MindStorm Photography Blog and Gallery

Travel Photography by Burt Johnson and Evelyn Johnson

El Pase del Niño Migrante Parade Cuenca 2018

migrante parade, Cuenca, Ecuador 2018 - bands

Yes, it's another parade. There are three large parades at this time of year, before Carnaval. The first was the Passing of the Traveling Child held on Christmas Eve (el Pase del Niño Viajero). The second was the Day of the Innocent's parade. The third is today's Passing of the Migrant Child.

Today was the ninth El Pase del Niño Migrantes parade in Cuenca.  This parade celebrates another baby Jesus doll that travels the world ("migrantes") and is brought back to Cuenca each year for the parade.  The 2-hour parade starts off with marching bands from the local high schools near Iglesia San Blas, traveling along Simon Bolivar to the new cathedral.  We can hear these drummers practice for weeks from our apartment before the parade, and they show the results of all that practice here, marching and drumming in perfect unison.

migrante parade, Cuenca, Ecuador 2018 - giants

Behind the high school drummers come other groups dressed in traditional costumes of chola Cuencana, saraguros, cañaris and other local indigenous groups.  Also, these two giant dolls with people on stilts marching along and waving at the children in the audience.

migrante parade, Cuenca, Ecuador 2018 - parade

There were a few cars draped as floats, and several groups of dancers.  Behind the giant dolls shown above were also some young adults dressed as Angels walking on stilts (left-middle).

migrante parade, Cuenca, Ecuador 2018 - crowds

This year I put the drone up for a few crowd shots too (center and upper-right).  The streets of Cuenca are always amazingly clean -- all the more amazing when you consider how many parades there are in town.  Wait until the end of any parade though, and you will see why.  Each parade is followed by a small army of blue-suited cleaners that erase all signs that anything unusual happened within a couple minutes (lower-right).

Migrante Parade, Cuenca, Ecuador 2018 from Burt Johnson on Vimeo.

Here is a short two minute clip showing the nature of the parade -- both from the ground and from the air, via drone.


New Year’s Eve 2017, Cuenca, Ecuador

New Years Eve 2017 Cuenca, Ecuador - human effigy

We celebrated our sixth New Year's Eve in Ecuador, all but one of which has been in Cuenca (in 2015, we checked out Salinas).  It seems that every year in Cuenca, the event has gotten smaller, and tamer. In 2012, there were half a dozen large staged exhibits in el centro, while this year we only saw three: one on Juan Montalvo, a second on the corner of Padre Aguirre y Juan Jaramillo and the largest at Iglesia El Vergel.

As with every year, there were exhibits with large monigotes (paper mache dummies) in displays showcasing the past year's events.  The Amistad Club and Union of Journalists of Azuay organized a competition in which 27 neighborhoods registered this year. Many scenes poked fun at political figures and events, and this year the targets were Jorge Glas, the Odebrecht scandal, Trump, Transvia, Cabrera, Correa, and other politicians.

New Years Eve 2017 Cuenca, Ecuador - Hayna Kapak display

The clowns from Club Amistad act as the jury, riding between exhibits in the back of a truck, often accompanied by a fire engine, to judge all the exhibits. The winner this year was "The Antisocial Circus"at Iglesia El Vergel (above). 4th place was awarded to El Vado "All you need is Cuenca" (next photo block).  All were destined to be incinerated at midnight.

Iglesia El Vergel always has a large creative exhibit (above).  This year it was behind a barrier. People were standing in a very long line to get in to see the exhibits and to listen to the band (lower-right).  There was no way I was going to stand in line a couple hours to see it, so figured we would skip the display this year.

Of course, if you have ever traveled with Evelyn, you would know how silly an idea that was...  She walked around to the exit, talked nice to two guys guarding the exit (upper left), who then let us in the back door...   There was a full band playing on stage (lower-right).  As usual, these were some of the best monigotes we saw that night, and were declared the winner of the Amistad Club's annual competition. Correa was displayed being fired out of a canon, to symbolize his leaving the country (middle-right).

