Airbnb: Six awesome experiences

airbnbLast autumn, after having tracked the Airbnb buzz for a while, I finally took the plunge and reserved rooms through the site in Panama City and Bogotá for my two-stop December jaunt.

About a half-hour into my first pit stop, it was already clear to me that the service was a perfect fit for budget-conscious travelers. (For the record, I’m not the only Airbnb fan at Gadling. Check out my colleague Elizabeth Seward’s Airbnb post published earlier this year.)

For those unfamiliar with it, Airbnb is a rental service. House or apartment owners list their spare beds, rooms, or entire living spaces for rent on the site.

What makes Airbnb distinct? First of all, owners are paid 24 hours after the reservation begins, a delay that helps weed out dishonest landlords. Another important detail: if there is a problem with a rental, guests can contact Airbnb to void payment. I was comfortable with Airbnb from the outset in light of these consumer protection safeguards, and the fact that everyone is encouraged to evaluate one another following a stay was icing on the cake. Landlords can’t get away with false advertising, and poor behavior on the part of a guest or host will also be exposed through reviews. Good hosts and guests can both build up positive profiles via strong reviews.

Overall, Airbnb is pretty scamproof if used as directed. In a review of comments and criticisms of Airbnb online, it appears that some people have been scammed after making a payment on a rental outside of the Airbnb payment system. Payment via the Airbnb payment system, it should go without saying, is a much safer bet. Here’s a tiny piece of advice: If any property owner you contact through Airbnb urges you to bypass the Airbnb payment system and directly wire them money, cut off contact and report them.

Overnight, I became a fan of Airbnb. Seldom had I found such cheap accommodations in such comfortable surroundings, and with the added benefit of an instant social network of locals taking an interest in my welfare. I’ve experienced just two annoyances of the most minor sort: a host in Panama City who never messaged me back and a hostess in Tel Aviv whose room was not available despite being advertised as such.

But where did I stay? What were my accommodations like? And what did they cost?Panama City. In the Panamanian capital, I stayed in a high-rise in a wealthy neighborhood just down the street from the US Embassy. I had my own bright bedroom and a private bathroom. My host introduced me to some of his favorite restaurants and dined with me on two of my three nights in the city. An American expat, he was full of helpful tips and friendly asides. The damage: $72 per night.

Bogotá. I lucked out here, with a beautifully swank apartment near the center of the city (see above for a balcony-level photo of the street in front of the building.) My hosts were phenomenally kind. They served me breakfast, drove me around, gave me advice, and introduced me to their friends at elaborate dinner parties. It was here that I had the incredible experience of sampling homemade ajiaco, a delicious Colombian potato soup. The damage: $60 per night.

Amsterdam. I stayed in the funky neighborhood of De Pijp over the week of Christmas, first by myself for a night (sharing the space with my hosts) and then with my family for a week (by ourselves). De Pijp is an exciting, dynamic neighborhood. The apartment was beautiful if small and the only downside was its draftiness, particularly noticeable due to the frigid temps. The damage: $62 for a single room; $243 per person for seven nights for the entire unit.

Oslo. Before my February visit, I was terrified of Oslo’s price index, and justifiably so, as it turned out. What made Oslo affordable was my rental room, a quiet little space in an apartment about a kilometer from the train station. I shared kitchen and bathroom with the very friendly owner. The damage: $76 per night.

Tel Aviv. I stayed in the superhip neighborhood of Noga, next to Jaffa. My temporary studio, a factory conversion, had high ceilings and a pleasingly post-industrial decor. I had the entire studio to myself for two nights. On my final morning in Tel Aviv, my hosts showed up, chatted with me about a number of topics, and then drove me to the train station. The damage: $119 per night.

Jerusalem. I stayed in a hilly, residential part of West Jerusalem. I had a tiny apartment of my own, an annex to my hosts’ apartment, with a bathroom, a little kitchen, and access to a back garden. My hosts, long-term peace activists, were wonderful for conversation, information, and mid-morning coffee. The damage: $84 per night.

Airbnb has been in the news recently. Ashton Kutcher was announced as an investor and advisor in late May. Last week, it was revealed that contact salespeople working for Airbnb surreptitiously contacted property owners advertising on Craigslist to expand listings.

Raymond Fisman on How Bogota's Mayor Fought Crime

Panama City: Casco Viejo rising

panama city casco viejo
Casco Viejo is on the edge, but of what?

