We arrived in Panama on foot, having travelled via bus from Puerto Viejo in Costa Rica, to the frontier.
Another bus and a rickety speed boat ride later and we set foot on dry land on the main island of the Bocas del Toro, Archipelago, a group of islands in the Caribbean Sea in northwest Panama. Here we stayed here for just 3 days as planned, before our trip down to Panama City via night bus, to catch a cheap onward flight to Colombia.
Bocas del Toro had been mentioned to us by a few fellow travelers and we are glad we made the trip, the town of clapboard houses was built by the United Fruit Company in the early 20th century. The port town of Bocas sits looking over the channel and neighbouring island of Colon. As we pulled in on our taxi boat, we got first site of the colourfully painted wooden buildings, that sit perched out across the sea, and date back from the fruit trading era. Most of the buildings along the seafront are now hostels, bars or surf shops, so we strolled along and managed to get ourselves a room with a view on the cheap. The ‘hotel’, which was marked up as ‘se vende’ (for sale) had furniture which looked like it dated back as long as the building had been standing. It had an old deck that looked out across the channel and we wiled away a few hours here, drinking Panama lager.
The town of Bocas had plenty to offer, in the day time boat excursions to go diving, surfing and to explore hidden beaches were the main attraction. We headed over to the picturesque Red Frog Beach and had a chilled day soaking up the sun and cooling off in the sea – it was like a Robinson Crusoe beach. There were a handful of other travelers on the beach, plus some Rastafarian locals who were there to surf, but did more smoking than surfing. On our taxi boat to the beach the driver cut the engine and told us to look at the side of the boat, there was two dolphins popping up to say hello, and because the water was so clear you could see every detail on them and their coy facial expressions, it was amazing – a complete highlight for me!
For the rest of our time in Bocas, we dedicated our time to our favourite past time, eating and drinking. Speaking to our Caribbean host, with his laid back endearing voice, I could’ve spoken to him all night, anyway, he recommended some places where we could pick up some proper creole cuisine, morning, noon and night, of course we headed straight there. Bocas is switched on to tourism and therefore does offer a lot of options to avoid the local food, but from the Caribbean food we’d sampled, we knew we wanted more.
We had Jonny Cakes again for breakfast, numerous times, that we’d first tried in Belize, whole fish fried and tried several different stews/curries from canteens. Nothing disappointed and the prices were approx. £3-5 per main.
We worked the happy hours around the town and ended up in a bar run by a Californian, who was extremely liberal with his local rum, pouring shouts down our throat as the night went on, there was a great atmosphere here as well, a Spanish guy and a guy on a guitar entertained us all night with some classic eagles. Special shout out to the bartender who served us two of the best Pina colada’s and Bloody Mary’s, we’ve EVER consumed!
We could easily have stayed longer. Speaking to a couple of expats who had made the decision to relocate here permanently, we can’t say we blame them, life on the Caribbean coast lives up to the laid back pre-conception it rightly has.
Onwards from Bocas del Toro we traveled via night bus, the driver of which was a mad man and the mountain roads made for a bumpy and windy ride – at one point I honestly thought the bus was going to end up on its side. We’d both forgot to leave out some warm clothes, as the aircon on board makes the bus get like a fridge, so we were both freezing, and resulted in a serious lack of sleep.
We’d picked a luxury hotel by the trips standards for our one night in Panama City, for the reason it had early check in’s and late check out’s available, plus a rooftop pool with a great vista of the city.
We arrived at 5am and managed to check straight into our room! Highlights of our brief stay in Panama City were a tour of the old town, which felt a lot like a renovated mini-Havana and a trip to the phone repair shop so we could fix Tom’s mobile he’d smashed while we were volcano boarding in Nicaragua. Functional times!!!
