STEAK TARTARE, COOKED, PLEASE

Trip Start Dec 14, 2011
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Trip End Jan 05, 2012


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Where I stayed
Finisterre Suites

Flag of Panama  ,
Saturday, December 31, 2011

It is late on Saturday morning, the last morning of 2011 and the morning after Linda's birthday. It is 9:30 AM. We are in Panama City. I slept until almost 9 AM, got the laundry put together to have done today by the hotel and then came down to the hotel's dining room for breakfast.

Linda and I landed in Panama City about 1:30 PM local time yesterday after a flight that took us over Costa Rica’s Irazu Volcano, which we had driven past days before, directly over Puerto Viejo, from where we had driven that morning and then right past Panama City in a dazzling approach that gave us a dramatic view of the city from Pacific Ocean. It was a great flight, especially from my cherished Business Class seat!

Panama is one hour later than Costa Rica and Nicaragua; it is in the same time zone as Miami, and three later than Seattle. It uses US currency, but calls it the "Balboa". From what I understand, prices here are similar to US prices, which is what we found in the touristy parts of Costa Rica (not so much in Puerto Viejo).

We took a taxi to the Finisterre Suites Hotel in Panama City, checked in and walked around to check the hotel out. We were both tired and sleepy from getting up early and from all the activity of getting ourselves to the Costa Rica airport, checking the car in and getting on the plane. We decided to change and go lay by the hotel’s pool to try to nap. Sleeping under the direct sun at nine degrees north latitude isn’t really possible. You have to dip into the pool water too often to keep cool. By 5 PM I was showered and at the hotel bar on the computer and with the guidebook trying to figure out where to go that night for Linda’s birthday.

While at the bar I talked with some young Americans from Ohio; Amanda, JC, Dave and another guy. They gave me some good information about bars and restaurants since they have been in Panama City for 5 or 6 days. For New Year’s Eve, they are going to a party at Panama City's Trump Hotel. They pay $200 US per person, which includes all their eating, drinking and partying until 5 AM; they think it is a great deal for them---and they are probably right. They said the Trump Hotel is pretty spectacular and has two infinity pools.

I also met Amanda’s father who had just returned with some of his group from Habibi’s, a Lebanese restaurant with a famous chef. Her father was a nice guy my age from Ohio. He proceeded to tell me the story of his dinner about which he was still agitated. He couldn’t believe that this supposedly famous chef had served them totally raw meat. He said they sent it back to the kitchen telling the server to have them cook the meat. After the meat was returned to them all cooked up, Amanda’s dad was incredulous that the famous chef walked out of the kitchen to scowl at them. "Why would the chef do that?" he wondered, "I mean, who serves anyone a pile of uncooked, cold hamburger!?" They had ordered Steak Tartare. Did I say he was from Ohio?

When Linda joined me in the hotel bar, we left before she sat down and walked over to a neighboring bar that JC told me about, called Republik. The hotel bar is not all that comfortable and is, well, a hotel bar. Republik, however, was a nice place and we sat at the bar and chatted with the English-speaking manager of the bar, Raul. He used to work on a Royal Caribbean cruise ship. He was very nice and helpful and ended up recommending we do one of the many casinos in Panama City for New Year’s Eve. Linda loved that idea; I am pretty skeptical. He wrote the names of a couple of casinos down and gave us his personal phone number, encouraging us to call him today for more ideas.

We left Republik around 7:30 PM and walked a couple of blocks to the steakhouse recommended to me by a guy at the hotel, La Hacienda. I wanted to go to a steak place for Linda on her birthday. La Hacienda looked great, and we told the hostess we would come back later for dinner.

We walked on a few more blocks to Calle Uruguay, the street where all the restaurant and bar action is in Panama City's Bella Vista district where our hotel is. As we were walking down the street checking out all the bars and restaurants, I heard someone call my name. That is a little surprising when you are in a foreign city! It was the JC-and-Amanda crew. Linda had not yet met them, so we went over to where they were sitting at a table in a street side bar. We chatted briefly and then Linda and I moved on down the street to a place called “Market”. It was a nice, upscale bar/restaurant. We sat at the bar and had fun talking to the bartenders; only one of which spoke a little English. About 9 PM we left and walked back to La Hacienda.

Dinner at La Hacienda was only okay; in part, because we were exhausted. I think we waited too long to eat, and by the time we were done, we were more than ready for bed. Fortunately, it was only a couple of blocks back to the Finisterre Suites and our bed.

