Eight days in Panama; City, Beach, and Jungle

Old Jul 28th, 2010, 07:21 AM
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<b>July 12, 2010

Panama City to Isla Contadora</b>

When researching where to go outside of Panama City, I found myself overwhelmed with choice. We knew we wanted some beach time and the Bocas del Toro islands, San Blas Islands, Pacific Coast beaches, and the Pearl Islands all looked interesting. Ultimately it came down to cost, weather, and ease of access. I'd read that Bocas was very rainy in July and the airfare there was more expensive so, out. The San BlasIslands were "rustic" but did not come with a rustic price tag so, out. The Pacific cost beaches, specifically Santa Catalina were very appealing but a six hour drive to get there was not. Out. That left the Pearl Islands in the Bay of Panama on the Pacific side of the country. If you are a fan of the TV show Survivor you might recognize the name as a few of the shows were shot here.

Isla Contadora is a mile long and less than half as wide and is home to about 350 full time residents. There are two airlines which fly there; Aero Perlas and Air Panama. We were told by more than one person that Air Panama has a horrible reputation and is known for redirecting flights based on cargo, not passengers. Meaning, you might get on the plane, expecting to go to Panama City and end up making two other unscheduled stops on other islands before you get there. There used to be a ferry service from Panama City, but it's not currently running.

Flights to the Perlas depart from Albrook domestic airport, next to a large mall on the same road out to Miraflores Locks. The taxi cost us 12 dollars to get there from the hotel. At the airport they weigh your bags, both checked and carry-on, before you get on the plane. I've heard they were strict about luggage weight but we seemed to be ok, even though our roll-aboards might have been a pound or two over the 25 lb limit. The boarding passes are reusable hard plastic and we're told to go through security and wait in the waiting room.
It's raining on and off and I'm concerned we might not fly but here comes our little plane...

The planes are tiny and ours was an 18-seater, single propeller Cessna. David and I are the first ones on the plane so we take the seats behind the pilot and co pilot. This has me flashing back to our flight to Roatan in Honduras. Keep in mind even thought I love to travel I hate to fly. The flight is fine, a bit scary only because we have to fly through clouds and then suddenly, there is the landing strip on Isla Contadora. All 12 feet of it, or so it appears from there air (wait until you see the photo), where we can see the entire length on approach including the water on the other side.

Once we are down, we wait right there on the tarmac for the luggage to be unloaded, including a small cardboard box with a live chicken inside. Someone said, "I think it's still alive." I hope so.
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Old Jul 28th, 2010, 09:08 PM
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Day 3, Continued...

There's not much on Isla Contadora; 5 or 6 hotels/B&Bs, the same number of restaurants, 3 little "grocery" stores and a dive shop. The only hotel directly on the beach near the "town" is the Punta Galeon Resort but it got horrible reviews so I chose the Perla Real Inn. It's in the center of the island, and has no view of the water, but really is only a 10-15 min walk to town. From the photos, it looked to have the nicest decor of all the choices and appealed most to my design sense. I have an aversion to tacky bed spreads and wall murals of cherubs, I'm sorry.

Because the island is so small, everyone knows everyone else and their business. Everyone we meet in the next few days has to mention the about the 400 million dollar yacht which was anchored off the island just yesterday. Everyone has a comment about it or a connection to it somehow. While waiting for someone from to pick us up from the Perla Real, we're approached by a neighbor (another B&B owner) who offers us a ride because he knows that Scott, the Inn's caretaker is busy with other guests. We take him up on the offer.

Scott is back at the hotel 5 min after we get dropped off and checks us in to our room. We've opted for a suite which includes a little kitchen, living room area and bedroom (separated only by an archway, not a door). The walls are whitewashed and painted/stamped in an old Spanish/Moorish style, floors terracotta tile and the kitchen and bathroom have glazed Spanish tiles. The kitchen has a small dorm fridge, sink and propane gas stove. The bathroom is small but has a good sized walk in shower (no tub). Water pressure is minimal, but we'll live. There's an AC in the bedroom and ceiling fans. No televisions. It's lovely. We ask to be moved upstairs where the ceilings are higher and there's more light and our request is accommodated after that room (#5) is cleaned. Golf Cart rentals are available for guests at a discounted rate (I think $35 a day vs.$50) but they seem unnecessary so we never do it.

