, colorful fountains – and a huge sign welcoming us as we entered the town. “Pedasi” was written in multicolored capital letters, with a much more subtle hashtag “visit Panama” below. I remembered to add that hashtag to everything posted on my social media platforms from then on. Maybe the local tourism board would notice me and give me some freebies? Or at least a friendly discount on one of the local tours – or maybe a free drink somewhere? Note; none of that never happened. 

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Our hotel, Residencial Santa Catalina , was conveniently located in the town center and had all the facilities we needed. As we’d already been on the road for a good week, we figured it was a good idea to use the laundry service provided by the hotel. Although there wasn’t really any laundry service on-site. Still, the receptionist offered to take our laundry elsewhere and have it done for us and didn’t even ask for any payment. Fair enough. Later that evening, we received our freshly washed laundry – folded and everything. Even my tiny underwear was folded. As a very sensitive person, I got ridiculously emotional looking at my pile of folded undies and once smelly hiking wear that now smelled like a rose garden. I think my boyfriend’s mother felt the same way, as we both had the idea to leave the lady a generous tip. It would have been even more generous, had we known what would happen at another hotel, four days later..

What was supposed to be one of the nicer beaches in the area, was a little drive outside of town, so we took the car and went to check it out. The beach was crowded. People, their dogs, parked cars and lots of non-recyclable trash everywhere. Lovely. We stopped to take a few pictures and got back in the car to locate another supposedly nice beach. With some help from Google, rather than our outdated guidebook, we managed to find one. This one was way less crowded, and a little less littered than the other one. We decided to stay.

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Nobody were in the water except from us and a bunch of tiny grey fish jumping out of the water and dancing around us. Fish in Panama seem to be a lot less afraid of people than fish anywhere else I’ve been. Why is that?

I enjoyed the moment to the fullest. The clear blue sky, the sunshine, the crystal clear water, the calm atmosphere, the escape from time… and it all came crashing down when we witnessed a dog taking a dump right in front of us, and watched the waves crash into his fresh produce. “That’s it, I’m out”, I said to everyone and got out of the water. Yes, I know there’s probably a lot more poo in the water than just this one – after all, fish poo in it. I just never felt the need to witness it in action. And where were the owners of the dog anyway?

As soon as we made it back to the hotel, I jumped into the shower and washed every inch of my body while picturing myself being completely covered in poo. I guess this phobia comes from an old childhood trauma of mine. I’ll tell you the story. So, my dad and I, went to Greece when I was fourteen years old, a year after my mother divorced him. He didn’t like the overcrowded beaches, and neither did I, so we walked along the beach, probably two kilometers or more, in search of a more secluded place. And we found one. There were literally no one there. Just us. It was simply too good to be true. We jumped right in. It smelled kind of weird there, but we didn’t think much of it….that was until we saw a “no swimming” sign, sewage pipes and…you guessed it, POO. Lot’s of it. Terrified, we ran out of the water as if we were running away from sharks, and headed directly to the hotel to get rid of the feces glued to our skin. Awful.

Meanwhile in Panama, I finished my shower and put on a nice skirt and one of my favorite shirts (which my boyfriend refers to as one of my hippie shirts). I was all set and thirsty for cocktails. We discovered a Mexican restaurant called Tortuga’s – a great place for fajitas, tacos and homemade cocktails (which included fresh juice). The food was good and service was great. Our French-Canadian waitress seemed quite relieved when she realized she didn’t have to speak English with us as we are all French speakers. Immediately, she went from nervous to relaxed and talkative and let her bubbly personality shine through.

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Our lazy day in Pedasi had been an interesting one. A similar kind of day in a different destination was lined up for the following day. Next stop, Santa Catalina!

