Landing in San Juan, Puerto Rico – A Great View!

I moved to the Isla del Encanto, Puerto Rico, when I was two years old and lived there until I finished high school.  During my many trips back to the island, I have always enjoyed the landing as I get a great view no matter on which side of the airplane I sit on (though the ocean side is more colorful as you can see!).  I thought it may be cool to share the view from my window seat as the plan crosses over land near Cataño, just west of Old San Juan.  Enjoy the pictures of this, one of the prettiest landings ever!

Puerto Rico, airplane, window seat, San Juan, landing, ocean, blue sea ,El Morro, Old San Juan, travel, photo, Samsung Galaxy

Approaching Cataño (Old San Juan on the background)

Puerto Rico, airplane, window seat, San Juan, landing, ocean, blue sea ,El Morro, Old San Juan, travel, photo, Samsung Galaxy

Flying over Cataño, heading to the San Juan Bay (top right)

Puerto Rico, airplane, window seat, San Juan, landing, ocean, blue sea ,El Morro, Old San Juan, travel, photo, Samsung Galaxy

Flyover near the Bacardi Distillery, getting a lil closer to the San Juan Bay! Isla de Cabras towards the top left.

Puerto Rico, airplane, window seat, San Juan, landing, ocean, blue sea ,El Morro, Old San Juan, travel, photo, Samsung Galaxy

Looking down on El Morro and its beautiful grounds, where I used to fly a kite as a kid!

Puerto Rico, airplane, window seat, San Juan, landing, ocean, blue sea ,El Morro, Old San Juan, travel, photo, Samsung Galaxy

Old San Juan, on the left, with the Isla Grande airport to the right (built by the U.S. Navy prior to WW II)

Puerto Rico, airplane, window seat, San Juan, landing, ocean, blue sea ,El Morro, Old San Juan, travel, photo, Samsung Galaxy

The port of San Juan and the Puerto Rican Capitol almost on the center

Puerto Rico, airplane, window seat, San Juan, landing, ocean, blue sea ,El Morro, Old San Juan, travel, photo, Samsung Galaxy

The old and charming neighborhood of Miaramar in the front, with the Condado hotels on the background

Puerto Rico, airplane, window seat,Condado, Miramar, Santurce,  San Juan, landing, ocean, blue sea ,El Morro, Old San Juan, travel, photo, Samsung Galaxy

Crossing from Miramar on the left to Santurce

Puerto Rico, airplane, window seat, Condado, Miramar, Santurce, San Juan, landing, ocean, blue sea ,El Morro, Old San Juan, travel, photo, Samsung Galaxy

Condado hotels in the background and my school by the blue little spot in the middle!

Puerto Rico, airplane, Santurce, Barrio Obrero, window seat, San Juan, landing, ocean, blue sea ,El Morro, Old San Juan, travel, photo, Samsung Galaxy

Moving from Santurce on the left to Barrio Obrero on the right

Puerto Rico, airplane, window seat, San Juan, landing, ocean, blue sea ,El Morro, Old San Juan, travel, photo, Samsung Galaxy

Final final approach, parallel to the Baldorioty de Castro highway

Puerto Rico, airplane, window seat, San Juan, landing, ocean, blue sea ,El Morro, Old San Juan, travel, photo, Samsung Galaxy

Cemetery

Puerto Rico, airplane, window seat, Isla Verde, San Juan, landing, ocean, blue sea ,El Morro, Old San Juan, travel, photo, Samsung Galaxy

Laguna San José and some of the awesome Isla Verde high rises by the beach

Puerto Rico, airplane, Isla Verde, window seat, San Juan, landing, ocean, blue sea ,El Morro, Old San Juan, travel, photo, Samsung Galaxy

The cemetery where my grandparents and great grandmother are buried…

Puerto Rico, airplane, Isla Verde, window seat, San Juan, landing, ocean, blue sea ,El Morro, Old San Juan, travel, photo, Samsung Galaxy

And the final photo with the entrance of the airport and Isla Verde high rises and hotels in the background

The Warm Capitals: Panama City, Manila, San Juan, and Port of Spain

For many, the ideal vacation is to go where it is sunny and warm, be it the tropics or somewhere with good “Mediterranean” climate.  Be it the Caribbean, the South Pacific, or the Greek Isles, sun and fun seem to go together.  I am not as much a chaser of these climates but they definitely present great color and usually interesting and, pardon the word, warm peoples.  For the “Capital Cities” series,  I have chosen four warm capitals:  Panama City, Manila, San Juan, and Port of Spain.

Panama City, Panama

I have shared before about incredible and ever-changing Panama City, a place I have visited over four different decades and which I always enjoy.

