I’m a freelance writer, photographer, reformed gardener, and retired Public Health Doc. I’ve managed social media and photographed the gardens for the Florida Botanical Gardens Foundation. Now-a-days, I concern myself with non-motorized transportation and fitness. I write about many different topics but truly my passions are the outdoors and traveling. I love to research travel and, as travelers know, the joy is in the journey. This past year saw trips to northern Florida, Chicago, a winter trip to Yellowstone National Park, and a spring trip to Rocky Mountain National Park (Three feet of snow in May…who knew!) I love writing about my trips and making photos and will share them here Enjoy! My older travel and professional articles are here. Plans for the upcoming year include a trip to South Carolina for the solar eclipse
Panama’s history as a transportation cross-roads of the Americas intrigued me. On this ultra short six day trip, I steeped myself in canal history in the morning and Panama’s Spanish history in the afternoon. I learned just enough about Panama’s history to plan for a future trip. Start studying Panama’s history at the Museum of Biodiversity. The museum, housed in world-renowned architect Frank Gehry’s most colorful building provides a timeline of Panama’s history, beginning with the volcanic eruptions that created the isthmus.
From the start species moved back and forth across the newly created isthmus. This land bridge changed our world. Don’t miss the multi-dimensional movie on Panama’s history.
Visiting the Spanish Ruins
I visited three different historical sites, all UNESCO World heritage sites. Unfortunately, drizzle and grey skies marred these visits. It was, after all, the rainy season! I’ll be back some day on a bright sunny day to get better photos and experience all of Panama’s past. I barely had enough time for the canal and Spain.
South American riches traveled from South America, north to the Caribbean town of Portobelo, across the Panama isthmus on the cobbled Camino Real, through the Pacific coastal town of Panama Viejo (Old Panama City) and finally traveled on to Spain by ship. Through the eighteenth century British pirate attacks disrupted these Spanish settlements, not infrequently burning then to the ground. Casco Viejo finally replaced Panama Viejo, during the 19th century because of its more defensible location and port. Time brought independence from Spain, inclusion in Gran Columbia and irrelevance. In the 1840s, however, gold prospectors transited the isthmus on that same Spanish Camino Real to reach the Pacific Ocean and California. American speculators built a small railroad to transport the prospectors. Finally the canal saga began, first by the French and then the US.
Panama Viejo is open limited hours. The day I visited (a holiday) both the visitor’s center and the park were closed. I was able to see tops of the extensive ruins, including churches and schools, over the fence and at the entrance, though. Apparently, large parts of the town, along with many other historical buildings, was dismantled to build the Panama canal. (Leave it to us to dismantle old historic buildings!). The town literally sits at the edge of the Pacific Ocean and on the day I was there, the water was simply a mud flat. It seemed an odd place for a port
Historic Casco Viejo
Historic Casco Viejo (Panama City), more centrally located near modern-day downtown Panama City, is a work in progress. Panamanians have restored many old buildings as restaurants, coffee shops and museums. After a long day of touristing it was great to find the Casa Sucre Coffee House, one such repurposed building.
Many historic churches have remained in Panama; however, other buildings are still simply shells that will need much work. Contrast this yet to be restored building with the Iglesia San Francisco de Asis.
One can imagine extensive restoration producing a town similar to Florida’s St. Augustine.
Christopher Columbus named Portobelo when he visited in 1502. Portobelo became a major Spanish trading center, holding three-month long annual trading fairs at the peak of Spanish influence from the mid-sixteenth to early nineteenth century. My ecoCiruitos guides, Fabio and Roberto transported me into the center of this small town built amongst the ruins of this highly fortified town Dark clouds threatened, so we moved quickly…not necessarily best for photographing ruins. The extensive ruins of forts and the village show evidence of tropical humidity and age the ruins as they are covered in soot and dark mold, but they are otherwise in reasonably good shape for building of such age.
This area, like the ruins in Panama City is somewhat of a work in progress. The lovely restored customs house awaits content. It certainly has the bones to become an historical museum. This little slide show below is a sample of two and a half centuries of Spanish rule in Portobelo, including the forts and the customs house. With the Smithsonian Research Institute nearby, it seems that they would have another opportunity to develop a lovely regional museum here in Portobelo.
