In the Uinta Mountains, this is the best short day hike to a commanding overlook on the Mirror Lake Scenic Byway. This trail is noted to climb to a high overlook with wide views, and is rated as being appropriate for children. Dogs are allowed.
Total Distance: 2.7 miles round-trip
Hiking Time: 1.5–2 hours
Elevation Change: 1,227 feet
GPS Coordinates: N 40°68.880’ W 110°90.388’
Easy/Moderate hikes are generally suitable for families with active children above the age of six and hikers who are reasonably fit.
Looking for an alpine experience that’s truly above tree line? The exposed, windswept, rock ridge of Bald Mountain will not disappoint. The tiny fluorescent-green lichen that cling to red quartzite rock are about the only signs of life you’ll find on the upper slopes of Bald Mountain.
During summer, the summit of Bald Mountain offers a pleasantly cool escape from the heat of Salt Lake City. There’s almost always a breeze on the upper ridge, and temperatures promise to be 30 degrees cooler at 12,000 feet. The weather always seems to be different in the Uintas than it is in Salt Lake City, so plan accordingly. Thunderstorms often build in the afternoon, making Bald Mountain a better morning destination. Also remember to throw in a rain jacket and some warm clothes, even if it feels crazy when you leave home.
The Bald Mountain Trail heads northwest from the gravel parking lot. The red dirt trail climbs gently for the first 0.5 mile, following a series of long mellow switchbacks through boulders and stands of subalpine fir trees. Right from the start of the trail, the views on Bald Mountain are sweeping, and they grow more spectacular with each passing switchback. The Mirror Lake Scenic Byway is visible below, looping up and over Bald Mountain Pass.
The wide, well-traveled trail is easy to follow as it climbs through a series of rock ledges on the mountain’s southwest ridge. By 1 mile, the patches of evergreen trees have completely disappeared and the landscape is dominated by expansive slopes of rock talus. Bald Mountain is one large exfoliating mound of rock. Frost wedging causes much erosion of the peak. Melted snow trickles down into the surface rocks and freezes, expanding and breaking the top layers of rock into smaller pieces. After millions of years of repetition, this process has turned this ridge into one giant talus field of small boulders. This trail sees enough traffic that many of the boulders have been tossed aside, leaving a smooth path to walk on.
At 1.2 miles the trail reaches the edge of the dramatic cliffs marking the top of the east wall of Bald Mountain. The view down to Mirror Lake, almost 2,000 feet below, is astounding. Beyond the lake, 12,479-foot Hayden Peak dominates the skyline.
The last 0.5-mile walk along the ridge is what spending time in the mountains is all about. Bounding across the lichen-blanketed rocks, it’s hard not to be struck by the sheer open expanse of space and beauty that stretches out around you in every direction. Lakes dot the wide, glacial-scoured valleys below, reflecting the light from the sky. Treeless ridges rise like backbones from the valley floor, which is covered by a carpet of green forest. By 1.4 miles you’ll have reached the summit. Soak up the beauty a little longer before heading back down the way you came.
If you’re looking for an extension to the Bald Mountain Trail, you can add as many miles as you’d like by continuing on down from the parking lot on the Notch Mountain Trail. The Notch Mountain Trail leads 10 miles to the Crystal Lake trailhead.
From Salt Lake City drive east on I-80 for 25 miles to Exit 146 for U.S. Highway 40 toward Heber. Merge onto U.S. Highway 40 and drive 3.8 miles to Exit 4 for Park City/Kamas. Take Exit 4 and turn left off the exit ramp to follow State Route 248 for 11.4 miles to Kamas. From the intersection of Main Street (Route 32) and 200 South (Route 248) in Kamas drive north on Route 32 and turn right (east) after one block on Mirror Lake Scenic Byway (Route 150). Continue east on Route 150 for 29.1 miles to the Bald Mountain trailhead on the left side of the road.
Information and Contact
There is a fee of $6 for a three-day pass, $12 for a sevenday pass, or $45 for an annual pass. The America the Beautiful pass is accepted here. Dogs on leash are allowed. For more information, contact the Heber-Kamas Ranger District, Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest, 50 East Center Street, Kamas, UT 84036, 435/783-4338.
About the only place left on the entire East Coast that retains the carnival qualities of classic seaside resorts, Ocean City (pop. 7,105, swelling to some 400,000 in summer) has by far the best array of old-time funfair attractions in the Mid-Atlantic (well, south of Wildwood, New Jersey, at least). On and around the main pier at the south end of the island, there are enough merry-go-rounds, Ferris wheels, roller coasters (including The Hurricane, which is illustrated with scenes from Ocean City storms past), mini-golf courses, haunted houses, and bumper cars to divert a small army.
A block inland, Trimper’s Amusements, which has been operated by the same family for five generations, since the 1890s, has two more roller coasters, plus a Tilt-a-Whirl, a 100-year-old Hershell carousel, and a spooky haunted house. Places like Trimper’s, and the sundry batting cages, go-kart tracks, and zip lines, are threatened by rising property values (and property taxes) and increasingly close to becoming extinct, so enjoy them while you can. Trimpers’s local rival, Jolly Roger, also runs a big water park and another amusement park at the north end of town, along the bay at 30th Street.
To go along with its great beaches, Ocean City has a radio station, the excellent WOCM 98.1 FM, playing classic rock ’n’ roll and broadcasting details of Ocean City’s nightclub scene.
From the pier north, Ocean City stretches for over three miles along a broad, clean, white-sand beach. A wide, part-wooden boardwalk lines the sands, packed with arcades full of video games and a few nearly forgotten old amusements like Skee-Ball and Pokerino, not to mention midway contests—the kind where, for $1 a try, you can win stuffed animals and other prizes by shooting baskets or squirting water into clowns’ mouths. A ramshackle collection of fortune- tellers, T-shirt stands, and burger-and-beer bars completes the scene, forming a busy gauntlet that is among the nation’s liveliest promenades.
On summer weekends, Ocean City becomes Maryland’s second-largest city, and most of the fun is simply in getting caught up in the garish human spectacle of it all, but there are a couple of specific things worth searching out. For the price of a bumper car ride, you can enjoy the quirky collections of the Life-Saving Station Museum (daily May–Oct., weekends only in winter; $3), at the south end of the boardwalk, where alongside displays of shipwrecks and bathing suits you can compare and contrast bowls full of sand from 100 different beaches around the world. The museum also marks the starting point for the open-air trams ($3) that run north along the boardwalk for over two miles.
Ocean City Practicalities
Much of Ocean City’s charm is decidedly lowbrow, but the food is better than you might expect, with numerous places offering plates full of shrimp and pitchers of beer for under $10, and freshly fried chicken or crab cakes available from boardwalk stands. Thrashers Fries are available (no ketchup; salt and vinegar only!) from a number of counters along the boardwalk, and you can top them off with a cone or milk shake from Dumser’s Ice Cream, which runs a trio of stands at the south end of the boardwalk.
Places to stay are also abundant, though many of the huge concrete towers you see are actually condominiums and not available for overnight stays. In fact, of all the dozen or more grand, older hotels, only the Atlantic Hotel ($80 and up; 5 Somerset St.; 410/289-9111), on the oceanfront, is still open for business. Modern motels like the Oceanic (710 S. Philadelphia St.; 410/289-6494), looking across the inlet to Assateague Island, charge as much as $200 a night for a room that goes for less than $50 off-season.
