a unique perspective on this crazy world

a lot to explore…

I ended up in Zagreb somewhat by accident.  My original plan was to fly to Amsterdam on a great seat sale but the algorithms worked differently if you flew Europe to Canada or Canada to Europe, which made the flight several hundred dollars higher than advertised.  I’ve been to Amsterdam a lot so I just picked a location that gave me a better deal so I ended up in Zagreb!

I had considered spending time in Zagreb on my way to Dubrovnik but I didn’t have time so it was a virgin travel experience for me.  As usual, I was really busy before I got on the plane and I knew enough about Croatia to just arrive and figure it out sitting in sidewalk cafes.  The charm of arriving somewhere having done almost no research is that the trip will be filled with surprise and – if you get lucky – you will be totally charmed by the discoveries.

Zagreb absolutely fits this profile perfectly.  Croatia as a destination is amazing and still fairly under the radar.  That is changing fast though so don’t wait to plan your trip.  Dubrovnik is already swarming with tourists but you’ll still get a friendly welcome and great prices in Zagreb.  There is enough to see and do to fill several days, especially if you are a history buff.

ancient ‘hood

The tourist board publishes a Zagreb Step by Step guide, which may be available at your hotel.  It’s an excellent resource with details on the key attractions grouped by neighborhood as well as aerial photos and maps noting where everything is located.  As a tourist, you are likely to be focused on the ancient part of the city.  The west has done a lot more marketing but the east is full of complicated history and historic monuments that will make you feel like you are on discovery rather than a packaged holiday with way too many others ticking off the famous sites.

The old town is a bit hilly and covers enough territory that you will want to allow yourself a few days to cover all of it.  You can move randomly or at whim or you can follow the course of history.

I hadn’t appreciated how old Zagreb was.  To see its beginnings you will have to climb a hill.  It’s possible settlements were established as early as the 8th or 9th century.  What is known is that a religious settlement was established around 1094 on Kaptol hill.  The first bishop of Zagreb was a Czech named Duh (which actually means “spirit) appointed by King Ladislav.

famous twin towers

zagreb origin story

A cathedral was commissioned and is a must see destination.  The Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary has two soaring twin towers and is a defining symbol of Zagreb.  The cathedral was added to and repaired over the centuries so it includes all sorts of different architectural styles as whatever style was popular at the time was incorporated into the expansion or restoration.  Renaissance walls were added between 1512 and 1521 to protect the city from Ottoman Empire raids.

There are other sights to check out once you have walked up the hill.  It’s a peaceful place and allows you a chance to wander in a unique atmosphere as this part of the city was a religious compound cut off from the more secular Zagreb that evolved around it as the centuries transpired.  It will inspire you to further explorations of the charming nature of this city still under the radar of mass tourism.

 

 

temptation everywhere ;)

We’ve covered the proper tourist attractions that I visited in Panama and they are definitely worth visiting but I spent several days in Casco Viejo and most of the fun I had in Panama was just hanging out pretending to be a local.

If you like chain hotels, casinos and cosmopolitan glitz, you will be happy in Panama City proper.  If you want culture, charm and a sense of discovery, you will be beguiled by Casco Viejo.  I saw Panama City on the Hop on Hop Off bus and nothing enticed me to cross the causeway.

I’ve already mentioned some of my favourite places to sleep, eat and enjoy the evening.  There are plenty of great options and everything is an easy walk.  There are a few other pleasures in which to indulge.

As previously noted, Casco Viejo is undergoing a renaissance so for lovers of history and/or architecture, you can wander the streets and old colonial squares and admire the restorations amid the decay.  You need to pay attention to the hotel’s instructions but there are plenty of streets that are perfectly safe and full of worthy sites.

It took some time to find Plaza de Francia.  You should likely ask for directions 🙂  You definitely want to find it as you will have great views to the rest of Panama City and you will find all sorts of enticing stands showcasing local crafts.  It’s an homage to the French role in the building of the Panama Canal and to the 22,000 workers who died building it.

shopping overdrive

If colour and local crafts are one of your passions (guilty as charged), Panama will prove deadly to your wallet 😉  There are several indigenous tribes still creating intricate and colourful crafts based on centuries of tradition as well as some young artisans using the past as inspiration for 21st century creations.  A lot of the traditional crafts yield accessories that look surprisingly contemporary.