The other attraction here, Iglesia de San Felipe, houses the Black Christ. Portobelo celebrates the Black Christ statue at an October 21st festival. The church was the last building that the Spanish built before leaving Panama. Many believe that the Black Christ cures illness.
I think that it was the Lonely Planet guidebook that suggested that before visiting Panama visitors should finish David McCullough’s exhaustive book on the building of the Panama Canal: The Path Between the Seas. Great advice and well worth the effort! I downloaded the audio version and finally finished listening to all 35 hours of it somewhere near the end of my six-day trip. I now understand the great importance of this wonder of the world and the cost associated with its building. I was lucky enough to view the canal from three perspectives, the train, a partial transit, and a jungle boat.
The Panama Canal Railway
My guide, Fabio and our driver Roberto of, EcoCircuitos, the guide company that had organized my tour, dropped me off on my first full day in Panama. (more about that in a different post). The first “mass transit” across the Panama isthmus was the train. Once-a-day this brightly colored commuter train leaves Panama City, traveling alongside the canal, as the sun rises on the Pacific, its destination, Colon, on the Caribbean. Mostly commuters use this train and tourists head for the restored antique passenger car or small observation car at the front. I traveled with a bunch of high school-aged students on a field trip and a few independent tourists like myself. Most tourists leaving the train travel elsewhere in the area, since the train does not return until evening. Options included the guided tours to ruins at Fort San Lorenzo or Portobelo. Some return to Panama by bus.
Transiting the Canal by Tour Boat
A number of companies in Panama City provide the opportunity for full or partial transit of the canal. The EcoCircuitos folks arranged for my half-day partial transit on Panama Marine Adventures Pacific Queen. Roberto, dropped me off at the Flemenco Island dock for my five-hour trip on the canal and through two of the three sets of canal locks (Miraflores and Pedro Miguel). The tour boat, filled with folks from around the world, transited alongside another filled tour boat and behind the Miltiades II, a bulk carrier ship. The commentary was in both English and Spanish.
The photo opportunities here were outstanding. Last year the Panamanians completed locks capable of handling larger neo-Panamax ships and we did see one of those transiting the nearby larger lock.
Most folks gather outside at the front, but the views from the back are also outstanding as you watch the massive metal gates of the locks open and close.
Lunch and breakfast provide breaks for the non-stop photography and there was even a local band entertaining us on the trip.
Jungle Boat Ride
Finally, there was the “jungle boat”. To be honest when this showed up on my proposed itinerary, I scoffed. This sounded so… touristy. Unfortunately, my first choice, visiting the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute was filled (I needed to make reservations months in advance!), so I went with this…not wanting to completely miss a trip into the rainforest. This was actually a combined hike (more in a future post) through Soberania National Park and a boat ride from the Gamboa Rainforest Resort on the Chagres River and onto the canal. I really enjoyed this canal view. We entered the canal north of Pedro Miguel Lock and in the small boat we were able to get quite close to the massive ships transiting the canal. A great photo-op. Take a look!
I have for most of my travel years traveled independently. Pre-internet, I would use travel agencies to buy tickets, and the like. In recent times, though, I’ve had occasion to develop what I call hybrid travel plans, where I still travel independently, but I use local travel agents to organize parts f my trip. I started doing this after a trip to Japan in which I discovered that in Japan travel agencies receive deep discounts, priority tickets, and finally they are a necessity to pay businesses that lack online payment systems and English-language websites. We also worked with an Alaskan company for a DIY trip that also included tours.
With this trip to Panama, my Frommer’s guide recommended hiring a guide if one isn’t renting a car. As it turned out, hiring a tour operator or joining a group during the rainy/off-season isn’t necessarily simple, as many tourist-related activities shift into low gear. Many of my email requests went without response. I did finally find Ecocircuitos.
However, though they had a tour listed on their website that matched my interest, I was told that it would not be available as a group tour since not enough people had signed up. But, they would work with me to do a semi-private tour. After a day of emailing, we settled on an itinerary. This would include: 1) A partial transit of the Panama Canal; 2) Transcontinental train and a visit to Portobelo; and 3) A visit to Barro Colorado Natural Monument; 5) Five nights of lodging and transportation. All for $1430. (In Central and South America you are also charged 5% if you use a credit card which you will likely have to use).
