We write from Boquete, Panama on 2014-02-10:
We are writing from Boquete, Panama. We were here three and half years ago (or so), and it felt somewhat like a dream returning. We crossed into Panama several days ago after what was the most frustrating border we have crossed, so far. We felt like a bunch of show poodles jumping through hoops at a dog show. While we have been making it a point to research border crossings ahead of time through websites like Border Helper and Life Remotely, and had compiled (what we thought was) a conclusive list of steps, several surprises came up due to contradictory statements by officials, and general disorganization.
Even the gentleman who “fumigated” our tires – or having haphazardly squirted some unknown chemical on our tires – and certainly not the entire circumference of the tire – making our $1 payment each in aid of the prevention the utter filth and biological contagion we were carrying in from “dirty Costa Rica” – null and void – was somewhat critical of his own border crossing process. Adam did gest with the fellow at how “dirty” neighbouring Costa Rica must be to warrant “fumigation” of all vehicles (we can only imagine that the act of fumigating a motorcycle is a political statement) and that he must use more liquid, he joked back to the effect of “yes, Costa Rica is very, very dirty” (almost with a wink) and then stated to us, almost seeming embarrassed, at how disorganized his border was with us believing we were finally done but requiring his assistance to get one last missed stamp – a customs declaration which another official indicated to us was not necessary.
While there are always many windows and offices to visit, Panama seemed to have more of them, and more cryptic ones. This gong show also included having to showing proof of financial insolvency – by way of pulling out a fat stack of bills in the amount of $500 (each), copies of financial records, or credit card statements and/or other safe and obvious things carried by travellers (sarcasm). In our case, we evidently achieved “proof of financial insolvency” with a single ATM receipt from Nicaragua carried by Jenn which we might well have found on the ground as the official only took a cursory glance at it. The official, of course, having memorized the current exchange rate of Nicaraguan currency was able to make the appropriate mental calculation without issue (not!).
This is also the first time we have had all (or any) of our luggage searched. Funny enough, while in front of his face, the rather stoic official missed the small amount of fruits carried by Adam which technically should have been a problem since this gentleman, while probably responsible for collecting our customs declaration (that definitely asked if we were carrying any fruits or vegetables), hadn’t asked for it yet. We wish we had a picture of his face when we explained to him that one of our little nylon ammunition bags we use as external pockets, which he was “feeling up” contained “both oil and hot sauce” as we explained in Spanish. Senior Serious. And we weren’t even presenting a joke.
Having watched the sunset in our rearview mirrors at a police checkpoint just down the road from the border, the whole experience was topped off with Adam being pulled over by one of Panama’s finest for exceeding the 80km/hr speed limit by 12km/hr. This was a deliberate speed trap if we ever saw one and in all probability, preys on the exuberance of those departing the crappy border to find safe harbour in David, and is conveniently located just beyond a somewhat obfuscated or non-obvious sign in an area with much variance between 100km, 80km and 60km. There is a sucker born every minute!
We had intended on heading straight for Boquete (an area that we both really enjoyed the last time around) but it was too dark by the time we cleared the monkey business at, and around the border, and we were both tired and smelly, so we decided to stop in at The Purple House (a backpackers hostel in David, where we had spent a number of days in 2010). Fortunately, our host Andrea had a private room available and we took it.
The next morning, there was some administrative business to take care of (including paying said speeding ticket so Adam and/or his motorcycle could later leave the country), and dealing with the warranty return for one of our Sena helmet communicators – DHL wanted US$115 to California – (no way! ), and then it was off to Boquete, a town nestled at the base of Volcan Baru, and well-known for its coffee. We were looking forward to revisiting the twisty two-lane road that lead up the mountain, but to our surprise the road had been completely redone, repaved, and widened to a four-lane highway. Gone was the sense of being off on a jungle adventure, replaced with gas stations, restaurants, and hotels, almost the entire 40 kilometres into Boquete. It seemed that the predictions were true and the gringos – those deciding to try something that is not Costa Rica – finally discovered our little piece of paradise. [Edit: according to some internet sources, this trend started as early as 2007].
The town, however, remains much the same, only with a more touristy vibe, more advertisements, more spas, and many more options for sleeping. There are also more cafes, and upscale restaurants. We have opted to camp during our stay here in an effort to recuperate some of the money we spent in Costa Rica, and so far I think we have done quite well. Camping is costing us $8 per night and it’s nice to be back in the security of our tent (i.e. no bugs).
Planning our passage from Panama to Colombia
We don’t have too many plans while we are here in Boquete other than to sort out our passage to South America, which is proving to be a little challenging. For those of you not familiar with the local geography, there is no road from Panama to Colombia. The is a small expanse of jungle know as the Darien Gap which is home to various poisonous snakes and insects, drug runners and leftist rebels. Currently, it is really not a place for even the most daring adventure traveller although various successful overland passages have been made in the fairly recent past with much effort.
