Music, Mountains and Much More to Come

In April, after years of pain, failed attempts at non-surgical remedies and increasingly bad arthritis, Karen had hip replacement surgery in California. Prior to getting her artificial hip (pictured below), dancing and hiking were utterly out of the question. We are happy to report that Karen’s brand new hip, made of titanium, plastic and ceramic and implanted using the less invasive anterior method, has been a game changer. Here’s how music and mountains have played a major role in her new mobility with so much more to come.

Karen's artificial hip replacement surgery

Karen’s actual new right hip.

Letting the music take control

Four days after surgery Karen started physical therapy. A week after surgery Karen ditched her walker (though we liked the racy colors and the fact that it was called Drive). A few weeks after that she was ready to do some dancing.

Karen and her Drive walker

Karen coming home not even 26 hours after hip replacement surgery.

Just in time, the Tedeschi Trucks Band (aka, Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks) and Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings rolled into town to perform some live music at the Vina Robles Ampitheatre, an outdoor venue at a winery in Paso Robles, California. Live music from musicians we love AND wine AND a good hip? Hell yes.

Tedeschi Trucks Band with Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings

Left to right: Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi, Sharon Jones performing at the Vina Robles Ampitheatre.

This was not only an opportunity to break in the hip, so to speak, but a real return to something that we both love to do: dancing to live music. The Vina Robles Ampitheatre is located in beautiful Paso Robles wine country. It’s spacious and comfortable and the sound and sight lines were great (we later learned that a friend who’s now a head honcho at Knitting Factory Entertainment was involved in its design, so, duh).

Vina Robles Amphitheater Paso Robles California

Vina Robles Ampitheater in Paso Robles, California.

The wine from the Vina Robles winery was really good too and we recommend splurging on the VIP tickets when you go to the ampitheatre because they get you access to a small outdoor wine and beer garden and great prices ($10 off bottles of wine and $5 beers including local microbrews) in the hours leading up to the start of live music. The ribs they were selling ($15 per plate with a big array of sides) also looked awesome and they have terrific plastic carafes and plastic stemless wine glasses so you can pour any undrunk wine into the carafe and take it to your seat with you.

Heading to the mountains on her new hip

Within a few months of surgery Karen was taking walks of up to six miles (3.2 km) with Eric’s mom (though we suspect she slowed down for Karen). However, Karen hadn’t yet strayed off the pavement. We got the chance to go off-roading in, of all places, Bogota, Colombia.The busting capital city of the country is mostly an urban concrete jungle but it’s got a secret.

Quebrada la Vieja hike Bogota

Karen heading to the mountains with her new hip on the Quebrada la Vieja trail in Bogota, Colombia.

The trail head for the Quebrada la Vieja trail (free, open from 5:30 am to 10:00 am, no dogs allowed) is located in the midst of a swanky neighborhood of fancy apartment buildings on the edge of the city. It immediately plunges hikers into verdant, lush mountain terrain complete with a babbling brook, wooded hillsides and a challenging trail with steep inclines, water crossings, uneven terrain and, on weekends, a lot of other hikers. More than 1,000 people entered the area the Saturday morning we hiked there (TIP: the trail is MUCH less crowded on weekday mornings).

Bogota view Alto de la Virgin Quebrada la Vieja hike Bogota

A view of Bogota from the Quebrada la Vieja trail in the mountains above Colombia’s capital city.

We spent two hours round trip on the trail with our friend Chef Paula Silva who was taking a nature break before returning to work at her Hippie restaurant. It’s just shy of two miles (3.2 km) one way from the trail head up steep inclines that gain 1,000 feet (300 meters) and take hikers over rocks, creeks, mud and a fairytale pine forest before reaching the Alto de la Virgin monument to the Virgin Marry and a vista that offers sweeping views of Bogota below.

It was hard to believe we were surrounded by nature yet so close to so much concrete.

Quebrada la Vieja trail Bogota

Karen putting her new hip through its paces on the Quebrada la Vieja trail in Bogota, Colombia.

While no one would accuse Karen of breaking any land speed records, she did accomplish the ascents, descents and terrain with no walking stick and, most importantly, no limping and no pain.

That clearly called for a celebration, so we headed to Julia Pizzeria to try the best pizza in Bogota — cooked in a wood fired oven and everything.

Julia pizza Bogota

Post-hike celebration pizza at the totally legit Julia Pizzeria in Bogota.

As Karen continues to get stronger and more and more mobile (Machu Pichu here we come!), we want to send our thanks to Dr. Daniel Woods of Central Coast Orthopedic in San Luis Obispo, California for the care and expertise he employed before, during and after Karen’s hip replacement surgery along with his medical assistant, Jill, for her responsiveness and endless patience and helpfulness.


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Watch Your Back Miami – Panama City, Panama

As we were traveling to Panama City we found ourselves driving across the Bridge of the Americas, which spans the entrance to the Panama Canal. That’s when we saw it–a shockingly familiar skyline that made us both sneak a sideways glance at the other. Did we just see what we just saw? We would have slammed on the brakes if not for the line of traffic behind us. Not since we were in Mexico City, more than four years earlier, had we seen skyscrapers and highways and joggers and sports cars and traffic and real big city trappings like this. We had arrived in Panama City, Panama aka, Miami South.

Bridge of the Americas crossing the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal

The Bridge of the Americas spanning the entrance to the Panama Canal on our way into Panama City. You can see a hint of big city skyline in the distance.

panorama of Panama City skyline

A panoramic shot of the impressive and Miami-like skyline of Panama City.

Panamanian officials have taken great pains in recent years to create a thoroughly modern city which offers Latin businessmen and businesswomen what they need to ditch Miami as the de facto meeting place for Latin American business transactions in favor of Panama City.

Miami South, Panama City skyline

The Panama City skyline.

