A Travellerspoint blog

Panama City

rain 1 °F
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Panama City. Miles travelled....(via Miami) 2326.
Panama…land of Contrasts.
Highly developed. Real estate booming. Beach resorts planted on the trendiest beaches. Yet, we couldn’t get money out of the atm or find a café with WiFi…! One taxi driver was kind and helped us out of a pinch at the atm, and another lied to us and tried to charge us 4x the agreed on on fare (more on this later).We saw the beautiful and amazingly engineered Panama Canal and yet saw garbage heaped on roadsides. Water is safe to drink, but your sidewalks have holes that small SUV’s could fall into. We ate a delicious and huge meal at the market for $3.00 and abottle champagne for $5 then we couldn’t find a dinner restaurant open that was for less than $15. Oh Panama …Panama.
Our first hours in Panama were traumatic. We had waited to get money until our landing in Panama so we could get the local money. Little did we know that the local money is the DOLLAR! Their atms would not cooperate and we could not leave the airport because we could not pay the tourist visa fee, which was only $10. We worked the phones and pleaded with the officials for several hours. We called the states numerous times to our bank. Finally, three hours later they mercifully let us leave the airport without paying the Visa. They helped us find a taxi driver willing to take us (with no money) to various banks until we could get a cash advance. He could have charged us any price at that point, but he only charged us a little more than the usual airport fare. He also helped us find a reasonable place to stay that night. Thank God for good people!
The next morning we walked to the Hotel Intercontinental on the beach! WOW! We used their business center to make calls and contacted our Panama hosts (via couchsurfing), Ronald and Laurys, and had a reasonable and delicious frittata. The staff was delightful and helped us overcome the previous day’s trauma.
We stayed the second through fifth nights with Ronald and Laurys. Ronald is a Venezuelan who lives in Panama and Laurys is a Panamanian studying Environmental Engineering. They have been married for about a year and have a Siberian Husky puppy named Leah. Cute, beautiful, and a little feisty. They had a spare room that they let us use and helped us learn to navigate Panama city’s myriad of buses and taxis. Ronald loves to talk economics etc so he and I got along great. He is interested in starting a batting cage business here in Panama (it is a big baseball country, but no batting cages!!). He currently works as an accountant in a supermarket. We shared some Chilean wine with them and helped clean up after the puppy!!
The rainforest of Panama is stunning. We caught the bus to the bus station to cut down on the taxi expenses. We asked the taxi driver if he knew where the park was. The first driver said no and left. The second called on the phone. While he was talking a third came up and said he knew the way and that he would take us for $5. I felt funny about this, but Sara was ready to go. We hopped in and he tried to take us somewhere else and say that it was where we wanted to go. A few moments later, Sara said she had a funny feeling and wanted to know if we should get out. I said, “na, it’s okay.” (Hint…always listen to your wife’s hunches.) When we didn’t fall for this he went inside to ask and came out rather downfaced. “It is much farther,” he said in broken English. “we thought so” we answered in Spanish. “How about $13” said Sara. “OK” he said and we were off again motoring into the jungled countryside past the canal. Finally, he pulled up to a building that said “National Park”—“Open” that was completely locked with no one in sight.
After a moment of conferring he said,” surely we had to go further in to another spot.” He kept driving until he finally pulled up in front of a gigantic resort. I asked to pay, and he said,” No, we’ll take care of it later. What time do you want me to come back?” We arranged the pick up, and he left Sara and I to our tour.
The rain forest trees tower into the sky and it rains almost every day after the heat of the day drives the humidity up. The diversity of animal life is dazzling. We took a small boat trip to the “Isla de Monos” --Monkey Island. Did I mention that Sara loves monkeys…anyhooo. We went there. We saw cappuchin monkeys, howler monkeys, iguanas, crocodiles, turtles, and various birds. It was truly amazing.
After a torrential downpour we met up with our “friendly taxi driver” again.
He took us back to the terminal. We gave him $40 figuring for the extra distance plus tip. He said,” No way. You owe me $60.” After a small conference, Sara and I left the cab and left him with our $40. We went into the nearby mall to cool off before taking the bus home. A few moments later we heard him yelling behind us. He caught up to us and said he wanted us to wait for the police. We said it was fine with us, but he had to get the police.
He disappeared, and we headed for the exit. As we prepared to leave he stopped us again and asked a security guard to call the police. Meanwhile he intimated, “This will take at least an hour for the police to come. Just give me $10.” “No ,” said Sara. “we’ll wait for the police. It’s okay.” “He will bail before we get to the station,” I said.
The police finally came, and he began badgering us again. The police warned us,” This could take several hours.” Meanwhile the taxi driver again whispered to us,” $10 and I’ll go.”
Sara responded calmly again, “No, It’s okay. We have time.” As we headed to the police station, he still tried to badger Sara, and I kept between him and her. The walk to the station was long, through the whole bus terminal and out the back door. About half way through he disappeared.
“He’s gone,” I said.
“He just needs to get his taxi moved,” said the police man.
We had a really nice conversation with the police men in the station. They reminded us to set a price before entering the taxi. We assured them that we had. The police were very friendly and courteous. Ten minutes passed, and then twenty. “He is not coming back,” I said. After thirty minutes the police said we could go and escorted us to our bus. WOW. That was a adrenaline rush.
We visited the Casco Viejo…the old part of the city…
which was founded about 100 years after the original city which was sacked by Henry Morgan…that is right Captain Morgan of later rum fame. Sir Henry Morgan to fans of the British Empire. The old city is charming and in a state of semi-renovation due to tourist interest. The beautiful buildings are painted different pastel colors which reinforce the Carribbean vibe. You can look in one building and see marble stairs and deluxe apartments. In the next building, which looks identical, a glance inside reveals only the sky above and a decaying staircase that leads nowhere.
The French embassy still inhabits the southern point of land near the French Plaza and the original Cathedral sits on the plaza of independence. A handful of completely forlorn ruins of churches and monasteries dot the rest of the old city. We ate in the local market to get our fill of rice cooked in coco water with beans. The pork chops and onions were fantastic and we spoke to one of the local businessmen who brought the pork to the market that morning.

