Local Flavors: Plates and Bowls of Panama

It is not surprising to me that Panama is often referred to as the crossroads of the world. Panama is an incredible place full of modern conveniences and progressive thinkers. Like all places in Central America, the people appreciate their accomplishments but still have great respect for their time honored traditions, achievements and of course their national recipes.

Ask any Panamanian what their national dish is and you will get one of two responses: Sancocho de Gallina or Ropa Vieja. Both of these dishes are a pleasure to eat and interesting to learn about.

Sancocho de Gallina is a soul coating chicken soup made with an incredibly savory broth and a variety of veggies including name´ (yam), yucca, corn on the cob, onion, squash, garlic and potato. There is also a delicious blend of herbs including oregano and a local herb called culantro (not to be confused with cilantro) which gives the soup its unique flavor and color. It is, as most things, served with white rice on the side.

Panama has experienced many tumultuous intervals throughout its grand history. There have been political uprisings, conflicts with the many countries that tried to control the country and its people and of course the economic recovery that occurred after the Noriega invasion. The many ingredients in this soup are meant to represent the extremely important racial diversity and unity Panama has achieved.


Ropa Vieja is an incredibly delicious dish of stewed shredded beef brisket in a savory, comfort inducing sauce. The slow braising of the meat and the combination of tomatoes, onion, cumin, oregano and wine make this a dish I would happily eat on a weekly basis.

Ropa Viejas roots reside in the Canary Islands. These islands were the primary midway stopping point for the many Spanish and Latin American ships that went to and fro across the sea. This is inevitably how Panama, along with many other Caribbean islands, ended up adopting the basic recipe (along with Canary Island immigrants) and making it part of their food culture.

The name Ropa Vieja literally means “old clothes”. The most popular story about how the dish received its name is about a family that was hosting their extended family for supper. Though the family was very poor and rarely had enough food for themselves, they invited the extended family over to be their guests. Realizing that there would not be enough food for everyone, the father went to his closet and began ripping up his old clothes to add to the bubbling beef stew. Because the father took this action with a heart full of love, the clothes miraculously transformed into beef and the entire family was able to eat to their hearts content.


Where Seas and Continents Converge: Panama

Two flights, three buses and four days after leaving Great Corn Island, Nicaragua our little twelve seater touched down on the airstrip of Bocas Del Toro, Panama. We’d essentially made our way due south from one Caribbean island off the coast of Nicaragua to another one off the coast of Panama via a transcontinental journey zig zaging through Nicaragua, Costa Rica and into Panama. There is never a direct route down here it seems. Bocas Del Toro is an archipelago of islands in the northern part of Panama near the Costa Rican border. Virtually undeveloped 20 years ago, Bocas has exploded into a tourist mecca for those seeking a safe, affordable Caribbean experience. For years I´ve dreamed of visiting, having heard great stories of the laid back lifestyle, the beautiful scenery and the “island life” that put Bocas on the map. It was there in spades, mind you but unfortunately so were the gaggles of Caribbean tourists and the high prices that accompany them. High by our standards at least. Having been blown away (and spoiled) by the snorkeling in Caye Caulker, the scuba diving in Utila and the beaches of Little Corn, Bocas just was a bit underwhelming for us and we left after a couple of days instead of the week we’d planned. We seriously needed a break from the heat too. Since leaving Guatemala we’d spent the past two months in heat in the 90’s plus every day and were a little tired of sweating. With that plan in mind we decided to head to the highlands of Panama for a reprieve. What a surprisingly fantastic idea that turned out to be.

Our next destination would be the small town of Boquete in the mountains, an absolutely gorgeous gem of a place with a beautiful river cutting through it, waterfalls, strawberry fields, coffee farms and spectacular valleys around every turn. With year round temperate weather we actually got to wear our hoodies at night, it felt like we were back in San Francisco! We flat out loved it, it was the perfect change of pace. From walking and talking to folks around town we met a retired ecology and history professor from the states who had been living in Boquete for years. He took us out on an educational tour of the area (seriously he squeezed 40 million years of Panamanian history into 4 hours) visiting unique geologic sites, learning about the strife of the local indigenous farm hands, tasting coffee from a local farm and visiting a haunted mansion! He wouldn’t go into the creepy abandoned mansion in the woods but spent 20 minutes regaling tale after tale of all the people that died mysteriously either building it or attempting to live in it since it’s construction a hundred years ago. Obviously the second he stopped for a breath, Laura and I jumped the fence and headed up the trail to explore the place. We wandered through the empty stone halls full of leaves and rubble as the jungle had already been reclaiming the structure for years. It was like something out of a horror movie and we joked about spending the night in there when ALL OF A SUDDEN…. Okay, I’d love to have a story here of a ghost attack or a mysterious image that appeared in a photo when we got home or being slimed or something but that didn’t happen. Or did it?

