As I am about to embark on an epic two week journey into the unknown (to me) Central America through Costa Rica and Panama I am excited and also a bit nervous of what was to come.
I anticipated a very fun and equally challenging trip based on my previous six trips to Mexico and two to the Cayman Islands which had been my only destinations outside of the US before this trip. My experiences in the trips to Cayman Islands and especially the smaller islands of Cayman Brac and from a boats mooring away Little Cayman had shown me what isolation looked like with resident populations of 1200 and 300 respectfully. I enjoyed the calm and quiet on those trips and being so close to nature diving unspoiled reefs with life abounding from every nook, cranny, crack and crevice in the ocean.
My visits to Mexico had similar appeal especially drift diving the reefs on the Isla Cozumel, yet a more urban feel and a contrasting local population that allowed for tourism yet is still unspoiled by all the vices of the fast paced life we are used to in California.
Travel through Mexico from Cancun to snorkel with whale sharks, past Playa De Carmen when you can ferry across from the mainland to Isla Cozumel to Tulum where the hipsters come in droves to one of the best beaches to swim with turtles in the area at Akumal.
Compared to these places I had been where we were going was going to be much less traveled and unknown what we would encounter or what to expect.
We know some Spanish but by no means is it conversational and I would be tested to my limits on this trip where as in Mexico we could get by speaking little to no Spanish most of the time.
Pura Vida as they say it in Costa Rica means "pure life" that is to say it means this and it is used as a whats up? hello. bye. and so on. Typical greeting by locals is pura vida mi meaning whats up man? After a fast and last minute over packing of our bags which included no checked bags we took a Lift and departed from San Francisco SFO airport early Saturday morning around 630am. We were headed to a connecting flight in Atlanta, Georgia later that day and a final flight to San Jose, Costa Rica to start our journey in Central America for two weeks.
We arrived that afternoon in Costa Rica and promptly found a Orange airport cab that took us to our nearby hotel in the Cariari neighborhhod which was the Double Tree Hilton Cariari Hotel about 15 minutes away.
After the quick cab ride we started our journey in trying to do math to convert dollars to colones and back. I highly recommend you get a weeks worth of colones to start your journey as it makes it much easier to pay for each bill and not do so much useless math.
As such our conversion rate varied between 550 and 575 colones per dollar while the actual rate is currently 595 colones to a dollar.
We checked in a were promptly greeted with Costa Rica charm and hospitality.
The hotel is a clean and large tourist hub of travelers and features a very nice center grounds and pool area with many palm trees, native flowers and birds delighting in the foilage.
After a good night sleep in a comfortable bed we enjoyed the onsite restaurant for a buffet breakfast before a early 8am departure to our second destination in Puerto Viejo.
Onto our 4 hour small bus ride with a stop halfway for food and bathrooms and a stop to admire the cloud forest at the summit. We arrived in Puerto Viejo early afternoon to overcast yet dry sky and promptly found our accommodation above the Cafe Viejo restaurant.
Before we could put our bags down the owner found us and introduced himself and took us upstairs to the awaiting 2 bedroom air conditioned apartment.
We put our bags down and headed to the beach two blocks away for some beers and a bite to eat. Beer tastes especially good when its hot out and in Costa Rica it is always hot out even on an overcast day. We enjoyed our beers at a few beach front bars and found our way to the Salsa Brava bar at the end of our stretch of beach for the sunset and an appetizer before going to Cafe Viejo for a nice Italian dinner of pizza and pasta.
Our evening almost complete we went upstairs as a pounding rain storm started beating on the tin roof of the nearby buildings. We had a great view of downtown from our crows nest atop the Cafe Viejo and enjoyed the evening reading in bed and listening to the rain outside.
About 9pm music started that was both loud and surprising yet good and refreshing.