New Years Eve 2017 Cuenca, Ecuador - Hayna Kapak display

Trump was shown in a coffin being sawn in half by a Paul Carrasco, the Azuay Prefecta (essentially the governor of our state).

NOTE: This image credit El Mercurio. By the time we arrived, the crowds were so thick, we could not get an overall view like this.

New Years Eve 2017 Cuenca, Ecuador - Centro display

There is one block on Juan Montalvo that is always packed with themed displays the last couple years.  This year they won 4th place in the overall city competition.

New Years Eve 2017 Cuenca, Ecuador - crowds

The center image above shows the large crowds trying to see the displays at Calle Juan Montalvo y Cordova. Other images here are of smaller side celebrations by families.

New Years Eve 2017 Cuenca, Ecuador - bonfire

Midnight is when all the effigies are thrown into a fire.  There are organizers that throw in the larger dummies at a rate to keep the fire under control (middle-left), though individuals toss in their own smaller dummies whenever they wish (top-center and lower-left), while the audience watches the burn (top-left and center).

New Years Eve 2017 Cuenca, Ecuador - food

Street food is always available at any of these festivities, and this was no different.

New Years Eve 2017 Cuenca, Ecuador - maaks

While most of the effigies this year were of humans, there were a few exceptions seen around town (top row and lower-right).  Evelyn stepped out of our apartment in the morning to get a newspaper, and saw the large crocodile being loaded onto a flatbed truck. It had taken the family 2 months to create, and was scheduled to meet up with King Kong at a local school, before being burned at midnight.

There were also plenty of masks to be bought for the audience to wear.  Displays along the bottom row show a few of the choices, while the center image shows a father and son each wearing a mask they bought earlier in the evening.

New Years Eve 2017 Cuenca, Ecuador - jumping fire

It is a tradition to jump over the fire three time for good luck.  The local hospitals report New Year's Eve as their busiest night of the year, as people miss their jump, or rise over the fire just as an embedded firecracker explodes...

That is also the time when fireworks start being fired seriously (upper-center), while others place their own Roman Candles on the ground next to the fires (lower-right).  Some of the audience can't decide which of the fireworks to watch (lower-left and lower-center).

New Years Eve 2017 Cuenca, Ecuador - lights

The city is trying to liven the atmosphere with more holiday lights every year.  Each year we are told the light count has gone up, as the prior celebration's lights are brought out of storage and new ones are purchased to add to the mix.  This year there was also a 100 foot tall tree made entirely out of light added at Otorongo Plaza (upper-left two images).  They rotate through a range of colors and patterns.

New Year's Eve 2017 Cuenca, Ecuador from Burt Johnson on Vimeo.

Here is a short 2 minute video giving a flavor of the Big Flame in el Centro, and various people throwing in their own effigies, dancing, plus jumping over the flames at midnight.


2017 Cuenca Pase del Niño Parade

2017 Paseo del Nino in Cuenca, Ecuador - crowds and mayor

This was our sixth viewing of the annual Pase del Niño parade in Cuenca (see here for the report of our first viewing in 2012).

The festivities start with a Catholic mass at Iglesia Carmen de la Asunción, built in 1730 and located at the Flower Market, usually around 8:30 AM, but things were running late this time. (The church can be seen in the next image below) The Traveling Child statue is then carried by various dignitaries along Simón Bolivar to the official starting point of the parade at Iglesia San Sebastian. The most prominent dignitaries always include the Cuenca mayor (Marcelo Cabrera this year) and the Catholic Archbishop (Marcos Pérez, who was newly appointed last year), as seen in the lower-right image.

The initial crowds were huge, as always, with TV crews having their jibs everywhere (top-middle).  There were more cameras out this year than we remember from before (top-left), and even a drone (OK, that was mine -- top-right ).  The parade looks like it extends to infinity in the drone image bottom-left. In reality, the parade had thinned out already by 1:00 pm -- and this is a parade that was jammed packed with both participants and viewers until 6:00 pm back in 2012...  There were LOTs of umbrellas out this year, because the sun was very bright, and there have been many UV level warnings in recent weeks.2017 Paseo del Nino in Cuenca, Ecuador - church and wheelchairs

For the first time this year, we saw sections set aside on the sidewalk for seniors in wheelchairs across from Iglesia San Sebastian (lower row). Ecuador elected Lenin Moreno as president this year, and he is confined to a wheelchair.  We believe that may be why there was wheelchair access provided to the parade this year for the first time.