Case closed, correct? Well not quite. As I was busily transmitting my payment info, my agent emailed me that the Smithsonian would cancel the trip unless there were four people. Arghh!!! Stay tuned!
This month I’m off to my first visit to Panama, just in time, as it turns out, for the absolute worst of its rainy season! I’m retired, thus pretty flexible in my travel availability, so how did this happen? Well, I had some time in the Fall and I had hoped to visit South America (I have on my bucket list, visiting all the continents), but the more I looked at a trip to South America, the more I wanted to spend some time planning and prioritizing, so…
The trip to Panama morphed from a trip to Patagonia. In the interim I had also considered the Galapagos, a combination Galapagos-rainforest trip, Costa Rica, combined Panama and Costa Rica, and finally Panama. I found an incredible bargain trip to Panama but it had too many stops and too little time at the canal so I decided a DIY Panama trip was my trip (I couldn’t convince any of my relatives to come along, though).
I was able to make a booking.com reservation for five nights in a Panama City hotel cost for as much as one night in most other major cities of the world. This convinced me that I had chosen well.
Unfortunately, I failed to modify the time that I planned to travel: November in Patagonia would have been a good idea; In Panama, though, it is apparently the REALLY, REALLY, REALLY rainy season. Sad to say, a change in flight would have cost me $200 and Copa Airlines wouldn’t negotiate a change (I miss my Southwest). Well, I am Floridian, so I think that I can deal with a little bit of rain (she said hopefully).
I initially tried researching the trip online, but beyond the hotel and flights, I have found the Internet time-consuming for researching locality attractions. Google search generates Google and TripAdvisor reviews, and not much else. So, as I have been doing for years, I bought a paper guidebook. After testing out the various options (researching a specific question), I chose Frommer’s Panama guidebook as my cheap travel assistant, and horror of horrors, bought it at an actual bricks and mortar bookstore (Yes, I know, very retro and reflective of my age).
Frommer wisely suggests that the DIY traveler not completely go it alone. So, with the list of local Panamanian tour operators from Frommer in hand, I went back to the Internet with a better plan. I looked at the various local tour operator websites. Many have multi-day tours, but as I found out, most are only available during the peak tourist season as they have minimum number of participants. As always, traveling alone creates extra costs and issues. But I think that I finally found a tour operator through my various email inquiries that may provide me with what I need: a relatively inexpensive custom tour. We’ve been working out an itinerary. In my next post, I’ll know better and can report on the rest of my plan.
Well the 2017 eclipse has come and gone, so it’s time to prepare to photograph the 2024 eclipse. Wait, you say, you haven’t even gotten your 2017 prints developed. Trust me, this is a good time to review the experience and lessons many of the 2017 eclipse. Remember, folks were making reservations for hotels and rental equipment two years in advance for this last eclipse. Place some strategic reminders on your Google calendar for 2023 and consider incorporating some of our lessons in your plan. First lesson: Plan ahead! Second Lesson: Have contingency plans!
We did have a plan for 2017, albeit many things seemed to go wrong. Here is what we did: About six month in advance we examined our map and chose a Holiday Inn close to the totality in South Carolina where we could watch. We arranged to rent a Tamron 150-600 mm lens for my daughter’s Nikon D5100 and planned to use my Olympus OMD EM5’s 75-300 mm lens. We ordered solar filters for both my lens and my daughter’s rental lens. We ordered our eclipse viewing glasses from Amazon and a new, sturdy, tripod from Adorama.
What Can Go Wrong Will Go Wrong
That all sounded great, right? So… this is what really happened.
Sometime during late-July, a few weeks before the eclipse, Holiday Inn left us a voice mail to let us know that they had cancelled our reservation; the folks who rented us our lens emailed us to tell us that they did not have the lens we arranged to rent; Amazon emailed to tell us that our glasses were not approved for solar viewing; the solar filters we ordered weren’t the proper size (this one mostly our mistake) and finally the tripod was out of stock.
All’s Well That Ends Well
We pretty much redid everything at the last-minute. We ended up at a Quality Inn in Spartanburg, South Carolina, north of the totality. On the day of the eclipse we drove an hour to the Clemson Campus to do our viewing ($90 donation to the scholarship fund). We ended up with a different a 200-400 mm, Nikon lens for the D5100 that cost us an extra $100 to rent. (As it turned out, we only used the Nikon during the totality as filters for this rental lens sit in slots in the center of the lens. Had we done this we could have damaged the lens mechanism, left unfiltered during the partial eclipse phase). We bought a different colored tripod and found certified glasses at the 7-Eleven convenience store.
