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Costa Rica and Panama

PANAMA | Sunday, 21 July 2013 | Views [2691]

Costa Rica and Panamania

20th June 2013
Once again we are surprised how much crossing a border -just 15kms in a little boat but a world away in development- can feel so different. We leave Nicaragua and make our way into Costa Rica. From  San Carlos (Nicaragua) we head down the small Rio  Frio passing local villages and military huts camouflaged on the muddy river banks, howler monkeys jump through the trees and the birdlife is extraordinary. We have travelled about an hour and we round  a bend as a package tour boat with about 40 gringo tourists heads our way. Some are bird watching with high powered binoculars, most have expensive cameras around their necks, all on big budget vacations. Welcome to Costa Rica! 
Our boat arrives on the muddy steps of the immigration town of Los Chiles. It takes no time at all to get our passports stamped. No we didnt have to prove onward travel here thank goodness. This is a relaxed friendly crossing - just our style. We walk a few hundred metres up the road to the bus station. The country already has has more civilised feel to it  in comparison to neighbouring countries to the north. More signs, modern cars, some kerb and guttering and even rubbish bins, not a 'chicken bus ' to be seen. After months up north, we have grown to love the old chicken buses. The driver or the conductor will always tell you when to get off. Well, our first bus ride today  in Costa Rica we get on and tell the driver we would like to go to La Fortuna. This means stopping and getting out at Florencia and catching another bus. Sounds simple! After driving straight through  Florencia I walked to the front of the bus and reminded the driver where we wanted to get out, he just said we missed our stop and to get off at the next town. First thing we learnt, don't rely on Costa Rican bus drivers to help you find your way. Often, it seems the people in less developed countries will offer more assistance. Just an observation! Another big contrast between the northern neighbours and Costa Rica is the hustle on the bus isn't there. No loud whistles or banging to stop the bus, people climbing over you, hurrying you on or off the bus. Here you push the buzzer and after the bus stops you leave your seat, no pushing no squeezing through. 
Finally, we check in to Gringo Pete's hostel in La Fortuna. We have read that his place is  cheap ($14/room). It turns out to be a good starting point for this country. With a good kitchen, it gives us a chance to save some money cooking our own meals, plus plenty of time to meet and talk to other backpackers. We scout out the cheap or free things to do and find a great swimming hole about a 20 minute walk from town. Local and gringos alike jump from rock ledges and swings, we even witness "Solo" man traverse the waterfall in a small kayak. Costa Rica has more rivers per square mile than any othe country and most have beautiful clean unpolluted water. You can even drink water from the tap here a first in 14 months of travel.
We team up with an Aussie couple and head up the small volcano next to Volcan Arenal for a days adventure. The hike up is fairly challenging, with lush rainforest and muddy tracks to negotiate. When you reach the top, it's worth climbing down into the lake filled crater. The track is horrendous, though. A quick swim in the crater to cool off. Most of the time the crater is covered in cloud, but if you wait long enough you might get to see across the lake as the cloud moves away. Sure enough, as we start to head back down the sky opens up and heavy rain turns the track into  a small muddy stream. It's not bad going, really, as there are enough wooden steps and tree roots to help us down. A couple of snakes are spotted on the track down, plus we get to see some toucans close up in a tree. They have enormous heavy beaks, and as they take off and fly they have to work their wings hard to keep in the air. A great bird to watch.  On the way down the mountain we met a tour guide and his small group. We got talking and when he realised we were from Australia he told us that he became a naturalist after watching Skippy on TV for years and years as a small child. There we were on the side of a volcano in Costa Rica with half a dozen Costa Ricans singing Skippy the bush Kangaroo.
Next morning we leave the mountain town of La Fortuna and head across towards the Carribean coastline. On the way we manage to have a splurge, and spend$80 each on a white water rafting day trip. We needed an 'adrenalin rush' activity. We weren't disappointed! The Pacuare River is ranked number 5 in the world for rafting. After 3 hours of rapids we got our money's worth. With quality breakfast, lunch and transport it turned out to be a great day.
The added bonus was we got dropped off closer to our destination of Tortuguera, on the Carribean coast.
