After I returned from the Maldives, I went through a rare, idyllic period in which my travel opportunities were endless. I'd already tentatively planned a trip to Shanghai Disneyland for the 2nd half of 2016 but of course I didn't want to wait that long for my next adventure. I'd tried to book a Brazil trip from my usual travel company, but it was already sold out- and, moreover, I was annoyed when an email I sent them went unanswered. (it wasn't the first time that has happened, so it's hard to chalk it up to being a fluke) So, literally, the whole world was open to me... where to go?
After much brainstorming, a plan began to crystallize. I wanted to go somewhere new to me... somewhere that wasn't anywhere near my recent adventures. Central America certainly fit the bill. Panama was a natural choice, because I've wanted to see the canal- especially since my old job used to do some work on an auction site for ships that wanted to cross. But I wanted to visit more than one country. Costa Rica seemed a bit cliche... and, of the remaining candidates, I kept being drawn to Guatemala. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that one of the girls at my otherwise homogenous Jewish summer camp had been from Guatemala, a fact that had definitely intrigued me. (although at the time, I never imagined actually traveling there)
Once I had the countries decided, it was relatively easy to choose the specific destinations, at least once I spent some time fanatically researching on the internet. However, it was like a jigsaw puzzle trying to figure out the order in which I'd visit them. The classic stops in Guatemala seemed to be Antigua, Tikal and Lake Atitlan. So those would work for me- and I think I've found some really fabulous places to stay in each location. You know you're an awesome travel planner when you talk to a coworker who is from a country you'll be visiting... and when you mention the name of your hotel, his face brightens as he says that he was going to recommend the same place.
When I decided on Panama, I searched out a post I remembered seeing on a friend's Facebook page in which a mutual friend recommended somewhere intriguing to stay. I did some further research on the La Loma Jungle Lodge and inquired by email about the possibility of a 3 night stay. I received a prompt reply... informing me that they only allowed 2 or 4 night stays, and only arriving on specific days of the week. So just when I thought I'd put together the perfect jigsaw puzzle... I had to take it apart and rework it. But I felt it would be worth the effort if it meant I could stay in an open walled treetop lodge ... especially since the room offers plenty of creature comforts while still allowing the occupant to feel immersed in the jungle. Also, my inner chocoholic could not resist the fact that the lodge includes a chocolate farm! I've emailed the owners several times, and I am convinced that my time there will be one of the most unique and memorable stays I've enjoyed anywhere.
I strive to take one vacation a year which includes somewhere outside my comfort zone; this trip will definitely reach that goal. There are no theaters, no theme parks ... not even air conditioning in 2 of my lodgings! And there will be virtually no internet in the aforementioned La Loma. But in the past, I have really enjoyed spending time in places that are rich in natural beauty and charm... in direct contrast to my somewhat spoiled life as a city (or suburban) gal. So I'm hoping to be inspired by colorful vistas filled with Mayan ruins, volcanoes, lakes and jungles. I'm excited for another opportunity to explore landscapes and lifestyles that are very different than my own. I am eager to grow as a result of new experiences and challenges, especially since I am doing this trip on my own. (usually, I choose to travel with a group when visiting somewhere that might make me nervous) As my trip approaches, I find myself dreaming more and more of the beauty and discovery that will greet me at every turn.
I know that, no matter what happens, I will return with priceless treasures- namely, my stories and photos, which of course I will share here. As with all trips I've planned, I think both the quantity and quality of my research will make for an incredible adventure. I've booked a few tours, but am leaving plenty of time for making plans once I arrive at my destinations. All that's left now is to venture out and seize every moment I can, with both gratitude and wonder.
My flight wasn't until 1:55am so I went to work on this Friday, just as I would any ordinary day. But I could hardly contain my excitement for my imminent journey. The highlight of my day was when a coworker from Guatemala stopped by my desk and sold me some quetzal at a good rate- enough to last me a couple days. He also gave me the names of several bars that sold beers from a brewery he owns with his family.
After work, I scurried around my apartment doing some last minute preparations. I was still working on a few things at 8pm when Brian and Megan came over to watch Amazing Race before taking me to the airport. As my last task, I decided to upload the intro I'd written for my blog.. only I ran into permission issues trying to connect to my site via FTP. After logging into my account console, I discovered that my account had been suspended for going over the data limits. It would have been really nice if my web host had contacted me about this problem so I could have upgraded my account before then. We had to leave so I ended up simply posting my intro on Facebook.... and sending a bit of a scalding email to my web host.
After a ride full of fun conversation and devoid of much traffic, I was dropped off at JFK around 11pm. I quickly found the desk for Copa Airlines and I asked where to go; the gentleman pointed to the end of a line. There weren't really that manuy people, but I don't think I've ever in my life seen queue line move more slowly. Part of the problem was that they didn't have enough stations open- especially since one was permanently occupied by passengers with special needs, which included those who were mobility impaired as well as those who were traveling with huge amounts of luggage. It would seemingly take forever to process each person. And then sometimes the people would come back- which I somewhat sarcastically thought should be prohibited.
To pass the time, I began chatting with the couple in front of me. I quickly decided that they seemed rather flaky- I mean, I'm the woman didn't even know that the flight was going to Panama (they were headed to Nicaragua and she assumed everyone was). But they were nice enough. I was also way beyond amused at the big ass name tags worn by some of the Copa personnel; each person had what looked like an 8.5x11 colored poster board around their neck with their first name on it. Those who were behind the counter had the placards displayed in front of their stations.
After waiting in the ridiculously slow line for over an hour, I noticed that there was actually a separate line for web check-in. Way to go, Copa people, for not mentioning this fact to me when I was trying to figure out where to go! After explaining to the couple in front of me what "web check-in" meant (it means that you checked in online in advance, if that's not obvious) and commenting that I'd done it, they got the attention of an agent who let me get out of line so I could check in with the next available agent. It felt like I won a magic express pass! At this point, the general check-in queue extended waaaaay down the corridor.
I'd been so busy all day with routine tasks that it had barely seemed real that I was headed to Central America. But it's amazing how quickly reality can sink in when you're standing around in line for an hour with little to occupy your mind other than the adventure that awaits once you get past this annoying obstacle. So, wow, it was really happening!
JFK airport is eerily empty after midnight. There are only a few flights scheduled to depart in the wee hours of the morning, so most stores are closed- even some of the ones that were listed on the website as being open. It was especially creepy walking past a Victoria's Secret that still had music blaring from its interior despite being deserted.
I have a tradition of buying emergency M&M's at the airport before I leave. I have to buy them at the airport, even though they are overpriced, because... that's just what I do. I was disappointed that the only available M&M's at the ghost airport was a big ass bag that cost over $20. So instead, I bought a big box of Kinder chocolates which was less expensive. At least I'd have a stash of chocolate, albeit not quite the kind I'd intended.
Since my flight left at nearly 2am which was past my weekday bedtime, I was quite tired and eager to get some sleep en route to Central America. Unfortunately, I was really uncomfortable... even by economy airplane standards. I knew that I needed to nap, so I was annoyed at myself for being awake- even though that thought process was completely counter productive. I must have caught some shuteye because I only remember hearing the first couple songs of the "In The Heights" cast album. Apparently I am quite good at sleeping through this - that also happened during my last trip.
When they announced that we were landing, I thought "Damn, that was quick!" After taking so many uber long flights halfway across the world, a 5 hour plane ride seems inadequate for getting any rest. It appeared like we had a great view of the Panama City skyline as we landed but I wasn't familiar enough with the city to know what I was seeing. I wanted to catch a glimpse the canal but I was disappointed that there was nothing within view that screamed "I'm a famous canal!"
After landing, I checked the monitors for my connecting flight to Guatemala City. It was at gate 3, great. Except I had the hardest time actually finding gate 3; it didn't seem to be included on any of the signage. Or maybe the fatigue of a 2am flight was just getting to my brain. Obviously, I eventually got there.
I had a 3 hour layover before my 9:30am connection so I searched the airport for some food. I passed tons of mall like stores, but I saw very few eating options other than a curious abundance of Nathan's Hot Dogs. [noted: when flying home, I discovered a food court hidden in an somewhat obscure upstairs area] I eventually found a little stand where I ordered some kind of ham sandwich. I was so pleased to understand when the lady asked in Spanish if I wanted it heated. Ok, so she was pointing to microwave... but I recognized the word "caliente". My food was good, if a bit too salty.
I'm not terribly fond of layovers, but I figured that if I must have one, it was better to get it over at the start of my trip when I was full of excitement and adrenaline. Still, as hard as I tried to keep my spirits up, I was impatient. Especially when the free wifi expired after 2 hours. Or, when I wanted it to be quiet and a couple guys at the gate were playing their music too loud for my taste. (I really don't like when people blast their own music in public areas, especially airports.)
Eventually, it was finally time to board my next flight. It felt surreal that I was actually getting very close to living the adventures I'd been carefully planning for the past several months. Well, at least if I could figure out what a "foreseen address" was so that I could fill out the Guatemalan customs form that was dispersed during my flight. (by context, I surmised that I was supposed to fill that line with my destination address)
I slept most of the 2.5 hour flight, although I did wake up for French Toast. It was exciting to arrive at the Guatemala airport, knowing that unlike the one in Panama I'd visited earlier, I would soon be exiting into a new (to me) country! I reflected that it was a good sign that I was energetic enough to be taking some photos around the airport; sometimes I feel so worn out by travel that I won't bother. The airport exit was a little chaotic, with many people waiting outside for their friends or family. But I was able to successfully scan the crowd for the sign with my name printed on it. And then it was off to my hotel in Antigua!
The Guatemala City streets were... not very pretty. Once we emerged onto a main highway, it seemed almost like home since it was lined with familiar facades including multiple McDonalds. It's only upon later reflection that I realize that I was probably very lucky that there was no traffic. I could tell that we were getting close to my destination when we started driving over bumpy cobblestone streets.
I was staying at a charming hotel with 7 rooms, each of which was decorated with its own unique style. When I'd made my reservation 3 months earlier, I'd agonized over which room to book. (that is, once I decided not to book a hotel that had an amazing purple room.. but was otherwise inferior in every way) Eventually, I'd decided on room #4. And I'd felt damn good about that decision- the room was supposed to have a cross breeze, as well as a sofa. So when the nice lady at the hotel led me to room #3, I was confused. I had to dig out the printout of my confirmation email because I thought that maybe I was just delirious from all the flights and culture shock. But no, I'd really and truly booked the room I'd remembered- and I'd even received a 2nd email from the hotel confirming it. I went out to the reception desk (which was really like a desk in an office) and showed the lady my letter. She just said her records showed I'd booked room #3. No apology, no anything. OK, then. (when I later mentioned this fact in my tripadvisor review, I received an email with a bullshit excuse that someone else was probably booking the room I wanted at the same time. Which would be one hell of a coincidence, not to mention that I checked back a day or so later and all 6 of the other rooms still seemed to be open to booking) Both rooms were the same price, and I wasn't going to let the situation get me down. Nonetheless, it was a very disappointing introduction to a hotel that was ranked #1 on tripadvisor.
Other than the room snafu, the hotel was fabulous. It was like a little oasis in the city, with its own private courtyards which were peppered with the doors to the 7 rooms. The outdoor areas were as charming as the interiors, with lush greenery, fountains, and all sorts of little artistic touches. It felt very homey and comfortable. My only regret is that a month earlier I'd reluctantly decided it made more sense to shorten my stay from an already brief 2 nights to just 1 night.
I took a half hour nap, but then I had to get ready for a photography tour I'd booked for the afternoon. It was a private tour with a professional photographer who was also very enthusiastic about the city- so my aim was to get familiar with Antigua while also improving my photographic skills, which could definitely use some help.
Antigua proved to be a small city that was very walkable. I always have some trepidation when making my way through a new enivironment- along with excitement and curiosity. But I soon felt quite comfortable walking on the charming streets with their brightly colored one story buildings. I enjoyed walking under the Santa Catalina arch and through the Parque Central. Even using Google maps as a guide, I initially walked right past the tiny cafe where I was supposed to meet my guide and I had to backtrack.
My guide, Rudy was friendly, jovial, and the perfect companion for a photo tour of the quaint city in which I found myself. He started things off by going through a couple power point presentations with practical tips. (which he also emailed later) It wasn't a technical presentation on aperture or shutter speed, which was ok with me since I've read a decent amount on photographic theory; my problem is that it all goes out of my brain in the heat of the moment. Rather, he emphasized light and composition- as well as techniques for getting good shots of random people on the street. Those kinds of tips are things that I could take with me throughout my trip and beyond.
Afterwards, we spent a few hours walking together around the city. Rudy would often point someone out to me and tell me to try to get a shot of that person. Then I'd show him the resulting picture on my camera. There were times when he'd disagree with me over whether a shot was good (or which was the best between 2 shots) but he'd listen to my reasoning which I liked since obviously every artist has their own aesthetic and I don't like being told that I am wrong. (that's happened to me on other photography tours, where the instructor had one idea of the results they wanted- Rudy sometimes had an idea for static photos, but he was definitely open to discussing the results of candid people shots) He complimented my photos a few times.
The time flew by; I was engaged in one of my favorite activities- discovering a charismatic new city by walking around with my camera. It was enriching; I definitely felt like the day's lessons would help me as I continue my never ending journey of trying to improve my photography. As a bonus, Rudy gave me some good advice about places to visit the next day.
