Flower Festival Classic Car Parade – Medellin, Colombia

This post is part 3 of 5 in the series Flower Fair in Medellin

Yeah, yeah the Feria de las Flores (Flower Festival) in Medellin, Colombia was started in 1957 to recognize and encourage the area’s agricultural pursuits. But times change and today one of the highlights of the annual 10 day Flower Festival is the Desfile de Autos Clasicos y Antiguos Classic Car Parade. It’s no Concours d’Elegance, but you will see beloved makes and models from Ford to Porsche to Datsun, you’ll hear horns that play La Cucaracha (which we totally want for our truck) and you’ll see some pretty good Elvis impersonators, like the one below cavorting with Marilyn and some escapees from Laugh In.

Medellin Classic Car Parade - Elvis

Elvis cavorts with Marilyn and some escapees from Laugh In during the Flower Festival Classic Car Parade in Medellin, Colombia.

Flower Festival Classic Car Parade

The first stages of the Flower Festival Classic Car Parade are dominated by vehicles plastered in logos and ads for the sponsoring companies and military vehicles. Yawn. After about an hour of that, vehicles that could generously be called classic and a handful that would qualify as truly antique started rolling by.

Vehicles came from all over Colombia (mostly from Bogotá) and all over South America. Costumed participants generally fell into four categories which often had nothing to do with the birth date of the vehicle they were in: The ’60s/’70s, Great Gatsby or Elvis.

Here are some of our favorite scenes from the Flower Festival Classic Car Parade in Medellin.

Flower Festival Classic Car Parade: Best of the 1950s roadsters

Medellin car parade - 1950s sports cars Medellin car parade - 1950s sports cars

Flower Festival Classic Car Parade: Best of the 1960s

Medellin car parade - 1962 Corvette 60s-composite

Flower Festival Classic Car Parade: Best of the mini cars

Medellin Desfile de Autos Clasicos y Antiguos - 1953 Morris Minor Medellin Desfile de Autos Clasicos y Antiguos - mini cars

 Flower Festival Classic Car Parade: Best of the 1950s

Medellin Desfile de Autos Clasicos y Antiguos - 1953 Opel Medellin Classic Car Parade

 Flower Festival Classic Car Parade: Best of the Chevy Bel Airs

Medellin Classic Car Parade - Chevy Bel Air Medellin Desfile de Autos Clasicos y Antiguos - Chevy Bel Air

Flower Festival Classic Car Parade: Best of the true antiques

Medellin Classic Car Parade - oldies

Flower Festival Classic Car Parade: Best of the 1970s

Medellin Desfile de Autos Clasicos y Antiguos - 1970 Citroen 2CV Medellin Classic Car Parade - 19702 cars

Flower Festival Classic Car Parade: Best of the original SUVs

Medellin Classic Car Parade - 1954 Willys CJ3B Jeep

Medellin Classic Car Parade - Jeeps

Flower Festival Classic Car Parade: Best of the trucks

Medellin Classic Car Parade - 1969 VW Pickup Medellin Classic Car Parade -= Pickup Trucks

By the way, whose bright idea was it to slap a big, square parade sticker on everyone’s door? When the Classic Car Parade was over we watched one poor owner trying to get the damn thing off, damaging his vehicle in the process.

priest on a scooter - Medellin Desfile de Autos Clasicos y Antiguos

It was neither classic nor a car but the “Pope” on a scooter was a big hit in the Flower Festival Classic Car Parade in Medellin.

Flower Festival Medellin travel tips

Every year the Flower Festival in Medellin brings in thousands of tourists and hotels fill up fast. During last year’s Flower Festival we managed to get a room at 61 Prado Guesthouse and we highly recommend it to any traveler who likes spotlessly clean and comfortable rooms at reasonable rates (US$35 for a private double room with bathroom) in a homey environment just a few blocks from Medellin’s famous metro system. Here’s a great primer for the 2014 Flower Festival including parade routes and more in English.

Want to see a 7,000 horse power parade? Check out our post, photos and video from the Flower Festival Cabalgata Horse Parade which included 7,000 horses and riders.


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Controversy Cancels the Flower Festival Horse Parade – Medellin, Colombia

This post is part 2 of 5 in the series Flower Fair in Medellin

Flowers may be king of the annual Feria de las Flores Flower Festival in Medellin, Colombia but for many Colombians horses are their main passion. This explains why the Cabalgata de la Feria Horse Parade nearly eclipses the event’s marquis Flower Parade. But the popular Horse Parade is not without controversy, as we saw first hand.

Medellin Flower Festival Cabalgata Horse carriage

Horse-drawn carriages–this one delightfully color-coordinated–were at the head of the controversial Flower Festival Horse Parade in Medellin.

children Medellin horse parade cabalgata

Riders of all ages take part in the Horse Parade, a controversial but popular feature of the Flower Festival in Medellin, Colombia.

High-tailing it to the horse parade

We were so excited to see the famous Flower Festival Horse Parade that we drove as quickly as Colombia’s pretty crappy roads would allow in order to reach Medellin in time for the event. The fact that protesting farmers had shut down the “highway” into Medellin didn’t help matters, but we finally arrived around 10 pm the night before the parade.

Aguila beer girls Medellin horse parade

It’s not a party in Latin America until the beer girls arrive. Here, Eric hangs out with some Aguila girls as the Cabalgata de la Feria Horse Parade passes by.

The Horse Parade took place on the Autopista four-lane highway which goes through Medellin. More than 7,000 horses filled the street waiting for the start of the event. There were fancy horses and plain horses. Colombian Paso Finos (aka Colombian Criollos) dominated but we spotted a few Quarterhorses too. There were even some mules and donkeys in the mix for good measure.

Medellin Flower Fair Cabalgata Horse parade

We’re not sure who’s better looking, the horses or the riders.

Horses and riders came from all over the district of Antioquia (of which Medellin is the very, very proud capital). Many of the riders were dressed in Colombian cowboy finery. One must-have accessory was aguardiente, the beloved distilled sugar cane hooch, which was being drunk straight from the bottle or from more traditional botas (leather flasks in the shape of a boot) despite the fact that after years of increasing debauchery and dangerous riding the Horse Parade was supposed to be booze-free.

Spanish horseman Medellin Flower Festival Cabalgata Horse parade

One of the most elegant parade participants.

Medellin Flower Festival horse parade cabalgata

This patriotic rider put a Colombian flag on his horse.

Controversy and cruelty at the Flower Festival Horse Parade

Aguardiente is not the only source of controversy about the Flower Fair Horse Parade. Opponents argue that the event constitutes animal cruelty with horses traveling long distances by truck and trailer to reach Medellin then spending all day standing and prancing on pavement under the hot sun often ridden by inexperienced (and increasingly drunk) people who’ve simply rented a horse in order to be seen in the parade.