2017 Paseo del Nino in Cuenca, Ecuador - christ statue

The official Niño Viajero (traveling child) statue is revered in Cuenca, and is carried by the mayor, archbishop, and other Cuenca dignitaries, as seen in the first image at the top of this post.  However, many parade participants bring their own versions of the holy infant to carry along the parade route too.

2017 Paseo del Nino in Cuenca, Ecuador - military and bands

Music is always a big part of this parade, and the military provides several marching bands for that purpose (left column).  They also have ceremonial troops marching to provide color and pageantry (middle and top-left).  Other groups play along the route too, providing their musical accompaniment (right column).

2017 Paseo del Nino in Cuenca, Ecuador - dancers

Where there is music, there will be dancers.  Though mostly in groups (left column), there are some that dance more-or-less alone (right column).  Interestingly, we've seen the man (a retired University professor) in the lower-right from many past parades.  His infectious smile and energy are easy to remember.

2017 Paseo del Nino in Cuenca, Ecuador - parade food

There appeared to be fewer large motorized floats this year compared to prior years.  However, as always, there were plenty of horses, many of which were adorned with food, candy, empty beer cans, cuy, roasted pigs, chickens, giant Teddy bears and flowers. These represent the gifts that the Three Magi presented to Jesus in the manger.

2017 Paseo del Nino in Cuenca, Ecuador - audience

When watching any parade, be sure to turn and watch the audience too.  They are often as interesting as the main show in the street.

2017 Paseo del Nino in Cuenca, Ecuador - adults

Adults were certainly part of the celebrations.  The woman top-left is a TV anchor-woman, about to go on-camera.  The center image is an extended family that has come for the celebration, some in the parade while others were in the audience.  Along a side street is the scene lower-center, with a mural put around the Plaza de San Francisco construction site, and the iconic New Cathedral domes in the background (with one dome wrapped in scaffolding, as it is also under renovation).

2017 Paseo del Nino in Cuenca, Ecuador - kids

Paseo del Niño is about the kids ("Niño" is the Spanish word for child), and they are the dominant group in the parade.

2017 Paseo del Nino in Cuenca, Ecuador - infants

Even infants, too young to understand any of this, are dressed up, fed and march in the parade.


Saraguro Celebration

Saraguro, Ecuador Celebration - local hat maker

We joined Esteban Arevalo today, with 20 others, for a visit to Saraguro and their Kapak Raymi (December solstice) festival celebration. Saraguro is a tiny town of only 9000 residents, about a two hour's drive outside Cuenca, and known for their traditions.  We were told we would be seeing a parade in Saraguro, and have lunch. Well... we didn't get exactly what we expected... but the actual trip was in many ways better than promised.

Esteban spent much of the drive telling us the history of the region and celebration, as he is seen top-left above standing in our mini-bus doing so.  Saraguro is rather famous for the fact that many of the residents wear very distinctive hats with "cow spots" on them.  Esteban took us to the workshop of one of the last makers of these hats.

The process is entirely manual, with only a couple small steps aided with machinery that Tayta Jose Francisco invented.  One such machine is shown middle-left above, which repeatedly pounds the wool.  You can see a video of this machine in action, along with Esteban's translation of the explanation, in the video at the end of this post.

Most of the other images shows a few of the numerous manual steps in the process.  Lower-left is one of his tools used to size a hat to a specific person's head.  The final product is shown lower-right, while you can see our group lined up watching the demonstration lower-center.