There's a central courtyard patio area with a pretty fountain and outdoor kitchen where breakfast is served. Scott took us on a quick tour of the island in the hotel's truck, pointing out his favorite beaches, places to eat, shop, and giving us all the local gossip. In the 1970's Isla Contadora was the playground for Panama's rich and famous, and powerful politicians and drug lords. There are still multimillion dollar homes here and apparently land is very expensive. We see the abandoned Hotel Contadora, (the owner died in a plane crash when the sale of the hotel was pending) a massive place which has been completely pillaged for anything useful down to the windows, doors and plumbing. It's creepy and no way would I want to be anywhere near here at night. Too bad, because the beach is nice.

We walk into town to have lunch and buy some drinks for our room. We have our first meal at a local place called La Fonda Clarita, across from the police station. By the time we get there, we're overheated and sweating, even though it does not feel as hot here as Panama City (yes, there were times I wished we'd had one of those golf carts). There's no menu, only what's cooked that day. Today's Plato Tipico is beef, rice, and a small salad with a bowl of lentils for $4. A bottle of Panama beer is $1. The beef might be a little tough, but it's tasty and the lentils are fabulous.

We watch a family of orange feral kittens with their skinny orange mommy stalk around the police station while waiting for our meal. At one point the tiniest little one, so pale he's almost pink, gets himself stuck in a tree and I have to "rescue" him. He's not happy about it, but he's no longer in the tree either. After lunch we go down to "Blandy's" store to buy water, beer and a bottle of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc ($9, not too bad). David notices a basket of fresh eggs which says "Huevos de Patio" and confirms that these eggs do indeed come from the patio in front of the store where there are roaming chickens.

We walk back to the hotel, unsure what to do next with our time. There's not that much too do except relax, go to the beach, and snorkel. We plan on doing a snorkel trip through the dive shop the next day. By the time we get back to our room, it's started to rain heavily, so we take it easy and rest and read. David is thrilled that he can get his favorite paper when we travel, the International Herald Tribune, downloaded straight to the Kindle. I'm happy the hotel has wifi (albeit slow and spotty) so I can upload some photos.

For dinner, because it's still raining on and off, we go to the closest place to the hotel, the restaurant at the Villa Romantica Hotel. It's about a 10 minute walk from where we are and the roads are fairly well lit, though not well paved. Rumor has it that all the island's roads will be repaved soon because the President's wife visited (they have a house here, of course) and complained about the roads. See, I told you we got filled in on all the gossip.

The restaurant at Villa Romantica is open air and under a pavilion overlooking the ocean (which we could not see because it was dark). Reviews I'd read of the hotel are mixed. If you can get past the kitschy decor, there are ocean views, but I think it's pricier than we wanted to spend on this trip. The menu is large and the food was decent; we were going to try the ceviche, but they were out so David got a shrimp cocktail instead. This one, thankfully, not drowning in mayonnaise, but rather in a tomato-citrus marinade. I ordered my new favorite; corvina al ajillo and it was quite good as was David's Pollo a la Plancha (chicken breast). Yes, "basic is best" when ordering in Panama. With 2 Atlas beers, tax and service, dinner was around $30.
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Old Jul 29th, 2010, 04:45 AM
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Photos from day 3, including the scary runway, the Pearla Real and a cool gecko, are now posted;
http://www.wired2theworld.com/2010/0...-panama-day-3/
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Old Jul 29th, 2010, 10:39 PM
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I like the way you're sharing your travel adventures. Great photos you have there. By the way, this might interest you too http://travel.mongabay.com/panama. Thanks and more exciting adventures and trips to you!
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Old Aug 4th, 2010, 07:25 AM
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Hi! Sorry for the delay, hope you are still with me here...

<b>July 13, 2010

Isla Contadora</b>

Today we woke to cloudy skies and the hopes of doing a snorkel/whale watching trip with Coral Dreams, the only dive shop on the island. Breakfast was nice, down on the Inn’s patio, cooked to order by Elizabeth each morning with choice of omelettes or eggs, toast, fruit and coffee. The open air kitchen also has a refrigerator filled with water, beer and soda which are available to guests for sale on the honor system.