For help finding lodgings and restaurants, contact the Ocean City visitors center (4001 Coastal Hwy.; 410/723-8600 or 800/626-2326), in the Convention Center.
Panama City is still a place where gay bars have to keep a low profile, but you don’t hear horror stories of police raids, gay bashings outside of clubs, and so on — not, at least, among the relatively affluent. It’s more a matter of people wanting to be cautious and discreet. Gay bars and clubs are either in remote locations or hidden in plain sight — it’s possible to walk right past one and not know anything’s there at all.
Like other clubs, they come and go quickly. A mega-club on the outskirts of Panama City, known variously over the years as Boy Bar, Box, Glam, etc., has closed down. That leaves BLG as the longest-established of the prominent gay clubs, though a newer one, Lips Club, has the busiest events calendar. The Internet is the best source for current information, though websites are underfunded, often out of date, and go bust constantly. Start with @GayPty. Facebook searches can often turn up current information (in Spanish), though usually written for those already familiar with the clubs and lacking in detail.
The three clubs listed here are the most prominent and popular spots that are most likely to still be around when you read this. They draw mostly a gay male clientele (the one lesbian bar closed many years ago), but lesbians and straight singles or couples are welcome. Lesbians seem particularly well-represented at Lips Club. Regardless of one’s sexual orientation, visitors will likely find the vibe at these places friendlier, more low-key, more inclusive, and less macho than at many of the city’s straight bars and clubs.
There are also so-called “camouflage” bars — ostensibly straight bars that draw closeted gays — and rough dives. Neither kind is included here, for reasons of privacy and safety.
BLG (Transítmica and Avenida Brasil, 265-1624, 10 p.m.–late Wed.–Sun., US$5 cover most nights), also known as Balagan’s, is the most upscale gay bar in Panama. It moved a couple of years back from the Calle Uruguay area to a spot that’s much less convenient for visitors, along the Transístmica near the Colpan Ford dealership. Even though it’s relatively new, it’s already had a renovation and a grand reopening in March 2012. Look for the “BLG” out front. The club draws men, women, and some straight couples. The music is mostly electronica. It has transformista (drag) shows, comedians, and other special events on some nights.
La Gota Fría/Lips Dance Club (Avenida Manuel Espinosa Batista near the intersection of Avenida Simón Bolívar/Transístmica and Avenida Ricardo J. Alfaro/Tumba Muerto, no phone, 10 p.m.–late Wed. and Fri.–Sun., US$5–10 cover) has the most organized club schedule. It has a stage and frequently hosts transformista (drag) shows and other events. Foam parties are a popular shtick these days, which fit nicely with the car-wash motif. It hosts special shows throughout Carnaval. The club manages the neat trick of being in one of the most visible spots in the city but staying well hidden. It’s on the 2nd floor of a building behind the Splash car wash, which is next to the large roundabout at the intersection of the Transístmica and Tumba Muerto. Everyone in the city knows this area, even if they don’t know the club.
Icon Club (Tumba Muerto and Avenida Juan Pablo II, cell 6230-0378, 9 p.m.–3 a.m. Thurs.–Sun.), formerly called Oxen, is the massive warehouse club of choice these days. Like its predecessors, it can be bloody hard to find the first time. To get there from Tumba Muerto, first look for Plaza Edison, the distinctive cone-shaped office building. The cross street is Avenida Juan Pablo II; turn west onto it. The club is in the commercial complex on the right side of the road. The club hosts especially elaborate transformista (drag) shows from time to time. These can be entertaining even (or especially) when they’re not particularly skilled.
Take a look at a map of California, and you’ll discover that some of the top destinations in the country are within a day’s drive of one another: San Francisco, Yosemite, and Los Angeles. Push past the state’s borders and add Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon, and you’ll have the road trip of a lifetime.
[pullquote align=”right”]If you don’t mind spending hours at a time behind the wheel, it’s possible to experience the best of the West in two weeks.[/pullquote]That’s because the West is larger than life. The boisterous cities seem bigger, redwood forests and snow-capped mountains loom taller, and sandy coastlines stretch longer than anywhere else. California was a dream before it was a place, before its boundaries existed on any map. People have long headed west seeking natural beauty and wide-open space. And despite an ever-growing population, that open space still exists. It’s there in Yosemite’s lofty peaks, or the depths of the Grand Canyon, or the primal collision of land and ocean along the Pacific coastline. This is nature at its best, just a few hours away from the cosmopolitan pleasures of the most intriguing cities anywhere. San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas all offer high art, frenetic nightlife, and gourmet dining, but the choices are as different as the distinctive personalities of the cities themselves.
The pace of life in the American West is as diverse as everything else. Life in the fast lane is an apt metaphor for Los Angeles, where California car culture reaches its zenith. Yet the quiet frenzy of San Francisco sometimes seems just as quick, and Las Vegas has made living fast into almost a new art form (not to mention big business). Outside the major urban areas, the hectic speed diminishes. California’s wine regions invite visitors to relax and enjoy life a sip at a time. Beyond the vineyards, an even more venerable and variable pace emerges—that of nature. The gushing waterfalls of Yosemite, towering redwoods and delicate native wildflowers along the coast, even the imperceptible flow of the Colorado River as it carves the Grand Canyon…all contribute to the unique rhythms of the West.
So choose your own pace. Take a look at a map of California, and you’ll discover that some of the top destinations in the country are within a day’s drive of one another: San Francisco, Yosemite, and Los Angeles. Push past the state’s borders and add Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon, and you’ll have the road trip of a lifetime.
Climb Mount Timpanogos through the Giant Staircase and the unparalleled beauty of Timpanogos Basin. This trail is noted to climb to a high overlook with wide views, features an opportunity for wildlife watching, and wildflower displays in spring. The trail leads to a waterfall. Dogs are allowed.
Total Distance: 12.7 miles round-trip
Hiking Time: 9–10 hours
Elevation Change: 4,937 feet
GPS Coordinates: N 40°43.149’ W 111°63.911’
Butt-Kicker hikes are suitable only for advanced hikers who are very physically fit.
Many people think Mount Timpanogos is the most visually appealing peak in the state. This, combined with the peak’s high altitude—it’s the second-highest summit in the Wasatch Range—make it a must-do on many locals’ bucket list. Regardless of why hikers come to climb Timpanogos, the mountain rarely disappoints. The Timpooneke Trail gains 4,900 feet over six inspiring miles. Views from the top stretch to the horizon in all directions. To the west are the Utah Valley, the green waters of Utah Lake, and the city of Provo. To the north are all of the prominent peaks in the Central Wasatch, including the Twin Peaks and the Pfeifferhorn.
[pullquote align=”right”]The trail visits the lovely Scout Falls before climbing through the alpine wonderland called Timpanogos Basin—a treeless high-elevation cirque where wildflowers and mountain goats fight for hikers’ attention.[/pullquote]The lower part of the Timpooneke Trail climbs a massive stepped glacier-carved valley called the Giant Staircase. The trail visits the lovely Scout Falls before climbing through the alpine wonderland called Timpanogos Basin—a treeless high-elevation cirque where wildflowers and mountain goats fight for hikers’ attention. Steep layered limestone walls ring the basin, and permanent snowfields linger throughout the summer months. Backpackers often stay the night in the basin, and it’s a spectacular place for a lunch break before heading on to the summit.
