19 July 2011

Panamá Bound

"Alluring" view from our apartment-to-be
Our wonderful two weeks at Las Sirenas were bookended by stays in la cuidad de Panamá, first in Casco Viejo (the old sector) and last in Bella Vista, one of the central downtown neighborhoods. In both of our city sojourns, Kurt and Linda were fairly preoccupied with real estate excursions and decisions. On July 4, right before we left Panamá, we put down a deposit on an apartment, but not where we had originally envisioned buying our new home.

We had realized fairly quickly that Casco Viejo, despite its considerable charm (photos here), was not in our destiny, at least not in the foreseeable future. We enjoyed staying there, in a comfortable apartment with two bedrooms and very nice laundry facilities, and we certainly patronized as many of the area's outstanding restaurants as we could. But the absence of certain amenities - specifically a grocery store - was a hurdle we just could not get around given our vow to remain carless.

And the prices for renovated/reconstructed apartments seemed a bit high, especially since most of the places we looked at lacked some basic elements of architectural/engineering/interior design QA/QC.

  • Example 1: Why is the washer/dryer unit in the middle of the kitchen and why is it white when the other appliances are stainless steel? 
  • Example 2: Why are there 2 bathrooms on the ground floor but nowhere else in a 3-story apartment?
  • Example 3: Why are the doors and shutters in this apartment dark wood in the colonial style and the built-in closets and kitchen and bathroom cabinets blonde pine in the Scandinavian style?
We could go on. . . .

We also reviewed a couple of listings in the "Zone," the former U.S. managed territory, and while the views in some cases were great, accessibility to basic services was again an issue. Finally, we decided to look at some of the new high-rises which have changed the face of the city. On a nice, cooler overcast day we made a long walk from the Casco up the new Cinta Costera that runs along the Bay of Panamá, all the way to Punta Paitilla, through that neighborhood and then back towards the center of town and Bella Vista.

Sunrise downtown
Then we went to the beach for two weeks and thought about things. And while we doing that, we received a very good offer on our apartment in Buenos Aires, so things started to jell.

Nightime downtown
 On our return to the city, we stayed downtown so we could get a better feel for that area. In between eating Lebanese and Greek food, we zoomed in on a building close to completion with a name we prefer to pronounce Argentine style: a-zhur-ee at the Park. (Where do they come up with these monikers?) It's right across Avenida Balboa and the Cinta Costera from the bay, overlooking a rare neighborhood park with a baseball diamond for Little Leaguers, a playground for little kids and a basketball court for big ones, plus lots of trees and grass for dog-walkers (a hobby we hope to resume in the near future).

Zooming in on the causeway and beyond
Our apartment is #33B . . . yep, on the 33rd floor (40 was just a bit too high), with 2 bedrooms, 2.5 baths, a laundry room, a small study, and a nice living/dining combo that spreads from the open kitchen to the 25 square-meter terraza that stretches the length of the apartment, offering great views of the Bay, the entrance to the Canal and the ships waiting there, Amador Causeway and the islands to which it leads, and Taboga Island in the distance.

Plus we get to share the amenities of the common areas: pool, gym, game room, raquetball court, social area, event hall, etc. And best of all, just 1 block away, an excellent grocery store complete with a nice wine cellar stocked with some fine Chilean and Argentine wines at prices well below those charged in Argentina (go figure). We're supposed to move in early 2012. Stay tuned.

10 July 2011

Las Sirenas de Santa Clara

Paradise in Santa Clara, Panamá
Our long-planned home-exchange for a house on the beach in Panamá was a complete bust. Our erstwhile "partners" neglected to inform us until the day before our arrival that the beach cottage they had promised us for two weeks was having an entire second floor added and was thus incapable of housing anyone. Oops.

Such discourtesy, however, turned out to be a fortunate turn of events for us; destiny then took us past Gorgona, the site of the debacle, about 20 miles further west along the Pacific Coast to Santa Clara and a paradise called Las Sirenas.

Las Sirenas is a two-level compound of casitas for beach vacations: five up on the top of the hill overlooking the Pacific and six more in duplex style on the beach.

Casita 3 on the right
We - Kurt, Linda, and favorite daughter Belén - spent most of those two weeks in June in Casita #3, a palace on the hill with two bedrooms and two baths and two hammocks hanging from the porch columns. And a private parilla in front of that and a large bohio some meters more toward the edge of the hill which is a great place to lie back and marvel at the stars on those perfect clear nights. Also good for lounging on those perfect cloudy nights. More photos of the complex and our casita here.

Belén & Sirenacat
Every casita in Las Sirenas is patronized by a group of some four to five resident cats, all related and all usually ready to eat, although some are friendlier than others. During our stay at Las Sirenas, Belén finished the final edits of her new book and wrote an article for Al Jazeera. Among other things.

Kurt with new hat from El Valle

Kurt and Linda were left to their own devices: besides the usual beach/sea activities, they made several visits to El Valle de Antón, a little mountain village about a 40-minute drive from Santa Clara. The town has a very pleasant central mercado with artesanias and fresh produce, where Kurt acquired his authentic Panamanian hat and where we had a chance to hear Marcelo playing his home-made violin.

Jesús Segundo
Marcelo & violin
El Valle also is the starting point for several hiking tours into the mountains.

One morning we ventured along the trail leading past the Piedra Pintada, the most important of whose pictographs were interpreted for us by Jesús Segundo, who miraculously appeared as soon as we stopped in front of the stone. His pointing palo was waiting for us all. After paying Jesús Segundo the modest $1 fee he required, we followed the trail on up the mountainside past several waterfalls and pools set within a lush tropical background (photos here).

Then we made our way carefully back down for lunch at a nice cafe just across the main street from the public library. As we did on all our other visits to the cafe, we watched the stready stream of bikes going up and down the street, most with one rider on the seat and another on the frame. When it rained, which was fairly common, most people steered with one hand while holding an umbrella with the other.

Don Tenorio
Our last day in Santa Clara featured a tour of nearby Farallón, a small beach village bombed by the U.S. in December 1989 as part of the invasion of Panamá. Don Tenorio, who has worked at Las Sirenas for the last 38 years and who survived the raid, showed us what remained of the beach house owned by Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, target of the invasion but absent during that bombing run.

Ready for the grill
Don T. also lead us to the local fish market, where we paid $22 USD for eight lobster tails and eight jumbo shrimp that Kurt grilled for the farewell feast that evening. Photos of the excursion here.

Early the next morning, before heading back to the city of Panamá,  we walked down our beach to watch the fishing nets being pulled in from the shore. Photos here. We left as the sea gulls and pelicans did battle for the spoils. Impressive, as is obvious from the photo below that Kurt took at great peril to himself and Linda's camera.

Feeding frenzy
If you're thinking of a Las Sirenas vacation - and who wouldn't be? - go soon. The complex has been sold to developers and the destruction unfortunately will start in 2013.

Click here for more photos of beautiful Playa Santa Clara and one of its sirenas.