Depending on who you talk to, Panama City’s old town, Casco Viejo, has either already peaked or only recently managed to identify how it might achieve its prime.

The neighborhood is inarguably gorgeous. Beautifully renovated structures share space with completely decrepit buildings. There are plazas, churches, convent ruins, and, at one extreme, a fortress wall. The National Theatre lies within its borders, as does the Presidential Palace.

There is a well-manned Tourist Police office as well, and a smattering of cute cafes, restaurants, bars, galleries, and shops. And yet, even with all these facilities, there is an appealingly abandoned feel to many blocks. These ignored buildings, some with internal foliage peeking through open windows and many with wrought-iron balconies and gates, continue to be a primary feature of the neighborhood.

In fact, there has been a buzz in Casco Viejo for some time, and paradoxically it is this very buzz that has encouraged the abandonment of many buildings. Between 1990 and 2000, the population of Casco Viejo fell by almost a third, to under 7000, after the passage of a law designed to encourage the rehabilitation of buildings. This law prompted property owners, operating under the assumption that gentrification was imminent, to kick their poor tenants out. (Many of the neighborhood’s tenants generate no money whatsoever for landlords. They are destitute, and were originally relocated to unoccupied Casco Viejo buildings by Panama’s Housing Ministry.) Interestingly enough, many buildings remain unoccupied today. For greater real estate history, check out this article in the Panama News a few years back.

It looks as if many empty buildings may remain abandoned, at least in the near future. In August 2010, the government suspended plans to invest in previously scheduled renovation projects in the neighborhood.

So what’s in the cards?

One possibility is that Casco Viejo will become more of an artist colony. In the Panama Report, a publication devoted to travel and investment in Panama, Jesse Levin suggested in a 2009 article that Casco Viejo’s stop-and-start pace of gentrification has happened in part because the ‘hood simply heated up too quickly, leaving a massive gap between those who could make a purchase at the top of the market and Casco Viejo’s “natural” new inhabitants: people of moderate means in the domestic creative class.

Another possible future of the neighborhood can be glimpsed in the emergence of Las Clementinas, a very nicely detailed guesthouse and restaurant-bar in the heart of the neighborhood, which opened in November. It’s hard not to be impressed by Las Clementinas. It’s got beautiful rooms (pricey for Panama City, at $240 per night) and a popular restaurant-bar. I ate dinner there alone, surrounded by rich Panamanians celebrating a birthday and a few fellow tourists. The meal’s highlight was fufu, a somewhat spicy Caribbean soup. The food was fine, and the atmosphere was outstanding down to the last detail.

Las Clementinas is posh, and it is posh in a particularly Panamanian way. It feels like it belongs in Casco Viejo. But if another dozen businesses like Las Clementinas open up in the neighborhood, what will happen? Will Casco Viejo slowly but unavoidably morph into a cliched overdone tourist destination, terribly pretty but lifeless?

Whatever the pace and whatever the outcome, Casco Viejo’s current state prompts consideration from locals and visitors alike about what makes a tourist neighborhood special and wonderful to visit.

Looking for more Panama? Check out Darren Murph’s much-visited recent post on Panama for Gadling here.

Five reasons Americans should choose Panama over the Caribbean, with day trips to boot



Panama. It’s a small nation of about 3.3 million inhabitants, with a land size roughly equal to South Carolina. It’s the southernmost country in Central America, and if not for its mind-bogglingly thick Darien National Park, the so-called Panamerican Highway could run from Alaska to the bottom of South America. But you knew all of that, didn’t you? What you may not be aware of, however, is just how stunning and tourist-friendly this incredible nation is. I recently embarked on a trip to Panama City and beyond, scurrying along the beach towns in Chame and the mountains of El Valle. If you’ve been considering a tropical getaway, particularly now that Old Man Winter is hovering over the United States, I’ve got five good reasons you should head south rather than east. Click on after the break for more, but only if you’ll kosher with mentally burning those final vacation weeks you’ve got socked away.

