I’m now in Costa Rica, country 111. The last 10 or so days have been interesting and full of adventure. Upon leaving Santiago in central Panama I took a four hour bus trip to David, Panama´s second city, then a local bus for an hour’s ride into the beautiful fresh aired mountains. Destination Boquete. It’s a backpacking haunt within a smallish city lined with restaurants, bars, cafés and many hostels to cater for all. I was staying at Hostel Nomba, half way up the large and long mountain. A taxi from downtown to the destination cost me 2 US dollars, Panama’s current currency. Nomba is a smallish hostel with a couple of dorm rooms and several privates. It’s run by an interesting American named Ryan in his late 30s. He likes to become friendly with his guests and is a character. It’s run with few staff, mostly volunteers, so things don´t always get done as efficiently as some guests might like, but it is a fairly cheap option in a quiet area and has breakfast included and a bar-restaurant most evenings.
People visited Boquete for hiking the mountain trails. This was my plan. However, upon alighting from a taxi to hike the Quetzal trail, one of the area’s most challenging and more well known, I was promptly told I couldn’t under any circumstances hike, too dangerous!! I returned to the hostel, gained directions to a nearby river and set off down the road, cane in hand, walking along the road edge. Many of Panama´s cities and town don´t have pavements. I followed the road and continued walking when it veered right. 10 minutes trekking took me across the metal bridge I’d previously crossed by taxi. I listened the gentle flow of the river and followed across the bridge and up the rolling hills into the mountains. An hour of walking-climbing took me into more open countryside and farm land. This I discovered when asking directions from a nearby motorist. I was told the gradients increased from this point and was offered a ride back into town. I was dropped near a paved footpath, which I followed using the sound of the traffic to guide me, this had me in the centre within 15 minutes. Once in town I found a ´Fonda´ – a local Panamanian restaurant which serves rice, beans, chicken, chicken or beef soups and a variety of other local cuisine. They´re extremely cheap and a good place to met locals and practice some Spanish! I attempted to do a rafting trip and also a zipline canopy tour, the rafting was cancelled due to lack of water in the river and the zipline company refused to take me on the grounds of not being experienced enough with blind people. I considered it their loss of money and continued my adventures.
I met several German couples at the hostel and the odd American or two. One afternoon an interesting, friendly German couple, Ryan, the hostel owner, and I went to the nearby natural hot springs. Ryan charged too much, but he drove us there and back and spent four hours with us, so I suppose the 29 dollars was okay. The hot springs only costs 1 dollar to enter. Natural rock surrounds a pool of hot water, which leads from a small flowing river containing much cooler water. I had a dip in both cool and hot water, before taking a horseback ride from the local farmer and owner of the land. An hour’s ride through narrow forest in almost dusk conditions was peaceful and relaxing.
The following day I met up with an American lady named Natalea who I´d previously met in Portobelo. She´s originally from Slovakia but now lives in Florida. A cool relaxed girl who likes nature. We hiked the Pipeline Trail with an older guy from Pittsburgh, USA. It was fun, a mostly rocky trail with several rustic narrow bridges with only one rail and a large drop if you slipped! The trail gradually steepened before ending in large rocks which lead to a waterfall. I didn’t hike the last part as it was deemed too rocky and steep. Quetzal birds were spotted, a rare sight, so we were lucky.
I heard a band play in the downtown square one evening and they rocked, but with the songs in Spanish! So after five days in fresh hilly country I headed to the Lost and Found Jungle Hostel, one of Panama´s most famous backpackers’ places. What a place, what a challenge. I took a bus back to David, an extremely hot town and then a two hour ride on a smaller bus to the bottom of the mountain trail, which is the start of the Lost and Found property. A trail rides its way steeply up the mountain slope through dense jungle forest with large thick trees with large leaves. I was lucky, as when I alighted the bus, one of the hostel staff was just returning from a hike and guided me up the trail. Steep gradients lead to narrow uneven rock steps, the trail undulating continuously with many switchbacks. Tripping and sliding, my cane being entangled in many bushes and branches, huffing and puffing, sweating continuously, I finally reached the top and descended several rocky steps to the hostel. An interesting place, which to my mind, resembles a castle or more likely a fortress. The complex is comprised on several levels with a main open reception and outdoor dining area with picnic tables and several steps, one stairway of stone steps leads down and around to toilets and private rooms and another set ascends up the mountain to the showers and eventually via a series of rough cut and uneven flagstones to the bar, a wooden shack-like structure. I was shown around and settled. It is a difficult place to navigate if you are sighted, but blind is very tricky. Other guests helped me find my way and at the end of my two day stay, I felt I’d mastered most of it! Dinner is available for 6 dollars a night and food is available too for a small fee. I bought cereal each morning for breakfast, tea-coffee is free. Several tours are available, including taking a bus to a waterfall or a river canyon. Several paid tours with guides are also available. The most popular activities are the treasure hunts, prices being a bottle of beer and drink in the bar. I headed to the bar on both nights and met several interesting people including a Canadian couple in their late 30s and a lovely cool Australian couple. They showed me how to pay Jenga, a brick building game where three wooden blocks are place in one direction, say horizontally, and the next 3 bricks are placed on top in a vertical direction. Once all blocks are placed, the idea is for each contestant to remove one block or brick without collapsing the tower and placing it top the structure. The first person to collapse the tower is the looser! Great fun. There was a larger version, which created lots of noise and cheers from the guests each time it collapsed!