I became a little obsessed with bib necklaces and earrings rendered in sophisticated beading.  The earrings generally cost about the same as a chai latte at Starbucks – and will certainly last longer.  My other addiction was molas.  Molas are produced by the Kuna women from the San Blas Islands.  It’s a form of quilting.  Traditionally it is an intricately patterned cloth panel used to adorn their traditional blouses.  Brightly contrasting fabrics are combined using intricate stitching and embroidery to form panels that depict traditional life.

Traditional molas have now become collectors’ items.  The concept has also been translated to lots of everyday items.  You can help save the planet by purchasing a high quality brightly decorated bag to carry your purchases 😉

You can also find baskets, nut carvings and masks.

You definitely want to spend some time at Plaza Bolivar.  It’s a tribute to

great spot to take a break

Simon Bolivar, possibly the biggest hero in Latin America.  It’s surrounded by lovely colonial buildings and there are plenty of places to enjoy food or a drink under an umbrella people-watching.  The other gorgeous plaza is Plaza Herrera where you will find the American Trade Hotel and Casa Casco, already noted as great places to spend time.

If fun in the sun is more your thing than indigenous crafts or colonial architecture, you can also hang out in a beach resort in thoroughly modern Panama.  It doesn’t matter your purpose.  It’s the 21st century and Panama is part of the zeitgeist.  Go while it still has character and locals are excited to welcome new visitors!

 

 

 

monkey business…

finally, a chance to post something new!

I knew about Panama’s biodiversity before I set foot in the country – or at least left the airport for the first time.  I had been through the airport a few times already and they do a great job of promoting the Panamanian jungle.  Sticking up some photos on a wall is a little easier than building infrastructure though so I discovered getting into the jungle was going to be more difficult than I had expected.

The key problem is that tourism is still pretty underdeveloped and mostly aimed at people hanging out at beach resorts or spending a day before they start their cruise through the Panama Canal.  If you come with a decent sized group, it is not too hard as there are some tour operators for hire but established group tours you can join as a single traveller are not really part of the landscape.

I did a lot of research and settled on Jerin at Panama Day Trips as he was responsive and willing to include me with a couple of other guests so the cost for the day would be $105 USD.  Not a cheap day out but very fair compared to the other options.  I did the Wild Side of Panama Canal Tour and would highly recommend it.

hangin with the big boats

You start early at 7am but get picked up at your hotel.  The tour follows the Panama Canal north to the town of Gamboa, where the Chagres River meets the canal.  There we changed our mode of transport to a boat and rode the waters of the Panama Canal along with the gigantic ships transiting the canal.  This was certainly part of the experience but we were heading for Gatun Lake.

Gatun Lake is a gigantic artificial body of water created as part of the

noisy monkeys

construction of the Panama Canal.  As part of this process, the Monkey Islands were created.  Several species of monkey roamed wild in Panama in the habitat that would now be part of the canal.  In order to protect the monkeys from the encroachment upon their habitat, they were relocated to Monkey Island, a land mass that was high enough to survive the flooding.

The various species did not play nicely with each other, however, so

don’t mess with geoffroy’s tamarin monkeys

you will visit various small islands showcasing different types of monkeys. – mantled howler, white-faced capuchin and Geoffroy’s tamarin.  The guide will try to tempt the monkeys with food so they will come on the boat for great photos.  Since their habitat was messed up by the Panama Canal, it’s OK to feed the monkeys.  They could not survive in the wild.

Several tour companies visit the Monkey Islands so the monkeys were full and we didn’t have any jump on board but still got a close view of the action and some great photos.

After the cruising on the canal, we headed to the Pipeline Road in Soberania National Park.  It is a premier birding spot and definitely worth checking out but – as a safari veteran – I knew mid-day was likely to be disappointing.  We did see a sloth and a few birds but it was underwhelming after all the biodiversity I was expecting from the Biomuseo.