After we parted ways, it was around 6pm and I was famished because I hadn't had a proper meal all day. It shouldn't shock anyone that I was eager to try some Japanese food, since this was one of only 2 destinations on my trip where that would even be an option. I checked out a couple places that Rudy had pointed out. While exploring my options, I lingered in the Parque Central to enjoy some fireworks that I saw going off a bit in the distance.
Ultimately, I decided on the more traditional restaurant, which was a tiny place just off the main square. (and actually the place I'd seen online in my pre-trip Google maps explorations) I ordered gyoza (potstickers) and katsu-don (breaded chicken on rice); the latter was better than the former. I was the only one in the restaurant and so I had to endure the dreaded awkward moments where I feel trapped because I can't figure out how to ask for a check (or find anyone to ask). But other than that, it was a really nice, quiet dinner.
I'd wanted to search out the beer made by a company owned by my coworker but once I finished my dinner, I was ready to drop! It had been 38+ hours since I'd had a proper sleep. So I headed back to my hotel in hopes that I'd be able to wake up in time to photograph Antigua by the early morning light, which Rudy had highly recommended to me.
Back at the hotel, I took a few moments to enjoy the beauty of the courtyard by night. The candles placed artfully around the gardens gave the place an almost magical aura. It was a beautiful way to end an eventful day, one that hopefully was just the start of many more amazing days during the next couple weeks.
Collapsing into bed early indeed had a beneficial effect in allowing me to wake up without an alarm. I decided to take advantage of the morning light by taking photos at some of the places my photography guide had suggested; I figured I could return to the hotel later for the breakfast which was included with my stay so I could take advantage of the early light as much as possible.
The streets of Antigua were blissfully vacant at 7:15am on a Sunday. During the middle of the day, the Santa Catalina arch is always crowded with both tourists and vendors. However, I had a chance to take photos of this iconic landmark with only a couple people dotting the background. The only thing that would have been better would have been if the distant volcano had been more visible, but that was obviously beyond my control.
As I wandered, I made it a priority to photograph some of the brightly colored chicken buses that locals use for transportation. In a former life, these vehicles had been the kind of yellow school buses that are familiar to anyone in America. However, when they are shipped to Guatemala, they are restyled with elaborate designs. These buses are often very crowded with locals who use them as a convenient form of transportation. I wouldn't have been comfortable riding one on this trip since I was a woman by myself in a country where I don't understand the language; however, I bet they would be quite an experience for a bolder traveler. I was quite fascinated by their vivid designs and the fact that they were an odd combination of familiar and foreign to me.
It was hard for me to remember all the places Rudy had pointed out, so I basically just roamed in whatever direction seemed intriguing. Antigua is such a colorful, photogenic town that you can basically walk anywhere and discover something interesting to capture with your camera. Cobblestone streets lined with parked motorcycles, brightly colored colonial buildings, greenery sprinkled with flowers, charming details all around- what's not to love?
In the midst of randomly wandering around, I eventually stumbled across a cupcake store that I'd seen the previous day. Since I hadn't been able to locate it later that night, I felt like I lost it- and was naturally happy to have found it again. Unfortunately, the shop wasn't open yet at 8am but I took note of its exact location (not far from my hotel as it turns out), and vowed to return.
After about an hour and 45 wonderful minutes of my glorious self guided photo walk, I returned to the hotel for breakfast. The meal was served in the outdoor courtyard which was a beautiful place to sit and relax. There were several choices available and I decided on the pancakes, which were artfully served along with a semi-circle of fruit.
Since I didn't have to check out until noon, I decided to relax a bit in my room while packing. I was able to leave my luggage at the hotel while I spent the the afternoon exploring. I also arranged to have a car drive me to my next hotel near Guatemala City airport. The hotel staff recommended leaving at 5 to try to beat the traffic headed back to the city on a Sunday night, so I agreed. That gave me 5 hours to enjoy some more of Antigua.
Obviously, my first stop was to the cupcake store which was now open. I wouldn't be able to carry or store any purchases, so I had to limit myself to a single cupcake which left me having to make a tough decision. I ultimately chose a chocolate "Cajeta" which they told me was similar to Dulce de Leche; it seemed more unique than some other options. After paying, I sat down at the Parque Central to enjoy my treat.
Then I was flummoxed about where to head so I decided to check Tripadvisor for some inspiration. The #1 listing was Casa Santo Domingo which was apparently a hotel with a museum containing ruins of a convent. So I decided to head over there and poke around a bit. I thought I read that people who weren't staying at the hotel had to pay a small fee to see the ruins, but no one bothered me and I wasn't going to ask. It was an interesting place to take a break; in addition to a decent sized area filled with ruins, there were gardens and colorful macaw birds. It would probably have been spectacular to stay there overnight, but I was quite happy with my quieter and more centrally located residence.
The day's theme seemed to be ruins, as my next stop was the Convento de Capuchinas, which was an 18th century convent. I really enjoyed exploring at this stop; the many arched passageways were particularly interesting to photograph.
Needing something to drink, I remembered a place called Union Square that my guide the previous day had pointed out to me. So I headed over to the small shop and ordered a Banana strawberry orange juice smoothie that was very refreshing. As I sipped my beverage, I sat outside in the square in front of Convento Santa Clara and took some time to just enjoy being in Guatemala.
I hadn't intended on visiting yet another set of ruins but the Convento Santa Clara was right there and my guide had recommended it, so why not? I still had an hour and a half left before it was time to leave. I didn't enjoy this site quite as much as the others, but that was probably also due to the fact that people were decorating parts of it for a wedding. Or it might just have been a bit of an overload of ruins. In any case, it was still worth visiting this photogenic place. I imagine that it must be a beautiful place for a wedding.
After looking through some shops and not finding anything I really wanted to buy, I still had a little time left. I decided to sit on the side of the main square, the Parque Central, and just chill out. It was a great place to people watch- and also to take some more candid shots with my camera. I wanted to relax and take everything in before I had to leave this vibrant, charming city for my next destination.
As I was soaking up the atmosphere, the backpacker sitting next to me asked me if he had any ice cream in his beard. We ended up striking up a conversation- obviously focused on travel. He'd just completed an intense 2 day volcano climb, which explained his rather scruffy appearance. He was a very nice guy and I enjoyed talking to him, especially after spending the entire day on my own. When he asked me if he could get me an ice cream because he'd enjoyed his cone so much that he was getting another for himself, I obviously couldn't say no to that. Just as he'd said, the ice cream was pretty fabulous. In addition to being very tasty (some kind of berry flavor), I very much appreciated its purple and red colors. And it was a bargain at 5 Quetzals! (less than 75 cents) The short time I spent sitting at the square, observing the bustle of activity and discussing travel was a definite highlight of my day.
Eventually, my friend had to leave and it was time for me to head back to my hotel as well. I was a little early so I sat in the courtyard and waited for a few minutes until the driver arrived. Although I'd been told that leaving at 5 would help me beat the traffic, the main street was nonetheless far more congested than it had been a day earlier. I think that's its normal state.
The Hilton Garden Inn where I was staying was obviously a let down from my previous night's accommodations. The rooms were smaller and it was very generic. But it served its intended purpose of allowing me to be super close to the airport since I had to make a 6am flight to Flores the next morning. Unfortunately, the hotel's airport shuttle didn't start service until 5 so I'd need to take a cab. (note: I heard another couple face the same issue)
It was around 6:45pm and I was hungry for some dinner. At first I thought I'd order something at the restaurant in the lobby. But it seemed eerily empty and I wasn't sure if they'd even started serving dinner yet. Plus, I didn't want to possibly spend a lengthy amount of time on the meal; I needed to shower and get to bed early. So, after hitting the ATM in the hotel for some cash, I checked google maps to see what was in the area.
I eventually settled on McDonald's since it was only a block and a half away. Also, I was enjoying terrorizing my nieces with McDonald's photos during the trip- and this would give me further opportunity to do so. I was slightly terrified walking on the deserted streets because it was after dark and Guatemala City doesn't exactly have the reputation for being the safest place in the world. But I correctly analyzed the situation as being more of an emotional response than an actual danger; when viewed with a clear mind, the area didn't actually set off any red flags. (in fact, I've subsequently been told that it is indeed a very safe area) Also, it was much more interesting to head outside than it would have been to stay in the hotel... even if my adventure was merely a very short walk.
Once I got to McD's, I decided to order the Pollo McCrispy and some water. For some reason, my pronunciation of "agua" was so incomprehensible to the person taking my order that I had to type the word on my phone to make myself understood. Also, once I got back to my room, I realized to my chagrin that the meal I'd ordered wasn't crispy chicken tenders, but rather fried chicken. Oh well, at least it was quick food.
I had mixed emotions on leaving Antigua. On the one hand, I was really starting to feel at home in the jewel of a town. But there wasn't really anything concrete that I felt I'd missed. Sure, there were other things that would have been interesting to do if I could have fit them in. But I was ultimately satisfied with the time I'd spent- it was short, but packed with wonderful moments. In any case, I was very excited to be exploring some Mayan ruins the next day... assuming I could get myself out of bed at 3:30am!
3:30am phone alarms are fun... said no one EVER. But I had places to go, exciting things to see and a 6am flight to catch- so I dealt and got myself ready. Adrenaline can be a wonderful thing.
Although the hotel shuttle didn't start running until 5, the front desk was able to arrange a taxi for me to the airport. So after I checked out, I headed outside and pulled my luggage down a small ramp to the waiting cab. And, due to a combination of my awesome coordination and the ridiculously early hour, I almost managed to get myself killed in the process! I don't even remember what happened exactly- I think my suitcase accelerated at a faster velocity than I'd anticipated. In any event, no luggage or humans were harmed in this incident... All I could do was laugh.
It was a very quick ride to the airport. When I checked in at the Avianca desk, the lady kindly advised me that when I saw a long line, I should not wait in it because the queue was for customs and my flight to Tikal was a domestic flight. That advice would have been way more helpful if only I'd been able to find another way to go. After walking around and surveying the area, the ever growing line seemed to be the only entrance to the security/ gates.
So I waited in the really slow line... which was obviously annoying at 4am. But what made the experience all the more fabulous (NOT) was the lack of air conditioning... or any form of ventilation. I was tired, grumpy, and not even in the mood to look at the shops that were starting to open. When I reached the front of the line, the man asked for my customs form- I had to point out that I was going to Flores and therefore it wasn't applicable. He waved me through, but in a way that made me think it was unusual for domestic travelers to be in this line. It's possible that there was an alternate entrance to avoid the customs check, but I'd really searched everywhere; maybe it just hadn't been open yet when I'd checked.
Once I got inside the room with the security/baggage screening, thankfully there was air conditioning! But the fun continued because the monitors said that my flight was departing from gate 15 while my boarding pass had gate 14 printed on it. Both gates were at the end of a long corridor that probably seems much more endless at 4:30am or so. Shockingly to me, neither gate was displaying any signs indicating which flights were departing from them! Gate 15 was completely deserted. There were plenty of people at Gate 14 but they were waiting for an earlier flight.
I sat down at Gate 14, which ended up being the right place. But before I could put my Annoying Airport Experience behind me, I got to enjoy a bonus round of fun when I realized to my horror that I didn't have my expensive noise canceling headphones. I dug around my carry-ons searching for them, but to no avail. I figured that maybe I'd left them in the Antigua hotel safe or possibly on the flight to Guatemala. I chided myself for my lack of responsibility but hoped that maybe they could be located. (spoiler alert: neither the hotel or the airline found them, so I'm out a bunch of dollars for the loss. And more importantly, I no longer have noise canceling headphones)
I was even more thrilled than usual when it came time to board the plane and say goodbye to Guatemala Airport... at least for a couple days. I still wasn't entirely sure I was in the right place, so I was both hesitant and hopeful when I had to present my boarding pass. But it was all good. I was super impressed that Avianca served a snack and beverage on a flight than was less than an hour. I'd been too tired to buy anything to eat at the airport, so it worked out well to be able to have a little sandwich.
Once I landed in Flores, my day brightened considerably. I was whisked off to a resort that ended up being one of the most fabulous places I'd EVER stayed. My room wasn't quite ready when I arrived but it was ok because they served me a refreshing welcome drink and I was able to relax in the lobby. I also confirmed the Mayan ruin tours that I'd booked. They had me down for a regular morning tour of Tikal the next morning instead of the sunrise tour I'd requested. But it was absolutely no problem to change. It was clear that the staff could make anything happen as long as you said the word. (at least within reason) I was a bit in awe at the amazing service and luxurious locale which would be my home for 2 nights- And all for a price less than my recent stay in NYC!
All the guest rooms were actually individual cabins lining a scenic lagoon. When I finally entered my room at around 8:30, the accommodations were every bit as fabulous as I'd imagined. I think it was almost as big as my entire apartment at home; definitely at least 3 times the size of my last hotel room. The piece de resistance was the private hot tub located in an indoor deck that was separated from the main room by sliding glass doors. It was too hot to use during the day (the deck did not have A/C) but it promised to be most heavenly at night.
After trying to photograph my room from every angle before unpacking, I rested a bit and then got ready to take a boat ride to Monkey Island which was included in my resort stay. I was surprised to be the only guest that morning- which was interesting since I was accompanied both by a guide who spoke Spanish and a woman from the front desk who translated. We stopped at a few places and fed the monkeys. I was able to hold a wooden plate with a long handle to feed a few myself- but dang, that thing got heavy pretty quickly! Mostly, I just delighted in watching the monkeys be monkeys- all at a safe distance so that no memory cards could be harmed.
