Top 3 Things to do around Panama City!

With an upcoming trip to Panama City in less than three weeks, our thoughts have turned to the tropics.  Panama City is an energetic cosmopolitan city where you can enjoy fine dining, shopping and a plethora of city attractions.  But take a quick trip outside the city and you are immersed in nature and you feel like you have entered another world.

Our top three things to do around Panama City

Monkey Island

Monkeys are fascinating creatures and a trip to Monkey Island is an absolute must for any visitor to Panama.  Located in Gatun Lake (which forms a large part of the Panama Canal), it’s about a one hour drive from the city.  You can easily arrange a tour of Monkey Island through a travel agency in the city (and they will often include other attractions to make a full day trip) or you can drive to the boat launch on Gatun Lake and hire a local fisherman to take you out.  Ironically, it is not an island at all but is comprised of a number of small islands and shoreline around Gatun Lake that are are home to a variety of species.

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White-faced Capuchin checking us out as we approached in the boat

White-faced capuchins are very acrobatic and intelligent–they have learned what an approaching boat signifies as they have been fed by the locals and tour operators for years.  Food is the universal unifier among all animals, including humans–providing some very close encounters with these curious animals!    A simple offering of pineapple to this Capuchin and the expression on his/her face says it all…

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Connecting with a White-faced Capuchin

 

Geoffrey’s Tamarin monkeys are really unique looking with a distinguishing white mohawk and goblin-like ears–they kind of resemble Gizmo in the Gremlins movie but are quirky and seldom seen.  On this particular day we encountered a small troop of them and captured some cool shots!  These monkeys are only found in Panama and Colombia and are also known as the Panamanian Tamarin, Red-crested Tamarin and Rufous-naped Tamarin.  This little guy had some serious attitude sticking his tongue out at us!

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Geoffrey’s Tamarin

 

Insider Tip:  Go early!  Like most animals they are most active in the morning and are lazy in the afternoon after all the boats have exchanged their fruitful bounty for photo ops.

 

Casco Viejo

Casco Viejo (Spanish for Old Quarter) is the old historic district of Panama – and it’s got quite a spicy history too!  Built and settled in 1673, after Welsh pirate Captain Henry Morgan sacked the original city, Casco Viejo went into a state of disrepair and by the 1950’s it was in pretty bad shape; however, starting approxamitely 20 years ago, the old town has being painstakingly revitalized one building at a time.

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Casco Viejo was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997

Casco has a vibrant atmosphere, narrow cobblestone streets and beautiful architecture that is a mix of Spanish, French, Colonial with a pinch of Neoclassic design thrown in.  While walking the streets you feel as though you could be in a European city or New Orleans, but all the while it has its own special latin Panamanian vibe.

There are many plazas with large beautiful trees, park benches, small cafes, boutique hotels, and chic restaurants lining the perimeter.  The main square is called Plaza de la Indepencia and it features the impressive Metropolitan Cathedral.

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Metropolitan Cathedral at Plaza de la Indepencia

Casco is an eclectic mix of traditional and modern culture.  Plaza Francia at the very tip of Casco Viejo, has many arts and crafts on display by various indiginous groups, such as this lady from the very colorful Guna group from the San Blas islands on the Caribbean side of Panama.

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Lady from the Guna indigenous people in traditional dress

 

Casco Viejo stands in stark contrast to the very modern skyscraper studded skyline of Panama City.  We took this photo on our very first trip to Panama in 2006, before the ring road around Casco Viejo was built and before many of the skyscrapers were finished.

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The modern city in 2006 as seen from Casco Viejo

 

Insider Tip:  If you are a first-time visitor to Panama, take a taxi or the red hop-on hop-off busses if you plan to visit Casco Viejo.  The maze of narrow one-way streets and lack of parking can make it a stressful experience to drive!

The Panama Canal

We have been to the Panama Canal at least half a dozen time over the past 10 years and it never gets old – many guide books rate this the top “must see” in the country.  The Canal is the economic lifeblood of Panama and it is an amazing feat of human engineering.

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Photo taken from Ancon Hill.  Miraflores locks are in the foreground, Pedro Miguel locks in the middle/right of the image, and a ship passes under the Centennial bridge in the background.

 

There is nothing like standing on the observation deck at the Miraflores Locks watching a massive ship squeeze into the locks with only a few feet to spare on either side.  Even better is to have dinner at the Miraflores locks and watch the ships enter and exit the locks all night long.

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A massive cargo ship is being lowered in the locks

 

With the opening of the new larger locks and widened canal only a few months ago, we are excited to visit the canal on our next trip to see ships with 2.5x the tonnage transiting the canal!