I DO believe all those species exist in Panama.  If seeing wildlife and

one of those amazing birds

especially birds is your main objective, the better option is to stay at an eco-resort near the park so that you can come early or late in the day to see nature when it is not sleeping or hiding in the shade 🙂  It’s still a pleasant walk and you get to have a nice lunch on a terrace.  While I didn’t see the 385 species apparently seen by the Audubon Society in a 24 hour period, it was still good value.

The guide, John, was a business school graduate from Venezuela who decided he preferred being outside.  He was smart, funny and very knowledgeable about both Panama and the wildlife.  He also had a not surprisingly sardonic view of life in Latin America where things are definitely improving but infrastructure, regulation and corruption could still use a lot of work.

The social dynamics were very interesting as we had a Venezuelan immigrant, a socially liberal Canadian, a loud American guy from the southwest who started sentences “I’m not racist but…” and his meek charming wife who tried to make sure his comments didn’t cause too much trouble.  I was quite sure all of his opinions about everything in life had been set in stone long ago so there was no point in presenting logical arguments 😉

It was great to actually BE on the canal and to get out of the city, see some wildlife and breath in the fresh air from the rainforest so make sure to sign up for Panama Day Trips!  They have other tour options if this doesn’t sound perfect to you.

 

under construction…

I have now travelled so much in the developing world, it’s normal for me.  Tourists to Panama tend to be spoiled westerners, often spending a day or two in Panama City before joining a cruise ship.  As previously noted, the economy in Panama is expanding rapidly and they are working on infrastructure so there will no doubt be improvements in the future.  At present, it’s easy to walk around Casco Viejo but, if you want to see tourist attractions further afield, you will generally need a taxi or private driver.  Neither is cheap and I just wanted to see a few attractions so decided to take a chance on the Hop on Hop Off bus I saw advertised on the internet.

The hotel approved of my choice and even gave me a discount coupon.  You can get a 24 or 48 hour ticket.  Since I wanted to see both the Panama Canal and the biomuseo, I opted for the two day ticket.  It worked and the price was reasonable so I wouldn’t discourage you from following the same strategy.  You just need to remember it’s a developing country.  The hours of operation are a bit limited so it’s not great if you want to see a ship go through the canal, which generally occurs early in the morning or late in the afternoon.  If you like to rush through attractions, you could see both on the 24 hour ticket.  The second day the bus didn’t show up for the first departure.  It wasn’t clear why but we did eventually get on the bus and I got to chat with strangers.  It’s really a choice of budget vs convenience.

frank gehry magic

Whatever way you get to the Biomuseo, you should go.  There is a cool Canadian connection.  The building was designed by Frank Gehry so is an impressive and unique architectural structure.  The museum design is by Bruce Mau who has collaborated with Frank Gehry before and is a fascinating and optimistic man. You feel that in the museum, which is so brand spanking new it wasn’t even fully completed when I visited in March 2017 so will continue to get better.  There are lots of eager young Panamanian staff to show you around.

More importantly, you will likely learn some new facts about geology and biology.  Until I visited, I hadn’t appreciated that long ago there was a North and South America.  It was Panama that turned it into a contiguous land mass creating the question… how many continents are there really?

The Biomuseo’s permanent exhibition is titled Panama: Bridge of Life. Eight galleries and eight “devices of wonder” explore the origin of the Panamanian isthmus and its gigantic impact on the planet’s biodiversity.

Until about 3 million years ago, there was a gap between the American land

colourful interior

masses and the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans co-mingled.  Tectonic plates shifted and initially marine volcanoes created land masses on the ocean floor high enough to become islands in the gap between North and South America.  Sediment kept building until a land bridge was created between the two continents in the area known today as the isthmus of Panama.  This major geological event also separated the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and created the Gulf Stream and other disruptions to ocean currents and marine life.

This changed the composition of the flora and fauna in Panama.  Since animals were now able to freely roam potentially from the Arctic Circle to Cape Horn, Panama ended up with an incredible diversity of wildlife and birds.  Since animals also often track seeds and the climate is very hospitable, it also has a wide diversity of plants.  You can see both the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean easily in a single day.

biodiversity in action

The museum is new so it uses a multi-pronged approach to tell the story of Panama.  There is a gallery of biodiversity, a three-story projection space with ten screens that immerse the visitor in an audiovisual rendering of the natural marvels that compose all of Panama’s ecosystems and a room filled with replicas of animals and plants that migrated through Panama.  There is also information on the human history of Panama, estimated to have begun 15,000 years ago.  Aquariums depict the impact of the creation of the isthmus on marine life in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.  You will leave entertained and well-informed and ready to check out the incredible biodiversity of Panama.

