Cris-crossing Panama to crossing Costa Rica
16.08.2013 - 25.08.2013
Back we come to Luna's Castle where we take a dorm room with the greatest of views. From E's top bunk he can see the skyline of downtown Panama across the water and the old streets of Casco Viejo below, all through the floor to ceiling windows with wooden shutters. We get takeaway sandwiches and settle in to watch a film on the inhouse cinema, a cleverly constructed room of terraced comfy benches and a projector and screen of a white bed sheet. Alas the projector malfunctions so we abort this plan; instead we find a spot on the balcony and watch the busy streets of Casco Viejo on a Friday night as a procession of cars crawls in a circle looking for prescious parking spots, while valets run here and there orchastrating amongst the chaos. The rich panamanians are dressed up and out on the town.
For breakfast next morning there is a huge bowl of pancake mix and it is make your own! We pack and take a taxi to Albrook Bus terminal and we get the last seats on the next bus to El Valle. We head over the Panamerican Bridge with great views down to the peninsula. We pass along the Pacific coast and 2 hours later reach the town of El Valle which sits in the lush caldera of an ancient volcano. It is humid but cool as we get out of the bus infront of our hostel Casa de Juan. It is a fairly delapidated place full of junk and piles of camping tents in the wet garden, but it has charm and the owner Juan is extremely welcoming. We wander along the main street and have a batido (a drink made with fresh fruit and milk) and admire the mountains which are said to be in the shape of an Indian woman sleeping. We wander on to a small park that has a forest walk to some gorgeous waterfalls. The huge blue mariposas (butterflies) gather among the boulders by the stream. We cook dinner later at Casa De Juan, and the kitchen is busy. We do battle with a rather large cucuracha in our room, and a small fishing net comes in very handy!
In the morning we have breakfast of cereals bought from the Chinese run supermarket and head out for a walk to the nearby mirador (look-out). 2 of the dogs at Casa de Juan trot alongside us, one called Toby -a rather large sausage dog- and the other is Chuchi. They run on ahead and we follow up the steep path. It is hot and humid. The views are wonderful, but the amounts of rubbish along the way are a shame. Toby and Chuchi are sweating buckets and tongues are lolling, and we share our water with them. The mariposas are again fluttering through the thick folliage. We sit and admire the views before continuing along the path to complete the circuit back to town. We descend and meet another guest from Casa de Juan, a French lady called Vanina. We reach the main road and here things take a turn. The dogs we think know this route too, but they proceed to walk in the middle of the road. We must try and keep them on the roadside as the traffic is moving quite fast as it leaves town. We have no leads for the dogs and it proves very difficult and the next 2.5km consist of us slowing traffic down, shoving dogs out of the road, and in the end carrying them on difficult sections. Chuchi is cradled like a baby and just happily stares at you, while Toby who weighs some 30kg is a real handful. It is a comedic farce and C is in stitches nearly dropping her dog! Then they are off into the bush chasing a rabbit. Vanina buys a piece of rope to use as a lead; a traffic cop just looks at us and tells us to keep the dogs out of the road, really helpful advice that, thanks. Eventually we get them home and they collapse asleep. So does E. Later we go put for dinner with Vanina for delicious octopus and fish stew.
After breakfast there are farewells to Vanina and Juan and we wander out to the bus stop. One of the dogs begins following us... we send her quickly away! We climb aboard the next mini van and it is an hour to the intersection with the main road. Soon our bus pulls up and we board for the 3hrs to Las Tablas. C sits next to an elder American called Jim, a fascinating chap who has spent more than 40years working with the indiginous native people of Darian, the rainforest province close to the Colombian border. They have built a huge wooden boat that they sail around the world giving talks at various conferences. From Las Tablas we take a mini bus for the hour journey to Pedasi on the peninsula on the Pacific. This is cattle country, and the little town of Pedasi, despite being a spot for expats and tourists, it is a colourful and laid back place. We find a room at Morosco Hotel and chat with a French couple, in Spanish which is tough for E, about sharing a boat together to visit the nearby national park of Isla Iguana.
In the morning we all head out to find a fisherman to take us over to the island some 5km off shore for the right price. It is grey and rainy as we first take a taxi to the beach but there are no fishermen about. Back in town we find one sitting on a crate at the petrol station and negotiate for the price we want. We board a flatbed truck and speed back to the beach with the fisherman. The rain stings our grinning faces. There are many boats on this working beach, and then we are zooming over the water, the fibreglass boat slapping the water. Blue skies show themselves. We spot a turtle. We reach the island and walk up the path from the western beach over the island. Thousands of hermit crabs scuttle out of our way; the sounds of so many tiny feet moving over sand and palm leaves is very audible in the quiet. Overhead frigatebirds circle majestically and black vultures hop nearby on the beach. We pass a lighthouse and big spider webs with large spiders and very big flying bugs. We reach the eastern beach and take a snorkle looking at the massive parrot fish. Whales swim off shore, splashing their fins on the water, leaping out and crashing down. We then see the iguanas, counting 16 on and around the beach. Out in the bay small sharks play. A heavy rainshower hits the island and we stand in the free shower. It is one of those rare occassions when being soaked by the rain is a real pleasure! We search for whales on our return boat trip but they are all too far away to get a really good look. Back on the mainland the day's catch of tuna is being brought in and loaded on trucks. The fishermen carry these 25kg fish on the shoulder. They drive their boats up on to the sand, lifting the outboard motor out of the water at the last minute, very James Bond! We hitch a ride back to town with the day's catch and all go for a cold beer in the plaza. We grab takeaway fried chicken with rice and lentils and sit on the bench outside our room, and strum the uke. It is a warm evening, sitting and chatting with Pedro/Pierre and Ariane.
