I figured, maybe if you liked my post on Rarotonga that maybe you’d find my experience backpacking Central America funny given that it was very different. Brace yourselves, this post is longer. 10 days, 2 sisters, way to many buses with no air-conditioning and at one point a walk across the border of 2 countries.
My sister and I decided we wanted to go on an adventure and after nixing Thailand due to it being monsoon season there, we settled on Central America! I was set to go for 10 days to Panama, Costa Rica & Nicaragua. My sister Loren planned to travel all the way from Panama up to Belize over the course of 3 weeks with another friend. Unfortunately, our friend was unable to go last-minute so our plans changed and since we couldn’t get a flight out of Nicaragua for Loren, we decided to fly out of San Jose.
We booked our flights only 2 months in advance through CheapoAir for round trip airefare on Copa Airlines. For the price, it’s not a terrible airline. We were also informed by the CDC (Center for disease control) that we would not be permitted into Panama or Costa Rica without a yellow fever vaccine. No biggy, we’ll call our doctors and get it right quick. Nope. Yellow fever vaccines are obviously not in high demand in Orange County and if you don’t go to the clinic in Lake Forest and pay out the wazoo, you have to find a Walgreen’s that happens to carry it. After multiple trips back and forth to a Walgreens 40 minutes away (The Walgreens 3 lights from our home had just so happened to recently run out) we finally received the painful stupid shot and our paperwork that we’ve been vaccinated.
We left on a monday on a red-eye to Panama City with ZERO set plans once we landed. That’s right, we decided we’d make no choices and backpack our way through Latin America jumping on buses and booking AirBnB’s along the way or staying in hostels. While it seemed adventurous and fun, it was also incredibly naive.
We landed in Panama City under the assumption that some airport employee’s would probably speak English since neither of us speak Spanish. Nope. We were hustled through customs and spit out into a large lobby area with no seating area and people moving about solely speaking in SPANISH! Idiots. Immediately I felt sick. I am responsible for my baby sister, we are in a foreign country where we don’t speak the language and we made no reservations for accommodations. THANKFULLY, a somewhat English-speaking airport employee could tell we were confused and put us in a cab and told the driver to take us a hotel in the heart of the city. (Still so grateful for that man, where ever you are sir!)
We arrived at a nice building, The Coral Hotel. The neighborhood didn’t seem scary and the concierge spoke English (thank god). And we booked a room to try to get our bearings. Luckily wifi in Latin America is much easier to access and FREE. So we made our calls home to let everyone know that we hadn’t been human trafficked yet and that we were okay. And we went to the roof on the 9th floor where they actually had a nice pool that NOBODY was in with an insane view of the cityscape.
After taking advantage of the fact that nobody else seemed to be boiling from the inside out like a thanksgiving turkey and took a swim in the pool, we finally started to make a plan. Loren had done some research on where she wanted to visit in Panama and we decided on Bocas Del Toro. Crystal blue waters and a boutique resort called The Firefly. We figured we could do one night in a dream treehouse in the middle of the jungle. So we looked up the bus schedule to get us there and realized that it was that same night and it was an overnight bus ride and we now had to catch a cab back towards the airport to a HUMONGOUS bus station, at 11:00 o’clock at night…
We found our way through the million windows for different destinations to BOCAS DEL TORO! We loaded our bus that was air-conditioned and basically a greyhound. A man boarded and approached us and lifted his shirt to reveal a very rugged abdominal growth and that he has every rider give him money so he can get his surgery to remove it. Given that Loren and I were caught off guard, we gave him 5 bucks. He proceeded to shake everybody else down, and disembarked our bus.
That is when the real fun began. We did not dress accordingly for the frigid cold air conditioning in the bus since it was 95 and humid all throughout Panama. The bus ride was over night, how hard can that be? We’ll sleep! No…For one, you’re to cold to sleep. Plus this is a 12 hour bus ride on scary skinny roads in a giant bus, over beaten roads, through very rural areas and then straight through the jungle. We were both awake for majority of the trip watching out the windows at a world far far different from anything we’ve ever been exposed to. There are no street lights. Only the lighting of the fires in front of the homes on the side of the road. Or the moonlight in the rainforest that shone down on the scattered homes throughout these dense trees and brush.
We made one stop around 3 am in the middle of nowhere jungle at the busiest little rest stop I’ve ever seen for that hour. They even had a bakery open. Lo and I who are eaters, made sure to load up on food before boarding the bus again. For the next 7 hours we drove windy roads and froze our butts off until we arrived to another location where a cab (which I use that term loosely) was to drive us to Almirante to hop on a boat to the main island Isla Colon, Bocas Del Toro.