The Timpooneke Trail leaves the Timpooneke Campground trailhead and heads into the thick forest. Engelmann spruce and other evergreens shade the trail for the first 0.5 mile as it starts climbing along a gentle grade. The trail opens up above a wide meadow on the valley floor and traverses above the west side for 0.4 mile. At 1 mile you’ll cross the first in a series of small streams trickling across the trail. Then at 1.4 miles, there’s a signed junction for Scout Falls. Go left, and walk less than 100 yards to check out the moss-lined falls cascading over a limestone ledge. Turn right to continue up the trail.
The trail climbs up the first major step in the Giant Staircase at 2 miles. Willows and thick vegetation cover the valley floor. By 3 miles the trail is crossing a giant, sweeping talus field. The trail continues on a steady incline, weaving through stunted subalpine fir trees and Indian paintbrush. At the 4-mile mark, views start to open up to the north of Box Elder Peak and Lone Peak.
Enter Timpanogos Basin at 4.4 miles. A trail leading to Emerald Lake and the Aspen Grove Trail breaks off on the left as you enter the basin. Indian paintbrush, asters, bluebells, fireweed, and lupine bloom in a stunning display during the midsummer months. Look along the steep cliff bands for the Timpanogos herd of mountain goats. This herd of at least 40 goats can usually be spotted somewhere along this upper half of the trail.
At 5.5 miles the trail reaches an 11,000-foot pass. Step through this rocky gap onto the west side of the ridge and continue climbing toward the rocky summit. The route traverses broken limestone slopes to the south before climbing along the ridge to the peak’s apex. On the summit, an old metal hut with a red triangular roof welcomes hikers.
Enjoy the all-encompassing summit views. To the east you’ll see Emerald Lake directly below, the 10,993-foot Roberts Horn, and Deer Creek Reservoir in the distance. To the north are the major summits of the central Wasatch. In the west, the towns of Pleasant Grove and Provo stretch across the Utah Valley floor to Utah Lake. And in the distance to the south is Mount Nebo, the only summit higher than Mount Timpanogos in the Wasatch Range.
Consider leaving a car at the Aspen Grove trailhead and hiking up Timpooneke Trail and down the Aspen Grove Trail for a one-way adventure. It helps keep this long trail interesting the whole way!
From Salt Lake City drive south on I-15 for 25 miles to Exit 284 for Alpine/ Highland and then drive east on Highway 92 for 16 miles. Turn right onto the Timpooneke Road for the Timpooneke Campground. Drive past the entrance to the campground loop and turn left into the trailhead parking lot.
Information and Contact
There is an American Fork Canyon fee of $6 for a three-day pass, $12 for a sevenday pass, or $45 for an annual pass. The America the Beautiful pass is accepted here. Dogs on leash are allowed. For more information, contact the Pleasant Grove Ranger District,Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest, 390 North 100 East, Pleasant Grove, UT 84062, 801/785-3563.
Red Pine Lake is a sparkling gem at the base of a granite bowl; hike and scramble onto one of the Wasatch Range’s most impressive summits. This trail is noted to climb to a high overlook with wide views and features wildflower displays in spring.
Total Distance: 9.0 miles round-trip
Hiking Time: 7.5–9 hours
Elevation Change: 4,317 feet
GPS Coordinates: N 40°57.494’ W 111°68.111’
Butt-kicker hikes are suitably only for advanced hikers who are very physically fit.
Hiking in the Wasatch Mountains doesn’t get much better than this! The trail to Red Pine Lake starts in Little Cottonwood Canyon and ascends gently into a massive granite-boulder-strewn cirque. The pristine snowmelt-fed lake is adorned with wildflowers and shaded by stands of subalpine fir. Granite talus fields spill into the lake from a long rock ridge extending down from Thunder Mountain, giving the whole scene a wild, alpine feel. Continuing beyond the lake, hikers can clamor to the top of the Pfeifferhorn, an exposed, windswept summit with unbeatable views of the range’s most dramatic landscapes.
[pullquote align=”right”]The 11,326-foot summit of the Pfeifferhorn is a majestic spot. If conditions are right, it’s the perfect place to enjoy a well-earned lunch.[/pullquote]The trail to Red Pine Lake shares its first mile with the White Pine Lake Trail. The path follows the grade of an old mining road through an aspen, spruce, and subalpine fir forest. The wide path follows a pleasant grade as it gently bends first west and then south toward the trail junction. At 0.9 mile the Red Pine Lake and White Pine Lake Trails diverge. The junction is marked by a Forest Service sign; take the right fork to Red Pine Lake. The right fork heads uphill and quickly crosses White Pine Fork Creek on a wooden bridge before bending around the ridge into Red Pine Canyon. Salmonberries grow along the creek, and the purple blooms of Utah wild peas can be spotted along the trail. At 2.2 miles the trail wanders through an avalanche gully, marked by small trees with all their uphill branches stripped off by sliding snow. At 2.4 miles Red Pine Fork Creek can be heard and seen to the right of the path. Continuing steadily uphill through patches of forest and open rocky slopes, the trail reaches Red Pine Lake at 3.1 miles.
To continue on to the summit of the Pfeifferhorn, traverse around the left side of Red Pine Lake. Cross over the small stream and continue up the steep forested slope south of the lake. The boulder field to the left leads to upper Red Pine Lake, but to reach the Pfeifferhorn it’s better to stay right in the spruce and subalpine fir. At 3.6 miles you’ll reach a small alpine lake, or glacier tarn. The trail heads right from this lake, directly up the steep ridge. Climbing along this rocky ridge, the views go from impressive to spectacular, looking down to Red Pine Lake in the foreground and Twin Peaks of Broads Fork across Little Cottonwood Canyon to the north. At 3.9 miles you’ll have gained the steep ridge and get your first glimpse of the Pfeifferhorn. Now at 10,900 feet and well above tree line, the grand scale of the Wasatch high country is spread out below you in all directions.
If it weren’t for the enticing summit of the Pfeifferhorn, also called the Little Matterhorn, beckoning to the west, simply reaching this ridge-top vantage point would probably satisfy most adventure seekers. Gaining the ridge opens up views to the south that stretch from the impressive summits of Box Elder Peak and Mount Timpanogos to the distant Utah Lake on the valley floor and beyond to the western horizon. From here follow the ridgeline west toward the pyramid-shaped Pfeifferhorn. This is a good place to identify the shallow gully on the southeast side of the Pfeifferhorn’s rock cone; it is the easiest route to the summit. It is possible to follow the ridgeline all the way to this gully—scrambling across rocks and around rocks if necessary. And there is some exposure if you decide to stay on the apex of the ridge. Although no technical-climbing skills or ropes are necessary, you should be comfortable with exposure and move very carefully along this route. To avoid the exposed, scrambling option, drop down to the south side of the ridge and traverse the base of the rock spine. This option doesn’t have the exposure, but it’s not any easier than staying on the high route. Reaching the gully at 4.35 miles, scramble up the steep slope or up a steep snowfield, depending on the snowpack, to the summit. Trekking poles are a huge help anywhere above Red Pine Lake, but are worth their weight in gold on this final leg of the climb. The 11,326-foot summit of the Pfeifferhorn is a majestic spot. If conditions are right, it’s the perfect place to enjoy a well-earned lunch. The views are incredible and include the peaks in Snowbird Ski Resort—Twin Peaks of American Fork, Mount Baldy, and Hidden Peak.
