On our own, Costa Rica and Panama
05/01/05 to 05/10/05
We were looking forward to heading to the Caribbean side of Costa Rica and
into Panama, but we had been spoiled by our organized tour.  Now we had to
make all our own arrangements.  We had the group drop us off at a hotel in
San Jose, and we headed out the next morning on the 6:00 AM bus to Puerto
Viejo to see the black beach and do some scuba diving.  We were both pretty
disappointed.  Being so cheap, I found us a hostel to stay in for $13.00 a
night.  We had a communal bathroom, and our room was a tiny box with a
bed and a ceiling fan.  The ambiance throughout the whole town was very
laid back, hippy, marijuana smoking, etc.  The people were not outgoing or
friendly, and did whatever they could to not work.  It was a very strange
situation.  The only good part was that for the first time during our trip, all the
restaurants offered vegetarian food.  Not just regular food without meat, but
real vegetarian burgers, falafel, hummus, etc.
Anyway, not only were the people a let down, but so was the black beach.  
We had stopped strictly to see this famous beach where the sand is black.  It
was very nice, but due to a recent storm, the beach was strewn with logs,
twigs, brush and stuff, so it was hard to take in the beauty of the black beach.
We walked a bit farther, and did find a gorgeous beach, but with regular colored
sand.
Our other planned adventure in Puerto Viejo was a scuba dive.  The dive was
fun, but we saw the same type of animal life as we had seen in Cabo San Lucas
and Aruba.  I was starting to think that all dives would have the boring old lobster
and same old fish.  I did get a chance to play with my new underwater camera
though, and got these cool pics of a huge ray.
After two days in Puerto Viejo, we headed to the border to cross into Panama.  
Our bus was 15 minutes late, not out of line for Costa Rican standards, but would
come into play when we finally got to the border at 12:00.
We got stamped out of Costa Rica, walked across a scary bridge into Panama,
only to find that the office to stamp us into Panama had just closed for lunch.  
Damn those 15 minutes!!  We waited the half hour for them to return, and then
another 15 minutes for them to really return, before paying our $5.00 entrance
fee and getting our stamp.  We jumped in a cab with a couple we had met while
waiting for the office to open {Hi Roberta and Jacob!} and raced to the boat
dock to try to make the 2:00 boat.  It was about 100 yards gone when we pulled
up, but our taxi driver started honking and yelling, and the boat turned around to
get us.  We were very grateful because the next boat wasn't until 3:30.  This was
a 45 minute boat ride through old canals built by the banana plantation, out into
the ocean, and finally to Bocas del Toro.  The ride was amazing.  What caught
our attention even more was the indigenous people in the little canoes carved out
of logs.  Here we were on this normal looking motor boat, passing people
floating around in old trees.  Our driver would slow down slightly passing them,
but still managed to run one guy up onto the bank with our wake.
We were tired and hungry, so we got the first cheap hotel we could find,
dumped our bags and headed out on the town to find a better hotel, food, and
stuff to do the next day.  We checked into scuba diving, but decided we needed
a more relaxing activity, so we signed up for a catamaran sailing and snorkeling
adventure.  We also found a much better hotel on the north end of town.  For
the same price (plus I negotiated a discount for staying 5 nights) we got a similar
crappy room with no air, but the hotel had a back patio/dock that was just
amazing.  The view was fabulous, they had a hammock and rocking chairs out
there, and a constant cool breeze.  We moved to the new hotel first thing the
next day, and headed out on our catamaran adventure.  Everything was
amazing.  Here is the view of the "skyline" as we left Bocas Town.
I had been worried about finding the same old stuff that we always did when
we went scuba diving, but this was totally different.  We snorkeled right off
the mangroves, so there was a ton of wild life, and there were coral reefs
everywhere.  I took so many pictures.  Here's my favorite one, Richard
petting a starfish.
Some of you know that
Richard has always wanted to
live on a sailboat.  Well, the
last several months he has
said that he really wasn't that
interested in doing that
anymore.  After riding on this
beautiful catamaran, and
seeing how smooth it sailed,
we've started talking about
living on a sailboat again!
Back to our hotel, as I mentioned, the view from the back deck made the
old, run down room worth it.  Here is the sunset view from the deck.  
(Different catamaran, which again had us talking...)
