Two countries, one blog post? Bizarre, I know! Unfortunately we literally had just one week in Central America, and so only experienced a tiny snapshot of these two countries. Having only visited one location in each country, there’s no way I can offer you an abundance of tips or advice on where to go. But what I can tell you is they’re both beautiful countries, and they will going back on my never ending wanderlust bucket list!
We flew into Panama City from Medellín landing in the afternoon. With such little time and not hearing great things about Panama City, we decided to get a bus straight up to Bocos del Toro and spend our time there instead. Panama uses the American Dollar, (although you’re likely to find some Panamanian Balboa coins floating around) and luckily between us we had a enough left over from Ecuador to scrape together the $20 taxi ride to the bus station. Panama will take your purse and rigorously shake out every penny you have (unless you’re David Cameron of course), and the simple task of withdrawing cash is no exception. We literally tried every single ATM in the bus station to find there was a standard charge of between $4 – $5.25 per withdrawal. Despite picking one with a $4 charge, I was ultimately charged $5.25 on my bank statement, so there’s proof the jammy bastards really will bleed you dry! We got the last bus of the day at 6.30pm costing $27.30. The bus was meant to arrive around 4am, but for the first time we were glad that the buses are always late, as it meant less hanging around for the first boat on the other side! From the bus stop we paid $1 each for a cab to the boat house and then $6 for the boat to Isla Colon. Be mindful that anyone who helps you with your bag, your door etc, etc probably isn’t being chivalrous – they will be expecting a tip.
By the time we were on the first boat around 6am, the sun was beginning to show itself. Our tired eyes stayed open just a short while to appreciate the serene and tranquil beauty of the early morning sunrise. Trust me, it doesn’t happen often. Our hostel was a short walk from where the boat docked and with check-in not until 3pm, we ate the free breakfast like zombies and then slept on the sofa in the TV room all of the morning and into the early afternoon.
I’m pretty sure Selina Hostel was designed for mermaids; hanging out over the water and with an open terrace from which you can jump directly in, the place is perfect for water babies. The retro VW camper van turned sofa and totally chilled out bar and restaurant is literally three metres from the waters edge – without a doubt one of my favourite breakfast spots of the trip so far. As the sun goes down (or earlier if you’re so inclined), you can perch at the bar or on the second floor terrace and sip on the most amazing passion fruit piña colada slushies made personally by the lovely English barman named Caspar. As hostels go, this place is pretty dreamy.
We overheard someone talking about a small food spot a stones throw from the hostel, so we located it and then headed there for dinner. Named ‘Pin Up Cafe’, it is known for its $14 whole lobster and phenomenally good Argentinian ice cream (which I can vouch for). Being so close to the water, it seemed only right to have the lobster, which was small but meaty, and so damn tasty. Somehow I managed to hold myself back from buying a scoop of the super expensive ice-cream… tasters are free though so make sure you ask to try the salted caramel! Annoyingly the Cafe surprised us with adding a compulsory 10% tip and 14% tax on top, so it all worked out a little more than we had expected. Exhausted after 4 continuous days of flights, buses and boats, we got an early night.
The next day we were joined by Matt and Tom whom we’d spent some time with in Santa Marta and Palamino. It was Matt’s 24th birthday (cough, cough), so we spent a bit of time at a small beach on the other side of the water ($1.5 water taxi fare each way) and then headed to the super market to buy booze and bits for a birthday dinner. The supermarkets in Bocas are all a bit questionable/shit, and have a distinct and unpleasant smell, so we didn’t hang around too long. We opted for the fail-safe fajitas and a 1.75 litre bottle of Abuelo rum with ginger ale, which was worryingly finished by 8.30pm. Amy, Tom and I ended up going to bed but Andrea and Matt briefly made it to a club where Matt was convinced he had left his shoes, even though it turns out he never actually went out wearing any. By that standard, I think it’s fair to say he had a good night.
Bocas is a pretty cool town that seemed to attract a lot of good looking people. Every person is rocking dreads or bouncy beach curls and is holding either a surfboard or a skate board. You really notice the influence of the Caribbean, in the chilled out but active surfer and Rastafarian vibe it exudes. Being isolated and in Panama it is exceptionally expensive however, so don’t plan a long stay here if you’re travelling on a budget.
Next door but one to our hostel happened to be the #1 restaurant on TripAdviser. Although ‘restaurant’ is probably a strong word; imagine a hipster pop-up food truck somewhere trendy in London, minus the pretence, plus a lot more sun and you’re on the right track. Capitan Caribe deserves its high accolade – the small menu is simple but spot on, the food is fresh, the atmosphere welcoming and the prices surprisingly lower than elsewhere. The young Panamanian owner sat down to introduce himself and have a quick chat, but not in an invasive way at all. The whole experience matched the chilled vibe of Bocas and was a bit like popping around to your mates garden for a BBQ. The first time we ate there (yes, of course we visited twice) I had fresh red snapper tropical ceviche and a side of patacones (fried plantain fritters or chips) which is one of my favourite everyday foods that I sampled in Colombia and Panama. The second time, I had the ‘El Abuelo’ burger which contains the following: ground pork patty, coconut bread, guacamole, crispy grated green plantain and a rich sauce of Abuelo rum and passion fruit. Need I say any more.
