Panama 2022

Photo: Amber Davis

Panama 2022

I had been to Panama by myself in 2008 and didn't really plan to go back. Not for any particular reason. Just that I'd already stamped my passport and there are other places I'd like to visit. But I also welcome the unexpected. And this trip literally happened because of beer. 

Six of us were at 97 Estoria in Cabbagetown in Atlanta. We were eating vegan wings and throwing back pints. Then Amber announced she found a stupid-inexpensive flight deal on Delta direct to Panama City. Three rounds later ... we all had tickets. That's how it happened. We just picked a date and decided to make it a birthday celebration for our friend Steve. But this short, random vacation turned out to be so much more. Because in the true spirit of all things unexpected, this also turned into a wedding for Amber and Reinaldo.

The Flight
Delightfully uneventful and short. Only about four hours. Long enough for a nap and partial viewing of "Top Gun: Maverick." It was definitely one of those routes where you are reminded that Central America is right next door, seemingly just as near as other places in the continental United States, and generally less expensive.


Arriving in Panama City
It's a pretty basic airport. Customs didn't take long. And we were soon packed into our shuttle for the Crowne Plaza Panama Airport. It's fine. It's an airport hotel. We had an early flight scheduled for the next day, so we figured it made sense to just stay close to the terminal. The most important compliment I can give the hotel is that I was able to set the AC to Arctic. The pool was also surprisingly nice.

Our first stop for the day was at a little pizza joint that had good pies and, from what I'm told, decent vegan options. But the highlight was the beer. First, we toasted the trip with a fairly standard Balboa - which is touted as the first beer in the nation, dating back to 1910. It was exactly as you'd expect. Good. Not great. Totally drinkable. But the true all star was from Central Cervecería - specifically the Guachimán. I mean, the beer was good, but the bottle design was a top-10 worldwide classic. In general, Panama has surprisingly good craft beer. And we would discover many more throughout the trip.

Panamá Viejo
This is an archaeological center containing the ruins of the old city of Panama dating back to 1519. Now a UNESCO Cultural World Heritage Site, a visit costs $10 to walk around. Basically, you get to look at the old buildings, climb the ancient tower, and subsequently lose your camera's lens cap. It does offer some decent views of the current city of Panama, but, at least for me, it wasn't anything special. That said, it was a nice way to stretch our legs after the flight. And this was pretty much it for the day. Back to the hotel. A little pool time. And early to bed. Very rock n' roll.


Arriving in David
The flight to David takes less than an hour and it's a perfectly comfortable ride on CopaAirlines, the national carrier of Panama. Once we arrived, we had a scheduled rental van waiting for us. Except the previous users crashed it. So they gave us a large SUV. It was a little tight, but did the job. However, it would NOT be available to do the job for the next people who might've had it scheduled after us. More on that later. But for now, enjoy beautiful Boquete in the mountains!

Photo: Amber Davis

Hotel Ladera
Not a single regret about our choice of lodging. The place is great and the location is wonderful - just far enough from "town" to be off the strip, yet close enough to be easily walkable. The Hotel Ladera is perfect. Now, funny thing about this place. When I was last in Panama in 2008 I actually came to this town despite the fact that it had recently experienced horrible flooding. This was in November of that year toward the end of the rainy season. And I remember taking a picture of a hotel that had basically been washed away by the river. Fast forward to now. I didn't even realize it until days later, but THIS was that hotel. Below is my photo from 2008 next to another from how it currently looks in 2022.

Cafe Boquete (I think)
We stopped for breakfast. It wasn't very memorable. That said, most everything else we ate on this trip was amazing! But this was just OK. Fortunately, we did stumble on a good bakery while walking away from our breakfast where they had warm, gooey bread rolls. Winning.