At 2.5 miles from the parking lot a side trail branches off the Red Pine Lake Trail leading to Maybird Gulch. Maybird Gulch offers more solitude than Red Pine Lake as well as views of the Pfeifferhorn.
From Salt Lake City drive east on I-80 for 5 miles and merge onto I-215 South. Continue 6 miles and take Exit 6 for 6200 South. Turn left at the light at the bottom of the off-ramp and drive 1 mile south on 6200 South until it becomes Wasatch Boulevard. Continue driving south 3 miles to the base of Little Cottonwood Canyon. Continue straight onto Little Cottonwood Road (Route 210) and drive 5.5 miles to the White Pine trailhead parking lot on the right side of the road.
Information and Contact
There is no fee. Little Cottonwood Canyon is a watershed and dogs are not allowed. Maps are available at the Public Lands Information Center, 3285 East 3300 South (inside REI), Salt Lake City, UT 84109, 801/466-6411. For more information, contact Salt Lake City Ranger District, Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest, 125 South State Street, Salt Lake City, UT 84138, 801/236-3400.
Like Little Italy, the Gaslamp Quarter has experienced a renaissance after spending many decades as a seedy area populated by porno theaters, low-rent hotels, and boarded-up buildings.
[pullquote align=”right”]Within the nearly 17-block neighborhood there are over 90 buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Some of the most stunning structures in this neighborhood are between the 600 and 800 block of 5th Avenue. [/pullquote]Named for the gas lanterns that lit area streets during downtown’s formative years, the Gaslamp Quarter now enjoys the distinction of being the epicenter of downtown’s ritzy club and lounge scene. Today the streets are lit with neon and if you walk them at night you’ll hear the clink of glasses, the pounding bass, and the hoots and whistles emanating from the bars that blanket the district. On any given night throughout the year, smartly dressed couples and groups of singles on the prowl climb out of taxis and scurry into the throng of revelers that line up to gain access into some of the highest-profile clubs south of Hollywood.
In spite of the partying, the area hasn’t lost touch with its heritage and actually affords the quiet artsy type a lot to see during the day. Art galleries, boutiques, and fine restaurants are sprinkled in between the clubs. And of course, a relaxing afternoon drink can be had at many places without mortgaging your home to pay a cover charge.
The real show-stealers are the buildings that house all of these establishments. Within the nearly 17-block neighborhood there are over 90 buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Some of the most stunning structures in this neighborhood are between the 600 and 800 block of 5th Avenue. The neighborhood architecture is best experienced via a casual walking tour, but there is also a weekly guided walking tour ($10 for adults, $8 for seniors, students, and military) starting at the William Heath Davis Historic House Museum on Saturdays at 11 a.m.
William Heath Davis Historic House
Start on the south end at Island street to take a gander at the oldest of the buildings in the city, the William Heath Davis Historic House (410 Island Ave., 619/233 4692, 10 a.m.–6 p.m. Tue.–Sat., 9 a.m.–3 p.m. Sun., $5). This saltbox-style home was one of 14 prefabricated houses that were hauled all the way from New England and around Cape Horn by William Heath Davis in 1850 in order to jumpstart the development of New Town San Diego. At the time, the bay-front property was completely devoid of trees (and fresh water for that matter), making it necessary to import “modern” wood houses for potential buyers. Unfortunately, Davis’s initiative wasn’t matched by his promotional skills and it took seventeen years and the brash salesmanship of Alonzo Horton to make New Town a reality. The house on Island Avenue is the last remaining home imported by Davis and stands today as a symbol of the groundwork he laid to make today’s downtown a possibility.
Horton Grand Hotel
Kitty-corner to the Davis House is the Horton Grand Hotel (311 Island Ave., 619/544-1886), which is actually made up of two historic hotels that were moved to this spot in the 1980s to avoid demolition. Both constructed in 1886, they were two very different establishments. The Grand Horton was an elegant structure built as a replica of Innsbruck Inn in Vienna, Austria. The Brooklyn Hotel was casual, and eventually became known as the Kahle Saddlery Hotel for the saddle and harness shop that did business in the ground floor. They were painstakingly dismantled from what is now Horton Plaza and stored in a warehouse by the city until the opportunity arose to rebuild them together on their current lot.
The Yuma Building (631 5th Ave.), an Italianate-baroque beauty that was one of downtown’s first brick structures when it was built in 1888. At that time it was used for legitimate business, but by 1901 its upstairs “offices” had been transformed into dens of debauchery. When the police were pressured to crack down on prostitution in the area in 1912, the Yuma was the first building they raided.
Old City Hall and Llewelyn Building
Across the street from the Yuma on the corner of G and 5th stands Old City Hall. Built originally as a bank in 1874, this Florentine-Italianate structure was purchased by the city 1891 and housed City Hall until 1938. During the early years here, city leaders gave a wink and a nod to the illicit activities across the street at the Yuma and at many more prostitution parlors, opium dens, and gambling halls that flanked City Hall to comprise what was known widely as the Stingaree District. Keeping to the west side of 5th and crossing G, halfway down the block you’ll stumble across the Llewelyn Building (722 5th Ave.), which is probably one of the best examples of commercial Victorian architecture in the Gaslamp.
Nesmith-Greely Building and the Louis Bank of Commerce
The Romanesque Revival–style Nesmith-Greely Building (825 5th Ave.) displays a delightful combination of brick coursing and columns. Next door is the intricate and ornate Victorian-style Louis Bank of Commerce (835 5th Ave.). The twin mansard roof towers of the baroque revival Louis Bank of Commerce are the most recognizable features in the entire Gaslamp.
There are dozens of other historic buildings just like these scattered throughout the Gaslamp. Keep a lookout for the bronze placards that are affixed to buildings at street level. They’ll give you the date of construction and perhaps a tidbit or two on what makes that structure unique. And don’t forget to point that camera upward—you just might capture a one-of-a-kind architectural flourish that can’t be found anywhere else.
Casco Viejo has always had a romantic look, but for decades the romance has been of the tropical-decadence, paint-peeling-from-the-walls variety. Since the 1990s, though, it’s been undergoing a tasteful and large-scale restoration that’s giving the old buildings new luster and has turned the area into one of the city’s most fashionable destinations for a night out. Elegant bars, restaurants, and sidewalk cafés have opened. Hotels and hostels are arriving. Little tourist shops are popping up. Amazingly, this is being done with careful attention to keeping the old charm of the place alive. Unfortunately, the renovation is squeezing out the poorer residents who’ve lived here for ages.
[pullquote align=”right”][Casco Viejo’s] buildings feature an unusual blend of architectural styles, most notably rows of ornate Spanish and French colonial houses but also a smattering of art deco and neoclassical buildings.[/pullquote]The “Old Part,” also known as Casco Antiguo or the San Felipe district, was the second site of Panama City, and it continued to be the heart of the city during the first decades of the 20th century. UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site in 1997. It’s a city within the city—940 buildings, 747 of which are houses—and one from a different age. It’s a great place for a walking tour. You can wander down narrow brick streets, sip an espresso at an outdoor café, visit old churches, and gaze up at wrought-iron balconies spilling over with bright tropical plants. Its buildings feature an unusual blend of architectural styles, most notably rows of ornate Spanish and French colonial houses but also a smattering of art deco and neoclassical buildings.