A little Panama City history: Panama Viejo to the east of downtown is the site of the original Panama City, which was founded in 1519 and was, for 150 years, an important part of Spain’s pipeline for the gold and silver it was shipping home from the Americas. However, in 1671, the British pirate, Henry Morgan, and 1,200 of his pirate buddies, ransacked and destroyed the city. The city was rebuilt just to the southwest of current-day downtown on a small peninsula, an area which today is called Casco Viejo (“Old Compound”).  When the Panama Canal was built all of Panama City existed where Casco Viejo now stands. Today, Casco Viejo is half crumbling, half restored to the glory of its colonial past. I think touring Casco Viejo will be the first thing we do today.

I also need to decide today what we are going to do tonight for New Year’s Eve. Linda just now told me she wants to see the Panama Canal while we are here. I have seen the canal, but she hasn't so it makes sense for her to do so. I should think about how we best do that, and I need to arrange for a rental car for the last part of our stay here. I had better get busy.

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It is now 6 PM and I am sitting in the rather boring lobby bar of the Finisterre Suites. I shouldn’t be doing anything boring on New Year’s Eve!

This morning we taxied out to Casco Viejo and walked around seeing the sites of the old city. There has been some renovation of this colonial area, but there is much more to do. Seems like a huge opportunity because the place is quite attractive even in its rather dilapidated state.

Among other things while strolling Casce Viejo, we saw the Plaza de Francia at the end of Casco Viejo's peninsula. The Plaza is dedicated to the 22,000 (mostly French) workers who died trying to build the Canal before the US took over. We also saw the Presidential Palace (Panama’s “White House”), and to my surprise were able to walk right up to the front gate and take pictures of the entrance foyer. 

We hailed a taxi and agreed to pay him $12 US to drive us around for an hour. I wanted to take Linda out to see the Causeway and to see if there might be a New Year’s Eve party opportunity out in that area. There wasn’t, as everything in that area seems to be closing at 4 PM today. Rather odd.

The taxi driver dropped us back at our hotel around 2 PM and Linda and I worked with the hotel’s concierge trying to make plans for the evening. We got nowhere. We also got nowhere trying to rent a car for tomorrow; no rental places seem to have any. The concierge did get Linda set up with a nail appointment, but apparently sent her to the wrong location, so Linda had to figure that out on the go.

Having given up with the concierge, I sat down with my computer and made rental car reservations with Dollar Rental Car for tomorrow. Knowing the scarcity of cars in the city, that seemed too easy, so I decided I had better call the local office of Dollar to confirm. I was on my way to the room to verify my car rental when I saw a couple of English-speaking women in the elevator and asked them what they were doing tonight for New Year’s Eve. They told me and suggested I call the place they were going to see if there was any space available.

When I got to the room, I Googled Las Clementinas, the hotel the two girls were going to, and remembered that I had checked out Las Clementinas when making hotel reservations for Panama City. It is in Casco Viejo. It looked great, so I called and was able to make reservations. Awesome! Now we have New Year’s Eve plans. It is $125 per person for food, drink and party. Should be fun.

I had no luck getting through to Dollar or any other car agency. No one was answering the phone. I looked up the location of Dollar’s office and decided to walk to it. I did and the lady there informed me the local agency has 24 hours to confirm a car rental made online. Bottom line: they have no cars available for tomorrow. Damn. I went ahead and made a reservation for Monday through the day we leave Panama on Thursday, so at least we have a car for those days.

I walked into several other car agencies I saw along the street and each one, if open, confirmed they had no cars for tomorrow. I also stuck my head into the two casinos, which were to be our backup if we couldn’t make other plans for New Year’s Eve. And since Linda was not yet aware I made reservations at Las Clementinas, I thought it wise to check them out in case she nixes my grand plan. They were nothing more, or less, than casinos. I can’t imagine spending any time in one at any time, let alone a New Year’s Eve.

On the way back to the hotel I realized how hungry I was and, in spite of my normal reluctance to ever do so, I stopped in a MacDonald’s. I figured a quick, easy chicken wrap would not be so offensive. I waited and waited and waited in line and no one seemed to be getting his or her orders. So much for fast food; I turned around and left---hungry.

I got back to the hotel hotter than hell at 4:45. Linda was back from her nail adventure and was happy with my plans for the night. I lay down to cool off and hopefully nap, but after a short while I got up, showered and came to the lobby bar.
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