Murder on Gilligan's Island
OK, this will take a little explanation. Somehow, we learned there was a local performance of a play called "Murder on Gilligan's Island." Cute name. Sounded fun. Might be neat to see people from town doing some theater. But that's not exactly what happened. Because these were not so much locals as they were "locals." Basically, there are lots of rich, white gringos living in Panama. Many of them settle in Boquete because it's beautiful and the weather is nice. Thus, they've sort of created their own weird ex-pat community that feels like a Sun City retirement neighborhood. And, here at The Rock at the Riverside Inn, apparently they put on plays. Anyway, it was about as bad as expected. But we drank half a bottle of rum and actually had a lot of fun. At one point, sitting amongst the retirees, Katie turned to our group and asked, "Are we the only ones here who aren't stoned?" Then, during intermission, we made small talk with the people behind us who, though members of this gringo community, appreciated the absurdity of all of this. Then - and you can't make this up - one of the ladies looked at us and said, "I think you guys are the only ones here who aren't stoned." Anyway. The murderer (this time) was Mary Ann. And, in the photo below, you can see me being very uncomfortable while The Skipper wanders around with a drink before the start of the show.

Herbolarium Gourmet
This was a pretty magical find for dinner. Owned by a Danish man named Henry, the Herbolarium was completely unassuming, yet delightful. Henry and his wife make everything from scratch, including vegan pizzas and more. It was a simple delight with really fresh food and great conversation. Henry also gave us a good tip for a coffee tour that we would schedule for the next day. And that would prove to be an important decision.

Boquete Brewing Company
After dinner we made a stop at this really nice indoor/outdoor beer hall with some exceptionally nice, fresh brews on tap. BBC is a great hang, and on this night they had live music by the Adhi & Dario Duo. Huge credit to them. These two were giving it their all for the small crowd outside and actually crushed "Zombie" but The Cranberries.

Los Ladrillos
The next morning we drove out to a nearby trailhead for a hike, but the short drive out was pretty incredible in and of itself. We actually stopped several times to take photos. This included a crazy rock formation known as Los Ladrillos. It's a wall of natural pillars formed from when lava cooled into basalt columns. Lots of people stop here to climb, but we just pulled over for a look. Because, you know, athleticism. 

Las Tres Cascadas
Also referred to as The Lost Waterfalls, this is a short 2-mile hike where you're supposed to be able to see three cascades. We saw one. The hike was OK - not particularly well-blazed. But, if we're being honest, our inability to see the other two waterfalls could probably just be chalked up to combined human error. Nevertheless, we enjoyed being out there, even though the most memorable part was this (seemingly cool) dog who led us up the trail ... right to his human who then collected the $10 trail fee. Then the dog left us. Good boy. I guess.

Photo: Amber Davis

Donde Giselle
This is a great little restaurant on the main strip, and one we were anxious to try. Didn't disappoint. I had something called El Mono which I ordered partly to honor my friends' cat Moño who had just passed away. But also because it sounded amazing. And it was. 

Cafes de la Luna
Henry from the Herbolarium suggested this particular coffee farm for a tour and tasting. And the suggestion couldn't possibly have been any better for a number of reasons. Rich, the owner of the farm, had moved to Boquete with his wife from California. They initially just loved the property up in the mountains, and didn't necessarily plan to turn this dormant coffee plantation back into an active farm. But they did. And, in doing so, brought to it an incredible appreciation and adherence to ethics for organic growing and, more importantly, human work conditions. Treating his staff with dignity and paying them a fair wage was important from the start, and it's all reflected in the vibe and beauty of Cafes de la Luna. The best part of the tour - besides tasting his coffee - was the hour-long conversation we had right at the start. It was like chatting with an old friend. Such a wonderful experience and we all walked away having purchased a lot of coffee and loved on a bunch of dogs. Eight to be exact.

This was a really cozy Italian restaurant with good food and friendly service. Everyone gave a solid thumbs up to their meal, and I'll add extra points for having discovered another fun microbrew called Chivoperro IPA. Which means goat-dog. 

BCP Tuesday Market
So, here's the thing. BCP stands for Boquete Community Pulse. But it started in 2005 as the Boquete Community Players. Which is to say it was the gringo retiree theater company. The kind that, still today, puts on plays like "Murder on Gilligan's Islands." The group's first show back in 2005 was Ayn Rand's "Night of January 16th." So, take that for what it's worth. The organization's name change from Players to Pulse was to expand its mission: "Enriching the life of the Boquete Community through the arts, entertainment, community events, and services." One such event is the BCP Tuesday Market at the Arco Iris Hallroom - a weird building that had the charm of mortuary. Fortunately, across the street we found a second part to their market at the TapOut Grill. And there was actually some decent food and things to buy.

