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Total Time: 12 days
Exchange Rate: 1 dollar=1 balboa=1 dollar; it’s weird, they use US currency
Cost of a Typical Dinner: $2.50 at a local soda where you get chicken, rice and lentils or around $15.00 at a nice restaurant
Number of Cities Visited: 4
Number of Public Buses: 5
Number of Boats: 5
Number of Taxis: 17
Favorite Place: Bocas del Toro
Least Favorite Place: Almirante
Best Food: Italian meal at La Posta
Worst Food: “Meat Platter” at Lenos & Carbon
Number of Illnesses: 1 (Joshua’s first mosquito bites: 30 on one ankle)
Places to Visit Next Time: San Blas Islands
Worst Law: A T-shirt must be worn at all times in the city.
Local Beers (listed by preference):
Once we left the cushion of Joshua’s Aunts’ company, we had to fend for ourselves. We found a hostel in Casco Viejo near where we had been staying. It was in an old, traditional building filled with original art and had a great view. It seemed like a no-brainer.
And then we stayed there. It was like the opposite of a college party where everything looks better at night and turned into an ugly demon which we battled four nights in a row. Joshua described the hostel like the classic Westley Snipes film, “Blade,” where you are welcomed into the best party you’ve ever been to and then it starts raining blood and everyone around you turns into a vampire. Basically, we stayed in a shoebox sized room directly above the nightly traveler party spot. In addition, we only had two toilets for 100+ people, did not have A/C, and the dirty hostelers who STOLE our food would smile at us at breakfast. I hate to publish this on the internet, but I’ll be 30 years old this year which is far too old (and wise) for this B.S.
But I lost my cool a little when I taped this sign to the fridge.
When the music would end at 3AM and the drunk hostelers yelling down the halls and banging on the doors would finally pass out, Joshua and I would try to fall asleep in our individual puddles of sweat. Without touching at all, that first night we made a pact to avoid party hostels whenever possible in the future.
We re-learned how to eat at local sodas/fondas where meals of chicken, rice and lentils would fill our plates and bellies for $2.50. It didn’t have quite the same flavor as we had become accustomed to, but it provided calories, vitamins and sustenance enough to make it to our next meal.
Our first solo adventure in Panama was to see “The Hunger Games” or “Juegos de Hambre.” It just so happened that our movie date coincided with half price movie night in Panama! Every Panamanian that lives in the city was at the movie. The line was like Disneyland. We waited 25 minutes just to buy our tickets, but then we got to select our seats too, all for a whopping $2.25 opening week. Quite a deal.
We were nervous about the Spanish version of the movie…would be be able to understand the anguish Katniss was feeling in the arena?! Lucky for us, the version was in English with Spanish subtitles. Did I say lucky? I mean it was the worst idea ever. Either the Panamanians couldn’t read or they chose not to because there was not a quiet person in the theater. It was like inviting every person who has ever been known to talk during the movies to this specific showing of Hunger Games. Long, loud conversations in every direction detracted from the action on screen. Although we weren’t entirely pleased with the casting, I would have liked to hear the dialogue. I can’t imagine what a sex-scene would do to this crowd. There was so much hooting and hollering when one actor would suggestively look at another that you’d think we were watching a porn. The movie did not live up to our expectations and the crowd was rather frustrating, but overall, it was a memorable cultural experience.
We toured the Panama Canal Museum which was entirely in Spanish, meaning we understood less than half of it. We tried, which is why our brains hurt as we left.
We finally added to the curio cabinet we will own someday. We hunted for the perfect mola which is an indigenous embroidered cloth artpiece. We bought ours from the smalled woman EVER. She almost refused our proposal to take a photo, but we wanted to remember who had crafted the new piece in our collection.
Joshua was fascinated by the colorful woven baskets, some of which we were told take up to 8 months to make. German, our taxi driver, joked it could only take 8 months if they were made by an armless woman. Nevertheless, they were beautiful and testament to the true artistry of the Panamanians.
One painful personal moment occurred during the Men’s US vs. El Salvador soccer match. In a must win situation, the US team gave up a game tying goal in stoppage time that eliminated them from qualifying for the London Olympics. My cousin is a star on that team. My family, including us, has tickets to London for the Olympics! I guess my mom won’t have to pack the jersey’s anymore…We were in the process of leaving a celebratory message when we saw the score change on espn.com. My family is still in mourning for my cousin.
