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Panama and Pisco: Part 1

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A ten day journey through Central and South America with some international crime sprinkled in.

After a few years earning reward miles from work trips it was time to cash them in on one of our annual buddy trips. Forewarning — no sports were planned, for now. Is hiking a sport?

Our usual group of three on this trip included myself, J.W. and Jared. We knew what continent we wanted to go to but nothing specific in mind. The plan was South America. We landed on Rio de Janeiro and Cusco, Peru.. with a side stop in Panama City, Panama. Why these stops? Well, United lets you do a ‘stopover’ on award miles where you can basically get off the plane where your layover is and pick it up shortly thereafter. Since United’s partner airlines have a hub in Panama, we’d stop there for 48 hours.

Trump Ocean Club
View from Trump Ocean Club room.

And why Rio? A couple of reasons. Mostly because it had recently hosted the World Cup and in a couple short months the 2016 Olympics. But more importantly for our budget. The real (Brazil’s currency) is suffering and once you’re in South America (north) you can get to South America (south) for another 12,500 miles. After 30,000 miles to get back it’s a grand total of 77,500 to hit three countries in one trip. Time to pack our bags!

For our first stop in Panama City we stayed at the Trump Ocean Club Panama for $70/night overlooking the Gulf of Panama. Most of these condos have private owners. However, half of them do not live there year round and will rent them out at very reasonable rates. I have to admit, there isn’t much to do in Panama City. The town is slightly desolate outside of the resort hotels. Our can’t miss sight was the Panama Canal. We took a 20-minute taxi ride shortly before lunch time. That’s when the ships commonly roll through.

The science behind the canal is truly fascinating. The thing that amazed me most was the lack of space on either side of the ships. There couldn’t have been more than 10 feet to the left or right of this hundred foot wide vessel. Each ship maximizing its payload to import/export whatever it had on board. The first of two ships we saw was carrying thousands of brand new Volvo cars.

panama canal
View of Swift Ace passing through the Panama Canal

While in town, take a moment to explore Casco Viejo. A historic town with brick roads stretching the ocean front. Stop and have a beer at La Rana Dorada on the patio. At night you can drop in to ZaZa lounge for a rooftop beverage as well. If you stay out too late, you can wander back to the Trump like we did and gamble the night away. Good news is in Panama they use USD. Bad news is now you can still tell how much money you’re losing in craps.

Sunday morning we’d be off to Cusco, Peru. What’s in Cusco? Well, a bunch of tourists waiting to head to Machu Picchu. We were no different. You can’t get to Cusco without stopping through Lima, Peru. We decided to skip Lima only for lack of time but by all means stop for a few days. Peru’s capital city is one of the largest in all of South America and has a great food scene.

cuy, guinea pig
Roasted guinea pig from Limo.

One thing we researched about Cusco is how it is set at 11,000 feet and the altitude sickness might get you. Being a bunch of young strapping gentlemen we didn’t heed their warnings. Boy were we wrong.

We checked into our hotel (JW Marriott Cusco) and were given the names of a few places to see before heading to MP. Two minutes into a short walk to our first dinner, the elevation hit us. The smallest incline had us out of breath. Nobody wanted to admit it, but we were exhausted. They’ll over you some coca leaves heated with water to help sooth your sickness. What they don’t mention is it’s drugs. Actual drugs.

Cusco is great because they fully embrace their situation as a stopping place for tourists. The people are extremely friendly and just want you to enjoy their vibrant town and spend money in their local shops. You can’t leave Cusco without:

  • having ceviche as an appetizer for every meal
  • trying guinea pig. In Peru it’s called cuy, which makes it a little easier to swallow.
  • Drinking as much pisco as your heart desires
  • Taking a picture with an alpaca

Some notable casual restaurants are Inka Grill, Jack’s, Paddy’s Pub (if you’re missing home), and Limo (for a sophisticated palate).

pisco
Making my own pisco drink!

The night before a day of planes, trains and automobiles we hit the JW Marriott spa. The bottom floor of the hotel was a personal paradise. The lobby level had an open view to the sky and brick all over. The hotel has a boutique feel and is simply gorgeous. We soaked in the hot sub and sauna until our bodies felt like mashed potatoes. It was just what we needed before climbing  Machu Picchu. Oh and to sweat out the alcohol from the night before. Have I told you about pisco? It’s Peru’s national cocktail. And it packs a punch.

Right next to the hotel is the Museo de Pisco. You’d think it’d be a commemoration to their national drink and its origins. The way they saw it was what better way to celebrate the heritage than to just have a glass or four yourselves. If you pay enough, they’ll teach you how to make it. Hundreds upon hundreds of varieties. After three (at elevation), I was in no mans land. But I digress. Thank goodness for the sauna.

baby goats machu picchu

READ ON TO PART 2 OF OUR SOUTH AMERICAN ADVENTURE

  • Pisco and Rio: Part 2

    Up and at em’ around 5am we begin the journey to Machu Picchu. The run down goes lik…
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