It came from the walls of the building next door and consisted of some amazing live music that was a welcome backing track to the rain and my enthralling pirate tale Pirate Hunters by Robert Kurson. The story consists of modern day treasure hunters from the US that are looking for a pirate ship and its treasure from the 1700's in the Dominican Republic.
After years of looking and spending over a million dollars they find the ship and its treasure yet are ironically now involved in a ongoing lawsuit with all involved party's and until resolved no one gets the treasure. This tale takes place in the Caribbean and in this area that we travel there may be shipwrecks that remain undiscovered.
The music lasted past 10pm and was a welcome surprise and a great way to end the first full day of our trip.
We awoke to a motorcycle outside with someone trying with no luck to start at 2am then it started with a backfire and screamed off down the street like a mad bumble bee only after waking the entire town.
Another six hours of sleep and we awoke refreshed and ready to grab a quick breakfast before taking another bus to the border with Panama and onto Bocas Del Toro and Isla Colon in Panama.
After about two hours on this bus it was time to get off and cross a bridge on foot into Panama before getting on another bus bound for Almirante the port town with water taxis taking us to our destination of Isla Colon the main island and main town in Bocas Del Toro Panama.
After a 30 minute boat ride in a fully packed 20 person water taxi going warp speed after exiting the channel towards Isla Colon we arrived at the local water taxi dock and gathered our luggage before heading to our hotel Divers Paradise Boutique Hotel a few blocks away.
We arrived to an overcast sky yet no rain so considered our self lucky for the dry sky today.
The small yet dense town is colorful yet somewhat dirty and trash was seen everywhere.
The street dogs looked sweet yet were malnourished and always looking for a handout, we befriended a few and gave a slice of pizza to one of the street dogs after dinner.
The people here are friendly and the travel options cheap as I saw a hostel with prices of $8 for a shared room and $20 for a private room. We lived in luxury at the Divers Paradise hotel with cost about $120 per night yet was worth it in my opinion with its water front view, breakfast included and free snorkeling off the dive boat with divers since it was not full as this is the low season.
We promptly signed up for snorkeling the next day at 8am and were excited to get in the water even if we could not dive on this trip due to a dental extraction three weeks previous.
We enjoyed an early dinner in town of Pizza at an expats bar/restaurant and returned to our room for a good nights rest before our next day planned with adventure.
We ate a good yet quick breakfast at the hotel before getting on the dive boat headed across the bay to two dive sites for morning dives.
Our experience was a good one yet the sky was overcast and the visibility only about 10-15 feet.
Not great conditions for diving yet not too bad for snorkeling in 10-25 feet of water depth.
Good color of soft corals and sponges yet little fish population and minimal reef structure were not as amazing as i could imagine but made for a nice and enjoyable experience none the less.
The boating and diver safety here is questionable as other boats often came full speed to within 150 feet of our boat and divers in the water and several were waved and yelled at by our boat captain to stay back.
In addition the Captain was alone on the boat with divers in the water, not like I had experienced in Mexico, Cayman Islands and in California on other dive boats where there is always a deck hand on board with the captain even with divers in the water,
We enjoyed the time in the water with a dive shop / club from Colorado that was taking a group trip and had several new divers along with some experienced divers in the group.
Upon our return the hotel had lost power and along with it fresh water, oh well so much for luxury for now. After a few hours the water and power was restored, for now anyhow.
We booked a private snorkel tour for the following day and were taken further into the bay than the previous day and able to see a place called sloth island to find two toed sloths in the mangrove trees. We also saw more soft coral and marine life further away from Isla Colon and enjoyed a shallow spot to snorkel in about 6-10 feet of water for about 30 minutes.
The current picked up and we boarded the small boat towards Isla Colon about 20 minutes away. It started to pour down and we made our way to a small dock midway for some lunch and beers in the rain. After a good pouring the rain eased up and we continued our way back to our hotel dock where we were dropped off. Again we arrived to find the resort without power or water for the second day in a row, Oh well we will be leaving soon and one more day wont really matter. We dressed and hit the town to look around and to get some lunch along with a bit of souvenir shopping before our early departure the following morning. After our walk about town we returned to the hotel to find the power and water once again had been restored,
After a simple yet nourishing breakfast the following morning we headed to a private dock for a water taxi to the next destination of Coco Vivo on the Isle Christobal Panama and met out taxi and the new resort chefs at the dock.