For the last 67 days we have lived like backpackers. We have stayed in hostels. We have cut corners on food. We have washed our underwear in the shower or in Joshua’s case—not washed it at all. We have seen great sights. We have met inspiring travelers. We have lived. We had to shed these personas upon arriving in Panama City. We got to become vacationers.
Actually, it took a few hours and Joshua’s Aunts’ physically landing in the country for us to make this transformation.
At 5am we found ourselves at the bus terminal in an unknown location in Panama City. We had our bags with us and had just stepped off the arctic 12 hour bus ride from Bocas (which we were very sad to leave). We knew check-in for our apartment we would sharing with Julie and Sue wasn’t until 2pm. What do you do in a city on a Sunday at 5am when you are tired and hungry and tired and have 9 hours to kill? Joshua makes you walk around and explore until you can’t walk anymore and then you go to McDonald’s. McDonald’s in Panama was like heaven. It had plush seats, flat screen TVs, free wireless internet, bathrooms, air conditioning and unlimited fountain soda. As we waited for things to open, we made a list of activities that would keep us entertained: 1. Hunger Games in Spanish, 2. Bowling; hey, our options were limited. And much to my chagrin, what did we do: CONTINUED WALKING.
We did manage to see a good portion of the city, although we didn’t know what we were looking at. We got a great view of the bay.
We saw fish markets in full swing.
We passed through the “tenderloin” of Panama.
We stayed in Casco Viejo. It is the original area of Panama City where the President still works. Most other buildings are also from the 1800’s, although they haven’t been maintained as well. The city is working to repair and restore the buildings back to their original glory.
Right now, it’s full of dust and construction men who whistle. It does house some of the best restaurants in the city…Joshua and I had to pinch ourselves while dining in them. ”Best restaurant” has not been in our vocabulary for quite some time. ”Best street food,” perhaps.
Our stay in Panama was luxurious with Julie and Sue. From our apartment we had a view of the bay and entire skyline of downtown.
We had a large bathroom, updated kitchen, cal-king sized bed and other amenities that we hardly recognize anymore (washer and dryer?!) Julie and Sue definitely know how to live. We used TripAdvisor to locate the best restaurants for each meal.
We drank wine.
We tried ceviches.
We hired a cab to take us anywhere and everywhere that we wanted to go. Our cab driver, German, ended up being an integral part of our trip. He accompanied us on many adventures, provided recommendations and spoke Spanish with Joshua.
We participated in the arts. When we noticed that the National Theater was holding an art festival, we located tickets online and found ourselves at an incredible Cirque de Soleil (you know how much he loved that) mixed with modern dance and hip hop. We were all stunned by, not only the beauty of the theater, but also the talent of the dancers. We were late for our dinner reservation because we couldn’t pull ourselves away.
We visited the Panama Canal which was originally started by the French. When they couldn’t complete the work, the U.S. stepped in and found a guy (after three tries) to make it happen. They dredged up rock from the river, widened areas and even cut through the earth to allow boats to cross from the Atlantic to Pacific or vice versa in 9-10 hours instead of the 14 day trip around the tip of South America. The canal was completed in 1914. Forty to fifty ships pass through each day, some paying as much as $400,000 for their load. The U.S. ran the canal until 1999 when they gave it back to Panama. Panama has decided to increase the capacity by creating a whole new canal that will allow ships 2.5 times the current size (already MASSIVE). Their goal is to have it completed by the 100-year anniversary in 2014. They are, however, using the SAME machines and tools they used to build it the first time.
The Panama Canal is a huge tourist draw. You can find people from all over visiting to see the lockes in action. Joshua happened to run into a rabbi from Beverly Hills who was taken by our trip. He offered to perform a daily prayer with Joshua to provide good luck and good fortune during our travels. Why not?! Help has come in many different forms for us on this journey.
We did a tour of the actual waterway that makes up the Panama Canal. With Carl.
Now Carl is a little bit of a misfit from the states who has found a place to call home on a houseboat parked in the Panama Canal.