Once we pulled back to the dock, there was a guy waiting and carrying a tray of cold water with lime. I almost died at how decadent that seemed. Especially since it was all for me.
I had time for another short rest before leaving at 1pm for my sunset tour of the Mayan ruins at Yaxha. Many people traveling to the area only visit the more famous ruins at Tikal but Yaxha is another ruin site nearby and I'd read good things about it online. I was not a particular fan of the Mayan civilization, but I thought it would be neat to be able to see 2 different sites. I was really excited to head out and explore. I'd booked private tours so I could go at my convenience.
En route to our destination, we stopped for a late lunch. Since I hadn't had a proper meal all day, I was thrilled to have the chance to eat. I was presented with a choice of entrees and ultimately decided on the Chicken Ramon, which I was told was a traditional Guatemalan dish. It was delicious- and it was shaped like a heart! However, I failed at understanding that I was supposed to put the beans in with the chicken until after I'd finished the latter- oops! The meal also came with soup and watermelon. I was also thrilled to be able to devour a Coke Light for the first time during my trip.
The restaurant obviously catered to tourists visiting the ruins- It was pretty obvious that most of the long tables were for buses or vans of people. And then there was me, sitting by myself. I would have preferred sitting with my guide but he was in the back area with the other drivers and guides. So that was a bit awkward. But I enjoyed my meal which was the most important thing. Plus, I wouldn't have really enjoyed being on an actual tour of ruins with a busload of other people as much as being on a private tour.
We spent 2- 2.5 hours exploring Yaxha. My guide, who was descended from Mayans, was awesome at bringing the history alive for me. He asked whether I was interested in animals or architecture and of course I answered that I wanted to see EVERYTHING. He was also great at helping me achieve the mental fortitude the climb one of the temples in the North Acropolis that I thought there was no chance in hell I could actually ascend. I mean, we already established at 4am that I am a total klutz and there were no actual stairs on this pyramid, let alone hand rails. The view at the top was pretty cool, and I'm definitely glad I did it.
At the end of our time, we went to the top of the East Acropolis to wait for the sun to set. Fortunately, there were proper stairs with handrails so it wasn't too difficult. There wasn't much of an actual sunset because the sky was a bit overcast, but we still had a lovely view of the river and other temples; it was also cool to listen to the sounds of howler monkeys in the distance. Some kids staying at a hostel were also sitting atop the temple; one of them had brought her guitar and it was nice to hear some music (although my guide told her to quiet it down when she got so loud that it prevented us from hearing the jungle noises)
All in all, I really enjoyed walking around Yaxha and discovering photogenic ruins that dotted a beautiful landscape. It was particularly amazing to see mounds of earth that apparently contained temples which have yet to be excavated. And, as if I hadn't seen enough monkeys earlier, there were even more here! In addition to all I could take in with my eyes, it was equally fascinating to get a little taste of Mayan history. I was amazed at the things my guide pointed out to me that demonstrated how advanced the ancient civilization was.
The drive to and from Yaxha was also fascinating to me. The little villages with people selling coconuts at the side of the road were obviously so different from home. But I was most struck by all the people who were walking at the side of the unlit streets after dark. I guess that a lot of people in Guatemala get around by foot.
I was about ready to drop dead when I got back to my hotel room after 8! But first I ordered some room service pizza (since I didn't have the energy to move much)... which would have been more appealing to me if it had been topped with tomato sauce instead of actual tomatoes. And then- hot tub time!!! After quickly figuring out how to turn on the water jets, I blasted Hamilton from my iPad and relaxed in the warm swirling waters. It felt every bit as awesome and luxurious as I'd expected.
It was cute how I'd felt that a 3:30am wakeup call had been ridiculously early the previous morning in Guatemala City. My sunrise tour of Tikal was set to leave at 3am. Yikes! So I got up at 2:45 and quickly got myself ready. It wasn't as hard as I'd feared. But still- 2:45 am. For a night owl like me, that's more like a time to go to bed than to awaken. But, aside from sunrise tours being a "thing to do", I knew it would better to avoid being out in the hot sun during the middle of the day. The weather in Flores was a lot warmer than it had been in Antigua.
I was able to nap a little in the car. Once we arrived in Tikal, we embarked on quite a hike in the pitch dark to get to Temple IV. I mean, it wouldn't have been a big deal at all during daylight or with proper rest. But I could feel my body asking me why I was making it exert energy at such a ridiculous hour when the black sky said that I ought to be asleep in bed. Meanwhile, every fly in Tikal was attracted to my head lamp, especially if I stood still, so I tried to keep moving.
Despite my fatigue, it was actually was really cool to be out in the jungle in the early hours of the morning. It was an opportunity I couldn't resist and I'm glad I was able to take advantage of it- especially since it seemed so crazy. Once we finally reached Temple IV, I took a little break before tackling the stairs. But finally I ascended and I was able to sit and watch the complex come to life beneath me for well over an hour. There was only a sliver of an actual sunrise due to somewhat hazy sky, but I wasn't disappointed. I felt privileged to be able to peacefully watch a world of greenery, wildlife, and the tops of 3 distant temples emerge from the early morning darkness; the perfect sunrise would have been a bonus but I knew not to expect that to happen.
Sitting atop the temple would have been a great time to have munched on the bagged breakfast provided by the hotel. However, picky eater that I am, there wasn't a single thing I liked was included except for the juice. It honestly hadn't occurred to me that I wouldn't find anything to my liking; I'm sure the hotel could have provided alternate items if I'd asked. So I was going to embark on a hike for several hours with no food in my belly. Not how I'd have designed things, but oh well.
Once I was ready to descend from the perch above the park, we spent the next few hours basically tracing our steps back to the entrance- only now I could actually see the sites that had been invisible in the darkness. I had the same excellent guide as at Yaxha a day earlier and he was great about letting me set my own pace.
My favorite part of Tikal was the Great Plaza which was one of the last stops we made. My guide left me to wander around a little on my own and advised me that there were 3 areas I could climb around: Temple II (which had stairs), the North Acropolis, and the Central Acropolis. By that point, since I hadn't eaten breakfast and it was getting quite warm, my body wanted to climb... exactly none of them. But I pushed myself to seize the moment, since I doubted I'd be back any time soon, and I'm proud to say that I explored all three places. There was a lot to see, and the light was really flattering so I enjoyed trying to find good angles to capture the sights.
Tikal seemed more expansive than Yaxha. It's hard to compare the 2 sites. I enjoyed the relative intimacy of Yaxha as well as its proximity to a river, which enhanced the views. But obviously there was more to see at Tikal. I'm very glad I decided to visit both, as they were each so fascinating to see in their own ways. There's just something special about spending some time immersed in Mayan ruins that is impossible to put into words... or even convey with pictures.
Since I spent more time in Tikal, it made sense that I also had more of a chance to see some wildlife. My guide was particularly interested in birds and he was great at spotting them and pointing them out to me. He explained that he likes to photograph the birds because he works with boys orphaned by the civil war in Guatemala and he shows them how to paint birds so they can craft souvenirs to sell to tourists. I thought that was pretty cool.
We arrived at the park entrance at around 10am, and my guide gave me a choice of waiting until 11 to have lunch at the park or trying to arrange to eat at the hotel. After stopping to get a snack so I wouldn't fall over (a yummy pack of Chokis brand chocolate chip cookies), I insisted that I was ready to return to the hotel. I'd had an amazing time seeing the highlights of Tikal but it was starting to get hotter and more crowded. So... I was good.
Since it was light, I was able to enjoy the drive back to the hotel much more than the drive to Tikal before sunrise. Like the day before, we passed a number of small villages and a lake. I was sitting in the A/C so I was much happier than I'd been earlier.
Once we arrived at the hotel after about an hour drive, it was arranged so they would provide lunch there since I hadn't done so on the tour. When the menu they gave me included bacon pizza, I knew I'd made the right choice. Because- bacon. It was seriously amazing, even better than I'd hoped. It was lovely to relax and gaze out at the lake as I dined. And did I mention- BACON?!?
I got back to my room at around 1pm, which would normally be early but I'd already had a full day. When I'd planned the trip, I'd originally toyed with the idea of heading to the town of Flores for the afternoon, but all I wanted to do was to emulate my Jazzie cat, who is lovingly known for being inert. So I ensconced myself in the palatial cabin, took a little siesta and read some of my book about the musical, Hamilton. It worked out quite well that I decided to stay inside because a huge storm came through in the late afternoon. It was magnificent to watch it from the snug safety of my room; it would not have been wonderful to have been caught outside in a downpour.
Eventually the rain subsided and I headed back to the main building to eat dinner. I was really learning to enjoy being pampered by the staff instead of just staying holed up in my room. For my meal, I chose to order the cream of pumpkin soup and the spaghetti Bolognese (the latter being my classic "go-to" travel meal). Both were delicious. And again, I enjoyed the view of the lake- only this time, it was even more magical because of the candles that were lit at the tables.
Returning to my hotel room meant only one thing: HOT TUB! Since I had the luxury (ha!) of not needing to leave my hotel until 6:15 the next morning, I could spend a little more time soaking in the warm, pulsating water and soothing my muscles. At some point, I'd noticed a sign saying that you should only be in the tub for 15 minutes but I absolutely ignored that warning. (the temperature wasn't too hot) Bliss.
Sleeping until 5:30 am never felt so luxurious; after needing to awaken at 3:30 and 2:45 the previous 2 days, the few extra hours were oh-so-welcome. Even so, I pressed the snooze alarm twice before actually getting up and peeking out at the sunrise. I was excited to be heading to the scenic Lake Atitlan, which required a short plane ride and then a 3 hour drive. I'd hired a private driver for the latter because it seemed like it would make things easiest for me. I'm at the point on my life where I'm willing to spend more money on transportation if it improves my overall experience.
After getting my stuff together, I started walking on the boardwalk by my cabin. As soon as I reached an area with stairs by the main building, a staff member appeared like magic to assist me with my luggage. Perfect timing... I was going to miss the beautiful resort and its amazing staff. Not to mention- my private hot tub.
The Flores airport was very tiny. Even so, their security routine involved frisking all passengers. Frisking seems to be a thing for Guatemala airports; Guatemala City even had 2 separate lines, one for each sex. (I have no idea which queue would be acceptable for transgender people but I assume that issue is not as politicized outside of the US, anyway) I recognized a couple people in the waiting area that I'd also seen on my Tikal hike, including one woman who had awesome bright pink hair. In the small waiting area, I watched some video of Guatemala that was looping on a TV on a table where they were selling DVD's of the country. I can't say that I recall seeing similar kiosk at other airports.
The flight was really quick, and of course it included a snack. And then I was back in Guatemala City airport, a place that I'd enjoyed so much a couple days earlier. (NOT) But I was just quickly passing through. Or so I thought... When I exited the airport, I searched the few signs people were holding for one with my name but without success. So I quickly turned on my phone and discovered that my driver was running late due to horrible traffic. I was relieved that he'd emailed... but meanwhile, I had to stand awkwardly outside for awhile since you couldn't just enter the doorway once you'd left the building. The outdoor area wasn't as crowded as it had been on my initial arrival to the country, but there were a handful of people waiting behind a row of guardrails for friends or family. These included some annoying little kids, and I think there was someone selling toys and balloons which was interesting.
Occasionally, people approached me to ask me if I needed a ride or to try to help. I just smiled and declined their assistance. Despite the somewhat precarious situation of standing alone outside an airport, I never felt threatened or in any way in danger. But I did feel a little nervous, since I don't understand the language and I was quite obviously a tourist. Also, I just plain don't like standing around and waiting- especially on a small paved area outside an airport.
I'm not sure how long I had to wait; I think it was about a half hour. Once my driver, Alfredo, arrived I was immediately glad that I'd booked his services. He was very friendly and spoke with a charming British accent. It was enjoyable conversing with him in the car... well, except maybe when he asked me about Donald Trump because that topic is really embarrassing to me as an American.
The first part of the drive took me past a slew of Mc Donald's on the same highway that led to Antigua (I admittedly wasn't traveling in the most efficient manner possible; but it was the route that worked out best for my plans in terms of timing) We were driving to Panajachel which is a gateway to the towns lining Lake Atitlan. Transit between the towns on the lake is handled by boats- either public ones used by most locals or private ones you can hire. As we drew closer to my destination, the road began to twist and turn as it weaved its way through mountains. I began to feel quite motion sick so I closed my eyes a bit, because sleeping usually makes me feel better when I feel that way.
I was quite relieved to arrive near the dock, and to exit the car into the fresh air. However, before I knew it, several people came up to me to offer me rides; a boy even wanted to take my luggage. I'd been prepared for this to happen from my extensive travel research; all the advice I'd seen was to politely decline and take a less expensive public boat. So I wasn't scared or surprised, although I have to admit I'd been a bit anxious about the boat situation because I never like being approached by people. In the heat of the moment... when I was still recovering from feeling slight nausea... it just became too much for me. I couldn't handle being surrounded by people asking me questions, even if it was just a couple of them. I just wanted to curl up and have everyone go away and leave me alone. So basically, before I knew it, I was overcome by a panic attack.
