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Panama Day 2: Railway, Canal, Portobelo

Panama Railway

We left Gamboa at the break of dawn to head to Corozal train station, where we would catch the Panama Canal Railway north to Colón. The train only leaves once a day at 7.15am so we left plenty of time to catch it.

Panama Railway
Panama Railway
Panama Railway
Panama Railway
Panama Railway

The train route runs parallel to the canal and Gatun Lake for most of its route, so it was very scenic. There were open-air carriages so you could get a really good view and a bit of breeze (of which sadly my hat succumbed to, and bounced down the tracks away from me).

Panama

After a quick pit stop for snacks and new hats all round…

Panama

…we visited the canal expansion site, where the canal is being widened to accommodate an extra lane of traffic and to allow much wider ships through. The huge new gates, made in Italy, will allow ships big enough to carry three Empire State buildings into the canal. I’m now basically an expert in Panama canal facts and figures, by the way, if you ever fancy being really bored entertained.

Panama: Portobelo
Panama: Portobelo
Panama: Portobelo

In the afternoon we headed eastwards along the northern coast to Portobelo.

Panama: Portobelo
Panama: Portobelo
Panama: Portobelo
Panama: Portobelo
Panama: Portobelo

Portobelo has an ancient and fascinating history (it was allegedly given its name by Columbus in the 16th century) and the town, with its colonial fortifications still intact, is a UNESCO world heritage site. Today it’s home to the main Afro-Panamanian (Panamanians of African descent) population in the country.

Panama: Portobelo
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I’ll come back to the Panamanian buses another time, they are pretty special.

Panama: Portobelo
Panama: Portobelo

I’ll come back to the beautiful hand-painted type everywhere too. I barely saw a plastic sign anywhere in the whole country, which was pretty amazing.

Panama: El Otro Lado
Panama: El Otro Lado
Panama: El Otro Lado
Panama: El Otro Lado

We took a speedboat over the bay to our lunch spot, El Otro Lado (‘The Other Side’), a breathtakingly pretty luxurious boutique hotel. Set in lush, secluded gardens with a beautiful infinity pool and seven uniquely decorated rooms, it’s a pricey (about $500/night) but very special location with ‘honeymoon’ written all over it.

Panama: El Otro Lado
Panama: El Otro Lado
Panama: El Otro Lado

The food was really good, and afterwards we got a peek at the rooms which are all individually decorated and immaculate.

Panama: El Otro Lado
Panama: El Otro Lado
Panama: El Otro Lado

We then boarded a super cool floating bar, where we enjoyed snacks and a glass of bubbly as we had a leisurely tour of the bay.

Panama: Portobelo
Panama: Portobelo
Panama: Portobelo
Panama: Portobelo

Back in Portobelo, we found a buzz in the air, the streets full of people and kids, and music starting up: the Congo Carnival was swinging into action. We’d missed the main Panama Carnival which runs through February, so it was good to see a little bit of Portobelo’s own one.

Panama: Portobelo
Panama: Portobelo

These men and children dressed as devils were armed with whips, which they liberally used on anyone daring enough to jump into the square. They represent the evils of slavery, and the carnival ends with the devils being tamed by the carnival queen (dressed in white) and baptised. The atmosphere was really good, but we left before it got too wild.

After another long day, we transferred to our next hotel, the Miramar Intercontinental back in Panama city, and prepared for another pre-dawn start for our trip to the islands of San Blas.

Panama Day 1 & 2: Embera & Gamboa

Panama - Embera

Oh gosh. I don’t really even know where to begin writing about my trip to Panama with Air France and Enjoy Panama UK. It was simply amazing and exceeded all my expectations. It’s such a beautiful country and it was a pleasure to explore it with such a lovely team of people. Having said that it was very much not like a normal holiday: it was HARD work! The itinerary was extremely packed with lots of pre-dawn starts and late finishes, but that’s understandable when there was so much to see and do.

panamap

A quick primer about Panama first, as I knew nearly nothing before going:

  • Panama borders Costa Rica to the north/west and Colombia to the south/east, with a Caribbean coastline to the north and Pacific to the south. It’s very little: about half the area of England with a population of 3.5 million and only about 40 miles from north to south at the narrowest part. It’s a 10 hour flight from London and 5 from New York, and the airport is only 20 minutes from downtown.
  • Peak visiting time is the dry season which runs approx December – April. As it’s near the equator it’s hot and humid. Temperatures reach over 40 in the day and stay at around 25 all night. You can still expect sudden rain in the dry season, so packing both suncream and a rain jacket is essential.
  • It’s generally very safe and comfortable to visit, as long as you avoid areas like Darien along the Colombia border. The usual South America recommendations to not drink tap water, not eat undercooked foods or fruit with rinds, and to use mosquito repellent apply. There are a few vaccine shots you should get if you’re vulnerable or visit the rainforest for extended periods.
  • Not many locals speak English (apart from hotel staff etc), especially away from the city, so knowing a bit of Spanish is useful.
  • The US dollar and Panamanian Balboa are the official currencies. The exchange rate is tied so $1 US = $1 PAB. You can use both interchangeably.
  • It’s pretty cheap to eat out and get around. A beer in a bar or restaurant is about $2-3, our meals were rarely over $20 a head (and some were really fantastic – more on that later)

Right, back to business. After the wonderful Air France flight, we arrived into Panama City in the early evening (the airport is only 15-20 minutes from the city centre). We stayed in different hotels nearly every night as we moved around the country, and the first night was at the Bristol in the modern side of the city.

Panama - Bristol hotel
Panama - Bristol hotel

They actually had our booking down for the wrong night, so a lucky two of us got upgraded to 15th-floor suites. Wowza – the room was huge with a completely equipped kitchen, the biggest bed I’ve seen and a beautiful bathroom.

Panama - Bristol hotel

We had a welcome cocktail in the bar and a quick bite to eat before turning in ready for an early 7am start in the morning (though not the earliest we’d see all week by far).

Panama - Embera

The itinerary for our first morning was a trip to the Embera Quera native Indian community in Gatún, near the geographical centre of the country on the banks of the Gatún River that the Panama Canal feeds into.

Panama - Embera
Panama - Embera

The community is reached on a leisurely journey by piragua boat.

Panama - Embera

On the way we spotted a spider monkey in the trees.

Panama - Embera
Panama - Embera
Panama - Embera

The Embera welcomed us to the community with music and dance, and we received an introductory talk about their way of life. The community moved onto this land quite recently, having bought the land from the government for $30,000, and provide eco-tourism as well as maintaining the natural beauty of the landscape and their traditional lifestyle and practices.

Panama - Embera
Panama - Embera

The Embera Quera are one of the more modern-facing tribes of Panama. The children are well educated and have the option to go to high school in the city and on to university. The young chief of the community is even training in tourism and hospitality at college. They sustain a living by welcoming tourists and providing ‘eco’ holidays: you can stay here with them in the village in their guest lodge.

Panama - Embera
Panama - Embera
Panama - Embera
Panama - Embera

There are about fifteen families in the village. We took a walk around to see their homes, school, the guest lodge and some of the local fauna and flora, which they use for food, crafts and medicine.

Panama - Embera
Panama - Embera

Despite being the dry season, the heavens opened on the way and didn’t stop until the evening! I felt glad I’d packed my rain parka.

Panama - Embera

Back in the main hut, we had a dance demonstration then had a go ourselves. Luckily the rain had let up a bit by the time we took the canoe back over the lake.

Panama - Gamboa
Panama - Gamboa
Panama - Gamboa

From Gatún we headed south to Gamboa, Panama’s rainforest on the banks of the river Chagres. There is a large tourist resort here where we spent the night – it’s got great views and a lovely pool, but the buffet dinner was nothing to write home about.

Panama - Gamboa
Panama - Gamboa
Panama - Gamboa
Panama - Gamboa

The hotel runs several activities in the stunning surrounds – we went on a rainforest canopy tour, where you’re hoisted above the treetops in tiny cable cars for a round trip.

Panama - Gamboa
Panama - Gamboa

We spotted toucans and an iguana.

Panama - Gamboa
Panama - Gamboa

The view from the top included our first glimpse of the canal. After the sun set, we also took a night rainforest tour, where we spotted a few more creatures including a family of capybaras with their babies.

