Managua in a day

MANAGUA, NICARAGUA: Managua is the capital and the largest city of Nicaragua. This is not your typical capital with only high-rise buildings and bunch of traffic lights. It has history, culture, and heritage as well as some stunning natural beauties.

Though Managua is the industrial or commercial center of the country, it’s not outrageously expensive like its neighboring capitals. From hotels, to food, to transportations…everything is cheap compare to United States. Unlike Panama or other Central American countries, Nicaragua has its own currency, called Cordoba. You can use USD too, but the change may be in Cordoba.

Lake Managua in Nicaragua

Lake Managua in Nicaragua

TIME of TRAVEL: After visiting El Salvador, Panama, and Costa Rica, Nicaragua concluded our Central America tour which we took back in March, 2015. We had two days to spare before returning to our home in Oregon. First day was well spent in Managua and the last day we had booked a guided tour with viator.com to visit Masaya and Granada. It was pretty hot and humid in Managua, but I guess not as bad as El Salvador. Still it’s always better to be prepared with lots of sunscreens, hats, comfortable shoes, and plenty of water bottle when you come to this region around this time of the year.

OUR HOTEL: We stayed in Holiday Inn Managua – Convention in Managua. This was a beautiful hotel with fancy restaurant, big swimming pool, nice rooms, and friendly service. First day, our hotel concierge arranged a cab-ride around the capital for few hours. The cost was $50 or 1350 NIC for this private tour in a cab. The hotel location was nice but not too close to the city center.

EATING and SHOPPING: Managua is a scattered place with shops and restaurant at every corner and on every street. But from the following places we’ve visited, Puerto Salvador Allende is probably the best place to pick a local restaurant and hunt for some souvenirs. Yes, you have to bargain when you are in Central America. Souvenirs are very colorful with lots of rainforest and natural influences but very reasonably priced.

Some souvenir stores in Puerto Salvador Allende in Managua, Nicaragua

Some souvenir stores in Puerto Salvador Allende in Managua, Nicaragua

PLACES WE’VE VISITED: We were in Nicaragua for 2 days. First day was for the capital and the next day, we took a day trip to Granada and Masaya. One day was good enough to get a good glimpse of Managua. These are some of the places we were able to visit by renting a cab.

  1. NEW CATHEDRAL or CATEDRAL de MANAGUA: This is a contemporary and unusual cathedral built in 1993. Because of its 63 domes on the roof, it looks a lot like a mosque. Inside, it is still unfinished and simple, but worshippers come here everyday. Look for the Black Christ in one of the chapels, very popular in Central America. Rows of tall palm trees decorate the square in front of this cathedral.
New Cathedral in Managua, Nicaragua

New Cathedral in Managua, Nicaragua

2) MONUMENTO del EQERCITO de NICARAGUA: From the cathedral we drove about half an hour or so to go to the Mirador Lagoon. This monument came first after entering the complex. We were there only for couple minutes. But this is a white patriotic monument with canons and symbols.
MONUMENTO del EQERCITO de NICARAGUA

MONUMENTO del EQERCITO de NICARAGUA

3) MIRADOR TISCAPA or LAGOON: From the monument, we were taken to Mirador Lagoon in just few minutes. Although it could have been maintained better, this is a place where locals come to relax or take a break from the chaotic city life. The fresh water lagoon itself is inside of a crater of an extinct volcano. We saw lots of young couples and groups chilling by the lake. It was 5 NIC to enter the park.
Mirador Lagoon in Managua, Nicaragua

Mirador Lagoon in Managua, Nicaragua

4) PARQUE CENTRAL de MANAGUA: Parque Central de Managua is a big open space at the center of the capital. This is another point where hundreds of locals gather everyday to get away from the city life within the city. After parking the car, we passed some statues and war monuments to come to the main square. Antiqua Catedral de Managua, orange building of Presidential Palace (La Casa de los Pueblos), and National Palace (Palacio Nacional) are located here. Antiqua Catedral de Managua or the Old Cathedral was under renovation, so we couldn’t go in. 3 eternal fire to honor Nicaraguan revolutionary leaders are located in front of the square. We were there after the regular office hours, not sure if the tourists can take tour inside the Presidential Palace or the National Palace. But we were told by our cab drive that President Daniel Ortega doesn’t live in the Presidential Palace. Overall, this was a nice hangout place for us in the late afternoon. If you are hungry, there are some food stalls too. Check out the beautiful monument of Ruben Dario near the entrance. Also you can see Lago Xalotlan from here.
Statue of Ruben Dario in Parque Central de Managua in Nicaragua

