Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Colombian Coast - Cartagena

Cartagena de Indias (Cartagena of the Indies) is the most visited place in Colombia, so I am told.  I believe that.

After a few days of wandering around the city, I have been overwhelmed by the billions of vendors hawking all kinds of merchandise to tourists.

I take exception to these hucksters who like to shout at you, "Hey Amigo".  First of all, if you have to call me "amigo", then I'm pretty sure I'm NOT your amigo.

Let me save you some time: When I'm at the beach (or having a drink with somebody in the plaza at an outdoor cafe) I am NOT interested in crappy jewelery, a massage, a trip to the Rosario Islands, portraits, a riding lawnmower, or anything else.

And when I say "NO" ... RESPECT THAT!  Do NOT continue to pursue me.  If you harass me too much, you will regret it.  That's not a threat -- it's a promise.

Oh, and no, I'm not dumb enough to exchange money from you, the shady looking guy in a dirty golf shirt and ugly sunglasses.  Yeah, so you're offering me a better exchange rate than the bank because what ... you're just a good guy?

How hospitable of you.

Of course, I don't want it to sound like I have a negative opinion of Cartagena.  On the contrary.

I find it to be a fascinating city.  If you're at all interested in history, it's a great place.  It's one of the oldest cities in the Americas.  And how many cities were fortified to protect against attacks from pirates, the French, the British, and the Dutch?

Not many.

They have done a good job at preserving the historic old walled city.  I love wandering aimlessly inside the walls, watching people, checking out the various shops, cafes, street entertainers, and whatever else strikes me as interesting.

The city is not just a Latin American city; it's also distinctly Caribbean in nature.  Various cultures blend together here -- Spanish, African, creole, and the indigenous groups of the region.  Together, you get something that is unique and will have an appeal to many a visitor from around the world.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Drinking in Panama

Panama, like its Caribbean neighbors, likes its rum.  And lots of it.

It's the first thing you're likely to notice when you're in the liquor aisle at the grocery store in Panama City.  Front and center is Ron Abuelo.  At the Super 99 grocery chain, a 750 mL bottle of the añejo goes for $5.99.

In fact, rum is so popular here, you can get smaller bottles for between $2 and $3.  Cheap.


But if you're more of a beer person, Panama offers a four of its own brands.

The top two sellers (based on my scientific research of seeing how much shelf space each gets in the Super 99) are Balboa and Atlas.

Balboa is named after the famed Conquistador, and reminds one more of European type beers -- ie., stronger.  Atlas is lighter.

And then there's Panama brand beer. (Hmmm ... how did they come up with that name?) This one also tends to be on the lighter side.

A fourth locally brewed choice is Soberana.  It seems to be the least preferred of the four.


At Super 99, a six-pack of Balboa goes for $2.77, while Atlas is $3.12.  Individual cans of either of the four local brews go for 52 cents each.


But aside from rum and beer, there's another drink of note in Panama -- seco.

Invented in 1908 by the Varela family, their Herrerano brand is the easiest to find here.  It's regarded as Panama's national alcoholic beverage.

Basically, it's fermented sugar cane.  Strong ... as in 70 proof.  Be careful.

Seco sometimes replaces rum or vodka in mixed drinks, and can be mixed with anything from tropical fruit juices to milk.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Panama's Curious Currency

Officially, Panama's currency is the Balboa, which has been fixed at a rate of 1:1 to the U.S. dollar since Panama became an independent nation in 1904.

It's named in honor of Spanish conquistador Vasco Núñez de Balboa, who lead the first European expedition across the Isthmus of Panama, in 1513.  In doing so, he and his men became the first Europeans to make it to the Pacific Ocean.

But while the Balboa is the official currency, you'll never see a Balboa bank note.  They don't exist.  In fact, they were only ever printed on one occasion, in 1941.  And those notes were recalled seven days after they hit the streets.

Instead, the country simply uses U.S. dollars.  But when you get change, take a close look at the interesting coins you receive.

You might receive regular U.S. coins.  Or you might get some of these:

The big coin on the left is a Medio Balboa, or half-dollar.  Unlike in the U.S., where half-dollars have disappeared, the half-Balboa coins circulate freely here.

Next is the Cuarto de Balboa (quarter), the Decimo de Balboa, Cinco Centesimos (5 cents), and the Centesimo (penny).

And yes, the Balboa coins are made to the exact same dimensions, weight, and composition as their U.S. counterparts.  In fact, they are minted by none other than the U.S. Mint.

In Panama, use either Balboas or U.S. coins.  Your change will often include a mix of the two.

Hugo Chavez: The Biggest Clown in the Americas

Editorial cartoon in today's edition of La Prensa, Panama's newspaper of record:

Sunday, July 25, 2010

What's NOT in Panama, and What IS in Panama

As I scour the city for the familiar and the not-so-familiar stores and restaurants, sadly, I have not uncovered any Starbucks, Krispy Kreme Doughnuts, or Carl's Jr. locations.

But I will assume it's only a matter of days, if not hours, until Starbucks shows up.

Most of the familiar food chains are here.  A visit to the MultiPlaza mall alone, and you'll find McDonalds, Burger King, KFC, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, Quizno's, Dairy Queen, Cinnabon, Subway, and Tony Roma's.

In other places, I've also spied Popeye's, Dunkin Donuts, Baskin Robbins, and Wendy's.

When it comes to retail, you won't find any of the familiar U.S. department stores, but the malls (aside from MultiPlaza, there's MultiCentro, Albrook, and a newer mall near Tocumen Airport) do have more than their fair share of brand outlets, including The Gap, Hugo Boss, Levi's, Zegna, and others whose names escape me at the moment.

Oh, and you won't find an Apple Store, but instead a "Mac Store" at the Albrook Mall or MultiPlaza.  Not quite sure why they call it the Mac Store here, but whatever the case, it sells the same stuff as a regular Apple Store (just smaller in scale).

But in MultiPlaza, I also made a surprising discovery -- Sanborn's.

Yes, the popular Mexican chain has a restaurant/store right here in Panama City.  According to my sources, it had its grand opening in the fall of 2007.

A walk through the store, and it's the same Sanborn's you'll know from Mexico.

And also of note for those of you familiar with the malls in Mexico, you'll find a Cinepolis movie theater complex at MultiPlaza.

Meanwhile, at nearby MultiCentro, they've got Cinemark, another of the familiar movie houses in Mexico.

Panama: First Impressions

My first impression of Panama upon arrival was from my window seat on Mexicana Airlines.

What I first saw was a landscape of volcanoes and clouds near the Costa Rican border area.

Then I caught a glimpse of both oceans at the same time, as we crossed the Isthmus.

And as we had begun our descent into Tocumen International Airport, I was struck by the sight of some two dozen ships clustered near the Pacific entrance to the Canal, lining up and waiting for their turn to cross the famous Canal.

And once I caught a good look at the city itself?

I was struck by a very modern city, dotted with skyscrapers.

This city is at the junction point of the two Americas.  And it's clearly capitalizing on its location.
The Canal is doing great business -- over 14,000 boats cross each year, paying an average toll of $100,000.  That's $14 billion right there.

Aside from that, Panama City is a buzzing financial center, and is regarded as the banking capital of the Americas.

And as you look at the skyscrapers -- a mix of office buildings and apartments -- you notice that nearly half seem to have cranes at the top.  In other words, they’re still under construction.

I have yet to see any other city in North America with such economic activity happening all at once.

Panama is a city on the move.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010


After days of wandering aimlessly through God-knows-where in the jungles of Latin America, I have managed to locate signs of civilization ...