*Clearly thrilled after about a 14 hour trip.
We hopped a boat to Isla Colon, and another directly to Bocas Del Toro. The water was so CLEAR! The wind and sun felt wonderful after being boxed up in the bus all night. And we were finally feeling on our way to a real sister’s trip! Oof! Nobody warned me, and again my naivete got the better of me when my excitement was immediately squashed upon seeing countless sickly looking dogs and cats, tied up or passed out in the middle of the walkway. The ones that broke my heart, were a mother dog and her tiny puppies tied up under a house on stilts by wiring and 4 other dogs tied up near her in the same condition. Laying in the dirt, on discarded trash and metal roofing. Poor Loren, I lost it. Completely broke down. I will attribute my mental mishap to lack of sleep and culture shock.
Well, given that I cannot see animals in this condition and do nothing, I asked if there was a local store where I could buy dog food. They had little packages of pedigree for 69 cents and I bought about $100 worth and marched my ass up to the house. The husband was unfriendly, probably because some American girl was walking up with bags upon bags of dog food demanding all the dogs be fed and given water in front of her. The wife was actually funny in the way she humored me. Over the 4 days we stayed in Bocas, I went everyday twice a day to make sure she had fed them and given them fresh water and at least attempted to remove the poop around them. Loren and I even bought every dog a collar and soft rope and towels to lay on so that if they must be tied up, it not be by stiff electrical wiring. (Some assholes stole the towels from them in the middle of the night, so I replaced them with burlap sacks in hopes nobody would steal those). I still think about that mama and her kind eyes and crave for love and her puppies. I will spare you the photos I did take and only ask that you consider donating to the only reputable organization I could locate that helps spay and neuter the dogs and cats of Panama, http://www.spaypanamasanimals.com/. Apart of me, was left with all the dogs and cats of Central America…
After my “minor” nervous breakdown, we did get to enjoy the many beautiful qualities of this tiny island. The people there were kind and outgoing. There are many retired ex-pats and the owners of The Firefly, are actually from Venice Beach. If you ever make it out to Bocas Del Toro, stay there.
We splurged and got the top room, if we were only going to stay for 2 nights. So we reserved the 3 story high treehouse bungalow. It was a DREAM! A hammock on the deck, a sitting hammock inside, comfortable bed and a complete outdoor shower with fresh rain water they collected right there on the property. Our treehouse looked out over the entire property and across the ocean view. I could have lived there in peace till the end of my days.
*Ollie the managers dog who we’d often see all over the island jumping on boat tours just for funsies.
We absolutely loved our stay at The Firefly and the AMAZING breakfasts they made every morning with probably the best fresh papaya and mango smoothies we’ve ever had.
During our stay In Bocas, we traveled back and forth from our island to the main island of Isla Colon. Met a great group of girls from Canada who were also backpacking and we all headed to “Starfish Beach” at Bocas Del Drago together where we expected to see hundreds of starfish scattered amongst the turquoise waters. Unfortunately the season we were there, there were some but not the vast amount we had hoped for.
We lounged (which is hard for my ADD to just sit and lay out on a beach) so Loren and I spent most our time snorkeling the clear water searching for starfish since there was no coral. We did find some and shot all of them. And I was even blessed by a nice sting on the wrist by a little effer jellyfish.
*Don’t worry, I only held him out of the water for about 5 seconds and gently placed him back in his place in the water. They say not to hold starfish out of the water for more than 10 seconds and he was the only one I actually touched.
We also did some exploring in town and picked up some cute jewelry to bring home and as “sisters jewelry”. The town is quite cute and everyone is so friendly and welcoming. I loved the local Panamanians.
One night, while sitting by the water we met a nice gentlemen, I can’t remember his name anymore, but he offered to take us on a hike the next day to a place called “Wizard’s Beach” and we would stop at “Red Frog’s Beach” & Pollo’s Beach. Welp, the next morning Loren and I got ready to leave with our “guide” who seemed like a nice, kind man who would just want to make some cash for a guide. We had heard that there had been some muggings of tourists who tried to make this 6 mile hike on their own and thought “Awesome! We have a local taking us, so we should be good”. Especially since the tourists were being mugged at machete-point.
