Panama City, Panama: Old World Charm Meets Modern Day.

I flew into Panama City on a red eye and was lucky to be picked up by business associates of my husband, who gave us a tour of the city.  I learned a lot in those three hours along with having the best empanada of my life.  Street food is safe to eat in Panama, and delicious!  There are also fresh juice stands which are quite common and so refreshing.  I had two large fresh juices, which didn’t quite sit well with my three hour car ride.  Best to always have quaters on you in Panama City as the bathrooms are public, but cost 25 cents.  I learned interesting facts along this tour, such as the tap water is safe to drink, everything is negotiable in Panama (even the high end retail stores), and I got a detailed explanation of the definition of a Push Button”.  A “Push Button” in Panama is a very private motel (aka a love motel).  Complete discretion and privacy is the main goal of these establishments.  They are called “Push Button” because typically you can pull up to a window, push a button, slide some money through a slot, get a key, and head to a room all without actually seeing a person.  Being that prositution is legal in Panama, I’m sure these motels come in quite handy for those in need of privacy.  This was personally not the most useful information to me, however it made for a very comical conversation.  Our final stop along the tour was at the Fish Market for some ridiculously delicous, fresh, and cheap ceviche.  After a red eye flight and a three hour tour, I was ready to relax at my hotel.

I decided to stay in the Casco Viejo area of Panama City.  Casco Viejo (Spanish for Old Quarter) is the historic district of Panama City.  It was built following the near total destruction of the original Panama City, which was attackeed by pirates in 1671.  I guess you can say it is the new old Panama City.  After reading blog after blog about how this neighborhood is the hip and trendy area of the city, it sounded like a good fit.  In the Casco Viejo neighborhood, you will find a huge difference from the chaotic metropolis of Panama City.  This area is filled with old world charm of Spanish colonial buildings, boutique hotels, rooftop bars, and amazing restaurants.  You won’t find any chain hotels or restaurants here.  Everything is mom and pop.

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Chasing sunsets on the rooftops of Casco Viejo.
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Casco Viejo at night.
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Panama City metropolis vs Casco Veijo neighborhood.

I booked a room at the absolutely stunning American Trade Hotel.  It is located in the heart of Casco Viejo, and everything you would want to see in this area is within walking distance.  This hotel is the epitome of mixing old world charm with modern day luxury.  This is one of the only hotels in the area with a pool.  Let me tell you…it is necessary.  Panama is hot and humid and I did not accomplish to have even one good hair day during my stay.  Back to the hotel….Did I mention it was stunning?  From the beautiful balcony room, food, ambiance, location, pool, grounds, service, adjacent jazz club, bar….I could go on and on.  I spent a lot of time at the hotel on this trip, and it truly made my vacation unforgettable.

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Old world charm meets modern day luxury in the lobby of the American Trade Hotel.
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Having some vino on my beautiful balcony.
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American Trade Hotel.
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Headed in fors some smokey scotch, cigar, and smooth jazz at Danilo Perez’s Jazz Club, which is part of the American Trade Hotel.

The food in Panama was phenomenal!  I love to eat, and some of the dishes I had here completely blew my mind….dishes I had never heard of or tasted before.  The cocktails are also superb.  Rum is Panama’s alcohol of choice, however those that read my blogs know that I am a spicey margarita kind of gal.  Panama did not dissapoint!  Every cocktail I had was fresh squeezed and delicious.  As you take the first sip of these drinks, you already want a second one.

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Enjoying some fresh squeezed spicey margaritas at the rooftop bar Casa Casco.

I was only in Panama City for six days.  I can officially say that I ate and drank my way through Casco Viejo.  My favorite dining experience for traditional Panamanian food was Diablicos.  They put on a show while you eat, and it was very lively and fun.  It is located directly in front of the President’s Palace, so you get to check that out during your walk to/from.  My favorite Rooftop Bar?  Well, I have two!  Casa Casco, which is directly across the street from the American Trade Hotel is a super chill spot with great drinks and postcard perfect views of Panama City.  If you want a more lively rooftop scene, the best place to go (hands down) is the Tantalo.  It is the closest you will get to a nightclub experience in this area.  It is all outdoor on the rooftop with great music to dance to and a VIP area.  BTW, the restaurant at this hotel is also amazing!  I had my favorite meal of the trip at the Tantalo Kitchen.  It was a clay pot of tamale mash on top of a bed of slow roasted pork.  YUMMMY!

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Eating traditional Panamania food and enjoying the show at Diablicos.
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Tantalo Rooftop Bar at night.

Ok, I think I have beaten in how great the food and cocktails were in this old world Spanish neighborhood.  On to the Panama Canal!  If you go to Panama City, you simply can’t miss out on visiting the Panama Canal.  It is the number one visited site in Panama.  The Panama Canal is a waterway that has created a shotcut between the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans.  It takes ships on average 8-10 hours to travel the Panama Canal. This compares to 2 weeks if a ship tried to bypass the canal and travel around South America.  The best place near Panama City to see the ships go through the lock system is Miraflores Visitor Center.  The viewing center is directly in front of the locks, so you get a front row seat to watching these huge ships pass through.  They also have a restaurant buffet where you can eat lunch and have wine while taking in all the action.  You can visit the museum and watch a film in both Spanish and English about the history of the Panama Canal.  The best time to visit the Panama Canal changes daily, depending on when ships are scheduled to go through.

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Having a Titanic moment…waving hello and goodbye to ships passing through the Panama Canal.
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When you look at the Panama Canal on a map you can see why they chose this location to create this shortcut.

With one day left to spare, and being so close to so many beautiful islands, I decided it was time for a change of scenery.  I got up at 6:00am to catch a 1.5 hour ferry ride to Contadora Island.  I felt like I had been trasported to another world!  It was a small and jungly island with beauiful white sand beaches and crystal clear waters.  I purchased a day pass from the Mar y Oro Hotel which included lunch, two welcome drinks, and umbrella/chairs on the beach.  It was absolute paradise, and a really relaxing ending to my trip!  If I had one more day (which I always wish I did on vacay), I would have most definitley visited the San Blas Islands.  Here you can rent private cabannas to spend the night in paradise.  The cabannas don’t have much to them. They have no electicity and sand bottom floors.  But who cares, because you can almost have the entire island to yourself for the night.  Although still in Panama, these islands belong to the Kuna Indians  On this excursion you can snorkel with star fish, and see how these indiginous people live.  It wasn’t so bad leaving something behind that I was desperate to do and see because now I am anxious to go back.  Until next time Panama!!

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Mar y Oro Hotel on Contadora Island.
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Beautiful Caribbean Ocean of Contadora Island, Panama.
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Contadora Island is a mix of jungle and beach.
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Until next time Panama!

Italy For A Month: How To Plan From Scratch.

So, let’s start from the very beginning…straight-up from scratch.  Probably the most common question that I am asked is how I plan my trips on my own.  Where do I start? Well it usually involves me staring at the computer scratching my head with a glass (ok a bottle) of vino in hand.  And little by little my trips take form.  I will write multiple blogs from this 30 day trip to Italy but for this blog, I’m going start with how to plan it.  I did all of this planning on my own and felt so overwhelmed when I started.  This is a blog on how my Italy trip came to life.

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I rarely take big trips in the summer.  I always get my big break right after Christmas.  I’m running out of new places on my Bucket List to explore in a bikini at Christmas, so this year I opted for a summer vacation.  I chose Italy.   I didn’t know where the heck to start as I really had never vacationed there.  I went about 20 years ago but I just drove across the boarder and ate lunch.  Doesn’t count.  As always, I was on a budget for this trip and I knew one month in Italy isn’t cheap.  Hotels were out!  I went VRBO and Airbnb all the way through and kept my budget at $200 per night.  If you haven’t traveled through these two sites, you are missing out.  Click on this link to join for free and get a credit for your first reservation:  Airbnb They are awesome!

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I was traveling with my husband and two children (ages 8 and 3).  I knew it would be nice (and less expensive) for us to have a kitchen and cook at our rental vs. being in a hotel and having to order room service for every meal. When I’m vacationing, I’m usually planning my next trip so the more I save from one trip is more I bank for the next.  Also, hotels in Italy don’t work like they do in the USA.  In the states you can get a “double” room and have two double/queen beds.  It is easy to stay with two small children in one room with that bed setup.  In Italy, a “double” room means two twin beds.  If you have four people, you need to upgrade to a suite and I quickly found that my budget of $200 per night in the areas I wanted was simply not going to fly.  VRBO and Airbnb was the answer for me!

Step 1:  Plan your route.  When you think of Italy, what do YOU want to see?  Me personally… Venice, Rome, and Positano were at the top of my list.  Then I thought, I’m going to fly all that way and when will I get to Italy again?  Maybe I can do one extra week and see more?   I decided on 30 days to explore but you can do this in three weeks if you are ambitious or just choose a few places and go for two weeks.  There is SO much to see in Italy.  So much history  that you feel guilty sleeping in.  You have to go, go, go, so you don’t miss a thing.  I booked a longer trip to really work in relaxing too.  I wanted one day to explore for every one day of relaxing.

When traveling through Italy it is best to go top to bottom or bottom to top.

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I decided to go top to bottom because I knew this would be a busy trip and I wanted to finish it off on the beach relaxing on the Amalfi Coast.

Step 2:  Once you have an idea of your route, you have to check flights to make sure they will work with your itinerary.  At the time of my planning, AirBerlin was the cheapest ticket from San Francisco to Italy.  They were actually $500 cheaper per ticket which is a lot when traveling with four people.  I later found we paid the price for that cheap ticket but we will get into that later.  AirBerlin flew into Milan (top of map) and they flew out of Naples (bottom of the map).  The flight out of Naples only went on one day per week so I had to plan for that. Once I figured out what my flights were I broke the trip apart leg by leg.  I decided on this route:

Lake Como: 5 nights/ Venice: 4 nights/ Florence: 5 nights/ Cinque Terre: 6 nights/ Rome: 4 nights/ Amalfi Coast: 6 nights.  One month in Italy!!

Step 3:  Find the VRBO/Airbnb to stay at sticking to my budget of $200 per night.  This was the fun part to me.  How did I choose which places to stay at?  I read review after review on the the VRBO/Airbnb sites….like hundreds of reviews.  I hate the reviews that say “it was a nice place…I highly recommend!”.  Ok well thanks for those riveting details but you didn’t say crap about the property.  I want to know things.  How far to restaurants and bars?  Do you need a car?  How does “this” area compare to “that” area?  I want details people!  If I can’t find exact answers to my questions through the reviews on VRBO/Airbnb, I usually Google the exact question I have with the word “Tripadvisor” after the question.  If I’m between two areas to stay,  I will Google “Positano vs Amalfi, which is better? Tripadvisor”    Most of the answers to my questions come right up on Tripadvisor which is where I read hundreds more reviews.  Tripadvisor, Oh How I love Thee!  None of my trips would come to life with out the reviews on this site.

Step 4:  Plan transportation.  I did not want to rent a car in Italy.  Many people do and give reviews about their days explored with the freedom of their own schedule in their own car.  Not for me.  First off, the roads are pretty wicked in Italy.  I consider myself to be a very bad driver on the safe roads in California.  We are talking about a girl that totaled her car 3 times during her 16th year of life!  Oopsie!  So, driving on these winding roads that seem like they have one lane, honking as you approach a sharp turn to warn oncoming traffic that you can’t see.  Hmmm, yes I don’t think this blog would have ever come to life because I probably would have died attempting to drive these roads. Another reason?  When I travel, I tend to eat and drink my way through for most of my entertainment.  I wanted the freedom to indulge in lots of great food accompanied but lots of great vino.

I chose all accommodations to be in the heart of the action in each destination so that I could walk everywhere or take a cheap cab ride.  To get through the country we rode the Trentitalia train.  One month of traveling through Italy on this train cost me less than the cabs to/from the airport.  The train system is so easy, so affordable, so comfortable, so reliable, and such a nice way to travel!  You get to see the country as you travel through which was just lovely.  Each ride was only about two hours with the exception of one four hour train ride.  Tip:  Get to the station early to buy some snacks and wine.  More important tip: Have all the electronics charged for the littles so that you can enjoy those snacks and wine while riding in style.

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Training to Cinque Terre.  Sipping on Vino while the kiddos play electronics.