Posted by tourdeflor 16:24 Archived in Panama Tagged air_travel Comments (2)


semi-overcast 18 °F
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Valparaiso, Chile, miles travelled ….162
Santiago, Chile, miles travelled…61
Valparaiso, land of hills, sailors, artists, funiculars, the Pacific shore, and famous poet, Pablo Neruda. Since this was our first foray into Chile, everything was new. The money, the food, the prices, and the accent. Several times I missed complete conversations (lost in the change of accent from Argentina)! We ate in two fantastic restaurants our first two days and spent a lot more than we were accustomed to. Sara ate Rabbit and I had meat stuffed with meat, exquisite. Later we discovered that we had wandered unintended into the gourmet restaurants. Great for the food experience, but bad, very bad, for the budget. Our hostel experience here was enjoyable as well. The host a young man of 36, loved to converse, as I do, at great length concerning any topic. We got along great! His girlfriend was a painter and they had four extremely friendly cats. One that was missing an eye who I dubbed, “Mr. Pirate.”
On the third day, we visited Pablo Neruda’s house. It is fascinating and beautiful, and it seems that Mr. Neruda had a very active political life that we did not know about. He was senator, embassador, presidential candidate, and an exiled communist. Besides writing and politics, he gained great fame for hosting parties of his friends, drinking, eating, being playful, making jokes, and having breakfast in bed while reading the paper. In Neruda, I believe I found the role model for the life I want! Later that day we found a great restaurant that served more typical Chilean food. I ate a Churrillano, an enormous fantastic plate of sausage, pieces of beef, sautéed onion, fried egg, and French fries YUMMY! Sara had the equivalent of a pot roast with rice which was delicious too.
We did some economic conserving after our initial folly and bought some wine at the corner market. We enjoyed the Carmeneres very much, and enjoyed the Sauvignon Franc a little less. The grape is complex with less intensity than the cabernet or Carmenere.
After our short visit to Valparaiso, we bussed on to Santiago, the country’s bustling captital. There, we stayed with our friend, Anibal, whom I had worked with at Andre House back in the day. As part of his preparation for his Church wedding to Camila in October, he just moved into a new apartment close to the business district in Las Condes. They are a great couple. She is a young attorney who wants to specialize in environmental law. She was very cool and fun; they are a great match.
On Saturday, he and Camila took us to see the “Moneda” (where the president has his offices),
The Casa Colorada (where the first government of Chile formed), and the Art Musuem.
Santiago is a beautiful city. They also took us to the market to eat a delicious fresh seafood lunch. We started with razor mussels with cheese and sea urchin soup!
A little strange for us but tasty. Sara and I had Cangrejo a lo pobre for our main course. Cangrejo is a type of creature about half way between an eel and a fish. “A lo Pobre” roughly translates to “working man’s style”. It was an enormous plate of fries with fried onions, fried fish, and fried eggs on it. IT WAS fantastic…great recommendation Anibal. We enjoyed the meal with a nice Chilean white wine.
We also visited the main square where there was a dance honoring Mary.
We also went to the Metro Park (zoo +overlook+Marian Shrine). It was beautiful.
That evening we went to a great pizza/pub that is owned by one of Annibal’s school friends.
It was packed and had a great ambiance. Art, wood, and metal décor gave a relaxed but modern feel. Sara and Anibal reflected on Andre house days and the meaning of service. It was really touching to see that Anibal maintained his Holy Cross connection to service and that it still meant a lot to him. He remembered the staff and many of the people that he had served. He also spoke of the St. George’s community’s service projects in Santiago which were quite impressive in their comprehensive, dignified, long term scope.
Sunday we relaxed before going to mass with Camila and Anibal at St. George’s, his Holy Cross Alma Mater. The campus was beautiful and the mass was very nice. Fr. “Pepe” introduced us to the congregation. We had another nice dinner and looked through photo albums of Anibal’s time in the US to spot friends and tell stories. We checked out the Andre House page on facebook where Anibal has been elected “Pope.” Our time with Anibal and Camila was really touching and amazing. Their hospitality kept us comfortable and we learned a lot about Chile, and spoke about the world and its problems.
We were very sad to leave the friendly confines of 55 Magdalena apartment #404, but Panama beckoned us northward into the tropics.

