04 Sep

Caribbean Coast of Costa Rica and Panama

We’ve followed the Pacific Ocean south from San Francisco to our current home in Nosara, Costa Rica. Our 90-day Costa Rican visitor visas are about to expire, so it’s time to take a trip to renew them! We’ll check out the Caribbean vibe and then cross over into Panama, the southernmost country we’ll be hitting up on our Central American travels. We’re back on the road, and this time backpacking without our 4Runner Bruno!

Bocas del Toro, Panama

Knowing that we were going to be living in Costa Rica during the rainy season, we chose Guanacaste province and the Nicoya peninsula for being one of the drier areas in the country with the most number of sunny days. For the first time since our arrival at the end of May, we are heading east towards the Caribbean Sea and all that its rainy season has to offer.

With Bruno in storage until October, this travel is being undertaken with our wares on our backs. It’s a 5-hour bus ride from Nosara to the capital San Jose, no A/C and the open windows are essential. We spend the night at Hostel Pangea near the bus terminal, which has private rooms and is pretty funky-looking with a bar/restaurant on the rooftop. The next day, we have time to kill in San Jose’s Terminal Central before our 4-hour bus ride to the town of Cahuita on the Caribbean coast. The bus terminal is relatively new and a comfortable place to waste away a few hours with a food court and free wifi.

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Yup, this is what San Jose looks like. A view out the window of the bus terminal.

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Need to do some utility line work in Costa Rica? It’s easy, just throw your ladder up against the wires and climb on up! After working 6 years in an industry where safety is drilled into you, these are definitely the kinds of pictures that end up in a ‘what not to do’ slideshow.

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The cool mountain air of San Jose’s interior gives way to a clammy, sticky feeling on the skin as we head east. Winding through the mountains, it is overcast and damp, socked-in with light grey skies. All the streams, rivers and gorges flowing under the highway are full. In comparison, Nosara has been relatively dry. Back on the Pacific, we usually have clear skies and sunny days, with the occasional rain storms at night. Even so, while packing for this trip, Travis discovered clothes that had been (nicely folded) on the shelves of our dresser, untouched since we moved into the house in June. His seemingly “dry” clothes had grown mold and some had to be thrown away. Others were revived with a strict regimen of pool chlorine and wash soap, and recovered nicely.

We arrive in Cahuita, Costa Rica and notice more hair braids, darker-skinned locals and Rasta hats. Just what you might expect from the Caribbean. From the small amount we heard about this side of the country, we figured it would be super hot and humid with constant rain. It was also assumed that with heat and humidity would come a crazy amount of mosquitoes. Maybe we got lucky, but aside from the heat, we didn’t experience all that much rain and there were hardly any mosquitoes! Hurray!

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A Caribbean sunset walk along the beach.

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The main draw to Cahuita over its neighboring party town of Puerto Viejo, is the Cahuita National Park with hikes that wind along the beach and through the rain forest. Thoroughly confident in our wildlife-viewing skills, we hike past tourists who have hired guides. We see capuchin monkeys, howler monkeys, and iguanas co-existing in the trees. Bright green lizards, a small agouti, an eyelash viper hiding in the brush, and several insects.

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Here is a wonderful grasshopper the size of a hotdog!

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Some parts of the hiking trail are very swampy, but they have these nice bridges. Travis has returned to his caveman roots and hikes barefoot.

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Other parts of the hiking trail are less swampy, but still very mucky. How did Amanda’s feet stay so clean!? Maybe the shoes helped?

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After a few days in Cahuita, one day shy of our visa expiry date, we catch a bus to Sixaola and the Panamanian border. At one of the many bus stops two local cool kids climb aboard and head to the back of the bus. Minutes later, there is a smell that faintly resembles the aroma of burning cannabis. Hrmm, is someone smoking a joint on the bus, or could it be the smell of burning trash wafting in through the open bus windows? Central Americans really love to burn trash in their yards, so the latter seems more likely. While pondering the likelihoods, a commotion stirs on the bus. An obese woman, who is sitting further up with her chubby child, starts yelling at the bus driver in Spanish. To translate all that was understood: “Something something marijuana something something!!” The bus driver placates the woman with a few words, looks to the back of the bus in his mirror and shouts to the kids. Perhaps he was shouting words of support at the kids, or perhaps he was reprimanding them. Either way, the bus rolled on! 