I sprung for three long and pricey cab rides (transfers).  One from the Milan airport to our  first property in Lake Como.  After flying for 13 hours with two small children, we just wanted to get there.  The train from Milan to Lake Como isn’t as convenient as the other legs as the train we needed only left every three hours.  Just didn’t want to hassle with that after a long flight.  The second transfer was taking us to our last leg of the trip, Naples to Positano.  When heading south to the Amalfi Coast, the train won’t take you any further than Naples which is about an hour from Positano/Amalfi (see map).  We got off the train in Naples and took a private transfer (cab) to Positano.  Not very cheap at $130 Euro but it beat getting off the train and walking to the nearest bus stop which was reported to be incredibly crowded.  You may have to stand the entire hour plus ride on the bus and deal with pick pocketers.  It was so worth the private transfer!  Last high priced ride was Positano to the Naples airport.  This flight left once per week, so we could not have anything go wrong and risk missing the flight.  We also had to leave at 4:30am so the transfer allowed us to sleep the entire ride to the airport.  And that’s a wrap on transportation!  It was right around $700 for four people to travel through Italy for 30 days.  You certainly can’t rent a car for that.

Step 5:  Plan to pack.  Please someone tell me how in the heck I am supposed to pack light traveling to Italy with a toddler and 8 year old for one month?  There are things you need when traveling with kids…car seat, stroller, toys, electronics, etc.  I have to share with you the biggest find for packing light if you have a toddler.  It is Care’s Fly Safe safety restraint system. Cares Kids Fly Safe Airplane Safety Harness.  This gem is FDA approved and buckles your toddler into the airplane seat just like a car seat except it’s a just a belt.  Not only does it keep your little one safe but it also keeps them from running all over the plane all while packing up into a small little carrying bag that fits in your purse.

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Little guy all comfy for his 13 hours of traveling and I didn’t hit 20 people in the head carrying a huge car seat onto the plane.  Winning!

I then purchased an airplane stroller that is specific to traveling and folding up small for planes and trains.  I bought it off my Facebook for $10!  Tip:  I made $2,700 selling things out of my garage on Facebook that went directly to paying for this trip.  I also allowed my kids to pack a scooter each.  With as much walking as we planned to do in each location, I knew they would get so worn out and our days would be shortened to exhausted kids.  Instead of walking everywhere, they scooted the days away and we were able to explore as much as we wanted.

scooters

Lastly, I got three pieces of luggage that were the largest we could go without going overweight and incurring fees on the airline.  There is soooo much debate online about how big of a bag is too big of a bag to travel through Europe with.  It’s really a simple answer…you can pack as large of a bag that YOU can handle.  There is no one to help you up the many many stairs in between changing trains.  There is no one to help you load your bag onto the train.  No one to help you load the bag on ferries or cabs.  And if you plan on walking after getting off the train vs. taking a cab, you will be the one lugging that bag through town.  You get the point.  Luckily, I married a man with big muscles.  My bag was a big one and I got to pack as many bikinis as I wanted.  I don’t recommend this for everyone but it worked ok for us.

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The scooters were so easy to throw on top of our bags.  Piece of cake!

This brings me to my final plug of the trip.  Remember that great deal I got on my airline tickets that was $500 cheaper per ticket than all the other airlines?  Well, you get what you pay for.  The airline ended up loosing our son’s bag on the way there.  Thank goodness it wasn’t mine!  Ha ha.  I can’t tell you how crazy it was to see how long the lost luggage line was at the airport in Milan.  It took us about 30 mins to get through the process of reporting our lost bag and we were 2nd in line.  Can you imagine how long it took the 20th person in line to get through this process?  What a terrible way to kick off your trip!  We were very hopeful that our bag would arrive any day on our trip but in fact…it never came.  My kids went all the way through a 30 day trip in Italy with nothing but the clothes on their back.  This lost bag also had all of our liquids, including all of my beauty products.  Of course we bought things along the way but it was such a pain in the butt!  I later heard that this is actually a common problem when traveling to Europe (explains the super long lost luggage line) and in actuality, your bag is just sitting in the airport waiting to be delivered.  Due to under staffing, there is just no one attending to these lost bags.  In fact, no one even answers the phone in that area of the airport.  Trust me I called a million times.  Horrible!  How will I make sure that this never happens again??  GPS in my luggage…DUH!

LugLoc Luggage Tracker – The Worldwide Smart Lost Baggage GSM Locator – Track The Exact Location Of Your Bag Globally (not just bluetooth like others) – Rechargeable battery that lasts 15 days

OMG, what a genius idea!  You never loose track of your bag and you know where it is at all times, even if the airline claims that it is lost.  I will never travel without one again! My kids bag was found and delivered to us two days after we arrived home in California…32 days after it was lost.

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Loosing the bag was devastating at first but in the end we had so many laughs about my son going all the way through Italy with one pair of underwear and them wearing the same outfits in all our family photos.