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1) Panama uses US dollars as its currency

You heard right: US dollars! The how, who, what and why goes back quite some time and would probably only interest historians, but present day argonauts will certainly appreciate skipping the Robbery Machine (i.e. the foreign exchange booth) as they sail through customs. Panamanians may call it the Balboa, but make no mistake — the paper currency used throughout Panama is the US dollar, and coins are either US minted coins or Panamanian counterparts of identical size and weight. You may notice coins with slightly different markings, but if it looks like a quarter, you can bet it’ll spend like a quarter. (Fun fact: Panama’s quarters are accepted in American parking meters and drink machines.)


Bustling Panama City

But in all seriousness, it’s a huge relief to simply fly (or drive!) to Panama with the same currency that you use at home. No funky conversions to remember. No leftover foreign currency to exchange on the return trip. Just cold, hard, US cash. Better still, prices for nearly everything in Panama are far below US levels, so you’ll be fetching far more for your Benjamins here than back in the States.

2) Easy to reach (by plane or car)

Ever tried flying into a Caribbean airport? Okay, so it’s not that difficult, but your flight paths are generally limited. Really limited. Most of the outlying islands connect to the States via one major route, likely to Miami, Florida. One problem in South Florida, and you’re looking at a vacation-destroying delay. Tocumen International Airport (PTY) is a real-deal airport, with direct flights to a smorgasbord of locations around the world. It’s the only major airport in Central America with two runways, and it also happens to be one of the cheapest to fly into thanks to a healthy amount of airline competition. In the States alone, you’ll find direct flights to Houston, Miami, Orlando, Dallas, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Newark and New York City.


Downtown Casco Viejo

Moreover, Panama’s closer than you might think to the States. It’s just 2.5 hours away by plane from Miami, and since it’s in the Eastern Time Zone, a good chunk of you folks won’t even have to adjust to an oddly setting sun. Let’s put it this way — you can get from Virginia to Panama in less time than it’d take you to fly from Virginia to California.


Life in El Valle

Oh, and did we mention that you can drive? For the absolutely carefree adventure travelers out there (with the right insurance policy), you can drive right through Texas, into Mexico and down the Panamerican Highway to Panama. We wouldn’t recommend this without being fluent in Spanish, but hey — talk about the ultimate road trip!

3) Diversity of land

Sure, Aruba has desert landscapes, and Turks and Caicos has the Conch Sound. Grand Cayman has shockingly blue waters fit for diving. But good luck finding a single place in the Caribbean, using a single currency, accessible via a single roadway system that offers picturesque beaches, white water rafing outfits and canopy tours. Panama is startlingly diverse; on one end, you’ve got the practically impassable Darien National Park. On the other, there’s Bocas Del Toro, a pristine hot spot for surfers. In between, you’ve got Boquete laden with flora, the lush mountains of El Valle, unspoiled beaches in Coronado and modern day nightlife awaiting you in Panama City. If you can’t find a landscape that suits you in Panama, you’re probably not looking hard enough.


Drive up to El Valle

Also, Panama road rules mimic those of America; folks drive on the right, and the Panamerican Highway runs nearly the length of the country. You’ll have far fewer signs and far more ambiguous speed limits, but it’s not too difficult to grok for the amateur traveler. After all, that’s what GPS rentals are for. I’m not saying driving in Panama is simple, but it’s totally doable. And yes, every single kilometer is an adventure of epic proportions.

4) No risk of hurricane

Here’s one you probably haven’t considered. In recorded history (reaching back to 1851 by some reports), not a single hurricane has made landfall on Panama. It remains the only Central American nation to avoid being struck by one, making it far safer to travel to than many of the islands hovering out in the Atlantic. No risk of hurricanes, yet still providing 365 days of pure, tropical bliss in terms of weather.


Gorgona Beach

5) It’s still natural… or should I say, unspoiled

Look, the Caribbean is a truly magnificent place. Given the sheer quantity of countries and cultures, it’s impossible — nay, unfair — to lump it all together as one. There are most certainly locales in the Atlantic chain of islands that are relatively unspoiled. Prune Island comes to mind, but that’s just one of many. But by and large, the unspoiled islands in the Caribbean don’t meet an earlier criteria here: ease of access. Some of these require multiple plane hops, ferry rides and golf cart shuttles. That may intrigue some, but the fewer connections in our schedule, the less potential follies we see.