In 2006 a multi million dollar expansion turned Panama City’s Tocumen International Airport into the only airport in Central America with two runways and even further expansion is going on right now. During the past few years Panama City has experienced a hotel boom, including the opening of the only Trump International Hotel in Latin America (a second one will open in Rio in 2016). In 2014 the multi billion dollar Panama Metro began running, making Panama City the only city in Central America with such a transportation system.

Waterfront Cinta Costera Park and skyline - Panama City

Part of the miles-long Cinta Costera waterfront park in Panama City. The twisty, glass building was our favorite structure in the skyline.

The waterfront has also recently been renovated and turned into the Cinta Costera Park which includes miles of paths and areas for sports ranging from soccer to volleyball which Panama’s indigineous Kuna people are crazy about.

Kuna playing vollyball on Cinta Costera park - Panama City

A traditionally dressed Kuna woman joins in a game of volleyball in one of the sports areas in the Cinta Costera Waterfront Park in Panama City.

The Kuna also sometimes dance in Panama City’s waterfront park. Check out some traditional Kuna choreography and traditional Kuna clothes (on the women at least) in our video, below.

So Panama City is working up a sweat to Miami-ize and attract international business travelers and expats. When we interviewed Panama’s minister of tourism he pretty much told us leisure travelers are an after thought at this point. But does this slick, steamy, skyscrappered capital city have anything to offer non-business travelers?

The answer surprised us.

What to do in Panama City

It’s not all business meetings and power lunches after all.

After 10 years of construction the Frank Gehry designed Biomuseo is about to, sort of, kinda open to the general public this year. We got a sneak peek inside the museum during final stages of construction to find out why it takes 10 years to build a museum and take a look at the impressive installations that await visitors inside the Biomuseo.

Frank Gerhy's BioMuseo seen from Panama canal

The Biomuseo, designed by Frank Gehry, in Panama City.

If that’s not enough science and smarts for you, continue down the Amador Causeway to the Smithsonian Institution’s Punta Culebra Nature Center (US$5) to see marine life like sharks, turtles and reef fish in tanks and displays including a touch tank, walk along two short trails where iguanas, sloths and armadillos can be spotted.

Starfish Punta Culebra Nature Center Smithsonian Institution

A starfish in the Smithsonian Institution’s Punta Culebra Nature Center in Panama City.

The Panama Canal is one of the most hyped things on the planet, but that doesn’t make it any less incredible. You can explore the Panama Canal in a lot of different ways and we did it all including visits to all three massive, canal-side observation facilities, Panama Canal museums, the most dramatic drive over the canal and on board tourist boats which take passengers through the canal. Get a taste for the latter in our time-lapse Panama Canal video which takes you from the Atlantic to the Pacific through the canal and all of the impressive locks in less than 11 minutes.

Every January Panama City hosts the Panama Jazz Festival and while new Orleans doesn’t have anything to worry about, the event is star-studded and world class drawing names like Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Bill Frisell. It’s organized by Panamanian jazz legend Danilo Perez and we were impressed from start to finish, particularly by students of the Danilo Perez Foundation who brought the house down as they opened the festival.

Herbie Hancock piano 10th annual Panama Jazz festival

Jazz legend and snappy dresser Herbie Hancock at the Panama Jazz Festival in Panama City.

The International Beerfest Panama, started in 2013, will be happening again in 2015 (the exact date is tbd as of this writing). The event showcases craft beers from around the world including some impressive beers being made in Panama right now by producers including La Rana Dorada which also has three brewpubs in the Panama City.

You wouldn’t know it to look at her shiny new trappings, but Panama City, founded in 1519, is the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in the Pacific coast of the Americas. Standing like a sentinel to that history is the Panama Antiguo archaeological site and museum.

Belltower and ruins of Panama Viejo Cathedral

Ruins of a belltower and cathedral that were part of the original Panama City settlement, now part of the Panama Viejo arcaheological site and museum.

Not to be confused with Casco Viejo (which is a neighborhood of Panama City), Panama Viejo (sometimes called Panama Antiguo) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with a small but well-done museum (US$3, most displays are in English) where maps, artifacts, dioramas and re-creations take you through the founding of the original Panama City by the Spanish to its sacking by Sir Francis Drake which was followed up by a devastating earthquake, pretty much ensuring the settlement’s demise.

Catedral de Nuestra-Senora de la Asuncion - Panama Viejo

The Cathedral of our Lady of Assumption sits in ruin as part of the Panama Viejo archaeological site and museum in Panama City.

Beyond the museum you can walk a short path through the remains of some of the original buildings. Panama Viejo is on the waterfront and the least smelly and most photogenic time to visit is during high tide.

Panama Viejo Towers -old and new

The shiny new Panama City skyline as seen from the ruins of the original Panama City settlement.

Every visitor to Panama City also needs to spend time exploring the ultra-hip Casco Viejo neighborhood where there’s so much to do (from museums to eating to shopping to the city’s best hotels. That we decided that Casco Viejo deserved it’s own separate post.

Where to eat in Panama City

You will not go hungry in Panama City and here are our foodie finds from the heart of the city. There are even more amazing places to eat and drink in Panama City’s Casco Viejo neighborhood.

The concept of a boutique restaurant development and management company that operates a number of restaurants under one umbrella has yet to really take off in Central America. One exception can be found in Panama City. It’s called the Henesy Rodriquez Group (HRG) and after 10 years in the restaurant business its eateries continue to draw locals, expats and visitors.

Beef Carpacio La Ches HRG restaurants Panama City

Beef carpaccio, real Parmesan cheese and fried artichoke hearts at La Chesa restaurant in Panama City.

HRG’s Market is chic/casual bistro-style spot for gourmet comfort classics like sliders, fish & chips and cheesecake (US$8 to US$38)La Posta has an Italian/seafood focus (US$15 to US$32) and a more formal look and feel. There’s a real wood burning pizza oven in the back garden and a fantastic wine list. La Chesa, the most elegant and upscale of the HRG trio where diners were historically welcomed with a glass of c, is currently closed with a new location emerging shortly.  Bonus: HRG co-owner David Henesy is a New Yorker who used to be an actor, most famously appearing in nearly 300 episodes of the TV series Dark Shadows.