After breakfast we found out there was an issue with Coral Dream’s boat and they would not be running their daily 10 am snorkel trip. We got in the truck with Scott in search of another option and ended up at Villa Romantica which owns a glass bottomed boat. There was some confusion as to whether or not the boat was available (it had been privately chartered) but the end we wound up back with Coral Dreams whose boat was not broken, just stuck on the sand until the tide came back in later in the afternoon. We were happy with this, preferring to go out with Guillermo, the owner of Coral Dreams, who is an ex-Argentinian navy diver with over 9000 dives under his belt.

During our drives back and forth to town on the main road we passed a construction site on a driveway where there was a teeny-tiny kitten curled in a ball. We stopped to check on it and it was sleeping. We passed it a couple more times that day while walking and it was still alone, but up and awake and crying. It broke my heart and I tried to figure out how we could help it/take it, but there was no way we could do anything. I knew we could not take it home, nor could we even take it back to the hotel because I could not be sure anyone would care for it after we left and I didn’t want to abandon it. Once, we found it in the road and I moved it back onto the driveway. I hoped its mother would return if it stayed there. Later, we saw that someone had left it a bowl of milk and we had hope that someone would finally take care of it.

For lunch we walked back into town to go to Fonda Clarita. Lunch today was not as good as yesterday, with the meal being meatballs, rice, and spaghetti, but that’s the risk you take with a place which only serves one thing.
In the afternoon we went back to town to go on the snorkel trip ($40 each). It was only us, Scott, the boat captain Guillermo, his two assistants, and a very young couple from Greenland. Yes, <i>Greenland</i>. I'd never been to Greenland, nor met anyone from there, so it was pretty neat to chat with them.

Our first stop was off shore of a verdant deserted tropical island. Yes, this is paradise (see the photo on my blog). We hopped in and there was none of that shock of “oh! the water is cold!” Not even a little bit. The water temperature was tepid, and while not good for tea, perfect for snorkeling. I wish I could list all the things we saw, but I’m not good with the names of the fish. I do know there were parrot fish chomping on coral, little angel fish and two eels fighting for territory among all the other sea creatures. Not a lot of pretty coral though.
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Old Aug 4th, 2010, 07:36 AM
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Day 4 continued...

After that stop, we went to an island which was no larger than a sandbar when the tide was low and according to Guillermo, not much bigger than a car (and sometimes fully covered) when the tide is high. David found some barnacle shells and because they have holes in the center, put them over his eyes, and had a merry time making faces for the camera. For a short video of the island, see my blog.

Next stop was Mogo Mogo, or Survivor Island. As in the <i>”you’ve been voted off the island”</i> Survivor TV show which has been filmed here in the Pearl Islands three times. Guillermo told us a story of a family who asked to be dropped here for an overnight a la Survivor, only to call in the middle of the night via cell offering $100 to have someone bring them a case of beer. Someone did (bring them beer) and the the morning, when they were picked up, the beers had all been drunk (by 1 person, the Dad!). Here, we did not snorkel, just spent some time floating in the water.

On the way back to Isla Contadora we headed out to and area between a few islands where the whales had most recently been seen. It wasn’t long before we saw the tell-tale spouts of water and flapping flukes. This was my first experience trying to photograph whales, and it was way harder than I expected. It was so exciting to see them, I found myself torn between wanting to try and focus the lens and just wanting to watch them. Plus, focusing was hard given the movement of the boat, movement of the whales and my auto-focus lens not knowing where to focus against blue-grey sea and sky of the same hue.

The last stop was next to Isla Bartolome where thousands of pelicans, yellow footed boobies, and other sea birds call home.

Back on shore, we were standing in front of the Coral Dive shop making plans for the next day, when the couple from Greenland were talking to each other in Greenlandic (that’s what the language is called, and yes, I had to look it up), obviously debating something.
Then the girl said, in all sincerity, “Do you ever eat the whales?” Guillermo blanched and sputtered “no” and I said, “No, they’re protected here. Do you eat them where you come from?” They both nodded and said they did eat whale meat in their culture, though now it was rare and expensive. We all chatted about it for a while, reiterating that whales are considered a protected species in most parts of the world and that it wasn’t part of the local culture to eat whale meat(they seemed to find this as curious as we did of their eating it). After they left, Guillermo was visibly shaken and said that the question made his skin crawl, but I think he handled it quite well.