Panama City, Panama, tropics, modern vs. old, photo, travel

Modern Panama City as seen from the Casco Viejo

As I have family there, I get to do both the things a visitor would do but also live a little like the locals when I am there.  Panama City is both old and modern and whether by visiting the old ruins of the original establishment, or exploring the old (but not as old) city or “Casco Viejo,” or entering the Canal Zone, or simply enjoying the modern life, Panama City offers great experiences.  And when those are not enough, then fly to the Pearl Islands or head to other beautiful parts of the country like the area near Chagres or Chiriqui, for example.

Manila, The Philippines

I have only visited Manila once and for a rather brief visit.  I shared in another post how the old district has much more history than I understood from centuries of Spanish rule, then American control, then Japanese occupation, and –finally- from the times after it gained its independence.

Intramuros, Manila, city walls, Manila Town Hall, Philippines, golf course, clouds, sky, Olympus

Looking from the Bayleaf’s Sky Deck towards the Manila Town Hall (notice the golf course)

While it can be quite hot and humid (as Panama City), the warmth of the people is well worth the warmth of the climate.  You’d expect that people in any large city would be short-tempered, always in a rush – a la Manhattan.  Not in Manila, where it seems the human connection is most important.  I did not get to venture outside of the city to enjoy what I hear are incredible beaches and other natural settings worth exploring.  But the city alone was well worth the visit!

San Juan, Puerto Rico

You may know from prior posts that I grew up in Puerto Rico.  We moved there when I was two and I left at 17.  15 years to make San Juan a piece of my heart, as the lovely song says:  “En mi Viejo San Juan, cuantos cuantos sueños forjé en mis noches de infancia…”  The old part of San Juan is referred to as “el Viejo San Juan” to distinguish it from the more modern city around it.

El Morro, fortress, San Juan, Puerto Rico, fields, kites, Caribbean, view, vista, photo, travel, Canon EOS Rebel

Great fields facing the ocean (note the kites and the city walls) in El Morro

The small island where old San Juan sits is connected by bridges to the rest of the city and, if you don’t pay attention, you may not catch that.

Old San Juan is truly a living museum.  Centuries old, it has not been destroyed nor significantly burned so what you see is what it was and has always been.  But it is not a lifeless museum or collection of old buildings:  people work, shop, play and live in those old buildings!  The heat of the tropics is kind in Puerto Rico due to the strong breezes coming in from the Atlantic, at least on the northern and eastern side of the island so Old San Juan is a great place to spend time as it sits higher than sea level for the most part and the breezes, combined with the shadows the buildings offer part of the day, make it comfortable even for the most cold-loving snowbird.  When you go, make sure you explore the old forts and walls erected by the Spanish centuries ago.  For more of what to see in this incredible place and the rest of Puerto Rico, check out my recommendations on experiences to have in Puerto Rico!

Port of Spain, Trinidad & Tobago

The capital of Trinidad and Tobago sits in the island of Trinidad.  Facing the water but with hills around it, it is a melting pot of races and cultures which results in a fun place to discover, even when it is not Carnival (which I hear is phenomenal!).  I visited for a few days and enjoyed GREAT food (whether Italian, Indian, tropical, or other!).  I loved driving around the neighborhoods and seeing some neat island architecture.

Trinindad, food, fish, rice, tropical, travel

A delicious lunch at Veni Mangé in Port of Spain was well-deserving of thanks!

While Port of Spain definitely has an industrial side to it, it has many other awesome areas to spend time in – and don’t forget Maracas Bay not too far away (passing through a beautiful tropical forest and great ocean views from the road!).

Port of Spain, Trinidad, Tobago, architecture, dark sky, travel, photo

Great architecture in Port of Spain!

Port of Spain, Trinidad, Tobago, architecture, dark sky, travel, photo

Modern architecture? Check!

The world has many capitals in the warmer climates.  In fact, quite a bit!  Here is to getting to explore many more of them!  Have any recommendations??

Photos of the Week: Ships Awaiting Canal Crossing – from the Air

The Panama Canal, of which I have written about before, is a marvel of engineering.  Not only the lock system but also the massive works required to create the channel and the man-made lake that serves as the holding pond for the ships in the middle of their passage.  Ships await passage in either side of the Canal, in the Atlantic or Pacific, as well as in that holding pond of a lake.

An uncle of mine was able to take two amazing pictures that capture “the scene” of ships waiting.  The ships look like ants – or tadpoles!

Panama Canal, ships, photo, sea, ocean

(Photo courtesy of M.J. Pabón)

Panama Canal, ships, photo, sea, ocean

(Photo courtesy of M.J. Pabón)

What do you think??

 

 

Roadside Treats on the Way to Maracas Bay, Trinidad

I think I must be hungry because chadon beni has been on my mind today…  It is making me remember my trip to to Maracas Bay in Trinidad.  On the way there, we made a stop for “Trini-Treats”, a roadside kiosk with a neat array of munchies, some familiar to me having grown up in another Caribbean island, but most quite unique to Trinidad & Tobago and, therefore, new to me.  At first, I was not sure these treats were for me.  Definitely not anything with coconut; coconut is just not for me.  Mango slices immersed in some pickled liquid, Patsy’s channa, and other stuff I did not recognize made me wonder if anything here would be for me.