Some of the things that we did actually do right included 1) attendance at a class on eclipse photography that our camera club Florida Center for Creative Photography, held the month before the eclipse; 2) identification of the exact seconds for the totality for our location (found on the internet); and 3) practice taking photos.
In the end it all worked out. So here are some of my best shots from the OMD. I did minimal editing, mostly just some cropping. The “people pictures” are from my daughter, Emily.
If you have never photographed an eclipse, consider taking a class. Try to do this as far in advance so that you can make any needed purchases.
Know your camera: It is necessary to use the manual setting for this…something that I finally learned to do before the eclipse. I also learned a lot about my menus.
Practice…a lot. The eclipse is not a static event so you should be comfortable repositioning the camera.
Have your planned settings and timing on some type of portable media, such as paper or a tablet. You will need to change these throughout the eclipse. This is especially helpful during the totality period.
Check your camera settings often. I know someone who inadvertently changed his ISO: lots of ruined photos
Make as many arrangements online as far in advance as possible
Follow up these logistical arrangements by phone, if possible. Online ordering and reservations may be problematic for such a huge event. There were questions that I should have asked about lenses and filters.
Prepare for large crowds and traffic.
April will more likely be a time of cool and changeable weather, rather than hot as it was for 2017. Plan your location well. Check out the weather history on one of the weather websites.
San Antonio, Florida, in Pasco County, has many photo opportunities: The San Antonio Pottery, lovely places to hike, and the St. Leo Benedictine Abbey, justify a trip to this tiny town north of Tampa. Often in passing through town to do the other two, I had seen a sign on the campus of St. Leo’s University for the Abbey. Last week after a quick visit to SaintLeoAbbey.org, I set out with my trusty Olympus OM-D, EM5, to take some photos.
On arrival, sandhill cranes congregated in the parking lot and made me feel welcome as did the welcome center.
I’ve always wondered about San Antonio as It seems fairly isolated. The 1880s, though, things were hopping. The South Florida Railroad passed through nearby Dade City and the Orange Belt Railroad stopped in San Antonio on its way to St. Petersburg.
In 1889, Benedictine monks established a monastery and Catholic high school and founded the town of St. Leo (later incorporated into San Antonio). The monastery became an Abbey in 1902. The Benedictines constructed the first concrete block building in Pasco County, St. Leo Hall, begun in 1906, completed in 1911 and still standing.
The construction of the Abbey church began in 1931 and the church was finally consecrated in 1948. The Abbey website has more detail on the history and construction. I love the part of the story where the monks barter oranges for church furniture and building material with another group of monks in Indiana. Great stuff!
The lovely abbey, typical of many important pre second world war buildings, is in the Florida Mediterranean style. I have more description of this architectural style in a couple of my posts: Wakulla Springs and Bay Pines VA.
The intensely hot, bright July day proved attractive to multiple butterfly species. It gave my telephoto lens quite the workout.
I hope to go back on a day where I can photograph the lovely stained glass windows (the light was just too much) and the grotto on the grounds. Stay tuned for Part 2!
Well a museum that has already been open for nine years isn’t exactly a new museum, but for a native anything that I didn’t visit on a YMCA field trip as a child, I classify as new. I left Chicago for other parts during the 1980’s but have visited pretty much every year since. Of course, visits with children tend to usually include lots of family events and visits to those tried and true museums I visited as a child. But life moves on and since the kids are grown, we decided that the time has come for new explorations.
Unlike the lucky folks who live north, when we South Siders visit the central city it always requires planning. Driving has never been an option. Even less so now that every Chicago parking spot requires an investment. Traveling downtown by public transportation usually means caging a ride from a willing family member or a long, tedious bus ride.
On this last visit when the weather was looking good, we caught a ride to the Orange Line and set out for the north loop. The Driehaus museum and the recently opened American Writers Museum are less than a mile apart and we thought would be a great way to spend a day in the city.