Dinner was at the well known Gerald’s opposite the airport runway on the far side. It has a nice open air pavilion, but service is very slow and the food was mediocre. It’s German-owned so David ordered the schnitzel and declared it “not bad.” I had a pizza and it was just ok. I just keep telling myself, “it’s not about the food, it’s about the wildlife.” <i>Right?</i> Right.

Photos are posted here:
http://www.wired2theworld.com/2010/0...nd-the-whales/
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Old Aug 5th, 2010, 05:17 AM
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I'm still enjoying your report. Great pictures. I can relate to you about feeling torn between taking photos of the the whales and just watching. I often times feel like I am "missing the moment" when I am taking pictures - that's when I hand the camera off to my husband if possible - lol!
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Old Aug 5th, 2010, 04:38 PM
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I'm reading along too! Panama interests me as well, so I'm finding this a really great read! When I have some more time, I'll be sure to check out your blog and pictures!

By the way I love my Kindle too!!!!

Keep sharing! Thanks!
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Old Aug 5th, 2010, 06:24 PM
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I'm enjoying your report... (and I love my Nook - so great for travel!)
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Old Aug 5th, 2010, 08:34 PM
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I'm so glad people are still following along, thanks!

ShellD-Did you see that Amazon recently announced a new version of the Kindle? After using my Mom's, I now need my own. I broke down and orderde one. I can't wait, but they won't even ship the first ones until the end of the month and mine is listed as backordered!
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Old Aug 6th, 2010, 06:15 AM
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Great stuff Christina, We're going in Jan, 3 nights in Panama City, including the canal transit, 3 days sailing in San Blas, back to Panama City for 2 nights and a day trip somewhere before flying up to Bocas for 3 nights and crossing into CR. Can't wait. Your reports are really setting us up.
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Old Aug 6th, 2010, 09:27 PM
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Loving your report and photos. Thanks for sharing your trip with us.

MY
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Old Aug 8th, 2010, 03:39 PM
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<b>July 14, 2010

Isla Contadora</b>

After yesterday's boat adventure, David really wanted to go diving and had made plans to go out very early with Guillermo on a 2 dive trip. I had considered going along for the ride, but decided against it when when we woke to cloudy skies. Even though I'm certified to dive, I hadn't brought my card and the thought of sitting on a rocking boat for an hour or two, didn't appeal.

Picked up at 7 and returned by 8:30, David was exhilarated by the dive. They ended up doing only 1 dive, albeit a long one of almost an hour, and David hadn't used his full tank, a point of pride for divers.

He took a rest and then we walked into town (checking on the kitten who was still there and being fed) to rent some snorkel gear to do some snorkeling from the shore. The hotel says it has gear for guests, but the other four guests had been hogging the few good pieces available the entire time we'd been here.
It was beastly hot because much of the cloud cover had moved away, but we were hoping the sunshine would lend itself to some good snorkeling. We picked up the gear at Coral Divers and then decided to get some lunch first. There aren't a lot of options and we checked Fonda Clarita and another local place to see what was available that day. None of it appealed to David, so somehow we ended up back at Gerald's where I had some shrimp scampi, David had sausage, and it took forever to get our food even though we were the only people there.

From there, we walked over the the old, abandoned Hotel Contadora. This place is creepy even in daylight. There were some guys there, erecting some sort of temporary shelter next to the hotel. The hotel itself has been stripped of anything of value, down to the doors and windows and would make a great setting for a horror move. In addition to all the weirdness, pulled up on the sand is a rather large ship, also abandoned.

We walked all the way to the opposite end of the beach, but could not shake the creepy factor, nor find a place we felt would be safe to leave our stuff (including camera) while we both went into the water. The beach and water also had a lot of trash so finally we gave up and just decided to walk to another place.

Overheated, we settled on the beach in front of the airport and Punta Galleon Hotel. It was deserted and we left our stuff under a large shade tree and went out. The snorkeling here wasn't bad, we saw lots of fish and the water was warm.

