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adventures of a not so grey nomad

crossing the border to Panama

PANAMA | Monday, 9 August 2010 | Views [1034]

Panama Border August 3

Our last morning in Cahuita-we got up early and posted some postcards as we were about to leave Costa Rica and they had Costa Rican stamps. The PO was down a sandy side road and right next to the police station. The coppers were there-chatting and laughing and not looking at all concerned about potential crime in Cahuita! We went searching for the sloths again but they had moved on-alas no sign of a raccoon either. Oh well-after a breakfast of muesli and long life milk we set off. First a 10 minute walk to the bus station. We had just bought our ticket -$US3.50-to Sixaola the border town when the bus appeared. Bags in the side-DIY again no driver or sidekick assistance-and onto the crowded bus-luckily we got seats. The bus took us down the coast road to Puerta Viejo which looks a great place to stay-lovely beaches and lots of bars and restaurants. We headed inland and uphill and stopped at BriBri where a lot of people got off but even more got on! The bus got hotter and the windows steamed up as we wound our way through the hills. It looked as if people had been shopping at the markets and we dropped them off every few hundred metres along the way. As we got closer to Sixaola there were huge banana plantations with irrigation channels running through them and blue plastic bags over many of the bunches of bananas. There was a cable system a couple of metres off the ground along the length of the plantations where a man sitting in a seat suspended from the cable propelled himself along using a long stick-saves his legs I guess- although it is used to transport the bunches of bananas to the packing sheds where the bananas are washed and dried before being loaded into huge containers for transport.

The bus stopped in a dirty street just parallel to the highway-full of shops and people -and we walked up a slight incline to the approach to a bridge, built in 1908 by the banana growing United Fruit Company, which crosses the Rio Sixaola forming the border between Costa Rica and Panama. At this end of the bridge behind a barrier was a small office where we had to fill in a form and have our passport stamped with an exit stamp-all very straightforward and reasonably fast. Now we were in No Mans Land-heading onto a large,high,long metal bridge with a railway line running down the middle and uneven planks at either side for pedestrians. The planks were hanging on with nails in places-not at all in others-there were broken planks, cracked planks and in some places no plank at all! just a good view of the river metres below! And there was a car coming! Its wheels on our planks! Walking over this bridge fully laden with a backpack and a day pack- in front blocking the view of our feet -sweating with the high humidity and heat-was no easy task! There was only a waist high wire mesh fence down the sides of the bridge-the only barrier between us and the long drop into the water below! We did make it though- only to find ourselves at the end of a long stationary queue-we weren't going anywhere fast. It took an hour and a half to get to the little office where ONE man was checking passports, taking details and stamping them! It could have been worse-we had read that the office closes for lunch and as we had arrived at 11.30 we thought we were going to be caught. But Panama came through and soldiered on-lucky us! As we were waiting a huge truck came across the bridge-glad we weren't crossing-although there were little bays at intervals across the bridge to stand in and allow traffic past there wouldn't be much room to spare.

Now we were in Panama at Guabito-we were ushered into a minivan taxi by some Panama tourist guides for the trip to Changuinola, an hour away, where we had to catch a water taxi to get to Isla Colon. We had time to change our calones to $US-the currency of Panama- in the supermarket run by Spanish Chinese- then it was all aboard-all 13 of us at $US10 a pop! We could have caught a chicken bus for 40c but we took the soft option. So packed in like sardines-with knees touching- we set off-luckily the van was air conditioned! We all sat there-trying not to look at each other and touch each other too much-very awkward and uncomfortable!

We got to the water taxi depot , bought a ticket for $US4 and got onto a small speedboat. We were a large enough group to fill the boat but two tourists didn't have seats as there were two local schoolgirls on board. A tourist guide tried to convince them to get off and allow the tourists on but they refused. We couldn't squeeze them in as there are limits to people numbers and luggage weight which are enforced here-anywhere else in Central America it wouldn't be a problem! After some persuasion in Spanish the girls did get off and allow the tourists on-they didn't look too happy about it and who can blame them. It was a short trip-life jackets compulsory-only about 20 minutes across to Bocus Del Toro although a bit wet down in the back seat with sea spray coming in! When we got off there were guys all touting for business offering to carry bags or offers of accomodation. We told them we had reservations-a lie- and set off up the street. Luckily the hostel we had in mind was just up the street on the next corner so we looked like we knew where we were going! Hansis had been recommended to us by Lea-an American we had met at Gaudys in San Jose – and it was great. Clean, fresh, and modern with a great kitchen and a lovely black cat sunning himself at the entrance. Unfortunately they didn't have any double rooms-we were just deciding what to do next when they came through-they had one single room with shared bathroom for $US11 and a dorm bed with ensuite for $US10 per night-sold! After settling into our rooms we wandered about the place-only one main street -at least five supermarkets ( all Spanish-Chinese owned and operated) souvenir shops, bakeries, fruteria y legumbreria (fruit and vege) shops with not overly fresh stock, and plenty of little tour operators offering trips to the surrounding islands. Needless to say there are a large number of bars and restaurants offering everything from Carribean style fish to pizza. We settled for fish n chips! In a lovely little place over the water-sitting out on the small deck in the warm night air-cooked by a French cook and served in a newspaper cone with vinegar and horseradish mayo-very nice!

On the way back to Hansis we stopped in at the souvenir shop on the corner-the shop keeper was enjoying a beer and a chat with his mates out on the footpath-I think he may have been enjoying something else as well as he seemed very mellow when he came into the shop-all giggles and smiles! They partied on for quite some time-we could see them and hear the loud reggae from the hostel. Life on a tropical island!

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