Medellin Flower Fair Mules cabalgata

Even the donkeys and mules that took part in the Flower Festival Horse Parade looked elegant.

We saw veterinarians on foot throughout the parade route and they were not shy about pulling horses and riders aside if they felt the animal was in danger, in some cases making the rider dismount and taking exhausted or freaked out horses out of the parade route.

Medellin ladies horse parade cabalgata

Though the Horse Parade was supposed to be alcohol-free most of the riders we saw were drinking beer or aguardiente right from the saddle.

Despite the presence of vets, we also saw many very spooked horse (the Colombian Paso Fino breed is naturally high-strung as it is), plenty of inexperienced riders kicking and yanking on horses needlessly and even drunk riders trying have fist fights from the saddle. One very, very frightened horse somehow ended up inside a large water trough put out by the vets so horses could stay hydrated. Not good.

Then there are the allegations that sales of tickets to enter special viewing areas for the event have been infiltrated by organized crime…

Medellin horse parade cabalgata

A good example of the natural fast-paced, high-stepping gait of the Colombian Paso Fino.

Feria de las Flores Cabalgata Horse parade

Just a few of the 7,000 horses and riders that took part in the Horse Parade during the Flower Festival in Medellin, Colombia.

Cancelling the cabalgata

In light of those sorts of issues and a “lack of support from the city government”  (which seem unlikely since the Horse Parade is a revenue generator with each rider paying a hefty entry fee), the horse parade was cancelled for the 2014 Flower Festival marking the first time in 28 years that the event will not be held.

Medellin Flower Fair horse parade cabalgata

Just a few of the 7,000 horses and riders that took part in the Horse Parade during the Flower Festival in Medellin, Colombia.

An unofficial cabalgata was organized outside the city. Honestly, after what we saw during the Horse Parade in 2013 we think it was a good decision to cancel the event, even after taking into account the popularity of the cabalgata and understanding the deeply rooted love that Antioquenos have for their horse back heritage.

MedellinFeria de las Flores Cabalgata Horse parade start crowds

Horses, riders and spectators jam the Autopista in Medellin at the start of the Horse Parade.

The pageantry and pride of the Horse Parade has been overshadowed by bravado and bad behavior. We hope organizers can get the cabalgata back to its roots and back on track so that Colombia’s amazing horses, horsemen and horsewomen can show their stuff safely and sanely in future Flower Festivals.

Medellin Flower Fair horse parade cabalgata

Another good example of the naturally exaggerated gait of the Colombian Paso Fino.

Fancy prancing from the Flower Festival Horse Parade

Here are more of our shots from the 2013 Flower Festival Horse Parade in Medellin. Don’t miss our video in which you can see some of the natural fancy prancing gait of those Colombian Paso Finos.

Medellin Flower Fair horse parade cabalgata

Just some of the 7,000 horses and riders that took part in the controversial Horse Parade in Medellin before it was cancelled this year.

Medellin Flower Festival Cabalgata Horse parade

Just some of the 7,000 horses and riders that took part in the controversial Horse Parade in Medellin before it was cancelled this year.

Medellin Flower Festival Cabalgata Horse parade

Just some of the 7,000 horses and riders that took part in the controversial Horse Parade in Medellin before it was cancelled this year.

Medellin Feria de las Flores Cabalgata Horse parade

Just some of the 7,000 horses and riders that took part in the controversial Horse Parade in Medellin before it was cancelled this year.

Medellin horse parade cabalgata pimp my ride boom box

We loved this guy’s custom saddle bags built to hold speakers which he was blaring music from as he took part in the Cabalgata Horse Parade in Medellin.

Enter the madness, marvel at the high-stepping horses and try to stay out of the way in our video from the Flower Festival Horse Parade, below.

Medellin Flower Festival horse parade cabalgata

Just some of the 7,000 horses and riders that took part in the controversial Horse Parade in Medellin before it was cancelled this year.

Feria de las Flores Cabalgata Horse parade

Just some of the 7,000 horses and riders that took part in the controversial Horse Parade in Medellin before it was cancelled this year.

Medellin women horse parade cabalgata

The end.

Do you think the Flower Festival Horse Parade should have been cancelled this year? Let us know your opinion in the comments section below.

Flower Festival Medellin travel tips

Every year the Flower Festival in Medellin brings in thousands of tourists and hotels fill up fast. During last year’s Flower Festival we managed to get a room at 61 Prado Guesthouse and we highly recommend it to any traveler who likes spotlessly clean and comfortable rooms at reasonable rates (US$35 for a private double room with bathroom) in a homey environment just a few blocks from Medellin’s famous metro system. Here’s a great primer for the 2014 Flower Festival including parade routes and more in English.

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Beauty & Tradition at the Flower Festival Parade – Medellin, Colombia

This post is part 1 of 5 in the series Flower Fair in Medellin

The birthplace of narco terrorist Pablo Escobar is also the birthplace of grown men who make huge, elaborate flower arrangements and carry them on their backs. It’s a legacy that’s celebrated with beauty and tradition during the annual Feria de las Flores (Flower Festival) in Medellin, Colombia. The main event is the Desfile de las Flores (Flower Parade) during which massive floral arrangements are carted through the streets of Medellin by young and old alike.

Silleta Monumental Silletero

Silleteros who carry flower arrangements in the Flower Parade in Medellin are required to wear traditional clothing including the carriel bag which is made from patent leather and cow hide.

Flower Festival Medellin by the numbers

The Flower Festival numbers are staggering:157 events over 10 days including 400 activities (fireworks, food, traditional singing competitions, open-air concerts and more) enjoyed by more than 700,000 people.

Winner Emblematico silleta Ganador absoluto de desfile de Silleteros

Spoiler alert! This 3D flower arrangement that even had moving parts took home top honors in the emblematic category and took grand prize honors as well.

Medellin Flower Parade

Beauty everywhere at the annual Flower Parade in Medellin, Colombia.

The central event of the Flower Festival in Medellin is the Flower Parade which includes 500 men, women and children (called silleteros) carrying enormous and elaborate flower arrangements on wooden contraptions (called silletas) on their backs. More than 600,000 individual flowers are used to create the arrangements, some weighing as much as 220 pounds (100 kilos). Twelve event judges ultimate hand out awards for top examples in various categories.

The ugly origins of the Flower Festival

In Colonial times the wooden silletas were used by slaves to carry wealthy men and women up and down the mountains that rise around Medellin and throughout the district of Antioquia. In a post-slavery world, a woman named Maria La Larga used her silleta to carry children and that inspired farmers to imagine the silleta as a way to get their produce–including flowers–to market.

Desfile de Silleteros carriel

The tradition of being a silletero is usually passed on from generation to generation.