Alfredo was awesome at helping me, offering me some water and assuring me that I could take my time. After a few minutes, I felt better and regained my composure. Alfredo recommended that I take a private boat, because it would be easier and quicker- especially since the water was getting choppy. He also helped me take my luggage down the incline to the dock, which drivers don't typically do. It had really been an excellent decision for me to hire a private driver, because the port would have been even more overwhelming if I'd been alone.
Lake Atitlan is a huge lake, peppered with many towns on its banks; it's more vast than what your local lake (though obviously smaller than the Great Lakes). Oddly, the boat I took didn't make me nearly as motion sick as the car ride had. I looked out zealously into the bluish mist and embraced the adventure of riding a small boat that chopped over wave after wave, as if they were small bumps on a road. But once I stepped out onto the dock at my hotel, I started to feel a tad motion sick again.
I'd known in advance that the hotel had a ton of stairs; that was a necessity since it was built on a cliff overlooking the volcano lined lake. I'd been fine with that, since the place looked like a gem- but, feeling a little sick and a lot hungry, it took all my inner strength and energy to make it up to the main building. (I left my large suitcase for a staff member to retrieve, but I think I carried my big carry-on backpack) Inside, I found a colorful room that functioned both as an office and a restaurant. When I was talking to the guy who was checking me in, he offered more than once to move me from the room I'd booked to one that wouldn't be up as many more stairs. I know he was trying to be helpful, but it started to make me feel bad. I know I'm not the most fit person ever... but I also don't try to do more than I can handle, and I knew I'd be ok with the steps once I felt better as long as I took my time.
After getting the business of arrival out of the way, I sat down to order some food at around 1:15pm- both to take a break and also because I was ravenous after not having had a proper meal all day. I started with a watermelon smoothie, since I'd read that the hotel was noted for their smoothies. My cold beverage was definitely refreshing. I also had a plate of pasta which was delicious. As I'd hoped, I felt so much better. The steps to my room really weren't that bad; the walk seemed a lot shorter than ascending from the dock to the main building. Plus, the stairs were broken up by a few short horizontal stretches.
I'd carefully selected my room from the many pictures and videos on the hotel website; one of my main criteria was to choose one that would have an excellent view of the volcanoes across the lake. However, in the afternoon haze, you really couldn't even tell there were any volcanoes at all out there. Still, the colorful room was very charming with tons of little artistic touches. Plus, it had a narrow patio outside that was decorated with many plants, as well as with my own private hammock where I looked forward to lounging.
After exploring and taking photos from as many angles as I could think of, I unpacked a little and collapsed into the welcoming bed. The exhaustion of the ridiculously early mornings of the past few days was catching up to me.
One of the many reasons I'd chosen this hotel was because they served multi-course communal dinners which I thought would be an excellent way to combat the inherent isolation of solo travel. The one catch was that each meal only had 2 options, one of which was a vegetarian version of the main entree. When I'd checked in, I'd noticed to my dismay that the night's dinner had a Mexican theme. I don't do Mexican. The man in the office offered me an alternate choice of a la carte entrees, and told me to come down a half hour later than the group dinner.
When the appointed time came, I really had no idea where to go for my alternate meal. I also felt so very jealous of all the people laughing and conversing at the long table in the middle of the dining room. Ideally, I wished I could have sat at that table... even if I was dining on an alternate meal. I was not excited about the idea of sitting by myself, like a second class guest. But I wasn't able to communicate my desire.
So I was overcome by panic attack #2 of the day. I had to get out of the dining room, so I sat outside and cried... for no real reason, other than just feeling overwhelmed with anxiety about the meal and possibly still tired despite my rest. No one came out to try to help me; I'd been really spoiled by the exemplary staff at my previous hotel who had anticipated my every need so it was a bit of a culture shock to find myself in a place with much less attentive personnel. (it was less expensive so I didn't logically expect the same 5 star level of service; however, tending to an upset guest is something I'd hope to see in any small establishment regardless of price)
Eventually, I calmed down and was seated at a table in the corner where I ate my meal alone. I think I had some kind of chicken with pumpkin. Whatever it was, it was rather mediocre. I continued to be envious of everyone enjoying themselves at the main table and I hoped that the group meals for the next 2 nights would be at least somewhat pleasing to my palate.
I almost got lost trying to find my way back to my room in the dark, even though I had a head lamp. Thankfully I was able to Google a printed map of the hotel rooms. Technology can really be awesome. It was really peaceful walking along the stone paths at night.
I went to bed early, hoping that I'd awaken to a better day. I decided that if I could just see the volcanoes that were allegedly in the distance, it would be enough. I tentatively planned to visit another town or 2 along the lake, although I hadn't yet decided which.
I crashed after several days in a row of very early risings. Awakening at around 8am, I felt like I'd practically lazed away the morning, even though I obviously hadn't. When I peered outside, I could see the volcanoes- faintly, but they were definitely visible. Things were definitely looking up.
I took my time heading down to the main building for breakfast, snapping a multitude of photos on the way. My hotel was built on a cliff overlooking Lake Atitlan, and the grounds abounded with colorful flowers and artistic touches, as well as dramatic views of the lake and volcanoes.
In the dining room, I checked out the menu for the night's communal dinner. The theme was "Fusion de Sabores" which I just discovered means "Fusion of Flavors." At the time, the title didn't matter- what was important was that the main course was BBQ chicken, something I enjoy. No more sitting at a table by myself on the outside looking in!
For breakfast, I ordered pancakes and juice. And for some inexplicable reason, I didn't write down what type of juice they served; it may have been papaya. I decided to eat inside, and I enjoyed the view of the lake. Afterwards, I asked the man at the desk for recommendations on where to go for the day and he suggested San Juan la Laguna, an artsy town about a half hour away on the lake.
So I went back up to my room and got myself together for taking my excursion. I think I put on some sunscreen, even though it wasn't particularly hot out. And then I went down a million or so steps to the pier where I waited a bit for a public boat that was headed in a counter-clockwise direction. I'd been anxious about taking the boats on Lake Atitlan so it was a bigger step for me mentally to board than it was physically.
The boat stopped a few times en route to my destination and I enjoyed the scenic ride. At one point we saw a few kayakers nearby and I flashed back to my awesomely awkward attempt at kayaking in Halong Bay.
At about 11:15, I arrived at San Juan la Laguna and it was time to explore. Except I had no plan about where to go, and no real idea what was even around. The dock led to a path lined with shops selling brightly colored textiles and other souvenirs. Being that the town was on the banks of a lake, the cobblestone street was uphill... which wasn't exactly thrilling to me given all the climbing I'd done of late.
It was a cute, small town, and I enjoyed wandering around and snapping photos. I especially enjoyed the assortment of brightly colored murals that decorated many of the buildings. But since I really wasn't interested in shopping (or eating), I was done exploring in about an hour.
So I went back down to the boat dock where I encountered a man who asked where I was going. I stated the name of my hotel and he motioned to an empty boat. I politely declined, and said that I wanted a public boat. He replied that this was indeed a public boat. I asked the price, and he said 20Q which was about right (the hotel told me 20 or 25Q; my boat over had been 25, which is roughly $3)
His claim seemed a tad sketchy to me since there were no other passengers, but what could I say? I figured I was just being an overly cynical New Yorker and I followed him into the idle boat.
The driver pulled the boat out into the middle of the huge lake and then we slowed down... perhaps we even stopped moving at all. Noticing the camera around my neck, he motioned for me to stand up near the steering wheel to take some panoramic photos. He was insistent so I finally reluctantly stood up and climbed to the appointed spot. He began to stand behind me... too close for comfort... and it felt creepy, so I firmly insisted on going back downstairs to sit down.
I felt better until he came down and started asking me questions like my name (I lied), and if I spoke Spanish (I hadn't somehow developed my skills in that language between the first and second time he inquired). Then it seemed like he was motioning for me to take off my sunglasses. I kept repeating the name of my hotel (and pointing more and more resolutely in the general direction) while he kept responding by saying "Que pasa?" in a tone like he was trying to get me to chill out and relax. Hell no, I wasn't chilling- dude was a creeping creeper and I was in a foreign country, in the middle of a lake at his mercy! I mean, there was no one in the vicinity that could even hear me if I screamed at the top of my lungs. I kept calm, but inside I was annoyed at myself for having doubted my instincts.
Finally he must have gotten bored of my pointing and he silently drove the boat very quickly to the next town, San Pedro la Laguna, where he motioned for me to transfer to another boat- one that had other passengers, yay! It was only when I was sitting safely on the benches on the second boat that I fully grasped how vulnerable I'd been as a single woman who doesn't speak the native language; there are a million ways that situation could have ended badly for me. In a way, I think it's actually good that I can be calm in a potentially dangerous situation instead of panicking. But... wow... even as I felt relieved and safe, it bogged my mind to ponder that ride. I was compelled to text my teenage nieces about my adventure on Julio's Creeper Boat (I didn't know the driver's actual name, but we called him Creepy Stalker Julio for our own reasons); it comforted me a great deal to be able to communicate with them even though I was careful not to tell them anything that might make them scared for me.
I wish I could say that the rest of the day was smooth sailing... but the boat got super crowded and the lake waters were getting very choppy due to an approaching storm. I kept getting splashed by water that sprayed into the window. Essentially, I spent the ride feeling wet and also motion sick. But at least the boat was free of creeping creepers and I was headed back to my hotel., so it was fine After I got off the boat, the driver asked me for 25Q (you pay when you exit); I may have muttered something about creeping liars saying the fare was 20Q.
It started to rain when I got back, so I spent a quiet afternoon reading my copy of Hamilton: The Revolution about the Broadway musical and was transported to my inner happy place. For part of the time, I flopped into the hammock on my balcony, which was lovely and relaxing. I needed the calm.
Reflecting on the past couple days, I decided that I would probably have had a much better time at Lake Atitlan if I'd been with other people. There was a book at the front desk of my hotel which listed some organized tours, but I wasn't sure how to book them. Plus, they required a minimum of 2 people and most still left you on your own to return from another town... which would mean more boat rides by myself.
Fortunately, dinner was wonderful! I sat at the communal table with 5 other women: a mother/daughter, 2 friends, and a woman who had been traveling with a group through Honduras and El Salvador. I was with my people: 6 fierce women who were experienced travelers, and it felt wonderful to share our experiences. I narrated my Creeper Boat story in as amusing a way as I could; no one else had experienced anything similar but it felt therapeutic to be able to verbalize. Best of all, 4 of us decided to go in together to reserve the communal hot tub for the next evening. (the mother/daughter were heading home the next day) Oh, yeah- more HOT TUB time was coming! It had been a bit of a challenging day, but at least there was a happy ending.
I awoke around 6am and went outside while the sun was finishing its rise into the morning sky. I was thrilled that the volcanoes were more visible than they'd been the previous 2 days, even though they still weren't as clear as they can be. I decided to take advantage of the early light by wandering around and taking photos.
As my descent took me near the main building, my eyes caught sight of the most marvelous thing: a cat! How had I not known that there were cats prowling around the hotel?!? Later I saw another one; both black and white kitties were very sweet and obviously adorable. I took approximately eleventy billion pictures of the 2 of them, and just following them around made me the happiest I'd been in days.
At around 8am, I was ready for breakfast. I didn't want anything as heavy as pancakes, so I ordered a more traditional Guatemalan meal of eggs, beans and plantain which was served with blackberry juice. It was very good, although I couldn't finish my plate.
After my experience the previous day, I wasn't too keen on taking any more boats. I considered hiking to the next town, but ultimately decided to take a day to laze around the hotel grounds and enjoy my beautiful surroundings. I also stuffed a bag full of dirty clothes because the hotel offered same day laundry service for a bargain flat rate of $12 a bag and I intended to get as much bang for my money as possible.
My hotel had so many little nooks where one could sit and quietly enjoying take in the beautiful scenery; I'm sure I didn't even discover all of them. I especially enjoyed laying in a hammock near the dock, where I could hear the gentle sounds of the water as well as the boats that passed by.
I also spent more time lounging in the hammock on my porch. I'm not someone who generally spends a vacation day just sitting around, even at the beach. But sometimes you need to shake things up a little, and it was a relief to be able to take a break and not have to worry about getting anywhere. Plus, the hotel grounds were truly wonderful, and it was well worth spending a day enjoying them.
When the sun began to set, I wandered around taking pictures of the distant volcanoes. Every angle revealed a gorgeous and dramatic vista. I was going to miss the landscape that had been surrounding me.
Once again, I signed up for the communal dinner- this night's theme was European and featured grilled fish with cilantro. But of utmost important was the fact that the dessert was Mousse de Chocolate and it was excellent! There were more people at the hotel than the previous night, and once again I enjoyed the vibrant table conversation.
When we were done eating, it was HOT TUB time! So I went up to my room to change into my swimsuit and then went down the tons of stairs all the way down to the level of the dock. The wood heated hot tub, which sat just above the lake, was tucked away in a quiet corner. Unlike most modern tubs, this one had a stove in the center was the source of the heat. The sky was beautiful, with just enough clouds to provide some texture while the light of the nearly full moon shimmered on the lake. Additionally, the area was illuminated with candles. I think it's safe to say that this was the most scenic hot tub I'd ever enjoyed. So much awesomeness!
The water was quite hot, so sometimes I had to sit on the edge and just dangle my feet in the water. In addition to the 4 of us who'd originally planned to spend time in the tub (one woman didn't feel well, and I'm not sure if she was there), we'd invited another couple to join us since the hot tub fits 10. It was fun to relax and laugh with fellow travelers. The other solo woman and I stayed the longest and we had a really nice conversation about... travel, jobs, being single... basically everything and nothing.