Statue of Ruben Dario in Parque Central de Managua in Nicaragua

5) MINI MANAGUA: Not too far from the park, we then came to the lake shore. Mini Managua, a fun park with miniature version of the city, is located by Lake Managua. The park features some of its important and historic buildings, businesses, and iconic monuments. My kids loved seeing all the mini stuff and taking a tour inside a mock airplane. There were some cafes and picnic areas here and a long path by the lake for strolling. The government doesn’t allow any kind of boating here to protect the lake from pollution. It’s 30 NIK to enter and can easily spend couple hours.
Mini Managua

Mini Managua

   6) PUERTO SALVADOR ALLENDE: This was probably my most favorite place in Managua. It was already dark when we reached here from Mini Managua. The drive was only few minutes from the last park, but parking is a headache here. 30 NIC to enter with car and 5 NIK per adult. This is more like an eating and shopping place. It was bustling with a hundreds of local crowds gathered for meals and good times. This is probably one of the best places to try some local delicacies. Loud music was everywhere…a nice hyped place to chill at night.
7) ROTONDA RUBEN DARIO: We just drove by this round-about at night without stopping. It is lit up at night and looks extravagant with the mixture of fountain and light.
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Poas Volcano and La Paz Waterfalls Garden in Costa Rica

POAS VOLCANO and LA PAZ WATER FALLS GARDEN, COSTA RICA: Costa Rica is unimaginably incomplete if you don’t get out of its metropolitan life and visit its engaging natural beauty. Visitors have to uncork its beauty by visiting its dramatic volcanoes, youthful rainforest, powerful waterfalls, and taking revitalized hikes. This day-trip by far was one of the most interactive and fun journeys for our girls as well as for us. And if you are a nature photographer…then this is a double-must-see, you won’t regret it.

Breathtaking drive of Costa Rica

Breathtaking drive of Costa Rica

As a country Costa Rica was rated as the happiest country in the world. It enjoyed being the first democratic country in Latin America and is the “Silicon Valley” of Latin America. We heard lots of stats like these from our guide in this tour. But even before these, I fell in love with Costa Rica as we were prepping for our Central America tour. Seeing and experience the nature so closely gave us the opportunity to see how beautiful this country really is.

TIME of TRAVEL: We were in Central America in the mid-March of 2015. The first two countries that we visited here were El Salvador and Panama. Three days in Costa Rica flew by really quickly before our last destination to Nicaragua. The weather can get hot and muggy at this time of the year. Make sure to bring sunscreen and comfortable shoes for this trip…you will be walking a lot.

OUR HOTEL: Our hotel Radisson was located about 15 minutes’ walk from the downtown San Jose. It had a beautiful swimming pool and hot tub, free traditional and continental breakfast buffet, and free Wi-Fi. It was nice to have typical Costa Rican dishes every morning, which were black beans with rice, some local cheese and coffee.

EATING and SHOPPING: The trip included traditional style Costa Rican breakfast and lunch. After our first stop at Alajuela, we sat down in Doko State Coffee Plantation for a late breakfast. Some rice with black beans, fried plantain, egg, tortilla, and cheese for breakfast…can’t beat that. And lunch was in the café at La Paz Waterfalls Garden.

Other than that we got some nice treatment from the tour guide company. The guide stopped at few different shops, picked up local munchies for all of us and made us try all of them. Guava empanadas were one of my favorites, including local sweet strawberries.

Costa Rica is known to be one of the best producing coffee beans in the world and the coffee here is 100% natural and organic. We stopped at few different souvenir shops along the way and at the below destinations. Other than coffee, you can get traditional coffee making pots, chocolates, wood curved wall decors, and local jewelries in these stores.

Some souvenirs of Costa Rica

Some souvenirs of Costa Rica

PLACES WE’VE VISITED: This was a guided tour in the following areas. My most favorite thing to see in whole Costa Rica or in this whole Central America trip was visiting La Paz Waterfalls Garden. Poas Volcano was absolutely a breathtaking place to see too and hiking was the best in this park. This is a must-take tour in Costa Rica.