After a few days relaxing in the cool climate and good vibes of Boquete, we made our way across the country looking for a taste of the urban in Panama City. The multi bus haul took us about 10 hours but also showed us so much of the beauty that is Panama. We were blown away by how spectacular the biodiversity of the country is and we were subsequently blown away as well by how huge and modern Panama City is. The whole country is so dynamic and full of stark contrasts, it constantly surprised us in a good way. If there is one place so far that we could see ourselves living for a few years it would be Panama City. Honestly. It is such a great mix of well preserved old style and sleek new modern. We spent much of our first day walking around Casco Viejo, the Old Town for a taste of history. Having been abandoned by the wealthy for luxury sky rise living 50 years ago, Old Town is in the midst of a renaissance and half of the 300 year old structures are in the process of being restored to their original glory. It is a sight to see. Surrounded by a 30′ stone wall on all sides to protect it from the Pirate Henry Morgan (who had sacked and completely destroyed the original Panama City in the 1600’s), Old Town was declared a World Heritage Site in 2003 and for good reason. Check it out if you can, it is colonial architecture at it’s finest. Our next stop would take us forward a few hundred years and into the future, the Panama Canal. Being big science and history buffs, taking a tour of the Canal really put the grandness of the endeavor in perspective. It took over 30 years to build, cost over 6 billion dollars and more than 30,000 people died to make it a reality. We spent a day learning about it’s history and watching tankers and freighters make their way through the locks. Four little trains on tracks on either side help guide them through with ropes, unreal. That’s one more thing off the ole bucket list.

After a few more days of enjoying the niceties that come with being in a modern metropolitan city (okay it has only been 3 months since we left the States but these city kids were needing this, big time), we made our way north on the original Panama Canal Railroad! Riding in a vintage glass domed car through the jungle alongside the canal was something else. This we learned was the original transcontinental railroad. The two hour ride from Panama City on the Pacific Ocean to Colon on the Caribbean Sea was actually a favorite for west heading Americans during the gold rush to avoid dealing with Native Americans in the central US. It was also a favorite for me since I love trains, especially old ones with wood walled passenger cars and oil paintings of tropical birds. Okay I admit that was a first for me. It was a truly historic journey.

From Colon we then headed west to a small village called Portobelo. Originally named Puerto Bello meaning “Beautiful Port”  by Christopher Columbus when he set eyes on the gorgeous Caribbean bay, Portobello was the biggest Caribbean port of the Spanish in the early 1600’s and it’s believed that more than half of the gold that left the Americas for Spain went through there. The fortifications were impressive but alas, Henry Morgan figured out a way to take the port and leveled the town in 1668. What remains there now is a small town with beautiful waters and some amazing ruins of the previous Spanish forts. We spent several days exploring the ruins, each of which still have lines of rusted canons at least twenty across pointing into the bay where Henry Morgan must have come in from the sea. Also while hiking up to one of the forts we were lucky to see in a tree a family of sleeping nocturnal Owl Monkeys! So cool. Dazzled by our natural surroundings in this undeveloped corner of the country we decided to do some sea kayaking in big ocean swell which we had never done before. It was kinda nuts but fantastic and challenging both physically and mentally.  After that we made our way up a river, kayaking through mangroves with a local guide we hired. We spent a whole day seeing every kind of bird imaginable, lush jungle covered mountains and hearing nothing but the sound of the river and the wind. We really felt completely away from the things of man. Just amazing.

A wild and crazy bus ride back to Panama City (see previous post) and then off to Colombia… South America here we come! Panama you will be missed.