Today, Colombia ranks just behind Holland in global flower production with the rural Santa Elena area of Medellin as a central hub. The first Flower Festival was held in 1957 to honor and encourage farmers in the region. It spanned just five days and the Flower Parade attracted just 40 silleteros.

Samuel Sanchez ganador silleta Infantil

Spoiler alert again! Seven year old Samuel Sanchez came out on top in the children’s category. You’ll see more of his adorable face and amazing flower arrangement below.

On the eve of the 57th annual Flower Festival 2014, held August 1-10 in Medellin, we present our top moments from the massive Flower Parade from last year’s celebration where we joined the masses lining the parade route to see just what you can do with 600,000 flowers.

The spectacular Flower Parade of silleteros  in Medellin

Silleta Emblematico Medellin flower parade

An entry in the emblematic category depicting part of the skyline and the famous metro system of the city of Medellin.

Emblematico silleta

A silletero puts some finishing touches on his entry in the emblematic category.

Judging Tradicional Silletas

Judges inspecting entries in the traditional category before the start of the Flower Festival Flower Parade in Medellin.

Finalistas Silletas Monumental

A lineup of the finalists in the monumental category during the Flower Parade in Medellin. Click to see full-size image.

Finalistas Silletas Tradicional

A lineup of the finalists in the traditional category during the Flower Parade in Medellin. Click to see full-size image.

Finalistas Ganador absoluto de desfile de Silleteros

From left to right: The winners in the traditional, monumental and emblematic categories face off for the overall grand prize.

Mauricio Londoño Ganador absoluto de desfile de Silleteros

Mauricio Londoño (on his knee) gets rushed by family as he’s named overall winner of the Flower Parade in Medellin.

Check out our video, below, to see more of the serious and emotional judging and awards process.

Silletera Traditional Silleta

A girl carries her entry in the traditional category.

Silletero Silleta Monumental

Another proud silletero.

Silletero Silleta Tradicional

This guy made it look easy to carry his entry in the traditional category.

Silletas Tradicional

A pre-parade lineup of entries in the traditional category.

Silletera Medellin Flower Parade

A traditionally dressed silletera gathers her strength before shouldering her entry in the monumental category.


Carrying a Heavy Silleta Monumental

This elaborate depiction of a silletero carrying the Medellin skyline on his back (left)  took second place in the emblematic category. Boy scouts were on hand during the Flower Parade to assist silleteros with particularly heavy loads like this one.

Carrying a Heavy Silletas

Boy scouts were on hand during the Flower Parade to assist silleteros with particularly heavy loads like these.

Samuel Sanchez Atehortua ganador silleta Infantil

Seven year old Samuel Sanchez charmed the crowd and the judges, taking home top honors in the children’s category.


Another entry in the children’s category.

Traditional silletas Medellin Flower Parade

Entries in the traditional category during the Flower Parade.

Feria de las Flores Medellin Colombia

Thousands of people line the Flower Parade route and give it a real party atmosphere.

Medellin Flower Fair, Flower Parade

Silleteros carrying traditional flower arrangements during the Flower Parade in Medellin.

Colorful flowers Monumental silleta

It’s a sea of flowers–more than 600,000 of them–during the Flower Parade in Medellin.

Desfile de Silleteros tradicional

More entries in the traditional category.

Watch a sea of flowers move slowly through the streets in our video, below, from the Flower Festival Flower Parade in Medellin, Colombia.

Music Medellin Flower Parade

No parade is complete without music.

Traditional Dancing Flower Parade Medellin

Traditional dancing is also a featured part of the Flower Festival Flower Parade in Medellin.

Traditional Dancers Flower Parade Medellin

Dancers and musicians finding some shade to rest in before the start of Medellin’s famous Flower Parade.

Our video, below, gives you a glimpse of performances by traditional dance troops and musical groups which are also featured in the Flower Parade. It’s really too bad Colombians don’t like to celebrate…

These days the Flower Festival is about more than just flowers. Other top events include the controversial Cabalgata Horse Parade which was cancelled this year (see if you agree with that decision) and a charmingly provincial Classic Car Parade (we hope you like Elvis impersonators and Jeeps). We also take you behind the scenes in Santa Elena where local artisans grow and arrange the flowers and backstage as proud chiva bus owners dress up their vehicles.

Flower Festival Medellin travel tips

Every year the Flower Festival in Medellin brings in thousands of tourists and hotels fill up fast. During last year’s Flower Festival we managed to get a room at 61 Prado Guesthouse and we highly recommend it to any traveler who likes spotlessly clean and comfortable rooms at reasonable rates (US$35 for a private double room with bathroom) in a homey environment just a few blocks from Medellin’s famous metro system. Here’s a primer for the 2014 Flower Festival including parade routes and more in English.


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The Hippest Neighborhood in Central America – Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama

In the Casco Viejo neighborhood of Panama City sultry, sexy and slum mingle into one very, very cool cocktail. It feels like a compact version of Williamsburg but because the resident hipsters are Latin they’re a lot more casual about it. The wood and cast iron architecture would fit right into the French Quarter of New Orleans. Travelers will find boutique hotels, back alley bars, fine dining, and the best places to buy ice cream or indigenous crafts in Panama. Welcome to the hippest neighborhood in Central America.

Streets and architecture of Casco Viejo, Panama

An atmospheric mix of old and new in Panama City’s Casco Viejo area, the hippest neighborhood in Central America.

Casco Viejo (which means old quarter in Spanish) is also sometimes called Casco Antiguo or San Felipe or, more commonly, just plain Casco perhaps because it’s not quite as old as it used to be. Casco Viejo was built by the Spanish in the 1600s after Panama Viejo was burned to the ground by residents ahead of an attack by the pirate (and rum lover) Henry Morgan. That means that Casco Viejo really should be called Casco Nuevo, but whatever.

Catedral Metropolitana Casco Viejo Panama

The Metropolitan Cathedral in the Casco Viejo neighborhood of Panama City.

Pirates, dictators and US bombs in Casco Viejo

The site for Casco Viejo, a narrow peninsula ringed by a treacherous reef, was chosen because it seemed easy to defend, especially with the help of  a massive sea wall which was built around Casco Viejo to keep pirates out.

Those walls couldn’t protect Casco Viejo from bombs which fell in 1989 during the US invasion of Panama which was part of the hunt for Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega (one of his stomping grounds was a waterfront club in Casco which is now being turned into a hotel). After that, squalor and crime pretty much moved in and Casco became a no-go zone swallowed up by an ever-expanding Panama City.

building renovations, real estate Casco Viejo Panama

For sale signs are an increasingly common sight in the Casco Viejo neighborhood of Panama City as gentrification spreads through the area.