Insider Tip:  Get there before the tour buses deposit hoards of people and lines swell!

 

Thanks for reading!
Marcy & Ray Stader

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The Icefields Parkway – Beyond the Glaciers

The Icefields Parkway, in Alberta’s Canadian Rockies, is one of Canada’s national treasures.  We spend a lot of time in the mountains every year and the 232 km road stretching through the heart of The Rockies is always one of our favourite areas. Of course, the Columbia Icefields (the largest icefield in the rocky mountains of North America) is the namesake attraction along the parkway, but beyond the glaciers and ice, this magnificent journey through Banff and Jasper has a lot to offer those in search of beautiful landscapes and wildlife.

As you start driving the Icefields Parkway from the south end near Lake Louise, within 3 km you will come across a little gem called Herbert Lake.  It’s easy to miss because there are no signs for the lake and there isn’t a proper place to pull over with  your vehicle, but it is very much worth making the effort to check out – especially when you have a picture perfect morning with fog hanging over the lake like we had on this day.

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Herbert Lake

Love bears???  The parkway contains  prime bear habitat for both black bears and the mighty grizzly bear.  If you want to see wildlife, early (very early) morning always gives you the best chance.  One morning we came across this massive male grizzly bear eating dandelions along the road.  We watched him for about 15 minutes and he made direct eye contact with us several times (which is why we always photograph from the safety of the vehicle).  Grizzly bears can reach 48 km/h from a standing start and can cover a distance of 100 m (327 feet) in 6 seconds!

This is one of our most memorable encounters because he was a BIG male, the lighting was perfect and the dandelions added a soft, dream-like component!

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Field of Dreams

On a good weather day, your neck will need a massage at day’s end from all the jaw-dropping scenery, so make sure you book yourself into a spa ahead of time!  At an altitude of 1920 metres, and at the headwaters of the Bow River, the scenery around Bow Lake is exquisite.  This particular day was so beautiful we didn’t get past Bow Lake  which is located about half way up the Parkway, as we were in search of a colony of pikas that live in the rocks nearby.

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Bow Lake

The Pika is the smallest member of the rabbit family which lives in rocky areas where the climate is cool.  These guys are really cute and they make a very high pitched “eeeep!” sound – that’s usually your first clue they are in the area.  Getting a good photograph of one of them requires a lot of patience sitting in one spot motionless, waiting for them to get comfortable enough to go about their daily business, like grabbing a mouthful of grass and taking it back to the den!

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Pika

This is merely a small taste of what the Icefields Parkway has to offer and we’ll be sharing more images from this amazing part of the world in the near future.

Thanks for reading!
Marcy & Ray Stader

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I Did, I Did Taw a Puddy Tat!

The Big Five…

Everyone who goes on safari in Africa lusts for the Big Five – Lions, Leopards, Elephants, Rhinoceros and Cape Buffalo.  These are considered to be the most dangerous animals in Africa and safari goers are eager to check them off their list one-by-one.  Of these, the leopard is the most difficult to see.  Many people go on safari for a week and never see a leopard because of their nocturnal and secretive nature – it ends up being the one blemish on their safari card.    For a photographer, it’s even more difficult because photographing wildlife in low light conditions is very tricky.  Just seeing a leopard is a reason to cheer, just getting “a photo” is a reason to celebrate, and capturing a really good photograph is a reason to do the jiggy dance!

In September of 2015 we visited the Sabi Sands Game Reserve in South Africa – part of the greater Kruger National Park area.  Sabi Sands is known for its higher-than-normal concentration of leopards.  To increase our chances of seeing a leopard a bit more, even if only psychologically, we stayed at a safari lodge called Leopard Hills  :).   We had the cat in the bag, right?

Well, Sabi Sands and Leopard Hills did not disappoint!  We had the most amazing leopard encounters  during our one week stay.  We did a lot of jiggy dancing!  On our very first game drive, we had two incredible leopard encounters.  The first was a mother and the cutest leopard cub you could imagine (watch for a blog post about mom and cub in the near future).

Then we had a second encounter that same evening – even our game driver, Hugo, was shaking his head in disbelief at our luck.   We got a tip about a leopard sighting in the area so we sped off in the Land Rover in search of it.  When we got to the area, the light was already starting to fade, but we scanned the surroundings and eventually spotted the leopard.  She had dragged her recent kill high up in a tree for safekeeping and she had obviously filled her belly to the point of satisfaction.  After a big meal, it’s always a good idea to take a nap, and that’s when we captured this image.  She was up in the tree, close to her kill, taking a rest on a branch.

