Our journey to Panama started on Saturday morning at 10am from San Jose, Costa Rica. The bus was almost empty and only charged $8 for the 6 hour drive to a town just past the CR/Panama border. Unfortunately, I needed to use the facilities on board and was faced with an unfortunate predicament when told the lock on the bathroom door could not be removed. In my evaluation of the situation, I determined that a bladder infection would be more costly than a little bit of pride, so I made Tyler drink some water out of our stainless steel water bottle and squatted in the seat and relieved myself into the bottle. While the bus was moving. Now, should any of you female readers ever need to do this in the future, know that you need the following components: nearly empty bus (so no onlookers), wear a skirt (easier maneuvering), tinted windows, a decently wide-mouthed water bottle, hand-sanitizer, and of course, a husband sitting next to you unable to contain his laughter. To be honest, I’m proud of my McGuyver-esque move, and at the time, was fairly certain that would be the “new thing I’ve never done before” of the day. Then we arrived at the border.
Land border crossings are hilariously tame compared to their airport counterparts- no wonder people and drug smuggling is so easily achieved around the world. It’s also much cheaper: if you leave CR via air, you have to pay $28 – via land, it’s $0. Similarly, when entering Panama via land, you pay $3; via air, I believe it’s $6. As a side note, when entering both CR and Panama, you have to show a “moving on” ticket- i.e. something that demonstrates you are leaving their country in the 90 days permitted. I will not publicly disclose how we handled this issue, but if you need some ideas for future travel, let us know. The bus let us off on the CR side to go through our “exit” immigration process, which took all of 2 minutes. The bus started driving across the “bridge” into Panama (with our bags in it), and Tyler almost panicked, but fortunately I knew that was the process thanks to some lonely planet blogs I had read about the journey. We then had to walk across the “bridge” into Panama- our first walking into another country experience. I wish we had pictures but we figured with all the armed military personnel around, no need to arouse suspicion. The “bridge” was a wooden plank, hastily made, rickety, and run-down structure in place to cross a river. With every step, I was waiting for a plank of wood to come up and hit me in the face (cartoon style) because many were not nailed down. It was hilarious and ridiculous and quintessentially Central American in the most endearing way. After going through Panamanian immigration, we boarded a taxi shuttle to drive to Almirante, where we caught the water taxi to Bocas del Toro, an archipelago in the Caribbean. It only took our hour-long shuttle and 30 minute water taxi to realize that Panama would be our favorite destination thus far. This country is BEAUTIFUL – lush, vibrant, picturesque – and our pictures don’t do it justice. I’ve repeatedly said that one of my favorite vacations ever was our trip to Costa Rica a few years ago, but Panama is everything CR is, but better because it has an actual culture (and is cheaper).
Bocas del Toro is a group of 6 islands famous for its beaches, surfing, snorkeling, gringo-presence, and partying. It is the vacation/winter home destination of wealthy Panamanians and other Central Americans and a multitude of retirees from around the world; rightfully so, it is beautiful. The first island we stayed on, Isla Colon, is the main island and is home to the only real town – aptly named Bocastown. We stayed at the Dolphin Lodge, a sort of nondescript hotel but we’d recommend it because it’s cheap, clean, and has AC (which was necessary for the first time on our trip). We really wanted to stay at Casa Verde, an awesome hostel with a chill vibe and live music every night, but they were booked. We ended up just hanging out there pretty much every night, and met some really great people in the process (shout out to Nat and Tony from Minnesota- hopefully see you in Colombia)! In an effort to save money, we decided not to do any snorkeling/diving from Bocastown – we’d heard mixed reviews and will be doing quite a bit of snorkeling on our sailing trip in a few weeks in the San Blas Islands (regarded as one of the top 5 must-see places in the world). If you ever find yourself in Bocas, don’t stay in town for too long – it’s kind of like any other island town and the beaches aren’t nearly as nice as they are on the other islands. We were unfortunately stuck there until Wednesday because the next place we wanted to stay didn’t have any earlier openings. But when you are there, be sure to eat the delicious Indian food at the Om Cafe (I heart you, globalization). It didn’t taste like mom’s, but man, it killed a little homesickness and made my brown belly very happy.
The Palmar Tent Lodge on Isla Bastimentos was recommended to me by a friend from college, Kamna, who had just visited with her boyfriend a few weeks prior. It is an eco-tent lodge equipped with rainwater showers, solar powered everything (including the fridge), and is located on the outstandingly beautiful Red Frog Beach. We stayed in a safari tent with 2 twin beds (the queen ones were all reserved) for 3 nights. We brought our own food from town to make our meals in the communal kitchen and kept our shower time to a minimal (gotta conserve water, especially on islands). The eco-facilities were beautiful and well-designed, but the water pressure was reminiscent of trying to shower when it’s drizzling outside. We didn’t care though – we spent most of our days either in the ocean or staring at it. This place is one of our all-time favorites- secluded, quiet, warm ocean, soft sand, great waves for surfing and body boarding, chill people. It rained every night which kept it cool enough in our tent to sleep, and bugs were relatively scarce because of the ocean breeze (but they of course still always find me despite 30% DEET). It was the first place we really didn’t want to leave, Tyler especially (I didn’t want to either, but I was kind of tired of feeling sticky), but they of course were booked up and that is the nature of our year – continue forward. Saturday was spent on 2 water taxis, a regular taxi, and 2 buses (8 hours total) to get to Boquete, a mountain town in the heart of Panama. The bus ride was actually quite nice – it was really more of a large shuttle van and had A/C and took us through the mountainous, lush, and charming countryside. I cannot even begin to describe to you the multitude of shades of green we have seen in this region of Panama – Crayola has nothing on God.