After stocking up on street food, we jumped on an early morning bus back to Rivas and then changed to get on a bus to the Fronterier (the border Nicaragua – Costa Rica) once there we changed up our Nicraguan Cordobas for Costa Rican Colones, paid our exit fee, got our passports checked then walked across the border – border crossings are such strange expeiences, never stress free, always some hassle to deal with.. On the Costa Rica side, we managed to get a bus that would take us to Irma, as i’d read online that, there’s a connecting bus that goes from Irma to Monte Verde. After two hours on the bus, we were dropped of at Irma, now Irma is literally a road in the middle of nowhere, and it just so happened the bus times had changed, so me and tom were quite literally stranded – Oh dear!
After trying to hitch a lift, to no success, and fighting off the taxi drivers who wanted in excess of $75 to go 22km – we ended up getting the bus to the nearest town en route to Monte Verde.. The town was called Las Junta, after arriving and roaming the streets for what felt like ages with the heat of the day and the weight of our bags draining all our energy, a policeman pointed us in the direction of a cabina (hotel), the only one in town…. basic but clean we dropped our bags and went out for a well earned Cerveza.
Our cabina owner told us the next bus to Monte Verde was the following morning at 09.45, so the next day after finding a traditional cheap breakfast (the cheap restaurants in Costa Rica which serve up traditional Costarican cuisines, are called Soda’s) bellies filled, we jumped on the bus, which took two hours, to go 22km, as we were heading far up into the mountains, the journey was steep and winding, and the road was literally a dirt road so it took quite a while. Now Monte Verde is famous for its cloud forest, biological reserve, as well as its canopy tours above the forest, we’d heard off a few travelers it was a must if you were passing through Costa Rica, so we added it to our list.
After checking into our hostel, we were greeted with bunk beds – Tom bagged the top bunk, it was like being a kid again.
The guy who worked there was really helpful and offered us lots of advise for our onward journeys etc, we booked onto a coffee, chocolate and sugar tour for that afternoon at El Trapiche, a Costarican family business, here the tour was split into three parts, first up was the coffee section of the tour. Here we were shown around the plantations, however the harvesting season runs November to February, so we didn’t get to see the red berries or flowers.. but we were explained and shown the coffee process of crushing, peeling and roasting the beans by hand and also through using their machinery.
Next we were shown a step by step cocoa processes and the different stages: starting with a brief explanation of how the tree develops, pollination of it, how to get the fruit – we were given the fruit to eat, however not realising we’d already tasting it before on a fruit plate we’d had in Leon, Nicaragua. We were also shown the seed fermentation, drying, roasting and grinding cocoa, as well as how to make chocolate – we off course got to sample plenty.
We were also shown the process involved in sugarcane cultivation, natural history and also the opportunity to taste the sugar cane and its derivatives, rum – my god it was like drinking nail polish remover! yuk… The juices from the sugar canes were boiled and we were shown the sugars, brown sugar, traditional costarican “perica” or “sobado”(fudge like) and caramel. The hot sugar liquid was placed on a traditional wooden surface and with a spatula we were told to mix heavily until it formed a paste and changed colour – once finished you had made molasses.We were also shown the process involved in sugarcane cultivation, natural history and also the opportunity to taste the sugar cane and its derivatives, rum – my god it was like drinking nail polish remover! yuk… The juices from the sugar canes were boiled and we were shown the sugars, brown sugar, traditional costarican “perica” or “sobado”(fudge like) and caramel. The hot sugar liquid was placed on a traditional wooden surface and with a spatula we were told to mix heavily until it formed a paste and changed colour – once finished you had made molasses.
At the end of the tour we were also given the opportunity to sample “gallo de arracache” a root vegetable that is only usually consumed on very special occasions, such as weddings – it was delicious, quite similar to ‘yucca root’ but sweeter, we also got to sample espresso and freshly brewed coffee..
The tour was great, and we even got to see a sloth just hanging out on the trees, and a beautiful Blue Morpho butterfly which had become trapped in one of the roasting rooms – so was set free..