Posted by tourdeflor 16:13 Archived in Chile Tagged bus Comments (1)

Mendoza, Argentina

sunny 70 °F
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Mendoza, Miles traveled

“Medoza….Mendoza….segundo hogar de mi corazon.”
Mike’s quote about Mendoza….”The second home of my heart”.

“Mendoza….a donde mi alma se calento abajo de su hogar.”
Sara’s quote about Mendoza…”where my soul was warmed beneath your hearth.”

Mendoza….(now we are really getting poetic…..a land making its living off the vine, the Sauvignon Blanc, the Merlot, the santo Malbec. A city surrounded by vineyards, olive trees, the Andes.
We arrived in the afternoon (after a 14 hour bus ride) to our hostel, Chalet Bassi, greeted by Adriana and Cecilia. The house demands a description here. As we came up the front walk, the first thing we noticed were the large wooden double doors. Peeking out from the second floor was a beautiful arbored patio. To the left of the front door was a small patio which opened up into one of the bedrooms via two sets of French doors. Upon entering the foyer, a great marble staircase spirals up to the second floor. To the right was the dining room with a magnificent fireplace. The dining room had stained glass windows from wall to wall as a backdrop to the three small tables adorned with fresh flowers each day of our stay. The fireplace mantel and ceiling were decorated with ornate early twentieth century carvings. Overall, it was a place that provided an atmosphere of beauty and comfort.
We stayed in Mendoza a week, and our daily schedule went something like this:

10:00am Wake up and have breakfast which consisted of toast with jelly and hot coffee by the fireplace
11:00 Get ready to go out – shower if necessary. Screw around on the computer.
1:00 Leave house for siteseeing/exploring the city and its many plazas
3:00 Have lunch, which was always very good!
5:00 Explore some more and buy food for dinner which consisted of cheese, salami, bread, wine, and apples, and water, ofcourse
7:00 Hang out at home, talk to Adriana and read/write by the fireplace.
10:00 Eat dinner by fireplace and talk some more.
1:00 Go to room and play Soitaire, Hearts, or other fun computer games we get for free
2:00 Bedtime