 

 

 

 

Panama Series: Adventures in El Valle de Anton

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After finishing a large last breakfast at our hotel in Panama City, we packed our bags and went to pick up the rental car – a Toyota 4×4 – because on rocky terrain and steep hills, only a car that size will be able to make it in one piece. By all means, renting a fancy impractical car would have made an excellent “how everything went wrong” kind of story, kind of like the plot of a poorly rated comedy flick. However, we didn’t want that kind of adventure. Nor did we sign up for what happened in El Valle de Anton, which is a completely different story. I’ll get back to that later. Needless to say I am now laughing about it in hindsight – although it wasn’t funny at all when it happened…

The day started out well. We got in the car, got on the road and drove the 128 kilometers from Panama City to El Valle de Anton – a town I had done little to no research on in advance. All I knew was that we were going hiking, and that we’d be staying in Hostel Orchid, which according to their official description, is the first genuine backpacker’s hostel in El Valle de Anton. The hostel is also the location of a beautiful orchid conservation. I was looking forward to seeing all the gorgeous flowers!

Two hours later, we made it to El Valle de Anton and stopped by a supermarket before heading to the hostel. We loaded the car with water bottles, plantain chips, yuka chips, nacho chips, dip, more dip, another dip, fruit juice and rum. Because, that’s obviously how you do lunch before going hiking.

The hostel was kind of hard to find, but we found it. Turned out it wasn’t  the right season for orchids, so we saw in total three flowers. Three individual flowers. Two that were gorgeous, and one I didn’t like, because I think those kind of flowers look vulgar. My significant other shakes his head whenever I say that, and tell me I have a sick mind. Well, he knows which flowers not to get me for Valentine’s Day.

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As I was already starving, I finished a bag of plantain chips before we left the hostel to do the Chorro El Macho hike, which turned out to be a nice but very short hike. We admired an impressive waterfall, stopped to photograph it, scouted for birds and animals, saw absolutely no birds nor animals and crossed a scary rope bridge – which is probably not scary to anybody else but me (I guess), as I’m terrified of heights and anything that makes me feel like I’m gonna fall into my death.

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At the end of the hike there was a natural lagoon. I dipped my toes into the water. It felt good – too good. Now, why didn’t I put on a bikini before going hiking? No matter how illogical it seems to wear a bikini underneath hiking-clothes, I guess I’ll have to start making it a priority when in countries with warm climates (this situation occurred more than once during this trip).

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As the hike was way shorter than we’d expected, we figured we’d have time to do yet another hike and see more amazing waterfalls. We had previously read about Chorro Las Mozas and realized today was our lucky day. Two hikes in one day. Two birds with one stone, right?

We parked the car, prepared our backpacks, but something seemed a bit off. Only a few people were there, and the gate was closed. Was it really closed? Mother-in-law who speaks the least Spanish out of the four of us (none of us speak Spanish) got out of the car to ask someone who may or may not have worked there, if it was still okay for us to enter. They didn’t speak any English – except from the word CLOSED. And that was it.

“What do we do now? It’s only four O’clock” we all said, and desperately drove from one tourist attraction to another, searching for something – anything – to do. We discovered a butterfly farm called Butterfly Haven, which was unfortunately closed as well, so we scheduled it in for the following morning as a last activity in El Valle de Anton before moving on to the next destination.

It seemed like absolutely everything was closed and everyone in El Valle de Anton had taken the rest of the day off, so we returned to the hostel to hang out and drink rum and fruit juice and eat more chips before heading out to a local restaurant for dinner in the evening. And that’s when the unthinkable happened…

The lights went out. The power was out. We asked the staff at the hostel if there was anything they could do to fix it, and they looked at us as if we’d never been to a small town in Central America before (which at least two of us hadn’t). “This is a small town. The power cuts quite often here. It will only take a few minutes – one hour tops, and it will be back” the receptionist said. We waited. And waited. And waited even longer. Minutes became hours. We were starting to get hungry and got in the car, in search of a restaurant. Dumb as we were, it never even crossed our minds that none of the restaurants would have any power either. And they didn’t. The restaurants were all closed.

Disappointed and with growling bellies, we returned to the hostel and finished our chips and dip before going to bed at eight PM – because we were bored and miserable.