Centro Artesanal de Boquete
But never mind Tuesday. You can always just go to this other open-air market right across the street. It's open every day, has a more local vibe, and I was even able to find a pretty amazing shirt to wear for the wedding.

Mike's Global Grill
The previous day, after the Gilligan's Island thing, some of the cast and gringo locals were planning to head over to this restaurant and bar for an afterparty. They kindly extended us and invitation, but I'm glad we didn't go. However, we did decided to eat here for lunch after hitting up the market. It was simply open before other places, and that was sort of the key for us since our other plans for the day required we take an early lunch. Like I said. It was open. But it was basically just an American sports bar with deep fried everything and mediocre tacos. We had to walk it all off. Though, in fairness, our digestion stroll did allow us this fine photo moment.

Hanging Bridges Tour
A short drive away into the mountains takes you to Tree Trek Boquete Adventure Park. Normally, my alarm bells go off whenever I hear the word "adventure." It just screams zip lines and forced fun for tourists. But we had heard their hanging bridges tour was actually pretty cool, so we gave it a shot. And, even though there were (as expected) zip lines, I'm nevertheless happy to report back that this might've been everyone's favorite or second favorite thing from the entire trip to Panama. Y'all, this hike is spectacular! It was a two-hour guided journey through the cloud forest, crossing over six different suspension bridges that take you high into the canopy. It's stunning. And our guide was so wonderful. She had a genuine excitement about the plants and animals in the preserve, and we all walked away from it smiling. Drenched to the bone. But smiling. So, yeah. Bring rain gear. And hope it works better than mine. Because when it comes down for real, it comes down like nothing you've ever seen. Fortunately, it only really poured closer to the end of the hike. But it was pretty, pretty, pretty wet.   

The Hotel Bar
Just wanted to give a shout out to the staff at the Hotel Ladera. They were amazing, and the little bar in the back became one of our favorite hangouts before and after dinner.

I'm pretty sure this translates as "aftertaste," which is sort of a hit-or-miss strategy when naming your restaurant. But all's well that ends well. And this place was wonderful. I opted for a steak. It was incredible. And the aftertaste was agreeable. 

Wedding Planning at the Hotel
Back at the hotel, we all piled into Amber and Reinaldo's room to have drinks, listen to music, and prep for their wedding the next day. This included the making of flower crowns, as well as the development of the perfect Spotify playlist which somehow ranged from Nathaniel Rateliff's "S.O.B." to the "Yakety Sax" Benny Hill theme. Obviously.

Wedding at Cafes de la Luna
As if I didn't already have enough nice things to say about Rich and his coffee farm, this is the part where I get to tell you about his offer. During light conversation at the end of our tour, we had mentioned that Amber and Reinaldo were going to get married guerrilla-style, maybe in front of a waterfall or some other place we had scoped out around Boquete. Then Rich said, "Well, you're welcome to just do it here." And that's how we ended up back on his farm for a morning ceremony. Katie was the officiant. I was the flower boy. Carolina took photos. And Steve played with the dogs. Honestly, you could spend tens of thousands of dollars and not come up with a more beautiful wedding site. We were so grateful to have this opportunity, and happy to share in Amber and Reinaldo's celebration with Rich and some of the staff from his farm. And the dogs. 

Photo: Amber Davis

Post-Wedding Photos at the Waterfall
Since we had already scoped out a couple wedding locations, we decided to go back to one of them for photos - a little waterfall along the main road. We stopped there. Took a few photos of the newlyweds. And then we were on our way. The pop-up gift-shop attendant may or may not have even looked up from his phone to notice a lady thirty feet away in a wedding gown.

Donde Giselle (Again)
After going back to the hotel and letting the bride return to more normal attire, we went back to Donde Giselle. It was really good the first time, so we figured it was worth another round for lunch. I had the same thing. Moño lives!

Perfect Pair
This next activity was, at least to me, nothing special. It was a chocolate-making class. A little random. But our guide was wonderful. So that helped. I just wasn't that into learning about the chocolate-making process so much as I was about the eating-chocolate process. But this was a good group and we still had a lot of fun while making our own chocolate bars. Would I do it again? Probably not. Did we laugh a lot and end up with chocolate. Yes. 

