Arrival in Panama (by Audrey)

The first thing we saw against the skyline was an array of skyscrapers, the buildings seemed artistic and modern. Some twisted and curved, the windows reflecting the city a million times. There were tall stylish apartment complexes with colorful balconies, each at a different angle. A huge Jumbo-Tron played commercials in the main city square. This was Panama City.

For the next week we stayed in the “old city,” Casco Viejo. We took Spanish lessons, found “the most amazing caramel ice cream in the world” and ate great food. Casco was fantastic. Everyone was friendly and the city was very beautiful. Most days were leisurely (and sweltering hot). Our Spanish improved vastly. We went from not knowing one word to being able to ask questions, order food or ask where something was.

One exciting thing was finding an aerial dance studio right next to our Spanish lessons. We went to one fabric lesson and learned two new poses and a climb. We were also able to teach the other students a few moves that we knew.

For our second week in Panama we went on a road trip to a beach town called Santa Catalina and then up into the mountains.

Our first morning in Santa Catalina we got up, and before breakfast headed to the beach. My brother and I body surfed and splashed around for a while. The water was warm and we had no problem jumping in. That afternoon my brother and I went horseback riding for an hour. We rode along the beach for about 15 minutes and then went up into the jungle. Ollie got clothes-lined and had and incredibly slow horse. The guide was not willing to wait for Oliver at all so Ollie was pretty much left behind.

The next day we went on an awesome snorkeling adventure where we saw a ton of wildlife. There were dolphins jumping by the boat for a while and then one humpback whale surfaced before we landed on the small island where we snorkeled for about an hour. We saw multiple sea turtles, sea stars, parrot fish (and a lot of other tropical fish), and a lobster. On the way to the next island (Coiba, of Coiba Marine Reserve) we saw two more humpbacks, a mom and her baby! When we got to Coiba Island we took a break for lunch and then hiked around a little. We saw the cutest little monkey (whom I dubbed “Jonathan”) on our way up to a look out point. He apparently was pretty used to people giving him food because that is just what he expected us to do.

Around Casco Viejo Gallery

Casco Antigua, Casco Viejo … it’s an interesting place, not least because it has more than one name. It is the formerly chic quarter, Panama City’s “old town,” that fell to ruins after the new downtown began to be built and the old city walls were taken down (only a small remnant remains). One of the interesting things, as you’ll see, is the way old, often seemingly abandoned buildings, some with squatters included, sit side-by-side with newly renovated, chic hotels and restaurants. It is a neighborhood in transition and the contrasts are stark. It is also full of historic buildings, churches and museums.

Beach and Mountains in Panama (by Jenni)

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We decided to head to Coiba National Park after talking with some folks in Casco Viejo.  It is on the Pacific side of Panama and pretty much no tourists go there.  We rented a car in Panama City and headed to the beach!  Of course, we got lost a couple of times along the way.  But, people were very nice when we asked for directions in our broken Spanish.  We ended up getting to Santa Catalina well after dark.  Santa Catalina is the closest town to depart from to get to Coiba.  While driving, we were a bit concerned because other drivers seem to straddle the yellow line all of the time.  Corey soon figured out why.  Even though it was pretty dark out, no lights anywhere to be found, there were people on either side of the road on horses or walking on this two-lane highway.  It is pretty amazing to be somewhere and see people relying on horses for transportation.  We couldn’t believe we were anywhere near a beach because it remained hilly and very much like a jungle.

We stayed at a very sweet little place called Sherrley’s Cabins.  We didn’t really have anything to make breakfast with the morning after we arrived, so while Corey went to the store, the kids and I went to the beach.  I need to mention again that tourists don’t really know about this place yet. So, it was like we were on a private beach.  We were the only people there.  At first, I thought it was really muddy, which seemed weird for a beach.  Then, I realized that it is a black sand beach!  When we went back to the beach late in the day, I walked over to check out some huge rocks that create a mass that juts out into the ocean and saw that all of the rocks are lava.  Must be why the beach is black sand.  The sand is super fine and crazy beautiful.  We saw hundreds of little vibrant red crabs running around on this black sand.  It was quite a gift.

Sherrley, who owns Sherrley’s Cabins, is very, very sweet.  We had not prearranged anything.  And, she knows everybody here.  So, she got a hold of someone who took Audrey and Oliver horseback riding on the beach and into the jungle.  And, she arranged for someone to take us snorkeling at Coiba.