We pass several banana plantations, along with worn, cookie-cutter housing communities clustered together along the roads. We presume these have been constructed by the banana corporations to house workers. Lots of Chiquita, Dole, and Del Monte containers, ready to be trucked away or shipped out at the Caribbean port city of Limón.

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The bus drops us off right at the Costa Rica/Panama border and we set off on foot. An exit tax of $8 USD per person is required to be paid in Costa Rica before they will stamp your passport and let you cross the bridge into Panama. On the Panama side border signage is non-existent, but we look like obvious tourists and are eventually pointed towards Migracion (Immigration). It is sandwiched between two giant Duty Free shops. Look for the huge signs off to your left as you cross the bridge. After Migracion, we were told to pay a Panama entry tax of $4 USD per person at a convoluted location back across the road. Best to ask for directions. You receive a sticker in your passport showing you’ve paid the tax.

There are many ways to get to the island community of Bocas del Toro, Panama. It is the most popular destination for tourists making this border crossing from Costa Rica. Water taxis can be had from the town of Almirante, one hour south of the border. City buses will get you to Almirante cheaply, but very slowly. We had read that a private taxi ride would be upwards of $25 USD. Several other tourists were boarding a 12-person van to the Almirante Ferry Terminal and we were asked if we wanted to fill out their van. For $10 USD each, we get in among American, German and Spanish tourists.

The ferries at Almirante are large speed boats and take you into Bocas del Toro for $6 USD per person. Our Airbnb hosts agree to meet us in Bocas Town and shuttle us over to their home on a nearby island. It starts to rain just as we meet them and they kindly buy us a beer as we wait for the rain to let up. Here is a view of the dock from the bar; their nice boat “Coco Key” is on the right. She has a 40hp two-stroke motor, loves to guzzle gas, and can zip around pretty fast!

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Our hosts, Amanda and Asher (www.mantheship.comdriving boating us around Bocas!

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Their island house is away from town and completely off the grid: solar-powered, rain runoff collected for water usage, and wireless internet. During high tide, water surrounds the house. We’ve never been to Louisiana, but I imagine this is what living down on the bayou is like!

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Island life is a little different, to say the least. Instead of a car or bicycle to get around, you need a boat. Asher and Amanda don’t have a bilge pump in their boat (yet), so when it rains at night (torrential Panama downpours), Amanda wakes up every 2-4 hours to bail out the boat and ensure it doesn’t sink! She’s a champion.

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We were able to use their kayaks and paddle boards to investigate the mangrove-lined island. There is some nice coral right in front of their dock for snorkeling, too. We went out a few times on the same board with one person leaning off the back in snorkel gear. Hello fishes!!

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There are so many things to do in the area. We are taken to another island for lunch at The Blue Coconut, a restaurant and snorkel spot owned by an expat Canadian. It goes without saying that it is boat access only, and you can spend the day sunning on the decks or snorkeling the nearby reef with free use of equipment.

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Asher and Amanda telling Travis what’s up in Bocas.

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Sunset on the dock with the house dogs!

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A lot of locals will try to guess at where you’re from to make conversation. Recently, we got ‘España?’ Really? I said no, Canada. He said, ‘ah but your skin… you and your husband… so dark’. Really? Me OK, I tan easy, but my husband?? Travis has been mistaken for a Spaniard. He’s come a long way from Nova Scotia!

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  • Scott Babus

    loved your blog.glad you were with my kids.

    • freedomwithbruno

      we had a great time with them! thanks for reading 🙂

  • Looks like an incredibly exciting tourist visa run!

    “Espana” – I could see that. My wife (from Cambodia) is often addressed in Spanish (both here in Raleigh where there are tons of brown-skinned hispanics and when we were in Mexico).

    That Chiquita banana storage yard is neat. That’s where our $0.44/lb bananas come from I guess.

    And kudos for your google maps in this article. I need to figure out how to do that for Root of Good instead of making the route in Maps and then doing a screen cap to a jpg.