Once it was finally time to return to my room, the stairs seemed formidable. I rushed a bit because I didn't want to stay out too long, as then I might be more likely to get bug bites. This may not have been the best decision; I felt a little lightheaded once I finally reached my room. (note: the area is at an altitude of 1560 meters which is only slightly less than Denver; this was the only time I went up the entire stairs from the dock to my room without pausing at the main building) But I was fine once I drank some water and laid down for a bit.
I was excited to begin the Panama portion of my vacation the next day. Although I may not have had the best time at Lake Atitlan, I'd really enjoyed Guatemala in general. I would even like to return to the lake- but I'd be more likely to travel there in the winter when the view is supposed to be its clearest. And preferably not alone.
It was my last morning at Lake Atitlan, and I felt bittersweet at leaving. My time hadn't been the most eventful, but there was no denying that the hotel and lake were flat out gorgeous. I quickly finished my last minute packing and headed down to the main building. I wasn't hungry for a full breakfast, so I just ordered a Banana melon orange juice smoothie which was perfect! I sipped my drink outside where I could savor my last glimpses of the scenery. I saw a couple of my friends from the night before, and chatted with them a bit. One of the cats was also there, and I was thrilled when he/she curled up on my lap and went to sleep; I was definitely missing my furricanes.
Although my plane to Panama City wouldn't depart until 4pm, I had to leave my hotel at around 9am to allow for enough time for transportation. So I was basically resigned to this being a travel day.
People from the hotel carried my luggage down to the dock, and I waited with some trepidation for a clockwise traveling public boat which would take me to Panajachel where my driver, Alfredo, would meet me. I was not at all happy when an empty boat approached. Not this again... Fortunately, there was someone else at the dock waiting. I would not board the empty boat until the driver assured me that the other person would also be riding. I may have seemed like an idiot- but I was not going to put myself in a vulnerable position in the middle of that lake again!
Fortunately, the short ride was uneventful; the lake waters are generally much calmer early in the day. The boat didn't seem to dock at the usual public boat pier in Panajachel. I refused to let anyone help me with my luggage, but I made the decision without realizing that someone was going to lock the gate that led to the main road. There was a narrow way to get around, but it wasn't practical for me to navigate with my luggage. I emailed my driver, who hadn't expected me to arrive at that location, and he soon arrived to help me out.
Alfredo tried to drive slower this time, but I still felt a tad motion sick. Still, I enjoyed sights such as a waterfall caused by the previous day's rain where women were washing their clothes and a couple stops with a different view of the lake. I was also amazed to see someone standing on the back of a van and holding on while it drove in front of me. You definitely don't see that back home- it's probably several levels of illegal. There were always people walking on the sides of the road in the colorful traditional Mayan clothing; I was going to miss that.
I'd arranged with Alfredo to have a stop for lunch, and he took me to a restaurant frequented by locals which was inexpensive and wonderful. (although I would have been happier not discovering that screaming children are universal) At the back of the restaurant, you could see a woman laying out circular tortillas on a large cooking surface.
They first brought out a plate for us to share with nachos; it included a savory tomato sauce which to my delight wasn't at all spicy. For my main course, I'd ordered the cheese and bean tortillas expecting to get tortillas containing both cheese and beans; instead I was presented with a plate containing 2 cheese tortillas and 2 bean ones. Other than initially surprising me, it didn't really matter because the food was delicious.
When I arrived at Guatemala airport in plenty of time for my flight, I felt a little sick from being in the car so long. The temperature of the un-airconditioned initial area of the airport didn't help. But fortunately this time I did not encounter any horrible lines like I had during my flight to Flores. Once I got through security, I visited all the airport shops because I hadn't bought a single souvenir yet. I'm always great at power airport shopping and this was no exception.
I also found a store where I could buy some cheap headphones; I needed to buy a pair so I could listen to music, since I'd lost my good ones earlier on the trip. I brightened for a moment when I saw a Hello Kitty section in the store, only to discover to my disappointment that there were no headphones among the items on display. I ended up buying pink ones, since they also didn't have any that were purple. They proved to be rather uncomfortable... but at least I could listen to music again.
At the gate, bags were subject to a secondary inspection even though I'd obviously already been through security. I later decided that I wanted to get something to drink but I didn't want to deal with them poking around my bags again, so I just stayed where I was.
I was glad to get on the plane because it was nice and cold; even the air conditioned section of the airport had been a bit on the warm side that day. The flight was pretty quick- 2.5 hours. I had a chicken hot pocket which was actually pretty decent.
Panama City was lit up brightly when we landed after 7pm local time. One of the nicest things about Panama is that their currency is in US Dollars. Well, technically they have the Balboa... but it's equivalent to the dollar and all the paper currency is in dollars. So it's super easy as a tourist. Anyway, I picked up some more $ at an airport ATM.
After retrieving my luggage, I made my way to the clearly marked taxi stand. I had actually tried to arrange with my hotel to have a car waiting for me, but all my efforts at emailing them (including contacting them through TripAdvisor) had been fruitless and I didn't want to call. Fortunately, taxis were easy. I ended up sharing one with a guy who I'd overheard complaining about the price going up from a couple weeks earlier, but he seemed nice enough. They gave me a bit of a discount, but not really that much.
It was hard to get much of a sense of the city since I'd arrived after dark. Once I got to my hotel (#1 on TripAdvisor at the time), I seem to recall waiting by the small front desk for awhile without anyone even acknowledging me. But eventually they checked me in. They saw me having 2 reservations even though I'd canceled one to get a lower rate, which was a little annoying. But fortunately they sorted it out such that I was only charged for one room.
I'd read in many reviews that the hotel offers glasses of champagne when you check in, and honestly that was something I'd looked forward to. I'm pretty sure I didn't get my glass right away. But at least I eventually had some bubbly, and it was most welcome.
My room was cozy and modern, with a view that I would later discover extended to the Pacific ocean. I also found 2 plates of artistically presented tiny desserts on a table. Some of these were quite tasty, while I passed on others.
I wandered around the hotel a bit, taking in the outdoor pool on the 12th floor. I got slightly lost in the fitness center trying to find it but an employee showed me the way. The deck had a great view of the modern city lit up at night. After my week in Guatemala, I wasn't used to seeing skyscrapers! There was also a hot tub, but I never used it because Panama City was way too hot for it to be appealing, even at night.
I don't recall eating a proper dinner beyond what was served on the airplane; I think the tiny desserts were enough to satisfy me. It's a little frustrating arriving in a new city at night when it's too late to explore since I'm not a nightlife kind of person especially when traveling solo. It was also a bit weird to find myself in a traditional hotel after having just stayed in 2 dramatically scenic environments. But I looked forward to waking up the next morning and venturing out into the city.
I woke up at around 8 am feeling like I'd slept forever. I probably (still) needed the rest, and even though it was relatively late in comparison to some other days, it was still quite a reasonable hour to be awakening. I looked out the window and was greeted with a lovely view of high rise buildings that extended toward the Pacific Ocean.
Since I didn't have anything specific planned, I took my time getting ready. While doing so, I noticed a few things that seemed to be curiously missing from my sleek, modern hotel room. Most notably, the shower lacked both a towel rack as well as any kind of surface that would be conducive to holding a bar of soap (ie a shelf or soap dish). Also, there was no full length mirror to be found. None of these details ruined the room for me; it's just that it seemed odd that they were overlooked.
After talking to the front desk the evening before and reviewing several brochures that they gave me, I'd decided to spend my first day in Panama City riding the Hop-On Hop-Off bus which I figured would give me a good overview of the city. The one place I knew I wanted to stop and get off the bus was at Casco Viejo, the old quarter of Panama City. Beyond that, I was planning to see if any other areas interested me enough to explore.
On my way out of the hotel, I stopped at the front desk to ask for directions to walk to the closest stop for the bus. They recommended taking a taxi but, despite the heat, I really wanted go by foot so I could get a feel for the neighborhood; it didn't seem to be too far. (Google maps shows the location as being a mile away).
I also asked if they could confirm my upcoming Air Panama flights to and from Boca del Torres for me. When I'd made those reservations in February, I was able to log into the airline's website and see my reservation. However, at some point they redesigned their site and I was no longer able to log in or reset my password. Also, when trying to place a fake booking, it seemed like the departure time for my return flight time had been changed by quite a bit. So I figured it would be safest to double check- and if I was staying at a nice hotel, they could take care of that for me. Later that day, the hotel slipped a paper under my door with a print-out of my confirmation. I was surprised that it still showed the original time for my flight home, and not the time currently displayed online. (spoiler alert: I received an email 3 days later notifying me that the flight had indeed been changed from 8:15am to 10:10am; thank goodness I was able to check email! Small airlines in Latin America can be a bit of an adventure, but everything worked out fine.)
I stepped outside, eager to finally see some of Panama City. And I was immediately greeted by the heat and humidity which are typical of the city. I was a little nervous, because I feel vulnerable traveling solo in countries where I don't speak the language but I focused mainly on taking in all the buildings, people, and activity that I saw on my path. Notably, I was quite fascinated by a twisty looking skyscraper that I saw in the distance. I ended up taking a bit of a circuitous route, but it worked.
I arrived at the Mulicentro Mall and purchased a one day pass for the bus at the kiosk outside using a discount coupon my hotel had given me. Then I went inside in search of something to eat and was thrilled to discover a convenience store. It wasn't quite as happening as Japanese convenience stores and they obviously didn't stock any onigiri... but it was still a great place to grab a quick and cheap breakfast, which in this case happened to be a ham and cheese croissant.
I was surprised that the Hop-On Hop-Off buses ran much less frequently in Panama City than I'd seen in other cities. They only stopped once per hour, when it seems like other cities had them running 2-3 times an hour which was much more conducive to making a spontaneous stop. I'd been a little nervous that I'd miss the bus while I was buying breakfast but fortunately one came pulled up right after I came back outside, at around 10:30am. If I'd missed one, it would have been a really long hour to wait for the next.
I munched on my food as I rode on the upper deck of the red double-decker bus. The route took us down Avenue Balboa, the main thoroughfare along the water, and then past Ancon Hill and Albrook Mall, which was across from the domestic airport where I'd be flying in a couple days. All the while, the narration on the headphones provided an overview of the city. When the bus stopped at the Panama Canal Miraflores Locks, I couldn't resist getting off- even though I'd be visiting another set of canal locks the next day; I was really excited to see the canal.
Unfortunately, my visit to Miraflores left me disappointed. I was quickly whisked into a room for a 3D movie since the English language version was just about to start. It wasn't anything great, but at least I didn't have to wait. The museum itself seemed to be undergoing renovations; I'm not sure what I missed but it wasn't too thrilling, either. Most disappointingly, there were no ships passing through the locks at the time of my visit. I probably should have researched the times when ships generally transit through these locks, but then again, I hadn't even planned on stopping there. It was still kinda cool to see the idle locks, but I felt rather underwhelmed. Overall, I hoped that I'd have a better experience the next day at Gatun Locks.
An hour after getting dropped off, I boarded another bus to continue the route. As I was getting ready to snap a photo of a McDonald's that we'd passed on the way over, I noticed that there were a number of emergency vehicles in the parking lot as well as smoke coming from the roof. It was definitely more exciting than the typical McDonald's pictures with which I'd been torturing the nieces! That McDonald's fire quickly became legend in the world of in-jokes we share.
I enjoyed the ride on the narrow Amador Causeway, which passed by the colorful modern Biomuseo building and which provided great views of the Panama skyline and waters. Eventually, we rode on a highway that essentially formed a semi-circle looping into the water surrounding the Casco Viejo region. I'd seen this road when landing the previous night, but hadn't realized that it encircled the historic area.
I disembarked again at Casco Viejo at around 12:30- and had a much better time than at the Canal. This area was a paradise for someone like me who enjoys walking around and taking photos. Like Antigua, it was full of cobblestone streets and charming buildings (although it seemed less built up). There were also a number of colorful murals and details which caught my eye. As I wandered, I came across several cats whose photos I happily snapped; I can never see too many felines in my travels.
I'm not sure if the day I went was typical (for any day or even for a Sunday), but the old city was teeming with energy. I'd often turn a corner and hear music beckoning me to come closer. There were a lot of people out enjoying themselves, including some who donned traditional costumes. At one point, I glanced around and was excited to see an amateur baseball game being played on a makeshift field of dirt. I stood at a fence for a bit to watch for a bit.
After a couple hours, I was ready to take the bus back to the mall- I didn't think I wanted to stay another full hour especially since it was starting to drizzle. I was a little confused about where to wait, and the policeman I asked wasn't very helpful. I was happy when I spotted other people who were also waiting for the same bus. It wasn't long before I caught sight of the familiar red double decker.
I completed the bus tour loop and disembarked back at the Multicentro mall. I planned to linger inside so I could enjoy some A/C. I was happy to find a Smoothie stall in the mall's food court. I ordered a Pink Vanilla smoothie, partly because I liked the name. It was a refreshing mix of frozen raspberry and banana- perfect after spending a couple hours outside in the heat and humidity!