After recent waves of gentrification and hipsterification, however, the walls around Casco now seem to be there to keep the cool in as some of the most compelling and creative hotels, restaurants and shops in Panama move into the neighborhood alongside renovated buildings, artists of all stripes and a growing expat community. Thankfully, not all of Casco’s original inhabitants have been pushed out and the place retains enough diversity, edge and gritty reality to give it balance. For now.

Casco Viejo Streets

Welcome to Casco Viejo where derelict buildings full of squatting families, like the one in the foreground, rub shoulders with boutique hotels like Casa del Horno seen in the background.

Clapboard building - Casco Viejo Panama City

This clapboard building was one of our favorties in the Casco Viejo neighborhood of Panama City.

Hip stuff to do in Casco Viejo

Mostly, Casco is about wandering through its streets, admiring the architecture (the remaining ramshackle, squatter filled shells were as beautiful to us as the many lovingly restored homes), sharing the sidewalk with the cool kids and the poor kids, looking at street art, indulging in all kinds of cafe society, getting happily lost and soaking up the hip.

Street Art of casco Viejo, Panama

Street art at every turn in Casco Viejo.

The Canal Museum of Panama (US$2) in Casco is a great place to bone up on your Panama Canal history. We actually thought this museum, which focuses more on the history rather than engineering, rivaled the more famous canal museum at the Miraflores lock right on the canal. However, all displays are in Spanish so if you’re something less than fluent it might be worth investing in the English language audio tour (US$5).

Football in the streets of Casco viejo, Panama

Street life in Casco Viejo.

You can’t miss the atmospheric remains of the crumbling church of the Convent of Santo Domingo at the corner of Avenida A and Calle 3. But don’t just stand and stare. Walk inside the roofless shell and you’ll notice a weirdly flat brick arch spanning the 50 foot (15 meter) width of the building.

Iglesia Santo Domingo and the flat arch, Arco Chato, Panama

The Santo Domingo Church in Casco Viejo with its flat arch, an engineering marvel. Note the traditionally dressed Kuna woman walking past on the sidewalk.

Dominican friars built the church with the flat arch (Arco Chato) and though all reasonable engineering wisdom tells us that arches get their strength from their, well, arches, this ancient nearly flat one survived fires, hundreds of years and many earthquakes–a fact that helped convince skeptics that Panama was a suitable place to build the Panama Canal despite its natural disasters.

The original flat arch finally collapsed in 2003 but multiple engineers and architects were unable to rebuild it the way the friars had and ultimately reconstructed the arch with a supporting core running through it.

Security Casco Viejo Panama City

The Presidential Palace is in Casco Viejo, hence the presence of security forces like this guy.

Hip places to sleep in Casco Viejo (and one stern warning)

Downtown Panama City can keep its business hotels and mutli-national chains. The best boutique hotels and B&Bs are in Casco Viejo and more are opening up all the time.

Conservatorio is a ground breaking group in many ways. They’ve been involved in the overall preservation, restoration and renovation of buildings in Casco Viejo for years and those efforts now include two of the best hotels in the hood including the stylishly homey, all-apartment Las Clementinas (read our full review of Las Clementinas for iTraveliShop) and the 55 room American Trade Hotel which was in the final stages of renovation when we were in Casco Viejo.The always innovative Ace Hotel Group is managing the American Trade Hotel, which is the largest and most full-service hotel in Casco, and it’s the only international Ace Hotel property.

Apartment-like room Las Clementinas - Casco Viejo, Panama

Every room at Las Clementinas in Casco Viejo is set up as a full apartment with chic decor, a full kitchen and plenty of space.

You know that moment when you come across the website for a hotel and it lodges in your brain, assuming an undeniable place on your travel wish list? You WILL stay there. That’s how we felt when we discovered the website for Casa del Horno, a boutique hotel built in a former bakery (casa del horno means house of the oven in Spanish).

Sadly, our first impressions were not good. Yes, our room was chicly appointed and enormous with a kitchen and dining/sitting area separate from the bedroom. But the A/C in the bedroom didn’t work. Neither did the TV and after two staffers hauled the monster out and replaced it with a TV from another room I discovered, to my grave disappointment, that the jetted tub wasn’t working either.

These initial disappointments were eased by an enormous and fantastic included breakfast featuring fruit salad, freshly-squeezed OJ, well made coffee any style you like, a proper croissant and toast with sliced meats and cheeses.

Casco Viejo roofs with Catedral Metropolitana

Casco Viejo roofs with the Metropolitan Cathedral in the background.

We ended up being more excited about Casa del Horno’s sister hotel, Casa Nuratti. Built as an inn in the 19th century, the building has been restored into a 14 room, design-centric, mid-range bargain (doubles from US$97 including breakfast). Furniture was made using wood from the original building.  There’s a small but appealing roof bar with a long, narrow pool (there for sex appeal, not swimming) and a club-like bar and small plates restaurant in the lobby where a DJ sometimes spins.

children Casco Viejo Panama

Girl talk in Casco Viejo.

The reigning poo-bah of hip hotels, however, is Tantalo. There’s a living wall next to the lobby bar. Art installations change on a regular basis. The rooftop bar is THE place to hang out. Rooms have each been decorated by a different artist. They even have an on staff creative director and it shows. Read our full review of Tantalo for iTraveliShop.

There are also some notable budget hotels in Casco Viejo including Luna’s Castle which dominates the hostel market and is often full and newcomer the Panamaricana Hostel which calls itself a “design hostel” and actually lives up to that claim with cool stencils on the walls, bright colors and modern furniture.

One warning: Do NOT stay at the White Lion Hostal in Casco Viejo unless you like super shady characters, dirty rooms, all-night noise and staff that tells you one price then charges you another.

Plaza Bolivar - Casco Viejo, Panama

Plaza Bolivar in Caso Viejo with the requisite ode to Simon Bolivar.

Hip eating and drinking in Casco Viejo (sometimes with the Vice President)

Residents and travelers come from all over Panama City to eat and drink in Casco Viejo. Here’s why.

La Rana Dorada is a Panamanian microbrewery with four brew pubs in Panama City (the hippest, of course, is in Casco). It’s a shining example of the brew revolution going on in Central America (which we wrote about for TheLatinKitchen.com). The beer is good and fresh and the food is worth a splurge too (try the plantain pizza). The staff knows what they’re talking about when it comes to beer and you get a free tasting flight when you sit down.

La Rana Dorado microbrewery cerveceria - Panama City

The free tasting flight of craft brewed beer at La Rana Dorada brew pub in Casco Viejo.

La Rana Dorado Brew pub - Casco Viejo, Panama

A friendly bar scene, great beer and good food keep La Rana Dorada brew pub in Casco Viejo lively.

Veggie Moon was opened by budding restaurant mogul Claudia LaForgia who also owns nearby Diablicos which serves modern Panamanian food. Despite the name, Veggie Moon is not entirely vegetarian with fish, seafood and homemade pastas also on the menu. We enjoyed some of the best ravioli we’ve ever eaten and the Panamanian Vice President and his wife looked pretty pleased as well as they dined at a nearby table. When we were in Casco Viejo Claudia was planning a third restaurant as well.