We even had a few
unexpected visitors.  In this
picture, Richard is greeting a
lizard friend who decided to
drop in and hang out above
our bathroom door.
The next day we took a water taxi over to Bastimentos island to take their
nature walk to the beach.  We should have been expecting anything based on
all our experience with "nature walks" in Texas.  This one was no exception.  
The first half of the walk was steep and uphill.  About 80% of the walk was
in the full sun, which not only was extremely hot, but also slightly painful
since we had gotten just a little bit too red during our 8 hour sailing adventure
the day before.  The second half of the walk was steep downhill, which since
it had rained early that morning, was extremely slick and muddy.  We were
expecting a thriving beach where water taxies would come and we could just
catch a ride home without walking back.  Nope, all we found was a tiny hut
that sold expensive water.  There were only two other people on the beach.  
So back we trecked over the island to catch a taxi back to Bocas town.  That
afternoon, we went out onto our favorite back deck to relax.  Richard was
reviewing his new map of the area--you know how he gets about maps, and
a guy named Basilio approached us to "explain" the map to us.  He is the
father of a few of the girls who work in the hotel, so he hangs out there all
day, hoping to pick up tourists to give boat rides, until his daughters get off
work so he can boat them home.  Anyway, he was speaking in Spanish, and
explaining the map to me.  The best part was when he pointed to the
compass rose and said, "this island is called Tiger Island, but it doesn't look
like a star, and it's a lot smaller than this, it must be under this star."  He was
serious, and looking just a little confused about why they would draw the
island in a star shape.  Being that this whole conversation was in Spanish,
Richard had no idea what was going on.  Anyway, we agreed to take a trip
with him in his rustic dug-out boat on Friday if he could round up more
people to make the price cheaper.  We were going to go see his Indian
village, then to an island in the north that is supposedly where Bocas del
Toro got it's name.  There are caves on the island, and so when large waves
rush in, it makes the sound of a bull, hence the name, "mouths of the bull"  
Bocas del Toro.   So that night I made the mistake of telling Richard about
the whole compass rose/island issue, and by Friday morning he had found
every star on our map (it was a tourist map with attractions listed, so a lot of
them were starred) and promptly found Basilio to ask him the names of these
strange, star-shaped islands.  In Basilio's defense, Tiger Island is on the map,
right below the compass rose, and it is very small, so the old man's eyes
probably just couldn't see it.  Anyway, Basilio had been scouting more folks
for our trip when he had hit a gold mine of American's who wanted to go
beach hopping, so he was going to have his brother take us.  I told him he
could just take us on Saturday and he was so happy to be able to keep both
his fares that he agreed--even at a lower price per person even if he didn't
find more people to go with us.  So now it was Friday morning at 8:30 and
we didn't have any plans, so we went for breakfast at the restaurant where
the dingies tie up and gave warm smiles, friendly hellos and puppy dog eyes
to anyone coming or going, hoping for a ride to the marina and a look at
some sailboats.  It didn't work.  We had talked about taking a water taxi to
the marina, but based on the qty of dingies at the restaurant, we figured
everyone was in town for the day.  We had been wanting to see the rest of
the island--land side rather than water--expecting to see some civilization, so
we took the only bus which goes to a beach on the north end of the island.  
The bus left a 1/2 hour after the posted schedule, and it was full with kids
who had just gotten out of school.  This allowed us to see a bit more since
we were stopping at these little houses along the way to let the school kids
off.
We finally got to the beach, Bocas del Drago, and were only slightly
surprised to find nothing.  A beach, one restaurant, several closed hotels and
one house.  We should have been thrilled with the amount of buildings after
our long hike to Whizard's beach only to find a run-down bar, but the fact
that the town had a bus going there 6 times a day had led us to believe we
would find a few more businesses.  So we got a beer at the restaurant and
spent our time waiting for the bus to return (two and a half hours) talking to
an American couple.  The guy claimed to be Panamanian--he was born and
raised on official American soil surrounding the canal, when to American
schools, and spoke little Spanish, but that didn't stop him from having
Panamanian citizenship and claiming to be the authority on all things
Panama.  (This was his first trip back in 8 years.)  He told us that he spoke
"street Spanish" and that this got him a lot of respect.  He told us how this
respect hot him a bargain boat ride that he had taken the day before for only
$90.00.  We just smiled and remembered our catamaran cruise, $60.00 for
both of us, and our planned trip with Basilio $30.00 for both of us, and
thought how sad we were that we didn't speak "street Spanish."
