Savannah Grace

Caribbean Side of Panama and Costa Rica

Sorry for the delay in posting the continuation of Ammon and Sasha’s trip. My computer died and now I have replaced it and we carry on with the travels:

Almost everyone I’ve talked to that has been to Panama has told me that I must visit Bocas del Toro. Such consistent (and insistent) recommendations should not be ignored, so with the limited time we had we prioritized a visit to this archipelago of small islands off the northwest coast of Panama. Fortunately, they are easy to get to and although we got dropped off at the small coastal town of Almirante at 4:30am we didn’t have to wait too long for sunrise and the first of the small speedboats to begin the crossing to the islands. We first passed through a narrow channel of huts on stilts (it’s the kind of place where kids take canoes to school) before hitting more open water and crossing to Bocas town, the largest of the settlements and main tourist hub for the area. It is rainy season in Central America now so we have been under constant threat of rain and thunderstorms. Brief, strong showers are not uncommon, especially in the afternoons and the high humidity is inescapable.
This is for the most part clear, warm Caribbean waters and Bocas has a lot of tour agencies and activities on offer. It’s a backpacker to mid-range vibe, no big resorts and fly-in packages. There are a few beaches outside of town on the main island. We crossed the island on the local bus and visited Starfish Beach which was pretty though tourists have killed most of the starfish at this point so there weren’t many to see. If you like your beaches with warm shallow water, a thin sliver of sand to lay on and a lot of palm trees then look no further.

Walking out to Starfish beach
Starfish beach

With the limited time we had, rather than using the little inter island boats to independently try to visit other beaches in the area, we opted for a cheap day tour that would take us around to a number of sites quickly. It started with dolphin watching in the bay, a bit of snorkeling, relaxing on a beach on a small uninhabited island, observing sloths in the mangroves and finally more starfish. None of these things blew us away but it is pretty and we enjoyed the day.

Our little tour boat

I can see how people could spend longer than planned relaxing at Bocas but that wasn’t an option for us. Not only was time a factor but also money. Panama is definitely more expensive than the last few countries we’ve been in and that also had us motivated to keep moving along. From Bocas we caught a morning boat back to the mainland and from there negotiated a shuttle to the border where we walked across a little bridge into Costa Rica. It is the quieter border crossing side of the country and we got through and on the next bus without any hassle or too much delay.
Our first stop in Costa Rica was Cahuita and we knew right away we would not be spending long in the country. Costa Rica is ridiculously popular, much more so than the rest of Central America, mostly because of its reputation for safety, stability and natural beauty. If you want to have a safe, family-oriented tropical vacation and not have to worry too much and have money to burn, it’s great. For us, not so. Outside of Patagonia, Barbados and Antarctica, I think Costa Rica was the most expensive place we went this year. I’m not always against spending money (despite what the rest of my family will tell you) but I am only willing to do so when there is perceived value in doing so. I don’t feel the need to spend random time on beaches or in national parks just because they are popular, so we specifically targeted certain activities we knew we could accomplish quickly and successfully and left the country in 5 days.
The first activity was to see sloths in the wild. This was a major bucket list item for Sasha and while we had seen a sloth in a park in Cartagena and just a couple days before on our boat tour in Bocas, neither had been good enough to leave us feeling truly satisfied. Sloths are very common in Costa Rica. You can pay lots and go see them at some “rehabilitation” sanctuaries and even hold them I believe, or try your luck with seeing them in a national park somewhere while hiking. We’d heard that it was pretty much impossible to not see them at Cahuita National Park so decided to take our chances there. Unlike almost all other parks in Costa Rica, Cahuita NP is easily accessible without a vehicle, doesn’t have an entry fee (it is by donation only) and doesn’t require a guide (though having one can make wildlife spotting much easier). The entry to the park is at the edge of the town of the same name and we spent several hours walking the 8 km trail through the park. It is described as a loop but is an incomplete one as it leaves you at the other end of the park on the main road where you can easily get on a local bus or shuttle back to town. The trail parallels a nice beach which seemed to be what most local tourists were visiting for. There were 2 places where we had to walk through small streams but otherwise the trail was mostly shaded and well laid out, at times just a sandy path and at other times an elevated boardwalk over flooded land. We saw (and heard) howler monkeys which we love, capuchin monkeys, sloths and a variety of birds and smaller critters. We had a great day and would definitely recommend it.

Sandy trail through Cahuita NP
A stream to cross
Cahuita beach

It seems that most people rent a car or use shuttles in Costa Rica. We were on the public buses as always and it wasn’t difficult or uncomfortable though we often had to hold onto our luggage because there was nowhere else to put it. We made it from Cahuita to Tortuguero village in a long day using a combination of 4 buses and a boat. Tortuguero is a small village on a sandbar built between a river and the remote northeast coast of Costa Rica and not accessible by road directly. It is a popular destination however, especially during various turtle seasons when sea turtles come ashore to lay their eggs. Fortunately for tourists there are 4 species of turtles here and they lay at different times so there is usually something going on. The green turtle laying season starts in July and we were right at the beginning of it. As planned.
Tortuguero National Park lies just outside the village and is dense jungle cut by waterways and canals on their way to the sea. Wildlife is also abundant here but the only way to visit is by boat tour or on a short muddy hike along a limited trail paralleling the coast. We started the morning with a two and a half hour canoe tour into the national park. We saw birds, a caiman and some more howler monkeys. This is a very wet area, especially in the rainy season so it’s not surprising we got poured on. Maybe that is why we didn’t see as much as I expected. That afternoon we got poured on again as we went stomping around in the national park on a flooded and muddy trail.

Boats to Tortuguero
Tortuguero port
Mother and baby howler monkeys
Tortuguero beach
Tortuguero village

Just after sunset we met with our guide for a final foray into the park, this time with a walk back along the muddy trail to a staging point where we would wait until the local turtle spotters found a turtle for us. It is done this way so that the tourists spend a minimal time on the beach itself where they could damage nests or scare away any turtles that haven’t committed to laying yet. Once a female turtle is finished digging her nest  and begins to lay her eggs she goes into something of a trance and it is safe for us to approach. Only a red light is used and no photos are allowed so we don’t have any but if you get a chance it is a pretty amazing thing to see. The lightning was good for viewing the turtle but when it finally started pouring we ended up heading back a little early. It was a 2 km walk back to the village in the strongest downpour I’ve been in. Usually these only last a couple of minutes at such strength but it was ferocious the entire walk back. I’ve never been so fully clothed and that wet before. My rubber boots were full of water by the time we got back. Fortunately it was warm enough and we weren’t eaten by jaguars (apparently lots of turtles get eaten so it could be a thing) so we had a good but busy and wet day overall.
The following morning we had the unpleasant task of packing up our gear (still wet) and traveling all the way across the country to its second largest city, Liberia. This entailed taking the boat back out of town (the water level had risen significantly in the 2 days we were there and several homes were flooded in the village and surrounding area) and 3 bus rides and took about 11 hours. It was our final night in Costa Rica and we were merely staging ourselves for the main, western crossing into Nicaragua the following day.

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