A visit to the Biomuseo will encourage you to get into the rainforest and see the biodiversity for yourself.  That is where we are headed next…

 

 

 

it’s all about the canal!

finally, a blog post!

If you were playing word association and the first word was Panama, the next invariably would be Canal.  The Panama Canal is an engineering marvel.  Panama is probably the most famous isthmus in the world.  It was discovered in 1513 by Balboa.  That began the canal debate.  As we’ve talked about in the Chile posts, ships had to make a long, expensive and dangerous tour down the Americas, past Cape Horn and back up the other side before the Panama Canal.  Eliminating all that extra time by crossing between the Atlantic and Pacific through Central America was obviously a great commercial idea.

checking out the canal

The challenge of course is that Panama is largely rainforest.  The French started the project in 1880, encouraged by the success of the Suez Canal.  Count Ferdinand de Lesseps, the builder of the Suez Canal, started a sea-level canal.  Panama was not Egypt.  Rather than desert, it was largely rainforest and the rain caused landslides and yellow fever and malaria killed thousands of workers.  In 1888, the French gave up.

That’s when Teddy Roosevelt got involved.  Until you come to Panama, you will likely not appreciate that it is very close to Colombia and was a Colombian territory until 1903.  The US had purchased the assets in the canal zone from the French in 1902 for $40 million.  Thus began a bizarre colonial relationship and lots of American meddling in Central America.  Colombia wasn’t happy to have the USA building things in its territory so the US decided to support a Panamanian independence movement and Panama became an independent country in 1903.

This gave the US tremendous control over Panama and the Panama Canal.

miraflores locks

The initial start was not promising as the Americans had not learned from the French mistakes.  In 1905 a railroad specialist named John Stevens was appointed as chief engineer and he incorporated new technology and convinced Roosevelt that a lock canal was better suited to the terrain.  He was certainly instrumental to the success of the Panama Canal but his chief sanitary officer Dr. William Gorgas also contributed tremendously.  He thought mosquitoes were carrying the yellow fever and malaria that was plaguing the workers so he went on a mission to fumigate homes and clean up bodies of water.  He wiped out yellow fever in 1905 and greatly reduced malaria.  Stevens quit in 1906 and was replaced by Lt. Col. George Washington Goethals.  It took until 1914 to finish the canal and the American Society of Civil Engineers considers it one of the seven wonders of the modern world.

There are three locks along the canal route, which lift ships from sea level to 85 feet above where they transit through man-made Gatun Lake.  It officially opened on August 15, 1914 but the grand opening ceremony had to be downgraded due to the start of World War I.  The Panama Canal and politics have always been bedfellows.  The original deal the Americans cut was that they would control the canal forever but Jimmy Carter signed a treaty in 1977 that would transfer control of the canal to the local Panama Canal Authority by December 31, 1999.

getting close to ships

Even more interestingly, Nicaragua was the Americans’ first choice for the canal but a very effective propaganda campaign about the danger of volcanoes in Nicaragua shifted the plan to Panama.  Apparently there is now some Chinese billionaire looking to give Nicaragua its own canal.

So, you can thank Teddy for getting it built and Jimmy for allowing the new Panama to emerge.  Not only did Panama take control of the canal, they expanded it to allow today’s modern supertankers to pass through the canal.  The expanded Panama Canal was opened on June 26, 2016.

You can learn all of this – and more – when you visit.  It can be tricky to actually see a ship passing through the canal on a random visit but it is impressive no matter when you arrive.  There are great exhibits and video describing both the history and the function of the canal.

For me, it was a multifaceted experience.  I probably should have been an engineer so certainly appreciated that aspect of the canal.  Also love history and Panama’s history is fascinating.  Finally, I spent several years working for a client in the shipping industry so seeing real ships in the Panama Canal had an extra resonance for me.  The names on the shipping containers were like the names of family members.

