Thursday, 1 August 2013

Could we organise a p*ss up in a brewery?

So the past couple of weeks have been a mixture of the sublime and the complete ridiculous as we bumbled our way through Costa Rica to Panama City in record and unplanned time, just going to show that even experienced backpacker's can completely balls it up!

So we were leaving Nicaragua full of excitement at the prospect visiting Costa Rica and its plethora of untamed rainforest and wildlife. We arranged for an early morning taxi to take us to the border and the plan was to walk over ourselves and then find a bus to take us to our first destination just a few hours away.
The initial exit from Nicaragua went as smoothly as these things do and whilst I stood around in that 'no man's land' between borders the ticket conductor of a well known and safe bus company approached me and offered us a lift to the very town we needed to get to before changing to head into the mountains. Given that this particular bus only passes through once per day we were not about to turn down such a good offer so we gratefully accepted this lucky break which would turn out to be the first of many that made our shambolic attempt at traveling over the next few days not so painful as it otherwise could've have been.
Mistake number 1 was realised as we boarded the bus to be taken to the Costa Rican entry point when the bus conductor told us to have our passport and exit ticket ready for inspection by immigration. Excuse me, exit ticket??
We looked at each other with an expression of, "Oh Sh*t!". We had no idea that an exit ticket was required but given that we had managed to get ourselves into the USA without one we were confident that we could talk our way in.
Well we couldn't!
Every foreigner was given a grilling at immigration and with no exit ticket from the country you were not getting in. At this point we were getting a little anxious but no overly so; if we were rejected we would only need to find some WIFI and buy something as cheap as possible because we just needed something to get us in.
In the end it did all work out but not quite as would've liked. With an exit ticket we would've been granted 90 days to explore the country; having no ticket and therefore being undesirable we were allowed to stay for 5 days!!

We got onto the bus wondering what we were going to do in 5 days and how we would get ourselves to Panama with at least seeing something of note.
At first we thought to just carry on as planned, visit the mountain forests of Monteverde and then figure it out. As the bus pulled away we studied the maps and realised that this would be folly, getting there and away and then trying to get through the country in our allocated time was crazy talk - remember, we were already using up day 1 and day 5 would be wasted getting to Panama.
As luck would have it, being in the right place at the right time and being offered a random lift on this bus meant that all I had to do was walk up to the driver and tell him that we would continue onto the capital San Jose, taking us 4 hours travel further into the heart of the country where we could then sort out our next move as well as eliminate some of the distance required to get to Panama.

After our extended and unexpected journey we arrived into Costa Rica's capital city and got a cab over to the most decent sounding hostel in the guide book. The hostel itself was really nice and know you are in a safe place when you read that it is also a Human Rights office and the walls of your room are dedicated to Martin Luther King and are covered in his articles and quotes.
I also had a dream Martin, it was to spend more than 5 days in Costa Rica - looks like you won, sort of.
Being human rights oriented also meant hippies, equalling breastfeeding older ladies sat on the stairs and you having to sort of step over them and their exposed boob to get out.
Day 1 in Costa Rica was supposed to end with us breathing in the fresh and cool air of the cloud forests of Monteverde but instead we were walking about in a crazy hot and humid capital city, but it was actually ok. San Jose was nothing like I imagined it to be, I was expecting a busy Latin and possibly edgy place but it was clean, very developed in the sense of being overly western and felt completely safe - just a really pleasant place and it would've have been nice to spend more time here; however for once time really was not on our side.
Travel days are always notorious for being bad food wise so we planned to make up for it with a healthy dinner in the city. It was now that our measly 5 days in Costa Rica possibly became a blessing in disguise. Costa Rica is a US tourism hotspot meaning that the prices of everything from accommodation to food is over-priced and we all know that for some stupid reason eating healthily is a lot more expensive than eating McDonald's. Therefore, our dinner that night was not as good for us as planned - but it tasted good and at least it wasn't McD's!

