After a slow bus journey (5hours for 167km) we arrived in lush green Monteverde. We’d come to see the cloud forests, some cool wildlife and of course to do some ziplining through the canopy. Our first attempt at the ziplines failed because of some very, very wet weather so instead we spent most of the day going around a Butterfly and Frog farm which was surprisingly interesting. If this was a sign of our increasing age and maturity (?!), the following days activities soon rectified things. We woke to blue skies and so off we went to ‘Extremo Canopy Tours’. Flying through the air on ziplines over a km long and in places over a 150m off the ground was utterly incredible! The highlights were a Tarzan swing and the Superman cable. Check out the YouTube link for the short film Alex took as he went over the canopy. Definitely as close to flying as we’ve ever been- awesome!
We’re having a few issues with our photos, so they will have to follow when we have time to sort them out.
Unfortunately, we got some news from the UK the following day that made us decide that the place we most wanted to go next wasn’t Nicaragua, Honduras or Belize but home to be with our nearest and dearest. And so the blogging ends. We will be arriving in the UK on 12th May and for our UK friends and family, we will hopefully see most of you in the next few weeks and months.
We’re not really city-lovers, so we spent most of our time in San Jose planning the following month of travel. We had a look around for a few hours and saw some nice old buildings, ate at a good vegetarian restaurant (ElGourmet Vegetariano if you’re looking for one in San Jose) and drank tangy fruit juices – which was all nice enough, but we were soon ready to move on again…
We went to Turrialba to experience some of the best white-water rafting in the world. Opting for a day trip, we rafted down the Rio Pacuare on Class III and IV rapids and what a ride it was! Our guide was helpful, funny and a little mischievous – trying various tactics to make us fall in including instructing us to make the boat spin in circles as we went down rapids and deliberately capsizing the boat on a calm stretch. We did go for a couple of cool swims (planned of course!) including a relaxing one through a lovely steep-sided gorge. All day we were going through mostly untouched rain forest, full of plant and bird life (kingfishers, toucans etc) and dazzlingly green in places.
More (mostly blurry because of the wet camera) photos here.
Having left Bocas, we headed to Guabito to cross the border into Costa Rica. To save ourselves the 2 buses, we decided to jump into a taxi to get there. As with all our taxi rides in Panama it was an interesting experiences. Our driver, a (would-be?)-gangster, cruised slowly through the towns with gangster-rap blaring, periodically shooting people out of the window with his fingers. We found this fairly amusing till he nearly hit someone, they came over to the car and he pointed down the side of his seat where a machete was lying. Anyway, after safely arriving at the border (a narrow wooden plank bridge over a river) we crossed by foot, just before a truck came through the other way. It would have been a scary experience having to jump out of the way with our bags of it if we’d been a few minutes later- we wonder whether anyone has taken an unexpected plunge into the river! Another few bus rides and we arrived at Manzanillo on the Carribean coast. Described as a sleepy place we were surprised to find the beach full of a few hundred locals partying, before we realised it was a public holiday. We joined them on the beach for a few hours but found the following day on the beach much more relaxing.
As night fell we set out in a speedboat across the moonlit sea to a nearby beach where we hoped to see Leatherback turtles (up to 500kg and 2.4m long!!!) nesting. In quiet anticipation, we walked a few kilometres along the beach, staring across the waves eager to catch any glimpses of these giants. After our guide picked a spot, we settled down in the sand to watch and wait. Unfortunately, despite 6 hours of waiting during which time our eyes played many tricks on us, at 2am we started the walk back, disappointed not to have seen these magnificent creatures. We were slightly appeased when we came across some strange markings in the sand which our guide confirmed was where a turtle that had come in but decided that it wasn’t the right spot to nest and then we noticed that perhaps 25m away a dark lump was moving out towards the sea. We watched the turtle for a few more seconds and then it was gone. Not the experience we’d hoped for but better than no sighting at all.
Once the setting for the TV programme ‘Survivor’, this group of islands known as the Bocas were almost as pretty as the San Blas archipelago but with the added luxuries of electricity, running water, hostels, restaurants and bars. We’d heard from other travellers who’d ended up leaving early that it rains a lot. Thankfully for us, we were blessed with blue skies the whole time we were there. We spent days getting water taxis between the different islands – some of them national parks – spotting dolphins en-route, sunbathing on gorgeous white sand and coconut-strewn beaches, snorkelling in clear waters with the most colourful coral we’ve ever seen and jumping in the rolling waves on the surf beaches. With hindsight, we’re not sure why we left after only four days.
After a surprisingly easy and speedy 4-bus journey from Santa Catalina, we arrived mid-afternoon in Boquete. The difference in climate was quite noticeable due to the change in altitude – we hear they call Boquete the town of eternal spring which seems about right – the air was cool, with a gentle breeze – very pleasant after the heat and humidity of the coast.