Trinidad, chadon beni, roadside stand, Maracas Bay, food, foodie, photo

My host and I beginning to explore all the offerings – a little overwhelming at first

Trinidad, chadon beni, roadside stand, Maracas Bay, food, foodie, photo

The young writer seriously concentrating on the options at hand

Thankfully, our local host ignored our initial hesitation and got some samples of the different items.  I was very pleasantly surprised.  My favorite was the pears immersed in chow which is some sort of pickled liquid infused with chadon beni (culantro in other parts of the Caribbean, a strong flavored herb; with some garlic and black pepper, depends on the particular jar) – a great flavor combination!

chadon beni, pickled fruits, Trinidad, Maracas Bay, roadside food, food, tasty, treats,, Trini

Pineapple slices

chadon beni, pickled fruits, Trinidad, Maracas Bay, roadside food, food, tasty, treats,, Trini

Pears

chadon beni, pickled fruits, Trinidad, Maracas Bay, roadside food, food, tasty, treats,, Trini chadon beni, pickled fruits, Trinidad, Maracas Bay, roadside food, food, tasty, treats,, Trini

chadon beni, pickled fruits, Trinidad, Maracas Bay, roadside food, food, tasty, treats,, Trini

Mango slices

After that, we decided to get a few more of these delicious treats before continuing to Maracas Bay where bake ‘n shark awaited…  Famous “Richard’s” was closed for renovations so we just headed next door.  I loved the self-serve on the toppings and had a most delicious lunch.

Maracas Bay, bake and shark at Trinidad and Tobago

Bake and shark goodness!

This “beach” food sampler is just one example of many of the great food to be experienced in the lovely islands of Trinidad & Tobago.  Can’t wait to return!

At Punta Cana and Altos de Chavon in the Dominican Republic

My family does enjoy the beach more so one of the options when we travel together and are not hitting a cruise (a great way for us to travel together) is to go to a nice resort.  A few years back, we chose to go to Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic, where we stayed at a Riu resort.  We lived for many years next door in Puerto Rico and were quite familiar with the Dom. Rep. since there were many Dominicans in P.R. and you heard about it often enough in TV.  But I had never gone.

Now, I am not known to be the type to lay at a beach for hours on end, days on end.  I like my time in the beach to be an hour or two, most of that in the shade of some tree (or umbrella) enjoying the breezes and sounds of the sea – a most relaxing activity.  Couple that with a beverage and it is perfect.  Then I get bored.  Sure, a dip in the water or two helps.  And then I move on.

Punta Cana

Punta Cana is on the eastern coast of the Dom. Rep. – almost exactly on the easternmost tip of the Hispaniola, pointing towards Puerto Rico.  There are many resorts in the area at all price levels.  The beaches are Caribbean prime.  Why go further from North America with places like this at its doorstep!  The resort had a great beach and great pools – areas we enjoyed on a daily basis even if sometimes I just hung out under the shade napping or reading a book.  Of course, food is part of the enjoyment of a good vacation and we ate pretty well.Riu resort, Punta Cana, pool, Dominican Republic, Caribbean, travel resort, Punta Cana, pool, Dominican Republic, Caribbean, travel, beachThe room was very spacious and very nicely done – that’s all REAL wood, not pressed wood…

Rio resort, bedroom, kid playing video game, hotel, Dominican Republic, Riu resort, Punta Cana, Caribbean, travel

My nephew enjoying the resort room while playing his beloved video games!

Altos de Chavón, La Romana

But, the itch to explore is never down-and-out with me so we did plan for a day of seeing the countryside and visiting a couple of places we had heard about before.  One, the basilica of Altagracia in Higüey, was on our way out to La Romana so it was an easy stop to admire this massive church.  At La Romana, we visited Altos de Chavón, a charming recreation of any-town Middle Age Europe, complete with an amphitheater that has been used by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Duran Duran, and Julio Iglesias.

Altos de Chavon, Dominican Republic, La Romana, travel,

Beautiful medieval European architecture with tropical foliage!

Altos de Chavon, Dominican Republic, La Romana, travel, skinny cat

The skinniest cat I have seen. It was tough being a medieval cat!

Altos de Chavon, Dominican Republic, La Romana, travel, , door

Charming details around the town

Altos de Chavon, Dominican Republic, La Romana, travel, amphitheater

The amphitheater – would love to see a show here

We all enjoyed walking around, exploring the town, looking at the shops and, why not, even a burro ride!