1) ALAJUELA: 20km from San Jose is the historic city of Alajuela. We stopped in the heart of city center after picking all of our group members. The statue of National Hero “Juan Santa Maria” stands in the big round plaza, who sacrificed his life during the battle with Nicaragua in 1856. Teatra Municipal is a yellow building that stands on one side of the plaza…an art-deco, neo-classic style architecture. Beside that is the Catedral Alajuela. And finally the white building in this plaza is the last military headquarter of Costa Rica (now Costa Rica is a military-free country)…presently a museum.

Alajuela, a historic town in Costa Rica

Alajuela, a historic town in Costa Rica

2) DOKO STATE COFFEE PLANTATION: From Alajuela, it was a harmonious drive to Doko State Coffee Plantation. This is a 112 year old coffee plantation place where you can learn everything about coffee. This coffee tour taught us a lot about this bean, like how it’s grown and processed. We saw some different demonstrations and phases of processing coffee in Doko State Coffee Plantation. You can see traditional ox-cart during this tour which is an icon of this country. Vargas family owned this 6000 hectors of plantation where visitors can now see a small coffee museum, old machineries, and a souvenir shop.

An old ox-cart in DOKO Coffee Plantation in Costa Rica

An old ox-cart in DOKO Coffee Plantation in Costa Rica

Originally, the first coffee came to Costa Rica from Ethiopia. The golden age for coffee in this country is 1832-1856. Now big companies, like Nescafe or Starbucks, get their 100% coffee beans from here.

The plantation is open from Monday thru Friday from 9am to 3:30pm.

Coffee beans drying outside in DOKO Coffee Plantation in Costa Rica

Coffee beans drying outside in DOKO Coffee Plantation in Costa Rica

3) POAS VOLCANO NATIONAL PARK: About 75km from San Jose, this is a must-see adventure of Costa Rica. Unlike Irazu Volcano, this park was more beautiful, scenic, and gave me a feel of being in a rainforest jungle. The park opened in 1971. This protected wildlife area ranges from 4000 ft. to 8,860 ft. above sea level and covers 16,000 acres of grounds with hundreds of different species of flora and fauna. With more than 80 species of mammals and birds, this park has a rich diversity of wildlife. Common flora species include Poor man’s umbrella, ferns, bromeliads, and other exotic plants. Visitors not only get up-close and personal with the luring rainforest, but also can enjoy impressive views from different sites along the trails.

The Main Crater of Poas Volcano National Park in Costa Rica

The Main Crater of Poas Volcano National Park in Costa Rica

Poas Volcano is an active volcano which erupted nearly 40 times since 1828. It is an active composite volcano with a conical shape and various caldera depressions.

From the parking lot we took the Poor Man’s Umbrella trail, about 15 – 20 minutes’ of walk, to come to the Main Crater. The Main Crater of Poas Volcanos is a mile wide circular depression which is 300 meters deep and 1320 meters in diameter with a crystal blue lagoon rich in sulfur and acids. This is one of the world’s most acidic lakes and therefore, supports little or no aquatic life. (Caution: you can smell/inhale Sulphur from the terrace, you may feel irritation in your yes or lungs standing there for a long time). Standing on the terrace, you can see the main dome, ash layers, old crater, and also Caribbean Coast on a nice day. When we were there, the cloud/fog hid the crater for the most part. If you are lucky, you can see the whole crater with its sulfuric/acidic colors. We couldn’t see the Main Crater properly because of the cloud but still enjoyed its unique features. From the Main Crater we followed Botos Lagoon Trail that took us to Lake Botos…an inactive crater filled with clear water and surrounded by cloud forest. This was a beautiful place I must say. Escalonia Trail is a long trail which eventually brought us to the starting point near the parking lot. We saw hundreds of different kinds of exotic species including ferns, Poor Man’s Umbrellas, bromeliads along the way…oh yeah, and a squirrel. Basically, it was about half a mile to the first crater, two miles to go the lagoon, and total of three miles to come to the parking lot again.

Botos Lagoon in Poas Volcano National Park in Costa Rica

Botos Lagoon in Poas Volcano National Park in Costa Rica

The park is very well equipped with tour guide services, facilities for disabled guests, shops, and restaurants. It took us about little more than just two hours to hike, walk, and explore this place. It’s open from 8am to 3:30pm everyday.