In some respects Sunday is a good day for exploring Casco Viejo. For one thing, it’s the likeliest time to find the churches open and in use. However, though more bars and restaurants are now staying open on Sunday, most aren’t, and even some of the museums are closed. Several places are also closed on Monday. Getting a look inside historic buildings and museums is easiest during the week, especially since some are in government offices open only during normal business hours. Churches open and close rather erratically.
Even with the makeover, Casco Viejo is not the safest part of Panama City. Ironically, the area’s renaissance seems to be driving crime: With more tourists and affluent residents in Casco Viejo, there’s more appeal for criminals.
There’s no reason to be overly concerned, but use common sense and try not to stand out. If you’re pale and gringo, try to look as though you’re a resident foreigner. Don’t wander around at night, and be cautious when venturing beyond the major hubs of activity (Plaza Bolívar, Plaza de la Independencia, and Plaza de Francia). Look at the map of Casco Viejo and mentally draw a line from Luna’s Castle to Parque Herrera: At night, do not venture west of this area on foot. Also avoid the block of Calle 4 between Avenida Central and Avenida B at night. Parque Herrera is still on the edge of a sketchy area.
The neighborhood is well patrolled by the policía de turismo (tourism police), who cruise around on bicycles and are easy to spot in their short-pants uniforms. They’ve been trained specifically to serve tourists, and they’re doing an impressive job. It’s not unusual for them to greet foreign tourists with a handshake and a smile and offer them an insider’s tour of the area or help with whatever they need. Don’t hesitate to ask them for help or directions. Their station is next to Manolo Caracol and across the street from the Ministerio de Gobierno y Justicia (Avenida Central between Calle 2 Oeste and Calle 3 Este, tel. 211-2410 or 211-1929). It’s open 24 hours, and the officers will safely guide you to your destination night or day.
There’s a heavy police presence around the presidential palace, but those police are stern and no-nonsense. Their job is to protect the president, not help tourists.
Plaza de la Independencia
In the center of Casco Viejo is the Plaza de la Independencia, where Panama declared its independence from Colombia in 1903. This area was the center of Panama City until the early 20th century. The buildings represent a real riot of architectural styles, from neo-Renaissance to art deco. Construction began on the cathedral, the Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción, in 1688, but it took more than 100 years to complete. Some of the stones used come from the ruins of Panamá La Vieja. It has an attractive marble altar and a few well-crafted stained-glass windows, though otherwise the interior is rather plain. The towers are inlaid with mother-of-pearl from the Perlas Islands. The bones of a saint, Santo Aurelio, are contained in a reliquary hidden behind a painting of Jesus near the front of the church, on the left as one faces the altar.
Museo del Canal Interoceánico
The Museo del Canal Interoceánico (Avenida Central between Calle 5 Oeste and Calle 6 Oeste, tel. 211-1995 or 211-1649, 9 a.m.–5 p.m. Tues.–Sun, US$2 adults, US$0.75 students) is dedicated to the history of the Panama Canal. The museum is housed in what started life as the Grand Hotel in 1874, then became the headquarters of the French canal-building effort, and later spent the early part of the 20th century as the capital’s central post office. It’s worth a visit, but be prepared for some frustration if you don’t speak Spanish. Everything is Spanish only, which is significant since the exhibits often consist more of text than anything else. However, an audio guide in English, Spanish, and French is available. The displays tell the story of both the French and American efforts to build the canal, and throw in a little bit of pre-Columbian and Spanish colonial history at the beginning. There’s some anti-American propaganda, and most of what’s written about the canal from the 1960s on should be taken with a big chunk of salt. There’s a good coin collection upstairs, as well as a few Panamanian and Canal Zone stamps. There’s also a copy of the 1977 Torrijos-Carter Treaties that turned the canal over to Panama. You can tour the whole place in about an hour.
Museo de la Historia de Panamá
The Museo de la Historia de Panamá (Avenida Central between Calle 7 Oeste and Calle 8 Oeste, tel. 228-6231, 8 a.m.–4 p.m. Mon.–Fri., US$1 general admission, US$0.25 children) is a small museum containing artifacts from Panama’s history from the colonial period to the modern era. It’s in the Palacio Municipal, a neoclassical building from 1910 that is now home to government offices. At first glance it seems like just another one of Panama’s woefully underfunded museums housing a few obscure bits of bric-a-brac. But anyone with some knowledge of Panama’s history—which is essential, since the Spanish-only displays are poorly explained—will find some of the displays fascinating.
Among these are a crudely stitched Panama flag, said to have been made by María Ossa de Amador in 1903. She was the wife of Manuel Amador Guerrero, a leader of the revolutionaries who conspired with the Americans to wrest independence from Colombia. The flag was hastily designed by the Amadors’ son, and the women in the family sewed several of them for the rebels; the sewing machine they used is included in the display. If the revolution had failed, this quaint sewing circle might have meant death by hanging for all of them. Instead, Manuel Amador became the first president of Panama.
On a desk by the far wall is the handwritten draft of a telegram the revolutionaries sent to the superintendent of the Panama Railroad in Colón, pleading with him not to allow Colombian troops from the steamship Cartagena to cross the isthmus and put down the revolution. This was one of the tensest moments in the birth of Panama. In the end, they didn’t cross over, and the revolution was nearly bloodless. The telegram is dated November 3, 1903, the day Panama became independent, and those who sent it are now considered Panama’s founding fathers.
Other displays include a stirrup found on the storied Camino de Cruces, a plan for the fortifications built at Portobelo in 1597, 17th-century maps of the “new” Panama City at Casco Viejo (note the walls that originally ringed the city, now all but gone), and the sword of Victoriano Lorenzo, a revered hero of the War of a Thousand Days.
Western Fringes of Casco Viejo
The church with the crumbling brown facade and whitewashed sides near the corner of Avenida Central and Calle 9 Oeste is Iglesia de la Merced, which was built in the 17th century from rubble salvaged from the ruins of Panamá La Vieja. It’s worth a quick stop for a look at its wooden altars and pretty tile floor. The neoclassical building next to it, the Casa de la Municipalidad, is a former mansion now used by the city government.
The little park, Parque Herrera, was dedicated in 1976. The statue of the man on horseback is General Tomás Herrera, an early hero of Panama’s complex independence movements. Some of the historic buildings ringing the park are undergoing major renovation, with at least three hotels planned for the area.
Church of the Golden Altar
The massive golden altar (altar de oro) is a prime tourist attraction at Iglesia de San José (Avenida A between Calle 8 and Calle 9, 7 a.m.– noon and 2–8 p.m. Mon.–Sat., 5 a.m.–noon and 5–8 p.m. Sun.). Legend has it that the altar was saved from the rapacious Welsh pirate Henry Morgan during the sacking of the original Panama City when a quick-thinking priest ordered it painted black, hiding its true value.