The next day it was an early start, as we had booked a canopy tour, which has one of the most beautiful views of the area, where we could admire the rich natural beauty of the forest and its treasures. The tour saw us ride fourteen cables, of which four are extremely long: 1-1410 ft, 2-1275 ft, 3-1800 ft, 4-2250 ft, with the cables having an approximate height of between 225 ft and 450ft – you could do some of the cables with a partner, some on your own, and there was also an option on the highest and longest to do superman, where you were strapped in dangling face down – the thrill was amazing…
There was also the option to do the Tarzan Swing,on approaching, I was pretty nervous, after been harnessed up, you literally just have to jump off yourself not easy with the drop your facing, instinct takes over and tells you not to. Wow my stomach lunged and I actually let out a scream, something I thought I wasn’t capable of, after that feeling subsided you got the rush of swinging through the trees a couple of times, before being caught by an inflatable band that cushioned the land and stopped us swinging further…
At the end of the tour we got to see a parrot close up and personal – it didn’t particularly like it when i tried to take a selfie with it!!
In the afternoon we took a bus up to Santa Elana Cloud forest, ironically it was wet and rainy and warm, however we decided on the 3.5 km trek through the park, however we only managed to spot a giant centipede, a hummingbird and a few butterflies….
The next day we took a bus from Monte Verde to Puntarenas, then from Puntarenas to Quepos, then we jumped on a bus to Manual Antonio, the whole journey took around five hours. Manuel Antonio is an area of rain forest where you really can get up close and personal with some marvelous wildlife. We’d booked an apartment through Airbnb for two nights, which was in walking distance to the national park, a stones throw from the beach and situated within some the outskirts of a jungle, for this reason we were told not to leave any food out on the balcony, or leave the kitchen door open, as the monkey’s will be in, in a flash running off with the food – of course we intentionally left some food out, as we wanted the monkeys to come….. but, they didn’t come… However, on the last morning, we were awoken at around 5am to these loud bangs, which sounded like they were coming from the roof, I went out to inspect… On the balcony there was a pack of white faced monkeys (like Maurcel off friends) they were fighting on the roof, and swinging from the trees, it was great to watch and I managed to grab a quick photo (although not in great focus)
We booked onto one of the night tours around the Si Como No Resort Wildlife Refuge , as most of the creatures are nocturnal, so they come out at night, therefore it’s the best time to see them in their natural habitat. On arrival, we were given flash lights, and a quick run down on safety etc… our guide, had worked for the National Geographic and was extremely knowledgeable, throughout the tour, we saw the red eyed tree frog, which is native to Costa Rica and takes prime position on the front cover of most guide books, and one of the creatures I was most keen to see. Other sites included the most deadliest spider in the world, which we were told not to get bitten by as there is no anti venom in Costa Rica, it was called the Brazilian banana spider, it was grey in colour and about the size of my hand, it was lying around on a banana leaf would you believe… Next up was an abundance of other frogs, the rain frog, the XXX frog, we saw a yellow snake, albeit only small, a tarantula, lots of insects, a sloth and a Kinkajou, which sort of resembles a raccoon cross between a monkey – very cute.. During the tour he told us to turn our flash lights out, on readjusting our eyes the whole floor was lit up in patches, we were told it was bio luminous fungi, it was beautiful, just like the scene from Avatar. Other aspects of the tour included seeing snapping turtles, Caimans and crocodiles…
The next day we wondered around Manuel Antonio park, when you stood still the heat seemed to intensify more, and you were quite literally damp and dripping with sweat in an instance, the camera was even steaming up as well as my sunglasses… During our walk we saw howlers monkeys, white faced monkeys and cappuchin monkeys, wondering onto the beach there was a hype of activity, we saw numerous packs of howler monkeys, raccoons and even an Agouti – it was great, we got some good photos too, albeit it being quite tricky in the dark.
Wanting to sample Caribbean life, as we’d frequented the Pacific coast the most on our travels, about from our taster in Cuba, we planned out our bus journey – it was long! The bus included, a 30 minute ride from Manuel Antonio to Quepos, then Quepos to San Jose (the capital) then San Jose to Puerto Viejo – in total, I think it took us 9 hours. On arrival it was pitch black, but it was lively and straight away you got that Caribbean vibe…
The weather was overcast, rainy and of course, as always, humid, after all it was the rainy/hurricane season! So I am afraid we didn’t get those fabulous travel brochure pictures, however from the photos below, you can get a flavour for what the Caribbean coast looked like… Idyllic…
The people were extremely friendly, a memory I’ll take away from Puerto Viejo is the chilled out beach lifestyle, and rastas leisurely cycling around on cruiser bikes, their baskets filled with bananas.. We found some authentic food places and gorged on Caribbean foods, coconut chicken curry, beef creole and coconut rice – just delicious – we could get used to life here!