4) LA PAZ WATERFALLS GARDEN: Our last and most exciting destination of this trip was La Paz Waterfalls Garden. The garden is the just the beginning of this trip…wait until you get to the thrilling hikes and falls of this journey. You will be making all sorts of memories with the garden’s birds, butterflies, snakes, frogs, monkeys, hummingbirds, and jungle cats.

Humming bird sanctuary in La Paz Waterfalls Garden in Costa Rica

Humming bird sanctuary in La Paz Waterfalls Garden in Costa Rica

La Paz Waterfalls Garden is a privately owned and managed ecological attraction that opened in the 2000. The construction of the hiking trails and butterfly observatory began in 1998. The park comprises 70 acres or 28 hectares of land. Amazing part of this garden is that the 2.2 miles (3.5 km) of hiking trails and viewing platforms were built without cutting one tree or vine system. Also, the materials for the trails and platforms were carried own on foot in order to avoid the use of heavy equipment in the forest. None of the animals in this Wildlife Refuge have been taken from their natural habitat. Most of them were illegally held as pets when the Wild Life Ministry found and confiscated them.

A big cat in La Paz Waterfalls Garden in Costa Rica

A big cat in La Paz Waterfalls Garden in Costa Rica

Peace Lodge of La Paz Waterfalls Garden is an award winning ultra-upscale accommodation in the symphony of purely Costa Rican rainforest jungle. Guests are so close to the nature here yet in the comfort and luxury of modern rooms and services.

A rare orchid, called "Dancers' Slippers" in Costa Rica

A rare orchid, called “Dancers’ Slippers” in Costa Rica

There were five waterfalls that we came across during our 3.5 km of long hike in the garden: Magia Blanca (120 feet or 37 meters), Encantada (65 feet or 20 meters), Escondida (10 feet or 3 meters), and La Paz. For its unique landscape and location, this is a gem and an awe-inspiring destination in Costa Rica.

One of the falls of La Paz Waterfalls Garden in Costa Rica

One of the falls of La Paz Waterfalls Garden in Costa Rica

San Jose – the Capital of Costa Rica

SAN JOSE, COSTA RICA: Capital of Costa Rica, San Jose,  is the heart of this beautifully country that is ringed by green mountains and deep valleys. I wouldn’t call it a huge metropolitan or modern town, like Panama City, nor it had small cozy feeling to it.  While Costa Rica was my most favorite country in this trip, its capital was the least impressive place for me. I am sure it has its own charm and hidden gems… obviously we weren’t looking at the right things.

The main pedestrian street in the heart of San Jose, Costa Rica

The main pedestrian street in the heart of San Jose, Costa Rica

TIME of TRAVEL: Costa Rica was our second country to visit in this Central America trip in the mid-March of 2015. We first visited El Salvador, then Panama and from Costa Rica we finished our trip with Nicaragua. It was very hot and humid, especially when we toured outside San Jose to the mountains and rainforests.

OUR HOTEL: We stayed in Radisson, about 15 minutes’ walk from downtown San Jose. It was a fantastic place with free breakfast and Wi-Fi. Other than its excellent customer service, we had a big swimming pool and a hot tub very close to our room. Radisson in San Jose is a very big hotel and had a big gate at the entrance for extra security.

EATING and SHOPPING: We saw plenty of fast foods in the heart of San Jose. But we did have a hard time finding a local Costa Rican restaurant…maybe we were just looking at the wrong place. We eventually had lunch in Mercado Central after few locals directed us there. Inside the market, there were some small places and quick-serve counters who were offering local dishes. We had some fish with rice and pickled vegetables, like jalapeno and chili peppers. Other than those, you can find fish soup, ceviche (raw fish), and other seafood options too.

Our lunch (fish fried rice) in San Jose, Costa Rica...inside Mercado Central

Our lunch (fish fried rice) in San Jose, Costa Rica…inside Mercado Central

Again, Mercado Central was the only place where we saw only a hand-full of stores selling local hand-crafts and souvenirs. We didn’t see any other place outside this market selling souvenirs…eventually, we didn’t buy anything from San Jose.

