Category Archive for Mexico + Central America
How to spend a 24 hour stopover in Panama City! Sortis Hotel & Manabi restaurant, Casco Viejo historic district.
Say yes to travel. Always!
When I realized I could do a free 24-hour stopover in Panama City, I immediately chose that flight. Even though I only had a brief time in Panama’s capital, I got a nice taste of the culture, food, architecture… and it’s something I’ll never regret.
I had to fly through Panama, on my route between Dominican Republic and Cuba. I realized I could book a flight with a long connection time / stop-over, which allowed at least 24 hours to get out and explore. It didn’t cost extra, and it was a better option than hanging around the airport for over 6 hours… so why not?
If you can choose to do a 24 hour layover in Panama City, you should go for it. The timing was enough for me to get the lay of the land, see some sights (like Casco Viejo and the waterfront), and enjoy Panamanian food. Read on to see how I spent a day in the city of the Canal…
But first, a quick announcement. I’m back in San Francisco in early March with friends! We’ll be hitting up the synthwave party Turbo Drive (with a performance by retrowave artist Danger), as well as the infamous Goth night Death Guild. If you’re in SF, come out and dance with us.
(Above, wearing jewelry by my favorite Alex Streeter: Mars Star stud earrings, and Ouroboros creatures ring.)
And now, back to my Central American stopover story.
Some cities are better for layovers than others. Panama City turned out to be a great one — because Tocumen International Airport is only a 30 minute drive from downtown Panama City.
If you have limited time in a destination, I recommend booking a hotel that is centrally located. I stayed at Sortis Hotel, Casino and Spa since it was right in the bank district, and near the waterfront and famous sites. The staff arranged private car to pick me up from airport Arrivals, which helped me to save time and keep my trip as seamless as possible.
Sortis Hotel address: Calle 56 y 57 Este, Panamá, Panama
Sortis Hotel’s hip decor matched my pastel-Gothic vibe. They’re part of the boutique design hotels collective, Autograph Collection, meaning you can expect luxurious, modern accommodations and service.
I arrived in the evening, so I was glad to spend time under the waterfall shower and then curl up for bed. Sortis’ rooms are large and decorated in urban chic, with giant windows that let you wake up to the famous skyscrapers of Panama.
The next day, I woke up early for the included breakfast buffet, and so that I could have as much time as possible to see Panama City before my flight in the early evening.
I got a wonderful introduction to Panama City on the rooftop of Sortis Hotel. They have a panoramic terrace, and a swimming pool with a cute white duck in it!
I looked out at the iconic cityscape, marked with tall silver towers. Instantly loved the vibrant and energetic environment of Ciudad de Panamá.
Perhaps you might be surprised to see so many skyscrapers here. Beginning in the early 2000s, Panama City had a construction boom that resulted in dozens of futuristic high-rises.
Panama City has become a major financial, tech and business center –– but it still has that laid-back, warm Central American vibe. Sortis’ inviting swimming pool, with towers and palm trees in the background, captures this mix perfectly.
Unlike other parts of Central America, there’s also a high-end element to Panama City. I’m hanging in the lobby’s Veuve Cliquot champagne lounge. Sortis Hotel also adjoins a shopping center, and is near the new Soho Mall for luxury designer brands.
If you only have a twenty-four hour stopover, be sure to take the time to try the local cuisine. On my first night, I ate dinner at Manabi Restaurant and Rum Lounge, which specializes in Panamanian dishes.
(My New Retro Wave shirt is Akade Wear, designers of synthwave / outrun / retrowave fashion.)
The cozy Manabi Restaurant was decorated with local crafts, and warm wooden furniture. They have an impressive selection of Panamanian rum… but alcohol wasn’t being served because it was Martyr’s Day! (Every year, the city commemorates the 1964 riots over sovereignty of the Panama Canal Zone.)
Nonetheless, I got to enjoy a tropical fruit smoothie with fresh fish ceviche, and Manabi’s hearty seafood dish. I tend to order local fish wherever I go; this time, I got to taste “corvina” (a saltwater fish from the coastal waters of Central and South America) for the first time. I ended with the house-made creme brulee with blueberries — brilliant.
The next day, I was ready to see Panama City. Uber is quite cheap here, so I booked an UberX ride to Casco Viejo (Old Town).