After a brief walk around the capital under the darkening skies we returned to the safety of the hostel and Reverend King and set about deciding where we would spend our 3 days.
We definitely had options and it was a shame deciding between nesting sea turtles and night-time safaris to spot pumas but we had to factor in the time of getting in and out of these places as well as juggling our budget.
In the end we both came to the same conclusion with some ease - we would head to the north east coast close to the Panama border (may as well make life easy at the same time) and ensure that we got to see one of THE animals we definitely wanted to come into contact with on this tour of the Americas; the sloth.

The next day we took the bus to the coastal town of Puerto Viejo and by 2pm we were very happy with the decisions that we had made. We stayed at the Coconut Grove Hostel, a really bright and clean place that had the bonus of finally having a good kitchen in which we could cook. Also the town was just one of those places where you feel that you could quite easily hang about for a couple of weeks and enjoy the eclectic mix of stores, market stalls, eateries, Rastafarians and the smell of 'erb in the streets. Even better was that we were in that very special natural environment of having the rainforest all around us that only comes to an abrupt end because of the ocean.

The Coconut Grove Hostel

The local Aussie Bar

The following day was the highlight of our Costa Rican 'city break' (I have spent the same amount of time on a break to Rome) and probably would have been top of the list even if we had have stayed for longer. We took the local bus 30kms along the coast to a mangrove area that served as the setting of the Sloth Sanctuary.
We wanted to ensure we did this one thing properly so we booked onto the Insider's Tour - oooohhhh.
The Sloth Sanctuary is a family run institution and we were actually in presence of greatness, as far as sloths go. Her grandson and guide Jeffery told us that she is the sloth equivalent of Jane Goodall (Gorilla's in the Mist), nobody knows more about them.
When she moved to Costa Rica from the US in the 1980's a local brought her an injured sloth for no other reason that as she was western she might know how to save it. From that first sloth, successfully saved (her name was Buttercup, and we met her) more and more sloths were brought to her for help and the sanctuary that currently has over 150 sloths grew from there. A vast majority of the 150 are now residents and can't be released back into the wild and a lot of it has to do with humans being complete c*nts.
There is nobody else on this planet that knows more about the sloth, a lot of which is still unknown, which is why David Attenborough has visited as well as Animal Planet and the Discovery Channel.
Our tour began with an introduction to Buttercup, who appeared very blasé in our presence and then moved onto the education part of the tour with the rest of the public or 'Non Insiders' where we got to touch our first sloth, in a completely plutonic way, as well view some youngsters, again all above board.
The Insiders (that would be just me and AJ) were then 'whisked' away for lunch and in the 35 degree heat and 100% humidity were treated to cream of asparagus soup followed by a grilled cheese sandwich - an odd combination and not really welcome in such temperatures even though it was tasty.
After lunch it was time for the mangrove and jungle river cruise - an hour of being rowed through very narrow and mosquito infested waterways by a captain who either had one eye or kept falling asleep because we kept hitting the banks head on or passing through creepy crawly filled low hanging bushes that should have been avoided. Still, it was all good and we got to see Howler monkeys, hundreds of crabs, some luminous orange and blue, a tree frog which I had to duck to avoid touching because we were in a bush at this point, some lizards and a jumping spider that plagued Arancha in her section of the boat for the entire trip.
The very relaxed Buttercup
Heading directly for another bush

Finally it was time for the good sh*t, the actual 'insiders' bit of the day. We were taken behind the scenes and here is where we got hands on with Samantha - a moment that will always be one of those special ones.
Just for information there are 2 fingered and 3 fingered sloths. 3 fingered have a flatter smiley looking boat (boat race = face) whereas the 2 fingered have more of a snout, bear-like boat.
Samantha is a 3 fingered sloth and more commonly found in Costa Rica whilst 2 fingered sloths are more common in the Amazon in south America.
It is hard to describe the feeling as Samantha slowly made her way over to each of us and actually herself made the signals to indicate that she wanted a cuddle - it was surreal and felt like a real honour to be able to get this close to such a magnificent and still mysterious species.
Even basic facts such as the gestation period of the sloth is still a mystery and we saw the live webcams set up by the Discovery Channel on one particular enclosure that was currently housing a rescued sloth found to be pregnant. As the primary objective is to treat the animal and release it if possible there is a chance that this sloth will be released before it gives birth as 'domesticating' it cannot be risked - which scientifically would be a bit of a bummer to miss the birth.