While exploring the mall, I literally laughed out loud when I came across the most random item- Cupcake Liner Chicken Feet... which were cupcake liners with chicken feet. Because I am sure people have totally been wishing that they could serve cupcakes with chicken feet attached? If the price had been cheaper than $5.50, I totally would have bought one as a gag gift for the nieces because it was so freaking hysterical in its ridiculousness.
I was a little tired, but I felt refreshed from my time inside the mall so I decided to walk back to my hotel. On the way, I ducked into another mall that I passed to enjoy some more A/C. I also came across a random little grocery store, where I was delighted to find Coke Light. While there, I couldn't resist purchasing cupcakes that were in a cute package decorated with cartoon birds (which was a bit of a contrast to the brand name of Pinginos, which means penguins). These were to be the only cupcakes I found in Panama... and they were completely disappointing. I couldn't even finish one of them when I eventually opened the package.
Once I returned to my hotel room, I was practically ready to pass out! Although the temperature hadn't been as horrible as when I'd checked the weather in previous weeks and although the clouds prevented the sun from scorching, it was nonetheless much more hot and humid than it had been in Guatemala. Plus, I'd done a fair amount of walking. (my phone says that I walked 10 miles over the course of the day)
After relaxing a bit, I was ready for some dinner so I walked about a block to find the sushi restaurant that I'd located on Google maps. It and turned out be a cute little place. I was handed an English language menu but I was informed that its prices weren't current so they gave me the Spanish one as well. In addition to the crispy appetizer that they gave me (not sure what it was; it seemed like crispy straws), I ordered gyoza as a prelude to a couple of sushi rolls: I felt that it would be fitting to enjoy my staple of a Philadelphia Roll (salmon and cream cheese) alongside a Panama Roll (shrimp tempura, avocado and cream cheese rolled up in rice and plantain). I enjoyed my meal but after awhile I couldn't stomach any more plantain so I had to eat around it. I found it interesting that the TVs were broadcasting Major League Baseball in Spanish. All in all, it was a very international meal! The restaurant seemed a little pricey by Panama standards, but I was very glad to be able to eat some sushi so it was worth it.
When I returned to my hotel room, I saw another tray with mini desserts on the desk- this time they were tiny bowls of chocolate mousse which I definitely enjoyed. I relaxed some more before calling it another early night. All in all, it had been an excellent day.
I woke up excited to be taking a Panama Canal and Jungle tour that I'd booked because it was well reviewed on Tripadvisor. It amused me that the tour description mentioned a 7am pickup time as being sooo early for vacation. Ha! It was obviously relatively late compared to some of my days in Guatemala. Even though I'm a night owl, I am good at motivating myself to get up early on vacation to see as much as possible. So the 7am time was never a deterrent.
The van pulled up to the hotel around the appointed time. I try to only book guided tours if they are small groups, with stellar reviews that make it clear that I won't be herded around from stop to stop. I think there were 8 other people in my group, and it seemed to be a good size. The guide was excellent- enthusiastic and informative. So basically- spoiler alert- the day was as interesting and fun as I'd hoped.
Our first stop was to take a boat ride through Gatun Lake, which is part of the canal. But on the way, our guide spotted a sloth in a tree and so we stopped to take a look. Admittedly, this was nowhere near as cool as his story of having stopped the previous week to rescue a sloth that had wandered into the road. But still, I'd really wanted to see sloths during this trip- and now I'd seen one! And before the official tour had even started.
The first part of the boat ride took us to Monkey Island where we held food in our fingers and watched the adorable monkeys come into the boat to eat. (no memory cards were harmed) But my absolute favorite part was when the tour guide scooped a tiny baby crocodile out of the water and passed it around for us to hold. That little guy was so adorable and squirmy! Apparently, baby crocodiles have a very low survival rate; obviously, once they grow up, they have better odds as they are large enough to be predators instead of prey.
During the latter part of the boat ride, we had a close up view of some of the large freighters that were crossing the canal. That was an interesting perspective, and it was nice to just relax and enjoy the scenery as we cruised on the lake. All in all, we were out on the boat for a little under 2 hours.
We headed by van to our next stop, San Lorenzo National Park; this involved crossing a body of water in a car ferry. At the park, we were able to see some another sloth which was cool. But the highlight was Fort San Lorenzo, a UNESCO sight which is apparently- and unfortunately- rather neglected. This abandoned ancient fort, built around the 1700's, is a very interesting and photogenic sight. Plus, it's located on a cliff with a dramatic view of the Caribbean. There weren't very many people there other than our group and it was a jewel of a place to explore. I really hadn't expected it to be so beautiful.
After being guided around the fort, we stopped to eat some lunch- sandwiches and chips, plus fresh pineapple juice. It was simple, but that's fine; I didn't choose the tour for its culinary offerings.
Our final stop of the day was the Panama Canal Gatun Locks. We arrived just in time to watch a large ship transit through one of the locks. After having learned a bit about the canal at Miraflores the previous day, it was amazing for me to see the canal's moving parts in action- including the "mules" which are small electric locomotives that guide the ship. I lingered watching longer than my fellow tour members because I was so in awe and so excited to finally have a chance to appreciate the amazing feat of engineering. On the way back to the van, I went inside one of the old mules that they have sitting outside. Yep, this was definitely the canal experienced I'd hoped for- way better than my time at Miraflores.
As we started to head back to the city, we passed by workers putting the final touches on the new locks which would allow larger ships to transit through the canal starting in June 2016. The new locks use some different technologies, and allow for more water conservation. Eventually, I'd like to return and see them in action- perhaps from the vantage point of a cruise ship.
Incidentally, I'd looked into the possibility of taking a day tour that cruised the canal during this trip. However, I'd been surprised to find out that such ships do not run every day. Also, there are 2 companies that run the transits (mostly partial transits; note- there are a lot of resellers but only 2 companies who provide the actual boat rides)- and the only one that offered a trip when I could possibly go was the one with more questionable ratings. After having read some descriptions of how crowded those boats are, I felt that I'd get more out of the small, more personal tour I ended up taking instead, especially as a solo traveler. I think I made the right decision for me.
Fun fact about Panama- it's the only location in the Americas where you can head East to reach the Pacific from the Atlantic because of the way the country is shaped. As we headed back to the hotel, the guide mentioned that some of my fellow tour members would be taking a tour with him the next day to an Embera Indian village. This is something that I'd really wanted to work into my itinerary but the 2 agencies I'd contacted which specialize in such trips were not able to schedule one. Well, one of them could theoretically have given me a private tour at double the price which was not acceptable to me. The guide thought he could get me to the airport in time for my late afternoon flight since I was departing from the domestic airport, but I had to check on the exact flight time. I got excited that I might be able to include a visit to an Embera village in my plans afterall... but after I emailed my flight info, it took so long to get a reply (not that I blame him; it's just that I needed to get ready for bed and make plans for the next morning) and he couldn't completely promise that I'd make my plane... so I ended up deciding to play things safe and not take the tour. I get really stressed when I'm running late to an airport (witness the flight from Dubai to the Maldives in December 2015...) so it was for the best that I not press things. Still, I was more than a little bummed.
I arrived back at my hotel room at around 4pm, and I was really disappointed that the bed sheets were still rumpled. Eventually a maid came to tidy up the room (while I was there), although she never left the bottled water that is usually provided. I also didn't receive the customary plate of desserts. On a more positive note, the hotel had no problem granting me a late checkout the next day.
I really had no motivation to go outside. It had been even hotter than the previous day. Having seen a flier that my hotel was offering Spaghetti Bolognese (aka my favorite travel meal) as one of this week's specials, I decided to eat there. I really enjoyed my dinner, including the bread that was served with a plate of balsamic vinaigrette for dipping.
After I ate, I reflected on my plans for the final night of my trip when I'd return to Panama City on my way home. I'd originally booked a modest Marriott Courtyard that was near the international airport. After spending a couple days in the city, I realized that this location was far from anywhere of much interest. So I decided to cancel that reservation and instead book a room at the Hilton which is right on Avenue Balboa, across from the ocean- a much more happening locale. I splurged a bit on an ocean view room because I wanted end my trip in style.
I went to sleep excitedly anticipating traveling the next day to my trip's final destination (not counting the return visit to Panama City): 4 nights at a bungalow in the jungle by Bocas del Toro. I'd planned my entire trip around this stay and it promised to be memorable and unique.
Since my flight to Bocas del Toro was in the afternoon and the hotel had granted me a late checkout, I decided not to set an alarm. I still woke up at a reasonable time, although I don't recall exactly what time that and I never noted it at the time. But I did write down that I'd dreamt about Hong Kong Disneyland debuting a new theme song which was called "Awake". Clearly, it was more important for me to preserve that WTF moment than it was to record actual facts that might help me to construct my travel blog.
At any rate, I meandered outside sometime around 9am to search for something that might pass for breakfast. I immediately felt assaulted by the heat and humidity and decided that it wouldn't be a bad idea to spend the early part of the day soaking up as much A/C (and Internet) as possible before spending 4 nights in a jungle lodge that would lack these amenities. But I still needed some food, and I didn't want to eat at the hotel.
Not having a destination or a plan, I just randomly walked down the streets in whatever direction seemed the most interesting. When I spotted a Dollar Store, I immediately perked up. You see, these kinds of stores are perfect for finding gag gifts for my teenage nieces- Julia and I had more fun than we should have when we raided the 100 yen stores in Japan in 2015. So I went inside and spent considerable time roaming around in search of the purchases which would elicit the most laughter. I was surprised to see so many random merchandise items decorated with US sports team logos, but was disappointed when I couldn't find any with the Phillies insignia. Eventually, I found a 76ers pacifier which I couldn't resist taking home with me... along with other treasures such as frog shaped candles, sunglasses with windshield wipers, and more. What can I say- we have a really warped sense of humor.
Once I’d stocked up on cheap gifts, I continued wandering and eventually came across a little grocery store. Perfect. I purchased cereal, cookies, and the obligatory Coke Light. I may have also bought a couple more things to add to my new stash of gag gifts...
I spent the rest of the morning ensconced in my hotel room engaging in such activities as reading, packing, and surfing the web. It may seem like a waste but it was really damn HOT out, and there wasn't anywhere in particular that I wanted to see in the city. I did, however, want to finish the book that I'd been engrossed in - a work of fiction that had given me some insight into Panama's history.
In the early afternoon, I went downstairs and had the front desk assist me in getting a cab to Albrook airport for my flight to Bocas del Toro. The airport was really small, with not much of interest going on. But at least it was close and the taxi fare wasn't bad. The weight limit for checked bags was really low so I had to pay extra, but I was prepared for that; I think it was only around $10 each way.
The plane ride itself took less than an hour- and yet, the airline still distributed snacks. Perhaps they could afford to pay for potato chips with the money they clearly weren't using to ensure that people could log into their website to view reservations. (see previous entry)
I'd been happy to be assigned a window seat, but when I boarded I soon realized that my view was obstructed by part of the wing which was above the level of the windows. As a result, I felt quite claustrophobic and boxed in. But for a quick flight, there was no need to make a fuss. As the plane drew closer to its destination, I still had a lovely (partial) view of green islands amid turquoise waters.
We landed at a tiny island airport; there were kids playing sports on a field that was practically adjacent to the runway. After collecting my luggage (there was no carousel, just an opening in the wall for bags to be slid under), I had to pay a $3 tourist tax. And somehow I immediately lost my receipt (or, more likely, I never picked it up)- go, me! But it all worked out and I went over to the somewhat scruffy man who was holding a sign with the name of my destination, "La Loma Jungle Lodge and Chocolate Farm" A young couple from my plane was also headed there; I soon found out that they were traveling from Germany although she was originally from the Ukraine.
We agreed to walk 3 blocks to the pier; the walk seemed a bit long rolling my luggage in the heat, but it was do-able. On the way, the man stopped in a grocery store for some provisions while we waited outside. And then I relaxed in the boat that was whisking me off to my retreat for the next 4 nights.
La Loma is completely different from any place I've ever stayed in my life. They only have 4 rooms (called "ranchos")- and each of these is directly connected to nature through since the walls are completely open. I would be staying in one of the 3 treetop rooms that were located higher up in the jungle with views of the water. (Yes, this meant more stairs.)
I'd discovered this place by virtue of a mutual friend's recommendation in response to another friend's Facebook query about Panama. Once I decided I was heading to Central America, I dug up the post and literally planned my trip around staying there. And it's a good thing I did, because they have strict rules governing guest stays: you can arrive on a Tuesday for 2 or 4 nights or you can arrive on a Thursday for 2 nights. Given the small size of the establishment and the fact that they want to be able to have days off to dedicate to the family and farm, it makes sense. My originally planned itinerary had me staying there on a Wednesday for 3 nights, so once they replied with the rules, I just bumped it up to arrive a day earlier. Communicating with the owners by email was super easy, and their friendliness definitely made me even more excited to stay at this unique property.
After we arrived at the dock, we were greeted warmly by one of the owners. The lodge is run by a man originally from the US and a woman who is originally from the UK; they also have a young son. There are various other people who work or help out there. And, to my delight, there was even a cat, a dilute calico named Minchi!
I was led to my cabin (#2), which was the closest one to the main building but which still required a decent walk up stairs. They showed me how to draw the tarps around the open-aired walls if it starts to rain, and how to light the mosquito coils to keep the bugs away. They also gave me a water bottle that I could refill throughout my stay in the main lodge. Obviously, given the open air, there was no A/C- but there was a fan above the beds (which were in a mosquito net) and it was surprisingly powerful. Although the room had electrical power for the lamps, there were no outlets; you could charge electronics in the main lodge which doubled as a dining room. I never had any problems with this policy- I don't even think I ever needed to use my portable charger. There was no wifi but I was pleasantly surprised to sometimes have a cell signal. However, the cell reception was iffy which resulted in some comical text conversations in which incoming messages weren't always delivered promptly to my phone.