PLACES WE’VE VISITED: We had three full days to explore Costa Rica, out of that we spent a day in San Jose. We arrived in the morning and it was enough for us to just take a short tour of the capital for the rest of that day.

An interesting statue we saw while roaming around San Jose in Costa Rica

An interesting statue we saw while roaming around San Jose in Costa Rica

1) MERCADO CENTRAL: We walked quiet a far from our hotel to come the heart of San Jose. Once we hit the center point, we followed the pedestrian road to hunt for some local meals and after about 10 minutes, saw this market. When we asked some locals about where we can get some good seafood, they pointed at Mercado Central and gave a name of a restaurant (which I forgot).

Mercado Central is a very old and bustling indoor market and has been there since 1880. Countless shops and restaurants are packed inside this place. You can find almost anything and everything here. Quality may not be of good standard but they are very reasonably priced.

2) METROPOLITAN CATHEDRAL: While we were walking towards the main square to our hotel, we took a little detour. On the other side of the street a big square showed up with a giant Neo-classical edifice in the front. A mass was going on while we were inside the cathedral, so we couldn’t walk around much. But it’s a big place elegantly decorated with some stunning stained-glass windows from Paris and Germany. A new group of bells were installed here in 1998 which came straight from Spain. The tabernacle is a replica from the original one in 1855. The artistic tubular organ is from Belgium that was inaugurated in 1891 and it is considered as one of the best tubular organs in whole Central America. The structure suffered few major earthquakes in the past few centuries.

Catedral Metropolitana in San Jose, Costa Rica

Catedral Metropolitana in San Jose, Costa Rica

3) MAIN SQUARE with TEATRO NACIONALE: We honestly didn’t find a name of this square. It looked like the main square where people and pigeons gather to chill. Many buildings and eateries surround the square. Beside the square is the National Theater of San Jose…an old but nice architecture. There was ice-cream store where we stopped and picked up some nice flavors while walking back to the hotel at the end of the day.

The main square of San Jose, Costa Rica, which houses some museums and important buildings, including the National Theater

The main square of San Jose, Costa Rica, which houses some museums and important buildings, including the National Theater

Volcanoes and Valleys of Costa Rica – Irazu Volcano and Orosi Valley

IRAZU VOLCANO and OROSI VALLEY, COSTA RICA: To see the real beauty of Costa Rica, you have to go the lush green mountains, rugged volcanoes, valleys, and rainforests. And this trip gave us that taste of real Costa Rica.

Aside from the sceneries, I fell in love with Costa Rica more after this trip…thanks to our well-educated guide. The country was founded by the Spaniards in 1523 in Orosi Valley. During that time, this place was inhabited by the indigenous people and the Spanish emperors ruled this country up until 1821. Costa Rica was the first nation in the world who abolished their army permanently in 1949. Now all that money goes to education and that’s why it has the highest literacy rate in whole Latin America. Oh, another interesting fact is that recently Costa Rica was voted to be the happiest nation in the world…such an impressive country overall.

The trip to Irazu Volcano and Orosi Valley was an extraordinary experience for us. It took us to some off the bean paths and showed us some unbeatable views of Costa Rica. The trip was booked thru viator.com and we were picked up right from our hotel entrance to start the tour on time. It was a long 8 hours of tour, but very well worth it.

Those big leaves are called

Those big leaves are called “Elephant Ears” or “Poor Man’s Umbrella”…some exotic trees in Irazu Valley, Costa Rica

TIME of TRAVEL: This was our second day in Costa Rica. We roamed the capital, San Jose, on the first day and Poas Volcano with La Paz Waterfalls Garden the following day. It was the middle of March, 2015 when we flew to Central America. Before coming to Costa Rica, we visited El Salvador and Panama and from here we were off to Nicaragua.

Even in March, it was way too hot and humid. It’s the dry season here. Be sure to bring some sunscreens, hats, sunglasses, comfortable clothes, and walking shoes for this trip. Being a tropical country, they don’t get any snow…so, coming here in winter may not be a bad decision. But keep a close eye, because this region is an earthquake prone zone.

OUR HOTEL: Our hotel Radisson was located about 15 minutes’ walk from the downtown San Jose. It had a beautiful swimming pool and hot tub, free traditional and continental breakfast buffet, and free Wi-Fi. I loved having typical Costa Rican breakfast every morning, which were black bean with rice, local cheese and coffee.