While in Mendoza, we went on a tour where we visited two wineries, an olive oil factory and a small liquor distillery that also made chocolate. We tasted absinthe (legal up to 75% alcohol in Argentina) in honor of writers Hemminway at el. It is served with teaspoon of sugar mixed with absinthe and lit on fire. The sugar is then dripped into the drink for consumption. It didn’t just burn because of the alcohol, it actually hurts your mouth! WOW! IN honor of our forefathers we also tried mead. Good, but very mild. We explored the local museum, and the ruins of an old church destroyed by an earthquake of 1861. We went for a walk and exercised in a wonderful park that was chuck full of runners, bikers, and rowing teams(there was a lake too). Mostly, though, we hung out in town and got to know it quite well. In Mendoza, the center of town is designed with five separate plazas. The central and largest being the Plaza de Indepencia, which is surrounded by Plaza Espana, Plaza Italia, Plaza de San Martin, and Plaza de Chile. Each has its own character and charms. We got our own bus card and took the trolley and buses everywhere.

We felt very at home….so much that it was difficult to think about leaving so soon. The hospitality was incredible, especially that of Adriana… She made us feel at home storing our food, letting us borrow her wine opener, and tipping us off to local sights and customs. Her daughter, Cecilia, and she would always make sure we had a fire ready and that we never got lost or missed an opportunity to see more of their hometown. In the evening, after having our snack it was often only Sara and I in front of the fire with occasional visits by Adriana to converse.
As you will notice, no pictures this entry as we are still awaiting the arrival of our camera, hence the longer entry. I guess Mendoza was meant just for our memories.

Posted by tourdeflor 21:00 Archived in Argentina Tagged bus Comments (3)

Primos! A visit with my cousin...

overcast 43 °F
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As we entered, Argentina my dad told me that we had some cousins in Argentina. Who knew? It turns out my second cousin, Maria Elena, lives most of the time now in Buenos Aires. We had tried to contact her from Salta the first time without success. After Regina departed, we tried to contact her again. After working through my brother, my father, and finally my dad’s cousin, Alice Ann Swartz, we managed to get in contact. Alice Ann Swartz, my dad’s cousin, married a South American and moved down to South America when she was still a young lady. Brave, and cool since that gave us a branch of South American family. We first met for the first time for lunch at their apartment in Palermo, a neighborhood in Buenos Aires. They had a nice apartment with a great view of some of the parks with the Rio de la Plata and Uruguay off in the distance.
We also met their pet, Rocco, who is a monster sized Rotweiler who loves to give kisses to his dad, Hernan (Elena’s Husband).
We had a great visit talking family while they treated us to pizza and empanadas. I saw some pictures of my(our) great grandparent Swartz’s at their trailer in Dade city. (Funny because Sara has Swartz grandparents in her family, too. No relation—that we know of!) It was very interesting to see people and places we had both visited at different times. Also I saw the famous, Uncle Bill, in several of the pictures. For those of you who don’t know, he was my grandmother(Victoria Jane’s uncle) and my dad would sometimes be called “uncle Bill” by her! We spent the whole afternoon together, we visited the Chinese neighborhood ,and then went to a famous Buenos Aires café for desert . This turned out to be an enormous platter that we couldn’t finish even with four of us. We planned to meet again on Friday to see Hernan jump with his horse for the first day of the jumping contest.
The previous day we had moved to our new digs in La Boca(a different neighborhood). We visited Evita’s museum, some love her and some hater her, but hey, she’s famous right? After that we went to a tango show at Café Tortoni. The live tango music impressed us as well as the theatrical and acrobatic tango performance. The tango theater is in the basement of the café in a room that gives the impression of being in an underground cave. It is the oldest café and very traditional in Buenos Aires. Sara give a thrilling reenactment of the tango on our tile floor at the hostel and ended up slipping and crashing to the floor. She bounced back up and completed a few more moves before preparing for bed. I was very concerned, and thought she might have a concussion. She still reassures me that she was fine even though she thought she might have a bruise.