I Did, I Did Taw a Puddy Tat!

Enjoy!

 

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 Marcy & Ray Stader

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Royal Reflections

Palau, West Pacific

Marcy was in the midst of styling her hair for dinner when Ray came crashing through the door, emphatically yelling, “Marcy, you have to come NOW–this is the most amazing sunset!” Hair half pinned, Marcy threw on the first thing she could find, grabbed her camera and was out the door.

The sky was a kaleidoscope of blazing colour, so we quickly scouted the area and were drawn by the perfect palm trees and reflections in the pool. We set up and started shooting and soon after, other people started to take notice.  We were glad we were the first on the scene because soon the area was crowded with people and getting a “clean” shot without someone in the frame was impossible.

It is, without a doubt, one of the most memorable sunsets we’ve ever experienced…
We had just finished two and a half weeks of intensive diving with Adventures in Scuba (one of Calgary’s best dive shops) and decided to take a few days of R&R at the Palau Pacific Resort before continuing to Chuuk to do some wreck diving. It was a spectacular way to end the first segment of the trip.

An hour later we finally made it to dinner (which was great), but if you ask us what we ate we can’t recall the details.  The sunset was the quinissential “moment in time” we will always remember.

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Royal Reflections (Palau, November 24, 2013)


Marcy & Ray Stader

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The Great Bear Rainforest – Our Favourite Wilderness Area

The Great Bear Rainforest

The name alone conjures up a vision of a wild, remote wilderness – a rugged, ruthless landscape where bears rule supreme…

From all of our adventures in Canada to date, the Great Bear Rainforest is our favourite wilderness area –a precious jewel in Canada’s crown. It has everything:  incredible landscapes, wildlife, ocean, mountains and solitude. It’s as close to perfect as we could ever imagine.

The Great Bear Rainforest is one of the largest remaining tracts of unspoiled temperate rainforest left in the world – about 6.4 million hectares, most of it is only accessible by boat.  In October of 2015 we embarked on a 7 day adventure into its heart, aboard a beautifully appointed 71’ ketch-rigged sailboat named the Ocean Light II. The trip was lead by Marcy’s mentor, renowned wildlife photographer Brad Hill.

It is difficult to describe, in words, our experience in this impossibly spectacular part of the world. Perhaps the best way is to simply reveal the images captured in this pristine environment.

 

Spirit Bear
(Kermode Bear, White Bear, Ursus americanus kermodei)

Is the Spirit Bear a myth?  Nothing more than a tall tale passed down from generation to generation in the Pacific Northwest among the indigenous people?  We were keen to see if it really existed with our own eyes.  We were not disappointed!

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Gentle Spirit

The Spirit Bear is not a Polar Bear.  It is a subspecies of the American Black Bear with a double recessive gene living primarily in the Great Bear Rainforest.  Fewer than 400 Spirit Bears are estimated to exist and we were lucky enough to see four!  This beautiful female, along with her two black cubs, posed for us for over an hour. She is probably one of the calmest bears we have been in the presence of to date.

Grizzly with Three Cubs

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Follow the Leader

One of the things that we love about this place is the incredible diversity of life!  This mother grizzly had her cubs marching to her tune (for a while anyway) through the beautiful estuary.

Little Rascals

Three Rascals

Of course, cubs will be cubs and these three little rascals were often diverted for play, which sometimes visibly annoyed mom but sure made for some great photographic opportunities.

Bald Eagle

Eagle in the Mist

Eagle in the Mist

The Great Bear Rainforest definitely lives up to its name in the regard that there is a LOT of rain but it can made for some beautiful and moody landscapes like this eagle, perched in a magnificent tree, as it surveyed the area searching for its next meal.

Harbour Seals

Don't Mess with the Seals

Don’t Mess with the Seals

The seals aren’t bothered by rain (it was pouring), they just want to be left alone to laze on rocky outcrops…

Humpback Whales

Teamwork

Teamwork

It surprised us to learn that the narrow channels between islands are actually deep enough for humpback whales to traverse and they can often be seen bubble feeding.  The whales coordinate efforts by blowing bubbles in a big circle underwater and flashing their pectoral fins to scare the krill into rising towards the surface in a tight ball so they can feed.  It is an amazing display of teamwork!

Solitude

Solitude

Through the mist and the rain a solitary humpback waved goodbye… We will return!

 Marcy & Ray Stader

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Faces of Nepal – Part 1

Candid portraits – a guileless moment of naked sincerity when you feel like you’ve captured the spirit of a subject – those are our favorite.  When we published the image of Beny Wilson in Sometimes Misfortune is a Blessing in Disguise—Discovery of Birding, we were surprised by the volume of email we received requesting more portraits to be included in our blog.