Casco Viejo is located on the waterfront, and has spectacular viewpoints and walkways. Across the water, I spotted the rainbow colored Biomuseo (Museum of Bio-Diversity) designed by Frank Gehry. (If I had an extra day in Panama City, I’d certainly go there.)
30 minutes away, you can visit Miraflores Locks, one of the transit points of the Panama Canal. There’s a history museum about the 77 km (48 mile) waterway, which connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Visitors can also go to an observation deck to see vessels pass through the Panama Canal.
Panama is also known for its long seawalls, which are made for strolling. I looked out at Amador Causeway, the second longest boardwalk in the city and site of museums and restaurants.
I had a limited amount of time so I stuck to Casco Viejo, the historic district of Panama City. This settlement was founded in 1673 after the previous one had been destroyed. Since then, it has survived many natural disasters and attacks by pirates, including the scurvy Captain Henry Morgan.
I passed by the yellow facades of Plaza Bolivar (with a statue of Simon Bolivar in front), and cute sidewalk cafes.
It’s easy to see why Casco Viejo is a UNESCO world heritage site. The old town has beautiful parks, and the classic buildings carries traces of its past (a mix of Spanish, French and American colonial architecture.)
This Panama City neighborhood is also home to the archaeological ruins of the church and convent of Santo Domingo. The structures were built by Dominican Friars shortly after the founding of Casco Viejo, but burnt down in 1756 and were never restored.
I enjoyed seeing the contrast between these historic sites and glitzy, modern Panama (such as this light installation at Sortis Hotel.)
My favorite futuristic building was the F&F Tower, an office building not far from the hotel. I did my best to imitate the twisting green glass and reinforced concrete.
The corkscrew spiral building stands out in the skyline of Panama City.
Whenever the opportunity presents itself for you to experience something new, I say “do it.” You’ll never regret seeing a new destination, and who knows when you might get the chance again.
Gracias Sortis Hotel for taking care of me during my layover. My Panama stopover was short but sweet, and makes me keen to come back to do more.
Happy Dia de los Muertos — Day of the Dead! To celebrate, let’s explore the spooky side of Tulum, Mexico. (I was there earlier this year with Yukiro, and have been saving this special post until now.)
Yukiro and I enjoyed relaxing at Karisma El Dorado resort, but we didn’t want to leave the country without seeing a sugar skull or two.
We put our trust in concierge / tour company Loco Gringo, and they truly delivered. Our local guide Paulina arranged a perfect day that included a visit to a colorful Mexican cemetery, and folk museum with hundreds of Day of the Dead skeletons!
Wherever in the world I travel, I seem to end up in a graveyard. It’s no surprise that my Goth friends and I are interested in how different cultures honor their dead.
In the ancient city of Valladolid, the tombstones are painted in bright, colorful hues. Many people think of cemeteries as fearful or depressing places. However, in Mexico, death is represented by smiling and dancing skeletons.
Every year from Oct 31 to Nov 2, Mexico celebrates Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) with skull facepaint, music and raucous parades. It’s believed that the deceased come back to visit during this time of the year.
On this special day, families tend to the graves of their loved ones. They leave offerings of bright sugar skulls, flowers, and the favorite food and drink of the departed.
Outfit details: yes, that’s my Scottish Fold cat peeking out from under my leather jacket!
My top is a gift from illustrator Lili Chin. She makes custom pet portraits that can be printed onto shirts and other products. If you’re interested in a custom drawing of your cat or dog drawing, check out her site.
This is not your typical orderly graveyard, with plots in a row. Each resting place is festively decorated in ways that celebrate the deceased’s personality and life.
No two headstones were alike. Despite being a home for the dead, Valladolid cemetery felt like it was bursting with life.
According to local legend, a vampire is buried in this giant grey mausoleum…
These bright coffins seemed to be inviting us to join the party. The decorative elements were a mix of Christianity and Mexican folk traditions.
We even spotted a sacrificial tribute to the ancient Mayans, who once ruled over this area (Tulum and Riviera Maya).
(Loco Gringo also took us to see the famous pyramids Chichen Itza and Ek Balam — read about it in this post!)
Dancing with the dead. I wonder who lies beneath the hot pink grave…
Our guide Paulina answered all our questions about these traditions. I can’t think of a single Riviera Maya tour that will take you to the graveyard… but Loco Gringo is extraordinary, and tailored the day exactly to our interests.