Panama, on the whole, is still largely untouched by tourism. Just over one million non-natives visited last year, which definitely isn’t many in the grand scheme of things. Just an hour outside of Panama City lies a string of beach towns — Punta Chame, Gorgona, Coronado, El Palmar and San Carlos (just to name a few). You’ll find just enough lodging here to stay comfortably (rental condos are just now starting to pop up), but you’ll still get luscious views of the oceans (yeah, oceans — you can swim in the Pacific and Atlantic in under two hours if you’re a good enough driver) and jaw-dropping looks at nearby mountain ranges. You’ll be hard-pressed to find more than a few dozen Earthlings on Panama’s central beaches, particularly during the week. Postcard-quality shots abound, and it’s comically easy to lose the world and find your soul in secluded places like Punta Chame.


El Valle mountains

There’s just enough tourist infrastructure here to keep vacationers occupied — white water rafing, zipline excursions and fishing expeditions abound — but you’ll bypass the glut of chain restaurants, overpopulated coastlines and horrific traffic (outside of Panama City, of course) that typify so many other tropical destinations.

Needless to say, your trip will be made a great deal easier if you speak at least some Spanish. I barely speak a word of it, and managed to get by just fine. People are genuinely warm here, and the diversity and beauty of the land is certainly awe-inspiring. If you’re looking to take your next vacation in Panama, feel free to take a peek at a few recommended day trips I’ve compiled here:

[Images provided by Dana Jo Photography]

Cockpit Chronicles: Avoiding bird strikes

On the season finale of the TV show 30 Rock, Alex Baldwin says to a pilot, played by Matt Damon:

“You’re a pilot, huh. I should pick your brain. I’m developing a daytime talk show with Sully Sullenberger.”

“Yeah, I met that guy. He’s not that great.” Matt Damon, the pilot, says.

“You know what a great pilot would have done? Not hit the birds. That’s what I do every day, not hit the birds. Where’s my ticket to the Grammy’s?”

For U.S. readers, Hulu has a free clip of the exchange.

After I wiped the tears from my eyes from laughing so hard, I realized Captain Damon had a point. In fact, avoiding birds has been a big part of my job for the past two months.

While so much attention is focused on the migratory birds in New York and even Boston, the pterodactyl sized birds of Caracas, Venezuela and Panama City, Panama were appearing far too often. I began to notice a trend. On nearly every arrival and on most departures I flew during the two months of flying down there from Boston and through Miami, we had seen these large turkey vultures and, in Panama City we even had pelicans cross our flight path.

Not Hitting the Birds

Every pilot has had, or at least will see, a few bird strikes in their career. Typically they involve small birds that merely splatter on the windshield or radome without leaving much of a mark. I do feel sympathy for the little creatures with which we share the sky. They were certainly here first, and I’m sure an airliner approaching at five times their own speed has to come as a surprise and significant annoyance to them. There’s just no avoiding these smaller birds.


Small Bird Strike in Barbados

But when it comes to the larger birds, what I jokingly refer to as pterodactyls, we can occasionally see them as much as ten seconds prior to impact. When they’re no longer moving left or right, or up or down across our screen, and instead start out as a little dot on the windshield that rapidly grows in size, you know you’re on track for a possible impact.

We were determined to have a smooth, event-free arrival into Panama City on this trip after the controller confusion fiasco I talked about last week. And it should have been; the weather was looking good, the more senior weekday controllers were sharp and there wasn’t a bump in the air. Surely this would be an uneventful flight.
As is common, to change things up a bit, it was my turn to fly the leg from Miami to Panama City, Panama. Once again, the weather was advertised as 2000 feet scattered and 10 kilometers, exactly the same weather we had on the last trip. During the next five trips to PTY, the reported weather never changed, but the actual weather certainly did.

This time, ATC vectored us out a bit further, and perhaps because they were more senior controllers working the weekday shift, their English seemed much better.

While at a flap setting of 25 and just as I was ready to call for the final flap setting of 30 degrees, Dave said, “There’s a bird.”

I had been looking down at my speed and altitude, to ensure I was fully configured by the 1,000 foot requirement. (See the previous Cockpit Chronicles about FOQA.)

I looked up to see another pterodactyl directly in our flight path. It was flying at first, and then it must have noticed the massive jet bearing down on it, since it began to almost freeze in the air and flail its wings in a very cartoon-like fashion.

I instinctively pulled back on the yoke, not abruptly but with some urgency and managed to clear the spasmodic turkey vulture by just a few feet. We got the last of the flaps out at 1,100 feet and landed without incident.