The current options are to fly or to take a yacht or similar ship, as well as the obscure option of island hopping in small boats. There has been an attempt (as well as some other rumours) to get a Ro-Ro (roll on-roll off) ferry running. In the most recent case, this Sanblas Ferry seems to have made an honest attempt at getting running this past fall, but there were issues with permissions and landing in Colombia. We had been patiently waiting on news here but they are still waiting for permissions. While we were not holding our breath, we were crossing our fingers.
The specific crossing (Caribbean coast of Panama to Cartagena, Colombia) is neither new, nor unpopular. There are dozens of boat captains ready to sail individuals, such as backpackers, out to the picturesque San Blas Island to be hosted by indigenous Kuna people as part of the passage to Colombia. While such adventures are often touted as a mini-vacation in a vacation as you head out to sandy islands to enjoy eating lobster, have sandy bonfires, snorkel and drink beer and rum, there are probably as many reports of people having the time of their lives as there are of unmet expectations, boat captains breaking promises, and on and on
When you factor in that at this time, the seas are quite windy and rough once you leave the protection of San Blas and head out in to open water, the desirability of taking a smaller, random yacht including taking our motorcycles, becomes less desirable. Beyond discomfort and seasickness, it is not outside of the world of possibility that one or more bikes could be damaged or lost at sea in the process. Ideally, we would be catching the Stahlratte – arguably the best ship for motorcycle passage, and a de facto institution in the motorcycle travel world – but it is currently doing a different touring until early March.
Since there is not too much of Panama that we wish to see at this point, what we would end up essentially playing a waiting game. For example, if we wait for the Stahlratte, we will probably spend the difference of taking a ship or flying, in cost for accommodations and cost of living (even on the super-cheap) and pretty much nullify any benefits. Or at least come pretty close.
While the Stahlratte is the ship that makes sense, it turns out to be one of the relatively cheap options compared to some of the other smaller, less desirable (to us, at least), vessels charging several hundred dollars more (x2) – and some less, but at what “cost”? If we were here months earlier when the winds were lighter, we would probably be considering different options. That said, the prospects of getting on a small sailboat, using small fishing boats or dinghies to get our bikes on board, and then spending several days being uncomfortable or sick, to only save a couple hundred bucks and probably spending a lot more in accommodations both near the point of departure, and at the destination where we might have to wait several days to clear customs, just doesn’t seem like the right way to do things right now. While that said, we are still working through this, so anything could happen.
Oh yes! We did manage to get that Sena communicator sent by way of another courier for $15 ($100 less than DHL) while originally attempting to use Panama’s postal services with their no-tape-must-be-wrapped-in-paper-bring-your-own-glue-and-scissors system. It was really a bargain compared to DHL, and would have been more so if we hadn’t just purchased our manilla paper and arts-and-crafts glue.
Some Catch Up
A little bit of an update since we haven’t written since Nicaragua…
Having left San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua (*sniff, sniff), we crossed into Costa Rica, hoping to be wowed by the country that many people adore. As Jenn says, “I have to say that it didn’t happen for me”. The border crossings were disorganized and annoying and was another round of waiting in long lines, hunting down random officials who may or may not be in an office to obtain even more random stamps and stickers, and filling out forms that don’t really seem to serve any purpose.
The mood perked up, as when we left the border, we were pleasantly surprised at how different Costa Rica looked. The surrounding jungle was lush and green and enveloped the road, just as one would imagine it would, however as we ascended over a mountain and descended the other side the jungle gave way to the dry landscape that had become familiar to us since eastern Guatemala. Apparently the rainy season in Central America was quite short this year and has resulted in dry, dusty landscapes throughout most of the region. Like much of Central America, Adam “swears that it was lusher and green in late spring of 2010”.
From the border we headed to Playa Tamarindo, another surf town on the ocean, if only because it was a known destination (Adam passed through here on his previous trip). Although we had had a great stay in SJDS, apparently Adam hadn’t quite had enough of the surf. Jenn had heard that Costa Rica was very Americanized and the area around Tamarindo definitely lived up to this. Papa John’s Pizza, McDonalds, Burger King, Subway, and Texaco stations were amongst many of the familiar sites that we passed on the way. Playa Tamarindo could have been any oceanside town in Florida, complete with luxury accommodations (5-star hostels!), surf shops selling beachwear and souvenirs, spas, cafes, and fast food – all at American (or even Canadian!) prices!