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Coiba is a protected island and the Smithsonian runs a research center there.  We went snorkeling around an island that was inhabited by hundreds (if not thousands) of hermit crabs.  On the way there, Audrey and everyone else in the boat, except me, Corey and Oliver, saw a humpback whale.

The snorkeling was amazing!  We saw so many different beautiful marine animals.  We got to see hawkbill sea turtles.  There are many endangered species that make Coiba their home.  We saw monkeys, iguanas, and various birds on the island where we had lunch.  We had a lovely close encounter with a howler monkey when hiking up a trail to the top of a hill.  The monkey had a blond face and black body.  It was very curious about us.  As we moved on, Audrey stayed behind with our snorkeling guide.  She told us that the guide held his hand out to the monkey and the monkey held the guide’s hand a moment and then started petting it.  The monkey then licked the guide’s hand and ran off.

On the way to our next snorkel destination, we saw bottle-nosed dolphin and a baby and mama humpback whale.  We also saw some kind of sea turtles mating (they were not hawkbills; I will need to do a little research to figure out what kind of turtle they were).  We knew they were mating because Audrey had read about it in our Panama book and informed us all about it.

On our way back to Santa Catalina, we saw humpback whales breaching in the distance.  We got pretty close to them and they stopped breaching, but continued swimming for a bit.  I estimate that one blow-hole spray went at least 15 feet into the air.

After our time at the beach, we headed up to the mountains. Wow!  What a difference it makes to be in the mountains.  The weather is so much more comfortable.

In Bouquete, we stayed in a hostel called Refugio del Rio.  We really loved it.  It is very artsy and genuine.  The whole place was special. They had a room where the walls were made of colorful wine bottles. A lot of the furniture was made out of wooden palates. One night, they had homemade pizza and one of the guests gave a clown/juggling performance. Overall, quite a day as we had spent much of it searching for a “lost waterfalls” trail, finding it locked and closed, and then hiking to another falls.

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On our second day in Bouquete, we had a private (not by design) tour of Finca Dos Jefes (Farm with Two Bosses).  We learned the history of coffee.  We started to tour by having a tea made from the skin from the coffee bean.  It was very sweet even though no sweetener had been added. We got to see the whole process of growing and drying coffee beans.  We ate some ripe “coffee cherries” right off the plant.  Guess what…they are sweet and yummy!  We learned all about coffee tasting.  A coffee farm that neighbors the farm we visited has earned the award for having the best coffee ever in the whole world.  At the end of our tour, we all tasted coffee.  Then…we got to roast coffee beans!  Audrey and Oliver both decided that they want to have a coffee farm.  Problem is, coffee can only be grown in the tropics.

Panama City (by Jenni)

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In Panama City, we stayed in Casco Viejo. The hotel we had wanted to stay in was booked; so, we ended upstaying in a hostel. That has turned out to be really great. We ended up staying in Hostels the whole time we were in Panama. The rooms have been wonderful and we shared kitchen and living space with travelers from all over the world. This has lead to interesting conversations and we have gotten very good advice (and a thumb-drive full of books) from other travelers as to where to visit.

Casco Viejo is a crazy place.  Most of the buildings are several hundred years old.  The place we stayed in was built in the 18th century.  There are gorgeous buildings right next to crumbling, abandoned ones.  There were times when the whole neighborhood would be without power. That means no water either (it runs on pumps)…no toilet flushing, no showers…

During our first week in Panama, the whole family took intensive Spanish lessons at Casco Antigua Spanish School.  It was a great way to start this trip, but boy, do we have a lot to learn.  And, talk about crazy, there was an aerial dance studio across from our Spanish school.  So, Audrey and Oliver got to check out the silks doing open-air aerial! One afternoon, we went bicycling on “the causeway” with our Spanish School.  Since I couldn’t pedal, we took a cycling-cart (much like a golf cart, except you pedal). The causeway is a trail that goes to some very small islands. It was built from the land moved to make the canal.

We spent our last day in Panama City, before heading to the beach and mountains, visiting the Canal. They have a wonderful interactive museum there and it was amazing to actually see the Panama Canal in action! We learned so much while we were there. The canal turned 100 years old last month. They are in the process of enlarging it. This means larger ships are being made, too. The canal size determines ship size to a large extent.