So we head downstairs and the manager of the firefly pulled us aside as soon as our “guide” walked up and told us we couldn’t go with him. When we asked why, he explained that he was in fact the one mugging all the tourists with a machete at different parts of the hike and taking all their belongings and even putting bags over their heads and tying their hands behind their backs until someone would find them. HOLY SHIT! Did we seriously just almost go on a deep rainforest hike 6 miles long with the island mugger?
Thank the sweet baby Jesus for our wonderful resort manager seeing him when he came to pick us up and being kind enough to make sure we did not go with him. Instead, he sent a local who worked for the Firefly, Renee to guide us. Renee was one of the sweetest, kindest men. And despite a little language barrier, we were able to communicate really well.
LONGEST hike of my life. Through jungle, and beaches and up and down hills. We even met the legendary Pollo himself who one the beaches was named after. He was, well, interesting. But once we came upon Wizard’s Beach it was worth the 3 hour hike. We had the entire beach to ourselves. And Renee even showed us the wild grapes that you could eat right off the plant.
*Sweet Renee who waited as long as we wanted to snorkel and even showed us some cute little sea crabs.
After 4 days with The Firefly and enjoying Bocas Del Toro & Isla Colon, we planned our next destination on the recommendation of our cute hippie friends we had met. I bought another $200 worth of dog food and walked the island our last night with Loren as some sort of loud festival was happening, feeding every dog we saw. We would just poor the food directly on the ground in front of them. And on the day we left, I made sure to buy enough food for the mama, her pups and the other doggies under the house for at least a month making Renee promise me he would make sure they were feeding them and giving them fresh water.
And off we went to Costa Rica! We took a boat back to where we had come, through the mangroves and the shanty homes on stilts where we were then loaded up into cars with drivers who were to drive us to the Costa Rican border. Our driver was actually very nice in our hour and a half drive. He even was kind enough to stop the car when there was a traffic jam as people were waiting for a sloth to cross the road. Some drivers were growing impatient with him and zooming past him, so I jumped out of the car, grabbed him and set him on the other side of the road. Sloths don’t generally like to be touched, but I figured better to give him a moment of anxiety then to get squashed by an impatient driver.
We were dropped off at the immigration border into Costa Rica where we waited in line for what seemed like hours and then loaded onto a van. This all felt slightly uncomfortable to me since no cars are labeled and you have to trust they’re putting you in safe hands. We were driven to the bridge that we would have to walk across and go through immigration again.
Finally we loaded another bus that would take us to Puerto Viejo and our next accommodation, The Butterfly hostel. We had just spent $160 on The Coral Hotel that we didn’t even spend the night in and over $400 at The Firefly because we were so in love with it. So we figured we should follow our plan and stay in a hostel this time.
After quite the walk from the bus drop off, we found it! A hidden cute little hostel at the back of Puerto Viejo’s small town.
It was cute, but not what we expected. See in Central America and especially in more rural communities, you can’t flush your toilet paper. So things can get…stinky. Something Loren and I repeatedly forgot! We did enjoy a one night stay in a small private room and met an eclectic group of people from all over the world who were also backpacking and even just working to pay for their stays. We had a great night of conversation and getting some advice on where else to go in Costa Rica. We spent our first day exploring the little town of hippies and plenty of Americans. The town was cute and there were far less strays, so that made me happy.
*This was Stella, she came and had lunch with us and followed us all over town. After awhile we got concerned and called the number on her tag and spoke to her owner who said she often took herself to town and to guide her back down the road and his daughter would come get her. Which she did, but an hour later we saw Stella wasn’t done being out and passed her again.
While the waters weren’t blue, the sand was black as night. Beautiful in person and polar opposite of Panama’s beaches. We enjoyed our short 2 day stay in Puerto Viejo, but given that it seemed more of a young crowd meant for partying, Loren and I decided we wanted to make our ways to THE LAND OF THE DOGS (Territorio de Zaguates)! We had been reading about it for months and were determined that if we were in Costa Rica that was a MUST stop. Acres upon acres of hundreds of strays cared for and even available for adoption but only open on the weekends.
So, we booked a great little treehouse bungalow again but in Alajuela and boarded a 6 hour bus ride to San Jose. This bus ride was different from our last to say the least. No air conditioning, cram packed, and on what was basically a city bus.
But we finally made it to San Jose, Costa Rica. Even pulling in, we immediately felt a little unnerved. We had been forewarned to beware and to even cover our backpacks with our pack covers to not draw attention to our nice backpacking gear. We quickly found what seemed to be a nice man who offered to drive us to our destination in his pick up truck. (Their taxis vary in all types of vehicles and are never marked cabs). We showed him our address and he informed us Alajuela was not in fact a town but a Province. And where we had booked and paid for our stay was in a town called Agua Zarcas about 3 hours past Territorio de Zaguates, the only reason we came here!