Swiss chef Willy Diggelmann (yes, that’s his real name) has another collection of restaurants in Panama City. Most are far less compelling than the HRG restaurants but there is one stand out. Cafe Pomodoro delivers delicious Italian food (including homemade pastas) in a garden setting for a budget price. You can get a big plate of very good pasta for around US$6. We did that repeatedly.

Ancon Hill at Sunset - separating Panama City from Balboa and former canal zone

Ancon Hill, which separates Panama City from Balboa and the area formerly known as the Canal Zone, at sunset.

Panama City’s budget hotel star

While business class hotels and multi national chains are the dominant hotel options in Panama City, there are also quite a few hostals for the budget traveler too.

For our money, Hostal Amador Familiar is the best among them and we should know. We spent a total of more than 50 nights in this place over our many trips through the city and during one extended stay while we worked out the details of shipping our truck from Panama to Colombia.

Here’s why we recommend Hostal Amador Familiar to any budget traveler in Panama City.

  • The place is spotlessly clean thanks to the tireless efforts of the best hotel housekeeper we’ve ever seen at any hotel in any price point. We defy you to find a place this woman has failed to keep scrub. Go ahead. Check the tops of doors, or behind the toilet or in the tracks of the shower doors.  We did. And we never found any gunk.
  • There’s a large, shared, semi-outdoor kitchen (kept spotless by the same cleaning woman who even religiously scrubs the fridge) which stocks paper towels and  tin foil for guest use in addition to the usual supplies.
  • Breakfast is included.
  • There’s a large and secure parking lot.
  • Hostal Amador Familiar is in a multi story wooden building in the American Zone of the city. It was built as a home for US workers during the construction of the Panama Canal. It’s creaky and homey and atmospheric.
  • At US$1 per load (to wash and dry) the guest laundry facilities at Hostal Amador Familiar were the cheapest we’ve seen so far.
  • It’s in a quite neighborhood from which you can still easily access Casco Viejo, the Amador Causeway, downtown Panama City and other areas.
  • It’s cheap by Panamanian standards with dorm beds from US$15 per night and private rooms with a fan for $30 for two people. Rooms with A/C are just US$5 more and worth it. Panama gets very, very hot.

If you have a bit more in your travel budget and want to hang out with the cool kids, the Casco Viejo neighborhood is bursting with amazing boutique hotels (one starts at $97) and even a few innovative hostals.

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Superstars and Scene Stealing Students – 2013 Panama Jazz Festival, Panama City, Panama

10th annual Panama Jazz FestivalThe superstar-studded lineup for the live concerts capping off the week-long 10th annual Panama Jazz Festival, held this month in Panama City, was impressive. Jazz icon and 14 Grammy-award-winning pianist and composer Herbie Hancock. Two time Latin Grammy winning singer Susana Baca. Panamanian actor and musician Rubén Blades. Improvisational guitarist and Grammy nominee Bill Frisell. Miles Davis contemporary, multiple Grammy winner and revered composer and saxophonist Wayne Shorter along with his stellar quartet. Little did we know we would be blown away by some scene stealing students.

The Danilo Pérez Foundation

Acclaimed Panamanian jazz pianist Danilo Pérez had an idea. What if he could pass some of his skills on to Panamanian children? How would that change their lives? How would it change Panama?

Hard work and a cadre of partners who shared his vision resulted in the creation of the Fundacion Danilo Pérez (Danilo Pérez Foundation) in 2005 in a donated building In a quickly gentrifying neighborhood of Panama City called Casco Viejo on what is now the border between “new” Casco Viejo and the still downtrodden El Chorillo neighborhood. Here, a staff of teachers (many of them former foundation students) teach jazz to any child who wants to learn. And man do they learn. A dizzying number of foundation students go on to graduate from the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston as well as other international music schools.

As if running the foundation and changing children’s lives with music isn’t enough, Pérez, a Fulbright Scholar, is also the founder and artistic director of the Panama Jazz Festival, the founder and artistic director of the Berklee Global Jazz Institute at Berklee College of Music and is part of the Grammy winning Wayne Shorter Quartet. In November 2012 he was also named a UNESCO Artist for Peace

Danilo Perez on piano with Ruben Blades listening in during the closing concert of the Panama Jazz Festival

Danilo Pérez on piano with fellow Panamanian musician Rubén Blades.

A very, very hard act to follow

The Panama Jazz Festival week was filled with daytime workshops during which internationally acclaimed jazz musicians worked with Panamanian hopefuls and late night jam sessions during which an open stage policy encouraged creative collaboration.

It was fitting that the three night Jazz Festival concert series at Theater Anayansi, a well-attended highlight of the event, was kicked off by a group comprised of some of the foundation’s up and coming pint-sized stars. They not only opened the concert series, they blew the lid off of it.

The group of boys, dressed in tuxedos and struts, teased, toyed and tantalized their way through two songs, including the classic, Cantaloupe Island. Daring solos were performed. Brave musical chances were taken. Smiles were flashed. The audience was on their feet.

Jazz kids from Danilo Perez Foundation performing Jazz Fest

Danilo Pérez Foundation jazz students showed us all how it’s done during the opening night of the 2013 Panama Jazz Festival concert series.


Kids from the Dailo Perez Foundation

Not too young for fame – Danilo Pérez Foundation jazz students after getting a standing ovation during their performance as the opening act of the 2013 Panama Jazz Festival concert series.

Poor Herbie Hancock

Even a jazz legend like Hancock had to admit that the students were a hard act to follow but he took the stage anyway as the headliner of the night and did his own roof-blowing-off on the piano, including his own rendition of Cantaloupe Island (a song he composed). 

We loved it. But we also secretly wished the kids would come back out.

Herbie Hancock piano Panama Jazz festival

Jazz legend Herbie Hancock during the 2013 Panama Jazz Festival.