The room itself was much more comfortable than you might expect from an open-aired jungle cabin. There were 2 beds, a couple of hammocks, a desk, various little decorative touches, and- most importantly- an amazing shower which had a floor artfully made of stones. And wow, the view was spectacular! Just sitting in my cabin listening to the sounds of the jungle and gazing out into the beautiful, green panorama was incredibly special.
But, as I was first left on my own in the cabin, I felt a slight sense of "what the hell did I get myself into", which is actually a healthy feeling because it allows you to grow. I looked at the mosquito coils and the lighter, which were as foreign to me as any items I'd ever seen in a hotel room. I eventually grew to like the incense smell of the coils... and I was never really bothered by bugs or mosquitoes. But initially, there was definitely some culture shock mixed into my amazement with the unique space.
I was looking forward to dinner, which was served at a single table for everyone staying there. The fact that the lodge was also a chocolate farm obviously boded well for desserts! In addition to the young couple I'd met at the airport, I met a family of 4 from the Netherlands as well as another young couple; the latter were only staying for 2 nights but the rest of us were staying for 4 nights. Everyone was really friendly, and it was great to talk with them and get to know them. However, for this initial meal, I was seated next to the 2 kids who didn't speak English that well... so it wasn't exactly ideal. (future meals worked out much better for me in that respect)
Served in a beautiful candlelight setting, the meal was delicious! We started with a curried pumpkin soup and then had a main course which was mackerel. Because I'd said I don't eat spicy foods, they would often leave garnishes on the side so I could choose whether or not they worked for me. Everyone's preferences were catered to in an incredibly devoted and personal way; it was never any trouble for the owners to modify a dish. The service was beyond amazing, and I felt like they considered the guests to (temporarily) be part of their extended family.
I went up to my room after dinner and enjoyed the feeling of solitude in the jungle. The sounds were completely foreign to my city girl sensibilities... but by the end of my stay, they grew to be familiar and comforting.
Since I'd gone to sleep early the night before and my treetop cabin was open to the outside, it shouldn't be surprising that I woke up pretty early; I was up and about before 8am. Each morning, homemade muffins were waiting for me on a shelf just outside my room as sort of a "pre-breakfast". Unfortunately, most were banana which I don't really like, but I was too polite to say anything.
On the way down to breakfast, I was excited to spot a tiny orange frog outside my room. It was one of the poison dart frogs which were common in the area- this was the only one I ended up seeing during my stay. Apparently they can be quite poisonous, literally living up to their name. Although I wasn't aware of this factoid at the time, I generally prefer not to touch any wildlife without proper supervision so I was never in any danger.
Everyone could come down to breakfast at whatever time they pleased from 8-11am, so the meal wasn't like dinner where everyone dined together. However, I usually saw some people down when I was eating. Each day, the owner would offer to cook something in addition to the foods out on the table- today it was eggs, so I had some scrambled eggs. One of my favorite treats from breakfast was having plain yogurt which I topped with a sprinkling of dark chocolate nubs from the farm, which added both flavor and texture.
Because it was a nice sunny day, our host recommended taking a full day excursion to Zapatillas Islands. When planning my time at the lodge, I'd researched the list of available excursions from La Loma's website and this was one that I'd been eyeing so I was glad to agree. The Dutch family also came along, while the 2 couples found other activities to pursue for the day.
So we set off by boat for a day of fun in the sun. The boat ride itself was really nice- lovely scenery and a pleasant breeze. After a short ride, we made our first stop to go snorkeling. Every time I've snorkeled in the past, I've had a bit of a panic attack at first before eventually getting used to it. This was one of the reasons I'd been reluctant to snorkel in the Maldives (although far from the only one). But I had a shiny new waterproof camera and I was tempted by the orange starfish that was clearly visible beneath the remarkably clear waters.
So I donned a life vest and snorkel mask/tube and clumsily made my way off the boat... and it was FUN! I had absolutely no anxiety as I swam to-and-fro and gazed at a world of starfish and coral. The problem I had was that at times the water seemed too shallow to comfortably swim through- but then I'd just swim over to another spot. It's really peaceful to descend under the water with a snorkel- it's like you've entered your own fantastical private world, at least for the moment. All in all, I stayed in the water for about a half hour.
Our next stop was to circle a tiny island which was inhabited by sloths. When the little 8 year old girl spotted the first one, everyone cheered her. The 2 children of the Dutch family were about the same ages my nieces had been when I first took them to Disney World, so it was fun for me to see their reactions. Their family travels a lot so they're already very well traveled at such young ages- what a great education!
Then it was time for another fun filled half hour of snorkeling. This time, I descended with no hesitation. I saw some different fish at this spot, and the coral was more interesting and colorful.
Finally, we headed to the highlight of the day: a 2 hour stop at Isla Bastimento National Marine Park, a tiny jewel of an island with pristine beaches. I only saw a few other people there, and they were never in our way. So it was essentially like having an island to ourselves.
By now, it was 1:30 and I was pretty hungry. I found a tree stump in the shade where I sat and unpacked the lunch bag that the lodge had so carefully prepared which included empanadas and plantain chips. It was really good- especially the chocolate cookie that was lightly sprinkled with sugar.
I was obviously compelled to walk around the island snapping photos; how could I not when in the midst of such dramatic beauty? The water was such a lovely shade of turquoise and so clear. It seemed even more gorgeous of a setting than the Maldives, since it seemed so unspoiled. There were no stores, or bars, or even restrooms. Just a pure paradise of a beach.
After I'd taken a number of photos, I started to feel really hot so I put the camera down and went for a refreshing dip in the water. Someone from the Dutch family pointed out that the other side of the island was a good spot to snorkel, so I got my 3rd snorkeling trip of the day in. There was a remarkable clarity in viewing the fish. However, it was really hard to see my camera's viewfinder (at all my snorkeling stops) due to the glare of the sun so I basically had to just blindly point it somewhere and hope that I was capturing what I wanted. I didn't really want to get out of the water because I was enjoying it so much.
Finally, it was time to head back from the hotel. On the way back, we stopped somewhere for a drink but they didn't have any diet soda or anything appealing to me so I just sat and relaxed. The most amusing thing was watching the 2 children figure try to dunk a pail into the sea water so they could then dump that water to flush a toilet.
Once back at the lodge, we were greeted warmly by our host. I decided to have a papaya passion fruit smoothie; however, it turned out that they were out of passion fruit. Only a minor problem in the jungle- they somehow got some off of a tree and had my smoothie ready for me later, at dinner time.
Meanwhile, after showering and coming down for dinner, I started not to feel well. The heat and sun really had really gotten to me, and I felt a bit headachy and possibly feverish. Also, the back of my upper legs had gotten burnt despite my best efforts to reapply sunscreen. Unfortunately, the sunburn would end up bothering me for the rest of my trip. It didn't ruin my time, but I'm certain I would have enjoyed myself more without that pain.
We were served a fish pie and polenta dish. The fish pie seemed a little spicy and, with how worn out I felt from the heat, I really didn't have an appetite for anything complicated. Without my having to ask, my hosts quickly offered me eggs and rice. I was in good enough spirits to quip to myself that "when life gives you sunburn, eat an omelet" (to understand the reference, you'd need to be familiar with the musical "Something Rotten")
When they brought out a dessert plate with a chocolate sampler that included a cup of warm chocolate with a dash of rum, I couldn't resist trying some even though I still felt under the weather. And then I miraculously started to feel a more like myself. This only goes to show that chocolate makes everything better.
After eating, I headed up to my cabin, took some Advil, applied some more aloe vera gel to my legs, and climbed into bed. I didn't even write anything down in my journal. I just closed my eyes and sunk into a deep sleep.
I felt much better after a long sleep. The back of my legs still ached from sunburn, but thankfully I no longer felt an overall sense of being sick and headachy. I mean, I didn't feel my best and I probably would have spent the day relaxing in A/C if that had been an option- but I felt well enough to function.
Naturally, the first thing I did when I woke up just before 8am was to gaze out at the gorgeous view of the jungle. This morning, I happened to see a monkey scampering along in the area in front of my cabin- way cool! Unfortunately, that was the only time I was able to see any unusual wildlife from my cabin. The Dutch family had a sloth living near their cabin and I was immensely jealous; it moved before they could let me come over and see it.
I took my time heading down to breakfast, where I again enjoyed a bowl of yogurt with a copious topping of chocolate nubs from the farm. Then I basically hung out in the main area where I adored Minchi the cat and then flopped into a hammock.
I hadn't wanted to do anything very strenuous that day, and I definitely wanted to avoid the sun, so the hosts suggested I take a tour of the chocolate farm along with the young couple that was leaving in the afternoon.
The tour lasted about an hour and a half, and included a very nice little walk through a part of the property I hadn't visited. Our guide pointed out colorful cacao pods and took us through the process of how these were used to create chocolate. A few people tried using grinding beans into a paste at the end of the tour; it was apparently hard to turn the grinder so I was ok just watching.
Part of the tour took us past a bunch of chickens who ran around after being let out of the coop. An unexpected highlight was when we saw a sloth at the bottom of a tree! Fascinating fact about sloths: once a week, they descend to the ground to poop- no one knows why, it's just the way it is Sloths are famous for being really slowly but let me tell you, that guy climbed back up the tree at quite a rapid speed after we disturbed him when he was doing his business!
After the tour, we were served lunch which consisted of cheese with onion and tumeric marmalade (so yummy!), lentils and some greens. There was also a pitcher of basil lemonade, which was interesting- not my favorite thing ever, but I was glad to have tried it. For dessert, there was a plate with the cookies that included the delicious chocolate cookie that had been part of my previous day's lunch. I thought the other couple on the tour were gifted with a tiny bag of chocolate nubs because they were leaving, but I could be mistaken; I never received such a parting gift myself.
I think it was after lunch (but it could have been earlier) when we heard a loud crashing sound. It turned out that a tree fell down near the cabin where the Dutch family was staying. Our host ran off to see what happened, and fortunately the tree fell at such an angle that no one got hurt. The cat, Michi, only moved for a minute or 2 from her favorite spot on the mat before curling back up.
My hosts suggested I go to the beach in the afternoon but NO. I was perfectly content to laze in my luxe cabin until dinner, listening to the sounds of the jungle. It felt a little weird for me to be spending so much time outdoors. I did the best I could with the flies and stuff. At one point, I screamed when I saw a tiny lizard on the table, which I immediately regretted bad because it caused him to dart away; he was actually kinda cute, but just caught me by surprise.
I started my dinner with a refreshing mix of passion fruit juice and club soda. The meal consisted of chilled cucumber and katuk (like a soup), chicken mole (I believe the sauce had chocolate in it; mine was less spicy) and a banana pineapple crumble for dessert. It was another delicious dinner which had me trying foods that I wouldn't normally have on my plate. It was also great to sit around the table and talk with everyone staying at the lodge and see how they'd enjoyed their days. There was a new guest in the cabin vacated by the young American couple- a man who had been at a conference somewhere nearby. Everyone there was well traveled and intelligent, so dinners were always very enjoyable.
This morning's pre-breakfast muffin delivery was glorious because it included a can of Diet Coke. When I'd checked in, they asked if I wanted coffee in the morning. I smiled and said no. They offered tea- which I might have agreed to if it hadn't been a million degrees and humid out. They suggested that some people have sodas, so I said that I'd love a Diet Coke. It took a couple days (mainly because you can't just walk to a grocery store from the jungle), but they made a special effort to make a diet soda happen for me, even though I would have been OK without it. This is just one example of the exemplary, personal service which truly made my stay special.
I woke up pretty early, and enjoyed spending some time in the room gazing out as the jungle came to life. After breakfast (which included scrambled eggs), I joined the Dutch family and the solo man (I think) on a very short boat ride to the Bahia Honda school which is attended by the local children, including the son of the couple who run the lodge. While we were visiting the classroom, the 12 year old Dutch son taught the classroom a few words in his native language, which was a really nice way of connecting with them. I envied the Dutch children and the amazing travel experiences they've been able to enjoy at such a young age.
I got distracted when I saw a cat sitting in the window. When some children noticed, they pointed at a box on the ground. No, I didn't want to see whatever was in the box- I wanted to adore the feline. But the kids were insistent so I looked inside- and found 3 adorable orange and white kittens! They were wee little things, only 2 weeks old, sitting on a baseball glove. I squeed over them appropriately. Too cute for words! I kept trying to get a good photo, but the light was not the best.
After spending some time in the classroom, we climbed up to the playground which had an amazing view. The kids at the school were much less disciplined than I'm used to, and we saw them running around a lot. The couple running the lodge talked about leaving to go somewhere else when their son gets older, so he can get a better education. They’ve built up the lodge and farm from their hearts, but I guess maybe they'll find another adventure in the future.
It was a short excursion, and we were back to the lodge somewhere around 11:30am. The Dutch family decided to go to the beach, and I headed out with the young German/Ukranian couple (and possibly the solo man whom I barely remember) on another adventure that would culminate with a visit to the bat caves. I didn't know much about them, other than that you need to wade in water once you get to the caves, but it seemed damn cool.