Photo: Amber Davis

Boquete Brewing Company
Had to kill some time between chocolate and dinner so we made another stop at the brewery. No live music at this hour, but, outside, I was able to enjoy a celebratory post-wedding cigar with Reinaldo.

Here, the bride and groom treated us to an amazing dinner. This hotel and restaurant is truly stunning, and the food was sensational. The chef is actually pretty well-celebrated, and the best description of it was when somebody told us: It's always good. And sometimes it's amazing. I think we got it on an "amazing" night. 

The Diesel Incident
The next morning we were up and out pretty early to drive back to David for our return flight to Panama City. All we had to do was top off the car's tank. Fortunately, we decided to fill up at a station close to the airport. UN-fortunately, the attendant there mistakenly used regular gasoline instead of diesel. This, despite three clearly visible warnings printed on or near the tank hole. (It's called a tank hole, right?) Anyway, only by luck did Steve happen to stare out the window to notice the man using regular fuel. This allowed us to pre-confirm the mistake without actually turning on and, subsequently, ruining the car. The long story short is that the rental company had to have our rental towed so the tank could be pumped clean and disinfected. And it also meant we had to unload our bags and hail a couple of taxis to get us to the airport. It was a whole thing that involved lots of phone calls. Ultimately, it cost us about $400 which, hopefully, will be covered by the insurance offered through AMEX. Especially since it was the gas station's fault. But all thanks to Steve for catching the mistake. It could've been a lot worse. Also, our plane was delayed getting into David, so this whole diesel what-have-you didn't cause us to miss our flight. Which was a good thing.

Photo: Amber Davis


Arriving Back in Panama City
We had a van waiting for us at the airport to drive us into Casco Viejo - the old city of Panama. Not the ancient old city we visited on our first day in the country. But the historic district that was build after the original city was destroyed. Despite Panama's modern tall buildings along the coast, Casco Viejo is the true heart of the city, and where you want to to stay if you're visiting the capitol.  

Magnolia Inn
We had reservations at a cute little hotel and hostel. It's one of those places where we could enjoy our own rooms with private baths, while budget travelers could enjoy the dorms and shared facilities. It was all very egalitarian. And the location was perfect. Though, to be fair, everything is pretty close together in the old town.

We stopped here for lunch. It's a Mexican restaurant. It was OK. That's all I got.

El Palacio Sombrero
But what Reinaldo got after lunch was a snazzy Panama Hat ... which was actually made in Ecuador. Because that's where Panama hats are made. Ecuador really needs to take back their hat. Somehow Panama gets to claim it as their own.

Church Surfing
Our afternoon was mostly spent walking around the city and taking in some of the beautiful churches. You can make a whole day of this. Just popping in and out and looking at the amazing architecture and decor. Thanks, Jesus.

Walking Around the Old Town
Really, all of Casco Viejo is beautiful. It has an undeniable charm. And you can just stroll up and down the streets, taking in the incredible old buildings along with all the sights and sounds. It's a wonderful place to spend time - probably like a smaller version Havana or Cartagena. These photos below span the days we were there.

Snack Shack
Clearly it was time for another drink. So we nestled into this really cool tiki-themed place with a delightful little outside area. A couple of us had Mai Tais. Others had beer and rum. And we nibbled on some really delicious snacks. I had a shrimp ceviche that was just perfect. Great place for a pit stop.

Teatro Nacional de Panama
Opened in 1908, Panama's national theater is designed in the style of an Italian operetta and has beautiful details including frescos on the ceiling. On this night, we were able to buy $14 general admission upper deck seats for a performance of "School of Rock." Mind you, this is one dollar less than "Murder on Gilligan's Island" in Boquete, and performed by actual actors. And not in a tent. Make no mistake, this was a proper Broadway-style production. And even though it was 90% in Spanish, knowing the movie allowed me to enjoy the entire thing while keeping up with the story. Even though my Spanish is getting better and better, it was still a completely unique experience in that I really had to concentrate on the acting as opposed to the dialogue. Which is to say, I closely followed their movements and facial expressions and tones and other indicators of scene movement and emotion. The whole thing was wonderful. One of the trip's highlights, for sure.

La Rana Dorada
Kind of a blessing and a curse that The Golden Frog brewery was next door to our hotel. Really good beers and really good food and we really had a lot of it. Great design, too. This would be my beer bar if I lived in Panama City. 