EATING and SHOPPING: Since this was a guided trip, after visiting the Lancaster Botanical Garden we were taken towards Orosi Valley for little sightseeing and lunch. The place is called La Casona del Cafetal. Our big group sat outside by a beautiful lake surrounded by a lush exotic garden. We had some rice, beans, and fried plantain with the options of meat or fish. Sea bass and red snapper are some common and popular fishes in Costa Rica. After desert we finished off with some locally brewed fresh coffee…poured in traditional Costa Rican style.

Our traditional lunch in La Casona del Cafetal in Orosi Valley, Costa Rica

Our traditional lunch in La Casona del Cafetal in Orosi Valley, Costa Rica

Since this was a guide tour, we didn’t have much time to ourselves to go for souvenir hunting. We bought a wooden napkin holder from Irazu Volcano. We stopped few more places along the road for more souvenir hunting but most of them were expensive.

Pouring coffee Costa Rican style...you can also buy these pots from most of the souvenir stores in Costa Rica

Pouring coffee Costa Rican style…you can also buy these pots from most of the souvenir stores in Costa Rica

PLACES WE’VE VISITED: This was about an 8 hours of guided tour. These are some of the following places we saw with a big group and an experienced guide.

1) IRAZU VOLCANO NATIONAL PARK: About 51 km from San Jose is Costa Rica’s highest active volcano, Irazu Volcano. It is a popular destination spot and a short ride from the capital. The drive started to get very scenic after we passed thru the city of Cartago. We passed by some villages, farms, open fields, valleys, exotic plants on the road sides, and saw farmers working on carrot, onion, and potato farms. On our way, we stopped at a curb side to see Costa Rica’s most active volcano, Volcano Torrelba, which last erupted in 1860s, but now again was fuming steam. We could actually see the steam from a distance. From here we rode up the zigzag mountainous road and our bus finally stopped at the summit.

Irazu Volcano has total of 5 craters with various depths and diameters; the two most important ones are the Main Crater and Diego de la Haya Crater. The Main Crater, Crater Principal, is about 300 meters deep and 1050 meters in diameter. This crater used to have a blue lake in the middle but it’s not there anymore. Last major eruption from this place was in 1965. The guide showed different kinds of lava rocks as we walked towards the Main Crater. We saw a humming bird in the small forest on our way back, which tells us this national park is a home to some exotic plants, flowers, animals, and birds.

The Main Crater of Irazu Volcano National Park in Costa Rica

The Main Crater of Irazu Volcano National Park in Costa Rica

It is better to carry a light sweater for this trip. It can get a bit cold and cloudy from time to time for its high elevation. The park is open from 8 – 3:30pm. Although our entrance fee was paid by the company, it’s $15 per adult and $5 for each kid. We spent about little more than an hour in the park, taking leisure stroll on one of the dead craters. Visitors are allowed to take different trails and hike around the different craters if time permits. At the end of the tour, visit the souvenir shop. The items were of course a bit expensive, but had lots of unique things to purchase as gifts or memories.

2) OUR LADY of ANGELS BASILICA in CARTAGO: About 31 km from Irazu Volcano, beside San Jose, is another city, called Cartago. This is Costa Rica’s first capital. Our bus stopped in front of a Byzantine style big church, Our Lady of Angels Basilica…we were at our second stop. Outside the basilica is very monumental, but standing here we couldn’t imagine the fabulous and majestic beauty that it holds inside. From its elegant altar to illustrious wall designs, over-sized paintings, splendid dome, wood carvings, artistic columns and floors, and stunning stained-glass windows…this Catholic church from the Spanish time is a jewel in whole Costa Rica.

Our Lady of Angels Basilica in Cartago, Costa Rica

Our Lady of Angels Basilica in Cartago, Costa Rica

3) LANKESTER BOTANICAL GARDEN: Lancaster from England donated this exotic, one of a kind garden to the University of Costa Rica outside of Cartago in 1973. It is open to the publics but operated by the university as a research center. The garden is considered as one of the most beautiful gardens in Latin America. 15 minutes of drive from the basilica, this was our last destination before lunch.

