Guatemala Diary 2017 – Day One

It is such a joy to return to Guatemala every year (this is the third year for me) and having previously visited in November, then October, it was interesting to experience the different weather and scenery in September.  As usual, the primary objective was to teach gardening activities, healthy eating and exercise to the Maya kids in the schools, but there was plenty of time to see the sights, shop and do many fun things!  Day one, was mostly traveling, but we have to start somewhere!

We were ten in number ( Garden Club members, Master Gardeners, Nutritionists, and lovers of flowers and travel); despite very recent hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, etc., our flight from Houston to Guatemala City was smooth and even arrived before schedule!
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We stay at a coffee farm in the Central Highlands near El Tejar, Chimaltenango (which I believe in the Kaqchikel Maya language means “Place of the Shields”.)  While our suitcases were collected in a pick up truck and whisked away to the farm, we were whisked away to a delightful restaurant in Guatemala City called Los Cebollines.  Delightful place, wonderful food and drinks.
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Fortified by the food and drink, we set off on a scenic tour of the city before getting tangled up in traffic on Rt. 1, the Carretera Interamericana, stopping off at a grocery store for supplies
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and finally turning off in El Tejar on the bumpy road to Finca Xejuyu, in Kaqchikel “at the foot of the mountain”.   The best thing about “going back” is the welcoming smiles from those who live there – the cook and her helpers, the farm workers, and the children who remember you from previous visits.  We selected and settled into our rooms, and soon it was time for supper. The food is delicious – neither heavy nor over-spicy (although I do like spicy) but the flavorings blend so well that “spicy” is not necessary.  I’ll refer to some recipes later on as the time progresses!
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Our schedule had changed a little so after dinner we started preparing for our first school session, which had been moved from Wednesday to tomorrow (Monday) morning.    Some of us had only briefly met prior to travelling, so this was a great opportunity to get to know each other – finally after lots of snipping, taping, laughing and lots of note taking, we went off to our rooms to soak up the sounds of the night – frogs croaking, the occasional barking dog in the distance and the mandatory night rain on the roof, and a good night’s sleep!

 

 

Panama Diary May 2017 – Day Nine

Three of our group had a very early start, leaving the hotel soon after 4 am for an 8 am flight.   My group was next, but we didn’t have to leave until around 8 am, so there was time for a quick walk around the pools and view the ocean at low tide.  It was interesting to see all the ships lined up waiting to enter the Canal for their South-North transit

Once at the airport we all went our separate ways, shopping and looking around the very nice facilities of Tocumen International Airport, and left on time for an uneventful flight to Miami.


In summary, this was a wonderful trip.  Panama has much to offer but hasn’t been exploited by tourism.  Most cruise ship passengers go through the Canal, and often can take some side trips to see the Embera Indians, Panama City and maybe time in Gamboa Rainforest, but they miss the essence and beauty of the country.  This land tour offered some of the Canal Experience, and so much more!  It is not hard to see why many expats are now making their home in Panama, in the City, along the coast, and up in the highlands.  Panama City is very modern, with a beautiful skyline of sparkling skyscrapers, but also has a fine Old City (Casco Viejo) with rambling streets and colonial buildings being restored to their original glory, and another old part consisting of the original canal workers’ lodgings.  The Pan-American Highway is well surfaced and a good road to travel on from the Darien to the western border with Costa Rica.  There is no throughway from Panama into Colombia because of the difficulties of chopping through the jungle, and because being environmentally and ecologically minded, the government does not want to disturb the flora and fauna existing in this jungle/rainforest.  Sugar cane is grown extensively, and very fine rum is produced in the Azuero Peninsular.  Coffee is grown in the highlands, Panamanian cigars are (so they tell me) good but not as good as the Cuban, and fresh fruit and seafood defy comparison.  Artisans work hard to make a great variety of crafted items, including the woven baskets, the Molas, polleras and jewelry.  There is a huge tax-free area in Colon, in the north east of the country, and of course the Canal is a major attraction.  Some of the beaches have great surf, as well as world-class fishing.   Panama is a paradise for bird watchers and all nature lovers, and we saw extensive wind and solar farms.


 The Expansion Canal lock system is designed to return a large percentage of the displaced water to the river rather than letting it flow back to the sea, and the newest dredger liquifies rocks and solid materials to return to the river rather than pile up on the banks adding to the land mass. 

 So, would I go back?  Absolutely YES!!!   And I’ll round out these Nine Days in Panama with the video of the Devil Devil Dance performed after dinner on Day Six – the dancer wearing one of the hand made ceremonial masks.  

Panama Diary May 2017 – Day Eight

Before leaving Chitre, we all tried our hands at shaping the traditional little dough pretzels, and then baked them in an outdoor clay oven.


On the way out of town we stopped at an artisanal bakery, Panaderia San Pablo, where we toured their facility and had an opportunity to purchase some of the sweet treats!  Bread from the Azuero Peninsular and La Arena is famous throughout Panama.

 By the time we arrived at the hotel, the very splendid Westin Playa Bonita, it was beginning to rain.  We had a quick lunch and not daunted by the rain, several of us went down to the pools.  The water was refreshing after sitting on the coach all day, and I even went knee high in the rather murky Pacific Ocean.  The tide was high, and there was a lot of debris floating around.  (They clean the beach once the tide goes out.)  There was quite a lot of thunder and lightning by this stage, and when one rather large bolt of lightning appeared to strike close to the corner of the hotel, the pool staff ordered everyone out of the water.  Poolside Piña Coladas were also very tasty!

  Dinner was special – it was our Tour Guide’s birthday, and we had a cake and gift for him.  For the first time in 8 days he was speechless!!!  It was a great Farewell Dinner but sad that our time together had almost come to an end.

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Panama Diary May 2017 – Day Seven

Starting today’s journal with one of the videos from last night’s dinner – appropriate since we are heading out after breakfast to Guarerare to visit a private home in village cooperative of sorts, of ladies who make the famous Pollera dresses and dress shirts for men.  Sra. Reyes showed us how the dresses are designed and stitched, talked about the amount of yardage involved, and explained that dresses made for such events as a Miss World Beauty Pageant can cost up to $26,000, and take 25 people a couple of years to complete!  The least expensive, for “collecting eggs”, would cost about $2,500.


The couple’s son, Eideen, is an aspiring baseball player and is travelling to Los Angeles this summer.

Panama.Chitre.Pollera.Baseball boy  Went back to the hotel for a quick break, then set off for Hacienda San Isidro in Pese, on the Azuero Peninsular, where Ron Abuelo, the  famous Panamanial rum is made.   Here we were presented with “Panama” hats, and transported from the coach to the visitors center in painted wooden carts pulled by teams of oxen.  After a tour of the distillation facility and the warehousing barns, we went back to the center for rum tasting, of 5, 7, 12 and 30 year old rums.  Lunch was provided as part of the tour.

 

Back to the hotel, we had time to clean up and change ready for dinner at a historic hacienda, hosted by local family.  This hacienda had horses, cows, goats, chickens and an anaconda in a secure enclosure (which we didn’t see because it chose to remain out of sight!)  The pork we had for dinner was cooked outside on a pit, and we were also treated to a demonstration of cheese making (queso blanco).   Soon after dinner was finished we had to leave because of an approaching rain and thunder storm, and there was one more dodgy bridge to cross before we got to the main road!   The first picture shows a Jackfruit Tree (in the same family as the Breadfruit Tree).

  Then it was time to pack again, ready for the next day’s departure to Playa Bonita.