I LOVE Boquete. I’m talking like I could live here I love it that much. Tyler does too, at least as much as he can love a place that has no beach (I’m married to a wanna-be beach/surf bum). It is in the mountains, at the foot of Volcan Baru, and has the most amazing climate. I imagine this is what San Francisco residents pretend their weather is like. It rains 10 months/year, but usually only in the afternoon or evening. Temps range from 60-75 (maybe hotter in summer), and it is indescribably lush and green. There are rivers and waterfalls and great hiking trails surrounding this area, and if you’re willing to pay for it, you could do a new activity everyday for a couple weeks. It was also recently named the 4th best place to retire in the world, and older Americans have moved here in droves. The town itself is small and filled with great restaurants, the best supermarket we’ve seen in Central America thus far, and tons of small locally owned stores. The Americans have unfortunately changed the character of the region with their gated communities and their insistence on making everything some shade of beige. It’s the same argument I have with immigrants in the USA – if you’re going to move, make the move. Adapt to where you are – appreciate your new country and its culture – and don’t expect to be able to live in “Korea in America” or “America in Panama”. But I digress and probably should avoid a topic I know is heatedly debated.
I had made reservations at the Hostel Mamallena for Saturday night because it’s the one I had heard the most about and figured we’d at least get to meet some cool people. Though we’ve stayed in hostels already, this is the most traditional hostel experience we’ve had, which has its pros and cons. Pros: meet tons of interesting people, very social and communal, offers cheaper tours, centrally located, and has washer/dryer. Cons: dirty, noisy, shared bathroom with no hot water, internet wasn’t working, our bed broke when we sat on it, no screen on window, and some of the aforementioned interesting people were weird/smelly/unfriendly. We stuck it out until Tuesday and had a great time, really, despite the cons (and the related allergy attacks. We also chose not to shower until absolutely necessary because of the cold/dirty showers). The people we met were very interesting including a 50-year old American man looking to retire in Panama, a 17-year old Dutch girl recovering from anorexia by traveling, and a 30-something Greek man who only eats raw fruits and vegetables (and has since 2001). We also cooked a couple nights with our new friends which was super fun and cheap and healthy. AND we met a guy named Pete from the USA, but currently living and working in CR, who went to high school with our good friend Jon and college with another friend Molly – it’s a small world after all.
Since the dirtiness of Mamallena could not be overcome, on Tuesday we moved into the Hostel Refugio del Rio, and we could live in this place for months. Not only is it clean and quiet, it’s gorgeous. I’m currently sitting in the backyard in a comfy lawn chair next to the river watching young boys play soccer in the field behind the school. Oh, while drinking a Panama and typing on our MacBook Air. Yes, I am the luckiest girl in the world. Please don’t hate me – I’m not trying to rub it in – I’m trying to be descriptive.
Aside from the natural beauty of Boquete (which we thoroughly explored yesterday on a rented scooter), the highlight was on Monday when we did a coffee tour with the company Casa Ruiz. I will never drink another cup of coffee the same way again. The plant-to-cup process is astoundingly complicated, time-consuming, and man-power heavy. Our tour guide, Carlos, was probably the best guide I’ve ever had on any type of tour- his knowledge about the entire process and region was mind-boggling, and his passion was contagious. Panama grows the world’s best coffee even though it is also the smallest coffee-producing country. It’s only producing less every year too as developers continue to offer Panamanians big bucks (at supposedly fair prices, even according to Carlos, which was good to hear) for their land so they can build more gated communities for American retirees who would prefer to live in a beige house in Panama than in Florida. The most expensive coffee is called Geisha coffee, and Panama is one of the few places in the world where it can grow. It’s ABSURDLY expensive (see Tyler’s pictures), and one cup in Japan goes for something like $200. There are 16 steps to the coffee process: picking, squeezing, fermenting, washing, pre-drying, drying, aging, shelling, sorting by size, sorting by shape, sorting by density, sorting by color, roasting, packing, grinding, drinking. Picking is the hardest – Casa Ruiz hires 600 extra local indigenous people to pick during the harvest season, and it sounds insanely difficult because you have to pick off the perfectly ripe fruit the right way or you kill the plant. It has to be done by hand, and the laborers get paid by how many bags they fill a day. Here are other things that you should know about coffee:
- the lighter the roast (i.e. european or blonde), the more caffeine content- darker roast just means burnt.
- never drink instant coffee- it’s filled with sticks and burnt corn.
- only buy coffee beans – grind what you are going to use at that moment. never buy grounds because, like instant coffee, it contains sticks and burnt corn and floaters (i.e. coffee beans that were infected by fungus or eaten by bugs)
- store coffee in the freezer. water and air are the enemies.
- the coffee fruit has the most antioxidants of any fruit and is now apparently being used to make a tea.
- if it’s good coffee, you shouldn’t need milk or sugar.
- flavored coffee isn’t actually flavored – it’s just given the scent of the flavor to fool your mouth.
- peet’s & intelligentsia & illy are good. tim horton’s & starbucks & lavazza are bad.
We will be in Boquete until Friday when we will leave early in the morning for a 10 hour, 4-bus ride journey to Playa Santa Catalina on the Pacific side. It is supposedly the best surfing in Central America and is also very close to Isla Coiba, supposedly home to the best diving in Panama and great snorkeling. We will be staying at the Hotel Sol y Mar for 1 week (at least) and then will head to Panama City. We set sail for Colombia via the San Blas Islands on May 14th. It will be sad to leave Boquete, especially since our hostel is so cozy and lovely, but onwards and upwards (or downwards, really).