Monday, January 25, 2010

Wandering among the ruins of Panama Viejo

A freak food poisoning episode for C—luckily now over—prompted our return to Panama City two days early. Chrysa's advice to travelers: do not eat raw cookie dough when cooking with unrefrigerated eggs ;-) Being back to the city was also the opportunity for Q to be checked again after having been treated for a double acute external ear infection. Looks like we're both in the clear now! There's always a little price to pay for everything, including for being in paradise...

Anyway, on Saturday C stayed at the hotel to recover, so I went by myself to visit the site of the Old Panama, or "Panama Viejo", where the city was first established in the early 16th century. Panama City is thus one of the first cities to have been built by Spaniards, and is actually the first capital city built in the Americas.

Now, the whole place was burnt down after a major attack and looting by the famous buccaneer Henry Morgan (think rum) in 1671, so there are only ruins left, with only the tower of the cathedral still standing. Apparently about 2 years after the fire the Spanish people started to use the rocks from those ruins to build the newer town further West in Casco Viejo (see older posts). This also explains why not much is still standing.

Nonetheless, Panama Viejo is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that covers about 50 acres and that is still worth visiting. A historical museum is found at one end, and the tower is at the other. About half of that area is open like a park, and it looks like a lot of people actually also use it as a dumpster or pasture for horses since it's covered with grass :-( The place was pretty empty, and it made for a fun walk. I liked the renovation of some convent walls, and to see the underground chamber (that with the arches and pillars on a picture) that could hold up to 100,000 liters of water back then.

The cathedral area was more touristy, but still way within reason compared to similar sites in Italy for example. That was also clearly where the restoration efforts were concentrated. We can go up the tower (30 meters!), which provides a look out over the city and the bay. Here as well, Panama appeared as a city of contrasts, with its 16th century remnants adjacent to ultramodern skyscrapers.

Sunday was pretty low key as we started repacking for the second main leg of our trip. So we just went back to the sea front at Casco Viejo to enjoy yet another sunset and some more local food. Stay tuned as we cross the Equator for what will be our first incursion into the Southern hemisphere!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

A day in the mountains!

On Thursday Jen and Richard took us on a day trip to El Valle, a lush valley surrounded by mountains (about 7,000 feet high), most of them covered with jungle all the way to the top. After a scenic car ride on a winding road (not cool when your window does not roll down...), we first stopped at the local hot springs (38°C). This facility is set very simply among gigantic trees, at the foot of one of the peaks. For $1 we were each treated to a mud facial, a rinsing shower and a 45-min long hop in the warm pool. For an additional $2, the ladies got their little cup of extra brown mud to apply on the entire body and let dry...

After this relaxing treatment and a welcome lunch, we wandered around the zoo, set in a very scenic park at the foot of one of the mountains on the other side of the valley. Among ponds, jungle, or pine trees we discovered a variety of local fauna, in particular frogs, tapirs, monkeys, birds and leopards, and even a non-native emu. The walk in this park was truly enchanting, and we were a bit saddened by how some animals were treated (monkey alone in a cage with no water). However Q appreciated that the abundant #$%@@!!J& roosters and chickens here as well would actually make for scrumptious meals for the local leopards!

Living in rural Panama

The next part of our journey took us to the tiny village of El Naranjal (which means the orange grove), about 2.5 hours West of Panama City. We were invited by two of our good friends, Jen and Richard. Jen is Chrysa's best friend from high school (omg bff!) and was the officiant at our wedding. Richard is her husband and it was his family that we were going to visit.

There, although not directly on the beach, we were closer to the Pacific side than to the Caribbean side. We went to the beach there one afternoon and had a great time, in the still water and, for the most part, empty beach.

Heat was intense—especially when we first got there—so we appreciated the multiple fresh "chichas" (fruit juices) that Richard's folks would make with a variety of local fruits. These included known ones like pineapple and bananas, but also some kinds that were new to us like guanabana (sour sop?) and granadilla. The food was also excellent, as Richard's mother Otillia and her sister Vicky would make local dishes on a daily basis, such as fried corn tortillas for breakfast, real carne asada, (which means meat smoked/cooked over fire) for lunch, and pigeon peas and fried plantains (mmmmm, heavenly) for dinner. Chrysa will never enjoy carne asada from a restaurant again now that she has experienced the real smoky flavourful thing.

We were also treated to a visit to the family farm, where Richard's brother, Boric, raises pigs, cows, chickens, turkeys, pineapples, sugar cane, yucca (tuber shown in picture), coconuts, lemongrass and a lot of other things. Richard and Boric showed us how everything on the farm is sustained, pineapple tops put in the ground make more pineapples, coconut and yucca sprouts make more plants that can be harvested. Q's favorite was munching on freshly harvested sugar cane to get the super sweet juice out. Richard and his brother put a lot of effort into running the farm well and raising their crops and animals organically, which takes a lot of extra knowlege.

The house was also home to several dogs, a kitten, chickens, roosters, and a pig. Such a company would lead to an interesting soundtrack in the middle of the night, that Quentin had a hard time getting used to! The roosters would just systematically crow at 10 PM, 1 AM and 4:30 AM every morning...

We had a great time meeting the people, cousins, uncles and aunts, neighbors, and friends, that would stop by the house to see Richard and Jen. They all welcomed us and even added us to their family, to which we are very honored. Abelino and his wife Louisa told us that we now had parents in Panama, so we were overwhelmed. We were happy to help out with digging for the new toilet that was getting installed by Richard and his brothers+buddies, as well as with cooking food, and painting the house from pink to a fluorescent green. We were joking with Oti how now she'll have to update her directions to her house when inviting people over. After a lot of laughter the house was rebaptized "casa verde" (green house) or "la pera" (the pear)!

It was fabulous to be treated so well by the people there. They were also very patient with us and our broken Spanish, that's now a bit less broken thanks to them! For us this week was yet another illustration of the hospitality and the friendliness of Panamanians. We feel very grateful to have wonderful friends like Jen and Richard who invited us into their home and family.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Return to Panama City

Back to Panama City for two days after the Caribbean adventure... It makes for a great opportunity to visit further the old Spanish part of town (Casco Viejo), which often appears to be a ghost city, with its abandoned buildings and houses, frequently for an entire block. Then all of a sudden a side street can be pretty busy with people gathering in the street, on balconies and listening to some Buena Vista Social Club music. The block next to that street might even be totally restored and cosmopolitan; that's usually where somebody has opened a restaurant. We've now tried a couple of these and they were all pretty good! Some of these dining places are even rather fancy, which makes the contrast with the abandoned house next door even starker.

We liked the seafront area where we could see both the abandoned club of the aristocracy (which we toured briefly on our city tour 2 weeks ago) and the 'Miami of the South' part of town with its extra tall sckyscrapers. Very scenic, and surprisingly not very busy with tourists. But we have the constant feeling that this won't be for long... We are picturing how this old town will slowly get transformed into a very quaint historical town, like what we are more accustomed to in the US or Europe.

The day ended with a fantastic sunset over the bay, that was a welcome change from the neverending rain at Tesoro!

We're now off to inner Panama for a different taste of the life down here in the tropics, so stay tuned!