Dancer's Slippers in the Lankester Garden in Costa Rica

Dancer’s Slippers in the Lankester Garden in Costa Rica

Lankester Botanical Garden has a world-class collection of different species of cacti, bromeliads, and other tropical flowers. Exhibition of orchids is the center attention of this garden and visitors can see many varieties of orchid which are not easily seen in the wild. While strolling around the garden, enjoy the small fountains, exotic plants, trails, ant colonies (yay…we saw some armies of ants carrying leaves), a small portion of Japanese garden, and bamboo trees.

The smallest orchid in the world, in Lankester Garden, Costa Rica

The smallest orchid in the world, in Lankester Garden, Costa Rica

4) OROSI VALLEY: Our lunch spot and last destination of the day was Orosi Valley. This is one of the oldest communities of Costa Rica and a beautiful one too. Orosi Valley was founded by the Spaniards in 1563. Its deep valley is surrounded by small hills, volcanoes, rainforest, and lush vegetation. While many fruit and vegetable farms are plenty here, coffee is the leading industry in this area which was first brought here from Cuba. Many of the coffee plantations from this region supply their famous Costa Rican coffee beans to Europe and other continents in the world. They also export bananas and pineapple to other countries, large part of which are grown in Orosi Valley.

Heavenly Orosi Valley in Costa Rica

Heavenly Orosi Valley in Costa Rica

Orosi Valley houses the oldest Catholic church (that is still in use) in Costa Rica, Iglesia de San Jose. The church is from 1743 during the colonial time after its patron saint San Joseph. The church as destroyed in earthquake before. What you see inside the church is 60% of the original structure. It is simple but a historic church in this region.

Iglesia de San Jose in Orosi Valley is an iconic church in Costa Rica

Iglesia de San Jose in Orosi Valley is an iconic church in Costa Rica

A day in Portobelo, Panama

PORTOBELO, PANAMA: About an hour and twenty minutes of drive from Panama City is Portobelo, in the Caribbean coastal area known as “Costa Arriba”. Historically, Portobelo was Spaniards’ richest treasure port and a fishing village. Now, let’s just say it can be a nice getaway from the chaos of big cities.

We started our tour at 9am and took about 8 hours all together. We visited few other places before and after Portobello. Our original plan was to go to both Portobelo and Colon. Therefore the fee was $200, but we couldn’t manage to go to Colon for shortage of time. Colon is another historic town of Panama, about 45 minutes’ drive from Portobelo, where new expansion of Panama Canal is taking place.

Plaza Mayor, the main plaza in Portobelo, Panama

Plaza Mayor, the main plaza in Portobelo, Panama

TIME of TRAVEL: We took this trip to Portobelo on our second day in Panama. First day we roamed around the capital with the same taxi driver exploring the history, culture, and city life of this place. Before Panama, we were in El Salvador. Our next destination was Costa Rica and Nicaragua from here. This was our first trip to Central America which we took in the mid-March of 2015. We got to see a lot in this two weeks of vacation.

OUR HOTEL: Our hotel, Hyatt Place Panama, was in downtown Panama City. Apart from having a roof-top swimming pool and a fantastic view of the city from the room, the hotel was nicely located in the heart of the capital. Portobello was about an hour and half drive from here. The taxi we hired for this trip was arranged from this hotel.

EATING and SHOPPING: Many of the restaurants were closed or shut down in Portobelo. There were some street side places which our driver didn’t recommend us for hygienic reasons. He took us to a nice but not-too-fancy place, called “El Palenque” near Santiago Battery. It’s not a huge restaurant that can hold many people nor did it have a long list menu for its guests. But they had some good quality dishes with some fusions. We sat outside by the water and only two other tables were occupied. I had to get some fresh juice, like papaya, watermelon, and pineapple. We ordered some rice with shrimp, rice with prawns, and salad. They were cooked somewhat in combination of Central American and Caribbean style. The rice was cooked in fresh coconut water and shrimps/prawns were perfectly cooked with perfect seasonings.

Our lunch in Portobelo, Panama in a restaurant, called "El Palenque"

Our lunch in Portobelo, Panama in a restaurant, called “El Palenque”

Portobelo is not an ideal place for fancy shopping or hunting for souvenirs, actually we barely saw even souvenir stores here. There were some vendors with carts outside the Iglesia de San Felipe selling generic jewelries and small trinkets, but didn’t really find anything unique that caught my eyes.