Saraguro, Ecuador Celebration - lunch

We were told that lunch was included. Hmmm... that doesn't even begin to describe it! This was a world-class seven course menu that would have done well in Manhattan.  The left column above shows the menu, but even that does not do justice to this meal at ShamuiCo Espai Gastronomic. This is a Michelin rated restaurant, one of the few in Latin America, thanks to their chef Samuel Ortega, who was trained in Europe. We had our 45th anniversary just a week ago at La Mirage resort and restaurant, and raved about that meal.  This is every bit on par with that.  If you are ever in Saraguro, this is NOT TO BE MISSED!

Note that I neglected to actually photograph the preparation of this meal, not knowing what to expect, and having the kitchen to my back.  The three photographs above were all taken and supplied by our tour organizer -- Esteban Arevalo.  You can contact him via email (expcuriquingue@gmail.com) or phone at 098-440-0577 for info on future tours he plans to give.

Saraguro, Ecuador Celebration - town

After lunch, we spent half an hour wandering the town.  Since this was both the Christmas and Kapak Raymi weekend, the town was mostly deserted.  This was another town with several professional quality murals displayed on walls (bottom row), and overlooking a picturesque valley (center).

Saraguro, Ecuador Celebration - devils

The Kapak Raymi festival takes place over several days, and it turned out the parade that we had expected was actually much earlier in the morning.  Esteban instead took us to a private home where they were holding a community party in their yard.  Strangers can't just be party crashers at an affair like this, so we had Tayta Jose Francisco, a local friend of Esteban's (upper left), lead us to the house, introduce us, and give a case of Coke and some other goodies as a "party gift."  Sure enough, that combination allowed us to be welcomed into the party!

We were told ahead of time to expect "Devils" to approach us and try to collect money.  They won't allow their photographs to be taken until they are paid.  This is not just for foreigner guests like us though, but is done to everyone joining the party.  The money (supposedly...) goes to the host of the party to help defray his costs, and buy candy for the kids.

Sure enough, we were approached by Devils (center, bottom-left and top-right) almost immediately upon entering. Pay your $1 coin (keep them separate from other bills, or they are known to grab the largest bill in sight!) and take all the photos you want... until they come around again, having "forgotten" that you already paid them.  "Pago ya" ("I already paid") became my refrane rather quickly...

We were also approached by "ghillie" (my term, based upon sniper camouflage, but no idea what they were really called here -- Upper and Middle-right) and even kids in slap-on costumes (see the face in the middle of the image lower-right?).

Saraguro, Ecuador Celebration - music and dancing

After some general mayhem, the entertainment started.  An old man played a rhythmic drum, and another played the violin as the Devils danced.  To be honest, they were not very good, and were clearly just kids horsing around, but there was no question this was an "authentic Ecuadorian rural festival experience!"  There was also a kitchen with a couple of huge kettles (lower-left) cooking food, while a few young men handed out chicha (a locally brewed alcoholic drink, middle-bottom).

Saraguro, Ecuador Celebration - celebration people

As always, we love to focus on the people in the audience and hanging around any event like this.  Here are a few we saw this afternoon.

Saraguro, Ecuador Celebration - travelers

Here are (mostly) images of some of the people in our group, as they interacted with the festival.  I say "mostly" because center-bottom is a local boy who was having fun playing soccer with Dawn (lower-right).  Dawn is in Ecuador for a 90-day visit, and said she had never played soccer, but was having a ball playing with this kid.

Saraguro Hat Maker from Burt Johnson on Vimeo.

Here is a short 30-second video that shows one of the machines that Tayta Jose Francisco, our Saraguro hat maker invented, along with Esteban giving an English translation of his explanation.


Cuenca Christmas Concert 2017

Cuenca, Ecuador Christmas Chorale 2017 - singersMany thanks  to the Cuenca International Chorale, el Coro Infantíl from the Conservatorio “José Maria Rodriguez” of the city of Cuenca, and the Cuenca Symphony Orchestra for their Christmas concert at the old cathedral (Iglesia del Sagrario). "Conciertos Navideños" was the 4th annual concert presented by the Cuenca International Chorale, with songs in Spanish, English, German and Latin.
Cuenca, Ecuador Christmas Chorale 2017 - conductorFor the first time, the Cuenca Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of our favorite conductor, Michael Meissner Jacob, joined the Christmas concert.
Cuenca, Ecuador Christmas Chorale 2017 - singers

Several of our friends are part of the group, and we enjoy hearing them perform every year. As always, their voices were uplifting, welcoming us into the holiday season.