This night, we’d all be sharing a room. My boyfriend, his parents and I. The room had a large double bed and a bunk bed. As always, the kids go in the bunk bed – and since I am the least fat one out of me and my man, I had to take the top bunk. For some reason, the bunk bed was centered in the middle of the room and had no edges. You roll over, you fall out of bed and break your legs. Or even worse, your neck. I laid there, anxious, imagining myself becoming paralyzed while on vacation in Panama. Nope, I ain’t having it.

As the evening fell, it got more and more windy outside. The wind was howling and shaking the roof like crazy. The windows had no glass, just mosquito nets covering them, and the roof had a two centimeter gap, and the walls felt fragile. Oh, how they were fragile. But not as much as the roof. The wind distracted me from my newfound “bunk bed without edges”-phobia, and got my mind busy picturing the building getting ripped apart by a tornado instead. Nice.

Not everything went wrong, though. We remembered to pack flashlights, so we were still able to find the toilet, the bed and the way out. And the hostel was clean. Now, while staying at a hostel, that’s considered luxury (it’s my only clean hostel experience!). And I DO recommend this place, as the staff was helpful and friendly and I’m sure the garden is amazingly beautiful when the orchids are blooming. And the property itself is lovely. So please, check out Hostel Orchid – and wherever you decide to stay while visiting El Valle de Anton, pack your flashlight and an extra sandwich!

I have no idea what time I finally fell asleep, but it felt like I’d only slept for one hour when suddenly I woke up by the sound of my boyfriend talking loud to his father. He turned to me and asked me if I was awake. Well, I sure was now. “What time is it?”, I mumbled. My phone was dead. Apparently it was five thirty am. Excellent. What can one possibly do at  five thirty, besides sleeping?

By seven thirty, we were all showered, dressed, packed and ready to check out from the hostel and find somewhere to go for breakfast. The power was back, so this time there was no excuse for restaurants and cafes to be closed other than how early it was. Heaven’s Cafe was our lifesaver. By the time we got our food, we were so hungry I’m sure we’d all willingly eat the cafe’s plastic furniture if our breakfast hadn’t arrived in time. My grilled cheese, smoothie and cafe latte tasted…heavenly. Pun intended.

After our much needed breakfast, we were all pumped up with new energy and a clear head, and decided to check out the artisan and vegetable market before visiting Butterfly Haven. My boyfriend and I bought nothing, but his parents found some nice souvenirs to take home. Me, I’m not much of a souvenir collector. I hate dusting ornaments, and I move around too much.

Butterfly Haven was my highlight of our stay in El Valle de Anton. The guide, John, was very knowledgeable and eager to answer any questions asked about butterflies. Butterfly Haven’s mission is to nurture and protect butterflies and educate as many people as possible about them. We enjoyed photographing them and I even had the pleasure of having a butterfly land on my arm and stay there for five minutes. Obviously, I didn’t touch it, as their wings are extremely fragile and would most likely be damaged by it. Nor did I move my arm. I stayed in the exact same position until the butterfly decided to fly away. Five minutes. Plenty enough time to take some cute pictures of the little beauty!

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3 important things to remember when visiting El Valle de Anton:

  • The money you spend on visiting the Orchid Conservatory (at Hostel Orchid), Butterfly Haven and the different hiking trails, go towards maintenance and protection of the nature and environment – and people who work hard to conserve it.
  • In case the power cuts, bring a flashlight/headlamp, portable charger and something to eat (that requires no pre-cooking or a refrigerator)
  • Bring a light jacket or a sweater. It gets really windy and slightly chilly in the evening.

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Next stop on my Panama adventures is the beach town Pedasi!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Panama Series: In and Out of Panama City

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After two weeks off from blogging, due to a combination of long drives, sketchy WiFi, busy schedule and well needed rest and family-time, I’m finally home and ready to give you all the juicy updates and tips on what to see, where to go, what to do, what not to do – and whatever else I feel is necessary to share about the country famous for its canal, its hat (which is not even from Panama, but from Ecuador) and the Panama Papers scandal. There’s so much more to this country than that – so let’s take it all the way to the beginning of my journey. Welcome to the Miami of Central America; Welcome to Panama City!

