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Panama City Views

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John Muir once said, “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.”

A hike up Ancon Hill is an activity that I recommend to people of all ages, both residents and visitors of Panama. It takes about 45 minutes to reach the top of the hill, where the bird’s-eye views of Panama City are truly unmatched.

Also, If you’re lucky enough you’ll be able spot a sloth or two, as wildlife is abundant in this tropical jungle. At the top of hill, the highest point of Panama City, there is a symbolic Panamanian flag that was hoisted in 1977 when Panama signed the Panama Canal Treaty with the United States; to handle over all operations of the Canal to the Panamanian government at the end of the 20th century.

The hill is popular among joggers and hikers. I was there about a week ago with my family on a Sunday. I hadn’t been to Ancon Hill since I was 12 or 13 years old on a school fieldtrip. Our assignment was to take pictures of as many species of plants and animals we saw. I remember we even saw a snake! The whole trip took us like 3 or 4 hours, I have no idea why – we must have hiking very slowly.

This last hike to Ancon with the fam only took us an 45 min each way, and unfortunately we did not see any animals. How a decade changes things…

It was, nevertheless, a great form of exercise – and a reminder of how much Panama City is growing lately! From the top of the hill you can see everything: the old part ‘Casco Viejo’, which was built in the 1600s; the city’s downtown with its towering, glass skyscrapers, and even the entrance of the Canal. You can also see the Panama Canal Railway which runs parallel to the Canal.

Breathing the fresh air of the jungle was truly revitalizing. It reminded me of how good it is for our body, soul, and mind to stay connected with the environment. Plus, research shows hiking helps improve sleep quality and is especially good for the heart and lungs. I can’t wait to make this a thing and go back to Ancon Hill a few times a month and maybe try jogging it – turn it into a routine. BUT can’t forget some ice cold water next time.

Happy trails!

 

Bogotá, la bonita

We spent Easter in Bogotá, the capital and largest city of Colombia. With a population of 11 million, the metropolis spans over 600 square miles and is the third highest capital in South America (at 6,880 ft above sea level). Despite having certain architectural resemblances with Panama City (mostly the colonial buildings in La Candelaria being similar to those found in our Casco Antiguo), these two capitals of neighboring countries are worlds apart – economically, geographically and culturally speaking.

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Now, can we skip all the nonsense and get to what’s really important? The food! Yes, the rumors are true – Bogota’s restaurant scene, from the traditional cuisine to the gourmet international presence, did not disappoint. In fact, it was probably the highlight of our trip, with us taking turns each day in choosing restaurants (trust me, it was harder than you’d think – so many options!).

A nature lover, I was positively overwhelmed by the amount of green spaces in Bogotá. Of course, even from the plane, the surrounding Eastern range of the Andes Mountains set the tone for the most spectacular location. A cableway to the top of Monserrate, a 10,341 ft mountain in the city center, offered terrific views of the city, and since we climbed down the 2 mile, 2000 ft steep, mud-covered route (instead of a two hour line for the cable car), we got even more glorious views of the city and surrounding valley.

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Another unmissable is La Catedral de Sal, an underground church built within a salt mine, in nearby Zipaquirá. This colonial town is just 30 miles north from Bogotá, so we combined that with a trip to Guatavita, a picturesque municipality adjacent to a large lake (Laguna de Guatavita) for a wonderful day of sightseeing. La Catedral de Sal is a structural wonder, complete with the 14 Stations of the Cross that lead the way to the cathedral inside (we should have known it’d be quite crowded on Holy Week, but still – worth it!). We followed the tour of La Catedral with lunch at a local rotisserie for ajiaco (the Colombian chicken, potato, and guasca soup), platano, avocado, arepas, chorizo, meat, and national Club Colombia beer (too hot for coffee otherwise we’d have some more – Colombia ranks third in worldwide production of coffee, and we had a lot of it while there.)

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We stayed in Rosales Plaza Hotel in Zona G (the g stands for gourmet). Mom had stayed there before due to frequent trips to Bogota’s financial district when she was in banking. I have nothing but positive things to say about the hotel and the area. The breakfast was specially good, as was the front desk service, high speed Wi-Fi, and spacious, elegant rooms with views. Some of the best restaurants in Bogotá are located in this upscale area, as well as major banks and financial institutions. Lastly, I must say I absolutely loved the vibe in nightlife central Zona T – the lively bars and restaurants with Latin music playing made us return there nearly every single night. Overall, Bogotá offers sightseeing, culture, gastronomy, a vibrant nightlife, and great people. What’s not to love? If the hour plane ride wasn’t enough of a reason, now I’ve got plenty of more to return.

