P A N A M A   2 0 1 1

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          Given the frigid temperatures in New Mexico, we decided it was time to explore more of The Americas.  So, after spending a few weeks in Florida, we were ready for travel to Panama.  We based our stay in Panama City and from there traveled to other nearby areas.  Panama is a beautiful country and we thoroughly enjoyed our time there!  Prior to going to Panama, we arranged for some specific tours (described in detail below) through Rudy and Patty. (http://www.rudystours.com)  Rudy was our actual tour guide while Patty handled the “behind the scenes” activities of helping us select tours, booking the tours, coordinating the tour schedule, etc.  Both Rudy and Patty did a great job and we highly recommend them!  We had already arranged our accommodations while in Panama so we didn’t stay at their B&B or apartments but both got rave reviews from our fellow travelers. (http://www.pattyscasitas.com)  We hope you enjoy reading about our experience as much as we enjoyed our time in Panama.  We will return! 

Monday, 31 January:  This was basically a pre-travel day.   After a leisurely breakfast at our hotel outside the Florida Everglades, we drove to Miami International Airport arriving at about 12:00 noon.  We turned in our rental car.  After reconfirming our flight tomorrow, we headed to the Embassy Suites to enjoy a leisurely afternoon/evening before leaving for Panama.

Tuesday, 1 February:  We enjoyed a cooked-to-order breakfast (excellent) at the Embassy Suites and then took the hotel shuttle to the airport for our flight to Panama on Copa Airlines.  We flew in Business Class and enjoyed great service.  We began our flight with a cocktail (Ed tried the Flor de Cana rum; excellent!) with spicy, hot nuts.  Then, our next plate featured cheeses, ham & turkey as well as a green salad.  The main course was a chicken breast sandwich which we enjoyed with some great Chilean wine.  So, we thoroughly enjoyed our flight!

We landed at ~5:15PM and quickly passed through immigration and customs.  After exiting this area, we were met by Rudy, our guide (guia en espanol) and transfer agent for our six night stay in Panama City.  Rudy drove us from the airport into town in about 30 minutes while sharing information about the city.  We arrived at the Wyndham Veneto and checked into the Executive Floor.  We dropped our bags and went to the Executive Floor Lounge for complimentary beverages and snacks.  The snacks turned out to be fabulous fresh seafood sushi from the hotel’s Japanese restaurant.  Wow, what a treat!  Afterwards, we called it an evening and went back to our room to unpack and relax.

Wednesday, 2 February:  We began our first day of touring at 8:30AM.  Rudy picked us up and we began our explorations of Panama City along with two other couples, both of whom are from Canada.

Our first stop for the day was the historical ruins of the original late 16th century Panama City referred to as Panama Viejo (Old Panama).  This area was destroyed and looted in 1671 by the English pirate, Henry Morgan. The city was then moved to its present site and fortified. 

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A view of Panama Viejo
The walls of a convent
A statue of the Virgin Mary
which still remains in the convent
A huge cistern that the Nuns used to
collect rain water which they sold as
"Aqua Santa" (Holy Water) when fresh,
clean water wasn't available elsewhere.

[ T O P ]

Next Rudy drove us to the Miraflores Lock at the perfect time to see ships transitioning through the locks en route from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean.  We were able to watch as the water rose in the Miraflores Lock so that the ships in the locks could enter Miraflores Lake.  The Miraflores Lock is the first lock in the three-lock system of the Panama Canal which stretches approximately 50 miles across the continent. 

During the crossing, ships are lifted 85 feet in the three locks before returning to sea level.  The freshwater is maintained in the Canal since its interior zone crosses the Continental Divide and the freshwater pushes downward (in terms of altitude) against the encroaching salt water. The Canal loses ~ 27 million gallons of fresh water to the sea for each lock cycle descent. The necessary fresh water is stored in the lakes and rivers feeding into the canal. In the dry season (mid-December to May), the reservoirs are drained, but in the wet season (June to mid-December) so much rain falls on Panama that the reservoirs are refilled.