There I was. Baggage claim, waiting for my neon-green suitcase alongside my boyfriend and his parents – and a bunch of sexy Latin women. The twelve hour flight had got me all sweaty, sticky and smelly – which was a nice little feature to the disgusting hobo-look I got going for me while flying long distance. I wanted to hide my pale face and my greasy hair inside of my dirty hoodie.

We wanted to take the local bus to Panama City in order to save some money, but language barriers guided us to, well, nowhere really… That was until we eventually found the bus stop for the local bus, but were told we needed to buy a buss pass in advance – at the central bus station. At least that’s what we thought we were told. Again, language barriers.

In Panama City there might be more taxis than inhabitants, so you can only imagine how many taxis approached us while we were waiting at the bus stop, scratching our heads. We eventually gave in and allowed a taxi to take us to our hotel, the gorgeous Sercotel Panama Princess ****.

The hotel rooms were spacious, clean and everything I needed after such a long flight. I took a well needed shower, got dressed and went downstairs to the lobby bar to celebrate the beginning of an adventurous vacation with my French family-in law. I raised my glass of Kiwi Sour, the men raised their bottles of Panamanian beer, and mother-in-law raised her glass of whatever it was she was drinking. Salud!

Day 1: Miraflores Locks , Panama Viejo & Casco Viejo (Old Town)

You can’t visit Panama City without visiting the famous Panama Canal. You just can’t. Whether you are interested in the technicality of the locks, the history, the clever construction, the cargo ships lining up to pass through – and even if you’re just curious about everything in general (like me), it’s something you shouldn’t miss out on. We made plans to visit the Miraflores locks the first day and the Gatun locks the next.

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Before you ask, one hour or one hour and a half gives you way enough time to spend at the Miraflores locks, unless you want to see the same thing over again and again. One hour was enough for us to see a cruise ship as well as different cargo ships, pass through the locks. Of course, there are tourists everywhere, so you might wanna go upstairs, downstairs or wait your turn for a good view. Food can be purchased on site. There are restaurants, a kiosk and a coffee shop in the Visitor Center.

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The taxi driver who took us to Miraflores, waited patiently  in the car while we visited the locks – and no, he didn’t charge us anything extra. We returned to the taxi and continued our quest to sight-see as much as possible. This time direction Panama Viejo – which is not Old Town Panama, but Old-Old Town Panama: The Archaeological Site of Panama Viejo and Historic District of Panama.

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We spent an hour and a half strolling along the pathway, photographing the ruins and learning the history behind them all, before once again returning to the taxi to move on to yet another exciting location: Casco Viejo!

Casco Viejo is Spanish for Old Town, and it was everything I hoped it would be – and more. Picturesque, colorful buildings, narrow streets, terrace cafes, a market selling souvenirs to curious tourists and bars offering tropical cocktails and snacks to festive visitors. The charming architecture and tranquil atmosphere made it feel miles away from the modern city center and all the gigantic skyscrapers. We enjoyed a couple of fruity drinks before returning to the hotel to enjoy the outdoor swimming pool for a little while, before getting dressed up and ready to explore Panamanian cuisine for the very first time.

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Ah, Panamanian cuisine! My meal that evening was delicious (in case you wondered). Tinajas turned out to be an excellent choice of restaurant. As a starter, I ordered empanadas – high quality ones. Perfect balance of sweet and savory, with its caramelized onion dipping sauce to give it an interesting touch. My main dish, the yuka pie, may have looked like a small dish – but don’t be fooled. It kept me full – extremely full – until the next day. The dish was rich in flavor as well as textures. I loved it. We raised our glasses once again. This time to celebrate an eventful and enjoyable first day. Salud!

Day 2: Colon, Gatun locks, Fort San Lorenzo & Panama Canal Railway

“Taxi? Taxi!”, another yellow car pulled over. Another driver offering to take the obvious tourists to wherever they needed to go. “The central bus station” was definitely not his first, second or even third guess, but once we explained that we were taking the bus to Colon to see the Gatun locks, it all seemed to make sense to him after all. And we were already aware of the fact that Colon, the city itself, is the most dangerous city in Panama. It’s not a place for Europeans with a bad sense of direction, to wander around with their valuables on display and no self defense skills, whatsoever.