Altos de Chavon, La Romana, Dominican Republic, girl on a burro

My niece enjoying a ride around the town

On the way out we crossed the Chavon River which offered incredible views!Chavon River, La Romana, Dominican Republic Chavon River, La Romana, Dominican RepublicLeaving this corner of paradise was hard to do but this view was a nice departing gift!

fly over, Punta Cana, resorts, sea, beaches, Dominican Republic

View of Punta Cana resorts from the plane

Have you been to the Dominican Republic?  What are your favorite spots there?

 

11 Experiences to Have in Puerto Rico

Because I lived in Puerto Rico for 15 years, I often get asked about what to do and where to stay in this beautiful island.  Of course, these things depend on the type of vacation one is looking for, one’s general preferences, etc. but I can usually provide a varied list of recommendations so others can then pick and choose what sounds good for them.  I will share here the recommendations I have for someone wanting to experience Puerto Rico.  Feel free to ask questions!

Take part in the fiestas patronales (patron saint feasts)

Each town in Puerto Rico has its patron saint.  Around the feast day of the saint, the town has a “fiesta patronal” with a lively parade (heck, everything is lively in Puerto Rico!), music, games, artisans, and food and a very lively atmosphere!  Find a piragüero to make you a piragua (shaved ice with your favorite flavor syrup on it!).

fiestas patronales, patron saint, puerto rico, festivals, music, entertainment, trave,

(Source: www.latinamericatoday.net)

Enjoy Luquillo’s beaches

The beaches of Luquillo, along with Rincón‘s on the west coast, are some of the best on the island.  Luquillo is due east of San Juan and along the way one can stop at the food kiosks off the main road.  These kiosks used to be “huts” but, along the way, the government decided to build them better structures.  I don’t know how many there are but probably over 50 of these eateries.  Stop and taste some of the different foods and maybe a cold beer!

If you feel like it, drive further east to the town of Fajardo.  You can visit its old lighthouse “Faro de las Cabezas“.  You can also drive to the former El Conquistador Hotel (it seems to change name every few years so I stick to the original which everyone knows there) which offers great views cays and the sea below.  It was a very famous hotel in its heyday before it went into decay in the 1970s.  It has been resurrected a few times and it is currently a hotel open for business.

Visit the world’s largest single dish telescope

Made even more famous by the Jodie Foster movie, Contact, and the James Bond movie, Golden Eye, this observatory, built in 1963, is famous for being the largest single dish telescope in the world.  Its diameter is 1,000 ft and it is impressive to see it firsthand, nestled in a small valley.  When I went many years ago (when it was being run by Cornell University), there was a recording playing at the observation deck describing the observatory.  It is from this radio observatory that a message was sent in 1974 by SETI to anyone out there listening that Earth existed and was populated by us.  “Look at me!  Look at me!”  (Like I want angry or scary aliens being alerted to our existence…)

radio, telescope, largest radio telescope, arecibo, puerto rico, wonder, science, SETI

(Source: www.naic.edu)

Go off the mainland to Vieques and Culebra

If Puerto Rico is small, Vieques and Culebra are even smaller but they both offer a nice getaway to a more remote part of the island group.  Vieques was the former location of a U.S. military base so part of it is not as developed as you would expect since the closure of the base is relatively recent.  But I hear that it has been developed smartly.  I have not been to Culebra and, from what I gather, it is less developed.  Either would be great for R&R!

Go under in the Cuevas de Camuy

The caves (or is it more accurate to say “caverns“? some day I will study the difference…) of the Río Camuy, just west of Arecibo, are definitely worth a visit (60 mies or so west of San Juan but miles in PR do not equate easily to time – lots of traffic!).  Due to the proximity to Arecibo, it may be worth combining this visit with the radio telescope since the latter is a fairly quick stop.   The Río Camuy, it may surprise many to know given the smallness of the island, is the world’s third largest underground river.  The river has carved these caves (about 10 miles of them, very little of it accessible to the public) from limestone and you can visit them and ride in them – no worries, the assumed half a million resident bats are likely asleep during the daytime.  But if you go, go early as they stop letting people in after a daily quota has been met (1,500 visitors last I checked).

Visit the pearl of the south:  Ponce

Cross the island from San Juan to Ponce (an hour plus drive) via a scenic drive, and visit the “pearl of the South.”  Ponce is named after the first governor of Puerto Rico:  Juan Ponce de León and later explorer of what became Florida.  Ponce is Puerto Rico’s second largest city.  It has a totally different feel than San Juan’s metropolitan area:  a slower pace, and even the climate is different being a little drier.  Its art museum is well done and its old fire station (Parque de Bombas) is very picturesque.  Both were the target of a special field trip from my high school for the freshman class every year (only an hour plus from San Juan but THAT is considered a LONG trip in this small island!).