We had heard from several backpackers en route, about this amazing animal sanctuary in Puerto Viejo, called the Jaguar Rescue Centre – a non for profit business. Most of the animals their have lost their mothers, or gone through traumatic experiences, and they nurture them back to health and then release them back into the wild – some of the stories we were told, reduced me to tears. It was amazing, the work they do is second to none, it inst a petting zoo, so you can’t touch the animals… On entering the sanctuary, we were arms length away from a two toed sloth, just hanging from a branch in one of the trees, then we saw a pelican who was just walking around, toucans would fly past within centimeters of your head – it was fabulous.. We saw an abundance of animals, baby sloths, monkeys and snakes.
The piece de la resistance, was… watching as one of the sloths they had taken care of, was reintroduced back into the wild, it was fantastic, a real pleasure to see..
Summarising on our whirlwind trip to Costa Rica, our caviet is that the places we visited were the most touristy, or on the pack backer trail, therefore in the short time we were there, six nights, we didn’t stray off the beaten track, as we went to do certain activities, see certain sights, so we were well aware that these places were going to come with hoards of tourist and hiked up prices – which they did. Rounding up our trip to Costa Rica, it is was a great place, and the sheer abundance of wildlife and rain forest was something to be seen..
For our journey from Guatemala to Nicaragua, we’d booked a premium bus, the company called, ‘King Quality’ purely because we were going through two countries (Honduras being particularly dangerous) and also because the journey time was 22-hours – a long journey by anyone’s standards – anyway the bus was great – it was like being in business class – leaving Guatemala and entering El Salvador was a doddle, as the operator handled all your paper work and documentation, the same applied for Hondurans. Except after crossing the border, the bus was stopped and all the men were asked to get out the bus, heavily armed with guns by their side, the Policia lined up all the men, including Tom and carefully double checked all the men’s passports with their photos. Now presumably the prison escapees they were hunting aren’t Caucasian, but they still studied Tom’s passport for a good 30 seconds. Thankfully he didn’t fit the profile and safely back on the bus, he told me he didn’t know whether to laugh or cry with a face full of machine gun!
Entering Nicaragua, we all had to get off while the bus was checked, then we had to all line up individually whilst all our bags were checked, we had were all told to line our bags up on a long table and open them, now we both have backpacks, which are so stuffed with items you can’t rummage around in them, anyway when it was our turn the Policia literally patted the bag – there was no way he could’ve found anything from doing that – they also failed to look through my handbag which was still on my shoulder and also Tom’s rucksack which was still on his back… After crossing the border, it was then another four hour drive before we arrived in Managua at gone midnight.
As we were arriving so late, we’d arranged for the guy (Jose) we were staying with through Airbnb that night to meet us at the bus station, as we didn’t know where we were going, and from what we’d read the city was meant to be riddled with crime. After meeting us we walked a few blocks to where he lived, and he assured us that Managua was a safe city, one of the safest in Central America.
The next day we got to know Jose, a fascinating guy from Costa Rica, who has lived all over the world, and now works in Coffee – designing an online platform where farmers can easily sell their coffee beans themselves to manufacturers, hence cutting out the middleman, so more money goes to the farmer – we could have spoken to him all day. After a few cups of coffee tea made for us by his daughters- yes you heard me right ‘coffee tea’, we sampled two varieties, the coffee leaves themselves, and just the blossom from the flowers of the coffee plant, they were both lovely, light and refreshing with a hint of coffee. He ran some errands with us, so we didn’t get lost in the city, getting food and money then directed us to the local bus station, where we picked up a bus to take us to Leon – we worked out it cost us around two dollars each for a two hour journey – so cheap!!!