Veggie moon Restaurant - casco Viejo, Panama

Inside Veggie Moon restaurant in Casco Viejo.

Ravioli Veggie moon Restaurant - casco Viejo, Panama

This homemade ravioli that we had at Veggie Moon in Casco Viejo ranks as some of the best we’ve ever had.

Eric Theise, a transplanted New Yorker, opened Mojitos sin Mojitos in Casco and it’s a haven for anyone looking for affordable and delicious fresh-grilled burgers (US$5) and vegi burgers (US$6), good bar prices (US$2 beer; $US4 sangria) and a lovely open-air patio environment. Just don’t order a mojito. As the name implies, there aren’t any.

Granclament has been serving up homemade, all-natural, French–style ice cream and sorbet for years. It is not a secret. Be prepared to elbow your way to the counter and remember that they do give out samples if you’d like to try any of the more offbeat flavors (like basil) before you buy.

It can seem like there are more bars than anything else in Casco (the gringos and the fancy Panamanians that party there are thirsty). However, one stands out. But you have to find it first. Look for a graffiti-esque sign that says “La Vencidad”  then head down the narrow alley into an open air space with tables, more graffiti and a small bar. Nico is probably behind that bar and he’s ready with US$1.50 ice cold beers and one amazing story.

La Vecinidad Casco Viejo, Panama

La Vecinidad bar in Casco Viejo is worth the hunt for the cheap beer and the amazing back story.

Nico used to be just another gang member living in Casco as gentrification began. KC Hardin, who runs Conservatorio with his wife Patricia, recognized that community integration had to be part of any sustainable rise in Casco so he made a deal with Nico: KC would give him the right to use part of one of the buildings he owned rent-free if he promised to turn it into a business and drop out of the gang. La Vencidad (which means neighborly in Spanish) was born.

Capital Bistro Panama was created by Venezuelan (by way of France and Spain) chef Elias Murciano in the fully re-imagined shell of what was a fire station on the water’s edge. After a two-year renovation, there are now quilted leather booths, a hip soundtrack and gorgeous wait staff. We were given a tiny, dry hand towel when we sat down which was reconstituted in water so we could use it. But CBP, as it’s called, isn’t all flash and gimmick.

Elias Murciano Capital Bistro, Panama

Capital Bistro Panama gets the elegant bistro vibe and menu right.

Our hours-long dinner included perfectly cooked scallops, succulent kofta on a bed of lentils, homemade breads and mushroom ravioli in pasta so delicate it was like eating clouds.The top level open-air bar is a fantastic place for breezy drinks with a view of the Panama City skyline.

Perfect scallops Capital Bistro, casco Viejo Panama

Just one of the perfectly prepared (in this case, scallops) and perfectly presented dishes we enjoyed at Capital Bistro Panama.

At Manolo Caracol Spanish chef and owner Manuel Madueño conjures a delicious farm-to-table experience. There is no menu. You simply sit down at long communal tables and get ready for a cavalcade of dishes, many of them made with ingredients grown on nearby farms. Our meal consisted of eight balanced and unexpected small plates including imaginative (but never silly) soup, meats, seafood dishes, salad and dessert preceded by homemade bread with homemade butter. The set price of US$38 per person is a bargain, even if it doesn’t include alcohol. Reservations are a must and some special dietary needs (including kosher and vegetarian) can be accommodated.

Since we explored Casco we hear the street food scene has evolved considerably thanks, in part, to the fact that road construction crews are finally done tearing up and re-doing the streets. Another highly recommended option for affordable eats in Casco is the nearby fish market where tiny restaurants turn the freshest of fresh catches into fried fish platters and ceviche for just a few bucks. Delicious, cheap and the people watching is fantastic.

Casco Viejo Panama

As the facade would suggest, this building in Casco Viejo is home to a factory that makes playful floats for parades and festivals in Panama.

Hip places to shop in Casco Viejo

There’s a lot of cheap tourist crap being sold in Casco, including a long, long expanse of street stalls where traditionally dressed Kuna women sell a lot of cheap junk. Skip that and head to Papiro y Yo run by Zaira who designs new incarnations for traditional indigenous weaving and fabric crafts. Think modern clutch purses and beach bags made using traditional reed weaving techniques and one-of-a-kind coasters made from rolled paper.

Panama City’s Trump Tower ordered 40 of her hand-made hats to use as décor in one of its restaurants and when we were there Zaira was planning on opening a second shop across the street from Papiro y Yo where she planned to sell fashionable takes on the classic “Panama” hat (which originated in Ecuador, by the way).

Footnote: Casco Viejo was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997, however, the construction of the Cinta Costera elevated highway which travels over the bay and arcs around the neighborhood, has residents up in arms and UNESCO making noises about rescinding Casco’s World Heritage Site status. The project was the brain child of former Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli who was voted out of office this year. You will see the Cinta Costera clearly from many vantage points in Casco. If you pay attention, you may also see Panamanian actor/singer/one-time Presidential candidate Ruben Blades. He lives in Casco.

Ruben Blades House - Casco Viejo Panama City

That’s where Panamanian actor, musician and one-time Presidential candidate Ruben Blades lives in Casco Viejo.

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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 experience the Panama Canal in a few different ways (which we’ll be telling you all about in an upcoming post) including visits to massive, canal-side observation facilities, Panama Canal museums 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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The Most Complicated Tourist Attraction on Earth? – National September 11 Memorial & Museum, New York City

We recently traveled back home to New York City for an overdue visit with family and friends. While we were there we made it a priority to visit the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. We lived just two blocks from the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center on the day of the terrorist attack and like millions of other New Yorkers, US citizens and people around the world, that day changed our lives forever (including inspiring our Trans-Americas Journey).

9-11 memorial One World Trade Tower - Freedom Tower

The Freedom Tower, the tallest skyscraper in the Western Hemisphere, soars above one of the two reflecting pools at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York City.

Is this the most complicated tourist attraction on earth?

After so many years of pushing and shoving to find the “right” way to memorialize Ground Zero and honor the victims. A staggering  5,201 submissions from architects and designers from 63 countries were submitted for the project and everyone, it seemed, had an opinion about what was appropriate for Ground Zero.

We wanted to see what had finally been created on hallowed ground where 2,753 people from around the world lost their lives during the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on September 11.

September 11 Memorial Pool - South Tower 2

The National September 11 Memorial is made up of two reflecting pools created in the footprint of each of the Twin Towers.