Casa Sucre Coffeehouse
The next morning we were up early to head over to the Panama Canal. While we waited for our Uber, I walked down the block and picked up coffee and breakfast treats for the gang. This place was a really nice coffee shop. 

Panama Canal (Miraflores Locks)
No trip to Panama is complete without a visit to one of the world's most outrageous and important engineering wonders. There are three locks you can visit along the canal throughout its path, but the ones closest to Panama City are the Miraflores Locks. It was only about a 25 minute drive from our hotel, and we purposefully left around 8:30 in the morning to make sure we could see a ship pass through. In retrospect, we would've been better served going even earlier. We arrived just after several buses pulled up, and once we paid our $10 entry and (basically) ran up to the observation deck with all the other freshly-arrived tourists, we were only able to see one ship rise up and pass through the final lock. There wouldn't be another passing until 3pm. So, it's not some all-day constant flow of ships. My advice is get there early and relax up top. I think you can even check the daily ship schedule online to be sure. At the visitor center there is also a small museum, and (usually) an IMAX movie which we would've watched had it not still been closed due to COVID. As of September 16, 2022 this restriction was still in place. But all in all, it was still cool to see the locks up close and nice to at least watch the final portion of one ship's journey. 

Photo: Amber Davis

Snack Shack (Again)
Went back to the tiki bar for lunch. We are simple people with simple pleasures.

Museo del Canal
This is the official Panama Canal Museum, and it's really good. Make sure to carve out at least a couple hours to take your time and read everything. It's pretty comprehensive and doesn't hold back on some of the uglier truths about the canal's history. 

Marzola Parrilla Argentina
Our group sort of splintered off after the museum - some opting for a siesta back at the hotel - and I found myself alone for the first time during the trip. That's when I stumbled on a colorful little bar where I could sit and have a beer while watching life pass by outside the open air window to the sidewalk. Katie later said she saw it while walking and it reminded her of a TGI Friday's. But I thought it had a bit more charm once you were inside. Carolina joined me later for a beer once she finished reading everything at the previous stop ... because she's the world's slowest museum-er.

The Golden Altar
The Church of San Jose is known for its Altar de Oro. It's constructed of wood and lined with gold flake. Legend has it that when Captain Henry Morgan the pirate ransacked the city in 1671 the altar was hidden from him by monks who covered it with tar and tossed the deconstructed pieces into the ocean until a later time when they could be safely retrieved. However, a sign inside the church also notes that the story is total bullshit.

The Snack Shack that we had gone to twice is actually the sister restaurant of Mahalo. Here, Carolina and I stopped in for a beer and a snack. And, y'all, let me tell you something. This place might just be perfection in restaurant. From the decor. To the vibe. To the food. Everything here is just right. It whisks you away to another world from a different time period, and every detail is pure comfort and beauty, all while still being completely understated and relaxed. Loved this place. 

Later in the evening, we stopped here for a pre-dinner drink because it had a rooftop with possible good views for sunset. While it does, in fact, have a really nice rooftop with 360 views, there's no real way (geographically) to watch the sunset. But seeing the city from up high was nice, especially as the mother and father of all storms rolled through. It forced us inside where all we did was finish our drinks while waiting it out. Look, this place is nice. But it's also very hipster-DJ-sexy-young. So, just something to keep in mind if that's not your vibe.  

Casa Catedral
Our final dinner in Panama was a celebration for Steve's birthday. And, earlier, we had stumbled on this really cool restaurant that was decorated inside with amazing classic cars. You literally sit and dine next to art on wheels. The food was generally pretty good, but the atmosphere is the real hero. And the cocktails. Their bartenders are amazing, and the presentations are lovely. Especially my first drink which came in a skull-mug submerged in a platter of chipped ice. My second drink was ... normal.  

Photo: Amber Davis

Mahalo (Again)
The next morning we only had time for one last breakfast before heading to the airport, and not everyone had yet been to Mahalo. So, it was back to the perfect restaurant for a perfect breakfast with perfect coffee to close out a perfect trip with perfect people.

Photo: Amber Davis

The Flight Home
Finished "Top Gun: Maverick." Watched a MasterClass on sleeping. Fell asleep. Gracias, Panama!

1 comment:

Danno said...

What a beautiful and informative blog; thank you.