Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Panama..... to the Beach!

For the second part of our trip, we headed back to Panama City where we would drop our rental car off at the small domestic airport of Panama, Albrook or Marcos A. Gelabert.  We had to leave Boquete painfully early (before we even got to eat breakfast or have coffee) and not much was open for a good while. We had some breakfast bars but those never cut it for me for very long.... especially without coffee. So we finally find a place to stop, a panaderia which is a type of bakery. Horrible mistake. The coffee was incredibly watered down and not good and the pastry we got was not good either (tasted like something you'd get out of Walmart's bakery section!). So off we went, down the street to get coffee at ... you won't believe this... McDonalds! Boo hiss. I am not a fan of theirs, as you may or may not know... and would almost rather die than eat there, ESPECIALLY on vacation in a foreign country. But!! We were desperate for at least regular strength coffee... even if it was from McDonalds and not what we would even call good coffee. It was interesting to see their menu though- it was very different from an American McDonalds menu. 

Here are some of the sights on the way (there was a time where we were in the clouds!). Notice the very bottom picture- these are the roads just outside of Boquete, before you get to David. They are new construction (& still being worked on in many areas) and are pretty interesting in regards to driving. There appears to be no rhyme or reason to the way the lanes are divided up. You would think (at least if you are from the US maybe) that the 2 lanes on the right go one way and the 2 lanes on the left go in the opposite direction. Well this is sometimes true and you will see people passing as we do in our country. However, every so often you will have the opportunity to go across into the other 2 lanes, which apparently many do. Often we would be driving down the road and have someone coming in the opposite direction on the lane next to us, not in the 2 lanes that you would think be for going in that direction. Our tour guide for the coffee plantation did tell us that there are a lot of accidents on this highway, most certainly this is one of the reasons why! So you will see that we are in the "wrong" lane to go the direction we are heading but were forced over by construction. But we still saw people going the opposite direction on the other side! 

So after getting our coffee emergency taken care of, we headed on our way back to Panama City. I'd say it was pretty uneventful. No traffic stops. I drove part of the way (Mike had driven all the way to Boquete and was not going to let that happen again!) and thankfully had no mishaps. We stopped at a grocery store to get lunch to eat in the car (we were worried our trip back would be like the trip down and we could not miss our flight!). I really enjoy browsing through the grocery stores in foreign countries. So interesting! This store was super busy with long lines at the check out. Maybe it was a common day to go shopping? It also had security in the parking lot and covered parking. 

Here are some of the things we saw while on the highway in Panama City. I wouldn't say we were driving through the "nice" part of PC. 

We make it to Panama City (and see a bit more of the city since we're coming in a different way) and to the airport... crazily enough, we're a few hours early. So we definitely could have woken up later, had breakfast/coffee, and still made it in time (barring any unforeseen circumstances like we had on our way up). But ah well. We go to a coffee shop (looks very similar to Starbucks but it is a regional coffee company) and have some good coffee to kill some time. Then we take back our rental inside the airport and then get checked in (which they were not even checking in our flight when we arrived to stand in line, we were that early!). Then we waited some in the waiting room before our very small plane arrived and we boarded. 

Here is our small plane and the beautiful views we enjoyed while up in the air (when I wasn't petrified of crashing!). The far left picture on the bottom is the "airport" we landed in front of (on a grass landing strip no less) on the island. 

There was a van waiting and we soon found out that everyone getting off the plane was going to our same hotel (some workers and one couple who were also staying there). We drove quite a ways through the jungle to get to the hotel and when we arrived, this is what we saw.

The structure is the main hotel building with the restaurant, bar, "store", etc. The tall pole in front of it is where the macaws come and land to wait for the fruit they set out just below. It was amazing to see (and hear!) these birds all throughout the time we were on the island. We would be doing this or that and hear a loud squawking in the distance (you can hear them from really far away!) and look out to see them approaching in a group. It is amazing that a bird so pretty can sound so annoying!! :) I did enjoy them though. 