After the meet and greet with Samantha we were taken up into the actual house of the Sloth Queen to view the newborns in the incubators. These little bad boys were really cute and I was very surprised that when we did get back to the hostel that AJ didn't produce one from her bag; "Surprise!".
All in all it was a great day and is definitely up there as one of the best.

Unbelievably as I walked back to our hostel (AJ was shopping) I came across an actual wild 3 fingered sloth making its way from one tree to the next right in front of me - a seriously rare event as they don't move that much and so are hard to detect.
What a day! (And AJ also got to see it later)

Poison arrow frog
Already onto our final full day in Costa Rica we took the advice of Heidi, the complete stereotype German frauline owner of our hostel and hired bicycles to explore the surrounding area. The plan was to spend a whole day out and about but a torrential downpour wiped out our whole morning. However, this was not a problem for us because the rains brought out another local who we had wanted to see - the poison arrow frog. Although they can't kill a human coming into contact with one of these small and beautiful black and luminous green frogs can give you some nasty symptoms if you handle them and they feel threatened.

Once the skies cleared we belatedly hopped onto our bikes and headed off to find what Heidi promised us was 'paradise'. Unbelievably the first thing we came across on the bikes was another wild sloth high up in the trees and even better was that it was a 2 fingered sloth meaning that whereas it would be brilliant to see a sloth in the Amazon it now doesn't matter as we have seen both types in their natural habitat; as all wildlife should be.
Wild 2 fingered sloth
Wild 3 fingered sloth

Our piece of Costa Rican 'paradise' was the area of Punta Uva, a rugged piece of coast where you could look either side of you for as far as you could and see only jungle fringed beach with a river running out of the jungle wilderness to meet the ocean - yes Heidi you called it and you called it well!
There is always room for football in paradise

That night was a full moon meaning that Rocking J's, a legendary party hostel in these parts was throwing its monthly full moon party. Having been told it was a party of epic proportions we were disappointed to find that the hostel was relatively empty due to low season and it would not be one of those nights. Still, I doubt it could've matched the original in Thailand but you never know.

That was that, our time in Costa Rica was up and we had to get out or face the consequences. Our brief time there was very positive and I know for sure that we will come back one day, but probably for a holiday because in order to get the most out of this country you need a lot of dosh.

Being only 40kms from the Panamanian border we didn't rush to get ourselves moving the next morning and fortunately it all worked out for us again.
The plan to catch the public bus to the border was dashed when we were told at the bus stop that there would be no buses for a few hours due to a student protest that was blocking the roads. Normally we might have decided to stay another night as we liked the town but we had to be out today.
Left with no other choice I decided to check with a few local tourist companies who were offering shuttles to the Bocas Islands in Panama and found that they could get us as far as the protest, we would then walk around the protest before jumping into a cab and carrying on to Panama.

By the way the students were protesting about the right to have free bus travel to school - I think that's a 'fare' cause. (Get it?)

I found a company who agreed a discounted rate to drop us off a town along the way to Bocas as we wanted to head south away from the Caribbean and because of our tardiness we would be on the delayed 8am bus that was now to depart in 1 hour (midday).
You would think that we might have learnt our lessons and I did check online and found no requirement for an onward ticket, so you can imagine my look when the woman booking our minibus told us that we would need one to get into Panama.
(By the way I now know that we definitely need one for Peru which is in 3 countries time - so I am learning!!)
Fortunately we had looked into our departure from Panama so I now had an hour to get online, book our exit, send a deposit and call the company to get them to send me a confirmation email stating both of our names and that we would be exiting Panama before then emailing it over to the lady to print it off for us.
It all went smoothly enough and we set off for the final country in central America with minimal fuss.
The traffic backlog at the protest was mental and seemed even more ridiculous when all that was blocking the road were about 40 students playing football or sitting about chatting with a barricade of banana plants.