The Flat Arch
The original Iglesia de Santo Domingo (Avenida A and Calle 3 Oeste) was built in the 17th century, but it burned twice and was not rebuilt after the fire of 1756. It remains famous for one thing that survived, seemingly miraculously: the nearly flat arch (Arco Chato). Since it was built without a keystone and had almost no curve to it, it should have been a very precarious structure, yet it remained intact even as everything around it fell into ruins. One of the reasons a transoceanic canal was built in Panama was that engineers concluded from the intact arch that Panama was not subject to the kinds of devastating earthquakes that afflict its Central American neighbors.
On the evening of November 7, 2003, just four days after Panama celebrated its first centennial as a country, the arch finally collapsed into rubble. It has since been rebuilt, but its main appeal, its gravity-defying properties through the centuries, can never be restored. The church itself is undergoing a slow restoration.
Plaza de Francia
The Plaza de Francia (French Plaza) has seen a great deal of history and was among the first parts of Casco Viejo to be renovated, back in 1982.
The obelisk and the marble plaques along the wall commemorate the failed French effort to build a sea-level canal in Panama. The area housed a fort until the beginning of the 20th century, and the bóvedas (vaults) in the seawall were used through the years as storehouses, barracks, offices, and jails. You’ll still hear gruesome stories about dungeons in the seawall, where prisoners were left at low tide to drown when the tide rose. Whether this actually happened is still a subject of lively debate among amateur historians. True or not, what you will find there now is one of Panama’s more colorful restaurants, Restaurante Las Bóvedas. Also in the plaza are the French Embassy, the headquarters of the Instituto Nacional de Cultura (INAC, the National Institute of Culture) in what had been Panama’s supreme court building, and a small theater, Teatro Anita Villalaz. Tourists are not allowed into the grand old building that houses INAC, but it’s worth peeking into from the top of the steps or the lobby, if you can get that far. Note the colorful, if not particularly accomplished, mural depicting idealized versions of Panama’s history. (The building was used as a set for the 2008 James Bond film Quantum of Solace, as were the ruins of the old Union Club.) Next to the restaurant is an art gallery (tel. 211-4034, 9:30 a.m.–5:30 p.m. Tues.–Sat.) run by INAC that displays works by Panamanian and other Latin American artists.
Walk up the staircase that leads to the top of the vaults. This is part of the old seawall that protected the city from the Pacific Ocean’s dramatic tides. There’s a good view of the Panama City skyline, the Bridge of the Americas, and the Bay of Panama, and the breeze is great on a hot day. The walkway, Paseo General Esteban Huertas, is shaded in part by a bougainvillea-covered trellis and is a popular spot with smooching lovers. Along the walkway leading down to Avenida Central, notice the building on the waterfront to the right. For years this has been a ruin, though there have long been plans to turn it into a hotel. This was once the officers’ club of the Panamanian Defense Forces; it was largely destroyed during the 1989 U.S. invasion. Before that, it was the home of the Union Club, a hangout for Panama’s oligarchy that’s now on Punta Paitilla.
Built in 1756, the stone house of Casa Góngora (corner of Avenida Central and Calle 4, tel. 212-0338, 8 a.m.–4 p.m. Mon.–Fri., free) is the oldest house in Casco Viejo and one of the oldest in Panama. It was originally the home of a Spanish pearl merchant. It then became a church and has now been turned into a small, bare-bones museum. It’s had a rough history—it has been through three fires and the current wooden roof is new. A 20th-century restoration attempt was botched, causing more damage. There isn’t much here, but the staff can give free tours (in Spanish) and there have been noises about making it more of a real museum in the future. There’s an interesting, comprehensive book on the history of the house and neighborhood (again, in Spanish) that visitors are welcome to thumb through, containing rare maps, photos, and illustrations. Ask for it at the office. The museum hosts jazz and folkloric concerts and other cultural events in the tiny main hall on some Friday and Saturday nights, and occasionally hosts art shows.
Iglesia San Felipe de Neri (corner of Avenida B and Calle 4) dates from 1688 and, though it has also been damaged by fires, is one of the oldest standing structures from the Spanish colonial days. It was renovated in 2003, but is seemingly never open to the public.
The National Theater
The intimate Teatro Nacional (National Theater, between Calle 2 and Calle 3 on Avenida B, 9:30 a.m.–5:30 p.m. Mon.–Fri.) holds classical concerts and other posh events. It was built in 1908 on the site of an 18th-century monastery. It’s housed in the same building as the Ministerio de Gobierno y Justicia (Ministry of Government and Justice), which has its entrance on Avenida Central.
Inaugurated on October 1, 1908, the neo-baroque theater is worth a brief visit between concerts to get a glimpse of its old-world elegance. The public can explore it during the week but not on weekends. The first performance here was a production of the opera Aida, and for about 20 years the theater was a glamorous destination for the city’s elite. Note the bust of the ballerina Margot Fonteyn in the lobby; she married a Panamanian politician in 1955 and lived out the last part of her life in Panama.
The ceiling is covered with faded but still colorful frescoes of cavorting naked ladies, painted by Roberto Lewis, a well-known Panamanian artist. Leaks in the roof destroyed about a quarter of these frescoes, and the roof partially collapsed. The roof was restored and the theater reopened in 2004. Be sure to walk upstairs to take a look at the opulent reception rooms.
Plaza Bolívar (on Avenida B between Calle 3 and Calle 4) has been undergoing a charming restoration. It’s especially pleasant to hang out on the plaza in the evening, when tables are set up under the stars. It’s a good rest stop for a drink or a bite. A good café to check out is Restaurante Casablanca.
The plaza was named for Simón Bolívar, a legendary figure who is considered the father of Latin America’s independence from Spain. In 1826 Bolívar called a congress here to discuss forming a union of Latin American states. Bolívar himself did not attend and the congress didn’t succeed, but the park and the statue of Bolívar commemorate the effort.
The congress itself was held in a small, twostory building that has been preserved as a museum, now known as the Salón Bolívar (Plaza Bolívar, tel. 228-9594, 9 a.m.–4 p.m. Tues.–Sat., 1–5 p.m. Sun., US$1 adults, US$0.25 students).
While the museum is designed attractively, there’s not much in it. The room upstairs contains the text of the protocols of different congresses called during the independence movement. There’s also a replica of Bolívar’s jewel-encrusted sword, a gift from Venezuela (the original is now back in Venezuela). The actual room where the congress took place is on the ground floor.
The little museum is entirely enclosed by glass to protect it and is actually in the courtyard of another building, the massive Palacio Bolívar, which was built on the site of a Franciscan convent that dates from the 18th century. The building that houses the Salón Bolívar was originally the sala capitula (chapter house) of that convent, and is the only part of it that is still intact. The palacio dates from the 1920s and was a school for many years. Now it’s home to the Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores (Foreign Ministry). During regular business hours (about 8 a.m.–3 p.m. Mon.–Fri., 9 a.m.–1 p.m. Sat.), it’s possible, and well worthwhile, to explore the huge inner courtyard, which has been outfitted with a clear roof that’s out of keeping with the architecture, but protects it from the elements. The courtyard is open to the surf in the back, where part of the original foundation can be seen. Be sure to notice the beautiful tilework and the posh chandelier at the entrance.
Next door but still on the plaza is a church and former monastery, Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco de Asís. The church dates from the early days of Casco Viejo, but was burned during two 18th-century fires, then restored in 1761 and again in 1998. It’s an attractive confection on the outside, particularly its soaring tower, which is partly open-sided. It resembles a gothic wedding cake. It is not currently open to the public.