Saturday morning we had our trip with Basilio planned, and were supposed
to leave at 9:00.  However the power was out, Basilio didn't have any
gasoline, and the pumps weren't working because there was no power.  All
the good ole boys gathered around to discuss the gas issue.  I reminded them
that on our way to Bastimentos Island in the water taxi, we had seen a "gas
station" that was just a kid in a shack on the water with a bunch of milk jugs
filled with gasoline--no electricity needed to pour those in the tank.  They
knew about that place, and several others like it, but they had to have good
ole boy talk about it for a while more before making any rash decisions.  
Finally they went and got gas.  We were about to head out when two more
guys asked where we were going and decided to join us, so Basilio made his
60 bucks after all.
Our first stop was Basilio's village.  Interesting.  No one seems to work, or care
to.  Is is a community of about 150 or 200 indigenous people, but everyone
throws their trash on the ground, and no one seems to care.  They have water
run to the houses, but no plumbing.  Shower and dish water goes on the
ground, and they have to walk to little huts over the water to go to the
bathroom.
Then we got back in the boat for the long ride to Bocas del Drago.  Basilio's
island is on San Cristobal which is south of Colon, Bocas del Drago is on the
north tip of Colon.  Remember that we were in one of those hollowed out logs,
so we were stitting on wooden planks.  Our butts got sore very quickly.  We
stopped at a small beach before Bocas del Drago.  Basilio told us it was called
star beach because of all the starfish, which of course prompted Richard to ask
which of the stars on the map was that beach.  Basilio speaks very basic
English, so I think he got that Richard was poking fun of him, but I'm not sure
he gets why.
Anyway, there we were, back on Bocas del Drago for another three hours
while the rest of our group ate in the only restaurant and played on the beach.  
I had checked out the menu the day before and had seen that they had nothing
vegetarian, so we had packed some granola bars and were walking along the
beach looking for a shady place to eat them when I almost got killed by a
coconut.  This huge green coconut fell out of a tree and hit the ground 2 or 3
feet form where I was standing.  I wonder how many people are killed each
year by falling coconuts?  Anyway we found a nice place to sit--not under any
coconut trees.  We tried to snorkel, but I had gotten such a bad sunburn on my
bottom lip the day we went on the catamaran that stretching it around the
snorkel and the salt water were too painful.  Besides, there was nothing to look
at.
We finally left and went to see Pajaro" island.  (Which is not the name on the
map, but that's what Basilio was calling it.)  This island is on the "outside" of
the string of islands that shelters the area, so as soon as we rounded the tip of
Colon Island to head out to Pajaro Island we got hit with huge waves.  It was a
crazy ride.  According to Basilio, the dugout canoes are better in waves
because they don't bang their hull like the fiberglass ones do.  What he failed to
mention is that the waves come into the boat.  Everything was wet.  That's
why the picture is kinda blurry, water on the lens, but you can still see the two
caves, that look like a bull's nose, and waves crashing into it.  The wind,
waves, and boat motor were too loud, we could not hear any noise from the
island to verify Basilio's story.
Sunday was our last day in Bocas del Toro.  We had talked about renting a
little sailboat, but after our full day cramped up in Basilio's boat, we decided a
sailboat wouldn't be a good idea.  Instead we walked up the east side of the
island to see what was there.  We had gone about 5 miles up, and were
hoping for a taxi to come by for a ride back, but that didn't happen.  We saw
a lot of new construction, looks like were the Americans are buying all their
land.
Monday was a full day of traveling, boat rides, bus rides and taxi rides until
finally we were in San Jose, back at the hotel.  A cup of coffee at our host
mom's house, cats fighting on the roof all night, and knowing we had to get
up at 3:15 did a good job of not letting me sleep at all.  Our taxi came at 3:45,
and we spent all day Tuesday traveling to get home.  We finally arrived in
Brownsville at 4:00.  Our truck was still in the parking lot, no problems, and
our RV was still in the RV park, also with no problems.  We're glad to be
back.