Paulina introduced us to the “old graves-keeper” (who didn’t seem that old), and translated Spanish for us. He told us an eerie ghost story about the time he dug a grave, and felt someone grabbing onto his arm… eek!
Without Loco Gringo‘s expertise, we would never have visited this magnificent cemetery.
We climbed back into the van, and our driver took us a short distance to Casa de los Venados: Valladolid’s folk art museum.
The name translates to “house of deer,” hence the blue man mascot with the animal on his poncho.
Loco Gringo suggested that I visit Casa de los Venados, since it has the largest private collection of Mexican folk art in the world.
We stepped into a home that had multiple rooms and courtyards filled with fascinating works.
The hacienda’s owners, John and Dorianne Venator, began their collection decades ago. Today, their home has over 3000 pieces of art, and is open for the public to appreciate.
The curators have a fine eye for works that reflect the history and humor of Mexico.
To our delight, there was an extensive collection of spooky art. Devils, skulls and monsters — oh my!
We had fun turning the dial of this toy, and watching the parade of demons, skeletons and coffins march into the mouth of Hell.
We saw many interpretations of sugar skulls (I got nail art from Glam Nail Studio to match).
Who is the nun holding a head? We learned she is Juana Inés de la Cruz, a nun and poet who is the face of the 200 peso note. (Perhaps she inspired The Conjuring 2 movie?)
The folk art spanned all mediums and sizes, from the ancient Mayans to modern-day artists.
In one of the many mini-courtyards, I found a tile mural of Frida Kahlo, with a black monkey on her shoulder.
Frida Kahlo is one of Mexico’s most celebrated artists, and a personal favorite of mine.
An entire room is dedicated to the female painter. How many Fridas can you count in this image?
Yukiro and I had never seen so many Day of the Dead representations in a single museum.
We smiled at the Calavera Catrinas, or Dapper Skeletons. First depicted by Jose Posada in 1919, these elegant skull-people are always dressed aristocratically.
In Mexican folklore, the dead are joyful during Dia de los Muertos. I wouldn’t mind rejoicing with these smiling musicians skeletons.
Even the devils like to have fun. They’re represented as cheerful, naughty creatures, rather than as beings to be feared.
Casa de los Venados’ owners did a wonderful job in re-vamping the original house. They added a fabulous outdoor area, with a glass bridge spanning several pools of water.
Look up, and you’ll see these happy Mexican skeletons waving at you! I thought the undead pet was a cat, but it’s actually a dog wearing a bandanna.
I didn’t know much about Mexican folk art before visiting this museum. It was fantastic to see so many high quality works under a single roof.
Cheers to this glorious pool, fed by multiple overhead streams!
I found a cat-face fountainhead to match my tank top.
We ducked into the dining room and paid ode to La Catrina, the grand ol’ dame of death.
At this point, our eyes were popping out of our heads — there was so much to see, in every conceivable space! Even the carved dining chairs and chandeliers were Mexican works of art.
You’d think that a Goth lived here, with all the skulls and bones.
The corner table had a surreal display. I want that monkey for myself.
These photos show only a fraction of Casa de los Venados. I encourage you to visit the Valladolid folk art museum, and see the rest.
Muchas gracias Loco Gringo for being the perfect local guides!
We’re not exactly “regular tourists,” and would have been bored with a cookie cutter tour. But Loco Gringo took the time to learn about us, and tailored the itinerary to our dark fascinations.
We hope you’ll reach out to them if you visit Tulum, Riviera Maya and Cancun, Mexico.
Do you share our fascination with Day of the Dead? Have you ever dressed up and celebrated it?
Goths on the beach. Even in bright sunlight, Yukiro and I maintain our vampire attitude!
Karisma Hotels invited us to spend a day at El Dorado Maroma, their boutique oceanfront resort. It turned out to be our favorite property. We loved relaxing on this private beach so much that we delayed our leave by several hours!
(My pentacle top is this exact one by Rat Baby, a dark / alt clothing brand.)
Located in the Riviera Maya, El Dorado Maroma is for adults only, and cultivates a laid-back feeling. The grounds are filled with tall palm trees, giving the impression that you’ve stumbled upon a beach paradise.
Yukiro and I had our own mega-suite, with sliding doors that opened into our private terrace, and a quiet swimming pool.
Shop for Gothic swimwear and dresses below:
Things got a little crazy when the staff delivered two “Coco Locos” — a tropical cocktail of coconut, banana, rum and magic.