 

 

Unless, like me, you are fans of David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike and have seen A United Kingdom.  I meant to see it in a theatre but didn’t get there so was very excited when it was advertised and made special effort to watch it on television.

<We will get back to Panama but first a detour…>

It’s an inspiring story about tackling racism, establishing democracy, the evils of both apartheid and British colonial rule AND it’s a love story that will make you feel bad about your own life  because they are so cool 😉

When I was very young, I had penpals in Ghana so I knew a bit about Africa for most of my life.  In my twenties, one of my boyfriend’s best friends was really into Africa and humanitarian work so that really fed my interest.  Another friend had this dream of going on safari in Africa.  I thought that sounded like a great idea so I have now been twice and I think he has not actually set foot on the continent.

So I suppose you could say I am an Africaphile 🙂  When I married, I confessed to my husband my obsession with going on safari in Africa.  He confessed it was a shared obsession but he would only do a luxus tour (he’s German).  A luxus African safari sounded amazing so I started the research.

Lots of people go to Kenya or South Africa.  They have done the best marketing themselves… but I am supremely analytical so every decision is vetted through a rigorous process.  That is how I chose Botswana as our first safari destination.  (If you are choosing, I am also a huge fan of Tanzania).

getting too close to the hippos

I picked Botswana because it was a good place to see wildlife but I always like to understand the places I am hanging out so knew a little before I arrived and then kept asking questions.  It wasn’t all perfect.  At least then (over a decade ago) there were problems with AIDS and moronic old-fashioned ideas that prevented an easy solution BUT it was an African country that made you believe in the future.

They had never been a colony (instead a protectorate, which you will learn about in the film) and had discovered diamonds as an independent country.  They had embraced high end tourism and roads were not paved on purpose so that tour buses full of tourists couldn’t glide through the savannah.

It’s a magical place.  We stayed in three different regions – the first safari by water on the Chobe River, then elephants all the time at Savute Elephant Camp and finally the phenomenal Okavango Delta where I discovered CCAfrica (hello Tanzania!).

the view from my room

I cannot give proper coverage to Botswana in one post but this is just to get people thinking about it.  While I was travelling around Africa the first time people said, “Africa will get into your blood.  You will need to come back.”  Even then I knew they were right.  There are places that imprint themselves on your soul.  There is so little wilderness left on our planet.  I come from the western country closest to Africa and I grew up in wilderness.  My grandmother was eating berries in the same patch as a bear…

Maybe it’s because I had part of my eyebrows singed on a May long weekend as a teenager fighting a forest fire and hoping we were NOT between the mommy and baby moose we had just seen close up that I feel so at home in the African bush.  It feeds my soul and engages all my senses.  As the African king tells the English insurance clerk, “the stars in my country take your breath away.”  I’m not even sure that is the correct dialogue, just my memory of my own experience.

my first trip in a mokoro

A United Kingdom makes me want to go back to Botswana.  These are supposed to be “once in a lifetime experiences” but they can be a bit addictive.  Africa can be addictive.

Apparently I can thank Seretse Khama (and Ruth Williams) for that.  I knew Botswana was special.  It was Africa at its best.  Such an amazing introduction. What I didn’t appreciate at the time was the backstory and how important Seretse was to the prosperity of modern day Botswana.  He was certainly born with a lot of advantages most of us will never know but it seems to be a story of public service and leadership.

There is no question Botswana will blow your mind – potentially in several ways.  You will need to save your pennies to see it properly but it will reward the effort.  Every time people look at me blankly when I mention Botswana, I just say, “it’s because it’s an African country that WORKS.  That’s why it’s never in the news and you’ve never heard of it.  A perfect place for a safari?  Obviously!”

A good place to start is to contact andbeyond or wilderness safaris.