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Welcome to Miraflores Lock
The huge lock gates.  See the difference
in water levels...The upper lock
is full while water has not yet been
allowed to enter the lower lock
In the foreground, we see one lock
empty while the other lock holds a
a ship ready to be raised
Two electric cars affixed to a ship
are keeping it straight while the
ship's engines move it forward

The ship proceeds into the lock
(Note how much higher the ship in
back lock is in comparison)
The ship in the outer lock proceeds into
Miraflores Lake (look at how high it is in
comparison to the ship in the lock which
has not yet been raised to the Lake level)
The huge lock gates close
to contain the water that raises
the ship to the level of Miraflores Lake

[ T O P ]

While at the Miraflores Lock we visited the museum and then watched a 10 minute film about the Panama Canal.  The French were the first to attempt to build a canal across Panama beginning in 1880.  However by 1893 they abandoned their effort after losing about 22,000 lives (mostly to malaria and yellow fever) and running out of money.  Their  lack of understanding of the geology and hydrology in Panama doomed their engineering concept which was basically a sea level canal (i.e., without locks) similar to their successful building of the Suez Canal.  Also their lack of understanding of the causes of malaria and yellow fever caused too much loss of life.

The U.S. took over the efforts from the French in 1904 and successfully completed the Canal in 1913, two years ahead of schedule. The U.S. operated the Canal until 1979 and then under pressure from Panama, jointly operated it with Panama from 1979 to 1999. The U.S. turned the Canal over to the Panamanian government on Dec. 31, 1999.  Today the Canal earns about $5 million per day and accounts for 20% of the Panamanian GDP. (After the canal, banking and tourism top the list of sources of revenue in Panama.)  

Ships pay tolls depending on their size and their cargo. Small private yachts pay a couple of thousand dollars to traverse the canal while the huge container carriers and  multi-thousand passenger cruise ships can pay over $400,000 to use the canal. Today Panama is adding new locks which will increase capacity (i.e., the size of ships that can traverse the Canal) and conserve water by re-using it.

After our visit to Miraflores Lock, we next drove across Amador causeway which was created using the materials removed to form the canal.  From there we enjoyed great views back to the City. 

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A beautiful view of the
skyline of Panama City

We next proceeded to Casco Viejo, the old quarter of Panama City, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Buildings within the area must be restored to original specifications and the style of the area reminded us of the old sections of New Orleans.  Many buildings are wooden with porches and terraces.  Others are cement block which is plastered over and painted in bright colors.

Highlights of our visit included the Iglesia de San Jose.  It houses a golden altar originally used in a Catholic Church in Panama Viejo.  According to legend, when pirates attacked the first city, priests covered the altar with mud and dirt and disguised it as old wood so that it was not taken by the pirates.

We also enjoyed walking among the quaint streets.  We were surprised that we were able to walk outside the Palacio de las Garzas (Palace of the Herons) which serves as the Office of the President.  While passing by, we were able to see two herons immediately inside the compound.  Herons have been traditional members of the compound since 1922.

Casco Viejo has numerous shops with everything from crafts to clothing and, of course, Panana Hats.  It also has many restaurants and clubs.  It's a great place to visit on foot like we did - either during the day or at nighttime.  After enjoying lunch in small café in Casco Viejo, we next visited a former Dominican church and convent with the flat arch.  This arch was very long and built of bricks prior to the building of the Panama Canal. It is said that the fact that the arch stood for so long was proof that no major earthquakes occurred in Panama. This reinforced the concept of building a canal in Panama rather than in Nicaragua.  We returned to the hotel mid-afternoon after a very full and interesting day.

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The golden altar in the Iglesia de San Jose
A beautiful home in traditional style
Looking down one of the
 narrow streets in Casco Viejo
A plaza featuring a statue
of Simon Bolivar
A wooden building awaiting
refurbishment juts out into the street
The Office of Panama's President
(Palace of the Herons)
The beautiful Metropolitan Cathedral
A view down another typical street
The architecture in the area
is very ornate and beautiful
The famous "flat arch" of
the Dominican church and convent

[ T O P ]

Thursday, 3 February:  Rudy picked us up very early – 5:45AM – for a very full day of touring.  We began by taking the Panama Canal Railway from Panama City to Colon.  The railroad was built in 1855 to transport gold seekers from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean to continue on to the California goldfields by ship.  Prior to the train there was a trail. However many people on the trail were killed by natives and robbers. Later the train was vital to the building of the canal by transporting materials and supplies.

