exploring, examining, exchanging, expressing
Saturday, May 26, 2007
The Big Border Run
Class was over. The next wouldn't begin for a couple of weeks. My 90 day tourist visa was ticking down, meaning I needed to exit the country for 72 hours. And I'd been itching to visit the Carribean coast. So I studied bus routes and schedules and worked out a plan for a week-long vacation. It's a bit of a blur now, but let me try to recount the adventure:

Day 1 - Pre-Border Relaxation
I got up around 4am on Saturday (the 19th) so that I could make the 6am bus to Cahuita, a small beach community on the Carribean side. I packed light, stuffing everything into a small backpack. I figured I wouldn't need much to lounge around for a week. (I was right. Heck, I overpacked). I took the bus to San Jose, then grabbed a cab to take me to the Caribe Terminal (one of the few actual bus terminals in the city, or entire country for that matter). It's farther north than I've explored, so I didn't know if it was safe to walk the relatively short distance - 500 colones bought me peace of mind. I got there about 30 minutes early, which was good, because tickets sold quickly and the bus was packed by the time we left. Luckily, these long-distance direct buses are more comfortable than the intra-city buses. They've got plenty of seat room, decent shocks, and sometimes there's even air conditioning. Getting there was half the fun since I had a window seat and got to see the country. Four hours passed quickly (with a short stop in Limon) and suddenly we pulled into Cahuita.

At 10am, the beach town was mostly still asleep. I wandered around for awhile, trying to get oriented. I found the road to Playa Negra and explored that area a bit before returning to the main strip to decide on a place to stay.

Cahuita-Playa_Negra-02 Cahuita-Ceviche-Soda_Tipico

I also stopped at Soda Tipico for the best ceviche I've tasted yet.

I chose Spencer's Seaside Lodging because the view from the hammocks outside their second story rooms was excellent. I'm a sucker for a good view and a hammock. It was worth the $20 I paid for the night. After dropping off my stuff, I made the short walk over to Cahuita National Park and Playa Blanca. It's indescribably gorgeous. A perfect white sand beach with jungle creeping up behind it. Then the afternoon rain came (as expected), so I lounged in my hammock. Rough life, I'm telling ya. I ended the day at Coco's Bar, enjoying cold Imperial and fine Carribean beats.

Cahuita-National_Park-Playa_Blanca-02 Cahuita-Spencers_Seaside-02

Day 2 - Onward to Panama
There's apparently no such thing as early check-out in the Carribean. I wanted to catch a morning bus to Sixaola (the border crossing), but couldn't find anyone to take my money or key at the hotel, so I left them both in the room and hoped they'd be found by the right person. The bus to Sixaola was one of the smaller, less comfortable buses. It was hot. And it made many, many stops to pick up passengers. So it was hot and crowded. I kept an eye out for other gringos, trying to find a border buddy. There were a few. When we got off at Sixaola, we were greeted by a "guide" that claimed us as "his group." We were all skeptical and tried to avoid him, but he followed us to the Costa Rican migration office... which had a huge line. So much for a quick crossing. Apparently there were two tour-buses full of people ahead of us, plus many Ticos coming back into the country, which tied up the small two-person office. Luckily, I have learned patience during my time here. No worries. I chatted with some other folks going to Bocas del Toro, my eventual destination. The "group" consisted of two guys from Florida, a kid from Israel, and an older man from Germany. We inched our way forward.

And about two and a half hours later, it was my turn. I handed over my passport. The clerk started to stamp it, then hesitated. He double-checked the date. Holy crap, had I miscounted the days? Had I already overstayed my visa? No, he stamped it and handed it back. Shew. Then I had to make it to the other side, which required walking on a rickety old bridge over the Rio Sixaola into Guabito, the border town on Panama's side. As I stood in line for Panama migration, our "guide" reappeared, urging us to go to the tourist office first, to purchase a tourist card. The others hesitated, but this was mentioned in several things I read about entering Panama, so I went with it. He was right, I had to buy a tourist card for 5 bucks from the Panama Tourist Office, which is inconveniently placed after the migration office, rather than before. When I went back to migration, there was a huge line again. My "guide" assured me I wouldn't have to wait, and led me and the others to the front of the line, gave our passports to the clerks, and had them stamped. Our guide earned his tip with this move, since this meant I didn't have to present proof of onward voyage, which is normally required to enter the country. Afterwards, he took us down to a taxi (minivan) that would take us to Changuinola, where we could take a water taxi to Bocas del Toro.

This was a complicated trip because I chose to stop in Cahuita for a day, rather than take a direct bus from San Jose to Changuinola. It became more complicated when the dock attendant at Changuinola told us the boat wasn't coming. So we had to take a taxi to Almirante, the next closest dock. Our taxi this time was a truck, making things a little more cramped for the 5 of us on this 45 minute trip. But we made it to the dock in time for the water taxi.