Herbie Hancock piano 10th annual Panama Jazz festival

Jazz legend Herbie Hancock during the 2013 Panama Jazz Festival. Isn’t that an awesome stage shirt?

Sleeping with the stars

The Hotel El Panama was the host hotel for the Panama Jazz Festival and despite written rules forbidding guests from “bringing in musicians” all of the festival’s big names were staying there. We were too and this meant we had the chance to get a picture of Eric with Herbie Hancock in the lobby.

Herbie Hancock at Hotel El Panama Jazz Fest

Eric with Herbie Hancock in the lobby of the El Panama hotel during the 2013 Panama Jazz Festival.

We were also sitting at the table next to Susana Baca and her crew at breakfast one morning when they opened one of the local papers to discover a big spread on the singer including an enormous pull quote that read “Of course I’m a diva”. This inspired raucous laughter from the group.

A diva in action

We got the chance to see the diva in action during the concert the following night but first Bill Frisell and his band, including Jenny Scheinman on violin, Tony Scherr on bass, Greg Leisz on peddle steel and Kenny Wollesen on drums took the stage. This was familiar ground for us. We’ve seen Frisell perform several times and enjoyed other band members during performances in other groups when we were still living in New York City and seeing some of the best live music in the world. 

For this occasion the quintet hurtled into imaginative re-thinkings of Beatles and Jogn Lennon classics which were fresh and familiar at the same time. You can check out these reinterpretations on Frisell’s resent album, All we are saying…

Bill Frisell quintet performs Beatles & John Lenon All we are saying - Panama Jazz Festival

Inventive jazz guitarist Bill Frisell (far right) with is quintet during the 2013 Panama Jazz Festival.

Then it was diva time and Susana Baca took the stage barefoot and wearing a gently two-tone flowing dress clearly custom tailored to allow her to sweep and float across the stage. A large part of her considerable presence had nothing to do with her lauded voice. She tip-toed, she gestured, she smiled her whole-face smile.

Her voice–sometimes sounding like a one-woman version of the Buena Vista Social Club–was not always strong. Her presence, however, was. Did we mention that she is also the Minister of Culture in her native Peru?

Yeah. Diva.

Susana Baca Panama Jazz Festival

Two time Grammy winning Peruvian songstress Susana Baca and her group performing at the 2013 Panama Jazz Festival.


Susana Baca 10th annual Panama Jazz Festival

Though her voice has won her two Grammy Awards,  it was Susana Baca’s overall stage-presence that kept the audience mesmerized during her performance at the 2013 Panama Jazz Festival.

You can’t keep a good jazz man down

Unbeknownst to most concert goers, Wayne Shorter had been in the hospital during the 24 hours before he took the stage with the rest of his quartet: Danilo Pérez on piano, John Patitucci on upright bass, Brian Blade on drums.

Shorter’s performance was only fleetingly affected by the fact that he wasn’t feeling well and his set was punctuated with moments when he masterfully found exactly the right time and place to blow his horn as his band raged around him. Understatement at its finest.

The real fun was watching the grinning good time John and Brian were having as they riffed off each other and the crowd favorite was clearly hometown boy Pérez on piano.

Wayne Shorter Quartet Danilo Perez John Patitucci Brian Blade - Panama Jazz Festival

The Wayne Shorter Quartet with Danilo Pérez on piano, John Patitucci on upright bass and Brian Blade on drums backing up the jazz master.


Wayne Shorter and John Patitucci - Panama Jazz Festival

Wayne Shorter and John Patitucci jam it out during the 2013 Panama Jazz Festival.

Panama Jazz Festival finale in the City of Knowledge 

The Panama Jazz Festival is traditionally capped off with a full afternoon and evening of free performances that bring together the musicians that have been featured during the previous week of music. In years past this popular free event had been held in a park in the Casco Viejo neighborhood but with gentrification projects tearing up the streets in that part of town and the number of festival growers swelling a new location had to be found this year.

The co-called “City of Knowledge” area of Panama City was chosen. This area, which was once part of the US-controlled Canal Zone, is now a sort of think tank managed by a non-profit organization committed to “exchange, growth, and innovation” in Panama.

Panama Jazz festival stage at City of Knowledge

The Panama Jazz Festival ended with a free outdoor concert which was held in the “City of Knowledge” this year.

A large grassy area within the City of Knowledge development proved the right spot for the finale, though we have to say that the much-anticipated performance by Rubén Blades (locals pronounced his last name “Blah – dess” by the way) was a snoozer anchored by a lethargic version of “Mack the Knife.” Where was the Latin Jazz and Afro Cuban music this former Panamanian tourism minister and Presidential candidate is also known for?

Ruben Blades singing Mack the Knife at Panama Jazz Festival

Panamanian actor, musician and one-time Presidential candidate Rubén Blades during the closing concert of the 2013 Panama Jazz Festival.

Luckily, a slew of superstars, foundation professors, Pérez and many others returned to the stage for a jam-packed jam session with the Panama Jazz Festival Big Band for an appropriately raucous end to the event.

Sasana Baca closing concert of Panama Jazz Festival with Danilo Perez & the Panama Jazz festival Big Band

Danilo Pérez (left) directing traffic as Susana Baca spearheads a full stage of musical talent as part of the closing concert festivities of the 2013 Panama Jazz Festival.


Italian saxiphonist Marco Pignataro Managing Director of the Berklee Global Jazz Institute

Closing concert goodness as the 2013 Panama Jazz Festival comes to an end.



When you’re visiting the Casco Viejo neighborhood of Panama City stop by the Danilo Pérez Foundation and check out what they’re doing and make a donation if you can. If you’re lucky, some of their rockin’ students will be burning it up.