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8 a.m in the Caribbean

Isla Grande – which translates to “Big Island” – is, ironically, a tiny and charming island off Panama’s Caribbean coast.  The island welcomes you with it’s warm and crystal clear waters, as well as hundreds of seductive palm trees, lush vegetation, and unique animal species. Isla Grande is uncommercialized. Do not expect boutiques, big stores, or fancy restaurants. Parts of the town are dirty and unkempt. Zero WiFi. There are only two hotels in the island, although some home owners do rent theirs on sites like AirBnB.

From Panama City, it’s a smooth two hour drive in the newly built highway to La Guaira, located in the Colón province. Before arriving at La Guaira you will see the colonial fortifications of Portobelo, including the famous canyons; this historic city was an important port for the Spaniards between the 16th and 18th century. It was named “beautiful port” by Christopher Columbus, and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980. For our mother and daughter getaway, we decided to stop for lunch at a restaurant in Portobelo called El Castillo (The Castle), and had delicious seafood right on top of the ocean.

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It costs less than $4.00 dollars per person to be transferred by boat from La Guaira to Isla Grande. If you’ve driven to La Guaira, there’s a safe garage area for you to leave your car there if you are spending the night at Isla Grande; the fee is also considerably cheap.

One of my mom’s good friends has a house in Isla Grande, which she is unfortunately selling but did let us stay there on our last visit. My mother explained to me that her friend, Melissa, is selling the house because in 2015 she only went there like three times. It’s a shame because having a house in Isla Grande is a rare and matchless thing… yet I get that getting there can be a bit of hassle for some people. Also, there’s nothing in Isla Grande – you’ve got to take all your food, beverages, ice and supplies from the mainland.

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Despite this, the island remains popular among Panamanians who seek to escape the crazy city during the weekends, and tourists who are cool with that laid-back, almost backpacker feel . Visitors are immersed into a relaxed vibe the minute they hop off the water taxi. The island’s AfroCaribbean influence is noticeable in the delicious seafood and late night music characterized by the saxophone, bongo drums, and maracas. Staff at restaurants and hotels are friendly and English speakers for the most part.

Do stop by and admire the local street vendors various crafts: jewelry, artwork, and ceramics can always be found at moderate prices. I personally always try to take a souvenir of all the places I visit: bracelets, magnets, and keychains are just to name a few.

Scuba diving and snorkeling are common activities due to the beautiful and colorful reefs. Surfing is big here. My favorite spot to relax and enjoy the views is the Sister Moon Hotel, where I frequent at dawn for a cup of coffee (and the breakfast isn’t half bad either!)

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The House on the Hill

Growing up in Panama, I spent most of my weekends and summer vacations in my grandmother’s rustic beach house. The land where it’s located is about 10,000 square feet of lush vegetation and steep hills. Not so far one can see the Pacific Ocean. I remember clearly those hot summer days running around the estate with my brothers and cousins from dawn to dusk, when our parents would summon us back to the house worried we might encounter a snake in the dark. I remember my father rising early to plant trees and pick up different herbs. A cilantro tea each morning. Simpler times, indeed… 

The contrast between the city, chaotic and densely populated, and the interior of the country is radical. Real estate developers and the hotel industry are responsible for more and more new luxury resorts and beachfront communities each year. Little by little, the landscape is tarnished. We are losing more and more of the virgin nature. My grandmother’s beach house is not completely abandoned, but it’s true that as her grandchildren have grown older we simply have not kept going to the beach as frequently as before. Life happens, doesn’t it?

This breaks her heart so a few weeks ago we all decided to spend a weekend there, just like old times. “The house on the hill”, her estate is titled. The land keeper has gotten old as well and it was not hard to notice the land is looking a bit unkept, the trees dry with brown leaves, the grass long and not as green as before. Of course this is not entirely his fault since Panama’s dry season, three months a year, is rough.

With May comes the rain and everything will turn green. My mom and her brothers have talked about different projects to remodel the house, maybe build a small pool. This land brings me beautiful memories of my childhood and I’ll say it over and over again, Panama’s beauty begins when we distance ourselves from the concrete jungle that the capital has become, and venture into the interior of the country.

There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep Sea, and music in its roar:
I love not Man the less, but Nature more,
From these our interviews, in which I steal
From all I may be, or have been before,
To mingle with the Universe, and feel
What I can ne’er express, yet cannot all conceal.

George Gordon Byron.