The memorial portion of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum consists of two large, outdoor reflecting pools constructed in the exact footprint of each of the Twin Towers. Each square pool is recessed into the ground and has four walls of 30 foot (eight meter) tall waterfalls and a final waterfall in the center. The falling water was strangely peaceful as it rushed into the mysterious central space in a never-ending flow.

National 9-11 Memorial Museum

Each of the two reflecting pools at the National September 11 Memorial are recessed cubes with four walls of 30 foot (eight meter) waterfalls.

Both reflecting pools are ringed by a bronze border deeply inscribed with nearly 3,000 names including the 2,977 victims who died in the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the four hijacked planes on September 11 plus the victims of the 1993 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.

The city of New York expects the memorial and museum to be major tourist attractions. The memorial brochure is printed in eight different languages in an attempt to communicate with visitors from across the globe.

Survivor Tree withstood 9/11 attacks 9-11 Memorial

The so-called Survivor Tree at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York City was salvaged from the wreckage of the Twin Towers and now flourishes as part of the outdoor memorial.

Family members of victims are encouraged to place a white rose in the name of their loved one, adding an element of softness and life to the memorial. Another unexpectedly moving part of the memorial, for us, was the so-called Survivor Tree. A mere eight foot stump when it was found in the wreckage of the Twin Towers, the pear tree was nursed back to life and has been re-planted in the midst of the memorial.

Controversial September 11 Museum

When we visited the memorial, the museum had not yet opened. Now that it is open to the public we think we’re glad we didn’t get the chance to visit it. While we understand the purpose of a September 11 Museum we don’t understand why it had to be constructed on the site itself. Though we had friends who should have been in the towers on September 11 but miraculously weren’t, we don’t personally know anyone who died in the terrorist attack. Still, putting a museum on a spot that represents he final resting place for so many seems unnecessarily close.

Also, the US$24 museum entrance fee (the outdoor memorial is free) feels slightly offensive, though we were happy to learn that every Tuesday night between 5 pm and 8 pm (last entrance at 7 pm) entry is free and, of course, family members of the victims and 9-11 rescue and recovery workers are always welcomed free of charge.

We’re not the only ones who have a sort of sick feeling about the museum and this piece written by the brother of a victim expresses those misgivings, as he tours the museum, very, very eloquently.

National 9-11 Memorial 75 West Street

The neon green line outlines the building we lived in on the day of the attacks on the World Trade Center just two blocks away.

The World Trade Center was our neighbor

We returned to New York in 1999 after a four year backpacking trip through South and Southeast Asia and we immediately moved downtown to the financial district. The area was being rejuvenated and rents were affordable. We found a great one bedroom apartment and settled in. Our most dynamic neighbor was the World Trade Center and for years the Twin Towers, just a few blocks away, factored into our view and our daily lives.

Our history with these buildings is complicated and visiting the National September 11 Memorial & Museum was both settling and unsettling. Here are some of our own memories.

World Trade center from New York Harbor

The World Trade Center in more peaceful days as seen from New York Harbor.

World Trade Center reflection

The Twin Towers were always most beautiful at night.

World Trade Center 11

Sparkling Twin Towers dominated the New York City skyline and the view from our apartment three blocks away.

First and second plane crash into WTC

On the morning of the attack Eric was on the roof of our apartment building taking photos of the chaos. These shots were taken minutes after each of the two planes impacted the towers.

WTC collapse aftermath on West Street

This is what our street looked like in the minutes between the collapse of the first tower and the collapse of the second tower. The awning on the right hand side of this photo that says “75 West” is the entrance to our building.

Landing gear of American Airlines #11 WTC North Tower

Landing gear from American Airlines flight #11, which crashed into the North Tower, landed near the entrance to our apartment building.

Moments before 2nd WTC tower collapsed

Seconds after this photo was taken the second tower collapsed.

WTC burning while evacuating to New Jersey

As Eric was evacuated across the Hudson River to New Jersey, lower Manhattan looked apocalyptic as the World Trade Center burned.

9 9-11-skyline-from-NJ

Lower Manhattan smouldered for days, a constant reminder of an attack we were all still trying to comprehend.

10 National-Guard-WTC-ruins-from-75-West-Street

The National Guard was called in to man the streets of lower Manhattan, much of it an FBI crime scene (including our apartment building, seen on the left), in the weeks after the terrorist attack on September 11.

Ground Zero from roof 75 West Street

The angular wreckage of the Twin Towers from the roof of our apartment building.

Ground Zero Cleanup - South Tower 2 Washington Street

It seemed like the rubble would never get cleared away from the site or from our minds. This shot was taken from the front of our apartment building looking two blocks down Washington Street.

Smoking Ground Zero Cleanup from roof 75 West St.

Still-smoking Ground Zero as seen from the roof of our apartment building.

Funeral FDNY 10 House Fireman - First at the Big One

One of the heartbreaking number of funerals held for firemen from the Ten House in our neighborhood who died trying to rescue people from the stricken towers. The prophetic banner on the back of this fire truck shows the slogan and emblem for the Ten House: a firefighter standing atop the burning Twin Towers with the words “First Due At The Big One”  written below.

Towers of Light 9/11 memorial

As people argued over the best plan for Ground Zero, Towers of Light kept the tragedy in our hearts and minds.

Towers of Light

As people argued over the best plan for Ground Zero, Towers of Light kept the tragedy in our hearts and minds.

Find out more about how the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers of New York City’s World Trade Center inspired our Trans-Americas Journey

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Loving León – León, Nicaragua

There are only three cities in Nicaragua: Managua, the capital, is a chaotic, crumbling city with few reasons to linger (but if you must stay there, check out our travel guide to hotels in Managua first). Granada is gorgeous but it’s brimming with gringos. That leaves León. The second largest city in the country is hot (we’ve started saying “León hot” instead of “Africa hot”), has not experienced a sweeping Colonial beautification and much of the food leaves a lot to be desired. But what León lacks in obvious charms it makes up for in sheer authenticity which is why we were loving León.

Lion Leon Cathedral, Nicaragua

León is named after its Spanish counterpart city. As every Spanish 101 student knows, león means lion in Spanish.

First impressions of our favorite city in Nicaragua

Our first impression of León was the heat which somehow combines the searing, life-sucking dryness of the Sahara with the kind of humidity that means that every activity (including breathing) makes you break a sweat.

Our second impression of León, however, made us stick it out even in the thick of the pre-monsoon heat. While Managua and Granada both have disturbing, unavoidable and very stark divisions between the haves and the have-nots, in León that gulf seemed less pronounced. There was no gringo area. There were no gated communities. No one’s car or bike seemed that much nicer than the next person’s. Everything and everyone (for the most part) seemed to exist in the humble middle ground espoused by the country’s socialist government.

A large population of Nicaraguan college students and foreign aid workers and volunteers gives León a pleasant hopeful vibe as well. Though you wouldn’t know it to look at the sleepy city today, León was the on-and-off capital of Nicaragua until 1858 when Managua got the title once and for all.