In Bocas, we were again greeted by a "guide" who offered to help us find accomidations. I didn't have a clue about finding a hotel in this town, and apparently neither did the others, so we all followed along. He showed us a hostel that was cheap and nice enough. The others went for it, but I wasn't up for sharing a dorm with several people. I wanted a little more comfort and security for the time I was forced to spend out of Costa Rica. He took me to a few other places, and I finally settled on Casa Amarillo, owned by his "American friend." It was $25/night for a big, super-clean room with air conditioning, a fridge, TV with HBO, and most importantly an in-room safe. A comfortable room turned out to be important because I'd end up spending quite a bit of time in it. The owner was a nice guy, too. He lived on the second floor of the house with his wife. This was his retirement project.

Day 3 - Rain
Lots of rain. Unlike Costa Rica, it wasn't limited to the afternoon. I didn't feel too adventurous, but I did walk around the main strip for a bit. Bocas seems like a cool town. But it was dead because of the rainy season. Luckily, the beer is very cheap (50 cents a can). I tried the three local brews: Balboa, Atlas, and Cerveza Panama. CP was the best of the bunch.

Day 4 - More Rain
I learned that it's a $6 cab ride to the nearest beach, which wasn't too enticing given the rain. Bocas doesn't have buses, just community taxis, which are either minivans or fancy new Nissan trucks. So I walked away from the main strip for a bit. The economic disparity becomes apparent as you get away from the tourist areas and get into the other communities. Back in town, I found a store selling cans of Guinness Extra Stout for 75 cents. I briefly considered the possibility of spending more time in Bocas. Like, maybe another 20 or 30 years, so long as the Guinness keeps flowing.

Day 5 - Outta Beer, Outta Here
Early checkout again meant leaving keys in the room, though I'd already paid my bill this time. As I was walking towards the dock, I started to feel bad that I hadn't explored the other islands of Bocas. But the constant rain had killed my sense of adventure. Maybe some day I'll return. Leaving Bocas was actually one of the best parts. The boat ride to Changuinola was really enjoyable. I saw a dolphin. And we went through an area surrounded by amazing forests.

I took a taxi to Guabito, where thankfully there was no line for the immigration office this time. Panama let me go, no problem. Getting back into Costa Rica, I was asked to show proof of onward voyage. Luckily, they accepted an itinerary I'd printed out from Delta, showing my flight scheduled to leave December 15th. I made it in time to catch the bus to Puerto Viejo de Talamanca.

Puerto Viejo is just a short distance from Cahuita, but has a much different vibe. It's a slightly bigger town. It's more touristy. And it's a stoner / surfer community. I walked around, eyeing my options for lodging. I decided to try to find someplace away from the main strip, towards Playa Cocles. I found that many places were offering cheaper rates for the low season. I settled on Cabinas Yucca, owned by a German lady. For $15/night I got a seaside room (no hammock, sadly) with a mosquito net over the bed. I learned an important lesson: get a room with a fan. It was incredibly hot at night without one.
Puerto_Viejo-Cabinas_Yucca-01 Puerto_Viejo-06
Day 6 - Relaxed
I explored the trails around the beach, which took me through forests inhabited by hundreds of land crabs, some red and black, others blue and white. They were everywhere! And then I did a whole lot of nothing. For dinner I went to the Lotus Garden, where they had all-you-can-eat sushi for $14. It was fantastic. I stuffed myself.
My german hotel manager turned out to be a stoner herself, as she smoked up outside my room with some other folks, and sang strange german songs while I tried to sleep.

Day 7 - More Relaxed
I decided to go back to Cahuita. It was a quick 30 minute bus ride. No problem, mon. The surfer scene just isn't my thing. I dig the vibe in Cahuita, though. Very laid back.

I checked rates at several places this time, and decided on Cabinas Palmer, where I paid $12 for a room with a fan inside, a hammock outside, but no seaside view this time. Instead, I was next door to several lovely German girls. I made good use of the hammock. Seriously, it's a rough, rough life.


I walked to Playa Negra, found a secluded spot (not hard), and went for a swim. The black sand makes swimming there sort of surreal. The water is dark, making it look like you're swimming in motor oil. But it's also crystal clear, so you can see your limbs perfectly. That night I went to Coco's, where it was reggae night. I didn't dance. But I certainly enjoyed the view. And I talked with some other travelers, swapping stories about life in Central America.

Day 8 - There and Back
I had to leave Cahuita. If I were to relax any more, I'd end up in a coma. Plus, I was starting to run out of clean clothes. I got on the big comfy bus and watched the surf turn into Palm fields which turned into mountains which turned into city.

I took a cab back to Parque Central to pick up my bus home. The driver claimed his meter was broken and offered a rate of 1000 colones. I was already in the car and we were in the middle of traffic by this time. Grrr. But I just wanted to get to my house, so I agreed to the fare.

And here I am. A little sunburned and mosquito-bitten. Good for another 90 days in the country. Overall, very happy. I'm glad I took the chance on a trip by myself. It's given me confidence. If I can pull off 8 days of travel to several destinations, including crossing into Panama, then I should be able to handle just about anything. And I got a glimpse of what Costa Rica has to offer. Jaco was nice, but compared to Playa Negra I can see why it has a reputation as being too touristy (while still being more tranquil than someplace like Myrtle Beach). There are more beaches and rainforests yet to explore. And I have plenty of time to do it.


Anonymous PhillyDude said...
That was awesome!

Blogger Tony said...
Yes. Yes it was.