By the time we got out, a storm was brewing and we figured we'd better get back to the hotel before we got caught out in it.
On the way back, we stopped at the Aero Perlas office next to the runway and asked about our chances of actually leaving on time tomorrow. We'd heard rumor that they might bump people off the flight, or that our luggage might not make it on with us, because flights today had been canceled and tomorrow's flight was already full. Apparently, tickets don't mean much.
We were told, <i>"with luck and good weather"</i> we would fly tomorrow. Reassuring? <i>Not so much.</i>

Dinner that night was back at Villa Romantica, where we we chatted for a long time with the eccentric owner, Charlie, a German expat. David had chicken schnitzel and vegetable soup and I got the corvina again with a portion so big I took half of it to go. We left the restaurant in the dumping rain, but instead of running back to the hotel, we walked almost all the way into town to where the kitten was to give it some of the fish. Unfortunately, it was dark and we didn't have a flashlight with us so we could not see the kitten anywhere. I left it some fish anyway and we sloshed back to the hotel.
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Old Aug 8th, 2010, 06:07 PM
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Hi Kristina,
Thanks for posting your report. You do a great job (as usual)delivering a sense of place through your photos. You also do a great job handling the hecklers!

I did consider Panama for next year but decided on Belize. Guess I get to visit Panama vicariously instead
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Old Aug 8th, 2010, 08:03 PM
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Hi Femi!
We haven't been to Belize yet, but hopefully someday. I'll be interested to hear what you think. Like you, I love South East Asia, and while Central America has its charms, my heart is elsewhere. I'm going back to Cambodia in October.
Thanks for your comment on the photos and the heckler. Honestly, it's so rare that I get a comment like that, I was shocked. I almost didn't post it, but then I figured the guy <i>deserved</i> my reply. ;-)
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Old Aug 9th, 2010, 05:08 AM
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Photos for Day 5 are now posted.
http://www.wired2theworld.com/2010/0...ling-and-rain/
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Old Aug 9th, 2010, 06:19 PM
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I've been looking to Central America to break up the time in between my 'real' vacations. Central America dosen't tug on my heart strings the way SEA or Southern Africa does, but I still enjoy it, especially as I get a chance to practise my Spanish.

I went to Guatemala in March, and was very pleasantly surprised. I now consider it to be my favorite Latin American destination. Lake Atitlan reminded me a little of Inle lake in Burma.
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Old Aug 12th, 2010, 08:08 PM
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<b>July 15

Isla Contadora to Panama City</b>

Today our plan was to leave Isla Contadora on the 9:30 plane, pick up a rental car at Albrook airport, and drive to the Canopy Tower to be there in time for lunch and the afternoon bird watching walk. Tomorrow we'd check out at 9am, drive to the Caribbean coast and check out the ruins of the Spanish forts at Portobello, and then make our way back to Sierra Llorona Lodge for another afternoon of wildlife watching. Alas, none of this was to happen as planned.

It was dumping rain when we woke up. The fountain in the middle of the courtyard was overflowing and turning the breakfast area into a lake. By 8am we knew our plane would not be coming at 9:30. A giant storm was sitting directly over the Bay of Panama, purple on the radar map, and moving slowly toward Panama City.

We waited to hear news. Nothing. We waited some more. Finally, around 11am, we decided to cut our losses and reconfigure as best we could.

Fortunately, we still had intermittent internet access, going in and out with the storm. I got on the netbook and did my best at vacation damage control.

Because the Canopy Tower was prepaid, I emailed them first, asking if we could push our arrival by a day as we were stuck. There was no point in arriving there late even if we could get off the island because we would miss our only chance for a nature walk if we did so. I heard back from them within a couple of hours and they said they had space available for the next day so we could move our reservation.

Next I emailed Sierra Llorona and canceled our night with them. Fortunately (for us) they had not asked for a deposit. I never got a reply from them.

The time came and went for us to pick up our rental car and I used Skype to call Thirfty who said our rental was automatically canceled when we did not show. We decided not to make another reservation because we had no idea when we'd be able to pick it up.