Now backing up to our locale. The Pearl Islands are a set of islands located in the Gulf of Panama, about 30 miles off of the Pacific coast of Panama. There are about 100 islands, most uninhabited. Contadora Island is known for it's resorts and where wealthy Panamanians have homes. However, our hotel was located on San Jose Island, the second largest island in the Pearl Islands. Despite it's size, it only has one hotel and a couple fishing shacks. Our hotel was called Hacienda Del Mar. I had considerable difficulty finding a beach location for our trip. The popular place to go from Boquete (Bocas) was just too difficult for us to swing logistically. I wasn't keen on a pacific coast location... I wanted the clear and calm Caribbean. So when I found this location, just off of Panama City, with calm, clear water I was pretty excited. The reviews we found were ok... not stellar but ok. After such an extensive search I decided this was going to be it. I am going to go into a bit of a hotel review... so if you have no interest in that, you can skip on through and just look at the pictures.

Our cabana was a bit rustic but mostly comfortable. The cabanas are not really sealed off to the outside air very well so the a/c has to work super hard (a window type unit) to cool the room but it was definitely cooler in the room. The view from our balcony was gorgeous. 

When we arrived, Mike was grumpy (I mean GRUMPY). He does not like the heat and had to grump about it for a bit. We relaxed in our room, I think he took a nap while he cooled off and I enjoyed the balcony for a bit. (He did get over the grumpiness and he must have adjusted because he wasn't grumpy the rest of our stay... so that was good!) 

We explored the beaches/water in either direction from our hotel during our stay and found some pretty neat and beautiful things.

And here are the geckos that greeted us each night when we came back to our room after dinner (look closely just under the light, above the number sign). 

Overall, I'd say our stay was relaxing but interesting. The hotel was in a beautiful location. Perfect for lazing around reading (which I love to do anyway but with the ocean nearby it is super lush!). The food, overall was fairly good. Nothing spectacular... only one dish stands out in my mind and that was just a simple salad with huge shrimp and a really yummy dressing that had the perfect amount of salt and creaminess. The service was good although sometimes communication was difficult as no one really spoke much English. We ordered in Spanish but beyond ordering, communication was a struggle! For instance, we didn't completely understand a few things on the menu which ended up costing us extra money... had the language barrier not been there, it could have been explained. But no matter, that is the risk you take when traveling in foreign countries. We're ok with that. 

The bugs on the island were somewhat of an issue. We felt them biting when we got there so we used a repellent that I brought for our entire stay. I didn't use it on the last day because it had been raining & I thought I was safe. But then I came away from the resort scratching like crazy w/ lots of bites (kinda like chigger bites but they call the bugs chitres… I see online they are sand fleas?? I dunno. Maybe it was something in the room. Our bed had a really strong smell of cilantro on the last night & I thought that maybe they put some sort of repellant on there and so we switched to the other bed... I am not keen on the idea of sleeping in pesticides!). 

Probably our biggest complaint would be that we never got a key to our room. The manager said he would get it to us on the first day at arrival but then never did. When we asked at dinner, he side tracked us by talking about how to say it in Spanish and then we never got it. Our suspicion was that they didn't have one for that room. We felt safe (locked it when we were in there) and there were so few guests we didn't think that anyone would take anything. It was also such a small resort, we could watch our door from nearly anywhere we were, except on the beach. We locked up our valuables in the safe when we went on the boat tour. 