Apparently, we can thank Seretse.  I wish I had known more about him when I visited but back then, if google was a search engine, it was not THE search engine…  I used dogpile! Why I should probably do a follow up trip 😉

 

Casco Viejo has a long history.  It was first built in 1673 when pirates destroyed the first settlement, Panama Viejo.  It was declared a World Heritage site in 1997.  Panama City was founded in 1519 and taken down by the notorious pirate Henry Morgan.  The new city was on a peninsula surrounded by the sea and defensive walls.  Panama Viejo is the oldest European settlement on the Pacific coast of the Americas.  It is a mix of French, Spanish and American architecture and ancient city planning.

Like so many cities, wealthy people starting moving to the suburbs in the mid 20th century and it became a neglected neighborhood eventually rife with rival gangs.  It’s not a place for a naïve tourist but it’s easy to navigate and hotels will supply you with a map that tells you where NOT to wander.  I spent almost a week there and was perfectly safe.

casco upgrade

If you are an idealist like me, it is gratifying to be supporting positive social change.  The revitalization of Casco Viejo is a model in development.  From what I’ve read, you can thank a corporate lawyer.  HUH?  His name is K.C. Hardin and apparently he moved to Panama to surf and accidentally fell into real estate development.  The company is called Conservatorio and is redeveloping Casco Viejo using a business model that is a model in many other ways.

The American Trade Building is four stories high and was built in 1917 to profit from the new Panama Canal.  By the time that Conservatorio got involved, it had been abandoned and was headquarters for a gang.  It’s hard to imagine that now, which is to the credit of the sensitive restoration and Conservatorio’s inclusive attitude toward development.  Gang members have been turned into entrepreneurs!

The American Trade Hotel is definitely a great pick if you can afford the tariff.  I went for lower prices but did

it lured me in…

indulge in a night of jazz at Danilo’s Jazz Club and highly recommend it.  The American Trade Hotel has created a revolution (of the peaceful kind) in Casco Viejo.  Across the street is Casa Casco, which also has four stories.  It is definitely the new Panama and one of my favourite hangouts during the trip.  Each level provides a different experience and cuisine.  The rooftop is lovely but the food selection is a bit bizarre.  It advertises itself as tapas but the selection is more sandwiches and pizza.  One level does Japanese food so decided to go for sashimi.  Really wanted tuna AND salmon but bizarrely that was not an option so went for tuna.  I had to eat it in the dark and there was no rice but the tuna was outstanding, far better than my recent food in Japan…

I went again and tried the third floor, which was Mediterranean.  Had an Instagram-worthy creative modern lamb dish.

Tantalo Hotel was also a great place to hang out.  There is a bar and restaurant on the main level in addition to the rooftop.  My food on the rooftop just OK but

head to the roof

the downstairs restaurant packed so likely worth trying.  There is definitely a lively scene on the rooftop and it is an excellent place to hang out.

The hotel staff were very welcoming.  I got a free drink in the bar upon arrival and they booked my birthday dinner in a sister restaurant called Caliope, where you get a discount as a hotel guest, as well as getting me VIP access to Teatro Amador.  Not everyone speaks English so communication can be a bit challenging but it was a wonderful day.  Got to spend my birthday evening in the VIP section at the Tantalo Rooftop and even got a piece of cheesecake with a sparkler in it just after midnight, when my birthday actually began.  Jose was amazing and took me through the staff entrance so that I could put it in the fridge in my room to enjoy as breakfast on my birthday 🙂

You will need to beware of the touts preying on tourists.  They are Latin so very charming and convincing.  The places they steered me weren’t bad but you can likely do better.  Probably my best meal was at Aki Sake Bar and Japanese Kitchen.  A great cocktail and outstanding sushi rolls for an incredibly modest price.  Casa Sucre is very good but not cheap.  Do go for a drink at sunset on Plaza Bolivar – there are several options.  The atmosphere is the main component.  Do have at least one Balboa beer but, if beer is your thing, check out La Rana Dorado, especially during happy hour (the Hop on Hop Off bus happened to drop me off at just the right moment 🙂

If one of your guilty pleasures in life is all versions of ice cream, you will need some steely self-discipline to avoid spending your entire time in Panama at Granclement.  It was just as well I didn’t find it until the end of my visit. I love ice cream but this is the first time I went twice in the same day!  I did walk a lot between visits…

Casco Viejo is a capitalist Havana.  It’s a fascinating place full of history and promise.

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