We set off in a boat which lacked an overhead canopy and left us directly exposed to the sun. Fearing additional burns, I covered my legs with a raincoat. The German man, who was also light skinned, covered his legs with a tablecloth from the lunch box; I did likewise on my way back. Because we were moving so slowly through the Bahia Honda creek, there wasn't even a breeze. Basically, it was so oppressive that I barely got much joy even when we spotted sloths. If I learned nothing else, it was that real jungle cruises are nothing like the ride in Disney World; the Disney Jungle Cruise took a lot of artistic license.
After about 45 minutes, we got off the boats and walked a bit to get to an area where we could eat lunch. Fortunately, it was under cover! Someone there was selling lemon soda, which was very refreshing. The German/Ukranian couple hadn't brought any money with them, so I was happy to treat them to a soda. He offered to pay me back, but I refused any money. I recalled the ice cream cone the Canadian stranger had purchased for me in Antigua, and was glad to be able to pay it forward. It was like the Circle of Sugar... or something.
I had hummus in my lunch, but everyone else had chipotle. I honestly don't even remember eating it, but there is a photo and I wrote it down so it obviously happened. However, I could never forget the chocolate brownie which was incredible. Clearly, I have my priorities right in recalling the dessert.
With food in our bellies, it was time to hike onward to the nearby bat caves. Before we entered, we were given hard hats and gloves to wear for safety. I also had a head lamp which I'd been using back at the lodge to get back to the room after dinner. It was a bit challenging for me to find my footing into the cave, since I'm a total klutz, but it wasn't too bad. Once I got inside, I found myself wading in ankle deep water. And the bats- oh yes, there were bats all around! I got a bit startled whenever one would start flying relatively near me- but I would have felt pretty much the same way if they were birds.
It got increasingly dark as we ventured further into the cave. I had no intention of going all the way inside, to where the water is chest high. Once we got in enough that I could no longer see the light coming from outside, I started to feel a bit claustrophobic and decided I'd had enough. So I walked back to the entrance to wait for the others. I actually really enjoyed having those quiet moments all to myself with my bat posse. Everyone else had a fabulous time, but I don't think I would have enjoyed so it worked out.
It was only 3 by the time I got back to the lodge, so I could have theoretically headed out to the beach. But I really couldn't move so I hung out in the main lodge to relax a bit and then headed up to my cabin. I wanted to take a shower, but I figured it was prudent to wait until the sun set because it was still so damn hot and humid. I managed to text a friend back home to ask about the weather forecast for my arrival home in a couple days. He said it was supposed to be cool. Given my current conditions and the fact that 80 degrees would seem cool, I asked for some clarification. I was told that the forecast was for a high of 60- which seemed legit freezing to me!
It was beginning to hit me that I'd be leaving the lodge soon. I wanted to be sure to remember the unique ambience I'd been enjoying and so I took a short video of the view from the cabin, along with the early evening sounds of the jungle.
Dinner started with a green papaya salad, and the main course was a super delicious fish curry made with red snapper. I'd never in a million years choose that entree from a menu, but it was fabulous. The meal was capped off with an Aztec inspired chocolate pudding- everyone's but mine had spices on top. This dessert was rich, warm and dense- a bit like a lava cake. It was the perfect finale to some wonderful meals... and if I'd been given a 2nd, I probably would have gobbled it down. All the meals around the candlelit table were amazing- full of culinary delights and wonderful conversations. I really loved this unique jewel of a lodge.
When I woke up, I realized that the sunburn on the back of my legs now sported a big honking blister. Lovely- except really not. As much as it kills me, it may not be the best idea for me to spend time in hot, sunny, beachy places. Unless I invest in a burkini (which at the time of this writing is apparently illegal in Cannes) I wouldn't miss going on the beach itself, but I adore the sun and the ocean.
Meanwhile, I tried to appreciate my waning time in the unique treehouse cabin. It was a really fabulous place to stay to feel like part of nature without sacrificing comfort (other than A/C- which would have been incompatible with the experience). It was a stretch for me to stay somewhere without A/C or wifi, and it's really not something I could see myself doing for a long stretch of time- but it was an experience that I will certainly treasure. I was going to miss the sounds and the serenity- as well as the amazing people who staffed the lodge and the charming Dutch family with whom I'd spent quite a bit of time. But I was essentially ready to move on- and definitely ready to be able to escape the heat and humidity.
I wasn't that hungry for breakfast and didn't think I had much time to linger, but I couldn't resist the offer of pancakes- as well as one last bowl of yogurt topped with chocolate nubs from the farm. My one regret was that the cat, Michi, whom I'd always seen at breakfast, was nowhere to be found so I couldn't say goodbye to her. I'd been nervous about the fact that the lodge required cash payments and had no ATM's around so I had taken out plenty of money- enough so that the excess after paying my bill lasted me over 2 months after I got home.
Someone fetched my luggage from the room and took it to the boat which soon whisked me away from my home for the past 4 nights. Any time I took a boat to or from the lodge, I tried to spot the treetop lodges from the water but they were designed so well to blend in with the environment that I found it impossible to see any of them.
Somehow, the guy taking me to the airport got the idea that I should take a taxi to the airport once we docked at Bocas Town. It was only a few blocks, and I'd walked it from the airport and I'd planned to take some photos en route to there. So he walked with me, and also helped make sure I found the right place to get in line to check in for my flight.
Once again, my window seat on the tiny plane was partially obstructed by landing gear and the bottom of the wing. I kept my DSLR around my neck so I could get some pictures of the azure waters of Bocas from the air. It was so beautiful out there.
After I landed at Albrook airport, I had to wait in a makeshift area for my luggage; I think they were renovating the airport, or at least it looked like it was under construction. I went outside to grab a taxi and got the most annoying cab driver ever (or so it seemed) who kept calling me "lady" which really grated on my nerves. He also charged me $20 which seemed like a lot, but what could I do?
I was happy when we pulled up to the Hilton- it was swanky and modern, and would be a comfortable spot to celebrate the last night of my epic trip. I went up to the lobby where a lady checked me in. I saw signs that the hotel had Barbie themed rooms; if I'd seen any available when I booked, I might have tried to reserve one (if it hadn't been too expensive) because I'm a total sucker for unique hotel rooms. But instead, I'd booked an oceanview room.
A bellhop led me to my room on the 24th floor... and kept trying to open the door, with no success. So we had to go back down to the desk to get a different room. I was seriously unimpressed. There weren't really any apologies made, and the situation was handled in a really offhanded way. But at least when I eventually got to the new room I was assigned, on the 26th floor, I was able to get in.
The hotel room was seriously amazing, and I was very pleased with my decision a few days earlier to change my booking to the Hilton. It was large and luxurious- with the most amazing, panoramic view of Panama Bay! I could clearly see Casco Antiguo, Amador Causeway and Ancon Hill among other sights. Of course, like any modern hotel, there was free wifi. And, aaaah, the air conditioning!
After getting settled, I went down to the pool area to take a look around and perhaps get something to eat. I couldn't seem to figure out how to get the attention of anyone at the restaurant so I decided to head out somewhere else. Where that "somewhere else" might be, I wasn't sure and didn't really have a plan. Fortunately, there was a tiny mall-like plaza a couple blocks away and it had a few restaurants. I decided on a little Italian place where I enjoyed a delicious plate of pasta Bolognese with bacon on top. I was so hungry by this point that I practically devoured my meal.
On the way back to the hotel, I found a convenience/grocery store and stocked up on a few snacks for the room. It was drizzling out so I stayed inside and relaxed for short while. But once it seemed to clear up, I decided to head out to take a walk by the waterfront on the Cinta Costera pedestrian area on the bay which I'd really been wanting to explore. It was hot out, but I enjoyed the energy of the area- there were many Panamanians outside exercising or simply enjoying their Saturday. The walkway was nicely decorated with greenery and the occasional sculpture, and it afforded great views of the city and the water.
I walked around for about an hour which isn't that long, but which was a decent amount considering the heat and humidity. After 4 nights in the jungle, it felt somewhat weird for me to be in the midst of a city. But I was glad I'd stopped overnight instead of going straight home so I could have a day to myself to get re-acclimated to civilization.
Craving a smoothie, I made my way to Multicentro mall which I'd visited on my earlier stop in the city. This time, I tried the Kiwi Nirvana smoothie which was made with frozen kiwi and banana. It wasn't my favorite mix of flavors, but it was different and I enjoyed it. However, I didn't enjoy the sounds of people popping tons of balloons while I sat in the food court. I think the balloons were remnants of a children's party that was over. But whatever the reason, it was seriously annoying.
I walked back to my hotel along Avenue Balboa. It was less than a mile, but I was a little nervous because it was after dark. Fortunately, the walk was pretty uneventful- other than seeing a colorfully decorated party bus that was blasting music. It was nicer out now that the sun had gone down.
Once back at my room, I tried to practice placing my camera so that I could take some long exposure shots of the view. This would have worked out much better if it hadn't been for the fact that the windows were kinda dirty. But it was fun trying, especially because I could see that there was some kind of event going on outside. When I put on TV and flipped through the channels, I found a Panamanian baseball game so I kept that on, though I didn't closely follow the action.
So just like that, I was on the threshold of completing another adventure. My sunburn still ached (and had developed a 2nd huge ass blister somehow) so I was pretty much ready to get away from the burning Panamanian sun. It had been an amazing couple of weeks, and I was grateful for my varied experiences, some of which had definitely stretched my comfort zone. It wasn't perfect and I regretted not having the energy to shop for family souvenirs in Panama. But I was very content with how everything had turned out.
My flight home was scheduled to leave at 7:40am, so I was back to getting up at a stupid early time. But it meant getting home at a reasonable hour, so it was all good. As I took the taxi way out to Tocumen airport, I was definitely glad I'd changed my reservation so that I wasn't staying in that area, even though it meant awakening earlier, since it was quite far from the center of town.
I was tired and my sunburn still bothered me so I didn't have the best time at the airport. I did manage to find a food court that was sorta hidden on a mezzanine type level where I bought a soft pretzel... mainly because the other options had longer lines and I had no patience.
I had to walk pretty far out to get to the gate, and then I had to wait in line for them to open access to the seating area. As someone walked by to check boarding passes, he mentioned that I wouldn't be able to bring my soda to the gate. You have GOT to be kidding me!?!? So I got out of line, gulped down the rest of my soda, and waited in line at a restroom that only had 4 stalls. Then I got back in line for the secondary security screening at the gate (I'd already been through the normal security- where they made me take off my plastic watch which had me WTF) which moved really slowly. I was so tired and just wanted to sit down... and it seemed a little ridiculous that you couldn't drink anything or use the restroom once you got to the gate without having to get back into the security line.
During the flight itself, I caught up on Amazing Race by watching 2 episodes and I listened the cast recording of Hamilton, which ended just before the announcement to turn off electronics during the descent. I made a bad choice for my inflight meal by choosing the eggs because I hadn't realized they had peppers in them and I don't really do peppers. But at least they included a ham strip that was halfway decent.
Once we landed, I was confronted with the longest line I've ever seen in an immigration hall. It was crazy! JFK airport had signs overhead with estimated wait time, but the numbers kept changing so they weren't very useful. My legs still bothered me, and I was still tired so it was definitely annoying. As soon as I got home, I finally applied for Global Entry so hopefully I will not have to experience a line such as that in the future, at least not in the US.
There is something seriously wrong when the temperature is around 80 degrees when I come home from a vacation in December... and around 50 when I return in May. I was chilly and a bit miserable, but I was definitely glad when I saw Megan and Brian! Many stories were shared on a car ride which started with an incredible amount of traffic, and eventually I treated them to an early dinner at Panera before I finally got home and snuggled with my furricanes. It would be a couple days more before my legs finally felt relief from the sunburn, so I was more relieved than sad to have my travels behind me.
My goal for this trip was to explore a new region, and try some experiences that were outside of my comfort zone. It was an overall success, only slightly marred by the loss of my noise canceling headphones and the sunburn that bothered me for my last several days of vacation.
Guatemala was truly amazing, and I'd love to someday return and see some other parts of this colorful country. Antigua was truly a delight- such a charming city to walk around. Flores was a bit warm, but the Mayan ruins were truly amazing! Lake Atitlan had such a dramatic beauty.
Panama was a little too hot and humid for my comfort but I am so thrilled to have had the privilege of visiting the Panama Canal in person. Panama City had some very vibrant districts that were a pleasure to wander, such as Casco Viejo and Cinta Costera. I was delighted to see sloths at several spots in Panama.
All of the places I stayed were wonderful, but La Loma was my most eagerly anticipated and it did not disappoint. I feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to spend 4 nights in a comfortable treetop lodge in the jungle, where I enjoyed some of the most incredible hospitality I've ever experienced. I wish I hadn't felt so miserable from my sunburn during most of my time there, but I still had an incredible time.
The resort where I stayed in Flores was also spectacular. I could really get used to having a hot tub in my hotel rooms, especially when they are in such a scenic environment. The staff there was phenomenal and it was another place that I would highly recommend.
Usually I travel with a group when venturing to destinations that stretch my comfort zone. It was pretty cool to be able to organize this trip on my own, even though there were parts I might have enjoyed more if others had been around. But all in all, I had an amazing time discovering a new part of the world... and maybe also discovering a little more about myself in the process.