Today the train actually serves as a commuter train for individuals working in the free trade zone at Colon.  However, a tourist car with wide windows has been added to accommodate tourists who desire to travel along the length of the Canal.  Rudy dropped us off at the train station.  We (being a group of six – two Canadians we met the previous day and two Canadians just finishing their vacation) left at 7:15AM and arrived in Colon at 8:30AM (some 15 minutes late due to giving way on a spur to a freight train). 

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Riding the Panama Canal Railway
A view from the train of a ship
entering the Gaillard Cut a trench dug
through the Continental Divide
We're now alongside the ship
in the Gaillard Cut
Scenes of the tropical jungle
and water along the Canal
A view of the massive watershed
that feeds Gatun Lake and the Canal
A beautiful flower (shot while the
train was on the spur)
Another view of this diverse environment

[ T O P ]

Upon arrival at Colon, we were met by Rudy.  Colon is a port city on the Caribbean Sea.  While once very beautiful, the old city has fallen into disrepair.  However, the government of Panama is working on re-gentrification of the city with the goal of having it become similar to Casco Viejo in Panama City.  We headed to the ruins of the Fort of San Lorenzo.   Rudy drove quickly to reach a draw bridge before it was closed as a large ship was beginning to approach the staging area for entry into the Canal.

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The port of Colon
A huge ship staging its entry
into the Panama Canal
A typical mix of business
and housing in Colon

Along the road, Rudy spotted a large group of Howler Monkeys.  We all climbed out of the van and watched as the group moved about the trees eating.  They didn’t seem to be bothered by our group (we stayed pretty quiet so that probably helped).  Anyway, we had lots of fun taking photographs and observing the group via binoculars.

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A howler monkey watches our group
This fellow is curious too

We continued on our way and arrived at Fort San Lorenzo.  It was located on a high point at the end of a peninsula with great views of the ocean and the nearby Chagres River, the latter being what is was built to protect.  We walked among the old walls and were somewhat astonished by the freshwater well still located within the former fort.

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Approaching the Fort of San Lorenzo
The entry over the moat
The well preserved Fort walls
A room used for storage of munitions
(which also hosts a tree
growing through its stone walls)
A beautiful eagle sitting on the Fort remains
The mouth of the Chagres River
as seen from the Fort
Looking out to the Caribbean Sea
at the mouth of the Chagres River
Another view of the Caribbean Sea
(if you continued around toward the right,
you would eventually reach the Canal)

[ T O P ]

We returned back to Colon via the same road we used before.  However, this time we had to wait about 15 minutes as a huge ship, the maximum size allowed to enter the Canal, made it way to the entry-staging area.

Rudy immediately drove us to the Gatun Lock, the lock allowing access to the Panama Canal from the Atlantic Ocean.  We arrived in time to get into great position to watch the ship enter the lock.  It was amazing as Gatun Lock provided a totally different experience from Miraflores Lock.  We were able to actually look down to the lock and watch the electric trains guide the huge ship into the canal.  There was only about two feet of access between the ship and the canal wall on both sides.  Wow!  We learned that the ship had over 2,000 cargo holders on deck and another 2,000 plus in its hull.  The cost for it to use the Canal was in excess of $320,000.  Not bad considering a voyage around the South American cape would take approximately three months!

