After coming back home from Mal Pais for another couple of days, we packed our bags for our first international excursion – to Bocas del Toro, Panama. Bocas is an archipelago in northeast Panama. We first drove to the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica and spent a night in Puerto Viejo before crossing the border early the next morning. We’d done our research on the border crossing; it seems some have had it easy, others have had nightmare experiences. Fortunately, ours was pretty simple. We drove to the Costa Rican side, Sixaola, and parked at a long-term parking lot for eight bucks a day. From there we walked to the tiny immigration office, filled out our paperwork, got our passport stamped, and began the somewhat nerve-wracking walk across the bridge connecting the two countries. The bridge is an old railroad bridge that is in dire need of repairs – there are plenty of holes big enough to slip all the way through. On the other side, we had to go through Panamanian immigration and customs. In Panama, like Costa Rica, you have to show proof that you are leaving the country in the form of a bus, boat, or plane ticket. We didn’t have any of those because we drove to the border. We’d read that they would also accept a receipt from the long-term parking lot. When I showed my receipt, however, I was promptly told that this was only for Ticos. I haven’t crossed many borders in my life, but I think it is fair for me to go ahead and say that in general, border patrol/customs agents are not very friendly people, nor do they have much of a sense of humor. This Panamanian was no exception. I promptly replied with a smile, “Somos Ticos!” (“We are Costa Ricans!”) He didn’t find that the least bit humorous as he just held up my USA passport and stared at me expressionlessly. I went on to explain that we live in Costa Rica and have applied for our visas, etc. Begrudgingly, he let us through without buying bus tickets out.
Next was a quick stop in customs then into a taxi with three other travellers. For $10 a person, we took an hour ride to Almirante where we then bought ferry tickets for $3.50 a piece to Isla Colon, the main island in Bocas del Toro. The highlight of the taxi ride for Torie was seeing a man walking down the road with half a cow thrown over his shoulder.
“Half a cow” is not a hyperbole for a man carrying a lot of beef – the man was literally carrying half (yes, just recently sliced in half) of a cow on his shoulders. The highlight for me was not seeing this man and his half of a cow. The ferry was a smooth and more scenic (in the traditional sense) ride to Bocas Town, then another boat taxi ($1 each) to the island next door where we would be staying for the next three nights. Bocas del Toro is an absolutely amazing place; it is what you think of when you picture Caribbean Islands. The waters were unbelievably clear and filled with brightly colored fish, coral, and starfish. Our most eventful day in Bocas was the day we went on a boat tour with two other couples staying at our same hotel. Our boat captain Leroy picked us up at 8:30 and first took us toward Dolphin Bay, but we never got there because we came across the dolphins before we reached their usual home in the bay. A few pictures of the dolphins, and it was off to a few snorkeling spots and a lunch break in between. The snorkeling was great- quite a bit better than anything we’ve seen in Costa Rica. The vibrant reefs and clear, calm waters made for perfect conditions. We finished the tour with a trip to the beach and some more photo opportunities of sloths hanging in the trees of an uninhabited island. We made it back to the hotel around 4:30 – not a bad tour for $20 each.
We had a great trip for many reasons. The obvious ones being the new, beautiful landscape, wildlife, etc. Another great part of our trip, however, was the people whom we were with. Our guide was interesting enough, but he became even more entertaining the more beer he had throughout the day.
He was a guy who’d seen and done much in his life, including being a tour guide and working for the massive Chiquita banana farm that surrounds the Costa Rica-Panama border on the Caribbean coast. He had all kinds of great stories about both tourists he’d met and about his own life and family. We also got to know the other people on our trip, who were staying at our hotel. Being on vacation in a place that attracts so many travellers creates a unique atmosphere. How often if you were on vacation in the U.S. would you meet four strangers in your hotel and go on a daylong excursion with them the following morning? One of the highlights of travelling for us is getting to meet both locals and other travellers.
Overall, our vacation has been everything we’d hoped it would be. We got to see not only what is sure to be one of the most scenic places in the world for beach lovers, but also a whole new culture and way of life. Costa Rica is clearly different from the USA, but Panama is so much different from most of Costa Rica – even the little we saw of it. We’ve seen extreme poverty in Costa Rica, but not nearly on the scale we saw it in Panama. It was a constant reminder of how fortunate we are and of how we need to find ways to make the most out of the gifts we’ve been given in life by helping others.
The past month has been remarkable, but I have to say, it feels good to be “home” again. I am not sure when it happened, but somewhere in the last couple of months we’ve gotten very comfortable here in our new home and new life. Not so comfortable that it will become a permanent option for us, but comfortable enough that we look forward to coming back here to relax and recharge after being out and about for weeks on end.