We started at the Writers museum. The lobby is lovely (despite snide comments in many reviews), with nifty elevator doors and a great looking guard desk. Ordinary, perhaps, when built, but now unique.
The American Writers Museum requires a slow ambling view, or you may miss the point here.
As with many small museums, one needs to look up, down and all around to truly appreciate the setting, as designers must work within a small space. The museum entry has a ceiling covered in books and all walls display important info.
The main hallway has authors in a chronologically ordered timeline. Walk too quickly and you will miss moving the informational blocks to study different aspects of the writers. Clearly many of the authors will be known. I found it to be great, that I had somehow missed knowing about a few of these authors. Flip the blocks and find out more or take a photo for future research. Each author has an in-depth discussion of why they were significant. I just started reading a book by Francis Parkman, one of America’s first travel writers.
Check out the word waterfall! This, on the surface, looks to be simple phrases lighting up. A look through the camera lens reveals a 3D multimedia sculpture.
A special exhibition of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road included the original scroll. I’m a fan, but I did not realize that one of my favorite books was written in this fashion. Very cool!
A pleasant walk across the now sparking Chicago River (a shock to those of us with long memories) lies the Driehaus Museum. This museum, housed in the former Gilded Age home of banker Samuel Mayo Nickerson had spent most of the twentieth century as headquarters for the American College of Surgeons. Philanthropist Richard H. Driehaus purchased the building in 2003. After a five years restoration, the building now appears as it did in the 1800s.
The building houses surviving furnishings paired with elegant, historically appropriate pieces from the Driehaus Foundation Collection of Fine and Decorative Arts. The first floor houses the collection and the second floor a rotating gallery.
On this visit the gallery exhibition, an Art-Deco poster collection, featured five different artists. The guides in the museum were incredibly helpful, offering many additional insights.
They have an amazing collection at the museum as the tradition of the time amongst the wealthy was to employ as many different crafts people to decorate and buy as many things as they could afford in order to impress their peers. These buildings would have been completely packed with paintings and other artwork.
We certainly enjoyed our visit to these two “new” museums and look forward to finding more of these small gems.
I took these photos with an Olympus Tough as I was traveling light this trip.
According to the Website floridasprings.org, “Rainbow Springs is Florida’s fourth largest spring and is designated a National Natural Landmark…The spring pool is about 250 feet wide and shallow, with especially clear blue water flowing over the beds of green aquatic plants and brilliant white limestone and sand…Seven vents contribute to the first-magnitude group near the spring bowl and are augmented by five more springs and hundreds of sand “boils” to create the Rainbow River. The river runs about 5.6 miles before joining the Withlacoochee River.
During the early twentieth-century the area was home to phosphate mines, parts of which can still be seen on park hiking trails.
The 1930s brought tourists and the spring became a theme park that included a zoo, gardens, rodeo, monorail, a swimming pavilion and artificial waterfalls built on old phosphate tailings.
Like many of Florida’s older tourist attractions, it couldn’t compete with the mega attractions in Orlando so closed in 1974. It reopened as Rainbow Springs State Park in the 1990s. after local volunteers supported the acquisition and restoration of the park.
Today pleasant gardens and shady hikes invite a visit. Butterflies and ancient trees abound.
The Park provides a great place to escape the heat and swim in seventy-two-degree water in the head springs or kayak or tube down the river.We try to visit the park about once a year as this is the closest major spring to the Tampa Bay region. Florida springs are the perfect antidote to beat the Florida heat. The gulf water and pools around our areas are all in the 90s. The spring water though, ah a lovely seventy-two degrees!
The park tubing concessionaire, Nature Quest, rents tubes and provides tram service every twenty minutes up the river. You grab your tube, float with the current, and two hours later you are pleasantly cool. Tubing is available between April and the end of September (Before Memorial Day and after Labor Day rentals are limited to weekends)
We arrived around eleven: a reasonable time for a week-day but we probably would have been too late on the weekend as the park closes when the parking area fills. Early arrival is also advised because of frequent afternoon thunderstorms in the summer. For people, desirous of a quieter experience, I suggest a visit during the week or early or late in the season. Between the entry and two tubes, it cost us $45. This includes the state park admission, tube rental and the tram ride north.