Our preliminary research hadn’t resulted in much luck finding somewhere within our budget to stay, and after circling around for a bit (travel guides and addresses are really only helpful if you have a map or GPS coordinates since many streets do not have street signs), we ended up at the hostel that Adam had stayed at previously, the Bruja Verde (the Green Witch). It had had a facelift since his last visit, as had the the really crappy road having been graded and widened and completely unrecognizable compared to 2010, we only found Bruja Verde by chance having past right by it. There may have also been a bit of a price hike, but we managed to negotiate a whole (micro) dorm to ourselves for $30 (ouch!). Note that what are now “dorms” were single or double occupancy “overflow” rooms several years ago. The room did have air conditioning (two settings – plugged in or not) which turned out to be a blessing since there were no screens on the windows and seeing the size of the bugs flying about immediately put a stop to any notion of sleeping with the windows open.
We were quick to find out that everything in Tamarindo had a price tag attached to it. We stopped for pizza slices (at $1 each, a pretty good deal) and a pop/soda. The guy at the counter had the food brought out to our table and when we went to pay the bill, we noticed that there was a surcharge added for delivering pizza slices to the table, added tax, and over-charged for the beverages compared to that of the menu post outside. Food in the grocery store was also much pricier than what we were used to (think back home prices, and much more for things like cheese), and we were having difficulty putting together a meal and stay within a reasonable budget.
Back at the hostel, we met some of the other guests which included a troupe of fire dancers who had rented out the entirety of the main house (which used to be the main hostel), a couple from Argentines driving south to north in their Citroen – Citronautas de America Mestiza, a couple from Alaska, as well as a few Canadians, and Germans. As night fell, there was also a family of howler monkeys who slept in the tree above our heads. And who will apparently crap on your head if they feel territorial. Cool stuff. Err, warm stuff. Uggh. We digress. Fortunately, the giant bugs (6 inch long “grasshopper”!) stayed outside and we managed to get a crawlie-free sleep (although Jenn was probably up for most of the night worrying about bugs crawling on her in her sleep) (of which there were none, but in the jungle you can’t be too sure and it’s better to check rather than leave it to chance – two people crammed into one twin bunk is company enough).
The price of things basically guaranteed that we were not staying in Tamarindo and we headed in-land to a different landscape. From Tamarindo we made our way across Costa Rica in search of more affordable pastures. Jenn had pinpointed a hostel (through Lonely Planet) called Montana Linda in a town called Orosi that had sounded affordable, and even though it was a little off the beaten path in a mountain valley, we were both in need of a bit of a break from the beach.
Passing through the busy bustling San Jose (GPS – why do you hate us so!) we arrived in Orosi, and at Montana Linda. Even though this area had obviously been affected by the shorter rain season too, the mountainsides were still covered in greenery and very brightly blooming flowers. Orosi turned out to be a lovely stopover and we ended up staying two days to try to catch up on sleep. The hostel, itself, was very chill and a nice, comfortable place to be. Prices were cheaper for food as well as sleeping, and the slow pace of the town suited us just fine. Venturing out into the streets we found ourselves once again in a place with not too many tourists around; aside from those staying in our hostel we didn’t see any others.
As it turned out, Orosi was a quaint little farming valley town, nestled between coffee covered mountain sides. Aside from the tropical vegetation, the town somewhat reminded Jenn of Beaverton with a single main street running through town lined with stores, and well-kept houses of the middle class kind. The temperatures were quite a bit cooler than what we had been experiencing, and even though they were still in the mid-20s there was a bit of a mountain breeze, and we both found ourselves a little chilly, donning hoodies and long pants at night (like being in Coban, Guatemala all over again). It was definitely a departure from the 30 plus temperatures we had been having along the coast.
Despite the quiet locale and much more comfortable room, sleep did not come easily for either of us due to the constant barking of local dogs (which we will take over the sounds of partying surfers, and late night intimacies shagging, any day). In contrast, however, it seems as though neither of us is able to get a good sleep without roosters crowing in the distance 😉
There wasn’t a lot of free stuff to do in Orosi, aside from visit the church in town, which was incidentally the oldest church in Costa Rica. Trips up volcanoes, hikes to waterfalls, and tours of coffee or banana plantations all cost money and at American prices it was difficult to justify when we knew we could pay less elsewhere.
We, did however, finally find dulce de leche – basically “sweet of milk”, or a caramel type confectionary made by heating milk and sugar and used as a topping or filling – in the form of filled pastry horns in a bakery in town. Jenn has basically been on the hunt for dulce de leche since we arrived in Mexico, with Adam, as if sort of shaking his head, “its not time yet – we aren’t far south enough”.
From Orosi, we jetted towards the border (having had enough of paying inflated prices), over high mountain passes including the highest point of our trip so far at over 3400 meters (or over 11000 feet), down winding roads, along the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, and finally to the CA2 highway which lead us into Panama, and its crappy border.
Photos can be found here: