Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Costa Rica / Panama Travel Journal

*Warning: This is an EXTREMELY long post. You may just want to enjoy the new photos and not read my travel journal. If so, that is totally cool.

Leg 1 – Bocas del Toro, Panama
Day 1
Arrive at Salt Lake City airport at 6:30 pm for our 8:30 flight. Because we traveled with only our backpacks, we didn’t have to check any luggage and made it to the gate with PLENTY of time to wait. And wait. And wait some more. Our plane was delayed and having engine problems (never something you want to hear just prior to boarding) and we ultimately didn’t take off until 11:10 pm. We landed in Denver at 12:05 am with only 5 minutes to make our connecting flight to San José, rushed to the gate, had our passports inspected, and then waited. And waited. Because our second flight was delayed. We finally took off from Denver at around 1:30 am and dozed uncomfortably on the plane.

Immigration and Customs in San José were fast because we didn’t have to wait for luggage. Backpacking is the ONLY way to travel as far as I am concerned – I can fit the same amount of clothes and toiletries but I don’t have to deal with the cumbersome bulk of a suitcase, then on the return journey with souvenirs, I just check my backpack and carry on a smaller bag of breakables. We took a bus to downtown San José, then a taxi to the Caribeños bus terminal, where we bought tickets and boarded the bus to the border of Panama. Buses are a cheap way to travel, you don’t have to do the driving yourself, and you can check out the amazing scenery. But they have the downside of taking a long time and it was a long, painful ride for us having had little to no sleep for more than 24 hours.

We got to Sixaola, the town on the Costa Rican side of the border around 5:00 pm, had our passports stamped by the Costa Rican officials, then walked across loose planks laid down across ancient and rusted railroad tracks spanning the Sixaola river, into Panama. After Paul deftly navigated the border control scammers who wanted us to pay way more to enter Panama than required, and purchasing our visas, we grabbed a taxi and settled in for the hour long taxi ride to the Almirante port on the Caribbean. We barely nabbed spots on the last water bus of the day heading to Isla Colón. The ride was about half an hour and it was beautiful.

Bocas del Toro is the only town on Isla Colón which is in an archipelago made up of islands surrounded by mangrove forests. The town itself is tiny with one main drag along the waterfront lined with small hotels, restaurants, boat rental and tour services, and street vendors. No major developments have yet blighted the charm (and a fair amount of grittiness) that gives Bocas a truly distinctive personality. There is no Holiday Inn, no Marriott, no Hilton. The only chain of anything that we saw was a Subway.

We walked to the end of the main street which is loosely paved with gravel, then walked a little further on a muddy road lined with more hotels along the water to find our little bed & breakfast, Cocomo-on-the-Sea. After a quick dinner and a much-needed shower, we crashed in air-conditioned comfort and fell asleep lulled by the sound of the Caribbean lapping at the deck just outside our window.

Day 2
After breakfasting on the deck of the bed & breakfast, we threw towels, cameras, sunscreen, and water into a small backpack and headed into town. Teenage salesmen roam the streets drumming up business for excursions to many of the islands around Bocas del Toro. We allowed ourselves to be led to a wharf that was lined with boats waiting to take travelers out for the day, and joined a group of 8 people just heading out.

First we rode out to Dolphin Cay where, sure enough, there was a pod of dolphins swimming around and three other boats of tourists snapping pictures wildly. Seeing dolphins surface so near to our boat and watching them jumping and doing tricks that I have only seen at Sea World was pretty astonishing. I mean, at Sea World they say that dolphin tricks are natural behavior, but I guess I never really believed it until I saw it in the wild.

After that we rode to another area known as Coral Cay for snorkeling. The only time I have ever been snorkeling before was when I was a little girl and my family vacationed in Hawaii. It was amazing. There were so many fish and so many colors. The water was warm and clear. And I only swallowed one or two mouthfuls of seawater the entire time (I am not very adept at proper breathing techniques when it comes to the ocean be it surfing, snorkeling, or just playing in the waves). We ate arroz con mariscos (rice with seafood) for lunch at the most picturesque hotel and restaurant on a nearby island. There were also a few parrots there (pets I’m sure), that were beautiful.

After lunch, our group went to yet another island where we trekked across a short trail, maybe half a mile, to Red Frog Beach, aptly named for the amphibious creatures that can apparently only be found by 4 to 8 year old boys who will hunt for them in fields and then show you their find in the hopes that you will give them some coins. The beach itself was beautiful – clean and soft sand, with blue-green water. We laid in the sun, read books, and played in the surf for a couple hours before it was time to trek back across the island to our boat moored at the dock.