Sandanista mural with Uncle Sam and Samoza

This street art in León shows revolutionary Augusto César Sandino with his foot on top of dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle (left) and on top of Uncle Sam.

Where to sleep in León

León attracts far, far fewer visitors than it’s more popular sister, Granada. However, you won’t have the place to yourself.  Most of the travelers who spend time in León are backpackers and there are dozens of hostels in the city, some of them offering free bed bugs.

We got lucky and happened to see a flyer for Harvest House while checking out the bulletin board in the office of Quetzaltrekkers, a non-profit tour company. We called the number on the flyer and set up a time to meet Harvest House creator and manager Jason Greene, a smart, surprisingly young man from North Carolina.

Jason proudly showed us around the sprawling home he rented and radically upgraded. It was spotlessly clean, brightly painted, comfortably furnished and had a huge shared kitchen. Rooms, which range from singles with shared bath to small private apartments, were irresistible (from US$15 per night or from US$150 per month) and we booked a double room with shared bath for a month, spending less and getting more than we would have in any hostal. Jason also runs Buena Vista Guest House in Matagalpa, which should be your address in that great town as well.

Where to eat in León

Though we had a kitchen in Harvest House we did eat some meals out in León. Your main choice is going to be fritanga from one of the dozens of women selling this ubiquitous dish from bare bones street stands. The meal involves some sort of grilled meat, a scoop of gallo pinto (rice and beans) and probably some grated cabbage salad. Fritanga is not gonna win any culinary awards but it will fill your belly and it’s cheap.

We wanted to kiss the French/Dutch owners at Pan y Paz French Bakery where we got delicious loaves almost daily. But the real food find was El Desayunazo which, as the name implies, rocks the breakfast menu. Portions are huge, there’s a wide selection of options (including an epic fruit salad and proper pancakes), the coffee is bottomless and price tags hover around the US$2 mark.


La Merced Church in León.

What to do in León (besides sweat)

The main sight in León is the stately Cathedral of León. Completed in 1814, it was designed by a Guatemalan in a style that bridges Baroque and Neoclassical architecture with touches of Gothic and other styles thrown in as well. It was consecrated by Pope Pius IX in 1860.

Cathedral Leon, Nicaragua

The cathedral in León is one of thelargest in the Americas and is the final resting place for many, including Nicaraguan poet Rubén Dario.

It’s so well-built that the massive cathedral has withstood earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and worse. In 1824 cannons were installed on the cathedral’s roof when conservative forces laid seige to León, in 1979 the cathedral was used as a stronghold against dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle and the guerilla fighters of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) also used the cathedral for military purposes.

Official guides (Spanish only) hang out inside the cathedral, which was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2011, to make sure you take in the most important aspects including the final resting place of Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío. Make your way to the roof to check out the fantastic views over the city and beyond to the volcanoes which ring it.

View of some of the many volcanoes that surround Leon

The streets of central León with the cathedral in the distance and the chain of volcanoes that ring the city beyond that.


You can visit the roof of the cathedral in León for a great perspective on the mixed architecture of the building and awesome views of the city and the volcanoes that ring it.

Leon Cathedral

One of the bell towers of the cathedral of León.

Nicaragua is not known for its museums, it’s true. However, León is home to the Centro de Arte Fundacion Ortiz-Gurdian (free on Sunday for locals and foreigners) which is the best museum in Nicaragua and offers the most compelling collection of modern and religious art from Latin America that we’ve seen since Mexico City.

Ortiz Gurdian Museum Leon, Nicaragua

One of the may elegant Colonial era rooms that have been turned into treasure-filled galleries at the Centro de Arte Fundacion Ortiz-Gurdian in León.

The art is displayed in four adjacent restored Colonial homes which would be worth a visit in their own right even if every wall and courtyard wasn’t filled with art. Opened in 2000, profits from the foundation support a breast cancer awareness, screening and treatment center in Nicaragua.

As you’re wandering around between these sites be on the lookout for street murals including one commemorating the massacre of student protesters. Find relief from the heat by catching a cheap subtitled movie in the blissfully air conditioned movie theater.

Mural Commemorating the Martyrs of July 23 1959 - Leon, Nicaragua

A mural in León commemorating the July 23, 1959 massacre of student which occurred here at the hands of the military.

Parade Commemorating the Martyrs of July 23 1959 - Leon, Nicaragua

College kids in León dressed up as soldiers as part of the annual re-enactment that commemorate the July 23, 1959 massacre of students in the city.

Mural of the Martyrs of July 23 1959 - Leon, Nicaragua

Another mural in León in memory of the student martyrs who were killed by the military on July 23, 1959.

And that’s just the beginning. For even more travel options (from volcano boarding to rum tours) check out this post about what to do around León.

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Our Second Favorite City – Granada, Nicaragua

Nicaragua is not known for preserving the past. Granada, with its Colonial architecture and cobblestone streets, is a rare exception to this rule. It’s often called Nicaragua’s most beautiful city and when we traveled there we found a real looker of a city with a stunning boutique hotel bargain, great locals and a pleasant slow, steamy pace. However, Granada ended up being our second favorite city in Nicaragua.

View of Colonia Granada, Nicaragua and Lake Nicaragua

A birds’ eye view of Colonial Granada, Nicaragua.

Colorful colonial houses - Granada, Nicaragua

The Colonial architecture of Granada, Nicaragua, like this typical house, is in various stages of restoration.

Old Granada

Granada was founded by the Spanish in 1524 which makes it, according to some, the first European city on mainland Latin America. The settlement was named after Granada, Spain and the Spanish used it as a more southerly seat of power in conjunction with Antigua, Guatemala.

Cathedral - Granada, Nicaragua

The main cathedral in Granada, Nicaragua is called the Antiguo Convento San Francisco and it was built in 1592.

In addition to Spanish conquistadors, Granada has been invaded by the English, the French, the Dutch and a whole bunch of pirates including Henry Morgan. The most bizarre interloper, however, came from the United States.

Iglesia Merced - Granada, Nicaragua

Iglesia La Merced, built in 1534, in Granada, Nicaragua.

Wacky William Walker

If he were alive today, William Walker would probably have been a member of the Tea Party. Back in the mid 1800s he had to settle for the Filibusters (aka Freebooters) who thought it was perfectly reasonable to just rock on up to a foreign country, establish an English speaking colony and then pretty much take over.

Oddly enough, that cockamamie tactic worked and Walker was actually President of Nicaragua for a year (albeit a spectacularly unpopular one). A fighting force cobbled together from the armies of various Central American countries finally kicked the Filibusterers (is that a word?) out of Nicaragua. In a final act of contrition they set fire to Granada as they fled.

Learn more about this Walker character in the 1987 movie Walker starring Ed Harris.