He has a strange sense of humor that is somewhere in between not funny and a really awkward comedian picking on the audience bit. For the first hour, my eyebrows were raised. And then, we made it to the houseboat in the middle of nowhere where he became comfortable and friendly and funny (finally!). He showed us animals he has rescued, took us to a hidden waterfall by kayak and amazed us over and over again with his wacky personality.
Embracing our life of luxury, Joshua read about the Tailor of Panama. A family who has made custom suits for over 80 years. They have dressed presidents, ambassadors, the military, Pierce Brosnan. Joshua, inspired by a suit purchased in Norway that acts as the perfect reminder of the trip, thought this would make an amazing souvenir. The first answer from the Tailor of Panama: No time. The second answer (after the prayer was performed): Come in. And with that, we rushed in to meet the legend and begin the process.
Shortly after arriving, we realized we had not done enough research! What cut? Which fabric? How many buttons? What type of slit? The lining? The buttons? Too many choices! But when we return to the States, Joshua will have a suit made exclusively for him through a memorable event in Panama.
Notice the man in the picture with Pierce is exactly the same who measured Joshua. He’s worked there for 40 years!
The whole reason Julie and Sue were in Panama was to participate in Julie’s President’s Club with her company. She won (she almost always does). So we said goodbye to them as they headed to Playa Bonita for 4 days of pampering at an all-inclusive resort. We, then, moved on to a loud and dirty hostel full of disgusting travelers. BUT, we snuck in. Actually, his Aunts’ generously figured out a way to get wristbands for one day (anything is possible in Panama). We drank free drinks, ate free food, took free snacks from the mini-bar, ordered all inclusive room-service, slept in Heavenly beds and used towels with more thread count than I personally own. We felt like criminals, but it was also like crack. We just couldn’t stop, but we had to because there was another Panama waiting for us to explore.
Joshua and I have never really celebrated anniversaries; instead, we have an annual JBL - Just Because Love vacation. One of our JBLs took us to the Florida Keys. The collection of islands known as Bocas del Toro is about as close as it gets to the Keys while still being “foreign.” It’s the kind of island where all drinks should be consumed with an umbrella straw and most should be partially rum.
We made it in one day from Costa Rica which pushed every connection to the last minute. It sounded impossible considering the last boat left for Bocas at 6pm…but in our most lucky and seamless travel day yet, we stepped foot on Bocas before dark. We immediately surveyed all the activities available to us and figured out what we could do in our allotted time.
As should be the rule in Bocas, we spent most of the next day on a boat. We visited Dolphin Bay where 4 types of dolphins play in the water. They are attracted to the area because of the mangrove islands that act as fishing nets making their food prevalent and easy to catch. Our boat sat in the water and dolphins jumped and played all around us. Photographing dolphins is not a skill I possess. It would go something like this: “Joshua look,” my jaw would drop, I would remember to take a photo and catch one of the dolphin re-entering the water. My “late in the game” photography did not do the event justice! Other companies’ boats, however, didn’t even get the chance as they raced around to the dolphins, which would scare them away…an ugly part of tourism.
We went to Zapatillos Island National Park…an uninhabited island that is surrounded by a beautifully abundant reef. All we had to do was float above the reef and schools of fish would swarm us in all the colors of the rainbow. Luckily our SCUBA training allowed us to identify parrot fish, queen angel fish, trumpet fish, puffer fish, Srgt. Majors, grunts…
The Zapatillo Island itself was full of trails leading to deserted beaches…the kind with white sand, one palm tree, turquoise waves, that illustrate every travel website in the world. Some of the charm was lost on us since we’ve been jumping from one beautiful beach to the next.
We made friends with another Bay Area couple. We watched them pound a few beers on the boat and immediately knew they were on a real vacation…it wasn’t quite jealousy, but close. We decided to meet for dinner and drinks later…we could be part of the fun for a night, but it wouldn’t be sustainable for our travels. I asked if they would take a picture of us from the waist up since I wasn’t wearing any pants. Unfortunately, they (or their 6 beers) thought the picture was more fun this way…
They did turn us on to the best cocktails we’ve had so far on our trip. A small sushi bar, run by a young Canadian girl, had a fresh fruit cocktail happy hour that we indulged in, not just for one night but two, so we could sample every option on their menu. In a fairly well-rounded judgement, I would say the passion fruit blueberry martini was incredible by any country’s standards.