We had one more snorkeling stop at a place called Hospital Point which was much deeper than the first snorkeling spot. I couldn’t touch the bottom anywhere. We must have been swimming in the wrong area because apart from a couple of fish, we didn’t see anything special, but maybe that is because it was late in the day and the sun had gone behind clouds making visibility in the water not so great. The point itself though was beautiful. An old hospital used to stand on the outcrop of rock surrounded by palm trees and it is still there today, white and glistening, although it is now refurbished to be a hotel.

We were able to take a few photos of the waterfront of Isla Colón and Isla Bastimentos, which are just beautiful with brightly colored hotels. After a quick shower, we made our way to a restaurant out on the water and had a wonderful dinner of fresh fish, lobster, filet mignon, and a brownie sundae made with organic chocolate grown on a plantation on Isla Bastimentos.

Day 3
We awoke to rain and overcast skies and almost cancelled our plans to go visit the Naso Indian tribe on mainland Panama, but we decided to brave the weather which turned out to be a great decision as the sun came out and we had a perfect day.

We rode the water bus back to Almirante where we met our guide, Jeison, who grew up Naso in the jungles of Panama. We rode the bus with him to Changuinola, another port town, where we spent a little while trying to find rubber boots for me and Paul to wear in the jungle, then took a taxi to a river where he had a dug-out canoe waiting to take us upriver. That canoe was the tipsiest watercraft I have ever ridden in. I thought for certain that we were going to be dumped into the river and Paul’s new camera would be ruined. Fortunately, the hour and a half ride upriver was uneventful, save a few splashes. The scenery was incredible on our way up. Early on, closer to town, there were a few shacks with laundry strung from palm trees, built up on the hillsides. It was clear that, like most of the structures we saw while in Panama, none of these homes had electricity, plumbing, or even walls sometimes. For the most part though, we just gazed into lush jungle vines that hung heavy from the tall tropical trees that towered along the edge of the water. Because of weather delays, we weren’t able to go all the way up the river to the main Naso community, but instead, stopped at the lower community where Jeison, our guide, grew up.

After pulling on our rubber boots (and discovering that somehow I had ended up with two right foot boots – gotta love Panama), we climbed and slogged our way up hills and through swampy jungle for 30 or 40 minutes until we finally reached the tiny community. Jeison’s mom made lunch for us with rice grown in their fields, chickens raised in their yards, and a delicious green vegetable that grows in the jungle but I don’t know what it was called. Maybe "monkey’s tail" or "fiddleheads".

Jeison’s mom (I don’t remember her name) told us about Naso culture, beliefs, and political concerns given the fact that the Panamanian government is considering building five dams just upriver from the Naso which will destroy their way of life. After that, Jeison took us on another hike through the jungle pointing out various plants and their uses for building, consumption or medicine. He showed us how the Naso used leafcutter ants as stitches because they will bite into the skin and their jaws won’t release even when you twist the body off the head. Pretty cool.

I started getting heat rash on our hike back down to the river. It was so hot and humid, there was mud everywhere, and my shirt was absolutely plastered to my skin. I had to deal with the rash on my chest and back for the rest of the trip, but it wasn’t unbearable, just annoying and ugly. The ride downriver went much faster than the one upriver, and we even saw a sloth lazing in a tree. We tried out another restaurant that night and again had fresh fish (Grouper) and shrimp before we headed back to the bed & breakfast for another night of exhausted but blissful sleep.

Day 4
The next morning, it was raining again at breakfast, but thinking it might clear up quickly just like the day before, we set off on our plan to go back to Red Frog Beach. We grabbed some Pringles, cookies, fruit and water from a little store, then went to find a water taxi. Within minutes of leaving the dock, we were soaked. The rain just came harder and harder, blowing sideways and drenching us. There was one other passenger in the taxi, a surfer, who we took out to a spot just off another island where there are huge swells. I mean major, serious surfing. There were a bunch of people out on their surfboards catching crazy waves that I thought were going to swamp our boat while we were dropping him off. Being out on the water, experiencing the pitch and roll of those huge swells (albeit in a boat rather than on a surfboard) really made me appreciate the insanity of the truly dedicated surfer.

By the time we got to the dock on Isla Bastimentos, it was still raining and we were thinking that our beach day was going to be ruined, but decided to hike across the island anyway and sit on the sand in the rain regardless. We were going to get wet in the ocean anyway, right? Since we were the ONLY people in the entire area to decide to go to the beach that day, the whole place was deserted. And by the time we had finished the half mile walk to across the island, the rain had completely let up and the sun came out. We had the entire place all to ourselves. It was awesome.

There were a couple of the little boys (the ones who catch the frogs) who ventured out onto the sand sometime after lunch, obviously looking to see if any tourists had shown up. Since we were the only people there, they came over to show us their frogs. These little guys were so cute, and once they realized that not only did Paul speak Spanish, and not only did we give them a whole dollar for looking at their frogs, but that we would also give them cookies and Pringles and take photos of them and show them the pictures on our digital cameras, they decided to hang out with us the rest of the day. Turns out, the limited Spanish I know from one semester of Spanish 101 is enough to have a pretty decent conversation with a 6 year old. It was a lot of fun.

Before we had to go back to meet our water taxi, I decided to try to take a self-portrait with my camera so that I could use my underwater camera housing that Paul gave me for my birthday. The housing works great, but my self-portrait abilities in an aqueous setting are sorely lacking. I probably took 50 photos of myself and never could get my whole head in the frame. The problem was that I didn’t go out far enough to avoid getting knocked around by the surf the whole time. When I showed Paul my collection of chest, neck and flailing leg shots with only one shot that had my head in it at all, he laughed so hard that he was almost crying. For your benefit, I am including my favorite of all the shots, which although it isn’t much of a self-portrait seeing as how my head is not in the shot, is fairly artistic in my opinion, and one of my favorite photos of the trip, just because of the memory that goes with it.

Late that afternoon when we got back from the beach, we showered and sat out on the back deck watching a tropical storm blow through. It didn’t last very long, maybe an hour, but it was quite an experience to see rain dripping from the palm-frond awnings of the shed-like structures that provide some shade at the end of the docks. Once the storm let up, we spent the rest of the day browsing through the stalls of the street vendors, shopping for souvenir jewelry, a woven decorative plate made by Panama Indians, and a t-shirt for Paul, then enjoying one last candlelit dinner out over the water at the Hotel El Limbo-on-the-Sea.

Leg 2 – Arenal, Costa Rica
Day 5
We had to catch the 6:00 am water bus back to Almirante which left in the pitch black morning. The ride was eerie with the black-stillness of the water and not a sound other than the drone of the boat engine. Then it was another hour-long taxi ride back to the border where we had passports stamped and re-crossed back into Costa Rica, took another hour-long taxi ride, then caught the early bus back to San José which was about 2 hours faster than the bus we had originally taken to Panama.

While we were at the Alamo Car Rental facility, inspecting our car, around 1:00-ish, we suddenly felt a rumbling and then the earth started shaking. Everybody ran out of the building and away from the glass windows until the earthquake was over. There were a few aftershocks that we felt as we finished the paperwork for the car, but we heard later that it had been a 6.2 quake that left 18 dead, 80 missing, and over 1,000 tourists stranded. Turns out we were only a few miles from the epicenter, the Poás volcano.

We decided to take the scenic route to Arenal so that we could stop in Sarchí which is known for the artisans who make and sell crafts there. We stopped at a number of souvenir shops and finally settled on purchasing a replica pre-Columbian clay pot made by this little old man (who we met), which goes perfectly with the stone carving Paul brought home from his mission.

By the time we reached the Los Lagos Resort, it was almost dark, so we checked in, then drove to La Fortuna, a little town nearby, to have arroz con pollo (rice with chicken) for dinner, before going back to the resort and checking out the thermal hot springs, pools, and swim-up bar. There were a number of waterslides at the pools that were really scary in the dark, including one that had a pitch-black tunnel and a four-foot drop-off at the end. After another long day of travel, the pools, especially the hot ones, were wonderful and so relaxing.

Day 6
This was probably the laziest day of our whole trip. We spent the morning at the resort, enjoying a breakfast of gallo pinto (spiced black beans and rice – don’t knock it till you try it) and fresh fruit, and wandering through the grounds of the resort which were beautifully landscaped.

Los Lagos has a crocodile enclosure, a leaf-cutter ant colony, a butterfly garden, and a rain forest frog farm, and we puttered around taking loads of photos after breakfast. The frog farm was like a treasure hunt because it was a fairly large enclosure and there are no signs or guides or separate frog exhibits. More or less, it is just a section of rain-forest that has been closed off and covered with netting to provide easier access to a population of frogs, but the little hoppers liked to hide in all of the vegetation and leaf decay. With some patience and persistence though, we were able to find three different species of frogs, which was pretty exciting. We tried taking photos of the butterflies too, but they were even harder to catch because they hardly ever stop to rest and when they do, they fold up their wings so that you can’t see the colors.

We decided to go into La Fortuna for lunch and spent quite some time hunting down the empanadas that I wanted to badly. We had our favorite Costa Rican drink called Tropical (pronounced Trope (like rope) – ee – call) and chicken empanadas for lunch (we never could find a goat cheese empanada which is my favorite). After that, we browsed the shops, looking at bowls made of exotic woods and finally buying a beautiful salad bowl made from Mango wood and a carved mask that is very kitschy but cool.