Boquete is the Panamanian capital of coffee – which may not be saying all that much as Panama is way down the list of coffee-producing countries in terms of volume. Despite the caffeine-fuelled economy it’s a really laid-back town, probably because of the large number of Americans that have retired there in recent years.
We went on a coffee plantation tour to a place that had just been voted Panama’s second best producer – their best coffee is apparently from “Geisha” beans and costs around $130 per cup… we sampled the $5-per-pack variety which still made a very good cup (although Lizzy would say no cup of coffee can be good… she tried some, but was not appreciative!). Geisha is apparently the world’s second most expensive coffee after Indonesia’s Kopi Luwak (which is part-digested by a small mammal before being excreted, dried, roasted and brewed) and grows particularly well in Boquete – Panamanian coffee apparently punches well above its weight. Having been to both countries where these coffees are grown, I am still yet to fork out for a cup of either!
The next day, we took a bus to the start of an hour’s walk to a pretty, secluded waterfall and really enjoyed walking in the cool air, out of the sun. However there were apparently no buses running on the way back and, after waiting 90 minutes, we had to hitch a ride. The kind driver dropped us on a busier road and we were soon on another bus back to town.
Despite our reservations about buses after our experience in Panama City, our four buses to Santa Catalina connected so quickly that our lunch consisted of whatever snacks we could find left in our bags. We were here for diving at Isla del Coiba, an island that used to be a notorious penal colony. The land home to crocs, turtles, snakes and lots of exotic wildlife and the surrounding waters filled with big sharks, dolphins and all manner of other fishes.
Our three dives were great and we saw lots of white tip reef sharks (no biggies), a few turtles (we saw many more surfacing from the boat trip between sites), schools of barracuda and Alex saw the shadow of a manta ray (Lizzy missed it though the guide assured us he’d seen 3). The best bit though was the travelling by boat between dives when pods of dolphins swam around the boat and we were able to stop and get in the water to briefly swim with them- it was awesome. Dolphins are such graceful and playful animals it’s always a joy to see them and hear their clicking underwater 🙂
It was an interesting six days in Panama- a minor series of mishaps but a very enjoyable time nonetheless. After getting dropped off by bus right in the middle of an area the Lonely Planet advises avoiding (oops) we managed to navigate ourselves safely to Casco Viejo, the old Panama City. It’s now a strange mix of renovated boutique cafes and hotels adjacent to dilapidated and overgrown buildings. Next we successfully managed to get a taxi (no small feat in Panama where taxis aren’t so interested in where you want to go but whether it’s somewhere they want to take you). We got in before noticing the big knife wedged into the dashboard but weren’t too concerned as we figured carrying weapons must be fairly normal in Panama given that supermarkets have to tell you not to bring your gun or knife into the store.
The taxi took us up to Cerro Ancon, a nature reserve on a hill overlooking the city which gave pretty good views. On the walk down we spotted monkeys and squirrels in the trees and some weird mammal which looked like a rat without a tail. It was only on reaching the bottom that we realised that we’d left our Central America Lonely Planet at the top. After walking back up, back down, then around the hill, putting on a re-enactment of losing our book to a bemused guard we finally gave it up as lost assuming it would be easy to replace. We were wrong.
Second mishap involved severely underestimating the time it would take us to get a bus in to a wildlife park that we’d intended to visit before the canal. Over two hours later (the park was 20km away), we arrived and despite the fact that two of the big attractions were absent due to illness (the harpy eagle & the tapir) we had a great time seeing monkeys, toucans, parrots, jaguars and lots of interesting plants- including a cashew tree whose fruit we ate (weird alkaline taste). Realising we’d been admiring the animals too long and were now too late to get to the canal, we decided to extend our stay in Panama for another day.
Braving the buses again the next day, we made it to the Miraflores locks where we spent most of the day learning about the history (apparently so many workers died of yellow fever and malaria that they pickled the bodies, sold them for medical research and used the money to build a hospital) & watching boats going through the locks from the Atlantic to the Pacific side. Third mishap involved Alex realising almost too late he’d left his wallet in a taxi, spotting the taxi about to leave a car park onto the highway, dashing across said car park, seeing a hedge in the way he decided it would be safer to roll over it than jump over it in case there was a ditch in the way – he hadn’t realised it was a thorn bush – but nevertheless returned triumphantly with wallet in hand covered in scratches and thorns! Ouch!
Fourth “mishap” involved a hunt to replace our lost Lonely Planet. To cut a long and boring story short, it took us nearly a day. It appears there are very few bookshops in Panama- maybe they’re all straight onto Kindles, either that or they don’t like reading very much… then again maybe with so much other more exciting stuff to do, they don’t need to?