Ponce, Puerto Rico, fire station, parque de bombas, red, travel, photo

Ponce’s Parque de Bombas

Explore Old San Juan 

Founded on 1521, there are not enough words to describe how unique Old San Juan is.  Only Havana is competition for OSJ, I hear.  It is the oldest city in the United States, pre-dating St. Augustine by a few decades.  Its cobblestone streets, its beautiful multi-century old buildings (built before anything was built by Europeans in the continental U.S.), and its plazas make this a true jewel of a town.  I appreciate it a lot more now that I no longer live there and have seen more of the world – beats a lot of old towns I have seen.  (Check out my post about OSJ here.)

As a kid, my Dad used to drive us up the hill to enter the old quarter, then along the north coast (with the shantytown La Perla down below the city wall), into the heart of old San Juan to then drive through the old San Juan Gate (a sea-facing gate in the city walls).  Right after going downhill through the gate, the road turned immediately to the left but my Dad used to pretend we were going straight into the water, a thrill ride that I fell for every single time!

Puerta de San Juan, San Juan, Puerto Rico, city walls, fortifications

This is where the gate met the water (Source: www.topuertorico.org which offers great tips)

This gate is the last remaining gate along the city’s walls.  This gate is now pedestrian only and the left turn now takes you down a pleasant walk down the Paseo La Princesa (site of a former jail!).  The city walls are incredible and are preserved along the waterfront but not the inland part.  You can explore these by walking into a garita (guard posts) where Spanish soldiers used to keep watch for foreign invaders and pirates.

The crowning pieces of Old San Juan are the fortresses of San Cristóbal and San Felipe del Morro (El Morro).  The latter is more imposing but the former is also worth a visit.  Do take a tour when you visit so you can grasp how incredible these structures are due to their age, their construction and their history.  The field in front of El Morro is great for a picnic or fly to kites as you look out on the Atlantic Ocean.  I loved going there as a kid.

El Morro, fortress, San Juan, Puerto Rico, fields, kites, Caribbean, view, vista, photo, travel, Canon EOS Rebel

Great fields facing the ocean (note the kites and the city walls) in El Morro

There is a cemetery at the foot of the city walls of that field but, be careful if you decide to go to the cemetery…  visitors are easy prey in this important cemetery in San Juan.  I will not keep expanding on all there is to do in OSJ (there is a LOT to see!) but there are small museums, art galleries, bars, etc.  Just walk around and explore!

See La Parguera’s bioluminescent bay in the southwest

This bay in the southwest town of Lajas is a unique place.  The thing to do is to get in a small boat and go into the bay at night.  When the still waters are disturbed, the microorganisms that live in the bay glow.  I have actually never gone but it is famous.  When I return to Puerto Rico some day, this is on my list of things to check off!

Experience Loíza aldea

Loíza is a coastal town east of San Juan that seems to have preserved more of the African heritage of the island than the rest of the island.  Stop and try any of the local restaurants / stands and try “salmorejo” (crab dish) or any of the fried foods!  This is definitely off-the-beaten path for visitors.

Drive the mountain towns and see their main plazas

This is my favorite thing.  Puerto Rico is made up of 70-odd towns, each with a center following the traditional Spanish colonial pattern of a main plaza with the town hall on one side and the main church on the opposite side (the other two sides were houses of better-off families back in the day).  Though they sound very similar, each is quite unique and it is fun to visit and see the differences.  Some of the towns are on the coast but the center of the island is mountainous so visiting the inland towns also has the side benefit of driving around the mountains and tropical forests of the island.  Of course, the main plaza in the capital city, San Juan, is very nice but others compete favorably!  Though I have never visited it, I hear Guayama‘s is one of the prettiest.

Porta Coeli, San German, Puerto Rico, church, pueblo, travel

Vintage photo of the Porta Coeli church in San Germán

Go tropical in El Yunque

The mountain of El Yunque east of San Juan, past the airport is actually not Puerto Rico’s tallest point but it is its most notable one as it is quite standalone in comparison to Cerro de Punta (the tallest point in the island at around 4,400 ft).  It is neat to visit as it allows you to see tropical flora at its best.  My favorite are the gargantuan ferns.  You can also get off at the waterfalls and climb around or get in the water.  It is a neat visit, especially if you are headed to the Luqillo beaches or the food kiosks!

There are other neat places to see and visit (e.g., the Bacardi distillery!) but I did not want to write my favorite 111 things to see and do, so I chopped off a digit (not a finger!) and kept it to 11.  Please feel free to ask any questions if you are planning or thinking of a visit to Puerto Rico!

Photo of the Week – Mayan Ruins of Altun Ha, Belize

This is the view down from the high pyramid at Altun Ha in Belize.  This is easy to visit whether you are visiting the country lounging on its great beaches or are in the country for a day stop in a cruise!

Belize, Mayan ruins, Altun Ha, archeology, photo, travel, cruise, Central America, pyramid

Four Decades of the Panama Canal

I have been to Panama a few times in my life as I have relatives who live there.  During those visits I have enjoyed Panama City itself, traveled to see El Valle, been to the beaches near Coronado, visited isolated populations on ecotourism visits, spent time on the beautiful island of Contadora (in the Pearl Archipelago) and visited the famous -and vital- Panama Canal.  As I scanned old pictures in a “digitization” effort, I realized I have visited the Panama Canal once every decade since the 1970s. Looking at my pictures from every decade made me think how differently I have “seen” the Canal over the decades that I have been visiting it – with the same eyes but with different “eyes”…

Paitilla in Panama City, Panama from the Casco Viejo (Old Town)

Looking towards part of Paitilla district from the Casco Viejo of Panama City

The Panama Canal – An Engineering Feat

Long the dream of many, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans would require incredible engineering, and human effort and sacrifice – whether it had been built tapping the inland lakes of Nicaragua, creating a sea-to-rail-to-sea solution anywhere in Central America, or leveraging the narrowness of the Isthmus of Panama.  Eventually it was the Americans who got the Canal done.

Constructing the Canal was no small feat:  besides incredible engineering it also required the “skill” to not kill off your workers (many imported into the area) with the heat, yellow fever, and pure good ole hard work (no passing grade on keeping workers alive… over 5,000 died).  Construction required cutting to create the channel, creating a massive inland lake (Lake Gatún) to hold ships as they made the passage, and then setting up infrastructure for the people who would run and work the Canal (and live in the Canal Zone).

Panama Canal, mule, ship, Panamax, Canal Zone, Panama, photo, Canon EOS Rebel, shipping

My first visit – through a kid’s eyes

During my first visit in the 1970s, as a kid, I was fascinated by the big ships that passed right by us at the viewing stand set up for visitors to observe the process of a ship going through the locks (in this case, the Miraflores Locks near Panama City).  This process involved raising or lowering a ship by using water (more on this later).  I remember the awe of being so close to a massive ship!  I remember my young cousin giving me the history of the Canal as he clearly had just learned it in school.  By looking at my pictures, I can tell I was more interested in little details than the whole.  For example, not one picture capturing the entire Miraflores Locks building.  It only shows as a backdrop to the locks. Another picture just focuses on the wheel of a “mule” (the tows that pull the ships along the locks) instead of capturing what a mule looks like, as the photo below shows.  (Clearly, my photography skills and camera equipment have evolved since 1978!)

Panama Canal, Panama, Canal Zone, engineering, mule, mule wheel, feat, marvel, locks, water, Panamax

The details that seem to have fascinated me

Back in the 80s – through an engineer’s eyes

Returning to the Canal in the 1980s when I was studying engineering, I was more curious about how the lock system actually worked.  Pretty neat to understand that water is at the core of the operation, and not just because this is about ships.  Water is part of the mechanics, if you will.  They could have cut deep into the mountains, removing them to create a sea level -ish passageway through Panama’s interior (a LOT of work).  Instead, the brilliant engineers came up with a solution that saved all that work by creating a high lake in the interior to allow navigation.  The challenge:  how to get the ships UP to the lake level and then back DOWN.  Enter, stage left, the locks.  The locks allow for the ships to be elevated to the lake and brought back down to the other ocean’s level as the following photos illustrate.

Panama Canal, mule, ship, Panamax, Canal Zone, Panama, photo, Canon EOS Rebel, shipping

A ship approaches the Miraflores locks. Notice its height and the two mules pulling it along.

Panama Canal, mule, ship, Panamax, Canal Zone, Panama, photo, Canon EOS Rebel, shipping

Where the ship is headed:  to the Pacific. Notice the two water levels on either side of the locks.

Panama Canal, mule, ship, Panamax, Canal Zone, Panama, photo, Canon EOS Rebel, shipping

The ship exits the locks after both sides of the locks were at the same level. Notice now the height of the ship!

Panama Canal, mule, ship, Panamax, Canal Zone, Panama, photo, Canon EOS Rebel, shipping

With the ship gone, the locks begin to close and the right side will fill up again so the next ship can enter that “chamber”

By the way, the Pacific coast of Panama and the Atlantic coast are not at the same level (something I have never fully grasped) so locks would have been involved even if the lake had not been used as a solution…  Water from the inland lake is used in this process.

My third visit in the 1990s – through the eyes of history

When I returned over 10 years later, the center of my attention was the historic event about to happen:  completing the transfer of the Canal Zone from the U.S. (in whose hands it had been since the days the Canal was being built) to sovereign Panamanian territory and administration.  As I entered the Canal Zone, I recalled its look and feel from my prior visits when perfectly manicured gardens and tidy streets were all around giving this tropical place an American feel.  I remember seeing the houses where Canal employees lived and it seemed a little bit of a paradise, even if more hot and humid than Paradise (with a capital P!) would likely be…

Panama Canal, mule, ship, Panamax, Canal Zone, Panama, photo, Canon EOS Rebel, shipping

An old mule on display

Parts of the Canal Zone had begun to switch already to Panamanian hands ahead of the 1999 final turnover by the time I came that decade.  It was interesting to see how you could tell what parts were still in U.S. hands and which were not.  I also remember the concerns at the time of whether the Canal would be managed well by the Panamanians and whether that was a smart decision on both sides back when the treaty was signed in the late 1970s.  Only time would tell…

My most recent visit – eyes under the stars

Time passed and I returned in 2007 but the visit was a little different than my prior ones.  Though I did visit family my main reason to go to Panama was work.  I was attending a meeting for 3 days in one of the buildings of the Canal Zone that had become part of a business park – one of the many remnants of the time when the U.S. administered the Canal.

Panama Canal, mule, ship, Panamax, Canal Zone, Panama, photo, Canon EOS Rebel, shipping

Former Canal Zone administration building in the business park where my workshop took place

By then, the Canal had been completely under Panamanian control for 8 years and -guess what – it seemed all those concerns about Panama managing the Canal were way off.  The Canal Zone felt vibrant, with areas converted to commercial use or tourist destinations, with the Canal’s locks bustling with activity, and with plans for the Canal’s expansion already underway to support super tankers that went beyond Panamax (the maximum size for a ship that can go through he Canal).

I was not really planning to visit the Canal itself at Miraflores to witness the crossing of a ship as I had seen that already. However, the workshop I was attending had a surprise in store:  it organized an evening out at a restaurant located on a building right at Miraflores where from its terrace up high, you could see the ships making their way in and out of the Canal.  Not only was seeing this from up high pretty neat, we got to see this at night which was also a first for me.  So despite the slight rain and it being my fourth time seeing the Canal, the experience was new and I enjoyed the great vantage point.

The 2010s visit – what eyes will I bring?

I have not seen where the expansion project is these days but I assume that the next time I go (I am due for the trip of this decade), I will get to see the expanded Canal (at Miraflores, this means a new third “lane” for the wider ships) and I hope it will be from up high again with a cocktail in hand to cheer the amazing place that has been and will continue to be this engineering wonder.  ¡Salud!

Panama Canal, mule, ship, Panamax, Canal Zone, Panama, photo, Canon EOS Rebel, shipping

The hundred year old Miraflores building

Photo of the Week: León, Nicaragua

I visited the town of León, Nicaragua a couple of times for half days during my visits to Nicaragua in the mid-2000s.  Its main plaza is typical of the Spanish colonial layout seen all throughout parts of the Caribbean, and Central and South America.  León adds a nice touch with a statue in the plaza…

Plaza and cathedral in Leon, Nicaragua statue travel Canon EOS Rebel

The lion roars!

Photo of the Week: The Basilica de Nuestra Señora de la Altagracia

The title of this post seems like a mouthful:  Basílica de Nuestra Señora de la Altagracia (Basilica of our Lady of Altagracia).

Basilica Altagracia Higüey Dominican Republic church

This massive structure in Higüey, Dominican Republic is to honor the Virgin of Altagracia, national patron saint of the country.  It was inaugurated in the 1970s and is within reach of many tourist centers in the DR, like Punta Cana.  Its design is very original and it is worth checking out whenever you are ready to take a break from the beach!  While you are at it, maybe meander around town – who knows what hole-in-the-wall delicious food you may find!  A few more photos to wrap this post!

Basilica Altagracia Higüey Dominican Republic church

Basilica Altagracia Higüey Dominican Republic church

Detail of the front door

Basilica Altagracia Higüey Dominican Republic church

 

Curacao Photo Essay: Art, Architecture and Some Very Dark Skies

I enjoyed food, music and sun in Curacao but I also enjoyed admiring the art and architecture in this amazing island!  High kudos to the Hotel Kura Holanda for preserving the beautiful architecture and allowing visitors to walk through it!

No better way than sharing pictures to help you see what caught my eye. 

Click on the picture to see a full version of the photo, not just a cropped thumbnail version!  Then leave me a comment telling me which is your favorite (you can refer to the number in the caption).

Having a Good Time in Willemstad, Curacao: Beach, Food and Music

Last year, I visited Curacao, formerly part of the Netherlands Antilles, with a couple of friends after spending a few days in Trinidad and Tobago.  Curacao is an interesting place – the Netherlands in the Caribbean, for sure, but also an incredible melting pot – many folks speak Spanish due to its proximity to and semi-shared history with nearby South America.  Yet it also shares a lot with the other Dutch islands in the hood as well with Surinam, another former Dutch colony.

Curacao, license plate

Even the license plate shows off the beautiful architecture

There is much to write about this island.  I struggled with how to not write about it all in one long post.  So this post will focus on the food, fun and beach as I experienced in a very short visit.  I did not get to scratch the surface of what Curacao has to offer so I will, upfront, tell you that and then challenge you to discover Curacao yourself and perhaps share back with me what you discovered!