After a brief 15 minute water taxi we arrived at Coco Vivo resort an off grid experience like no other. We were greeted dockside by our pack of dogs that resides at the resort and the pack leader Captain who barked at us until he identified us as guests and welcomed us with licks and gentle nudges.
We got off our water taxi and looked around at the wild nature in abundance including a house reef starting a foot bellow the waters surface and extending into the lagoon known as dolphin bay surrounding us.
The experience was very fun yet limited to what was provided to us by the resort and what we brought with us. A pizza place had been open nearby but recently closed leaving us to wonder what other options we had besides our planned meals here.
The answer is none. We looked by SUP boarding across the bay for a pizza place that we could not find. Turns out it is closed due to lack of business or so goes the rumor, so we made the best of our situation and asked the kitchen chef what we could find to eat for lunch.
The answer was, we will have to figure something out for you we didn't plan on providing lunch.
This was a major surprise and we had been told via email before hand that the resort could provide lunch to us for additional cost and we brought no snacks or food with us to make our own lunches. The following day a lunch of leftovers was offered and it was amazing the first time and just as good the second day, we were relieved.
Our second day no lunch was offered and we decided to make our own grilled cheese sandwiches in the shared kitchen space that was empty for most of the midday.
Upon finishing our lunch the owner who happened to be staying there that week as well saw us in the kitchen and said nothing. While doing the dishes from our lunch the Chef came into the kitchen and started getting upset over our use of cheese with out asking. It turns out the chef thought she had just enough cheese (a portion of a opened block) to make us lasagna that evening and got a bit irate at us for not asking to use the cheese first. All the while the owner was reassuring that it was not a problem and just a misunderstanding. As it turns out the chefs are new and filling in for the resident chefs currently away on leave of absence to have a child and no one know what the rules are, Hmm weird yet somewhat understandable in this environment where a lot of the help are found through work away .com just as the replacement chefs had found this temporary job. Besides this the place was amazing and the food was delicious and filling. The chefs made some great curry dishes, even with almost no meat and fresh vegetables I enjoyed the meals.
We spent most of our time snorkeling and swimming in the water off the resort dock and enjoyed the diving board on the dock more than we thought we would.
Besides the roughing it part of the experience which included no air conditioning, using a compost toilet daily, using the ocean to urinate in and the dozens of bug bites daily this was an amazing place to stay in the jungle and on the fringes of modern civilization.
On our second day we were told of a helicopter pad that had been cut into the jungle that day and that a private helicopter was planning to land there the following morning at 8am.
Wow that is an unexpected surprise and sure enough the next morning I was woken by the sound of a helicopter above the bay and circling above.
They circled and determined that the tall trees nearby were just too much of a risk and headed back across the bay to Isla Colon airport to land.
Once the water taxi had taken the new resort guests to the small island we were introduced to a couple in their mid 30's. We were introduced and ate lunch together while we heard where they were from and how they lived in Miami yet her family was from Argentina and had taken up residence in Panama to escape the civil unrest the country is going through.
Her father had a friend with a new helicopter willing to give them a ride from Panama City to Bocas Del Toro and with the intent of on am island with no airport or even a flat area that was not jungle or water.
Although a good attempt was made at a landing pad was cut into the jungle the area would not be safe due to the nearby tall trees and winds.
We stayed three nights before leaving again on water taxi to the mainland Panama back to Costa Rica. Once we arrived back in Almirante we couldn't wait to get on the air conditioned bus bound for the border with Costa Rica this was the first A/C we have had in 3 days and it is life giving.