Disappointed, we had no choice but to continue to our destination in Agua Zarcas. This man RIPPED US OFF! We spent 3 and a half hours in a squishy half cab pick up truck driving windy roads and every time we asked how much longer, he’d say 30 minutes. After finally getting enough service to text our mom, she called Lorena the AirBnB owner who quickly called our cab driver and all I could hear was screaming in spanish.
All of a sudden, 20 minutes later we were finally at our destination. Coincidence? No. This mother effer took us the longest route possible to make us pay $280 and sit in the car for over 3 hours when we could have been there in 90 minutes.
We finally arrived at night, tired and frustrated and hungry. But as soon as Lorena and her brother Melo came out to greet us we felt safe again. She scolded the driver in spanish and he left angrily. But the damage was done. We were to far to visit the Land of the Strays and there was no way of going now. (I still hate thinking that I missed that opportunity because I didn’t know the difference between a Province and a town).
We were escorted to the most adorable 40 foot bridge about 20 feet up above the little garden below that was lit up and entered our adorable treehouse bungalow named Inlakech. It was clean, cool and had a TV! Lorena kindly ordered us a pizza and told us to get some rest and see us in the morning. Also, she left her dog Kita and kitten Nina with us. They were both street strays that found their way to her and never left and became her personal pets and welcome greeters. Oh, how badly I wanted to just cuddle animals after that terrible day.
Agua Zarcas, Alajuela was a cute quite little town. Probably the equivalent of visiting Mission Viejo in Orange County. Not really a hot tourist spot but still quiet and safe. Though very few tourists so very few who spoke English. Lorena’s brother Melo didn’t speak or understand English whatsoever. But sweetest man. And after spending so much in our commute/rip off from San Jose to Agua Zarcas and fearing if we tried to venture further to La Fortuna that it was be a 6 hour ride back to San Jose where we were flying out of.
So we stayed in Agua Zarcas and explored what it had to offer. The town itself was quiet and calm but not much to see. The shopping was limited and not a whole lot to do. However, Melo took us on 2 amazing hikes that are never visited by tourists given this is more the countryside of Costa Rica and nobody really picks this as a destination spot. We were guided through the deep deep rainforest. (We thought the hike to Wizard’s Beach in Bocas was tough!). But it was so worth it. Melo brought us to a natural waterfall where only locals go to cool off and swim. It was gorgeous!
From there we continued on to a beautiful, free running river that we were able to dive into and float and swim.
I will tell you that trekking through the rainforest that is so untouched can really kick your booty! I twisted my foot between 2 rocks, fell countless times and walked away with multiple bruises and cuts. But hey, Mother Nature can be a tricky woman.
Our stay in Agua Zarcas, while not planned was actually a great way to spend the last leg of our trip. Our treehouse bungalow was so cozy and comforting. We woke up every morning to Lorena bringing us the most amazing breakfasts we have ever had. (Man, I wish someone would make me these breakfast every morning!)
We did get to see some Capuchins high up in the trees but it was more eery then anything to hear their howls warning us to leave while they shook the branches at us.
The night before we left we made sure to visit the enchanted thermal hot springs Termales Estrella. You’re guided down a beautiful path and across several cute bridges to a group of different tempered hot spring pools that sit right next to a natural running river. It really is otherwordly.
I loved our stay in Aguas despite not being able to cross off our list The Land of the Strays or La Fortuna. It was magical and beautiful. Kita and Nina really helped give me and Loren that animal cuddle fix. I will always miss Inlakech. And if you are ever passing through on your way to La Fortuna, I HIGHLY suggest stopping at Lorena’s even just for a night to experience the magic of her property. I can’t put it into words, and photos don’t do it justice. But look Inlakech up on AirBnB and you will fall in love.
I know this post was far far longer then my Raro post and if you read it all the way through, I thank you and commend you. For future travels, posts will be broken up while I am traveling so they won’t be so wordy! We loved Central America and it was an amazing thing to experience with my best friend and baby sister!
Thanks for reading little fishies,
(Here’s a few more photos for you!)
*Getting my energy cleansed as Lorena said that this waterfall was magical and had healing and mysterious properties.
*Miss you Nina & Kita!
Oh yeah, and our entire trip…nobody ever asked for our damn yellow fever vaccine papework. (Insert eye roll)