Because the day was bright and hot, we decided to spend the rest of the afternoon playing on the waterslides and in the pools of the resort. Unlike a water park, there were no lines, no lifeguards, and no posted rules about being careful not to run, so we spent the whole of the afternoon on the slides, playing with my underwater camera housing some more, and sipping a piña colada from a hollowed out pineapple husk at the swim-up bar. Virgin, of course.

Day 7
The Arenal area has loads of activities like ziplining, which we did on our first visit in 2004, whitewater rafting, rappelling, atv tours, and horseback riding. We decided to do horseback riding again this trip, but rather than going up the side of the volcano, we went to the La Fortuna waterfall. The ride itself wasn’t as magnificent because it didn’t go through as much jungle, but the waterfall was beautiful and completely worth it.

My horse was named Sonia and her personality was very much like my own. She resolutely refused to stay at the back of the pack and would immediately trot up to the front of the line and remain there the whole time. I could get her to stop and wait for Paul to catch up so that we could take a few photos (he was on a horse that was so slow and lazy that he named it Old Geezer), but if I gave her even an inch of slack, she would shoot off to the front of the group before settling in, content to take the lead. It was hilarious and so much fun to have a good horse that liked to go fast.

On our way back down from the waterfall, we got super lucky and ended up with a completely clear view of Arenal volcano. Usually it is at least partially obscured by clouds so it was pretty amazing to have good enough weather to see the whole thing.

Because the weather had been so good the whole day, after we spent the afternoon swimming, we drove around to the backside of the volcano where there is almost always lava flowing, although it can only be seen at night when it glows deep reddish-orange against the black of the dark mountain. We arrived just before sunset and got a good spot for lava-watching down on some rocks by the river. By the time it was full-dark, there were probably 100 other people there to watch the lava. The whole process is just amazing to me, to see the earth forming before our very eyes. Unfortunately, we forgot our bug-spray and Paul was almost eaten alive by mosquitos so we didn’t stay much longer than an hour.

We decided that it would only be appropriate to have dinner at the Lava Lounge that night. It was one of the best restaurants of the trip, with great ambience, fresh lemonade and delicious arroz con pollo (which I ordered over and over because it is one of my favorite dishes in the world and I can’t make it very well myself). Paul even introduced me to the delights of banana con leche (bananas with milk) which is like a banana smoothie, I guess. I’m not a huge fan of bananas, but this drink was so frothy and creamy and fresh, it was absolutely heavenly.

Day 8
This was our last day in Costa Rica, so we decided to make the most of it by going on the Hanging Bridges tour. Normally, there is a group of people who go on this tour, but Paul and I were the only ones who signed up, so it turned out to be a private tour with our guide, Christian, who was a wealth of knowledge about the Costa Rican rainforests. Our guide showed us the leaves that you can break open and use as a natural mosquito repellant (which we wished we had known the night before), trees that actually walk through the forest to get to water, vines that you can drink from, and loads of other plants that I don’t remember now. He also told us more about the Arenal volcano and different types of lava flows, and pointed out howler monkeys and explained the social interactions of monkey troops.

The path winds through the rainforest and there are a number of hanging cable bridges that stretch across ravines over the canopy of the trees below. Fortunately, neither of us has much of a fear of heights, but there were a couple of times when the bridge was bouncing and swinging that made me quicken my step a little. It was a pretty incredible experience and I would definitely do it again.

After the hanging bridge tour, we hopped into our rental car, and drove back to San Jose. There were a couple of spots along the way where the right lane (our lane) of the two-lane highway, had fallen away done the mountainside as a result of the earthquake earlier in the week. What with the earthquake, the lava, and the missing sections of road, it was a sobering reminder of just how geologically active that area of the world is.

We finished off the trip that night in San José by eating a Hawaiian pizza at Pizza Hut, which is so good because in Costa Rica they add coconut to the Hawaiian pizza.

It was a fantastic trip and we are already planning to go back.


  1. WOw, Wow, Wow!! Awesome trip. Good for you guys. I love the pictures too (yes, I did read the whole thing and it is fascinating). I especially love the pictures of the frog boys beach. I also think the "self portrait" is amazing!

  2. Great post! Thanks for all the picturs and details. I almost feel like I was there. Too bad I wasn't!

  3. I finally got a chance to read this! Such an amazing photo journal - you will treasure it in years to come!

  4. That looks like a great trip. Your pictures are so vibrant.

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  6. I'm shopping for a backpackers pack - what do you and the husband use? Would you recommend it?

  7. Holly H. - they are Kelty's and I like them but I think I might look for something with more compartments next time. I don't know if there is such a thing though. I think the actual design is "coyote".

  8. Holly H. - they are Kelty's and I like them but I think I might look for something with more compartments next time. I don't know if there is such a thing though. I think the actual design is "coyote".

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