Walking into Panama
Leaving all that behind we got to the border and were stamped out of Costa Rica before having to traverse the longest rickety bridge by foot with frequent views down to the open water below before being stamped into Panama.

Once again it was all as easy as peas and we were in country number 9, and they didn't even ask for proof of our onward journey! Tut tut.
At this point our lucky streak kicked in again because we were supposed to be dropped off in a town on the way to the harbour, for those traveling to the islands, but the driver forgot. When we realised that we were at the harbour we reminded him of our requirements and he was able to drop us at an alternative bus stop and within 5 minutes the hourly bus to Panama's second city of David turned up with only 2 spare seats.
If we'd have been dropped off as originally planned we would've missed it and it was already getting late - it isn't advisable to get to a new city after dark and sort out where you are going to stay.

The drive was longer than we realised but it didn't matter as we drove high up out of the humidity into the hills where it was fresh and were able to watch the sun set over this new land in a blaze of red glory. Panama has always been on my list of must visits and I have no idea why but I was really happy to be here.
Arriving in David we randomly chose a hotel out of the book as we just wanted to eat and rest before moving on again the next morning because this was purely a transit stop.

Bye bye finger
We decided that we would visit the mountain town of Boquete, the starting location for the Los Quetzales Trail - supposedly the most scenic walk in the whole of Panama and also home to the Quetzal bird, which I really wanted to see - so far I had only seen a stuffed one in the museum.
Boquete was not exactly as described in the book and was somewhat of a disappointment except for the bus ride there and seeing this blokes soon to be dead finger (see pic) - Ow!!

We were expecting more of a hilltop sanctuary with an authentic Panamanian feel but what we found was a town saturated with retired American's. Apparently a well known magazine published an article a few years ago describing Boquete as the perfect place to retire - so the yanks did just that. The only advantage of this happening was that they brought their need for home comforts with them so we were able to eat breakfast at a proper bakery with real bread (sorely missed) and go to a pub run by a really interesting American couple who met whilst they were both posted in the Antarctic for 5 years on scientific duties.
For me this remains the best thing about travel - you get to meet people whose experiences really open your mind up to the possibility of doing anything you want.

Unfortunately the weather didn't exactly do its part and a Tin-tin themed hostel can only do so much, so after 2 days of hanging about we decided to scrap the Los Quetzales Trail and head south to the Pacific coast for a few days of sun and beach action.
Hostel in Boquete
Our little house

It was now Friday 26th July and our boat to Colombia and a new continent (originally we were supposed to be there 3 months ago!) was booked for August 13th. We wanted to spend at least week exploring Panama City so that left about 10 days to explore the south coast and hopefully find a cabin on the beach with a kitchen and a hammock where we could sit around, chill and be self sufficient for a while.

Our first try was Playa Las Lajas and so began the next round of us sort of messing it up but being rescued by St Christopher and his travel magic - even though we don't believe in such hoodoo.
Back into the city of David we caught a bus to Las Lajas and didn't realise until we were dropped on the road side that the actual beach was a further 13kms away. Fortunately a taxi was on hand and being a decent guy he didn't rip us off and took us to the cheapest place along the beach. There really wasn't a lot of information online about where we could stay and upon arriving we knew why - it was deserted of all human existence.
We arrived at the Cabana Panama, basically 5 wooden huts and an open sided thatched bar on the beach. I am so gutted that this place was an absolute sh*thole because it could've been beautiful and just where we might have stayed for days and days.
Rusty key - says it all
The owners (a German guy and his one eyed Panamanian wife) were dirty and lazy and their property matched. They told us to wait whilst she cleaned the cabin and once we got in it was clear that she had been cleaning with the good eye always facing out of the door. How do you miss the clump of hair and cotton bud blocking the shower plug hole and all of the dirt on the floor and how long have you not cleaned for if everything is covered in cobwebs and on the walls where there aren't holes for the cockroaches to emerge at night there are trails upon sand trails from the ant colonies?
The front door key demonstrates it all!
If it was $10 per night then fair enough but $25 is taking the proverbial when we compare it to everywhere else we have been to in terms of price and cleanliness.