We crossed the border into Costa Rica and headed to our next destination at Kellys Creek in Cahuita just north of Puerto Viejo.
This hotel is on the beach adjacent to the Cahuita Naional Park entrance just over a small foot bridge. They ask for a small donation and I recommend at least $5 per person per day and if possible a few dollars more would also be appropriate. We decided to have a light beach day the day we arrived as we were starting to get some serious sun exposure as soon as the cloudy sky subsided. We found a great place for lunch (and the next day for breakfast) called Coral Cafe we went at around noon and we found a diamond in the rough. With healthy options and fresh fruit smoothies we were pleasantly surprised and returned the following morning for more of the same goodness plus iced coffee before a trip to the reef to snorkel in the Cahuita National Park.
The park requires you to have a guide and for good reason, the reef which is inside the Cahuita National Park is a atoll reef or a round reef with the corals and fish inside a protected area on all sides. This area is hard to access and would be dangerous for any inexperienced swimmers or boaters most certainly, yet we had hired a good captain for a mere $30 per person plus park donation a good value for how easy and great the snorkeling was.
The entire reef lies in about 10-20 feet of water and as such is easy to see most everything in the water as visibility was good at maybe 15-20 feet except closest to the outer reef where white water was breaking over the reef.
We saw a 4 foot nurse shark out in the open, along with 2 stingrays one of which was about 2 ft across, many fish including schools of blue tangs and snappers along with queen angels big eye squirrels colorful parrot fish and big healthy coral heads primarily of elkhorn and brain corals.
After a 45 minute snorkel we were taken to a second spot to snorkel within the atoll.
The snorkeling was very good and i highly recommend it if you visit the area.
After a good dinner (another pizza and a good one too) at the local Italian restaurant/movie theater (movie starts nightly at 8:30) and two for one drinks of which we had two strong drinks each we were ready for bed. We walked the three blocks back down the street to our room at Kelly Creek Hotel.
The next day started early as we had to pack and board another bus for the port city of Moin to take a water taxi tour to the village of Tortuguero on the northern border of Costa Rica close to Nicaragua and a place where nature is dominant still.
In Tortuguero a place know for Turtles that come ashore by the thousands to lay eggs the wild life is very much alive and wild. This area is known for Jaguars, Alligators, Caiman Crocodile, Peccaries. four species of marine turtle, manatee, over 500 species of birds and over 4000 species of insects along with a healthy ocean ecosystem that is home to bull sharks and other top predator species. We arrived in the village of Tortuguero midday in low season and this ment a warm welcome and plenty of people trying to sell us a tour right away. We were greeted and then escorted to our hotel a few blocks away by one of the tour operators we tipped for the help and declined the tour offered for now.
Upon check in to our new hotel Tortuguero Adventures we were greeted by a friendly man named Kevin who spoke Spanish only and who told us our room was ready and escorted us upstairs to show us to our room, This was telling of what was to come in the following days.
We dropped our luggage in our room and headed back out to find lunch in our new surroundings. We found a nice place for lunch called Budda Cafe and finally relaxed in the comfort of less bugs and cold beers. With a water front view of the river this is about the best view in town and we enjoyed the chill atmosphere and modern club music coming from the speakers at a low but noticeable volume. The night brought little relief from the heat and we needed to return to the hotel room to cool down in the air conditioning often. We called it a night early around 9pm after meeting a tour operator named Giulio for grasshopper and agreeing to a 550am meeting to take a private canoe tour. The next morning we met at his office a few blocks from our hotel and got life jackets before heading through the village about 5 blocks to the Tortuguero National Park entrance where we paid $15 per person in addition to the $25 per person we paid for the tour.
At $40 for a three hour tour this was a bargain at double the cost.
