It’s April 1st on Ometepe, and by days end I want to be in the Costa Rican capital of San Jose. I’m up at 7am to catch the 9am ferry to the mainland. Unfortunately the cab we ordered doesn’t show up until 10am, so it’s a mad dash to make the 11am ferry, the Che Guevara. We make it with minutes to spare. Back in Rivas, I part ways with Felicia and the Irish, who are headed north. I get a little lost looking for the bus offices next to the highway, and it turns out buses to Costa Rica are sold out until 3pm, which leaves me with more time in Rivas than things to see, although I manage to secure a decent pizza lunch near the colorful town square. The 3pm bus doesn’t show up until about 4pm, and the border crossing takes an hour, so it’s 11pm by the time I finally roll into San Jose.
I am pretty tired on arrival in San Jose — so much so that I let my guard down at the bus station and allow myself to be whisked into an unofficial taxi, but only because the first two official cab drivers I talk to don’t seem to know where my hostel is, and the unofficial guy did. Despite warnings about the safety of such cabs, there’s no issue with this one and I’m dropped off at my hostel in one piece. With the long day of traveling, I don’t have it in me to hit the city, and I want to head to the Caribbean coast tomorrow.
The next day I’m up at 8, and by 10 I’ve embarked on a comfortable bus passage to Puerto Viejo, although it’s not without problems. We’re delayed for an hour due to an incident on a narrow bridge on the coastal road. I say “incident” as opposed to “accident” because there doesn’t seem to be anything “accidental” about it; the bridge isn’t wide enough for two cars, but two vehicles heading opposite directions couldn’t be bothered to wait, so they just smashed themselves together and blocked off the entire bridge. Next to the bridge are the rickety ruins of a previous span; some smaller cars chance their way across it, but there’s no hope for our bus.
Eventually the scene is cleared and I’m finally dropped off in Puerto Viejo. I picked Puerto Viejo more or less at random; a German guy on Ometepe had raved about the Rastafarian culture, and that it was like a little slice of Jamaica right there on the beach in Costa Rica, so I figured it was worth checking out. In reality the Rasta culture was a couple of guys peddling weed on the beachfront road, along with a few shops selling red-yellow-green Bob Marley towels and assorted crap. I can find as much Rasta culture at Clark & Belmont as in Puerto Viejo. The lesson is don’t trust European assessments of how Jamaican a place is.
It takes me until about 5pm to finally get settled, as many of the lodgings in town were booked up. This alone wouldn’t have made the town a bust, but the weather is cloudy and muggy – a disappointing combination if your main tourist attraction is a Caribbean beach. I’m sure my opinions would be different if the weather was better. As an additional bummer, the humidity apparently kills my laptop, and I resolve to leave town the next morning.
In Puerto Viejo’s defense, I get a truly excellent dinner at a little fish shack near the waterfront. There’s no menu – just whatever fish happened to be caught today by the guys in the boat that is shored up behind the restaurant; I can see the fish in a cooler. Options are sea bass, swordfish, and …I forget what the third was. Not only is the food excellent, the bar is run by a surfer-type dude who mixes some fantastic cocktails. So in this regard at least my time in Puerto Viejo was not a total loss.
Still, it’s not enough to get me to stay, nor was the prospect of visiting a sloth sanctuary near town. The next morning I was on another van hoping for a better Caribbean experience in Bocas del Toro, Panama.
I am excited about my visit Bocas del Toro because it provides me my first chance to use the word archipelago in this blog. While the islands are off the Atlantic coast of Panama, they are protected from the full bore of the ocean waves by peninsulas that close off a large bay. The whole thing looks like the mouth of a giant beast, which gives the area its name.
It’s four hours by shuttle from Puerto Viejo – partly along coastal roads, mostly through forest, and halfway through, there’s the border crossing at the backwater town of Sixaola, which is a total mess. At this point the border is demarcated by an anemic strand of water calling itself a river, crossed by an arrangement of rusted metal and wooden planks calling itself a bridge. The bridge is an old rail span, but trains stopped running here long ago, now converted to pedestrian use. The planks are badly spaced and without attention, it’s very easy to turn an ankle in between them, or more likely, drop a passport or phone into the water. I had video but I subsequently lost it, here’s somebody else’s video which is pretty much the same:
A few days prior to my arrival at the border, Costa Rica instituted a small exit tax, and it’s clear that not enough people really know about it yet. We get hustled into a small office in a run-down building on the Costa Rican side and wait in a long time to pay the fee, then it’s over the bridge to Panamanian customs, which is a two-stop process, one for the visa stamp and one for some kind of fee stamp that goes into your passport. Matters are not helped by the fact that one of my flip-flops breaks right after crossing the bridge, so I pass Panama customs half-barefoot, although this still does not make me the most casually-dressed person around, by a long shot.