PLACES WE’VE VISITED: As I mentioned above, this trip was about eight hours long and we couldn’t visit Colon, which was originally part of our plan. These are some of the places we’ve visited in and around Portobelo.

Isn't this a lovely looking bus? ... From Portobelo, Panama

Isn’t this a lovely looking bus? … From Portobelo, Panama

1) PLAYA la ANGOSTA: Playa la Angosta kind of popped up in front of us on our way to Portobelo and thanks to our driver that he noticed and took us there. This is a beautiful beach in the Caribbean coastal area of Costa Arriba and with all the coconut trees, it may give you a feeling of Caribbean beaches in some way.

 

Playa la Angosta beach near Portobelo, Panama

Playa la Angosta beach near Portobelo, Panama

It was not crowded with loads of people, just some families scattered around. We had only half an hour here and while my girls were playing with the sand and water, I took a short walk around the white sandy beach to take some pictures. You can spend hours here just sitting under one of the straw-hut tables and enjoy the fresh sea-breeze while drinking some coconut water.

 

Playa la Angosta beach by the Caribbean coast near Portobelo, Panama

Playa la Angosta beach by the Caribbean coast near Portobelo, Panama

It is a private beach, visitors just have to pay $3 for parking.

2) PORTOBELO: From Panama City to Portobelo was a fantastic scenic ride. We had blue Atlantic on the left and green rainforest on the right. Striking natural beauty were everywhere. After half an hour drive from Playa la Angosta, we were in Portobelo. When stepping outside the van near Plaza Mayor, I felt like the town was frozen in time. Its endearing small-town characteristics instantly captured my mind.

Girls in Portobelo, Panama in their colorful ethnic outfits

Girls in Portobelo, Panama in their colorful ethnic outfits

Portobelo is a town with population of roughly 5,000 and about 500 years old. This was the first town in the Atlantic side and Spaniards built this town as a port. It is well-known for its century old tradition of Black Christ celebration, which is still held every year in October in the ancient Portobelo Cathedral.

We entered Jesus Nazareno Church or Iglesia de San Felipe that dates back to the 1700s. Bold façade and its paintings of Black Christ make this church a unique place to visit.

Black Christ inside Iglesia de San Felilpe in Portobelo, Panama

Black Christ inside Iglesia de San Felilpe in Portobelo, Panama

From the church, walked thru some narrow alleys and empty neighborhoods and came to Fuerte San Jeronimo. In Portobelo, the fortresses of San Fernando, San Jeronimo, and the Santiago battery are part of the defense system. The structures lost their medieval-like features and adopted a more streamlined neoclassical style. Few centuries old San Jeronimo Fort sits by the Atlantic and only ruins are left in this fort complex now. It is believed it was built somewhere around 1758. Other than the history, just enjoy the blue water and the old ground of a fortress.

 

Forte San Jeronimo from the 1700s in Portobelo, Panama

Forte San Jeronimo from the 1700s in Portobelo, Panama

Few minutes of walk from the Fort San Jeronimo, is the Santiago Battery. The battery was planned in 1753 and only the skeletons and ruins stand by the calm water of Atlantic.

3) GATUN LAKE: In the late afternoon, after the lunch, we left Portobelo. Since Colon was canceled, the driver took us to show Gatun Lake from a highway. It is a large, long, and artificial lake that constitutes with the whole Panama Canal system. We didn’t go down to the lake, just stood on a bridge and looked over this lake surrounded by rainforest right around the sunset.

Gatun Lake near Portobelo, Panama...an artificial lake for Panama Canal

Gatun Lake near Portobelo, Panama…an artificial lake for Panama Canal

4) PEDRO MIGUEL LOCK: After crossing a narrow highway thru Soberenia National Forest, we arrived at Pedro Miguel Lock. Along the route of the canal. There are 3 sets of locks and Pedro Miguel is one of them. We visited the Miraflores Lock the previous day and now we were in front of Pedro Miguel Lock. The smallest set of locks are at Pedro Miguel Lock. Standing on the other side of the fence on a highway, we watched a big vessel slowly crossing the lock to the other side.

 

Pedro Miguel Lock in Panama Canal

Pedro Miguel Lock in Panama Canal

 

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