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17 Reasons NOT to Blow Off the Capital – San José, Costa Rica

San José, Costa Rica gets a bad rap. Sure, some of the capital city’s once-grand architecture has seen better days and the streets can get jammed up and there are still some seedy spots. But while most travelers land at San José’s airport and high tail it to the country’s beaches, jungles and volcanoes, we spent more than a month (off and on) in San José during the course of our five months in Costa Rica. The city grew on us and we ultimately found 17 reasons (from boutique hotels to roller derby girls to iconic ice cream) not to blow off the country’s largest city.

1. Egg nog ice cream – Okay, it wasn’t meant to taste like egg nog, but the frozen treat that’s been sold at La Sorbetera de Lolo Mora in San José’s 130 year old Central Market for more than 100 years nails it with nutmeg, cinnamon, clove and rich, custardy goodness. It’s even the same color as egg nog. Locals like it even more with (shrug) cubes of reg Jell-O in it.

La Sorbeteria de Lolo Mora - central Market, San Jose, Costa Rica

Delicious, custardy ice cream has been made and sold at this Central Market stand in San José, Costa Rica for more than 100 years.

2. Mouthwatering soup – In the Central Market annex, across the street from the main market building, wander around until you find a tiny eatery called Mariscos Poseidon. Sit down. Order the seafood soup (about US$2). You’re welcome.

Mariscos Posiden - San Jose, Costa Rica

We’ve got post fish soup smiles at Mariscos Poseidon in the Central Market annex in San José, Costa Rica. Photo courtesy of our friend Dos

3. Best bargain bed and breakfast – At US$30 for a clean and comfortable double room with a pristine shared bath, WiFi, cable TV, free parking and the largest, most varied and most deliciously fresh free breakfast buffet in Central America you simply can’t beat Hotel Aranjuez, about a 10 minute walk from the city center. It’s not the cheapest place to stay in San José but we believe it’s the best value for money. Reservations are a must.

4. Cool design on display – The Contemporary Art & Design Museum (Museo de Arte y Diseño Contemporáneo in Spanish) is located in a former distillery so it’s got the requisite hip warehouse vibe. Mixed media installations rotate regularly and the whole place feels a bit like a loft gallery in Brooklyn (US$3, free to all on Mondays).

5. Bikers on a mission – Roberto and Ayal started ChepeCletas (a combination of chepe, slang for downtown San José, and cleta which is Spanish for bike cleat) as a campaign to have fewer cars and more bikes in the city center. It quickly morphed into a crusade to reinvent and revitalize San José for locals and for travelers. ChepeCletas now offers tours of the city (day and night) on bikes or on foot. Tours are lead by locals with insights and personal history in the city. These “guides” share fascinating little-known facts and anecdotes that bring San José to life.

6. Great graffiti – Street artists in San José have taken graffiti to a new level and many walls around town are enlivened by a variety of styles. Like these:

San Jose, Costa Rica street art grafitti

Great grafitti in San José, Costa Rica.

San Jose, Costa Rica street art grafitti

Great grafitti in San José, Costa Rica.

7. Italian hotel style – San José has hostels up the ying yang. It has international chain hotels. It even has interesting locally-owned B&Bs and business class hotels, including the Hotel Presidente. What’s been missing is a central, reasonably priced boutique hotel. That is until Mansion del Parque Bolivar Hotel opened in early 2012. Italian owned (and it shows), this former mansion is now a five room retreat featuring free European style breakfast on the patio. Check out our full review.

8. Roller derby girls – They go by the name Panties Dinamita (dynamite panties) and they entered the roller derby ring in early 2011 with all the usual trappings including tattoos, dyed hair and playfully bad attitudes. You’re welcome to watch practice sessions as well as scheduled battles against the two other roller derby teams in Costa Rica.

9. Site of the military’s last stand – Costa Rica hasn’t had a military since it was disbanded by President José María Hipólito Figueres Ferrer in 1948. The site where that historic proclamation was made, ironically a former military fort, is now the National Museum of Costa Rica (Museo Nacional de Costa Rica in Spanish). It’s a great place to get a taste of everything from ancient art, to pre-Columbian gold (unless you’re a gold freak skip the Costa Rica Gold Museum which is just plain overwhelming and costs US$11 to get in to) to mysterious huge round stones to amazingly ornate matates (grinding stones) like we’ve never seen before. It’s all displayed in a peaceful setting which includes a huge butterfly enclosure (US$8).

National Museum of Costa Rica,  San Jose

The National Museum of Costa Rica in San José.

10. Culture on the cheap – The National Theater of Costa Rica (Teatro Nacional de Costa Rica in Spanish), in downtown San José, was modeled on the Paris Opera House and it’s an eye popper with sculptures, paintings and furnishings that seem straight out of, well, Paris. And that was the idea. Opened in 1897, the theater was built in grand style with money generated by a controversial tax on coffee. Initially, it was meant exclusively for Costa Rica’s elite. These days an excellent, one hour, info-filled guided tour is available (US$7 per person) and on most Tuesdays the theater hosts “Theater at Noon”–short performances by world-class performers for less than US$5. The theater lobby is also home to the best coffee shop in town and the best gift shop in town, full of quality Costa Rican made products including organic coffee from Finca Rosa Blanca and organic Sibu chocolate.

National Theater of Costa Rica,  San Jose Opera House

The National Theater of Costa Rica,opened in 1897, was modeled on the Paris Opera House.

National Theater of Costa Rica interior -  San Jose Opera House

Inside the opulent National Theater of Costa Rica in San José.

11. Sunday strolling – Every Sunday San Jose’s main drag, Paseo Colon which connects downtown with the city’s largest park (see below), is closed to traffic and turned into a pedestrian street which attracts families and couples. It’s a great idea and a relaxing way to mingle with city residents.

12. Free art in the park – The city’s first airport is now the huge and popular La Sabana Metropolitan Park (Parque Metropolitano La Sabana in Spanish). The former terminal is now the Costa Rica Art Museum (Museo de Arte Costarricense in Spanish). Rotating exhibits of modern art from local artists now fill the rooms instead of passengers and admission is always free.

