Sunday, January 19, 2014

Bocas del Toro, Panama...Our First and Only Border Run

We chose to travel to Panama for our first visa renewal while our residency was in process.  The drive from Atenas to Bocas del Toro was a six hour driving experience. Four and a half hours of driving and one and a half hours of border bureaucracy, broken up with a little beach action in the Caribbean. The kids were amazingly great for being in the car all day because we tried to make it fun. We left early, as usual, still to only reach San Jose during rush hour around 8 am.  After passing through the hell that is San Jose, we enjoyed driving through the cloud forest Cordillera mountain pass. The vegetation is huge, and we are from Texas where everything is big, but the fern and elephant ear leaves are as large as the hood of your car. Sheer cliffs and periodic small waterfalls line the road with almost no facilities or road shoulder, so if pregnant wife and kids have to pee, they are doing it on the side of the road, the Costa Rican way. This route is the only way to the Caribbean side of Costa Rica and vice versa, so it was amazing to see so many cross country hikers, bikers, everyday pedestrians, and cyclists making the often, very steep, wet trek.
Descending from the cloud forest the road took us over more rivers than we could count (It’s funny that street signs are almost nonexistent in Costa Rica but every river has a name and a sign) and through several small towns that I like to call the Mamon capital of Costa Rica. Mamon are a red spiky looking fruit originating from China that after peeling off the spiky cover it unveils a delicious grapelike center. It seems like there is a mamon stand every fifty meters before arriving in the Caribbean city of Limon.  We bought 1 kilo for less than $2 US and the kids went crazy over the process of picking them apart to get to the wet, grapelike center.
Approaching Limon the enormity of the port city comes into view with eighteen wheelers and shipping container yards dominating the landscape. Costa Rica, being one of the world’s largest fruit suppliers, is validated with Del Monte and Dole distribution centers along the way. A quick right turn before getting to the center of Limon takes the trip down the beautiful Caribbean coast to the border of Costa Rica and Panama.  The drive south down the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica takes about an hour before reaching the Panama border. A two lane road hugs the coast and is often cut into by Mangrove Rivers and canals that flow into the ocean. We decided to stretch our legs at the beach and let the kids play in a very small beach town of Playa Cahuita.
The rainy season brought a cloudy day and rough seas that masked the clear blue water, but it was easy to see, that on a clear calm day, it would have been just what we would have expected from the Caribbean Sea. Sand on Playa Cahuita was unlike the typical volcanic dark beaches. It was a perfect camel color and as soft as cotton as our feet sunk in deep. 
Native trees provide a canopy along the beach and to our surprise we saw a sloth clinging motionless on one of the highest branches. Returning to our car we took notice of the afro Caribbean influence with the locals sporting long dreads and the smell of jerk cooking in the air, amongst other things. The folks there were kind and happy, and I offered a few hundred colones (about fifty cents) to the young man who supposedly watched our truck while we walked on the beach.  Had we known there was a shower facility at the entrance, clean, I might add, we would have foregone the ritualistic beach bath on the tailgate of the truck. The clouds saved our pale skin and the kids had a ball making it a perfect break to the long voyage.
The border town of Sixaola is about 20 minutes South from Playa Cahuita.  Along the way are vast banana farms as far as the eye can see. Our next stop was the highly anticipated border experience. Arriving at the border there is plenty of safe parking available with options to either drive across or walk across the wood plank bridge with another river below. We purchased an exit permit for our vehicle for $15 US in San Jose before we began our trip.  After standing in lines and shuffling paperwork for about 30 minutes, we received our exit stamp to leave Costa Rica. Then we drove hesitantly across the bridge while our vehicle was sprayed for bugs, inspected and directed to park on the Panama side. There we met a nice young man that knows what lines to stand in and how to get the quadruple copies of paper work through the system. So we followed him around for about 1 hour standing in one line after another and, finally, we were on our way. We could have navigated the system with our broken Spanish, but we definitely think he saved us time and aggravation.  We paid him some money and bought him a fresca and dropped him off along the way to Almirante.  We avoided his warnings to slow down and got a speeding ticket in a speed trap that we still have not paid. We tried, they do not take credit cards and will not give us an address to send the money, but all the Ticos we know, told us they never pay their Panamanian speeding tickets, so Pura Vida! As we approached the coast in Almirante, we were flagged down by a very fit older man on a bicycle waving us to a gated parking lot next to the ferry boats.  He gathered all our luggage, strollers and cooler and carried our belongings to the boat for a small fee with a huge smile on his face.  The boat ride was a blast, very bumpy and a little wet.  The kids were in heaven and the views to the island were not a far distance away.  
When we arrived in Bocas del Toro, the hotel was just a few steps from the boat taxi.  We stayed at Hotelito del Mar which was very clean and affordable. The lobby and rooms were whimsically decorated with hand painted murals of ocean life.  After a refreshing shower and change of clothing, we hit the strip and caught the sunset with some locals and many tourists. We noticed all the restaurants were stick built on piers above the water.  We chose a great restaurant called El Pirata because of the large cannons on the street that we had to peel the kids off of. The aroma led us inside and we were so pleased with our choice.  Just like in Costa Rica, the wait staff was accommodating to our nosey children, allowing them to walk behind the bar and roam through the kitchen, as if they were family.  They even have a large cage in the center of the deck, submersed in water and filled with live lobsters. We ordered the whole snapper that was served with only salt and lime, but somehow, after our long journey, it was the best fish we ever tasted.  We devoured our mariscos (seafood) and headed back to the hotel for a blissful night of R&R.  
The next morning, we were delighted to find the taxi boats served breads & coffee and left every hour for the mainland.  As nice as the island visit was, we were eager to begin the long trek home.  However, the journey home was much quicker and the early morning border crossing was less crowded than the afternoon before, so we coasted through and made it back to our home in Atenas in about 4 hours. It was a great experience and a beautiful trip, and thanks to the clouds it was cool and our skin did not take too much of a beating. Pura Vida!

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