Nepal offered exceptional opportunities for this type of photography when we embarked on a three-week trek in the Nar-Phu region of Annapurna.  We were privileged to capture some of the unique faces that personify these diverse Himalayan cultures.  These photos are some of our personal favorites and have never been published before, so we hope you enjoy them as much as we do!

 

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Weathered Wisdom

Buddhist New Year is one of the most exciting annual events in the Kathmandu Valley and we were honoured to be invited to participate in the local festivities. Seated on a stone courtyard floor under a sheet-metal overhang, we shared food with the locals as the religious procession wound its way up to the small monastery in the rain.  As with most moments in time… when time stands still… the rain stopped, the sun appeared, and this old lady stepped from the shadows into the light clutching her prayer beads.  The lines on her face and hands stood out in bold relief and told the story of someone who had weathered many years and had gained an immense amount of wisdom.

 

Modern Man

Modern Man

Walking through the village of Phu is like taking a two-thousand year step back in time. Many homes do not have running water or electricity, and are constructed from very simple materials. The texture and colour in this scene were so incredibly coordinated and striking, it literally stopped us in our tracks. The juxtaposition of old and new was poignant and the man’s face looked as tan and leathered as the animal hide he was repairing. The running shoes and modern sunglasses were the epitome of the “Modern Man” in Phu!

 

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Namaste

While trekking we passed through a beautiful rural area lined with colourful houses and verdant fields.  Unbeknownst to us, this stunning lady was the sister of one of our porters.  Upon seeing our group approaching she enthusiastically waited at the fence to greet her brother and say “Namaste” as he passed, a warm Himalayan welcome that was felt by all of us.
Marcy & Ray Stader

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A Wolf, a Mink and a Sparrow – Life is a Journey, Not a Destination…

Our Incredible Day in Banff National Park

As usual we were up at the crack of dawn and eager to go hiking in Banff National Park in hopes getting our fitness back and shedding a few of the extra “postre” pounds we put on in Panama.

We hopped in the car and were going to make a beeline to our destination…until we rounded a corner and came upon a wolf lying in the middle of the road.

16A_6410-1(Gray Wolf – female)

At first we were concerned she was injured–she had her head down, eyes closed and was unmoving.  Then, as she slowly raised her head, we realized she was merely content and basking in the early morning rays of sun that hit the tarmac.  To encounter a wolf so calm and undaunted by our presence has never happened before (they are always on the move and in a hurry to get away from people).  Usually we have to work very hard to track a wolf in the Rocky Mountains but this time she presented herself on a silver platter.  We sat for several minutes watching each other until she slowly got up and ambled away.

 

16A_6576-1(Common Loon)

Driving slower now, our senses heightened, we became mindful of our surroundings and left our usual sense of time and urgency behind us.  Seeing a serene pond, we decided to stop and appreciate some loons that were swimming gracefully nearby. While standing on the bank a mink suddenly popped out and scurried between us into the shelter of a grassy mound.  We even engaged in a conversation with some adventurous travellers from New Zealand for an hour.  It was definitely an unusual day…

 

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Finally arriving at Lake Minnewanka several hours later than intended, we began our hike. Normally we’d be marching down the trail trying to make up for lost time or commenting on how “boring” flat hikes are, but not this time.  We appreciated things more, including  this little squirrel.  This little guy was not the usual “twitchy” type.  It was so content munching on a mushroom it didn’t seem to mind us watching and even posed for us.

 

16C_1274-Pano-1.jpg(Two Jack Lake and Mount Rundle)

The weather was nice and the scenery lovely.  There is something about spring in the Rocky Mountains. While stopping to enjoy the view, we heard chirping sounds and spent a further 30 minutes trying to ID a Tennessee Warbler and photographing White-Crowned Sparrows.

 

16B_1276-Edit-1-2(White-crowned Sparrow)

We actually didn’t complete the entire hike we had originally intended, but looking back at the day there is no doubt it was the journey, not the destination that lead to a fulfilling day in nature’s playground.  It was a good reminder that sometimes we need to stop and smell the roses. Which is exactly what we did on the way back!

 

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Marcy & Ray Stader

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Sometimes Misfortune is a Blessing in Disguise – Discovery of Birding

Panama Professional Bird Guide

16C_1032-1-2(Beny Wilson, Panama Bird Guide:  507-6112-2082,  veniciowilson@gmail.com)

When we first met Beny 2 years ago we were not avid birders… Ray had suffered a back injury that required us to change our usual activities to something more “tame.” A friend suggested we might like birding because of our interest in wildlife–we were skeptical but decided to give it a try and Panama seemed like the perfect place.