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Welcome to the Panama Canal
at the Caribbean (Atlantic) entrance
The gates at Gatun Locks
A huge cruise ship waiting to
exit into the Caribbean
A ship entering into the Canal is
the largest size allowed
The electric cars help the ship
squeeze into the lock
You can now see the massive
size of this cargo ship
The electric cars continue to assist
the ship transit into the lock  (Note:
There's a man on the ship's deck at the
base of the mast who appears to be tiny)
In front, the cargo ship is in place to be
raised; in back, the cruise liner, traveling in
the opposite direction, is in place to be lowered
The nose of the ship as the lock gates open
The huge ship exiting the lock
as it proceeds into Gatun Lake

[ T O P ]

While at Gatun Lock, we learned that all ships must take on a Panamanian pilot who is experienced with traversing the Canal.  That pilot, being assisted by the ship’s captain, takes over command of the ship and steers it through the Canal.  In addition to the huge cargo ship, we also watched a monstrous cruise ship go through the locks in the opposite direction.  We didn’t realize the true size of either vessel until each passed immediately before us and we saw how tiny we were in comparison.

We next headed through Colon and along the coast toward Portobelo.  En route, we stopped at a small, seaside café for a seafood lunch.  Unfortunately, it turned out to be a very long stop as the chef wanted to make fresh coconut rice for our group.  Everyone enjoyed a great meal but we didn’t leave until approximately 4:45PM.

It took another 15-20 minutes to reach Portobelo.  En route, we saw some of the devastation created by mudslides following severe rains in December.   Once in the small village of Portobelo, we parked near by the town plaza.  From there, we walked first to the remains of the Custom House.  It was here that the Spaniards levied taxes on all goods leaving or entering Panama.  Also, it was the place where the treasures the Spaniards took from Peru were held until transfer back to Spain.  Its presence was the key reason for building two forts to protect the harbor – one on the Portobelo side and the other across the waterway.  Next we walked on to visit to the Fort.  Interestingly, it was constructed primarily from quarried coral.  In the interior courtyard of the Fort, the local children were enjoying a great game of softball. 

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A home totally destroyed by a
mud slide which occurred
following torrential rains in December
Dugout canoes tied up by
the lower walls of the Fort
The Fort of Portobelo
Looking down to the Customs
House from the Fort of Portobelo
Lindy and Rudy by remains of a Fort tower
As seen from the Fort, a sailing ship
 which was wrecked in the harbor
during the December storms

We also walked to see a former church which now houses costumes used in conjunction with celebrations honoring San Felipe de Neri, the town’s patron saint.  Lastly, we visited the town’s current Catholic Church.  The most important relic in the church is a hand-carved mahogany statute of Jesus which, due to the color of the wood, the color of some oils used to protect it and some weathering, had turned quite black.  The statute was being transported in the hold of a sailing ship when the ship was struck by a storm and sank.  The statute floated out of the hold and right into the harbor of Portobelo.  The majority of the residents were black (former slaves) and they saw this as a miracle.  They had always been told that Jesus was white but here was a black statute of Jesus.  They called it “Their Jesus.”  Every year the town residents remove the statute from the Church and march it through the town with great fan fare and celebration.   

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The town's original church
The famous Black Christ
A closer view of this beautiful statute

[ T O P ]

At 5:45PM we began our trek back to Panama City along the same coastal road.  However, we did not go all the way back to Colon but instead took a toll road back to the city.  The toll road wasn’t too crowded but once it ended, we were in full-scale traffic.  Rudy did an amazing job of finding shortcuts and back roads wherever possible.  We dropped off one couple who were renting an apartment (through Rudy) very close to the wonderful Casco Viejo.  Then, we dropped off another couple in another hotel district and Rudy got us to the Veneto at 7:35PM.  We were fine but what a long day for Rudy between driving & guiding! 

We immediately went to the Executive Lounge to enjoy happy hour and a great chicken dish (chicken is the number one meat in Panama) until 8:00PM.  Then, it was time to relax and savor another great day.

Friday, 4 February:  We enjoyed a leisurely day with no touring.  After a late breakfast, we walked around our local neighborhood.  At the end of our explorations, we stopped in a local supermarket to purchase some rum to take to a good friend.  We spent the balance of the day catching up on business items, reviewing photographs, etc.  Of course, we enjoyed another great evening of Tanqueray & tonic, fine Chilean wines and great food in the Executive Lounge.