Cuenca, Ecuador Christmas Chorale 2017 - candlelight procession

At the end of the performance was a beautiful candle lit procession, with the singing of "Silent Night".
Cuenca, Ecuador Christmas Chorale 2017 - applause

Catedral Vieja (Old Church) is our favorite venue, where there is no artificial amplification to distort the beautiful voices.


Tulcán, Ecuador

Tulcan, Ecuador - Sanctuary Church

After our anniversary celebration, we drove to Tulcán, the highest city in Ecuador at 2,980m.  There are two famous tourist sites in this area, though one is actually about 10 km across the border into Colombia.

To get to the iconic Las Lajas Sanctuary (a Catholic church and pilgrimage site, as shown above), we took a taxi to the border for $3.50, passed through both Ecuadorian exit immigration and Colombian entry immigration, then took another $8 taxi ride to the church.  This was one time when it was very beneficial to be labeled as a persona de tercera edad (Spanish for "third age" -- in other words, old...).  If you are 65 or older, there is a special line at immigration.  The regular line at both the Ecuadorian and Colombian side were about two-to-three hours long, but our tercera edad line took only 15 minutes...

When the taxi dropped us off at the church, I was confused... There was no church to be seen?  The photos I had seen of it made it appear to be something that could not be missed, so where was it??  The taxi driver pointed down a steep path...

We walked about three blocks down a steep street lined with paving stones, where no cars were allowed. As we turned a corner near the bottom, there was the picturesque church, spanning the ravine, out of sight of anyone more than 100 yards away.  Seemed a rather strange place to put a church -- where nobody could see it unless they were almost on top of it?

We spent about an hour walking around, having lunch, and photographing it from the available angles.  There was a service going on in the church, so we could not really wander the interior spaces.  We then walked back up the steep hill, hailed a taxi to the border, went through both immigration border crossings again, and took a taxi to the cemetery in the town of Tulcán.  One hitch in that little reverse direction process was that the Ecuadorian immigration woman handling the special services line (tercera edad) told us (in Spanish) that she had signed us out just a few hours earlier, and was not allowed to therefore sign us back in.  She directed us to go to the front of the normal line and use another agent.  We got some dirty stares from the young people who had already been waiting more than two hours in that line...

Tulcan, Ecuador - cemetery

The tourist claim-to-fame for Tulcán is known as the Cementerio Municipal de Tulcán ("José María Azael Franco Guerrero")  and entry is free. It is one of the more beautiful cemeteries in South America, with cypresses sculpted into hedges to form works of art of people and animals. In 1936, the caretaker decided to sculpt some rows of bushes into various shapes, called topiaries.  Over the years, he continued and expanded his work until there were more than 100 such creations.  That caretaker died in 1985, but his five sons now continue caring for the grounds. This elaborate topiary garden was declared as a national patrimonial cultural heritage site in 1984.

The number of topiaries on display is truly an amazing sight, as well as meditative and calming.  I found it a little surprising that there were several rows that appeared to not have had any attention for several weeks though (below-left shows the "beard" of an untrimmed hedge).  I am not sure if the grounds are just so big that even five men cannot keep it up, or if they have taken some time off.


Mindo, Ecuador and 45 Years!

Mindo, Ecuador - chocolate factory

We have explored most of Ecuador in past trips, but have never been to either Mindo or Tulcán.  Since we were flying through Quito on our way from Panama back to Cuenca, we decided to spent a week in this part of the country.  We rented a (highly underpowered...) car at the airport, and took off through the mountains to Mindo.

Mindo is a small village located in a cloud forest in the Andes mountains in northern Ecuador known for their wide diversity of birds. We stayed at the Mindo Coffee Lodge. When driving from the town of Mindo, the hotel seemed quite remote and it seemed like we traveled for miles before reaching it.  Fortunately, our very pleasant host provided us with a hand-drawn map of the area (there are very few street names and no maps exist here), which included a shortcut that allowed us to walk over a precarious foot bridge into town in about 10 minutes.