After our first 8-hour day on the famous Pipeline Road, dripping with sweat and swatting bugs that had no respect for bug spray, we weren’t sure what to think… until we downloaded our memory card and started looking at the pictures we took.  Suddenly those small, twitchy creatures jumped out of the screen in amazing detail, allowing us a small glimpse into the avian world – we were hooked!

Location: Summit Ponds

16A_3227 1-1-2.jpg(Blue-crowned Motmot.  Sometimes birds surprise you and come so close, they are almost out of the focal range of the lens, but the detail you can capture is mind-blowing!)

16A_3837 1-1.jpg(Male Crimson-backed Tanager.  These birds are quite common in Panama, but the colour is so vibrant we never tire of watching them.)

Location: Ammo Pond

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Beny has the eyes of a hawk and a guide of his caliber can make such a difference.  When he starts acting like a kid at Christmas, you know you have been gifted something special, like when he spotted a Yellow-breasted Crake at Ammo Pond.  These birds are extremely rare–the last time Beny saw one was three years ago!

16A_3591 2(Yellow-breasted Crake.  We would normally not include such a “bad” photo in our blog but the rarity of this bird made it an exception.  Due to the dense vegetation of its habitat it is very difficult to see, much less photograph.  Just getting this “head shot” was a challenge.)

 

Location: La Laguna Sendero

Sometimes you get lucky and lightening strikes twice on the same day.  While hiking the Laguna Trail, Beny spotted a bird he wasn’t sure about (needless to say we were shocked).  It turned out to be a dark-phase juvenile Gray-headed Kite.  The dark phase was a “life bird” for Beny (which undoubtedly means it is also one for us)–score two!

16A_4038 1-1.jpg(Dark phase juvenile Gray-headed Kite)

16A_4130-1.jpg(Black-bellied Whistling Ducks)

As we finished the Laguna Trail we ended up by the Canal and saw several waterfowl wading about in a picturesque setting.  It was the perfect end to the perfect day.

Thinking back to the circumstances under which we first met Beny we can’t believe how our misfortune turned into such a blessing.  One that we can appreciate for many years to come!

Marcy & Ray Stader

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Panama City… Top 3 Things to Do After Dark

When the sun goes down in Panama City there a surge of energy – a kind of “second wind” that infuses all who endured the afternoon tropical heat.  The city never sleeps, but the evening brings on a renewed sense of energy.  The temperature hovers around a perfect 24c/75f and the humidity is just right – it hugs you as you walk around the lively streets of the city.  So what are the top things to do?  Here are a few of our favourite suggestions:

1. Soak up the city lights.

Panama City may be all hustle and bustle during the day, but like the Latin culture, she sheds her work clothes and dresses up in glittering style when the sun goes down.  There are plenty of vantage points in which to soak in the glow of the city splendour, from rooftop bars (like the the 66th floor of the Ocean Sun Casino), to a walk along the Cinta Costera.

 

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(The Cinta Costera along the waterfront in Panama City)

 

2.  Watch the ships lining up to transit the canal.

This is just as fun to watch in the evening as it is during the day.  The best viewing spots are on the Amador Causeway and the Miraflores Locks.  The Locks feature a raised restaurant with a lovey outdoor balcony from which you can enjoy the show while sipping a martini!

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(The Panama Canal never sleeps either – ships await their turn to transit the 80 km waterway 24/7, 365 days a year)

 

    3.  Kick-back and enjoy the the vibe at a local restaurant.

Panama has an amazing restaurant scene, everything is made from scratch and there is a broad range of cuisine available to suit every palette.  It is also a great way to people watch –you never know who might drop in!

One evening we were enjoying dinner outside on the Bay of Panama and we noticed a heron sitting on the roof line of the restaurant.  Of course we didn’t have a camera with us but this Black-crowned Night-Heron was incredibly patient and waited 10 minutes for us to grab the camera and come back to the restaurant.  It continued to pose for about half an hour because it was waiting for an opportunity to grab one of the fish swimming below.  We were very lucky he sat in one of the restaurant’s spot lights otherwise we would never have captured this shot because we don’t use flash on wildlife.
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(Black-crowned Night Heron – unexpected dinner guest)

Another time while dining in Casco Viejo we were surprised when the President of Panama dropped in.  We were politely asked to move to a different table to accommodate his large party, but it certainly made for an interesting evening!  And… for some reason our cell phones mysteriously stopped working throughout dinner 😉

We enjoy the surprises every night after dark in Panama City…

Marcy & Ray Stader

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