The Presidential Palace
The presidential palace, El Palacio de las Garzas (Palace of the Herons), is on the left at Calle 5 Este, overlooking Panama Bay. It’s an attractive place that houses the presidential office and residence. Visitors are not permitted, and the palace and the neighboring streets are surrounded by guards. Everyone walking past the front of the palace must now go through a metal detector; they’re set up at either end of the street. Guards may ask for your passport, but more likely they will just wave you through after the cursory search. Be polite and deferential— they should let you walk by the palace. As you pass, sneak a peek at the courtyard through the palace’s front door, visible from the street, and try to spot the herons around the fountain.
Vicinity of Casco Viejo
A pedestrian path with great views links Casco Viejo to the city markets, running through the dockyard area known as known as the Terraplén. This is one of the more colorful and lively parts of the city. The path is part of the Cinta Costera along the Bay of Panama. Pedestrians, cyclists, and runners can enjoy great views of the bay, skyline, and fishing fleet while exploring the waterfront area. Four wide, busy lanes of the Cinta Costera separate the path from the densely packed and rather squalid streets of the Santa Ana and Santa Fé districts, making the path appealing even to the more safety-conscious.
For hundreds of years, small fishing boats have off-loaded their cargo around the Terraplén. These days fish is sold through the relatively clean, modern fish market, the two-story Mercado de Mariscos (5 a.m.–5 p.m. daily), on the waterfront just off the Cinta Costera on the way to Casco Viejo, right before the Mercado Público. This is an eternally popular place to sample ceviche made from an amazing array of seafood, sold at stalls around the market. There’s usually a line at Ceviches #2 (4:30 a.m.–5 p.m. daily), though whether it’s because the ceviche is truly better or because it’s simply closer to the entrance and open later than the other stalls is something I’ll leave to true ceviche connoisseurs. The large jars of pickled fish don’t make for an appetizing scene, but rest assured that ceviche is “cooked” in a pretty intense bath of onions, limes, and chili peppers. Prices for a Styrofoam cup of fishy goodness range from US$1.25 for corvina up to US$3.50 for langostinos. You shouldn’t leave Panama without at least trying some ceviche, whether here or somewhere a bit fancier.
Other stands, some with seating areas, are next to the main market building closer to the dock, but they tend to be smellier than the market. Those with sensitive noses will want to visit the area early in the morning, before the sun ripens the atmosphere.
Meat and produce are sold at the nearby Mercado Público (public market) on Avenida B, just off Avenida Eloy Alfaro near the Chinese gate of the Barrio Chino. The market is plenty colorful and worth a visit. It’s gated and has a guard at the entrance.
The meat section, though cleaner, is still not fully air-conditioned, and the humid, cloying stench of blood in the Panama heat may convert some to vegetarianism. The abarrotería (grocer’s section) is less overwhelming and more interesting. Shelves are stacked with all kinds of homemade chichas (fruit juices), hot sauce, and honey, as well as spices, freshly ground coconut, duck eggs, and so on. The produce section is surprisingly small.
There’s a food hall (4 a.m.–3 or 4 p.m. daily) in the middle of the market. The perimeter is ringed with fondas (basic restaurants) each marked with the proprietor’s name. A heaping plateful costs a buck or two.
Lottery vendors set up their boards along the walls by the entrance, and across the gated parking lot is a line of shops selling goods similar to and no doubt intended to replace those on the Terraplén. These include hammocks, army-surplus and Wellington boots, machetes, camping gear, and souvenirs such as Ecuadorian-style Panama hats. Each store keeps different hours, but most are open 8 a.m.–4 p.m. Monday–Saturday, and some are open Sunday mornings.
The market is staffed with friendly, uniformed attendants who can explain what’s going on, especially if you speak a bit of Spanish. There’s a Banco Nacional de Panamá ATM near the entrance.
Up Calle 13 is the crowded shopping area of Salsipuedes (a contraction of “get out if you can”). The area is crammed with little stalls selling clothes, lottery tickets, and bric-a-brac. Just north of this street is a small Chinatown, called Barrio Chino in Spanish. Most of the Chinese character of the place has been lost through the years; the ornate archway over the street is one of the few remaining points of interest.
There is one ATM in Casco Viejo, next to the tourism police station on Avenida Central near Calle 2. It’s best to come to Casco Viejo with sufficient cash.
Farmacia El Boticario (Avenida A and Calle 4 Oeste, tel. 202-6981, 8:30 a.m.–7 p.m. Mon.–Fri., 9 a.m.–6 p.m. Sat.) is Casco Viejo’s only pharmacy.
A good way to explore the area is to come with a knowledgeable guide or taxi driver who can drop you in different areas to explore on foot.
You’ll probably save time this way, as the streets are confusing and it’s easy to get lost. Do major exploring only during the daytime; those who come at night should taxi in and out to specific destinations. Restaurant and bar owners can call a cab for the trip back.
Even locals get lost here. Watch out for narrow one-way streets and blind intersections. Street parking is hard to find in the day and on weekend nights. There’s a paid lot with an attendant on the side of the Teatro Nacional that faces Panama Bay. It’s open 24 hours a day.
Summer is here, and it’s the time of year to hit the road. Our Road Trip USA author Jamie Jensen took the time to interview Gary McKechnie, the author of the best-selling guidebook Great American Motorcycle Tours. Bored with his 9-to-5 job, McKechnie sold his house and set out to write America’s first nationwide motorcycle touring guidebook, embarking on an 18-month journey across the United States. He shares tips for beginner riders, as well as other advice on touring the country.
Jamie Jensen: Is renting a bike to tour around the country an option?
Gary McKechnie: Absolutely, and for part-time riders as well as people who want to explore the other side of the country, it’s probably the smartest option. There are many motorcycle rental agencies across the nation, but the two largest are Harley-Davidson, which rents only H-D models, and Eaglerider which rents a variety of models including Harley, Kawasakai, Suzuki, BMW, Honda, Triumph, Victory, Yamaha—and even the three-wheel Can-Am Spyders.
Rentals usually include a helmet and locks, and you should expect to pay about $100 to $125 per day.
JJ: Besides needing a motorcycle license, how much riding experience does someone need for a bike rental?
GM: Even if you show the dealer the motorcycle endorsement on your license, don’t be surprised if they ask you to demonstrate your skills with a short ride around the parking lot. When you’re ready to ride, though, be sure not to ride beyond your abilities. In other words, don’t try to tackle the switchback roads across the Rocky Mountains if you’ve only ridden in flatland Kansas.
JJ: Most riders seem to do day trips, for fun on a weekend. What are some of the challenges of taking longer tours?
GM: Incredibly, the biggest challenge is just deciding to go. Most of us are so wrapped up in a daily routine that we forget that we need time to explore and refresh our souls. Once you’ve made that decision, then the biggest challenges are deciding where to go and what to pack. Unless you haul a trailer, a motorcycle doesn’t afford room for suitcases or all of the things you’d stow in a car. You’ve got to pare it down to the essentials that’ll work for you in the desert or mountains or prairies and will also be appropriate when you go out at night.
JJ: Are there companies that organize tours for beginning riders? Like along Route 66?
GM: Eaglerider, mentioned above, organizes tours, as does Europe-based Edelweiss. One factor to note is that American riders are fairly comfortable with the geography, so US-based tours are more appealing to travelers from Europe and Asia.