 To reach Tortuguera we need to travel down river for 1.5hours passing through amazing jungle with abundant wildlife. It reminds us of a Disneyland ride only this is real . They call this part of the river the mini amazon. The main reason people come here is for the giant sea turtles. For a few months every year these large turtles come ashore to lay their eggs on the beach. It costs us $15ea for a guide to witness this event. Strict rules apply: guides are mandatory and the beach is only open for viewing between 8-12midnight. No lights or flash cameras allowed, and don't expect to hang around and watch the laying for long. A quick look, then you are whisked away. Between 80-120 eggs are laid  by the female turtle. She buries them and makes her way down the beach into the welcoming ocean. The whole process takes 3 hours. After 60 days the eggs hatch and the babies make their way straight for the ocean. As you can imagine, the survival rate for the baby turtles is really low. Dogs, jaguars, birds, sharks, barracuda and humans are all predators of this little creature. The next morning we wake up at our beachfront hostel and look out into the water and watch turtles mating. They look like floating boulders as the giant male clambers on the back of the female, hangs on for grim life, and does his business. It's hard not to be intrigued by the life cycle of the sea turtle here in Tortuguera. We are told that last night a mother turtle was killed by a jaguar. We are keen to check it out, so we leave our hostel and walk along the beach, following turtle tracks and looking for jaguar footprints in the sand. Less than a kilometre we see about 30 vultures in the coconut trees marking the spot. Large jaguar footprints are evident. The turtle had been dragged out of its nesting hole, turned upside down and decapitated. It is 4pm and we decide to get out of there, because shortly the jaguar is likely to return for its night feed. The locals tell us the jaguars here are well fed. Plenty of turtles, plus the odd dog is eaten. Not many humans, thankfully!
It was another early start to catch the 5.30 commuter boat and 4 different buses in the rain to arrive in the tiny rasta town of Cahuita. Think Jurassic Park meets Bob Marley and you get the picture. The rain has stopped and we venture into the National Park. The jungle literally falls into the Caribbean Sea here and we have white sand again........and a reef with good snorkelling. The howler monkeys are screeching, a guanacaste peeks out through the bushes and butterflies as big as your hand flutterby. 
There is no one around and it's not hard to imagine a T-Rex bounding through the lush rain forest. The next day we hike 10 km along the shore path. We are rewarded with sightings of crocodiles, three different snake, one enjoying his iguana lunch, another a bright yellow can kill in 45 minutes, little raccoon type animals, possums, and the icing on the cake a very chilled 3 toed sloth (when are they not) hanging from a tree at eye level.
All this in a free Nat park without a guide. No wonder we are a little dubious about forking out for guides unless compulsory. 
We also run into Marlene whom we first met in Puerto Escondido Mexico back at Christmas time. Cook up a meal of sausages, pasta and egg plant? its such a pity that food is so expensive in Costa Rica. We haven't eaten out since we arrived but have managed to keep costs down with the help of low season prices. Most hostels have kitchens which really come in handy.
 We take a quick 30 min trip to Puerto Vieja de talamenca, the  so called party capital of the Carribean coast.  I get used to being approached by the rasta dudes asking  if I want to buy 'weed'. The town has a real cruisy vibe to it. Hiring a bicycle is a good idea here, and its a great day out riding the 13 km through to Puerto Uva and Manzanillo. The road is good, little traffic and lots of shade from the lush vegetation. This place is definitely one of those we could easily stay for a while ( we even checked the real estate prices....not bad at all) . The tropical forest again seems to simply fall into the shores of the Carribean waters. They get surf here as well.....what a bonus! A must thing to do in Puerto Vieja is to walk through the national park. At Manzanillo, taking you down the coastline along a well used track. We made a day of this, stopping at secluded beaches for swims and exploring the shoreline. The jungle is right behind you all the way. And with most jungles comes the unreal animal and bird life on offer. Gotta love the Carribean!
We decide to leave Costa Rica as our time in this part of Central America is running out. Time to head across the border into Panama, leaving us only 12 days before we board a catamaran to sail across to Columbia.
So happy we are back on a chicken bus. A pretty cool border crossing at Sixoala the banana capital of the world. An indifferent Costa Rican immigration officer all but yawns and exit stamps our passport on the very first page.... How lazy can you get... We walk across the rickety bridge and are stamped into Panama. All good as we ignore the usual touts trying to double the shuttle bus price. We hail our own  chicken bus! $1 no problema! 
Another bus and a water taxi finds us at another Carribean gem, Bocas del toro, not before we buy 14 mangoes for $1 from the old man in a canoe.... Rule no. one, always follow the locals. Watch how much they pay and get the same deal as them.
We arrive on Colon Island and step into Bocas town, with its true Carribean feeling. The rubbish on the streets reminds us of the less developed countries further north. (apart from Costa Rica) . We soon get used to the rubbish again, as you do,  and take in the colourful buildings and colourful people. Everyone rides bicycles  at a really slow pace, nobody is in a hurry here. I am offered 'weed' by the same guy 3 times a day. Doesn't he understand the word "no"! The town itself doesnt have a beach so we catch a collectivo out to Playa Estrella (Starfish beach). beautiful white sandy Cayes, palms swinging overhead, crystal clear waters and literally hundred of giant orange coloured  starfish in the shallows.....you  get the picture. We are lucky as the weather is amazing and we spend a relaxing day swimming, reading and trying to open coconuts with our bare hands. I spend an hour opening one only to find  it is starting to go off. That has happened plenty of times, though. Its worth it when you get a good meaty coconut...a good chew and the best snack on beach!
Out to ladies night with Marlene and a couple of English girls. Sitting on the dock/bar the water is so clear as we watch sea snakes and hundreds of fish and squid attracted to the lights of the bar. This is a good place to do a day boat trip, so we hook up on a tour and explore some outer islands. On the way across the bay our boat driver lost concentration and we nearly run over a local fisherman in his dugout canoe. We were travelling at probably 50kph and missed him by inches. The poor bugger.  He almost tipped over and ended up with a boat full of water, plus a a shit or two in his pants!
The best part of the day was the underwater towing device. You hold on to a small perspex shaped sled and get towed behind the boat across the reef. Great fun and lots to see. Leeanne saw a turtle, I missed it, too busy trying to do barrel rolls. We were the only non-Spanish speaking people on the boat, so we didn't get much info during the day and had to listen to fast speaking Spanish coming at us from all directions. We still find it amusing to be a monority here and have a better understanding of how it must be not to speak English in Australia. it is such a fast language you pick up words and context but it will take a while to become fluent. We grab our snorkel and goggles and go talk to some fish! Snorkelling here is great and loads of dolphins cruising around the bays.
We shop at the local supermarkets in Bocas town. These are on every corner, owned and operated by rude Chinese. Usually filthy, they sell just about everything. It's the first time I have needed to wash a bottle of rum after buying it.....I saw rats running through the shelves behind all the bottles, the shop stank of ratshit. No health inspectors here. Our hostel, luckily, is clean and comfortable, which we are grateful.
Next day we hire bikes and follow the coastline past surf breaks and explore small beaches before finding a beach bar, listen to some chilled music and a couple of cold beers before heading back to town. Our favourite food on the island is the meat skewers cooked by the old bloke on his mobile bike/bbq. $1.50 ea , so good! He gets to know us, we exchange smiles, and that look of appreciation in both directions is evident.
We catch an early boat back to the mainland, and after a couple of buses and a ride through some increbible scenery a few hours later we arrive in the hillside town of Boquete. The weather is pleasantly cooler here, and perfect for trekking and exploring the surrounding countryside. A must day trip is the natural hot springs and granite boulder river, about 12 km from town. Leeanne and I find a nice little rock pool to soak in, all to ourselves, until a school group wander by, stop, surround the pool, peering down at us, notebooks in hand, as the teacher gives them a 15 minute lesson on the geological wonders of thermal pools! Fair dinkum! I was so close to giving them my 'lizard impersonation', only Leeanne stopping me from embarrassment. 4 nights in Boquete are really relaxing, combined with some really long walks and cooking fresh pumpkin soup in our hostel. One walk took us on long loop up into the hills and back into town, passing coffee plantations and crossing small rivers with crystal clear water. We stumble across a shop in the middle of nowhere. Not your average shop. This local bloke has set up a tiny roadside stall in front of his house, we are offered coffee which is served cold in second hand polystyrene cups. Leeanne notice her cup had teeth marks in it and a piece chewed off the rim. He tried to sell us everything on offer from over-ripe bananas to second hand shoes. He got so excited when Leeanne showed interest in some handmade bags made from natural fibre. He got even more excited when we offered him $5 for a bag. He didn't stop talking the whole time we were there. Non stop Spanish, all the time with a happy smile on his face.
Next day we lash out and fork out $25 for 4 hours hiring a scooter. Prices for scooter hire are expensive compared to SE Asia, so we don't get much of a chance to use them here in Central America. It's always good to jump on one and explore the area with freedom. We're not disappointed with our half day trip here in Boquete, either. Rugged mountain roads with little traffic. We are given a map with suggested routes to take. Sure enough, we end up off the map. Should have realised as the road got really dodgy, slippery and steep. Leeanne walks some of the way as I bring the bike back to safer territory.......gotta love scooter hire adventures!
Next day we leave Boquete and make our way to Panama City. We spend a little more and catch a shuttle bus and save some time. We both agree that shuttles aren't great. Usually you are cramped and have to listen to foreign speaking tourists of hours on end. I know I prefer local chicken buses, sitting with and listening to locals. Anyway, 7-8 hours later we arrive at our cheap hostel in the old part of town in Panama City. The modern city with its tall skyscrapers are just across the bay. We don't even go there, no real reason to go, as we only have a few days here. We walk lots and explore the colonial area of the city. Beautiful old buildings and streets, filled with history and character.
The highlight of our stay in the city is a day trip to the famous Panama Canal. A couple of local buses gets us to the Miraflor locks, where they have a great viewing points to watch the canal in operation. An engineering marvel, to say the least! Watching huge cargo ships squeeze through the canal with only inches to spare is mind blowing. Once in position, the locks are closed, the water level lowers about 10 metres, and the ship moves slowly through to the next lock, only to repeat the procedure. The total operation getting though each set of locks takes only one hour. A smooth professional operation. The canal has provided Panama with a reliable source of income, and the wealth is spread throughout the country indicative of the good roads and infrastructure in the country. A visit to Panama is not complete without having a look at the Canal. You've just got to see it working!
Now, for some more excitement, we leave Panama City to start our 6 day sailing trip down to our next country, Columbia. We are required to find our own way to the boat, which takes us 4-5 hours on and off buses to a sleepy port town of Portobello. There is some confusion as we were originally told to arrive by 11am and at two we were still the only gringos around. No Captain, crew or other travellers.
Eventually by around three thirty people start arriving and tell us the time was changed by email. Somehow we didn't get it but it didn't matter we enjoyed the day anyway.   Our home for the next 6 nights seven days is a 41 foot catamaran called Nacar. It costs us both $550 for the trip. to get from Panama to Columbia is not cheap. Fly or catch a boat, it is difficult to go overland as the Darien Gap  is regarded far too dangerous as you will be sharing the non existent road with many drug traffickers and there is no border crossing here.so we splurge......
The sailing trip takes us through the Carribean sea dodging the 365 small islands of San Blas. Picture postcard stuff! 
The islands are owned and managed by the Kuna tribe and have been preserved in near pristine condition. No resorts, no mass tourism, just lots of boats and perfect white sand, aqua water coconut laden Islas to fall upon after snorkelling in. We swim, eat and drink with a wonderful bunch of people. As usual we are a little worried about the reaction of the others regarding our age but we hold our own and age and country of origin are soon forgotten as friendships forged and memories made.
We volunteer for night watch on the first evening from 3-5 am and love the solitude it brings. The huge ocean, dense black sky and billions of stars. 
One night on one of the islands Paul suggest we have a fire and we seek permission from the Kuna family who live there. They agree and even come along to share our fish dinner cooked on the fire. They want to be entertained and keep asking us to Cansada (sing) or bailer ( dance). We have amazing lobsters one night for dinner bought fresh from the canoe.
Swimming, snorkelling, reading, eating, drinking and lying around contemplating your naval are all the activities pursued in the first four days then we have the 33-36 hour sail in open waters. This is the fun bit where it is difficult to move around the boat and if your gonna get sick it will happen here. Most people pop a Dramamine or two and no one is really sick but a lot of lying around is done, staring out to sea. On the second morning sitting at the front of the boat we see our first dolphin swimming toward us, within minutes there are 20-30 dolphins swimming, playing and dancing with the boat, entertaining us for more than an hour. These magnificent creatures welcome us to Columbia and are a highlight of the crossing.
Entering Cartegena Harbour in the evening, dodging the big cargo ships we are mesmerised at the size and modernity of this beautiful city. It is hypnotic in a way after two days of big waves we are still watching the twinkling city lights
We have finally made it to South America and our 18 th country on this voyage. 
We have loved every minute of Central America and feel so much gratitude to the beautiful people who welcome you and share their lives and wonders with you. Muchas gracias and Adios.

Tags: bocas del toro, boquete, cahuita, costa rica, kuna, la fortuna, panama, panama city, san blas, tortuguera



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