Costa Rica Art Museum - San Jose

The Costa Rica Art Museum in San José puts on rotating exhibits showcasing Costa Rican artists’ work and admission is always free.

13. Happening eats – La Esquina Buenos Aires restaurant serves up fantastic beef (and pasta and fish), the most affordable glass of wine in the city ($5 for a massive pour of the restaurant’s house red or house white) and has knowledgeable and accommodating waiters. No wonder La Esquina is buzzing with locals and visitors mingling at the festive bar and lingering over tables most nights.

14. Chic shopping – eÑe boutique, right around the corner from Mansion del Parque Bolivar Hotel, is one of the chicest shops in San José (look for the very cool red neon Ñ in the window at 7th Avenue and 13th Street). Everything they sell is locally designed and made including cool tees, handmade leather bags, retro dresses, playful jewelry, stylish journals and notebooks and more.

15. Live music – Anyone who knows us knows that live music is one of the things we miss most from our former lives as New Yorkers. It’s been a struggle finding concerts, live music and music festivals since moving south of Mexico but in San José we were pleasantly surprised by the booming live music scene. We had a great time at the two day Festival Imperial featuring Bjork, Cypress Hill, Gogol Bordello, Moby, LMFAO, TV on the Radio and more and the city’s new National Stadium has already hosted concerts by Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pearl Jam, Elton John, Shakira, Paul McCartney and Lady Gaga just to name a few. Coldplay is coming in 2013.

Bjork - Festival Imperial 2012, Costa Rica

Bjork doing her thing on Day 2 of Festival Imperial 2012 in San José, Costa Rica.

Flaming Lips - Festival Imperial, Costa Rica

The Flaming Lips during Day 1 of Festival Imperial 2012 in San José, Costa Rica.

16. Presidential tree –  In 1963 US President John F. Kennedy planted a ceiba tree on the manicured grounds of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (also called Casa Amarilla). Sadly, it had to be cut down but you can still see the spot where it used to stand.

Casa Amarilla, Foreign Ministry - San Jose, Costa Rica

US President John F. Kennedy planted a ceiba tree in that corner of the grounds in front of the Foreign Ministry in San José, Costa Rica. Sadly, it had to be cut down.

17. The weather — At nearly 4,000 feet (1,200 meters) above sea level temps are more moderate in San José than in most other steamy places in the country. It was nice to break out the jeans.

In the burbs

San José sprawls a bit like Los Angeles does with self-contained mini-city suburbs all around the downtown area. If you’ve got your own wheels and want to experience the chic, modern suburbs of Escazu and Santa Ana we highly recommend Casa de Las Tias where flawless hosts Xavier and PIlar will get you settled into one of their seven homey rooms. Breakfast in their gorgeous garden (included) is NOT to be missed.  Or splash out at minimalist Casa Cristal, a romantic hideaway with expansive views down the valley to central San José.

Either way, eat at Da Marco Italian Restaurant in Santa Ana. When we asked the Italian owner of Mansion Parque del Bolivar Hotel where the best Italian food in Costa Rica was this is where he sent us and it did not disappoint. The chef, from Verona, turns out freshly baked focaccia and home made pasta (the seafood tagliatelle rocked when drizzled with house spiked chili oil), nine different types of risotto, fish dishes, meat dishes and more along with a wide-ranging wine list.

Coming in early 2013: 8ctavo Rooftop Restaurant & Lounge is being opened by our friends Mike and Jon on top of the new Sonesta Hotel & Casino in Escazu. We are so sorry we won’t be in town for that!


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Photo Essay: Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco

The Golden Gate Bridge, which spans San Francisco Bay, turns 75 this year. This iconic bridge has inspired poets, film makers, photographers and musicians for decades with its signature color (drably called International Orange), its sweeping suspension design and its ever-changing wardrobe of fog and sun.

Golden gate bridge - Fog

Golden Gate Bridge

Eric has photographed the heck out of the Golden Gate Bridge and the occasion of its 75th birthday seemed like the right time to share a few shots.

Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge

The birthday of such a bridge inspired two very different brand new musical tributes. Mickey Hart, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee and former drummer for the Grateful Dead, composed a “musical soundscape based on the real sounds of the bridge.” 

Listen to a live recording of the Mickey Hart Band performing the composition at the Golden Gate Bridge 75th Birthday Celebration at Crissy Field:

Decades ago Hart tried to scale the bridge to record sounds made by the structure which he calls a “giant wind-harp.” He was promptly arrested. Twice. This time things went more smoothly and Hart and his team capture the sounds they were after. Hart performed his composition as part of the Golden Gate Bridge’s birthday bash by playing a 27 foot stainless steel replica of the bridge which was built by engineers at San Francisco’s awesome Exploratorium

Golden Gate Bridge sunset

Golden Gate Bridge

Meanwhile, James Kellaris, a University of California marketing professor and “part-time” musician, won a contest put on by the San Francisco Mandolin Orchestra (who knew there was such a thing?) to compose a birthday song for the bridge.

He composed a mandolin ditty he calls “Chrysopylae Reflections,” referencing the Greek term “chrysopylae” which, according to Kellaris, means “golden gate.” Who are we to argue with a man with a mandolin?

Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge Fog

Golden Gate Bridge

Golden gate Bridge panorama

Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge - sunset


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Music Festival Central America Style – Festival Imperial DAY 2, Costa Rica

Crowd - Festival Imperial 2012, Costa Rica

Ready for Day 2 of the Festival Imperial 2012 music festival in Costa Rica.

We love live music. Before embarking on our Journey we spent a lot of time seeing live music and going to music festivals around the US including BonnarooHigh SierraGathering of the VibesMountain JamJam Cruise, Langerado, etc. The concept of the multi-day, outdoor, multi-stage music festival is not well established in Central America but we’re happy to report that after a four year absence the Festival Imperial in Costa Rica came back with a vengeance this past weekend and we were there.