Saturday, 5 February:  Rudy picked us up at 8:30AM and we then picked up a young couple from Mexico as well as a man from Canada.  Then we headed north to visit one of the villages of the Embera Indians.

At about 10:00AM we reached a river which was our pick-up spot.  Then, two Emberas (wearing traditional clothing) arrived in a motorized dugout canoe.  We all settled into the canoe and we headed out to the village.  The scenery en route was very beautiful.  We also saw two Spider monkeys.

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Traversing the waters in
our dugout canoe

The beautiful setting
An Embera Indian at the front
of the dugout wearing traditional garb
(Note the intricate beadwork of his loin cloth)
A large lake from which the Embera
dug a water canal to reach their village
A spider monkey hiding in the trees
A group of five Comorants sunning on a branch

We arrived at the village in approximately 30 minutes.  It was beautiful to see the thatched buildings and houses with thatched roofs that are built on stilts.  We were greeted by the villagers about 25 in all representing several families. Again, everyone was wearing traditional garb.  Also, all individuals were decorated with some type of body art created from a natural dye that lasts approximately two weeks.  Rudy said the dye also acts as an insect repellent.  The body art varied from simple lines to intricate drawings.

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A view as we approach the
village via our dugout
Another view of additional
buildings on higher ground
We're greeted by this beautiful
girl with equally beautiful
geometric body art and
traditional clothing
Another girl wearing
traditional fresh flowers
in her hair
The village medicine man and his wife;
his wife is holding a beautiful
basket that she wove
A mother with her two children
Another mom with her daughter;
the mom is weaving a basket
A young girl beginning to
learn the art of weaving
A baby asleep in its hammock

Our group than began a tour of the village and its surroundings.  Our host was the tribe’s medicine man who uses plants to treat illnesses and/or ailments of the villagers.  He showed us many of these plants.  Also, Rudy brought with him two nets for soccer goals to replace old nets that were on a small soccer field used by the children.  The kids were so excited!  Near the soccer field, construction was just beginning on a new school to be used by the children.

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A cacao seed pod
Coffee beans
The medicine man with a
traditional mortar & pestle
made from wood.  It is
used, among other things,
to grind rice
A view from the upper reached
of the village
The medicine man cleaning
a manioc root, a staple food supply
This flower is known as "hot lips"
(can you guess why?)

[ T O P ]

After our tour, Rudy gave the medicine man a shopping bag we had filled with Granny Smith apples.  The medicine man then called out to the children who lined up in a queue.  He gave them each a half of an apple.  We watched to see their reaction since Granny Smith apples are not native and these children had never eaten one.  To our delight, the kids seemed to really enjoy them.  Also, a few of the adults got a taste too and they seemed to savor the refreshing quality of the apples. 

As the children finished the apples, we enjoyed a delicious lunch of tilapia and rice.  The rice had been rolled into leaves and then steamed without any spices.  Fresh lemon (with a green rind and orange flesh) accompanied the food and it was great on everything.  All and all, an excellent meal!  Afterwards, we all did a bit of shopping as the Embera men are excellent wood carvers and the Embera women are amazing basket weavers.  We purchased one carving (a hummingbird made from Cocobolo wood), three baskets and a decorative bird made from a squash.  Each item was unique and very beautiful.

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Our delicious feast!

We ended our time with the Emberas by watching the women dance while a group of men played various flutes, drums, maracas and a turtle shell used as a percussion instrument.  Then, some of the children who were dancing grabbed our hands so that we could dance with the group – this time being a group of both males and females.  It made for great fun!

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A group of female dancers
(The lead dancer with the drum
is a real beauty!)
More dancing
This shot highlights the colorful
clothing worn by the women & girls
The tribe muscians (on the left, with the
flute is the Chief; the medicine man
(center) is playing a turtle shell
More dancers with the two
females in front displaying
beautiful body art
Lindy with a young boy
who asked her to dance
A group shot before our departure
This sloth was in a tree when
we returned back to our pickup point

[ T O P ]

When we left the Embera Village, several of the natives, including the chief and his wife, joined us for the ride back to our original put-in place.  There we saw a sloth in a tree above us and got some good photos.  Then, the chief and his wife (after changing into jeans and shirts) joined us “turistas” in Rudy’s van and Rudy took them to a place to get some repair parts for an outboard motor.  En route, Rudy asked the chief various questions about tribal life and he shared the information with us.  Interestingly, the chief is elected by all the tribe members, including any child greater than the age of 12.  He serves as long as he is able to achieve good relationships among the tribe members, prosperity for the tribe, etc.  The current chief had served for four years thus far and is thinking of stepping down after five.