The last task was to find a place to stay in Panama City for that night, assuming the plane would actually come today, before dark. I checked the spg.com site and they had a room available for the same cash plus points ($60 plus SPG 4000 points) I'd used to book our room for our last night in Panama. I contacted SPG using their online chat and asked if I could get that rate as a walk-in to the hotel. They said no, it had to be booked online or over the phone. I didn't want to commit to it, because within the 24 hour window as we were, we would forfeit the cash if we no-showed. I devised a plan with my mom via Skype that I would text her from the runway if we were actually getting on the plane. She would then go online, using my SPG account and book the room for us.
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Old Aug 13th, 2010, 06:09 AM
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Around 2PM the word coming from the tiny airport office was that we “might” be flying some time around 5:30 PM. At 4:45 we went to the landing strip and checked in at the Aero Perlas office. They weighed our luggage and then asked us to step on the luggage scale with our carry-on bags and weighed us too. At 5pm we were told the plane was in the air and on its way.

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to fly on a tiny prop plane? See my blog page for a little video of the takeoff and landing of our flight from Isla Contadora to Panama City.

Once we got to Albrook airport, I turned on my phone and there was the reply from my mom; the plan had worked flawlessly and our room was booked. We decided to forgo the car rental, at least for now, and just take a taxi to the hotel and figure out later how we would get to the Canopy Tower the next morning.

We arrived at the hotel, tired and cranky from a long day of uncertainty, anxiety and waiting. But it was all made better when the gentleman behind the desk apologized for not being able to give us the room upgrade my SPG Gold Status usually offered us a different type of upgrade. They we going to give us access to the club lounge which offered free wifi, so $13/day room internet access was not needed. Not only that, included with the lounge access was a nice cocktail hour with food and a breakfast buffet in the morning. We’d experienced this at the Sheraton Saigon and knew this was an appreciable bonus.

The room was really quite nice, on the 8th floor and looking out over the neighboring high rises. It was decorated in greens and browns and had a frosted glass wall separating the bathroom from the bedroom. This wall was shared by the walk-in shower (no tub). It had the basic Sheraton amenities; Bliss bath products, coffee maker,safe, etc. The bathroom was nicely tiled in stone. My only complaint is that the shower temperature was inconsistent both mornings I used it, two different days, two different rooms. On the other hand, David showered at night and had no problems.

At this point we had to figure out how we were going to get to the Canopy Tower lodge which, in Soberania Park, was about 30 minutes outside the city in the same direction of the Miraflores Locks. My guidebook said a taxi there would cost $10-$15 each way. The Canopy Tower had offered transfers at $50 each way. We asked at the concierge desk what it would cost for us to set up a taxi R/T (because we would now have to return to the Sheraton after leaving the tower) and we told we could just hire one of the taxis outside the hotel (they would assist with this) and it would be $35 each way. We thought we could probably book this cheaper ourselves by going outside and speaking directly to one of the taxi drivers .

We also checked with the Budget rental car desk in the hotel and the least expensive car, a Toyota Yaris, with no extra insurance, and no GPS, would have cost us about $50, plus gas and they didn’t have a decent map. This was double the rate I had originally booked online at Thrifty.com so it’s probably best to book cars in advance from the US. We decided to wait until the morning to figure out the best thing to do, but we knew were were going to somehow go by taxi as there was no advantage to renting a car for only 1 day.

We took the netbook and the Kindle and headed up to the club lounge which is on the 15th floor. Key card access is needed in the elevator to get the room floors and to get through the door into the lounge.
The Lounge has two TVs, couch and table seating. We chose a table along the floor to ceiling windows and this would become “our” table for all of our subsequent visits to the lounge. There was finger food available, drinks, wine, and beer. We had a lovely glass of Chilean Cabernet, some snacks and decided that would work for us for the night. We were in no mood to go out in search of a meal. The downside to this hotel is location; it’s right across from the convention center in an otherwise mostly residential neighborhood.

Photos and videos from Day 6 are now on my blog at http://www.wired2theworld.com/2010/0...bad-situation/
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Old Aug 17th, 2010, 04:27 AM
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Nice job coordinating your hotel booking with your mom while on the runway! The name of your blog is certainly fitting.
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