Panama - Gamboa

As the sun set, we got an early night ready for tomorrow’s adventures…

Panama: flying with Air France

I’m in Panama! We’ve touched down less than 24 hours ago, but have done loads of stuff already and experienced the extremes of Panama weather – from 36-degree sun to torrential rain. I thought I’d just post quickly about the flight itself, since it’s Air France who so kindly sent me on this trip.

panamaflight1

Since we were pre-checked in as a group we just had to drop our cases, then we were able to make use of the Skyteam lounge. It was a world away from my usual airport experience: a little oasis to relax in where you can get a cold drink, coffee, pastries or even cooked breakfast. Definitely nice to be put in a relaxed state of mind pre-flight.

panamaflight2

A quick transfer at Charles de Gaulle later and we were on the long haul over the Atlantic to Panama. Our Air France rep Elise pulled some strings and got the group bumped up to business class for this leg. I’ve never flown non-economy before, and I have to say – uh oh – I might be a convert to the swishy business class ways. Amuse bouches! Menus! Real glasses and silverware!

panamaflight3

The best part for me was having so much more space. The cabin in general feels much less claustrophobic, plus the seats themselves are super generously sized and recline to nearly flat. I didn’t get to sleep because I barely ever sleep on flights, but it was definitely comfortable enough to do so and I enjoyed reading mags and watching some films throughout the ten-hour flight. The attendants were charming and kept bringing around treats, from a drink and pre-meal canapé to the main meal, which was considerably better than any other airline food I’ve had, to the dainty trio of desserts. Nice one, Air France.

Back soon with more of the stuff we’ve been up to…

Panama-bound

I know it seems like I just got back from holiday, but I’m off again soon – to Panama! Even better, this time it’s care of Air France-KLM, who are sending me to create some blog posts and photos to mark their new routes from Europe to Panama. I didn’t know much at all about Panama before I found out I was going – besides the obvious, canal and hats – but having just seen the itinerary for the trip I’m so excited.

Our rather packed itinerary includes… (photos c/o Flickr Commons, linked to source)

Gamboa Rainforest, Panama

An overnight stay to the town of Gamboa, where we’ll have an aerial canopy tour of the rainforest.

Aduana de Portobelo

Daytrip to the historic port town of Portobelo, named by Columbus in 1502, where we’ll do a mangrove swamp tour and visit the town’s fortifications.

Isla Yandup, San Blas

A trip to the San Blas Islands on the Caribbean coast, where we’ll see a star pool and go snorkelling. Very looking forward to this bit. Did I mention it’s 35 degrees there right now?

Image 21458.

A day at the Antón Valley, a volcanic area with some unusual natural wonders: gold frogs and square trees! We’ll visit the thermal baths and artisan market, and hit the beach afterwards.

Detrás de la malla galvanizada.

Finally, a visit to the historial colonial parts of Panama city, and a visit to the canal of course.

I’m beyond excited and grateful to have this opportunity, although not a little nervous too. I’ll try to blog while I’m out there, and I’ll be Instragramming my way along too. Has anyone else been to Panama or Central America?

Tel Aviv Day 3 & 4

Cafe 48

We got back into Tel Aviv in time for dinner, and hungry after a long day exploring Jerusalem and the Dead Sea, so after a quick hotel pit stop we wandered back out again. We found Cafe 48 not far away. As as browsed the menu at the door, a couple sitting inside told us we won’t regret picking it – and they were right! It definitely vied for best meal of the trip.

Cafe 48

We started with lovely cocktails. It’s a small-plate kind of place so we picked a few to share. We were all decided then the waitress read the specials which all sounded amazing, we we had to re-decide!

Cafe 48
Cafe 48

Two of the specials happened to be two of our favourite things to eat: burrata (a kind of extra-creamy mozzarella cheese), served here on mouthwatering balsamic tomatoes, and cornbread, given the nacho treatment with a toasted corn and melted cheese topping. I also had a dish of stir-fried pak choi and Josh had some sliders.