After dropping off the chief, we returned to Panama City.  The traffic was very heavy as most individuals work only a half-day on Saturday and many were headed out of town.  Because of our route back to town, we were the first to be dropped off near our hotel.  We were a bit sad to say goodbye to Rudy after enjoying three wonderful days of touring together.  We truly appreciate the enthusiasm that Rudy shares about Panama and his knowledge of the history, peoples and customs. He is truly a Super Guide!

Sunday, 6 February (Super Bowl Sunday):  Since this was our final day in Panama City, we decided to do some more explorations of our area.  We began by walking to the nearby La Senora del Carmen Cathedral (Lady of Mt. Carmen Church).  It was very beautiful! Then, we wandered up and down the streets in the area.  Surprisingly, no one was out and about.  We were able to take photographs of a few of the “red devils”  - the beautifully decorated buses that run throughout the city.  However, even their numbers were down as ridership was low.  Even though our hotel was primarily in a business area, there are apartments and/or condos scattered among the many buildings.  Based on outgoing traffic we saw on Saturday when we were returning to the City, we guessed many individuals had left the City to enjoy the beaches and/or countryside.

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A view of the skyline from our hotel
Another view of the skyline with an
unusual "twisted" skyscraper being built
La Senora del Carmen Cathedral
A beautiful "red devil" with an occupant (cell
phone in hand) in the doorway.  Most buses
leave their doors open for air circulation
Another beautiful bus, again door open

[ T O P ]

After returning back to the hotel, we spent the balance of the day preparing to return home.  Then, of course, we went to the lounge to enjoy our final night of beverages and snacks.  To our surprise, we were the only ones there.  When Lindy asked the hostess why, she explained that everyone was watching the Super Bowl in the casino so that they could continue betting on the game.  Oh well!  So, we enjoyed a private lounge and enjoyed the game.  Afterwards, it was time for bed as we had an early pickup for our flight back to the US.

Monday, 7 February:  Alex, an associate of Rudy’s, picked us up at the hotel at 7:00AM and drove us to the airport.  Since there was no traffic in our direction, it was a quick ride.  We checked-in at the Copa counter and quickly passed through security and immigration.  Our flight departed on time and we enjoyed breakfast en route back to Miami.  After arrival there and clearing US immigration and customs, we returned to the Embassy Suites for the evening.

Tuesday, 8 February:  We once again enjoyed a great breakfast at the Embassy Suites.  Then, we returned to the airport to catch our flight to Dallas.  We upgraded to first class so we were able to enjoy cocktails, a delicious lunch accompanied by wines and some great coffee too.  Our Miami flight ran late into DFW so we had to run to make our connection to Albuquerque.  It was a quick and uneventful flight.

Upon arrival at Albuquerque, it was very cold.  We picked up our car and headed up the canyon.  We arrived home at 4:30PM.  Thankfully, the snow didn’t block our gate so we were able to get the car into the garage.  Outside it was about 20 degrees and the temperature was falling. By morning it dropped to 1 degree! Inside the house it was about 40 degrees (the temperature we set the electric heaters to when we’re gone).   So, we quickly started the pellet stove and turned the heaters up and dreamed of sunny Panama.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Again, we had a wonderful time visiting Panama City and its surroundings.  We think it’s a great vacation spot with lots to offer in terms of culture, natural beauty, beaches, etc.  We hope you’ll visit soon and when you do, remember to contact Rudy and Patty in advance for some great touring and hospitality!  (http://www.rudystours.com; http://www.pattyscasitas.com

[ T O P ]