Islas de Maize: Corn Islands of Nicaragua

When I (Daniel) was last in Nicaragua, the only way to get to the Corn Islands, off of the Caribbean coast, was to take multiple busses through the jungles of central and eastern Nicaragua over three days, and finish it off riding on the deck of a cargo ship for 8 hours. A brutal journey through roughneck towns and villages that I avoided on my previous trip. Our most recent travels buddies unknowingly ended up making that exact trip after being told it would only take them a day at the most. We, however took the new one hour direct flight from Managua, across the country to the islands and at $80 it was money well spent! When we arrived fresh off our short plane ride we were refreshed and ready for the day; our friends that had finally arrived the day before us, exhausted, vowed to fly back and never again make that journey. It feels good when you get it right. Our rendezvous point… Little Corn Island. An undeveloped gem of a Caribbean island, Little Corn has the kind of turquoise waters and palm lined white sand beaches of dreams. It is idyllic beyond words and with only a handful of hotels and guesthouses (yet), but with hardly any tourists (yet), we easily found an affordable room ($15/night) and settled in for what we expected to be a wild week of snorkeling, scuba diving and beach bumming. Only a little bit of that would materialize though. After two fantastic days of beach bumming, trail hiking, ocean swimming, etc. a wind began to blow and everyone on the island began talking about a storm coming in. The electricity went out on the island. We went with our friends and played beach volleyball with the local kids and came back in the evening. Still no electricity. We spent the next two nights roasting in our electric fan-less room and woke in the morning to still no power. By the afternoon the sky was turning grey and rumor on the island was that power would not be restored and all ferries would be cancelled for the rest of the week once the storm came. Not wanting to be stuck on an electricity-less tiny island in a large storm, the group of us grabbed our stuff and managed to get on the last ferry off the island to Great Corn Island, a much bigger island that we could see from the shore still had electricity. So much for snorkeling or scuba diving. Our biggest regret was not going out diving one of those first days but we had no idea the storm was coming.

We made it to Great Corn Island. After much searching and dragging our bags around the island in the dark we found a place that could accommodate all of us, the Big Fish Guesthouse. We had to up our expenditure from $15 to $25 a night but… we had electricity, air conditioning, an in-house restaurant and bar and Cable TV! Everything you want during a storm. By the morning the wind was howling and being the adventurous group we are, we set out on a 4 hour walk around the island in the wind storm. Very cool. Palm trees were already fallen across the roads in places, phone lines were down, sand and palm fronds blew by us and the sea rolled violently. That would be our only real venture away from the guesthouse for the next few days as by nightfall the rain had come and a deck of cards became our new entertainment. Four days later the storm ended, just in time for our flight off the island. The wind still howled and in our small prop plane our pilot had to abort takeoff after the first attempt down the runway, but on the second try we got aloft and were off back to Managua.

Things don’t always go according to plan we’ve learned and our dream of scuba diving the pristine waters of Nicaraguas Corn Islands would have to wait for another day. Ahead of us laid a three day multi-bus dash through Nicaragua and Costa Rica towards Panama. South America is calling and the closer to the equator we get the hotter and more excited we get.

From the Sea to the Lake and Back Again: Western Nicaragua

     We began our travels through Nicaragua three weeks ago, heading to the spectacular twin colonial cities of Leon and Granada. At odds for centuries over which city was superior, Leon on the Pacific Ocean has maintained its reputation as the intellectual and cultural center of Nicaragua, while the lakeside town of Granada is Nicaraguas wealthy agricultural center with river access to the Caribbean. Our first stop was Leon and the Museo Gurdian Ortiz, the largest collection of Central American classic and contemporary art anywhere. Continue reading

Local Flavors: Honduran Baleadas

There are quite a few stories about the history of the baleada, the most popular Honduran street food. The most interesting that I have heard goes as follows: There was once a woman from La Cebia who sold delicious wrapped tortillas. One day, out of nowhere, she was assaulted and was killed by a bullet. The word for bullet in spanish is balas. The woman was so adored for her cooking that from then on when people went to a restaurant they would say, “we are going to the baleada” (baleada in spanish means literally, shot woman) instead of “we are going to a restaurant” in honor of her. Today, a baleada is a homemade, wheat flour tortilla that is thicker than traditional tortillas. It is most commmonly filled with mashed red beans and cheese. A super baleada typically has scrambled eggs, sour cream and a choice of chicken or ham. Once filled, the tortilla is folded in half like a crescent moon and toasted lightly. I prefer mine without meat and topped with local Honduran hot sauce. Baleadas are a super affordable way to get in some good local eats, especially if you are eating on the go.