Since these are full-service tours, the cost may be a bit much for American riders, but you may find lower-cost tours provided by passionate riders who’ve figured out a way to match their love of riding with a chance to generate income by leading tours. Just do a search for “motorcycle touring companies.”
JJ: I’ve seen people riding these three-wheel, open air Spyder roadsters, which seem to give the feel of a motorcycle but are easier to ride—and you can rent them with a standard car driver’s license. Do have experience with or impressions of them?
GM: No, I’ve see the Can-Am three-wheelers, but I haven’t ridden one yet. I think, though, whatever gets you on the road is right. Also, it’s worth noting that a growing number of older riders who’ve ridden motorcycles for years are having their bikes modified into trikes—two wheels in the back and one in the front—which naturally gives them a great degree of stability while preserving the same experience of riding in the open.
JJ: Do you find that more women are owning/renting/riding their own bikes?
GM: According to the Motorcycle Industry Council, the number of women riders shows a sharp and steady increase each and every year. In addition to the overall appeal of motorcycling, one factor that helps women get involved in riding is the availability of smaller street/touring bikes that are a great introduction to riding. One of the most popular “introductory bikes” for lady riders is the Honda Shadow, usually a 750cc bike that has nice ergonomics, has a low seat and low center of gravity, and is pretty nimble—while still having enough muscle for longer rides.
JJ: If someone’s never ridden, how can they learn so they can ride safely and begin to explore America?
GM: Before you can receive your motorcycle endorsement on your license, you need to pass a motorcycle safety course. That’s handled by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation which offers safe riding courses across the United States. The cost is minimal, and they provide small motorcycles to help you learn how to shift, brake, turn, and lean. They also provide a general understanding of how to handle a motorcycle. Do it.
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Cruise ships dock in Santo Tomás de Castilla, just across the bay from Puerto Barrios, where those wishing to go ashore will find some of the country’s best bird-watching, lush tropical rainforests, and refreshing jungle rivers. Local tourism authorities in nearby Lívingston and Río Dulce are improving the quality of their services to cater to arriving visitors.
The history of Santo Tomás de Castilla actually dates to 1604, when it was founded as the coast’s original colonial port. It was abandoned within a few years but later became the site of an ill-fated Belgian colony in 1843 after Guatemala’s independence from Spain.
A paved road from Puerto Barrios leads to the main shipping center. From there, a dirt road continues along the coast to some of the area’s natural attractions.
Cerro San Gil and Río Las Escobas
This idyllic park, centered around the Cerro San Gil mountain, comprises more than 7,700 hectares (19,000 acres) of lush rainforest. Bathed in rainfall throughout most of the year (averaging 255 inches) as warm, humid air rises over the mountains from the sea to elevations in excess of 1,100 meters (3,900 feet), the preserve harbors an astounding level of biodiversity. Among the wildlife protected here are 56 species of mammals, including tapir and jaguars, 50 species of reptiles and amphibians, and more than 350 species of birds, including toucans, black and white hawk eagles, and keel-billed motmots. More than 90 neotropical migrants winter in the area and include the blue-winged warbler and wood thrush.
The park also protects the important watershed of the Río Las Escobas, which supplies water to Puerto Barrios. Part of the watershed is open to visitors ($8, including guided tour), who can bathe in Las Escobas’s cool, clear waters and hike a series of nature trails winding through the park. The park is administered by the private conservation group FUNDAECO (tel. 7948-4404), which in partnership with The Nature Conservancy has been able to buy large tracts of this rainforest ecosystem for preservation.
Facilities for visitors are found at Las Pozas (tel. 5708-0744 and 5004-1143, 9 a.m.-6 p.m. daily) and include a visitors center, tropical gardens, a snack bar (open on weekends and when cruise ships are in town), and picnic areas. An excellent system of trails winds through the river and waterfalls and includes wooden bridges with stops along the way for swimming in stunning turquoise pools. More adventurous types can explore areas deeper into the reserve beginning at a trailhead just up the mountain and going from there to the Río Las Escobas through a dense stretch of forest (one hour) or to Cumbre Las Torres (four hours there and back), or encompassing multiple days of strenuous jungle hiking to the village of Carboneras (where there is a basic eco-lodge) and down the mountain to Río Dulce. Contact FUNDAECO if you wish to explore these options, as you will need prior authorization. A guided trek of either of the first two options costs $30 per person. Rates for the longer trip are negotiable.
The park is an increasingly popular day trip with cruise-ship passengers, many of whom reportedly state this to be their favorite stop after the crass commercialism of places such as Cancún and beaches that all pretty much look the same. The park lies just off the road, hugging the coastline from Puerto Santo Tomás de Castilla to the beach of Punta de Palma. Social Travel (based out of Amatique Bay Resort, tel. 7948-1836 or 4172-2104) provides trips to Cerro San Gil and Río Las Escobas departing from Puerto Barrios, Lívingston, or Río Dulce. Prices range from $60 per person (two-person minimum) for a half-day tour to $150 per person for a trip including a stay of two nights. They can also arrange day trips and overnight stays at the eco-lodge in Carboneras (from Río Dulce) for about the same price.
Green Bay Hotel
Farther along this same road is the 50-room Green Bay Hotel (tel. 7948-2361, $60 d room-only or $130 d all-inclusive), which was built far ahead of its time in the early 1990s but now seems perfectly situated to cater to cruise-ship day-trippers. The comfortable thatched-roof duplex bungalows are built into the side of a beautifully forested hillside near the water’s edge and have all the comforts, including air-conditioning, TV, private hot-water bathroom, and bay windows that look out to the jungle. Although the exteriors are thatched-roof, it’s really only for show, as the room interiors pretty much look like any standard modern hotel room. There is an airy, thatched-roof restaurant and bar overlooking the swimming pool and Bahía de Amatique. In addition to seafood, the restaurant serves international dishes including pasta, sandwiches, and grilled steaks. It’s a bit overpriced at about $8 for a basic pasta dish.
Out front is a dock from where you can book a tour of the bay or a motorboat transfer to Punta de Palma, Punta de Manabique, Lívingston, or Río Dulce. Otherwise, you can catch some rays on the lagoon-front beach or explore the waters in a kayak. Two small mangrove islets, known as the Cayos del Diablo, lie just off the coast. Mountain bikes are also available for rent and there’s a sandy beach volleyball court. As at most of Guatemala’s Caribbean beaches, the water here is not clear like that along the Yucatán Peninsula, but more emerald in color. It’s what the tourism promoters have called “a different Caribbean.”
Punta de Palma Beach
The road continues north from here to the beaches of Punta de Palma, a popular weekend getaway for folks from Puerto Barrios and where a sliver of sand meets the Caribbean Sea. There are some refreshment stands but little else here. Although locals might try to talk it up, you’ll probably be very disappointed, as the Riviera Maya this is not. If you really want to hit the beach, there are some better options near Lívingston and across the bay at Punta de Manabique.
On the up side, there is at least one pleasant villa available for rent fronting its own private beach in Punta de Palma. Villa Weyu ($750 for three nights) has 4 bedrooms, all with private bathroom, and sleeps eight. It’s got a full kitchen and open-air living room fronting the house’s infinity-edge swimming pool. It makes a nice secluded getaway or a good base for area explorations. The rental fee includes a cook and maid service.