On our last full day in Bocas we decided to do a tour to see some of what the archipelago had on offer and cram in as much as possible. We came across a tour company in town and picked one that had a range of activities. I stupidly forgot to jot down the name but the office is almost opposite Cristina Supermarket/hotel on Calle 3a. The tour cost $35 with discount, but we did a pretty good job of seeming like we might do something else by ourselves so the lady gave us it for $30 each. A hungover Matt and Tom joined us, only just making the boat whilst they argued over who didn’t set the alarm. The day started with dolphin spotting at Dolphin Bay. We saw a few from afar and then were lucky enough to have two come and swim quite close to the boat. The day before had been blazing sun, but just our luck we had a dark and cloudy day. As we approached Zapatilla beach it started to rain, but somehow in the space of 10 minutes the clouds cleared and the sun beat down on us as we raced to put some sun cream on. We spent an hour on the island which minus the crowds was like something from channel 4’s Shipwrecked (what happened to that incredible programme?!). After that we went sloth spotting which wasn’t too fruitful as their camouflage game is strong, and then went to a shallow area of water to go starfish spotting which was much more fruitful.
Andrea and I arranged our get away to Puerto Viejo in Costa Rica via the hostel for $27, and Amy made her way with the $33 dollar ticket we had bought and then forged when leaving Colombia. The journey route was the same, but she arrived a fair bit earlier than us so it may well be a case of you get what you pay for! There was a lot of waiting around for boats, for buses, for taxis and the border crossing wasn’t exactly efficient either. Make sure you keep a few dollars spare as Panama charge you $4 when you exit the country!
An Air BnB for three of us worked out cheaper than a hostel so we treated ourselves to a private apartment about 5 minutes walk from the beach. It was basic, with just two beds, a microwave, fridge and a shower that ended up breaking…but it was just what we wanted. On the top floor, we had a balcony area with a hammock, and even a little sloth sleeping in the tree right out side. When you spend your days in large dorms, hiding your shampoo and locking away even your most undesirable belongings, it is an absolute god send to be able to spread out your stuff! With everything in Costa Rica so expensive, at points we found ourselves actually hungry for the first time. For dinner we got a very average fajita meal for 3500 colón, only to later discover an all-you-can-eat sushi promo night down the road for only a few thousand more. I actually died a little inside and ended up buying a very overpriced chocolate banana bread to drown my sorrows. I got over it quickly when we wandered down the beach and witnessed the most vivid sunset I’ve ever seen.
When you’re an increasingly broke traveller, an obvious activity is a totally free beach day; so we spent our day in Puerto Viejo doing exactly that. We walked about 2-3km down the road and found ourselves a quiet little spot. Conveniently opposite the bus stop in town is an ice cream shop called Deelite which does the most incredible chai flavoured Italian ice cream. We chilled there whilst we waited for the bus to San Jose, which cost us just over 5000 colón. If my memory serves me right, there are 3 buses a day at 9am, 11am and 4pm. When we got on the bus we were surprised to see a French family whom we had met in the Atacama Desert way back in early February. Since then, the super cool family had visited numerous South American countries and even taken a trip to Miami, yet we ended up meeting again on this cramped little bus in Costa Rica. More proof that the world is a funny place and very small indeed.
Arriving in San Jose bus station late and our sleepy heads not totally with it, we ended up getting royally mugged off by a taxi driver. Classic. We crashed for the night in a cheap guesthouse close to the airport and then got up early for our flight to Mexico City. The taxi to the airport was included in our stay, so we didn’t have to worry about being taken for a ride again! My now very light purse didn’t quite know what hit it when we arrived at San Jose Airport. I was somewhat less peeved at Panama when we found out we had to pay $27 dollars to leave Costa Rica. Considering they don’t even use the American dollar, we didn’t have that cash on us, and the lady behind the desk refused to tell us what the card charge was. She was incredibly rude and unhelpful (surprise, surprise), but after some discussion and Amy being sent to the back of the queue like a little school kid, we got there in the end. Airports are expensive places – that goes without saying – but San Jose is on some other level. They force you to ditch your liquids but then charge you £5.36 for a litre of water… A measly cinnamon bun? That’s gonna set you back another £4.20. We ended up doing a survey for the tourism board who told us that the airport is 200% more expensive than the rest of the city. Moral of the story is don’t go to San Jose airport hungry or penniless. Or Costa Rica for that matter. You will regret it.
Love, Lottie xx