San Francisco Church Museum - Granada, Nicaragua

The San Francisco Church museum in Granada, Nicaragua has a large collection of indigenous artifacts and modern art.

It’s a wonder any of the Colonial architecture survived, but some did including the lovely yellow main cathedral and the Antiguo Convento San Francisco which was built in 1592 by Franciscan monks and is now home to indigenous sculpture, pottery and modern paintings (US$2). Iglesia La Merced is even older, built in 1534. Climb the narrow, curving staircase to the roof (US$1) for fantastic views over the clay tiled roofs of the surrounding Colonial structures.

Merced Cathedral - Granada, Nicaragua

A cupola view from the roof of the Merced Cathedral in Granada, Nicaragua.

View from Iglesia Merced - Granada, Nicaragua

A view over Granada, Nicaragua from the bell tower of the Iglesia La Merced which was built in 1534.

For some really, really old bits and pieces of Granada visit Mi Museo (free) where Peter Kolind, owner of the nearby Hotel La Bocona, has filled a gorgeously restored Colonial home with thousands of pre-Colombian artifacts. Mr. Kolind has found and purchased so many bits and pieces (more than 7,000 at last count) of the past that the entire exhibit changes every three months.

Colonial Granada, Nicaragua

A cross in front of the Antiguo Convento San Francisco in Granada, Nicaragua.

New Granada

Granada’s Colonial bones have been getting a slow but steady spruce up thanks to the city’s latest invaders: retired (or semi-retired) foreigners. Lots and lots of them. At times it feels like Granada is content to have sold its soul to foreigners looking for a place where their retirement funds go further. If a few travelers stop by that’s just gravy.

Cale de Calzada bars - Granada, Nicaragua

The pedestrian-only Calle de Calzada where expats, locals and travelers mix in Granada, Nicaragua.

Nowhere is this more apparent than on Calle de Calzada, a pedestrian-only street that breaks away off the main plaza. The promenade and the surrounding blocks are lined with foreigners enjoy foreigner stuff: bars (including the mandatory Irish bar), cafes, a few souvenir shops, a fabulous home made gelato shop and some noted restaurants including meat-centric El Zaguan (Nicaragua is famous for its beef) which was recommended to us by Chef Ben Slow who operates one of our favorite eateries in all of Nicaragua, Cafe Campestre on Ometepe Island.

Centralito Bar - Granada, Nicaragua

Centralito is one of the more modest, traditional bars (and therefore our favorite) on Granda’s Calle de Calzada.

Because so many foreigners (both expats and visitors) spend so much time in this area there are also a lot of begging children. We were glad to see business owners and locals making the point that child beggars are a new phenomenon (remember, Nicaragua is a socialist country) and most of the kids are not homeless or starving. They’ve simply learned that getting a handout is easier than going to school or getting a job. Don’t perpetrate the cycle.

Marimba Band - Granada, Nicaragua

A roving marimba band plays for tips on the Calle de Calzada in Granada, Nicaragua.

A much more welcome new addition to Granada is a small but growing crop of remarkably polished and shockingly affordable boutique hotels in addition to the city’s existing grungy hostels and slightly slumping, fairly uninspired Colonial style hotels.

pool Hotel Los Patios - Granada, Nicaragua

The courtyard pool at Hotel Los Patios in Granada, Nicaragua.

The best of the bunch is Los Patios Hotel where less than US$100 per night gets you stunning Scandanavia-meets-Spanish-Colonial style, a perfectly serene atmosphere and a gourmet breakfast. More reasons to book are in our full review of Los Patios Hotel.

Hotel Los Patios - Granada, Nicaragua

Stark design and Colonial touches, like replicas of original tile, mix at Hotel Los Patios in Granada, Nicaragua.

Boutique Hotel Los Patios - Granada, Nicaragua

Your gourmet breakfast is served here at Hotel Los Patios in Granada, Nicaragua.

Another stylish and even more affordable choice is  Hotel Con Corazon. Run by a foundation, 100% of profits from the hotel are used to help local kids finish school. There are 15 rooms around a central courtyard that has a pool and breezy patios. Room rates, starting at around US$60, include Wi-Fi and breakfast. The feel-good factor is free.

Horse Carriages - Granada, Nicaragua

We urge you to think twice or even three times before patronizing any of the horse drawn carriages on offer in Granada.

Momentary rant: You can’t swing a dead cat in Granada without hitting a horse pulling a tourist buggy. There have been allegations of mistreatment of these horses in recent years and despite a handful of improvements you may still want to think twice about promoting the practice of paying a man enough to (hopefully) feed and care for himself and his family but not his horse so you can be clippity-clopped around a city you should be seeing on foot anyway. If you ask us, this goes for any destination still offering horse-drawn carriage rides including New York City.

View from Merced Church - Granada, Nicaragua

The view from Iglesia La Merced in Granada, Nicaragua.

Our Granada

The pros in Granada far outweighed any cons so we decided to stay a while and rented an apartment for a month. Though the influx of gringos is pushing real estate prices higher and higher we found a dark, breezeless furnished studio apartment with a grungy bathroom and a small bat problem for US$350 per month including water, cable and Wi-Fi through GPS Properties.

GPS apartment rental Granada, Nicaragua

Our lovely apartment for a month in Granada, Nicaragua.

 The very best part of this apartment was the quite street it was on, home to Nicaraguans and gringos. Every evening as the (scorching) sun went down our neighbors would drag big wooden rocking chairs out onto the sidewalk or street in front of their doors to catch the breeze and the latest gossip.

This evening ritual is also a chance for everyone to check on everyone else. Nowhere else in Central America did we feel this ownership of a neighborhood by its residents and we think that pride and responsibility is part of the reason Nicaragua is the safest country in the region–far safer than murder-plagued Honduras and reliably safer than Panama and Costa Rica too, according to The Economist magazine. Shenanigans simply aren’t tolerated.

Our other favorite thing about being in this apartment for a month was the fruit lady. Every morning she’d roam the ‘hood toting a four foot (1.5 meter) wide rattan basket full of fresh fruit. We still have no idea how she lifted the thing full of watermelons and papayas and pineapples and we were tempted to buy more than we needed just to lighten her load.

She quickly learned to pause in front of our door and call out “amiga” and we quickly learned to buy all of our fruit from her. If she didn’t have something that we wanted during her morning rounds she would return with it, or send her daughter, later in the day. The fruit was delicious and dirt cheap and her smile was always free.

Because the apartment did not come with any parking facility we arranged to leave our truck in a filthy lot adjacent to a nearby fire department. In a shocking insight into modern socialist Nicaragua, which is the poorest country in Central America, our US$20 per month parking fee meant the firemen had some money to put gas in the fire engine’s tank.

Read about our #1 favorite city in Nicaragua

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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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