One of the highlights of Mindo is supposed to be the Yumbos chocolate factory, so we took a tour (above).  Our expectations of the tour were high, after the coffee plantation tour we had in Panama.  Unfortunately, our guide really only knew his set speech, and could not answer any questions that were not included in that patter.  Also, the chocolate is not as good as the Pacari brand, yet Yumbos charged twice as much for their bars.  I cannot really recommend the tour or the chocolate...

Mindo, Ecuador - butterflies

 

Mindo is also known for its butterflies and hummingbirds. We went to two  butterfly farms in town.  Both were pretty good, though the garden at Hostería Mariposas de Mindo was the larger.  I would recommend both, but if you only have time for one, than this would be the one to see. They have a large selection of butterflies, including pupa with emerging butterflies in the open for easy viewing and to let the butterflies fly free as they do in nature.  An employee comes through every few minutes and shakes the trees, so the butterflies are flying around you rather than hiding in the bushes.

Lower right shows two Caligo Memnon butterflies mating.  They had been flying around joined for mating, when they landed on my hand.  I could not even shake them off, so Evelyn shot this image of me ogling the pair...

When we walked into the Mariposa butterfly enclosure, we did a double-take.  Paused. Looked again.  To our surprise, two friends from Cuenca (Peter and Kris Fischer) were sitting on a bench enjoying the butterfly environment.  Neither of us knew the other was going to be in town, but we caught up and then later had dinner together.

We were about to leave for lunch when Kris told us that the restaurant right there was excellent.  We therefore decided to eat there, and she was completely right -- it was some of the best food we had during our stay in Mindo.

Mindo, Ecuador - hummingbirds

On the path leading up to the butterfly enclosure were several hummingbird feeders.  We spent about an hour watching and photographing those too.  See the bottom of this post for a slow-motion video I took of their flying.

Mindo, Ecuador - murals

We have seen many cities with elaborate street murals, and we can now count Mindo among them.  Above is a selection of some of the murals on walls in town.

Mindo, Ecuador - music

Peter and Kris also told us that there was a great jazz group playing at their hobbit hotel that evening, so we joined them to listen to the music. The group of four musicians included one Mindo local, plus three Venezuelan refugees who had arrived in town four days earlier, and were trying to eek out a living on tips. They were introduced as music teachers who fled their country because it is no longer possible to make a living there with music (or pretty much anything else, from the news we have been hearing in recent years).

Mindo, Ecuador - Mirage 45th Anniversary

45 YEARS!  Yep, our 45th wedding anniversary is only a few days away.  (Details of our wedding were written about on our 40th anniversary) We decided to celebrate by stopping in Cotacachi and staying at the luxury La Mirage hotel, a 5-star hotel, restaurant and resort. We chose their "anniversary special" which included an elegant, old-world king suite, a welcome bottle of champagne and chocolate covered strawberries, complete with a gourmet three-course lunch and dinner, plus American breakfast. Evelyn then treated herself to their hot stone massage.

We had eaten lunch here back in 2012, and remembered the meal as being something special, so we had high expectations -- and they were met.  I rarely photograph food in restaurants, because the photographs don't do justice to the meals.  The meal presentation was so extraordinary that I felt the need to capture it this time though (and no, these photos just don't do justice to the superb food). Royalty have stayed at this hotel, and we felt special with the over-the-top level of service. The fireplace was lit each night, and there were even hot water bottles in our bed to keep us warm.

Mindo, Ecuador - peacocks

The grounds of La Mirage include a flock of two male and six female peacocks.  We spent some time following them around and photographing them.  The bottom-left shows a male peacock in full plumage from the side -- something I had never seen before.  I had not realized how the feathers cup forward in full display.

Hummingbirds in Slow Motion from Burt Johnson on Vimeo.