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Joy

When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you,
a joy.

Rumi.

Is there anything more magical in life than exploring new places? Photo of the Seine River, Paris. Taken during an cold, early morning on November 2016, when I decided to walk from the 6th arrondissement to the Louvre, then to Grand Palais, and then down to L’Arc de Triomphe, by myself. What a joy to be alive! Hoping for more opportunities to travel and praying for the courage to venture and risk more in life, by myself, with less commodities and luxuries.  That’s where my soul is at.

Bay City

I had been dreaming of visiting San Francisco for years; everything from its rich history to its parks, landmarks and especially the nearby wine country had made me enthusiastic about a possible trip. Panama played an important role in the California Gold Rush, the Panama Railroad being one of the preferred routes for those traveling into California, as opposed to the hazardous journey across the continental United States. (Now we have the Panama Canal). In 2015 I watched The Age of Adaline, a beautiful movie starring Blake Lively, and the images of Chinatown, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the spectacular scenery of Marin County portrayed in the film induced an even more overwhelming desire in me to visit this city in Northern California. It’s hard to explain but deep inside I knew I would love it there, and coincidentally, my mom called me in late 2015 wanting to plan a family trip over New Years. When she suggested San Francisco, I said that’s the one.

There are a few direct flights from Panama City to SFO; however the one we booked through United had a stop in Houston. It was December 26, and I have never, EVER, seen such a packed airport in my life. The lines were ridiculously long and we barely made our connecting flight. Our luggage? Not till the next day… But it’s all part of traveling and honestly, what can you do but take it with a grain of salt. We were so happy the adventure had begun.

We stayed at the Hotel Stratford right on Union Square. The boutique hotel was great, and the location was really convenient and centric. Our first morning we took the Alcatraz tour, despite it being chilly the sun was shining and it was a lovely day. Once we arrived at Fisherman’s Wharf, which ended up being one my favorite areas of the city, we saw Alcatraz Island and the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges for the first time. It was a beautiful morning and we got some nice views of the city and the bridges, despite it being a little foggy. We explored the island and the cellhouse, hearing some very interesting stories about the penitentiary, even from former correctional offices and prisoners thanks to the award winning audio tour. It was a little eerie, I won’t lie, and I was far more impressed with the beautiful flowers on the island and ocean views, but my little brother was dying to go and I’m honestly happy to scratch that off my bucket list.

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That afternoon we went to Chinatown, one of my aunt’s really had not stopped telling us we had to try the Chinese food there. It’s the oldest Chinatown in the U.S.A, as well as the biggest Chinese community outside of Asia. We had a great time going in and out of the different bazaars and getting a feel of the cultural and ethnic identity of the community; not to mention how delighted we were to try different foods like chop suey, dim sum, spring rolls, and dumplings. We were not disappointed!

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On day two we booked a Segway tour of the Golden Gate Park; we’d heard from some people it was a great way of exploring every corner of the magnificent 1,017-acre park, and I totally recommend it. The GGP is commonly compared to Manhattan’s Central Park, despite being 200 acres bigger. It’s home to the De Young Museum, the Academy of Science, several sports facilities, dedicated memorials, and of course the stunningly beautiful Japanese Tea Gardens. This was a highlight of San Francisco for me. The Gardens consist on a variety of century-old trees, paths, and ponds, and is influenced by Japanese culture and religion, specifically Buddhism. It was such a lovely place that gave us the chance connect with nature in a harmonious and relaxing atmosphere. Near the end of the Segway tour, it started raining horribly, so we called a cab and headed back to Stratford. When it’d finally cleared out, we made our way to the Wharf. After walking down the Fisherman promenade, we had dinner at the Rainforest Café (my brothers love it there and such a fantastic option with the family) before heading back to the hotel to sleep.

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On December 31st, we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge. The almost-two-miles long bridge connects San Fancisco with Marin Country. Considered a Wonder of the Modern World, the bridge took over 4 years to build and opened in 1937. Just a few minutes after crossing the Golden Gate Bridge is picturesque Sausalito, a place of dreams. The houses on the hillsides are colorful, and right on the beach promenade you get the cutest little boutiques and coffee shops. I’ll admit I’m a totally envious of the people who live in Sausalito since they’re super close to one of the coolest cities ever YET get all the tranquility and easy-vibes of this gorgeous beachfront community. We had croissants and coffees at FRED’S Place, before heading back to Fisherman’s Wharf to board our New Years Bridge 2 Bridge Cruise.