Once that whole ordeal is over, we head to the Panamanian port town of Almirante.
There we pile into a crappy motorboat and are soon zipping along the bay to Bocas Town. I’m sitting next to James, an outgoing Canadian firefighter and ex-military guy. I tell him how grumpy I am about my Macbook being out of commission — I had wanted to finish my Central American blogging before moving down to Patagonia (Note from two years later: HAHAHA). He listens and nods, seems to contemplate my situation, and finally offers “well maybe you should just party for three days instead.” It pains me to admit that I had not really considered this as an option.
Bocas Town itself is a smattering of buildings spread around about a dozen roads. Every now and then a prop plane buzzes the town carrying tourists from Panama City to the airstrip that runs into the back of town. The town is tucked into the extreme southern tip of one of the largest islands, and a long day of biking can take you to the beaches on the far side. I’m more focused on hanging around town or taking some boats to the other islands.
The nice thing about Bocas is that any time you want a change of pace, you are a short boat ride away. If you want a quiet beach, or snorkeling, or hiking, or biking, it’s available, but you can still be back in time to party at a dockside bar at night. There’s some unexpected diversions also – an art show at a gallery that we end up spending a lot of time in, due to a passing downpour, and there’s even a few crummy casinos – slot machines only, and full of the kind of people you would expect to be hanging out indoors at dark, slot-machine-only casinos while in a tropical paradise, but casinos nonetheless.
Being a beach town, many of the clubs have outdoor areas with docks or swimming holes. I spend one afternoon hanging out at Aqua Lounge, with a trampoline and swings for launching yourself into the water that would be illegal death traps in the states. Another day is spent on the beach at Isla Bastimentos, with no shortage of pina coladas and Balboa beer.
Our hostel is a good time without being completely ignorant. One afternoon I play a miserable game of chess against James at the hostel where I squander a strong start by carelessly giving up my queen and ending up in a stalemate. Also at the hostel, I find an old atlas that shows how many rail lines used to function in Central and South America. And of course there’s the whole social scene. At my hostel there’s of course James, plus an Argentine doctor named Maxi and a Canadian named Lee who is cycling from Canada to Ushuaia, and who completes not only the trip but also his very excellent blog about it before I finish a quarter of my blog. Elsewhere in town is a British guy traveling around with a South African girl who we met on the van in from Puerto Viejo, some German girls on vacation, and even one or two other Americans I meet over the course of my time there.
On my last night, the plan at night is to head back to Aqua Lounge, but it’s raining heavily. The other guys at the hostel fashion makeshift ponchos out of garbage bags, but since we’re going to a bar with a swimming hole and I’m already in my swim trunks, I just throw my shirt in a plastic bag and head out into the rain. We show up via boat fairly drenched, and the interior bars are packed.
At times in my life I’ve had a weird hangup about diving headfirst into water. As a kid I was scared of hurting myself, probably, although I overcame it. But then decades go by since you’ve done it last and you just forget that sort of courage in the name of self-preservation, or at least that’s how you sell yourself on it. A similar thing had happened at Atitlan jumping off the high platform. Here there was no great distance down, but I was hesitating for some reason — until the Balboa and the shots got to me, and I dove, and the water was warm, much warmer than the rain, and I could taste the salt again, and I knew I was far from home, but it felt so inviting that every time I got out of the water I dove back in again, over and over. I never really ended up spending much time at the bar. Possibly because on one of the dives I had become so excited that I stupidly opened my eyes underwater and immediately lost one contact lens. Granted this made all the girls look even better but it also made me look like a squinting pirate and so I called it a night.
Also prevalent in Bocas: crabs. Not a comment on the hookup culture; I am talking about actual crustaceans that hang out in dirt embankments along many roads, and hilariously sidestep back into their holes when a human gets close.
As I’m about ready to leave, I notice a crab scuttle underneath my backpack. I don’t want to harm it but I also don’t want any pinchy stowaways so I quickly pick up my pack and the panicked crab is incredibly embarrassed to be so exposed, but has no hole to sneak into, and thus does an absolutely hilarious sideways getaway run all the way around the baseboard of the wall and out the front door.
Three days in Bocas are fantastic for my spirit which was getting a little ground down after almost six weeks on my own, away from home. I wouldn’t have minded hanging out longer, but Panama City could no longer wait.