The next day we packed our things to head over to Stay at Elena and Hernan’s apartment, which they very graciously offered. After waiting for our laundry at our hostel and working on our blog, we set out for downtown to pick up Sara’s newly altered fashion pants. She also got a new coat! Buenos Aires had their biannual snow that week. I got a sweet pair of jeans for $13. AWESOME shopping. We made it just in time to leave our bags at the apartment and get to the German Equestrian Club for the competition. The competition was fantastic. We met many interesting horsey type folk. Sara spotted this beautiful horse across the field and said, “That horse is most beautiful. His coat is so shiny and the color is amazing.” Turns out that the horse was Lorenziano, Hernan’s horse. He jumped awesome even though he was hyper frisky from the cold and threw in a couple “show off kicks” during his run. We had some beer an incredible pastry and Hernan and Lorenziano got fifth!
The next day we went to the rural fair with Elena. The Rural is an impressive display of all things agricultural in Argentina. Hernan met us there for coffee before we parted ways for the evening.
Sara and I ate/drank at Lupita's and then at the Soul cafe. We enjoyed ourselves immensely while Hernan and Elena were at a friends birthday.tractorhotchick.jpg

The next day Sara and I did some sight seeing and went to mass before going to see Hernan and Lorenziano in the 1.5 meter day of the jumping contests.

This was another in our string of fantastic days in Buenos Aires. We were very sad to say goodbye to Elena, Hernan, and Rocco that evening as we boarded the bus to Mendoza. They were great hosts in a great city, and we hope to see them again soon.

Posted by tourdeflor 15:35 Archived in Argentina Tagged family_travel Comments (3)

Backtracking to Iguazu Falls

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Well, it looks like we forgot an entry! So, let's take a break from Buenos Aires and take a look back at one of the great natural wonders.......Iguazu Falls! Thanks, Mike Shawver! Way to keep us on track....
Miles traveled 378.
Thanks to Mike Shawver, we arrived at the Hostel Inn in Iguazu Falls, where the party never ends! Ahh.. the Hostel Inn was brimming with young backpackers, the atmosphere was such that we felt like we were back in college! The Inn was packed with activities: foosball, ping-pong, pool tables, swimming pool, and snack bar to name a few. It was not quite what we expected with entertainment every night and music “til the break of dawn”. Our room was nice though, hot water and heat were plentiful. Sara was happy to be warm finally.
Iguazu brought temperatures in the 70s with high humidity. We had entered the jungle and were pleased with what we found there. We took the bus to the park entrance on the first day. From there we took the park train back to the “Devil’s throat”. When the train stopped, we traversed about a mile over the river on metal catwalks about 8 feet wide. We could hear the rushing water in the distance and see the rising plumes of mist. Once approaching the falls, we were astounded at the convergence of water that plummeted in a near 360 degree ring of falling water. Many of these falls were over 100 feet high. The sheer sound of the rushing water was incredible. Even after being on the overlook for some time the sight of the falls was still mesmerizing. The three of us were almost giddy with the thrill of being so close to the falls and feeling the spray from the water on our skin.
We then boarded the train and headed back to the main falls.
We walked the Lower Falls Trail through the lush vegetation and down a series of stairs and walkways to capture different views of the various falls. At some points the walkway went over a fall, and we could see it rushing below us. At another point it would be a small distance away from the cliff face, and we would be staring at the water as it tumbled down the cliff in front of us. We witnessed the beauty of St. Martin’s Island framed against a backdrop of enormous waterfalls, and we got so close to the base of one of the falls that we were buffeted by the wind and drenching vapors of the pounding water. The tremendous walk only lasted a little over a mile, and it packed in a million memorable sights and sounds.
Darkness was falling, and the last train was leaving to return to the main entrance, but none of us wanted to leave. We got our tickets stamped with the hope of returning the next morning to venture to St. Martin’s Island and see the Upper Falls Trail.
Cool_tree_Iguazu.jpgIt was standing room only on the bus as all the awestruck visitors returned to their hostels.
Unfortunately, after eating and resting we awoke to a torrential downpour the likes of which are rarely seen outside of the rain forest. Sheets of water poured off the eaves of the building and the sidewalks and roads were submerged in water. So instead of visiting the falls again, we got laundry done, and chose a movie to watch from the Hostel Inn’s selection. I looked for “The Mission” again, but they did not have it. We tried to download it again, but it did not work. We wrote some blog entries, and uploaded some photos…attached for your enjoyment. We thought about staying another day, but the forecast the following day was rain as well. Plus we had plane tickets in hand for our flight to Buenos Aires, BA… Big Apple. It was with fond glances behind us and a hope of returning that we left Iguazu Falls.

Posted by tourdeflor 15:13 Archived in Argentina Tagged bus Comments (2)

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