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I loved every single minute of being on that cruise; it was a magical way to welcome the New Year. The panoramic views from the city’s skyline were amazing, and sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge took the experience to a whole new level! You could really admire the length of the bridge and the whole structure from underneath. Even though it started getting windy and cold, we stayed in the top part for the whole two hours. The Bay Bridge was also impressive, way longer, and I had no idea it’s a double decker. Finally, the sunset that day could have not been more beautiful and the pictures don’t even do it justice. That night we went to MY China, my absolute favorite restaurant of the trip. It was only a couple of blocks down from our hotel and had the most amazing food. We ordered Dan Dan Noodles, Peking Roast Duck, Honey Glazed Walnut Shrimp, and Kung Pao Chicken to share between all of us. The food was so good and everything came out fast as well.

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The next day we checked out of Stratford and rented a car so we could drive around Northern California for a few days. We visited the majestic Muir Woods and walked with the giant California Redwoods – God, the stories these trees could tell! These species is found only in the Northwestern Coast of the U.S and lives more than three thousand years. These amazing trees are the tallest in the world and are among the oldest living species in our planet, dating back to the Jurassic Period (180 to 135 million years ago). Human demand for lumber is responsible for most of the destruction of the first growth Redwood forests. I was so amazed at the beauty of this forest that I did a little research on the history of the place and learned that in 1908, former US President Teddy Roosevelt declared the Muir Woods a National Monument.

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Saving those woods from the axe and saw, from money-changers and water-changers, and giving them to our country and the world is in many ways the most notable service to God and man I’ve heard from since my forest wanderings began.  – John Muir

We finished our trip with two nights in Napa. I wrote a post on Castello di Amorosa, the gorgeous winery we toured in Calistoga. Looking back, what a lovely family trip this was. I cannot wait to be back and visit more of California and Northwestern United States – it might be my favorite region of the country. Maybe one day do a roadtrip and drive all the way up to Vancouver. I hear it’s incredible up there.

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You Are My Witnessess

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum tells a story that is not alien or unknown to us. And while may have studied the historical facts surrounding the events of World War II, the exhibitions at the USHMM are shocking. Once inside the museum, a sequence of emotions hits you all at once. For me, it was anger, sadness, and aching. I was there last summer, and I remember feeling the discomfort even in my bones.

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I was recently invited to the screening of a movie here in Panama. Denial (2016), directed by Mick Janson and starring Rachel Weisz, tells the story of professor Deborah Lippstadt who is sued for libel by a Holocaust denier. I must admit, prior to watching this film I had never heard of such thing as a Holocaust denier and can not believe they even existed (exist?). The film is great, by the way: well acted, intense, and effective at delivering the message of the importance of truth and justice. It was screened at a local theater, organized by the Friends of Yad Vashem.

One scene was particularly touching: when Deborah Lippstadt visits the Auschwitz death camp to prepare her defense. A Jew herself, of course she is moved to tears. I think the audience was as well, as the cinematography displayed flashbacks of the years when innocent men, women, and children were locked inside gas chambers – screaming, knocking on the doors, scratching on the walls – and then back to the present day ruins of what is left at the camp.

The USHMM is a place to remember the painful history of the deadliest genocide ever known to mankind. This museum exposes the intimate and personal stories of those who survived and those who did not.

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Merriam-Webster defines witness as: a person who sees an event, typically a crime or accident, take place. I believe that everyday we are witnesses to things we know are wrong, but simply choose to look away. And I am sure that when it suits us, we would even go as far to sponsor such acts that are immoral and even illegal at times. In the words of Primo Levi, “Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.”

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Pleasure in the Pathless Woods

Corruption can be defined as the abuse of power for private benefit. This is one of the biggest challenges in Latin America and a pressing problem in Panamá. When I think about some of the economic and social repercussions of corrupt government officials, images of families living under the poverty line in zinc sheet houses come to mind, contrasting with sky-high towers and luxury sports cars racing the streets of Panama City. Inequality, injustice, poverty.

Corruption has negative repercussions not only on society and the economy but also the environment. The issue of deforestation is another important environmental challenge that is affected by government corruption, specifically by resource exploitation and a lack of protection for tropical forests. Panama is home to an abundance of flora, fauna, and natural resources. Protecting the environment ensures clean air and water for humans; it also benefits the country’s ecotourism, which in turn helps boost the economy.

This is where Ecovenao comes in.

Located about 220 miles from our capital Panama City is Playa Venao, a popular surf spot in the Azuero Peninsula. This Peninsula is the largest one in the country and the southernmost in Central America. Ecovenao is a reforestation project in Playa Venao that offers different types of lodging, a variety of activities from water sports to yoga retreats, a sustainable restaurant, and all of this under the same mission of protecting and restoring this ecosystem that was one harshly degraded.