We woke up to the sound of a torrential downpour one morning which encouraged us to do a few things: sleep in, lay around and read books. Doing nothing in Bocas del Toro was extremely difficult because there was so much action and it felt wrong not to maximize our time, but the rewards for us mentally far outweighed my guilt. The rain was so powerful; walking in it would have been the best shower we’ve had on this trip…not any colder and at least, the most pressure. It cleared up after 45 minutes, but the ominous clouds kept us within a short sprint of our hostel for the rest of the afternoon.
We made up for our lazy day by going all out the following—rain or shine, we decided. An early morning boat trip allowed us to explore Red Frog Beach without company. The beach area is known for a few species of poison dart frog, but most famously the bright red ones. At first, the beach looks no different than any other, but as soon as you see one little guy (about the size of a thumb nail), you can start picking them out from afar. Joshua was way better at spotting them than I was, but you’d hope that would be the case considering he paid for brand new eyes last year.
Just one island away, was another animal oddity: Starfish Beach. Giant starfish sit on the floor of the ocean in the shallow break. I had always thought starfish latch on to rocks and tide pool areas for security or deep down on the ocean floor…these guys were out in the wide open.
Of course, wherever we go, Joshua looks for places to play. He has been eager to climb palm trees the whole trip, but I adamantly discouraged him for fear that he would come crashing to the ground like a coconut. When he saw these trees hanging over the water, the perfect opportunity presented itself. Joshua stripped down to his panties (in case he fell in) and Mowgli’d up the tree with no problems.
The atmosphere in Bocas was magnetic. It sucked us in to the island life. Many travelers never leave. I get it.
But our time was limited by the fact that Joshua’s Aunt won a trip to Panama City through her company at exactly the same time as we had planned to be there. She brought her sister a few days early, so we raced (12 hours overnight on a FREEZING cold bus) to Panama City to meet them!
Total Time: 10 days
Exchange Rate: 510 colones/dollar but everyone pretends it’s 500 even—good for us!
Cost of a Typical Dinner: 4000 colones includes chicken or fish, rice, beans, salad and a batido (milkshake)
Number of Cities Visited: 8
Number of Public Buses: 15
Number of Boats: 0
Number of Taxis: 2
Number of Hot Showers: 5
Favorite Place: Uvita
Least Favorite Place: Puntarenas
Best Food: Jungle Cafe fish tacos
Worst Food: Gallo and we were dumb enough to try it twice the same day
Number of Illnesses: 2 (ingrown toenail and back spasm)
Places to Visit Next Time: Montezuma
Most Popular Saying: Pura vida maje.
Local Beers (listed by preference):
Another traveler recommended “The Flutterby House” to us, but at the time we never thought we would make it all the way to “Uvita.” When we saw fliers in Dominical that it was only 14km away, we called them immediately to book a cabin. We took the early bus and made it down there as everyone was still eating breakfast. The vibe at this place was great: cool travelers, mix of luxuries like internet and a nice kitchen with rustic cabins and tree houses. It was sad knowing we only had one night.
It is right at the entrance to (meaning you don’t have to pay) to Ballena National Park which is a marine park in Southern Costa Rica. It is one of the only places they’ve noted humpback whales mating in the world. Two pods of whales travel through this area each year; one heads up past the California Coast and the other travels to Central America from Antarctica. It is home to several types of dolphins—we just missed the mating season. It has some ridiculous amount of sea-birds, coral, turtles, etc. With our timing, we missed an official tour, but at least we got to explore on our own.
Joshua did some surfing.
We got a chance to walk out to the “Whale’s Tale” at sunset/low tide. The tide goes out far and exposes a rocky area full of small tide pools in the shape of a whale’s tale. Walking out towards the end of the beach, you notice the waves crashing at you from both sides. We didn’t manage to see any whales, but it was the BEST beach in Costa Rica, for sure.
The picturesque beauty of Uvita wasn’t fully lost on the fact we had to leave Flutterby the next morning at 4:30am to make our bus. It was late, so we waited per usual. Joshua did some exercise.
Our next series of buses was unreal. We walked off one, on to the next. We had maybe 1 minute to gather our thoughts in between stops; and we were off over the Panama border. It was the shortest 12 hour travel day we will ever have.