The bus from Panama City to Colon was quite the tourist attraction, though. The folklore decorations inside of the bus looked like a mix between a gypsy’s den and my grandma’s living room, and the TV-screen was showing some random Spanish soap opera to keep the passengers entertained during the journey.

We had barely even touched Colon soil, before a beggar wearing a trash bag as underpants, approached us in Spanish. I felt bad for him, and wanted to give him a coin or two, but was too scared to take out my wallet in public in a city like that. We hadn’t even finished the phrase “yo no hablo Español” before a taxi interrupted us and asked us where we needed to go – because staying downtown in Colon was completely out of question.

The driver spoke absolutely no English nor French, but that didn’t stop him from being a real chatterbox. We understood bits and pieces of what he was talking about, but every now and then messages seemed to get lost in translation. We managed to get by with a mix of Spanglish and French, accompanied by gestures and photos from our guidebook, and in the end it all worked out well. The driver, whose name was Eric (I think), suggested we’d take the ferry through the locks (which is free) rather than entering the visitor center of Gatun locks, where we wouldn’t have been able to see much anyway. From the deck of the ferry we saw the ocean from both the Pacific and the Atlantic side. The fresh breeze, the gentle waves and the fantastic view – now, this was the highlight of the day, so far.

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Back on the road, direction Fort San Lorenzo, an ancient Spanish fortress. The fort’s ruins and the village site are located 13 km west of Colon. Fort San Lorenzo is government-protected and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A tiny monkey caught our attention while walking from the car towards the historical site. Rapidly, he disappeared and left us curious to find out if there were any other animals hiding up there, in the trees above us. There weren’t.

We did however see an iguana crossing the street and entering the public bathroom.

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The only thing left on the agenda for the day was to take the Panama Canal Railway from Colon back to Panama City. We still had nearly two hours to kill before boarding the train, and Eric didn’t want to leave us wandering the streets of Colon by ourselves. He offered to drive us to a restaurant in the city, which was fine by us, as we were all starting to feel hungry anyway.

Judging from the outside, the restaurant looked kind of creepy and didn’t really give us the desire to enter. The windows were tinted and the place looked anything but inviting. That was, until a gentleman opened the door and greeted us in English. All the other guests in the restaurant were tourists, just like us, and we knew we were safe.

Tender creole chicken, served with rice and fried plantains was exactly the lunch I needed. I love creole seasoning. And plantains. I forgot all about where I was and focused only on my meal. Time goes by so fast when you’re enjoying yourself – and a meal – and before we knew it, it was time to find Eric’s taxi and head to the Panama Canal Railway station.

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In case you wondered, Panama Canal Railway is not a regular train. This is an experience unlike any other and you’ll have the most picturesque view from the window – I promise! The railroad follows a scenic path across a narrow strip of land with sea on either side, passing through the gorgeous rain forests, cruising alongside the locks of the Panama Canal, through the historic Gaillard Cut and passing the slender causeways in Gatun Lake.

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Arriving in Panama City, taxis were already waiting outside of the station for potential costumers. As it was our last evening in Panama City, we decided to return to Casco Viejo for a couple of drinks. More specifically, to the rooftop bar at Tantalo Hotel.

The view from the rooftop bar was amazing, and so were the drinks. We laughed, we drank, we tweeted and instagrammed – just to let everyone back in Europe know that we were living the dream. Salud!

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5 random things I have learned from visiting Panama City:

  • It’s necessary to know some Spanish, even in the capital.
  • If you don’t like Panamanian cuisine, there’s Taco Bell, Hooters, McDonalds, KFC, Wendy’s, Pizza Hut, you name it.. they’re all there.
  • Panama City has a very charming Old Town, and you can easily avoid the skyscrapers if you want to.
  • There might even be more taxis in Panama City than in New York.
  • It’s an expensive city.

Next post in the Panama-series will be on: Valle de Anton. Stay tuned!

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