We floated two miles in about two hours. All manner of boats, tubes and kayaks take advantage of the cool water. Given the crowds, we still saw quite a few birds, including anhingas, blue herons, and ibises. The water is clear, and feels just wonderful, as the air temperature was in the nineties.
A few important details: alcohol, coolers and disposable packaging (water bottles, food packaging and the like) are all prohibited on the river. The outfitter will keep your keys for a small fee. Additionally, even if you bring your own tube, you will still pay the $15 per person fee.
Perhaps the only drama occurred when I tried to pose for a photo at the end. I did find out that the current near the end is strong enough to make it difficult to paddle the tube against the current. Thus, into the water I went to paddle back to the ramp and off floated a sandal and hat. Just a word to the wise.
About a month ago for one of our weekly field trip, the Florida Center for Creative Photography sponsored a photo walk to the Lettuce Lake Regional Park, north of Tampa. I’d been to the park a few years back sans camera, however, this visit found me well-equipped, with lenses in hand and accompanied by three expert members of the club. We got some great shots, so I decided to head back to the park with my daughter and see it from the river in one of the park’s rental kayaks. Most of these shots are from the first visit, since I didn’t take my Olympus OMD out on the water and instead used my Windows 920 cell phone camera.
The Hillsborough River creates Lettuce Lake, via an overflow of river water. The river creates the swamp, named for the ubiquitous water lettuce plants.
In addition to lovely lake vistas, birds abound here. Just a few minutes into my walk with the club, we came upon these two Limpkins. They seemed to be literally posing for us for a good twenty minutes, until they finally caught some food and scuttled away.
The park has quite the collection of massive old cypress. pine and hardwood trees. These trees seemed to have avoided the clearcutting that took out most of the woodlands during the 1920s and 30s. Perhaps because the area remains under water much of the year.
Swamp lilies, a native Florida plant, grow throughout, with waves of flowers bordering the river.
Thirty-five hundred feet of boardwalks, a multistory viewing tower, and a 1.25-mile paved trail allow easy access to wildlife, views of the lake and picnics.
Kayaks and canoes can be rented here. We rented kayaks for four hours at the bargain price of $25. Rentals include all safety equipment and paddles.
The park is home to the Audubon Resource Center where folks can find more information about the park. The website provides information on kayak and canoe rentals here and in other Hillsborough County parks.
Although most people think that the Courtney Campbell Causeway Trail begins in Tampa near the Whiskey Joe Bar and the Westin Hotel, the trail actually begins at Cypress Point Park. The other day, I decided to explore that end of the trail on one of my “long runs”.
I did go online to try to find a map of the trail. Trail maps are hard to find, but this one is somewhat helpful, though it makes no distinction between on road and off-road trails. The entrance to the park, listed on the park website is an empty lot. The actual entrance is through an office park, rather than at the entrance listed on the park website.
Parking at the trailhead seems adequate, though perhaps it gets crowded on the weekend. This is a pocket park nestled between the Courtney Campbell Causeway and Interstate 275. Though it is encircled by many buildings, once in the park it feels blissfully isolated. It has just a little slice of our lovely Bay with a well-maintained little beach.
One oddity in this park, given recent controversies is an actual monument to a Confederate hero.
Trails through the park allow for perhaps a half mile of beach trail running and then a concrete path through the disc golf course adds another half mile: good for a warmup and some off-road running.
After warming up along the beach trails, I ran out the driveway (no signs here) and headed left on the trail which first hugs the edge of the airport then follows along Florida Route 60.
This trail is part of what will someday be a greenway trail system that traverses Tampa and connects to the surrounding counties. For now, Cypress Point Park is the terminus for the Courtney Campbell Trail in Tampa with the other terminus in Clearwater at the Bayshore Trail.
The Courtney Campbell trail which leads to the causeway is interesting in that it has various levels of protection from the road. From the looks of the various barriers, it doesn’t seem that someone using the trail will actually be hit by a car. Trash and ambience, well that is a different matter.
I suppose that when we develop trails, trash probably isn’t something that we are thinking about. But, it really does matter. Roads generate trash and trash flies onto trails. Sturdy barriers keep out trash and they also keep out noise, thus improving the trail experience.
One hears nary a peep here in this part of the trail near the Hyatt Hotel.
The Cypress Point Park and the nearby trail are well worth a run and in the future I expect to explore further with a bike.