To top it off, they decorated the coconut shell like a monkey’s face!
I’ve never had a better welcome drink than this one. At Karisma El Dorado resorts, all food and drink are inclusive — so you can order a dozen Coco Locos if you pleased.
Strike a pose, vogue.
El Dorado Maroma is the only property with thatch-roofed overwater bungalows (similar to the 5-star huts found in the Maldives and Bora Bora).
We had our very own palapa beach bed, so we didn’t have to worry about other guests taking our prime spot by the ocean.
A staff member came around and offered sunscreen and margaritas. Yes to both.
We got to preview El Dorado Maroma’s new overwater bungalows — perfect for a romantic honeymoon.
As you can see, the sand and waters were pristine. I was a happy girl, wading in the ocean.
(Closeup on the criss-cross straps of my Gothic swimsuit. Shop more styles with a click):
Meal time! Karisma Hotels are known as “gourmet inclusives” because they put great care into their restaurants.
We hit it off with our cheerful server, who insisted that we try his grandmother’s special coffee (dark, with a brush of cinnamon). He then brought us green and red chilaquiles, a layered tortilla dish known as a hangover cure.
This kitty-cat was pleased with the authentic Mexican dish. It was one of our favorite meals of the entire trip.
After, we walked down the long private beach. There’s nothing like listening to the sounds of the ocean, and looking out at the horizon…
… and making friends with pelicans.
El Dorado Maroma is a quiet and exclusive space. Perfect for those who want a true beach getaway.
The resort will soon be home to 58 new “palafitos”, or over the water suites. If you’re dreaming of visiting Tulum, it’s good timing for a stay at El Dorado Maroma, a beachfront resort, by Karisma.
Paulina said we would love Le Lotus Rouge bar — and once again, she was spot on. (Address: 35th Avenue & Calle 2, Playa del Carmen, Mexico)
The Red Lotus is run by a French lady, who decorated the rooms to reflect her love of the arts. From the moment we stepped in, we felt at home in this eccentric, fabulous and slightly creepy space.
Le Lotus Rouge is infamous for its karaoke nights. Anyone can choose a song from the computer, and belt it out on microphones.
I have to say… Yukiro and I tore down the house, with our rendition of the 1980s Styx hit, Mr Roboto!
Glowing with lanterns and secret spaces, the Red Lotus one magical spot.
Playa del Carmen and Cancun tend have touristy nightlife — which is why we were pleasantly surprised to find this artistic bar, frequented by locals. The cocktails and food are also wonderful here.
There are multiple theme rooms, each decorated with whimsy. This one has a tribal theme.
Disco dreams come true, when Yukiro is around.
Boudoir furniture and skeletons are found all throughout Le Lotus Rouge.
I hope these photos show you an unexpected side of Playa del Carmen, which is typically associated with tourists and spring breakers.
Gracias to Loco Gringo for the insider tour of Tulum. More photos to come, including a visit to a cemetery and Day of the Dead art gallery.
Until then, you can check out all my Mexico travel guides here. Have you been to Riviera Maya before?
The aliens have landed! Yukiro and I vogue-ed in front of Chichen Itza, the mysterious Mayan pyramid.
That day, we had the best possible tour of Tulum’s ruins, thanks to Loco Gringo. This local-run concierge company helps travellers with personalized tours, recommendations, bookings, or anything at all to make their trip outstanding.
In Part 1, we’ll show you how our Loco Gringo guides tailored the trip exactly to our spooky interests — starting with the ancient civilizations of the Yucatán Peninsula!
For this special day, I wore my favorite tank top: it has a custom illustration of my Scottish Fold cat on it!
My friend, LA-based designer Lili Chin, is a “pet portrait artist” and made this for me. She can make you a shirt, print, pin or other design that looks exactly like your dog or cat. Simply send her a photo of your pet, and she’ll transform it into a portrait. (Check out her pet shirts and pet art websites for details.)
Our Loco Gringo guides went above and beyond our expectations, to deliver a tailored tour and make us feel at home. They picked us up early in the morning, from our Karisma El Dorado hotel, and took us all throughout Tulum that day. We couldn’t have possibly covered so much ground without them.
When we arrived at Chichen Itza, we met local expert Abel and were immediately swept away by his passion for Mayan culture. He whipped out his iPad to show us how the ancient calendar influenced the architecture, and encouraged us to do fabulous poses in front of the structure!