Just a few months ago my family spent a lovely weekend in Pedasi, a charming town in Azuero and probably one of the most picturesque in the country. While there, we were told that a must was a visit to nearby Playa Venao. We thought a day would be enough, but after a morning of paddle boarding and kayaking, we realize we just had to go back to Venao to explore it’s thick jungles. And this is what I keep telling myself and everyone I sell Panama to: we’re not just crystalline beaches, the dense, tropical forests are just as captivating if not more.

It was pretty early when we left our hotel in Pedasi and drove the half hour to Venao. We had agreed the night before to go on a horseback riding tour up the mountains, stop for lunch near a river, and then ride down the hills. Ecovenao had set everything up for us and found us a pretty awesome guide. Not that there was a lot of talking; each of us was kind of going at our own pace, taking in the scenery and feeling the breeze. If this isn’t freedom, I don’t know what is. We were greeted by at least a dozen howler monkeys on the way up the trail – I had never been so close to them and of course it was such a memorable experience.

It was a quiet, cool morning and the scenery up the hills was stunning. Timeless beauty and perpetual bliss away from chaos and madness. I now understand my parents’ insistence of taking us away from the city in the weekends and summers when we were children, to show us the truly beautiful parts of our country. Of course you realize these things when it’s too late, but hey, some people never really leave their bubble and I can’t imagine something worse than that. As developers continue to exploit every corner of our densely populated and loud city, I stress to my close ones the critical importance of protecting the environment in order to truly progress! How lovely it was to stumble upon an ecotourism project that’s doing something so fantastic for pachamama. I’ll end with one of my favorite quotes from Lord Byron.

There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep Sea, and music in its roar:
I love not Man the less, but Nature more,
From these our interviews, in which I steal
From all I may be, or have been before,
To mingle with the Universe, and feel
What I can ne’er express, yet cannot all conceal.

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Find the Beauty

A rock pile ceases to be a rock pile the moment a single man contemplates it, bearing within him the image of a cathedral.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery (The Little Prince)

The lovely island of Taboga in the Gulf of Panama is nicknamed “The Island of Flowers” due to its variety of vines, bushes, and trees – my favorite being the bright red veranera (bougainvillea). The charming little houses with colorful doors are nothing short of breathtaking as well.

Photograph taken a few months ago – fell in love with the peach colored wall, azure accents, and the old wooden door. Also, I’ve made it my daily intention to find something beautiful  (I swear it gets easier every time). Feeling very poetic lately thanks to time with nature, books, poetry, and songs from the 70s and 80s.  (Take on Me, Summer of ’69, Tarzan Boy, You’re So Vain, Jessie’s Girl, Sweet CarolineUptown GirlAfrica, and anything from Fleetwood Mac is on the playlist).

Also, just ordered “Things I Would Like to do With You”, a book on poetry and love by Elephant Journal founder Waylon Lewis. Anyone read it? Cannot wait to devour it. Is there a greater joy in life than to open a new, long awaited book you know you’re going to love? It’s the little things…

Pretty Streets: Georgetown, DC

It will soon be a year from my last visit to Washington DC. Spring in that city is truly magical, and the thought of the possibility of moving there this Fall is exciting. The colorful houses on Georgetown, all of the free museums, the vast presence of embassies and NGOs, the diversity of people, the political awareness and intellectual conversations, the variety of restaurants… there are simply enough reasons to help get me up each morning in the District… and I have not even mentioned the cupcakes.

Here’s a collection of photos from my last trip to D.C. I was just there for three and a half days, and though it seems quite short looking back, I really did squeeze in as much as I could. I had wanted to go to The Holocaust Memorial Museum for years now, so that of course was my first stop. Another highlight was the food, some of the best restaurants I’ve been in the whole world are in D.C.: José Andrés’ Mediterranean Zaytinya; Fiola Mare, Italian seafood with Potomac views; and China Chilcano, also by José Andrés, an amazing fusion of Peruvian and Asian (Pisco sour cocktails, highly recommended).

But my favorite moment in D.C. was an early morning walk in the Georgetown neighborhood. It was an unplanned escapade, blessed by beautiful weather after a rainy couple of days. Loved the colorful townhouses, bakeries, and coffee shops. I can only imagine how beautiful these streets look in the Fall, and I truly hope to be back in the near future when the leaves start turning orange and brown.

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