Oh ... the boat tour is another crazy adventure. We went on it because we actually wanted to snorkel. We asked the manager if we could do a boat tour … the listing for it said it would take you around the island where you could enjoy other beaches and snorkel. He set it up for us for the following day. When it came near we asked if we could snorkel and if so, where to get the snorkeling stuff. He said he would check with the boat captain and see if the conditions were ok for snorkeling. Well we get on the boat and don't see any snorkeling stuff. Then we get going on the tour and I just figured that the conditions were not right. Well it was on our tour that I see that the water is not really prime snorkeling water- it's dark and not clear like all other places we've snorkeled. It isn't clear like it is near our hotel, just off the beach. Then we get about an hour into the tour (it is a 3 hour tour... so of course Mike is singing the Gilligan's Island song off and on the whole trip), we haven't stopped anywhere and we see really dark clouds. Next thing we know, we are in pouring rain. It is also freezing by then... gone are the hot, steamy temps that we'd seen since we arrived on the island. The boat captain has us sit in his seats after a bit so that we can get out of the rain. It was really pretty bad. I think it probably rained for about 45 minutes while we went around that part of the island. It was not so fun. I was tensed up trying not to shiver uncontrollably  Finally it let up and we were able to enjoy the scenery again. We arrived back at our hotel after about 2.5 hours. So it was definitely a wasted $200! We saw 1 dolphin poke up two times and some flying fish but that was the extent of the excitement. It was really pretty but not really much that we couldn't already see from the grounds of our hotel.  The boat captain and the other guy didn't speak any english so we didn't even bother trying to figure out why that was the boat tour we got. And as you can see from our pictures, it was really not so great. (Not to mention the dampness made my camera go crazy for a few days afterward, taking tinted pictures!)

So all in all we had a relaxing time with great views. We weren't upset at any point, despite the negatives, we just felt like things could have been improved to be more in line with the cost of the stay. It was very beautiful so I think that made up for a lot of the issues.  So I wouldn't probably pick that place again if we were to want a beach location in Panama again… but we still had a nice time there. 

Speaking of nice time... 

We spent three nights on the island and when the day came to leave, we packed up and went to eat breakfast. We learned that a storm would prevent the plane from coming to the island and that it would be a bit later that we would leave. They would know when the plane left Panama City so we would have plenty of time to make it to the "airport". So we hung out and read a bit after taking some last minute pictures. (The discoloration is due to the dampness on the boat trip... despite it being a waterproof camera!) We never once got in the pool... we just looked out at it during most of our meals!

Here is the landing strip and our plane to head back to Panama City in. Even smaller than the last! Eeek! You know it is a small plane when you can see the pilot not too far in front of you clicking on the route on his GPS!

When we arrived in Panama City, we basically had the whole day to kill before our flights took off at 2:08 AM!! the following day. We didn't want a hotel room for a few hours so we decided to kill time at the mall. We had our luggage, which was kind of a drag... but thankfully we packed light. The malls are pretty similar to our malls with just a few differences. For one, we've never seen lines to get tickets to the movies so long... except maybe on opening night of a huge hit. They spiraled around the outside of the mall theater! The lines stayed the same length the whole day long so we didn't figure it was a new movie everyone was dying to see.  Scratch seeing a movie off our list of things we could do! We ended up at two different malls and took a taxi from one to the other. This same taxi driver asked what time we would be done and then picked us back up at that time to take us to the theater! Wow... talk about reliable! We ate our meals in the malls which were decent (we chose non-chain, non-fast food places). We saw a teen walking around with a small monkey on his shoulder. (Never have I see that in the mall in the US!) 

We ended up at the airport a couple hours before we could even check in for our flight. Maybe it was around 8p and check in was at 11p? We skyped a bit with the kids via the free wifi (w/o video because the speed was so slow) and then tried to cat nap (Mike successful, me not at all). I did sleep a bit when we got on our plane... and we had to get on another plane in Florida. It was a very long morning!! Then back to OKC from Dallas to pick up the kids after a quick stop in IKEA and H&M. :) We were soooo glad to see the kids (even though they both cried within seconds of seeing us... Jackson accidentally killed a baby frog and Bella was upset to go home and miss the park they were headed to) and sooo glad that everything went fairly well for my sister and brother in law who kept them. (A BIG HUGE thank you to them!!)

And thanks to our travel agent, Laura, with Anchors Aweigh Vacations for her help and patience with the booking of this trip!

We were so happy to celebrate our 10th anniversary in such a lovely place... we're excited to share it with our kids in the future!

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Hello, Panama!

I have had it in my head that we (Mike and  I) needed to take an anniversary trip for our 10 year anny for several years. At first I thought Fiji. Then I went a bit overboard and thought Fiji and New Zealand. (In researching NZ there were so many things I didn't want to miss, the trip ended up too long and the cost too hight... and even taking Fiji away, I knew we wouldn't be able to spend the time we wanted to there so I threw that idea out but hope to pick it up again in the future!) So then one day Mike & I got an email about flights to Panama for cheap (about $800 for both of us) and we jumped on it. Mike had actually suggested we go to Panama for our anniversary because we've been wanting to go (Panama is where Mike wants to live after he retires) but I thought we should go further away since we wouldn't have the kids. Well anyway.. so that is how we ended up picking Panama for our 10th.

Turns out, as we got closer to our departure dates, I started to think maybe I was crazy for coming up with the idea that we'd leave the kids home on this trip. I knew my sister would care for them well but I just still worried. And dropping them off was hard too! I've only been away from them on 2 overnight trips ... one was 1 night & the other was 2 nights. Mike has been away on business but it has never been us together. Bella is almost 7! Dropping them off was super hard and a bit tearful (for me... not at all for them- they were excited to have a "vacation" at Laura's).

Fast forward... we drive to Dallas, do a quick shop at H&M (me), and rush to the airport to catch our flight. Fly to Florida for a layover and then fly to Panama City, arrival time of 1:21 AM. Thank goodness we didn't have the kids on that late flight... we were groggy enough as it is. We then picked up our rental and drove about a block to our hotel to crash. Here are pics from in the morning at the Riande Aeropuerto. It was a nice hotel and we were thankful that it was so close to the airport. We had breakfast and then headed out for Boquete, Panama.

Mike in our hotel room, out our hotel room window they had peppers planted!, Panama gives travelers free insurance for the first 30 days, and Mike at breakfast.

Looking over the bridge at the Panama Canal on our drive.

The drive to Boquete was a bit long. We knew it would be but didn't anticipate the rain after dark nor the horrible construction/detours we'd go through as we got close to Boquete. So I think the drive ended up taking us around 7 hours on the way there. I was thankful that Mike was driving (esp during the stressful bits). We stopped and had lunch at a pizza place a little over 1/2 way to Boquete  (that looked like it was geared towards kids but the ingredients were quality and the pizza was good).

We have decided that it is just a matter of routine for us to pay off the police while we are in Central America. As happened in Costa Rica, we again were stopped by the police for speeding (which in fact I'm sure we were going 5-10 miles over) and after a long, broken conversation in Spanish (and a scare where I thought he was going to shove me in the ditch- strictly my paranoia) we settled on $60. I believe he started at $1000 Euros. Turns out, after talking with our coffee tour guy later on in Boquete, the first time ticket cost is $50. So now we know for next time to opt for the written ticket... or pay the police less! Ha. So then of course, once again, I am paranoid about speeding the rest of the trip.

After a stressful bit in the car, we arrived at our hotel in Boquete... our hotel was the Panamonte Inn (Owned by a Swedish family). I highly recommend this hotel if traveling in Boquete- the staff was always friendly, our room was huge and overlooked the beautiful grounds, and the restaurant had very yummy food. It is the oldest hotel in Boquete and it is said they have the best restaurant in Boquete, if not in the whole of Panama. We ate in their restaurant every morning but also 2 out of the 3 dinners that we were in Boquete for! They source local and organic ingredients when possible and you can even take cooking classes with their chef.
Mike relaxing in our room the first night, front of hotel, walk in closet (did not use much space in that thing!), porch out to the gardens/grounds of hotel.
View from the porch (those tall long things are some sort of cactus).
We had a really yummy breakfast (and delicious coffee) out on their porch and then I booked a massage for the afternoon. We then set out to explore by car to get a better feel for the town. It is a pretty small town but the residential areas and farms surrounding the town go out (and up the mountains) quite a ways. It is a beautiful place. We ate lunch and then came back for my massage (which was so very nice) and then after I showered we headed out again but by foot this time. Our hotel was at a dead end street but down the other end it took just a minute or two to get to the shops and eateries.

Cat we met on our walk, beautiful flowers/plants along sides of roads, a small plot with lots of lettuce in between buildings, more pretty flowers, a barber shop where you can get your "ghetto style" on, and the river that ran through town.

We stopped in a coffee shop to grab some coffee (the weather was perfect coffee drinking weather!) and walked until we ran out of things to see.  It was there that we found a lovely little bakery, Sugar and Spice. Since I'd had sweet coffee I decided on a muffin (hoping it wouldn't be too sweet) but Mike got a blueberry cream cheese bread pudding. The lady behind the counter got our things for us and the guy who'd been busy working behind her asked Mike if we'd be staying there to eat and if so, he'd heat up the bread pudding because it was better that way. We were guessing he was the owner... he heated it up and then brought it out to our table outside. The muffin was delicious (very moist) and Mike enjoyed his bread pudding.

On our way back to the hotel we saw some painted rocks... followed them down into a parking lot and discovered all these painted rocks bordering the parking lot of the restaurant! Pretty cool!

This day was our actual 10 year anniversary day (May 24th) so we decided to eat at the hotel restaurant again (after all, it is the best in Boquete). Here we are getting ready to go eat (this is the top I wore on my wedding day when we left the reception!).

The next day we drove over to David to check out the shopping options (thinking that if we move here, where are we going to get what we need). It is a bigger town and we checked out their version of Target (not quite Target... but more like a TJ Maxx or something similar but without any discounted prices!). Then we came back, grabbed lunch at a sandwich shop, and then headed back to our hotel for a coffee tour we had booked.

The drive up the mountain was lovely (although the narrow roads are a bit scary at times... and they go fast on them!) and the coffee plantation tour was excellent. It is a smaller plantation (not like the one we visited in Costa Rica) and it was just us (a couple from Australia and a guy from Switzerland joined us on the tour), our tour guide, and the plantation owner's wife there on the farm. Our guide, Jason, knew a lot about the coffee growing process and we learned even more than we had in Costa Rica. He was really great at explaining all the steps, how it was done at that farm, and why it was done that way. The name of the coffee is named Royal- Ro for the wife (Rosa) y (and) Al for the husband (Alfredo).

View of Boquete on the way up the mountain, ripe coffee cherry split open, coffee plants w/ a chicken roaming, coffee cherries, drying coffee beans, and the old car that Mr. Tito (plantation owner) took parts from to make all his machinery for the coffee processing (and our guide, Jason).

Baby coffee plants, unroasted beans, sorting machines (made by Mr. Tito), small roasting machine (made by Mr. Tito), large roaster with scroon on top (made by Mr. Tito... scroon= spoon & screwdriver), roasted beans- dark, medium, and light.
Bags of coffee beans, some sort of sorting machine?, bagging process, Coffee bags for shipping, and roasted coffee with scroon. 

After our coffee tour we went back into town to get our car and then drove around the mountain area for a bit (scary... I thought for sure we'd get lost up there!). We found this pretty waterfall while exploring and the neat looking rock wall. I didn't get many other pictures of the mountain but we saw farms and the areas where the migrant workers live (many are indigenous people from the San Blas area who come in to work the farms and then travel back home). The living conditions were pretty primitive. 
After our explorations, we decided to check out the highly rated Big Daddy's Grill for some fish tacos. The owners (American) are very involved in the operation of the restaurant and the wife was in the dining room nearly the whole time we were eating there. The food was quite yummy. 

The next morning we awoke early to get a head start to make sure we arrived in plenty of time to catch our flight to the Pearl Islands. Unfortunately the restaurant wasn't open at that hour so we had to eat breakfast bars in the car and search for coffee in the nearby towns (found some and it was awful). And that concludes the first part of our trip... up next, the Pearl Islands!

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Phone Photo Dump

I was having problems uploading my photos from my phone to my computer for some reason... it would get nearly done loading and then say there was an error and it couldn't continue. I tried twice and then gave it up for awhile because it was so frustrating! Well I finally decided to try again when I had time to investigate further and get it figured out so I plugged it in and what do you know? All my pictures downloaded without a problem. So here are some of the pictures that I haven't posted yet!

This is Bella's trip to Green Goodies Cupcake shop (who just won on Cupcake Wars) after she finished a reader.

Look what sweet notes we get now that Bella is writing! :)

This was Jackson, asleep. Poor boy had infected chicken pox under his nose... they looked bad! He still has scaring from them! 

Look at my sweet Valentine's presents from Bella! She saved her allowance to get me a box of chocolates (from Whole Foods) and then saved candy up from school. Then I got whatever money she had left!! What a sweet, generous girl we have!

This was my handsome date for dinner when Mike and Bella went on their date.

I don't think I've posted anything about this (sorry if I have!) but Bella had not passed her vision screening at her pediatrician visit so we were referred for an official eye exam. Turns out, she has a stigmatism and is nearsighted. She was quite upset to have to wear them, even though she only has to wear them while reading and doing other school activities. But she thought friends at co-op would make fun of her (which they didn't!) and I think she just felt different with them on. But now it's all fine and dandy and she doesn't mind wearing them (although often forgets!).  I think they are super cute!

Here is Bella celebrating another reader that she finished at yet another cupcake shop!

Here are our MOMS Club friends at a fire station tour.

The following pictures are from a Zoo sleepover that Bella and I went on a few months back. They had a little educational bit. a zoo walk at night, then the sleep over, and then a walk in the zoo before it opened. 

The sleeping was not so comfy for me (sleeping bags on hard floors w/ a thin mat) but Bella didn't seem to notice.

They did get us up at a horribly early hour... before the sun was even up! (This was after we'd gotten ready and had a bite to eat... no coffee!!!)

Here is Bella with my coffee... we had to leave the zoo when it was over and go directly to the coffee shop for a proper breakfast and COFFEE!

Here is a cute picture of Mike and Jackson.. Jackson is so proud to be cool like Daddy and wearing a hat. ;) Love that grin. :)

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Happy Mother's Day 2013

My family took me for a nice brunch at a restaurant in Norman called Local (farm to table type of place) and we had a nice time together. We also went to a park and had dinner with my Mom. It was a nice day!!

Happy 4th Birthday, Jackson!

This was my little guy 4 years ago at just 3 days old. I miss holding that little guy! :) I had a fast and lovely home birth which completed our perfect family.  

This is my silly, energetic, loving, messy, sweet, ornery, can't-sit-still little boy just after turning 4. 

Here he is on his actual birthday (April 30th) having cupcakes from Green Goodies with Aunt Lauri & Uncle Mimi as well as baby Mimi. I tried to give him just 3 candles... hadn't quite gotten into the 4 year old mode yet. ;o)  (Also, forgot to take pictures of anyone else!)

Isabella showed her generosity once again by giving Jackson over half of her "stay up late" coupons on his birthday. We have a sticker chart for the kids for a few target behaviors and one of the things they can get out of the treasure box when they collect so many stickers are coupons to stay up 15 minutes later past bedtime. Well Isabella has been saving hers for awhile and had managed to save up 5 tickets. So she used 2 tickets and gave her brother 3 tickets. The kids and I hung out in the living room (Mike had to get to bed for work the next day) and we played games together.

After 30 minutes (or maybe closer to 45) Bella headed off to bed and Jackson and I were up together for another 15 playing some more games. And taking pictures. :) He was getting pretty sleepy too!

I've been trying to do these questions every year on the kids birthdays for the last couple years... so here are Jackson's questions and answers.

Recite your name: Jackson Levi Abla
How old are you? 4
What is your favorite color? green ("breen")
Who is your Best Friend? Randy
Favorite animal? Red eye tree frog
What do you want to be when you are all grown up? A super hero
What is your favorite movie(s)? Spiderman, Batman, and Scooby Doo
What is your favorite book(s)? Spiderman Under the Sea
What makes you happy? Bella doing funny things
What makes you sad? Bella being mean to me
What is your most favorite food to eat? Macaroni and cheese
What is your favorite song to sing? Spiderman (theme song)
What game(s) do you like to play? Captain America iPad game