Loco Gringo took care of our tickets and logistics, so we were able to bypass lines, and go straight to the best viewing locations.
We found a prime spot in front of El Castillo, the famous stone pyramid of Chichen Itza.
Abel riveted us with tales of rituals and myths about this pre-Columbian city. At the top of this Temple of Warriors is a “chac mool,” or sculpture of a reclining person with his head turned 90 degrees. The Mayans made sacrificial offerings on its chest, including human blood and hearts.
In front of the stairs, he clapped his hands — and we heard a reverberating “quack quack” sound! We were amazed at how well the ancient Mayans understood acoustics and design. Or… perhaps the pyramids were built by extraterrestrials…
Abel showed us photos of Mayan skulls, with coneheads. Alien invaders? Not quite: in fact, the Mayans performed cranial deformation as a body modification (they pressed a board to an infant’s head, creating a long and flat shape).
I’m endlessly fascinated by the way standards of beauty can vary so widely, in different eras and cultures.
From the 8th-10th century, Chichen Itza was an economic powerhouse. I could still picture the vivid ceremonies that took place right where I’m standing.
Today, the pre-Hispanic city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and considered a new World Wonder.
At the base of the El Castillo stairs, I saw these feathered serpent sculptures. At certain times of the day, the steps cast shadows that make it look as if a snake is wriggling down the side. Some believe that this is a representation of the Mayan god Kukulkan.
We walked around and saw the Temple of Venus, and a large ball court where game results were literally a matter of life or death (a member of the losing team could be offered as a human sacrifice).
Chichen Itza fed our fascination for unsolved mysteries and ancient civilizations. If you’re staying in Tulum, Cancun or Playa del Carmen, I encourage you to reach out to Loco Gringo for an entertaining private tour like ours.
Our guide Paulina and driver Miguel then took us to the old city of Valladolid, for lunch in a charming courtyard. We always love getting to know locals, especially when they are as passionate about their country as these two.
They helped us pick out the most authentic dishes from the Mexican menu — such as enchiladas with mole, a traditional sauce accented with chocolate.
In Valladolid park, Yukiro shared a cute moment in the love-seat with driver Miguel.
Loco Gringo knows that we are connoisseurs of dark matters… so they made sure we visited a Mexican graveyard, and museum filled with Day of the Dead skulls! Coming up is an entire post about these places, as we saw so much in a single day.
No visit to Tulum is complete without seeing the famous cenotes, or natural sinkholes filled with groundwater. Loco Gringo took us to Ek Balam cenote, where people can dive in and swim. These beautiful natural formations were important to the Mayans, who conducted sacrificial offerings and rituals in these “sacred wells.”
Yukiro and I let our imaginations run wild, as we explored the ruins of Ek’ Balam (another Mayan kingdom, 35 miles northeast of Chichen Itza). The name translates to “the black jaguar” — and eerily enough, the stairs are always protected by friendly stray black dogs.
Yukiro ascended the steps of El Torre, the 30 meter high tower of the Central Plaza. This evil queen gesture seems appropriate for an ancient structure, laden with Mayan symbolism.
I wish my Scottish Fold cat, Basil Farrow, could go on these journeys with me… But at least he’s present on my custom pet t-shirt by Lili Chin!
Yukiro and I are more interested than ever in Mayan culture, after seeing these ruins for ourselves and learning about the history.
Fascinating how blood was considered the nourishment of Mayan gods — and so, human sacrifice was the ultimate offering.
We’re grateful to Loco Gringo for understanding our “offbeat” interests, and tailoring the day trip to suit us exactly! Instead of a cookie-cutter bus tour, we got to move at our own pace, and get to know our sweet guides.
Loco Gringo is an indie company, and all of the staff lives in the Riviera Maya — I can vouch they are true, passionate insiders. They also give back to the local community with each reservation, including donations to Coco’s Animal Rescue and other charities.
Yukiro and I hope you’ll get to experience Loco Gringo’s outstanding service and expertise for yourselves. Whether it’s a Tulum tour, apartment booking, or concierge request — they will go out of their way to help you out. For more, take a look at the LocoGringo website and Facebook.
Have you heard stories of Chichen Itza and alien visitors? The truth is out there… I’m kidding…
(PS – check out more funny photos like the one above on my Instagram and Snapchat @lacarmina.)