We begin a long day of travel at 8am, leaving on the minibus back to Las Tablas. We miss our next bus as a Policeman checks our passports and so we wait a short time for the next bus to take us to Chitre. It takes 1.5hours and from there we find the next bus for the 1.5hr journey to Santiago. Here we get the next bus to David 3hrs away. In David the rains are torrential, and we board our last bus of the day for the hour journey to the hilltown of Boquete. The bus is an old US school bus, yellow and still with all the original fittings. We arrive at 5pm and in the cute town we find our guesthouse called Marilos. It has been a long day but not stressful. The people were all very helpful. When passengers board the buses they all say hello to the other passengers, which is really nice, even in the cities, which gives a very local feel to travel here. There is a kitchen in the hotel which we can share with the family. A parrot by the door whistles and says "hola"!
We spend the next day walking through the town and exploring the surrounding coffee plantations. We chat with a street vendor outside his house who sells us his homemade fruit juice, squeezing a couple of chironja into cups, a cross between an orange and a grapefruit. His home is rather eccentric and a childish oil painting of him standing by his stall hangs from the wall. He is charming and slightly mad. We also visit a coffee farm, Casa Ruiz, and join a tour where we learn a great deal about the process the coffee bean goes through from the plant to the packet, and the differing strengths. Very fascinating information for us coffee drinkers!
Our next destination is the islands on the Caribbean near the Costa Rican border and our last spot in Panama, called Bocas del Toro. Shuttle buses go for 30USD direct, but we decide to take the morning "school bus" back to David and then the minibus for the 4 hrs to the town of Almirante, where a colectivo (shared taxi) takes us to the ferry taxi. We do the journey for 1/3 of the price of the shuttle. The boat taxi speeds out over the choppy sea and it isn't the most comfy of rides; C gets abit of a soaking. The island is fairly built up and the waterfront buildings with boat launches stand side by side as we disembark. Into the guesthouse Hansi, a German run place, with kitchen. We pop out for supplies. All the 4 supermarkets are Chinese run. We get food to make spicy veggie tortillas, mix up the gin and tonic we brought over from the mainland and play a game of scrabble.
In the morning we rent bikes and cycle over the island to the beach Bocas del Drago. It is 16km and there are a few hills. The bikes are not really meant for this kind of route, as they are heavy and gearless! C's chain also pops off a few times. Still it is beautiful through the thick jungle eitherside. At the beach we cool off in the Caribbean sea before having a ceviche lunch. We walk over to starfish beach and snorkel looking at the enormous stars!
We prepare for the border crossing to Costa Rica by printing out a fake airline booking that we may need to show at Costa Rican immigration.
Next morning we take the 9:30am boat to the mainland. The homes that border the water are dilapidated and rubbish litters the banks. We dodge the taxi drivers on the mainland in Almirante with their exhorbitant offers of 15USD to take us to the border. We have a map and instructions, so we walk to find the bus terminal, and are quickly lost! A friendly local points us in the right direction. Open sewage channels run between homes. We take a bus and a collectivo to the border for a total of 6USD. An army checkpoint is passed and our passports checked. There are so many stamps in them that it takes the young soldier an age to find the Panamanian stamp, as the rain pours down. He gives back the now slightly damp and ink running documents! At the border we walk up to a disused railway bridge. We pay a 3USD exit fee and get our stamp, then walk over the bridge. The still falling rain makes the loose wooden planks slippery. The brown river that is the physical border between Panama and Costa Rica can be seen 10m below through the holes in the bridge. Locals bathe in the river. There is a steady flow of locals and backpackers going both ways. At the Costa Rican side we fill in an entry form and say we are staying for only 30 days and that is it, no need to see onward travel documents. We walk on and find the bus to the surf town of Puerto Viejo.
The view from Luna's Castle hostel
Self-made pancakes for breakfast
The Sleeping Indian (El Indio Dormido)
Our walk (with the dogs)
Dinner with Vanina
Trip to Isla Iguana
Hundreds of hermite crabs
Above this shop we had our juice
Coffee tour at Cafe Ruiz
Bocas del Toro
Who.. me? a pirate?
Bocas del Drago
Ceviche and beer mmmmm
and this is what happens..