An upcoming post will focus more on the incredible charming architecture of this island.  Enjoy!

My hotel

First, Curacao’s capital, Willemstad (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), has two sides along the canal that splits it:  Punda and Otrobanda.  Punda is the better known side with the pretty pictures folks normally see whenever Curacao is mentioned (more on this in the next post!).  Otrobanda is or was the poorer side though it contains some neat/charming architecture too.

I chose the Renaissance in Curacao (part of the Marriott family) as my hotel, located in Otrobanda right by the canal entrance.  While the hotel was not an all-around knock-out (e.g., the confusion at breakfast on what was included in my rate and what was not), there were a couple of things that hit it out of the ballpark.  One was the upgrade they welcomed me with.  A corner suite was definitely a great way to greet a Platinum guest.  Thank you for that!!  I wish I had had others sharing the room with me but that was not the case so the space was not taken advantage of.  But what I did greatly enjoy was the humongous bathroom!  Larger than my master bedroom at home!

A cruise ship passes my hotel room at the Renaissance in Willemstad, Curacao

The view from my room includes passing cruise ships!

But what really blew me away was the infinity pool.  Now you may say “seen one, seen them all” but, my friends, this was no ordinary infinity pool:  it was a beach on an infinity pool!  You walked into it as you would on a beach from the sand and the beach chairs.  It was huge and at the far end, the wall dropped down to the rocks by the sea.  When I first exited the hotel and looked at the pool, it seemed the sea was part of the water in the pool – I did not realize it was a pool at all!!   Bravo, Renaissance!

Infinity beach pool at the Renaissance hotel in Willemstad, Curacao

Heavenly!

Beach

Curacao has lots of beaches to choose from, 38 or so.  Some of the best are on the west end of the island.  Beaches in Curacao are not the typical long stretches of sand and surf that we typically envision.  Instead they are smaller, less obscenely huge places to enjoy the sun and surf!   We picked Mambo Beach just for being convenient to us as we were staying in Willemstad and had not rented a car.  I imagine it is far from the best beach but it was definitely enjoyable.

Map showing Mambo Beach, Curacao

Food and Entertainment

We ate at a couple of places that also doubled as entertainment with live music.  I could have kept returning to these places except I ran out of nights!

On our first night, we decided to watch sunset at a high vantage point on the fortress walls in Otrobanda at the entrance to the canal leading to the bay/port.  It was very near to the hotel and these places offered the right angle at sunset to look -or stare- at beautiful Punda!

View of Punda at sunset from Otrobanda in Willemstad, Curacao

Beautiful Punda at sunset

Wine as we enjoy the view of Punda from Otrobanda in Willemstad, Curacao

Wine sets the right mood…

Along the fortress wall in Otrobando in Willemstad, Curacao

Along the city wall we were lounging at

Later that night, we went to Avila Blues Bar for both dinner and entertainment.  The hotel is well known for hosting the Dutch royal family (allegedly, the heir to the throne comes to play here, wink, wink).  The blues bar is on a pier by itself so you are sitting above the sea.  The band plays on a loft-like second story above the bar.  The food was great and so was the music.  More importantly:  great atmosphere!

Avila Hotel Blues Bar by the sea near Willemstad, Curacao

For lunch one day, we sat at one of the average cafés right by the canal that is the entrance to large bay (St. Anna Bay).  While the food was not spectacular, watching people, ships and the movable-floating bridge (aka, Queen Emma Bridge) was fascinating or, at least, entertaining (notice the mist in the picture below coming out under some umbrellas).

Waterfront cafes and restaurants in Willemstad in Curacao by the entrance to the bay

Curacao floating bridge in Willemstand

The floating bridge passes us by as we ate lunch

The Queen Emma "floating" bridge in Willemstand, Curacao is for pedestrians

When not pulled away to let boats pass, the Queen Emma “floating” bridge is for pedestrians

Another night, we went to a Cuban place near the old fortress walls in Willemstad called Mr. Congas.  Its owner is a friendly but serious Cuban guy – the music is authentic (take it from this son of Cubans!) and the food is decent (but I have had and can cook it better!).  The place has an indoor space built into the former fortress walls and an outdoor area where the live music plays.  It was a great evening to sit outside, listen to music (dance for those so inclined), eat, and have a few drinks!

Live Cuban music at Mr. Congas in Willemstad, Curacao

Cuban food at Mr. Congas in Willemstad, Curacao

Cuban food at Mr. Congas in Willemstad, Curacao

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Curacao has a lot to offer – much beyond beaches.  Beautiful architecture, sun, surf, food and a lively entertainment scene.  It is a definite must-see in the Caribbean!

Couple enjoying the view of Punda across from Otrobando in Willemstad, Curacao

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