Leon is the second largest city in Nicaragua and the oldest, with colonial streets and the infamous Leon Cathedral – it was a bustling city, with a really quaint feel to the place.
Tom had read about Volcano boarding, which if you haven’t already figured out is racing down an active volcano, which could erupt at ANY time on a piece of wood, it’s basically like riding down a sand dune, however you slide on dust and rock. The most popular place to do this is Cerro Negro, born in 1850, it is Central America’s youngest volcano and one of Nicaragua’s most active volcanoes. Rising out of emerald green forest, the black slopes of Cerro Negro create a bizarre contrast with the surroundings.
Arriving at base camp, we were given a backpack which had our protective jump suit in, googles and gloves, we had decided to do the activity/trip with Quetzaltrekkers – a not for profit organisation – with all the proceeds going to helping disadvantaged kids in the area! We were then passed our boards, so with our boards placed behind our backpacks on our backs, we set off on the 50 minute walk to the top of the volcano – it had stunning vistas, and it was a little on the windy side, so windy in fact you were knocked off your feet a number of times.
At the top we put on our jumpsuits and lined up to go down the volcano – now for some reason in my mind, I thought it wouldn’t be steep – my god, how wrong I was – it was steep – very steep… We watched as others went down first, some picking up speeds of 30kph or more – by the way, the record is 90kph – now if you come off at that speed you are going to do some serious damage, as you’re basically boarding on fragments of rock… Taking my turn, I tried to go down at a steady pace, but it was so easy to pick up speed regardless of how much you dug your feet into the ground – problem being, the more you dig your feet in the ground, the more spray of dust and rocks you get in your face and at that speed it was like glass hitting your face. On stopping my whole face was black, it was in my eyes, my nose, my bra every orifice you could image – Tom had a similar experience, however he returned up the volcano again for a second go, which he says was much better than the first, as the path had been well trodden from all of our previous runs down….. We both agreed that it was an experience – and it’s not everyday you get to say that you’ve boarded down an active volcano!!! The downsides, Tom cracked the screen of his phone, rendering it unworkable and I broke my sunglasses (luckily the cheap ones)
Returning back to Leon we jumped on a bus to Leon’s nearest beach, to a small fishing village called Las Penitas, Tom had sourced an airbnb that boasted the best views on the beach – it didn’t disappoint – wow it was simply stunning, I honestly think I found a little slice of heaven… we were right on the beach, with our door opening right onto the sand, with our own private terrace with hammocks and rocking chairs, and our bedroom windows opening right onto the ocean view… Of all the coastlines we have visited, we agreed that this was definitely one of the most stunning – the rolling waves of the pacific ocean never got tiring.
On one of my many cool offs in the sea, I wandered in with my RayBans on, BIG mistake, turning my back for a second, a huge sneaker wave, swept me off my feet, the RayBan disappeared… lost to the ocean – may I add that’s two pairs of sunglasses down in two days. Luckily I was OK, a scratch to the chin, but nothing more – however for the next few days, I kept my eyes peeled thinking they’d wash up on the shore – they didn’t!
Whilst on the beach we bumped into Eric, a San Francisco dweller, we’d met on the volcano boarding trip – apart from dipping in the ocean, attempting to surf, all three of us just sat at a hotel called Hotel Playa Roca (also a place we ended up staying for two nights, after being turfed out the airbnb, because they were booked up) for the four days, gazing out onto the ocean, drinking Tona (Nicaraguan’s national beer) and watching as the colours of the sky changed with each sunset we watched set in the sky…
After tearing ourselves away from the beautiful beach and surf of Las Penitas, we jumped on a bus to Esteli, renowned for its political conflict, mass demonstrations and a place where the most blood was shed during the revolution.
The buses are brilliant in Nicaragua, old USA school buses, that are now used as public buses. The drivers pump out the tunes, we’ve had everything from an 80’s ballad journey to a Celine Dion journey. Tickets are purchased on the bus, and you are packed in like sardines – at every stop, street vendors jump on board and try to sell you things, shouting down your ears, startling you – selling everything from cakes, plates of home cooked meals, popcorn, nuts, bags of juices, you name it, you could probably get it. On most occasions I opted for the salty popcorn at 0.05 pence a bag, tom of course opted for the cakes…
The street food in Nicaragua was amazing, one day we sampled, yucca root in a cheesy like sauce, served with shredded salad and pork, all wrapped in a banana leaf, other delights included a pastry that was deep fried and inside was rice and meat, again this was served with shredded salad an a spicy sauce.