Cafe 48

We were pretty damn full by the end, which is a shame as the dessert menu sounded amazing. The waitress overhead me lamenting my ability to fit anything else in, then brought us a little sliver of of Crack Pie (of Momofuku fame) for free with our bill. It’s simply the most indulgent-tasting dessert ever: soft butter, sticky brown sugar and chewy oats in a cookie crust. Needless to say, despite being full I finished the slice, and the accompanying whipped cream.

Farmers market

The next morning we went to Nachalat Binyamin, a street near our hotel which starts as an everyday/junk market, then has a farmer market, then turns into fabrics shops. Yes, basically my dream street.

Farmers market
Farmers market
Farmers market

Mouthwatering displays of fruits, veg and spices.

Fabric shopping
Fabric shopping

Fabric shops! They were awesome. I wrote in more detail about them over on my sewing blog if you’re interested.

Jaffa flea
Jaffa flea
Jaffa flea
Jaffa flea

In the afternoon we went back over to Jaffa to check out the flea market. There was so much stuff, from ramshackle piles of furniture on the streets to higher-end shops with some beautiful vintage and midcentury goodies. It was a bit distressing to not be able to bring anything home.

Jaffa flea
Jaffa flea

Plenty of kitties over here, too.

Jaffa
Jaffa port
Jaffa port

We walked back to Tel Aviv along the beach, admiring the stunning sunset on the way.

Abraxas North
Abraxas North

For dinner we went to Abraxas North, a place that seems to be pretty hyped-up as the coolest place to go. We were seated at the little horseshoe shaped bar, from where you can look into the open kitchen and see the chefs at work. I think the idea is each chef conceives and cooks his own dishes which make up the menu.

Abraxas North
Abraxas North

The food was… okay. Not the best we had on the trip by far, so we a were a bit disappointed given the reviews. The bread salad wasn’t nearly as nice as ones we’d had elsewhere, and the most famous dish – a whole roasted cauliflower, Noma style, just tasted… like plain cauliflower. Luckily we weren’t that hungry so didn’t order much as it would have been pretty expensive for a full meal.

Spice market

The next morning, our last day, was a bit cold and cloudy with a bit of drizzle. We couldn’t really decide what to do before our flight so took a walk to the spice market in Florentin.

Spice market

It was more of a collection of little shops rather than market, and I think there was more choice at the farmer’s market. Florentin isn’t the nicest part of town either, so we abandoned plans and went for a decadent brunch instead.

Benedict

Benedict is another of THE places to be in Tel Aviv. The queues out the door on Saturday morning were ridiculous, but luckily on Tuesday we got seated quickly. The menu is huge and reads like a San Francisco cafe with a bit of Middle Eastern influence. It’s also extraordinarily good value: my massive shakshuka included a free champagne cocktail and bread and was under a tenner. Ending the trip on a high.

Again, all these places are listed on my Foursquare list.

Finally, here are a few of my general thoughts on Tel Aviv if you’re thinking of visiting:

  • It’s a very safe and laid-back city and you will hardly ever feel hassled or ostracised for being a tourist. Nearly everyone speaks good English and it feels quite Western in culture generally, which is quite unique given its Middle East location. This makes it very easy to visit and feel comfortable in, though not actually all that different from London which is a bit disappointing if you enjoy experiencing new cultures.
  • It’s quite an expensive city to visit. The average price of our meals was around 250 shekels which is about £40-45 for a few sharing dishes and an alcoholic drink each. The most expensive was over 400/£70. Clothing and things in the shops seemed to be similar too, though the fabric shops were cheap!
  • You can get around by taxi, bike or public transport, or walk as it’s quite a compact city. The taxis are a bit unpredictable and can get expensive. The buses are about £1 per journey and it’s not too hard to figure out how to use them. Mooovit is a good app with local bus routes. There’s also a cycle hire scheme.
  • It’s a great city for vegetarians as the small meze-type dishes always include lots of veggie options. There’s also loads of local Israeli craft beer and a new but growing wine industry, so lots of nice drinks to be had.
  • If you visit over a weekend, remember that nearly everything (except most bars/restaurants) are closed on the Shabbat, Saturdays. I would probably have flown in on Saturday or done the Jerusalem tour on that day to avoid having not much to do.