We were treated to a unexpected guest of a dog that was following the kayaks out into the river and had climbed aboard a kayak to a guests dismay. We pulled alongside the kayak and encouraged the dog to come aboard our much larger canoe. We were delighted to spot a Caiman Crocodile and a Jesus Lizzard right away and proceeded to find many birds and the flora and fauna were described in detail in both English and Spanish names for our inquiring minds.
We enjoyed the tour and then went to have breakfast with Giulio at a local place Soda Oasis and we were invited to do a night tour that evening as well.
We were told a story of a local dog named Lucas that was eaten by a Jaguar a few months back.
Being so close to nature has benefits and it has drawbacks and this is one of them.
The town has many loose and somewhat stray dogs that are adopted by everyone in the village collectively it appears as I saw local shops selling dog food in small bags for $1 to feed the stray dogs. The dogs were decently fed and cared for unlike what we had seen in Panama the dogs were not emaciated or straggly looking. We did have some of the street dogs asking for handouts which we obliged but only after eating our meal as begging is not desired or good for the local restaurants. Our two day stay here came and went quickly yet we enjoyed our second day as much as the first and were sad to leave this place of wildness and nature so soon.
The next morning we packed again and ate breakfast at the Soda Oasis again for about $15 including coffees and fruit smoothies this place is a value not had at home or most anywhere.
We boarded the water taxi along with 18 people headed up the Rio River to the closest town about 1.5 hours away. Along the route we saw broken down boaters fixing the boat engines and more animals that the captain slowed to allow us to see along with travelers going towards Tortuguero. After taking a awaiting cab shared with one other person Rachel and I traveled 15 minutes to the local bus depot to continue on to San Jose for a final evening before returning home. We arrived about 3 hours later in San Jose at the bus terminal and got a taxi to our final destination at the Alameda Cariari Hotel a nice large boutique bed and breakfast over looking a golf course and with a nice large pool, hot tub and pool slide.
We were greeted at the front gate by our host after arriving by cab and we were promptly checked in and shown to our room over looking the golf course.
After seeing the hot tub we asked about using it and were told it would take an hour to warm up yet was ready for us to use. A perfect amount of time to find another amazing pizza for dinner at Georgios just around the corner from out hotel.
After a good sleep on an amazing bed with good pillows (it had been a week since we had a good bed and pillows) we packed one last time and ate a breakfast of cereal we had purchased the previous evening since the hotel would not be serving food until 8am and we would need to leave at 730am. After checking out and getting picked up by our Red taxi that was reserved by our hotel for us the day before we headed the short distance to the airport about 15 minutes away. Upon arriving at the airport and heading to the ticketing counter I realized I no longer had my phone in my pocket. This is the worst possible time to have this occur as out flight out was leaving in less than two hours, not to mention I did not know where I had dropped it but suspected I had dropped it in the cab ride there. After checking in and talking to airport security I was told that the only way I would be able to have my phone returned was if it was found and returned to my via mail. Such a stressful situation yet I could do nothing but call my hotel and ask if they could call the taxi company back to locate my lost phone. After several calls with no answer I finally got a hold of the hotel manager who said he would make the call to the taxi company and let me know what they said. After boarding my flight headed to the US, I prayed for a miracle which I was about to receive. Once we had landed in Los Angeles I had to figure out how to make a call back to Costa Rica as my girlfriends phone would no longer make the call to Costa Rica from the US. I called verizon and was told I have the international calling plan which is only for the US Canada and Mexico. I had to add another $5 a day package to make this call, ugh what a hassle. When I finally got through I was told that the taxi company had found my phone and would return it to the hotel to have it sent back to me.
I had to wait another 2 days for the hotel to get it out and on its way by DHL and I have another day to wait for it's return but that in itself is much easier than replacing it and losing all the pictures from this trip and many others that are not backed up.
A wonderful trip with many twists and turns into the unexpected yet It was always fun and I learned a lot about Costa Rica, the place and its peoples and along the way learned a bit more about myself in the process. I highly recommend this trip to the adventure seeking travelers looking for off the beaten path places and people.