Eric joined us for the trip North, and we used the place as a base to get to Somoto Canyon, a two hour bus journey north, where we bouldered, jumped, swam and walked through the idyllic 12km canyon, it was beautiful.
It took a bit of courage to jump off the the sheer rock faces, but once you’d done the first, they got easier. There was a 20 metre cliff you could jump off, but our guide advised us against it, as he said you can do damage to your back, not that I was going to do it anyway, but Tom was game. On completion we went to a home-stay, where we were cooked a traditional Nicaraguan food, chicken, and Gallopinto beans… Dreading the long bus journey home, we were offered a ride on in the back of someones pick up as he was heading through Esteli, we all accepted and jumped in the back, the wind rushing in our hair… he drove fast, and overtook, it was a hair raising experience.
On returning to Esteili, we stayed another night and then headed further North to Matagalpa, famous for growing coffee, and known as the “Pearl of the North”. It was refreshing cool, as it was high up in the mountains, we didn’t do a great deal here, chilled and worked, as well as visiting the coffee museum to read the history of Matagalapa coffee producers …
All seemed safe in the the town of Matagalapa, until one morning we bumped in to a guy from the States, who was living out there, owned a coffee plantation in the hills and had just planted his first crop. Anyway he was telling us about him having to buy a gun, as burglaries of farms was high, as was the stealing of working cattle – he’d come across many machete wielding maniacs – anyway that wasn’t the half of it, he then went on to tell us that a bus, just last week, was held up by a man with an AK47, he took the money from the bus driver, and anything the passengers/tourists had, whilst also telling them to all take their trousers off… Crazy hey… anyway we lived to tell the tale…
On talking to him, we spoke of a walk we were planning to do, however he advised us a against it, as it went through some pretty poor barrios, instead he recommended one he does frequently, so when the rain past we set out up one of the hills to get a view of the town, a great vista that overlooked coffee plantations and dwellings as far as the eye can see – and thankfully we got back in one piece…
After saying goodbye to Eric who was heading back to the states the next day, we jumped on a bus to Granada, a city with colonial-era architecture, we stayed here for only one night using it as a base to visit we used this as a base to visit Masaya volcano, an active volcano which last erupted in 2003 and continually emits large amounts of sulfur dioxide gas.
We contemplated going to Ometepe, an island formed by two volcanoes rising from Lake Nicaragua, however the 5 hour boat ride put us off, and the surroundings would’ve been similar to Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, so we decided to take a bus down to Rivas, and then onto San Juan del Sur… Straight away we arrived here, we were back on the backpackers route, having strayed off it for the past week, lots of bars, lots of tours, lots of gringos and an inflation in prices… We stayed in some mid range accommodation for one night, as we were planning to head to Playa Maderas so we could get a final glimpse of the Pacific and take to the surf a few more times. On entering the accommodation, there was a toilet in the middle of the room, and on drawing the curtains, we realised there was non, instead there was reflective glass in them, however they’d managed to put them on the wrong way round, so we could’t see out, but everyone could see through… how we laughed!
The next day we got the local shuttle to Casa Maderas, an eco lodge, where we stayed for 4 days, it was the nicest accommodation we’d stayed in for a while, it had a pool and we stayed in the bungalow suite a the top of the hill overlooking the jungle, it was bliss and in the morning the howler monkeys were on hand to wake you up and remind you where you were. They had a pavilion that overlooked the jungle, so I manged to squeeze in some early morning yoga class, whilst my body woke up to the sounds of the jungle. The beach was a 15 minute walk away and the surf was good, so we spent most of our days there sharing a board and being in the sea (Tom more so than me!).
After four glorious days here, we thought it was time we headed to Costa Rica!!