Thursday, October 2nd, 2008

Taking a much needed vacation to Panama with my mom and my dive buddy ,  Bobbi Walton last month was fantastic. What a fabulous time we had. Everyone should travel globally to understand and appreciate our lives & the blessings that we have in in America.

Caribbean Jimmy’s ( www.caribbeanjimmys.com) is in the Costa Arriba area – East of Colon , in Nombre De Dios is my favorite place to dive on the Caribbean side… about 2 1/2 hours from Panama City . Jimmy is a 51 year old ex-pat from Alabama ( his relatives all live to be 100 + so expect him to be around for a while! ) , from the entertaining business , been diving since was 6 years old and has been in Panama over 12 years now. He married a beautiful women -Leti from El Salvador who manages the resort , while Jimmy is your entertainment & guide for fun in the wild !

Jimmy, a truly precious man , is a cross between Crocodile Dundee, Indiana Jones and James Bond …he cares about the local culture , is a straight shooter, honest person that gives back to society ,and he will challenge people when they are breaking rules and hurting others.

Diving at Jimmy’s is an experience you will never forget -imagine no other boats , no other divers and abundant marine life and virgin reefs. The fresh catch can be lobster , crab or fish or they will make you a steak! I usually bring additional veggies , olive oil ,herbal teas and hot sauce but they will accommodate your dietary needs as much as possible .

Staying in the simple huts on beach are my favorite -he is building a 14 room hotel too. No phones or internet here only bright stars at night . A new deep pool perfect for dive lessons or washing off the salt was just completed ;and he now has a zoo license so he can take care of injured animals and birds. The monkeys, guinea hens and kittens become part of your vacation family .

Diving is relaxed & fun , starting with a back roll off the boat . Eric another AL guy, is now working with Jimmy & caters to your every need ( like handing up your BCD before you get up on the boat ladder- I am definitely spoiled now) There currently no rinse tanks for cameras but I am sure they would set something up if you brought one. Both Jimmy & Eric care about safety first( they have Dan emergency kits on board) , then fun.

We saw an 8ft bull shark , hawkbill turtles, moray eels, schools of blue tang, sargent majors, black durgeons, angels(butterfly, french ,gray ) huge hogfish , groupers, squid, parrot fish ,trumpet fish,rock beauty , drums and of course many lobsters & crabs ( Jimmy will not take any female, small or pregnant ones) and some dolphins . If you don’t dive there is a reef off shore so you can snorkel from shore or use a kayak . The water is perfectly flat from August through October -perfect during the hurricane prone other parts of the Caribbean ( note: Panama has never had a hurricane!) There are also jungle hikes or horseback riding but no other places to “hang out” as this is a remote spot or a day trip to the San Blas Islands .

Please bring your insect repellent and some oils to use( geranium, tea tree & coconut oil ) …there are many sand fleas & no-see ums all over the place at dusk & dawn and for a few days we all looked like we had chick-pox. We always rent a car ( Christine @ Thrifty speaks Engklish and offers wonderful internet rates- you will always need to spend an additional $12 .00 min daily for insurance no matter which CC you carry) and make the drive up so we can tour the country side …..the best place to eat along the way is the Coco Plum restaurant ( they speak Spansih but they do understand sign language and pointing! ) just before you get into Portebelo , a historic town that Columbus visited and has fallen into ruins with the locals who don’t seem to appreciate history . The fresh fruit smoothies and fish with garlic & plantains is fantastic and they make their own hot sauce.A new place Octopus Garden is down a few miles , haven’t tried it yet but there are more choices now.

All of us wanted to visit the canal . The history is fasinating and the boats and procedures are amazing . We saw a boat carrying 4,000 Mercedes & Volvos whose tariff was $245,000 ! The canal is 50 miles long and it takes a boat around 8 hours of transit time , although it can run up to 14 hours . We could hardly drag my mom away ….she should have been an engineer. The new and third canal channel is already under construction and slated to open in 2014. There is a frantic building pace now in the city . I have never seen it so torn up as they plan to expand waterfront apts/condos & shops and the renovations in “old town ” continue . The recession has not hit this area of the world. The Panamanians are so warm and friendly and willing to help , and they still like Americans!

Bobbi’s parents spent their time at the Gamboa Rainforest Resort , an upscale place on the upper canal with a spa and numerous activities. www.gamboaresort.com/507-314-9000

The mountains of El Valle beckoned to us and we found a beautiful new hotel , Los Mandarinos to stay for a couple of nights. It looked like a Tuscanny , Italy with a fabulous upscale restaurant-Casa de lourdes and a reasonably priced spa and fabulous mountian views. www.losmandarnos.com /507-983-6645 . Ann & Pete are your hosts and will take very good care of you. They are currently working on an authentic English pub to provide some evening entertainment . Because the mountains are damp , always take along your favorite air-freshner as there is always a hint of mold during the rainy season. My favorite is Mia Rose lime therapy.

We did not stay at the Crater Valley Spa Resort www.crater-valley.com /507-215-2330 where we originally had reservations because the mold was so strong. They were very gracious and actually recommended the Los Mandarinos to us. The grounds are beautifully manicured gardens with a spring fed pool . Most of these hotels and boutiques will keep the rooms closed up with air conditioners off until the guest arrives. Call first to have them air out the rooms or stay in newer and/or renovated places.

El Valle is located in a 5 mile wide extinct volcano crater . This picturesque & tranquil town has so much to offer for those who want to relax, hike , bird-watch, horseback ride, get a massage or shop for native handi-crafts.They even have a 6 tower canopy adventure over a beautiful waterfall. Our favorite casual restaurant was Brushetta , a new Italian/Panamanian eatery next door to the Pinocchios 507-983-6975 , a 14 year pizza place with the same owner. The grilled chicken with garlic & herbs & plantains ,the homemade soups , hot sauce and a fresh glass of passion fruit juice was my favorite.

After the mountains it was back to beach to my friend Karen’s house . The ex-head nurse of the canal and her husband Bill who was an ad measure person for the canal ( boat tariffs) were delightful hosts and we l0ved their casual beach front home in Gorgona. Black sand , sunshine & ocean waves with rain during the night . Lots of high rises are going in and the entire strip of beachfront is expanding with construction.

The city was fun too.I usually stay the night before flying and after at the Courtyard by Marriott w/ free internet & parking.They are adding 200 more rooms. It is connected to the Multiplaza Pacific Mall so you can stock up on anything you may have forgotten , enjoy a movie , shop for drinks & snacks at Riba Smith, my favorite grocery store with a great selection of natural foods, an elegant dinner at the Palamar was all over too quickly . In Casa Viejo, the Cafe de Aris, 507-262-9304 on 3 street/Calle is a must stop if you love authentic Panamanian food. The flan was fabulous and no caramel syrup, I like firm-cheese flan plain or w/fruit is the best !

Panama is STILL a third world country with first class fun , especially if you enjoy the outdoors. There is something for everyone.The are no emmissions controls so don’t get too close behind trucks or buses.

Panama is starting an interest in organic farming ( they can grow almost anything ) in the highlands and opening up more natural spa’s and integrative medicine selections.

Next time I want to dive on the Pacific Side …Jimmy’s friend Kei -currently the manager of the upscale & elegant Isla Secas Resort is starting diving & tours soon……look out for a 2009 trip !

Be sure to take a break , even a weekend during this beautiful fall season, it doesn’t have to be expensive …..but we all need a break from the ridiculous politics and the temporary woes of the economy . Stressful thoughts DO affect your health so get out and exercise and be thankful for the beauty around us and all that God has provided for you.

In continued health ,

Sally Byrd

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