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 spicy 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!

Belize: You Betta Belize It!

Jungle or Beach???  Why not both??

Belize is located in Central America.  It is a tiny country on the western edge of the Caribbean Sea.  Belize is located below Mexico, east of Guatemala, and north of Honduras.  Half of Belize is covered by dense jungle.  Belize also has many coral reefs, cayes, and islands in the Caribbean Sea.  Most of these form the Belize Barrier Reef, the longest in the Western Hemisphere.

When I first began planning my trip to Belize, I read that most first timers break up their trip between the jungle and the beach.  I’m very glad I listened to these reviews!  Fast forward through an 8 hour plane ride, and a 2 hour drive into the jungle and I landed in the middle of the Belize rainforest in a city called Belmopan.   I chose Sleeping Giant Rainforest Lodge to call home for this leg of the trip.  It was a larger lodge in comparison to others in the area with 25 rooms and casitas, pool, bar, and a restaurant where you eat every meal.

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Sleeping Giant Rainforest Lodge

I’m typically a beach baby, and was nervous about spending time in the remote jungle.  Would it be boring?  It was a bit of an adjustment upon arrival….no TV, no internet, and no phone in the room.  I’ve never been on a trip where I was forced to completely disconnect.  I gulped down my rum welcome cocktail and went to unpack.  Now what?  That first night I explored the grounds, ate ridiculously amazing food, and closed down the lodge bar.  The next four days were filled with adventure, mind blowing food and cocktails (all made fresh), and forced restful recharge.

My activities included a hike through the thick jungle, a bike ride to the orange orchards, paddle boarding on the river, relaxing by the pool, a massage on the river, and a full day of adventure exploring the famous ATM Cave of Belize.  ATM stands for Actun Tunichil Muknal.  The ATM Cave was the top rated tour to do for adventure and it did not disappoint.  I hired a private guide for this tour which I highly recommend.  If you can’t swing private, definitely ask how many people will be on the tour with you, and go with a smaller group.  I saw large tours with 10 people going through in a line.  They just weren’t getting that much attention from their guide.  If you are 10th in the line, how can you learn anything from your guide who is leading?  Plus, I had very heightened nerves on this tour.  Being the 10th person in line of a tour would have been terrifying (for me).  Our guide led us through 6 miles of adventure.  We crossed the river (neck deep) six times, hiked, and explored the ATM Cave which you have to swim into.  Once in, you climb and swim your way through two miles of total darkness with only a headlamp for sight.  I literally had a minor panic attack going on for about three hours.  But just like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, the only way out was through.  It was pretty amazing learning about the Mayan people, and what this cave meant to them.  We came across many artifacts and skeletons that were human sacrifices to the gods.  Our guide was Gonzo from River Rat Expeditions.  He was so knowledgeable, and actually spends about three months per year living in these Belize caves doing research.  He took his time educating and calming my nerves all the way through.  Once out of the cave, I was on an adrenaline high.  I was so proud I finished but I’m in no rush to do it again.  Ha ha.

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Vino break in the orange orchards.
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Paddle boarding on the river.
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Pool time!
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Just completed the six miles of adventure exploring the ATM Cave.

For beginning my adventure in the jungle with the question of “will I be bored here?”, I actually began to freak out by day three that I wouldn’t fit in all there was to see.  I fell in love with the jungle!  I’m usually pretty attached to my phone and staying in touch with my family.  For this leg, I had to forget about all of that, and it was all about exploring and recharging.

Once my stay at the jungle lodge had come to an end, I was ready to put my toes in the sand, and have more than one dining option.  Five days in the jungle was perfecto but now it was on to the beach for another nine days.  I decided on Ambergris Caye.  It is the largest caye (island) of Belize.  From the jungle, it was a 2 hour drive to the ferry station and a 1.5 hour boat ride to Ambergris Caye.  I chose Captain Morgan’s Retreat as my hotel on Ambergris Caye for the sole reason that they had true beach huts in the sand for much cheaper than your average hotel room.  However, we were still part of a huge resort with all the amenities including the only Casino on the island.

OOOOHHHEEEMMMGGGEEE!!!  Opening my porch door and stepping into the sand was truly paradise.  When I arrived I was warned how bad the bugs were from another guest.  He told me to soak myself in bug spray every day.  After four days of literally getting eaten alive, I accidentally forgot my bug spray and didn’t get any bites.  I ditched the spray and never had a problem again.  Thanks for that sweet advice bro!

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Relaxing under a palm tree off of my beach hut porch on Ambergris Caye.

The  coolest thing about Ambergris Caye is that there are very few cars and the mode of transportation is by golf cart equipped with off road tires.  Oh hells ya!  Look out for me!  I drove that golf cart up and down and back and forth.  We mostly only ate breakfast at our resort and spent the rest of the days beach and bar hopping our way around.  Ambergris Caye is so lively!  Whether you are eating pizza or the abundant fresh sea food they have to offer, it was always a party.  Live music was everywhere.  My favorite drive was a 40 minute golf cart ride to Secret Beach.  It was a bumpy adventure through the center of the island to a beautiful beach with food and music.  A must see (or drive) while on Ambergris Caye.

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Beep beep!
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Beach bar hopping.

Belize is famous for it’s ocean life.  I’m sadly too big of a wimp to dive but the snorkeling was the best I have ever seen with my own eyes.  Belize has the second largest coral reef system in the world, with Australia’s Great Barrier Reef being the largest.  If you like diving and snorkeling this is truly a wonderland, or wonderwater I guess.  Our captain took us to Hol Chan Marine Reserve .  As soon as you get in the water there are a gazillion fish around you.  I saw huge spotted eagle rays, eels, large puffer fish, endless schools, oh ya….and sharks!  Our second stop that our captain took us to was Shark Ray Alley where he chummed for sharks to come right up to the boat.  My crazy husband jumped into the water to swim with them.  I volunteered to be his photographer from inside the boat.  😉  The day was perfect.  I wish I had spent more time exploring the reef of Belize because (not to be lame) it was magical.

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Well after exploring every nook and cranny of Ambergris Caye, pigging out at all the fresh seafood restaurants, bar hopping to every bar, and hearing every live band on the island, I jumped on the ferry to explore the sister island of Ambergris Caye….Caye Caulker.  It’s a 30 minute hop to this tiny island that has a super laid back vibe.  There were a lot of backpackers and simple people who love to party.  If you bring more than a bathing suit, cover up, and flip flops to this island, you have over packed.  You walk everywhere on Caye Caulker, and I spent most of the day at a place called the Split.  A hurricane split this island in half, and they turned it into the largest place to party with a picture perfect setting.  They have a bar there called the Lazy Lizard that has everything from hot bodies to grannies with fanny packs twerking and taking shots.  I took the last ferry ride home to Ambergris Caye which was a very fun ride home at night. I wished I packed a backpack and stayed overnight.  One more day would have been fun to run back into the friends I made there in such a short time.

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The “Split” on Caye Caulker.
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Swinging away at Caye Caulker.

One last day on Ambergris Caye to stuff my face with fresh seafood, drink too many fresh squeezed margaritas (the ice was safe and I didn’t get sick once), and listen to one last performance of live reggae music (my favorite).  The people of Belize are so incredibly friendly and I always felt safe day and night.  Belize was a great trip and mixing in the jungle with the beach was a twist I enjoyed more than I realized I would.  I also brought home five dread locks!  Lol.

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