I wondered if the flight attendants and passengers felt the adjustment to our flight path.

“Did you notice anything on final?” I asked one of our South American based flight attendants.

“Yes!” She said. “What was that?”

So much for no one noticing. Apparently she had been collecting last minute cups and glasses and was actually standing in the aisle at 1,000 feet, a fact that scared me a bit, since it’s usually safe to assume the flight attendants have completed their duties by that point.

Once again at the debrief dinner with Dave, we discussed the approach. He thought it may have been better to continue on the path and hope the bird could maneuver out of the way.

“Worst cast scenario, you hit him. But the impact at 150 knots is much less than at 250.” He speculated.

Dave had a point. We’ve all seen pictures of some nasty bird strikes in the past, but most of the significant ones were while the airplane was climbing and had already accelerated to 250 knots, our speed limit below 10,000 feet.

We had some close calls on takeoff the following week, and so we decided to take Dave’s theory on speed and put it to use.

The “European Climb”

When climbing out of any European airport, we’re required to maintain a slower speed, approximately 20 knots faster than the speed at which we lifted off the ground until 3,000 feet above the airport elevation. We’re still using the same power setting-exchanging the extra speed for a quicker climb.

Since most birds fly below 3,000 feet, why not limit our speed while operating around these areas prone to large numbers of pterodactyls? We could reduce the impact forces since high school physics taught me (or was it drivers education?) that twice the speed results in four times the damage.

The next day, we had a plan. We would fly the European-style climb, which would get us up and away from the ground quicker, and also limit our speed to just 160 knots. A quick crunching of numbers told us that this would be 58% of the energy that we’d have at 250 knots.

On came the weather radar as well, since there has been speculation that birds can actually hear or sense the radar on an airplane and that it may help prevent bird strikes. It couldn’t hurt, I figured.

Sure enough, while climbing through 2,200 feet, we encountered two of the turkey vultures we had seen the day before. This time they passed 20 feet above us and to the right.

I continued to use the European climb technique when flying from Caracas, Venezuela and San Pedro Sula, Honduras over the next few months. It’s a technique that seems to make sense and I hope it’s adopted at airports with significant bird populations.

Much attention has been given to the rounding up of geese in the New York area to limit the exposure to birds. I suspect this is a rather futile measure, but I understand the need to do something to reduce the exposure. The steeper angled, slower speed climb that Dave came up with just might be one way to accomplish that goal.

Addendum:

Just as I was finishing this post, I saw the story reported two days earlier that a garbage dump had been approved for construction just 2,206 feet from the approach end of runway 31 in LaGuardia. And where there’s garbage, there are birds, generally. But Harry Szarpanski, deputy commissioner at New York City’s Sanitation Department, explains in the report that the new design will prevent any smells and trash from escaping the facility. We’ll see.

Even at the slower speeds that airplanes operate close to the airport, birds can still cause problems, as seen in this riveting video by Simon Lowe of a bird strike and subsequent engine fire on a Boeing 757 taking off at the Manchester airport in England.

Cockpit Chronicles takes you along on some of Kent’s trips as an international co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 based in Boston. Have any questions for Kent? Check out Plane Answers or follow him on Twitter @veryjr.

Freedom to relax: A luxury not afforded Obama

Nothing a president does goes unnoticed. Even the slightest decisions are parsed carefully in the hopes of gaining some insight into to the man, the office or the policy that comes from both. His recent trip to Panama City, Florida, 27 hours to show that you can chill in the Gulf Coast area following the oil spill, may have been a decent move, but Obama‘s other trips, not to mention those taken by his family, have caused him some agita.

Michelle Obama‘s vacation in Marbella, Spain brought some heat, as did the family’s vacations in Maine’s Acadia National Park and Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. There are always people to laud and criticize, regardless of which party is in power. There’s always on group that seems to come out on top, however: the locals.

The Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce said visits to it website surged 50 percent following Obama’s trip to Maine, though other factors may have contributed. Of course, the opportunity comes with a few risks. According to USA Today:

As for Panama City Beach, the Bay Point Marriott (where the First Family ate lunch and spent Saturday night) doesn’t highlight this weekend’s getaway on its website, and the convention and visitors bureau took down its Facebook post about Michelle Obama’s visit last month after a series of “personal attacks,” says CEO Dan Rowe.

[photo by transplanted mountaineer via Flickr]