It was such a shame. Walking off the edge of the bar area you stepped onto a beach of epic proportions - miles and miles of nothingness; just sand, palms, vultures, driftwood and perfectly breaking waves with ample whitewash for beginner surfers like us to frolic in. There was nothing and nobody - how rare and special is that?
Knowing that we wanted to stay in this area we set about finding alternative lodgings and could find only 2 alternatives - both of which were not suitable. The other issue was that there was no tienda (shop) nearby for us to buy food meaning that we were at the mercy of our cabin owners, which at this point was not a happy prospect.
I think AJ also wanted to hang around to play with the 4 puppies that followed her about wanting attention.

Yum yum
Having already decided that we must move on the next day (and once we make our decision we generally can't change it as mentally is has been set) we sat down to discover that the owner was actually a really good chef and we ate like kings as we devoured a huge freshly caught fish.
We also met a Belgian couple who had emigrated to Boquete (the previously visited town) and were building an investment property 300 metres further down the beach.
That is one sad fact about Panama - development. I feel like we have visited at just the right moment to see it before it possibly all goes wrong and special places like this, whilst not completely destroyed, will lose that touch of magic about them.
To confirm that we would be moving on we returned to our room and had to spend 20 minutes locating and fighting cockroaches, some of which had scuttled out from under AJ's bag. The crab who had made his home with us was welcomed to stay for the night - how random.

If this was the end of our trip and we had some investment money this place would get serious consideration. These lazy f*ckwits are sitting on one of the best backpacker destinations I have been to and the potential here can't be emphasised enough. Yes there is a lot of work but I want the place - minus the roaches! Anyone got any spare capital?
So much potential

This next day really took the biscuit (such an odd phrase) from this period of indecisive travel. Still wanting a beach location we moved a couple of hours down to coast to Santa Clara - a place we had read had lots of self catering Cabanas to rent.
Being away from the town the same taxi driver came to pick us up from where he had dropped us off only 18 hours before and he did us a favour by dropping us at the bus stop directly behind the required bus on the Pan American Highway.
(You do know that the Pan American runs from Alaska all the way down the Argentina? Now that is a road trip)
Imagining Santa Clara to be a more developed location we expected the bus to drive along the promenade and we would jump off wherever we saw fit.
Once again it was not to be and we found ourselves covered in dust as the bus pulled away from us at the roadside with nothing around us on the highway. Fortunately at that moment (I don't know how it all works out) a taxi came up to drop a local at the bus station and he took us down to the beach.

We lasted precisely 1hr 20mins at Playa Santa Clara. There were exactly 2 places to stay, one place was full but the crap room would be available the next day and the other was $90 per night; plus there were no kitchen facilities, only a really expensive sea front restaurant!
There was nothing to be done; a full 9 days before expected we would be heading for Panama City, all we had to do now was get back to the highway that was 4kms walk away along a windy uninhabited road and it was raining and muggy.
Arancha announced that she would manifest us a cab out of thin air and 2 minutes later one appeared who just happened to be dropping some goods off at the restaurant. Seriously, we were at the end of a track where only people visited in their own cars - there never should've been a cab here.

Straight out of the cab and onto the approaching bus to the capital was surely pushing a lucky travel streak wrapped around this abysmal travel week too far so I was happy that we wouldn't need to waste our good travel karma anymore for the next couple of weeks.

After only getting 5 days in Costa Rica and traveling to 3 non distinct destinations in Panama (although Las Lajas really had a lot of offer) we approached the capital of Panama City and crossing the Bridge of the Americas over the Panama Canal with the high rise city skyline glinting in the setting sun over the Pacific Ocean in front of me the previous few days paled into insignificance - I was where I wanted to be, in the city I have long coveted and having all this extra time may actually not be enough!
The skyline of the 'new' Panama City
So, to answer the question could we organise piss up in a brewery? Probably not, but I reckon it would all still work out for the best anyway!!


No comments:

Post a Comment