Put on by the folks who do Lollapalooza, the two day lineup included The Flaming Lips, TV on the Radio, LMFAO, Bjork, Thievery Corporation, Cypress Hill, Moby (doing a DJ set), Skrillex, Maroon 5 and Gogol Bordello plus some great bands we were happy to discover. Many of these same artists are continuing down to Lollapalooza Chile and Lollapalooza Brazil over the next two weekends.

If it looks, smells, tastes and sounds like a music festival…

Held in appropriately dusty and sunny conditions at speedway near the Costa Rican capital of San Jose, Imperial Festival had all the usual trappings: three stages, semi-smelly porta-potties and a bunch of food vendors some selling fast food junk or freshly made chifrijo, which is pretty much the national dish of Costa Rica made with rice, beans, pico de gallo and pork.

Plenty of recycling bins and an on-site sorting and crushing facility and a kick ass crew kept things remarkably clean. There was even a small strip of stalls selling better-than-usual clothes and jewelry from local, hip boutiques like Hija de Tigre. Oh, and beer. The whole festival was sponsored by Imperial, the biggest brand of beer in Costa Rica, and there was plenty of the unremarkable stuff on hand though it was no bargain at US$3 per can. Where’s the Sweetwater or Sixpoint tent when you need it?

We were there for the music anyway. Day 1 of Festival Imperial was awesome. Here’s what moved us, scared us and surprised us on Day 2.

Hard to say, easy to dance to

Sonambulo. It doesn’t roll off your tongue but this band will have you rolling your hips. That’s what happens when a bunch of guys (the full band is 11 members strong) from places like Cuba,  El Salvador, Costa Rica and Colombia get together. Though Sonambulao means sleepwalker there was no sleeping or walking involved in their set as the band cranked out what they call “Psico Tropical” sound. Just when we thought we were in the midst of a classically infectious cumbia, for example, the band threw in some trippy keyboards, keeping the crowd on their toes literally and figuratively.

Sonambulo - Festival Imperial 2012, Costa Rica

Sonambulo got the dancing started early on Day 2 of the Festival Imperial 2012 music festival in Costa Rica with their “Psico Tropical” pan Latin sound.

One of the greatest things about Festival Imperial was that performances on the two main stages never overlapped. This meant we never had to make agonizing Bonnaroo-style decisions about which act to sacrifice in order to see another one. Find just the right vantage point between the two main stages and you could practically treat the festival like a ping-pong match and never do much more than move your head from left to right to catch acts on both main stages.


TV on the Radio on Stage at the Festival in Costa Rica

Sure we’d been hearing the buzz about TV on the Radio (we’re in Central America, not under a rock) but we’d never seen them live and, frankly, they should be called TV on the Radio on Stage because seeing them live is the only way to fully appreciate lead singer Tunde Adebimpe’s arms, which must be the longest and most flexible in the industry. We also loved that the bass player looks like Harvard Professor, author and commentator Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. after a bender.

TV On the Radio during Day 2 of the Festival Imperial 2012 music festival in Costa Rica.

Tunde waves those amazing arms around a lot, one of the few constants in a performance that ran the vocal gamut. Close your eyes at a TV on the Radio show and you might swear the band was changing up singers, toggling between Roland Gift from Fine Young Cannibals, Prince and Michael Jackson depending on whether they’d dialed up a ballad, a ska shaker or a fully eclectic alt rock anthem.

TV On the Radio - Festival Imperial 2012, Costa Rica

TV On the Radio during Day 2 of the Festival Imperial 2012 music festival in Costa Rica.

And now we would like to make a random, humble suggestion: 86 the thunder sticks. They must have handed out 75,000 inflatable thunder sticks during Festival Imperial creating a sea of ad-clad obstacles in between us and the stage and leaving behind tons of plastic trash.


Thievery Corporation steals the show

“I wish America had no army,” said Thievery Corporation co-founder Rob Garza when asked during a press conference what he thought of the fact that Costa Rica hasn’t had an army since 1949. Par for the course from a driving force behind the hottest band with a conscience.

Thievery Corporation - Festival Imperial 2012, Costa Rica

The Thievery Corporation gang upped the political IQ on Day 2 of the Festival Imperial 2012 music festival in Costa Rica.

Thievery Corporation got things rolling with an anti IMF rap (International Mother F…ers) but this band makes even global financial shenanigans fun with a bottomless roster of singers,  a sitar player on a white settee, turntables and a bass player who somehow managed to dance as hard as the crowd.

Thievery Corporation - Festival Imperial 2012, Costa Rica

Thievery Corporation on stage at the Festival Imperial 2012 in Costa Rica.

The overall effect was Massive Attack after a stint in the Peace Corps. Hip, sexy energy, smart words, haunting vocals.

Not only do we agree with Garza’s music we also agree with his assessment of Festival Imperial which he praised for its “eclectic” line up. Unlike many US music festivals Festival Imperial was not booked through the prism of one musical genre or even one definition of what’s popular or mainstream. Come to think of it, radio stations in Costa Rica tend to mix it up the same way.

Thievery Corporation - Festival Imperial 2012, Costa Rica

Thievery Corporation at Festival Imperial 2012 in Costa Rica.


And speaking of eclectic….

Now for something completely different

Shaved head and long hair. Cool and dorky. Distorted and melodic. Much-hyped Skrillex, who looks like a creepy loser kid from an episode of The Brady Bunch, produced something between brown noise and the sound one imagines mice would make if you fed them acid and gave them paperclips and tin foil to play with. We actually mean that in a good way…

And he’s so small!

Skrillex - Festival Imperial 2012, Costa Rica

Skrillex doing that thing he does on Day 2 of Festival Imperial 2012 Costa Rica. 

DJ Shadow - Festival Imperial 2012, Costa Rica

In addition to Skrillex, Festival Imperial 2012 also featured the DJ stylings of Diplo’s Major Lazer, Hot Chip, Moby and DJ Shadow (pictured here).


Were we really bored by Bjork?

Bjork - Festival Imperial 2012, Costa Rica

Bjork and her avant-garde choir at Festival Imperial 2012 in Costa Rica.

For an artist so defined by visuals it was disappointing that you had to be within 30 feet of the stage to get a proper view of the show Bjork presented. Instead of using the stage-side mega screens to simulcast from the stage, she used them to show video footage of lava splitting the earth apart and starfish moving in fast-mo. Cool, yes, but those same images were being shown behind the stage as well and what 90% of the crowd was really hungry for was a good look at Bjork.

Bjork - Festival Imperial 2012, Costa Rica

Bjork being Bjork and, yes, that’s an inflatable dress.

We did our best. We can tell you that Bjork was wearing a stiff, matronly orange wig and a deep plastic dress with inflatable fat lady bulges at the hips and breasts. She was backed by a disturbing number of blondes dressed in sequined versions of choir robes. Together, these women produced a soaring cacophony of voices which almost made up for the dearth of musical instruments on stage (no, a laptop doesn’t count).

Bjork does get our Best Gracias of the Day award, however. Petite, sweet and with perfectly rolled Rs.

Bjork - Festival Imperial 2012, Costa Rica

Bjork on Day 2 of Festival Imperial 2012 in Costa Rica.


From The Temptations to The Contemptible

We managed to miss most of the LMFAO mania but a few songs have been unavoidable. Up until today we actually got a kick out of hearing LMFAO’s Sexy and I Know It on the radio in the truck. We even started singing along to the ridiculously earnest line “I work out.” Those days ended as soon as we saw LMFAO live.

Well-known fact: LMFAO was created by Redfoo and his cousin SkyBlu (not their real names). Little-known fact: Redfoo is the son of musical legend Berry Gordy, founder of Motown Records, and SkyBlu is Mr. Gordy’s grandson. SkyBlue couldn’t make it to Festival Imperial show but the whole thing was so pre-packaged that he wasn’t even missed. Hell, they probably could have both stayed home and the crowd still would have worked itself into a frenzy as if pure pheromones were being misted from the stage. And perhaps they were.

LMFAO - Festival Imperial 2012, Costa Rica

Redfoo and his mystifying crew (what’s up with that dude on the left?) get the LMFAO shenanigans started at Festival Imperial 2012 in Costa Rica. 

The show was a mash up of Romper Room, a low budget Japanese sex show and a Jane Fonda workout tape with glimpses of the resort wear catalog from International Male. Toss in dry humping backup dancers, as many hot button words as you can think of and more costume changes than Madonna and you’ve about got it. (Redfoo has said he wants to focus on the band’s clothing line and live shows have become fashion shows for his lurid, lyrca, lyric-splashed gear.)

LMFAO attracted one of the largest and youngest crowds of the festival and elicited the most enthusiastic reactions–mostly in the form of teenage girls squealing and screaming whenever Redfoo asked “Where my bitches at?” which was often.

LMFAO - Festival Imperial 2012, Costa Rica

LMFAO, keepin’ it classy.

LMFAO - Festival Imperial 2012, Costa Rica

Jane Fonda’s lawyers take note…LMFAO on stage during Day 2 of Festival Imperial 2012 in Costa Rica.

There is a chance that we were repulsed by the LMFAO show because we’re not 19 years old and anything that involves raping zebras and t-shrts that say “I am not a whore” worn by women (and men) acting like whores just pisses us off (you can buy that t-shirt, btw, on the LMFAO website!).

LMFAO - Festival Imperial 2012, Costa Rica

LFMAO Lesson #483: If you have to say “I Am Not A Whore” you probably…

There’s a much greater chance, however, that we were repulsed by the LMFAO show because it sucked. Despite the fact that we could hear our own brain cells dying the longer we stood in the crowd, we stayed.  We wanted to Laugh Our F…ing Asses Off with the band at their fantastic joke on the music industry.  We were waiting for the tongue to go in the cheek–hell, Redfoo had been singing about his tongue going everywhere else.

But Redfoo never broke character, never let the audience in on what we hope and pray is a joke meant to highlight just how easy it is to descend low enough to reach the heights of pop music. Instead we got a musical roofie: it hits you, you wake up later, then desperately want a shower.

Are these guys really the spawn of Motown Records founder Berry Gordy? The same man who brought us the Jackson 5, The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and more? Shudder.

Redfoo LMFAO - Festival Imperial 2012, Costa Rica

LMFAO Redfoo, totally not sorry for party rocking.


Thank you and good night!

Thank you Festival Imperial 2012 and Hotel Presidente, where we were hosted in a huge room with festival weekend rebound essentials: sound-proof windows, a mini fridge and an awesome breakfast buffet served until 10.

The end of Festival Imperial is not the end of the noteworthy live music in Costa Rica, by the way. In May 2012 Bob Dylan will perform in San Jose and Paul McCartney is coming too though dates for McCartney haven’t been announced.

Festival Imperial 2012, Costa Rica

Enjoying sunset and a few minutes between sets at Festival Imperial 2012 in Costa Rica.


Other musical moments on the road…

We’ve managed to see a smattering of live music since our Trans-Americas Journey started back in 2006. We kicked off the Journey with a visit to the annual Jazz & Heritage Festival in New Orleans (we made it to Jazz Fest a total of three times on the Journey). Our path crossed with that of our favorite epic percussionist, Mike Dillon, in the US and in Canada. Our most recent music festival was the invitation-only Black Sheep Family Festival in Oregon way back in 2008.

Oh, and we once drove 2,000 miles from the tip of Baja to Boulder, Colorado for a two-night run by one of our favorite bands ever, Bustle in Your Hedgerow–a vocal-free, totally raging Led Zeppelin cover band made up of keyboard killer Marco Benevento, bad ass drummer Joe Russo (currently on tour with Further), Ween man Dave Dreiwitz and awesome guitarist Scott Metzger who wrote our very own theme song. Did we mention that we have a theme song? Go to the bottom or our homepage to play it!

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