Local Flavors: Belizean Stew Chicken

When walking down any street in Belize you will be hard pressed to find a restaurant or food stand that doesn’t have stew chicken listed on the lunch board or menu. Every Belizean learns how to make stew chicken at a young age by carefully watching a mother or grandmother flawlessly prepare it in the family kitchen. As our hotel owner Lydia said to us “If you are from Belize and don’t know how to make stew chicken, you aren’t Belizean”. After asking around for a while, the consensus was that the Cozy Corner restaurant was the place to go to get our first taste of Belizean stew chicken. We were not disappointed, to say the least. Walking into the mostly open air restaurant we could smell sweet peppers and chili paste perfuming the air like incense. Not totally sure we were going to love it, we ordered one plate to share. About 4 minutes later we were presented with a gigantic plateful of coconut scented rice, fried plantains, coleslaw, red beans with chilies and the queen of the plate, succulent, red stained, stew chicken. One bite in and we immediately regretted not ordering two plates. The chicken was so tender it literally fell off the bone and the delicious creole flavors of Belizean Season All, garlic and Recado Paste were addictive. After speaking with the chef, I found that the process of making stew chicken is much simpler than it seems. The key is to soak the chicken in vinegar prior to cooking. This not only adds a unique flavor but also tenderizes the chicken. After rinsing the chicken it gets a thorough rub down with black pepper, garlic powder, Complete Seasoning and a touch of Recado Paste. Once the chicken has released its juices, remove it from the mixture and brown it on all sides in a skillet with coconut oil. Add the previously set aside drippings from the chicken rub to a separate skillet with more Recado Paste and water, bring to a simmer to create a gravy. Once the gravy begins to come together, add sliced onion and sweet peppers. Once the chicken has been browned on all sides add it to the gravy. Add more water if necessary to cover the chicken. Simmer on low until ready to serve.

If you ever have the chance to sample stew chicken, I am sure you will echo Daniel’s eloquent sentiment, ¨damn it’s good, damn it’s gone¨!





The Deep Blue: Utila, Honduras

Fourteen hour travel days. That is what’s becoming the new norm for country to country journey’s and honestly it can be tough on our constitution. We’re begrudgingly getting accustomed to it though and our journey to Honduras with our new Aussie friends Josh & Kim was no exception. A nine hour boat ride from Placencia, Belize to Puerto Cortes, Honduras followed by a five hour car ride to La Ceiba where we arrived in Honduras’s gritty beach city around 11pm. Prostitutes walked the streets as we slid through a cracked fence to our otherwise empty hotel for the night. The machete wielding hotel keeper led us to a deplorable but serviceable room to rest our heads for 7 hours until the first morning ferry that would finally take us to our destination, the island of Utila, Honduras. Leaving La Ceiba would be exciting enough, but getting to the coral reef ringed Bay Island was the chance for Laura to fulfill a life long dream. Scuba diving. We couldn’t wait.

Utila is one of three Bay Islands, the other two being Roatan and Guanaja.  With a permanent population of about 3,000, it is considered one of the top backpacker destinations in the world for one primary reason, scuba. Utila is most widely known for being the cheapest place on Earth to get scuba certified. That was our plan. The shores of the small island are lined with scuba schools that all offer 5 days of classes with 6 dives and include 5 nights accommodations at their affiliated hotels for about $270 per person. A big splurge for our budget but super cheap comparatively and hey, did I mention it was Laura’s life dream?!

We settled in for our week of school and by mid-week we were swimming effortlessly 50 feet down in the deep blue at several of Utilas more than 80 dive sites. Snorkeling, you are amazing, but you’ve got nothing on scuba diving. Gliding along beautiful 100’ coral walls with day glow anemones, we found ourselves surrounded by huge schools of bright purple Creole Rass, giant yellow Angel Fish and dozens of other equally amazing species. On the final dive we even made our way down to a barnacle covered shipwreck! It’s a whole different world down there. One thing we quickly learned is you can travel far and wide but until you travel below, you’ve still got plenty of this amazing planet to explore. We will definitely be diving again soon. As Laura says so exuberantly…¨We’re divers now!¨.

We spent Christmas in Utila. Like many Latin American countries, the holiday season in Utila is celebrated with fireworks and the streets were filled with children (and us) shooting off rockets and setting off firecrackers 24 hours a day. It certainly wasnt a traditional Dan and Laura Xmas but it will definitely stick in our memories as one of the weirdest. Not being with family and friends at this time of year is especially hard but we’re getting by. It’s part of life away but it’s definitely the hardest part so far.

On Thursday we began our trip away from Utila in a torrential rainstorm. We crossed the island on foot in flooded streets with rushing water almost up to our knees. A soaked hour long ferry ride later and we began a record setting (for us) 16 hour van ride to Leon, Nicaragua. Total door to door travel time…18 hours. Painful. The journey is half the fun they say, but ¨they¨have clearly never been in a packed van for 16 hours… in 90 degree heat… without air conditioning. C’est la vie.

Until next time, Feliz Navidad everyone and Happy New Year!