I attempted to visit a large waterfall after being guided back down the mountain on my first full day at the hostel. However, it being Holy Week in Central America, buses were few and a local man told me in broken England and Spanish “canyon too much water!” Eventually I turned back and made my way slowly up the trail. I eventually made a wrong turn, climbed too high, came of the end of the trail and became lost, surrounded by thick trees with strong large trunks. It was extremely peaceful with a cool wind and hardly a sound, delightful. I descended several times, retraced my steps, swung my cane over the ground and eventually found rough ground, which resembled what I took to be a trail, worked my way down and when I heard voices turned a corner and found some people heading to the hostel. I followed them and was helped back.
The next day I again descended the trail and took a bus to Almirante on the Caribbean coast and took a boat taxi to Bocas de Tor archipelago. The name means ‘mouth of the bull’ in Spain. It’s one of Panama’s provinces and has some land on the mainland as well as an archipelago consisting of four main islands and many smaller ones. I headed to Isla Colon, where Bocas del Tor town is situated. I couch surfed with an interesting English guy named named Stuart. I didn’t know until I met him, he’s an alcoholic and likes to take cocaine! Unfortunately, when I arrived in Bocas, it was the two main days of the Easter celebrations, and in Bocas they were having a 48 hour complete alcohol ban! This didn’t amuse my host too much! We walked around the small town on my first night he described the layout and some of the buildings as we passed. I had dinner in a Chinese place, which was reasonable.
Next day we met up with some of his friends, Anita from North Carolina and her friend Lauren. We started with brunch in Boa Vista before eventually deciding to head to BB’s, a beach and restaurant on the next island, Caranero. A watertaxi took us there in under two minutes. A short walk lead us to the sandy beach surrounded by rocks. The restaurant has a large wooden deck over the water, very nice. After beers and fruit juices all round, some of the restaurants were selling booze despite the ban, we hit the beach and I entered the sea after stripping. We later walked a trail through a small forest and as the evening began we returned to Bocas. Stuart introduced me to some more of his friends and we had a laugh.
The next day I took a watertaxi back to the mainland and a minibus taxi on to the border. It’s possible to do this trip via two public buses for less money. At the border, a Panamanian guided walked me across the old railway bridge and helped complete the immigration procedure on the Costa Rican side. I had been told that I’d needed a flight out of Costa Rica, but nothing was asked for, not even evidence of having had a yellow fever vaccination before. Maybe because no one spoke any English, maybe because I’m blind, maybe because it was a Saturday, I don’t know, but it was a formality.
I was now in Costa Rica. An hour and half bus ride later I reached my first destination, the party town of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca. It’s a beach town on the Caribbean. I stayed at Rocking J’s hostel, a huge complex, which caters for over 300 guests if it chooses. I stayed for three nights and slept in a hammock, not the most comfortable, but the cheapest option. Finding the toilet at night was a challenge. The many guests from various countries helped me out. They have a large bar and play lots of Caribbean and reggae music often extremely loudly. However, one is able to escape to the more tranquil forest and beach to sleep in a hammock or swing with a tyre swing. The hostel is most intriguing, the floors designed in many different mosaics and the columns created with hundreds of small tile pieces. Messages are written or carved on several walls and the large bar is also tiled. Food at the hostel is mostly American but the rice, beans and chicken in coconut sauce is Caribbean and delicious. A 14 minute walk takes people into the small lively compact town which clings to the coastline. Mainly comprised of shops, bars, restaurants, banks etc. The best bar being Hot Rocks, which has lively music nightly. I visited on my last night. My first night was spent on the beach in gentle rain listening to the many Costa Ricans talking a laughing, many of whom had travelled from San Jose for the weekend partying! One guy played a drum continuously, keeping the partyers entertained all night. Many people smoked joints and relaxed.
I attempted to do a zipline canopy tour on my first full day, but again was frustrated by health and safely rubbish, apparently, I needed a specialist guide and one wasn’t available. My money was returned and I relaxed on the beach. In the evening I met more people including a lovely older Costa Rican lady named Petrica who composes instrumental music and plays piano. I bought one of her albums, great stuff. Next day, I walked into town, tried to find an internet café, fell in a hole and eventually found the main bank where I changed my US dollars into Colones, the local currency. I met a German couple during my walk back and they helped me find the hostel. Later I met an Italian guy who I´d previously met in Panama and hung out with him and his Costa Rican girlfriend.
On my final morning, in Viejo, I did a tour to an animal sanctuary called the Jaguar Centre, where I was informed about slouths, toucans, various parrots, an ocelot, which is a cat-like animal that is nocturnal, and several other animals. These are mostly rescued animals and the centre works without government support and is run on donations. They have their own portion of rainforest and many of the rescued animals are released back into the natural habitat. After this tour we visited and hiked down to a small waterfall. I met an English guy named Layth and we hiked down together, slipping and sliding over the wet terrain. The final stop of the tour was at a chocolate making house. We were shown how the entire process worked from the tiny seeds, which can be used as medicine to the final sweet sugary chocolate. At one point in the tour pregnancy was mentioned, which seemed a little confusing as I’m not sure of the connection between chocolate and being pregnant, maybe some local ritual! Finally we were permitted to taste several different types of chocolate, from vanilla to nutmeg, coconut to black pepper. Once the tour was over, I was dropped at the hostel were I grabbed my backpack and headed to the bus station to catch a five hour bus to San Jose. More to come later.