While photographing the hummingbirds outside the butterfly farm, I also took some time to capture slow motion video of their flying.  Unfortunately, I had not realized that the camera does not capture full resolution when doing high-speed capture, so these are not quite as clear as I had hoped.


Panama 2 – Bribing a Cop in Spanish

Panama City - Panama city skyline

Driving back from Boquete towards Panama City, I was stopped by a cop for speeding.  Yes, I was driving over the limit -- which was 35 mph on a 4-lane, 200 mile (literally) straight stretch of road where I saw another car about once every 5 minutes, and no city or other obstruction within 10 miles...

After getting a lecture on the dangers of driving fast in Spanish, the cop started to write a ticket and looked up, obviously waiting for my response. He asked whether I wanted a written copy of the ticket (again in Spanish), and I told him none was required.  I thought he said the ticket would cost "fifteen" (in his broken English), then he corrected it to "fifty". He pointed to his saddle bag on the back of his motorcycle to where I placed $50 to pay for the ticket, without him ever touching the money. He returned my passport, told me to have a nice day (in Spanish) and let me go.

Amazing! Crooked cop in Panama and I was able to conduct the entire interaction all in Spanish...my Spanish has come a long way. 

In Panama City, we stayed at Hotel Casa Antigua, a quaint somewhat rundown hotel in the historic district known as Casco Antiguo or Casco Viejo, with a fabulous view of the city skyline (above).  Though we have decided that we would not want to live in Panama City for many reasons (worst traffic we have experienced in the world, way too hot, way too humid, noisy restaurants, hustling taxi drivers, way too many malls with nothing to do but shop), we did like this hotel.  The room is adequate, the breakfast is pretty good, the staff is over-the-top accommodating and helpful, centrally located and the view is spectacular -- both from the rooftop terrace and from our room(#9).

Panama City - Panama Canal

You can't visit Panama City and not see the Panama Canal, so we did.  It was a bit of a letdown though.  The crowds were overwhelming due to tours from cruise ships, so you could not really see much from the normal viewing platform.  We discovered though, that we could go to the restaurant on the upper floors, order a lemonade and sit and watch the canal as long as we wished.  Essentially an extra $5 for better viewing.

Panama City - Fish Market

On the way back from the Canal, we stopped at the Mercado de Mariscos. Our hotel reception told us how to find it -- just follow the smell. This is a wonderful, clean fish market, as we have seen in other countries, where we saw people buying fish that was caught only a few hours earlier.  Right upstairs is a restaurant that prepares the fish from the vending floor. The cooked seafood was a bit of a disappointment though. We ate at a similar place in Porto, Portugal, where the seafood was superbly prepared. Here, the preparation was adequate, but nothing to recommend going out of your way for.

Panama City - Christmas Lights

That evening, we walked around Casco Vieja, our neighborhood. We discovered several small parks, each of which was festively lit up for Christmas.

Panama City - Skyline with Lightning

That night a lightning storm came up, and we were able to shoot the image above from our room's window.

Cutting Fish from Burt Johnson on Vimeo.

The people preparing the fish at the Mercado de Mariscos have clearly been doing this for a long time.  Here is a short 30 second clip of one such vendor cutting fillets of fish at astounding speed.


Panama 1 – Boquete Coffee Farm

Panama City - garden

Our first night in Panama was spent in Panama City, where it was so humid that we felt we were walking into a steam oven. We'll come back to the city in a few days.

The next morning we rented a car to drive to Boquete, about 200 miles to the West, at a higher elevation and (so we were told) more pleasant weather. The drive was expected to take between 4 and 6 hours.  Hah! It took 3 hours just to cross Panama City, at an average speed of 4 mph (according to our in-dash computer). We didn't arrive at our Boquete boutique hotel until 10PM -- 10 hours after we had started.

The next morning, we drove around the Boquete area.  We're told that Boquete is where many expats move to in Panama. Immediately, we noticed it was cooler and very pleasant -- unlike the hot and muggy Panama City.  As we drove around, we felt like we were in one huge, manicured garden, with exotic flowers lining most of the rural roads surrounding the town, with wonderful scenic vistas of the valley below.Panama City - coffee plantation tour

In the afternoon, we took a "coffee tour" at Dos Jeffes ("Two bosses" in Spanish -- the husband and wife...). The owners came from Berkeley, California (our "home town" too), to retire in Panama. When the husband got bored, his wife insisted he find a hobby, and the result was a small, fully organic coffee farm that produces between 6000 and 10,000 pounds of premium coffee each year.  Amy, our tour guide, seemed to know everything there is to know about growing and producing coffee, and loved to talk about it.  We learned more about coffee on this tour than on all the other such tours we have taken around the world combined.  Fascinating and excellent tour, and highly recommended if you have any interest in learning about organic coffee production at higher altitudes.Panama City - coffee roasting

After walking the farm, and learning about how to grow the coffee, Amy walked us through the roasting process, and let us taste their medium and dark roasts, while explaining the difference. We were told that the darker roast coffee is what most Americans are accustomed to, because darker roasts burn off and hide many of the defects in blended mixes of beans.

In coffee tasting competition, the light and medium roasts are used to judge quality.

Many production coffee chains cannot find enough beans from any one farm, so have to blend beans from many sources, often from many different countries, then roast them until burnt. They then market their coffees with mixes of milk and other flavoring, to hide the burned taste. (Consider that next time you look at the menu board in Starbucks and wonder why you can't just buy a simple black cup of coffee there...)

Coffee Roasting from Burt Johnson on Vimeo.


Cuba 8 – Farewell from Havana

Cuba Eyes 2017

As we prepare to leave Cuba, it is mostly the Cuban people with expressives eyes that we remember. They have had a hard life, yet seem content.

Havana, Cuba - jazz

We ended our Cuba photo tour by returning to Havana for one last evening.  On the way there, our van got a flat tire with the retread flying off while on the freeway.  Our driver expertly kept control, then pulled over to the side, where he and the van owner quickly replaced the tire (upper row).  From the efficiency of their efforts, it was clear this was not their first experience with having a flat...

We watched the sunset from the terrace of our Casa Particular (middle and lower-left), then went out to a jazz nightclub for an hour that evening (lower-middle and right). The music scene and tastes have changed in Havana. In the past, only traditional Cuban music was played.

Havana, Cuba - jmercado

We extended our tour for an extra day, to give us a little time to walk around Old Havana. Above was one of the very few markets we found that actually had any food to sell. We also visited several art galleries and the National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana, which was a mixed bag of art by Cubans and art from others who created art while they lived in Cuba. We were not allowed to photograph inside the museum.

Havana, Cuba - welding

When we were in Bukhara, Uzbekistan this past May, we photographed a blacksmith in his shop, and captured some nice images there. We passed this welding shop on a side street in Havana, and decided to try to capture similar images of flying sparks.

Havana, Cuba - jschool

On another side street, we discovered a classroom in session.  The barred window was open to the main street, with all the commotion (and sometimes student's friends sticking their hands through the bars) associated with that.  It appeared that there was no cooling in the room, and having the window open was the only way to avoid overheating.

Havana, Cuba - jstreet

Here are a few final random images from wandering around town that last day.  There were a few attempts at new construction (upper-right) or renovation (upper-left), but most of the buildings were left in their run-down condition. We noticed that there were a lot more tourists in Old Town, especially whenever a cruise ship came into town.

Cuba Tour Travelers 2017

We'll close with some images of those on our tour group.  The top-left three were our guides, while the rest were photographers joining us for the tour.

Our final thoughts are that Cuba appears to be a country that has been frozen back in time, especially when you see the many vintage American cars in town and horse-drawn carts in many parts of the country. We will also miss the drinks -- well-made Piña Coladas and Mojitos cost only $3, while a soft drink costs $2.

However, the tourists are clearly coming, and you can see the differences in the touristy parts of Cuba -- higher prices, hawkers, reconstruction activity, and more English spoken.

Girl From Ipanema is played at a Havana Jazz Club from Burt Johnson on Vimeo.

Maybe next time we will try our luck fishing off the Malecón at sunset too...

Havana Sunset Fishing


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