The first stop on the trip was Puerto Viejo. Susanne, Fadi, and I got there and checked into Rocking J’s, which definitely lived up to my expectations. The hostel is huge and you can choose to rent a hammock, tent, dorm, or private room, or you can bring your own tent. Prices range from $6 to maybe $20 – $40ish for private rooms, so really reasonable. The whole place is covered in mosaic and paintings made by people that have stayed in the hostel, the staff, and probably whoever wanted to help when they were doing it.
Here’s some pics of the hostel:
Here’s the entrance to the hammock area:
And by the toilets…
And here’s an ocean view from the main street in town:
Here’s the town:
The night that we checked in there were a couple guys playing live music – a lot of reggae and American songs, Sublime and the like. We just chilled at the bar at the hostel, played some pool and got to know some of the other people at the hostel. They had a table set out with a bunch of paint and later in the night people started painting all over each other, so by the end of the night everyone was walking artwork. We met a few Australian surfers while we were painting and made friends. I was thinking to myself before I left, I wanna meet some hot Australian surfers, and what do you know, night one, BAM, there they are. Mick, Riann (I’m not sure how to spell that one), and Rusty were their names, and they were really cool to boot – can’t beat the accent and sense of humor. Makes me think that maybe my next trip should be to Australia…
If you’re travelling alone and looking to meet some people, I would definitely recommend this hostel. Although the accommodations are pretty basic (no hot water, the kitchen sucks, and the rooms/tents/hammocks are simple), it’s character and energy more than make up for it. It’s pretty much filled with other backpackers, and they have a lot of parties at the hostel, bonfires at night, a bar and restaurant to hang out at, though the food is pretty expensive for what it is. That’s another thing that good to know: Costa Rica is expensive. The food, whether you buy it in a restaurant or grocery store is really expensive – the same as at home and sometimes more expensive for not as good quality food, especially in the touristy areas. I’m really looking forward to getting to the farm and getting some fresh, home-cooked food.
Costa Rica is a beautiful place. As far as Central America goes, I don’t know if you can beat the landscape and biodiversity; Costa Rica has gorgeous beaches, mountains, valleys, volcanoes, rainforests, waterfalls, hot springs and more. For a tiny country that makes up only .03% of the Earth’s surface, it holds 5% of the earth’s biodiversity – a density unmatched anywhere else in the world. It’s also said to be the safest of all Central American countries, with pretty low rates of crime (the capital of San Jose and a few other places have a little bit higher crime rates, but mostly just for petty theft and muggings, not uncommon for pretty much any country). Another thing I really like about Costa Rica is its relatively peaceful history and lack of military. For the rest of this paragraph I’ll paraphrase the history provided in the Lonely Planet: Costa Rica. Though Spain came in and ruled over the country and surrounding countries for a while, Costa Rica managed to avoid being taken over by a landholding elite, a slave-based economy, large estates, and mining operations. Instead the country remained filled with modest-sized villages made up of smallholders and self-sufficient farmers, and was one of the only egalitarian areas of the Spanish Empire. After a few centuries of Spanish rule, Costa Rica and surrounding countries gained independence (though Costa Rica was apparently so little affected by Spanish rule that they only learned of their independence a month after the fact!) For a few decades after this, there was a dictator in Costa Rica, and a lack of civil rights for blacks and women, but in 1919 the dictator was ousted, and in 1949 Jose Figueres Ferrer became somewhat of a hero and established a regime that is now regarded as the foundation of Costa Rica’s unarmed democracy. In 1948 there was a civil war that overthrew the government, and a temporary government was established which abolished the army, desegregated the country, and granted women, blacks, Chinese, and indigenous groups the right to vote. Costa Rica has pretty much remained peaceful, progressive, and liberal ever since. However, tolerance for the LGBTQ population leaves something to be desired. While it’s uncommon for anyone to be harassed because of their sexual preferences or gender identity, gay marriage is still illegal, and with a largely Christian population in the country, there are still some judgments. It seems the standard response is similar to a “don’t ask don’t tell”.
So that’s a bit of history, and for many of these reasons I love what this country has to offer. Additionally, Costa Rica is a global leader in eco-tourism and tropical conservation, and arguably the best place in the world to experience rainforest habitats because of an extensive and well-managed system of national parks and conservation efforts. However, the area is definitely more touristy and way more expensive than most other Central American countries. I have been told by many people that Nicaragua is up and coming, a lot cheaper, with friendly people and a beautiful landscape as well. And I really enjoyed Panama, though I was in a pretty touristy area most of the time, I heard much about other areas of the country that are much cheaper and equally picturesque and fun.
Let me just say this though: if I am going to be travelling, I plan on spending money to support the local economy. I had several conversations with locals in Panama who were frustrated at some tourists’ efforts to not pay for anything. There were a couple nationalities in particular that people in Panama (or at least in Bocas del Toro) seemed to despise. I won’t say which nationalities, as I don’t want to propagate any stereotypes, especially as my personal experience is minimal, but I will say that there was a widespread distaste for certain groups of tourists who apparently never wanted to pay for anything, and often caused problems by stealing and fighting. Now, there are certainly people who are going to try and rip off tourists, especially if you seem to have a lot of money, and so it’s a good idea to question a price that seems unreasonable. As soon as you attempt to barter, usually the person you’re buying something from will be willing to negotiate (though be aware that there are certain areas and types of stores where bartering is not common and could be offensive – trying once shouldn’t be a problem though). But asking around about standard prices for certain things will help you to know whether or not someone is trying to rip you off, and once you know there’s a standard price, be willing to pay it. We are, after all, enjoying all of the beauty and culture of new places, and it doesn’t come for free. Many places (including Central America) that are great travel spots don’t have strong economies, and it’s likely that in a highly-travelled area, tourism generates a large amount of income for an area. So be willing to support the places you want to visit! And I definitely recommend talking to locals about how they feel about tourists, the local government and economy, things happening in the town, things to do, eat, etc. It’s always enlightening and a great way to practice the local language. I definitely found that my Spanish was getting a lot better the more I spoke with people who spoke less English. In my experience, it forces me to speak the language, and I find that people are patient with me, more so than when they are fluent in English.
So anyway, Puerto Viejo was a pretty cool place. One main street on the beach with little shops, restaurants and bars. Definitely a low key place with a lot of outdoorsy stuff to do. I didn’t end up surfing there, and I don’t think that Puerto Viejo is one of the better spots for beginner surfers. The main surfing beaches in the town have breaks the crash over the reef, which can be dangerous for anyone but especially for inexperienced surfers. There were a couple beaches a bit further south from Puerto Viejo – Punta Uva and Manzanillo that were supposed to be really nice, but I didn’t get a chance to visit.
So I had this whole plan for the Caribbean coast. I was going to stay in Puerto Viejo a few days, go to Cahuita (a smaller, less touristy village north of Puerto Viejo), go to the sloth sanctuary north of Cahuita, and check out some of the local indigenous villages (Bri Bri being the closest to Puerto Viejo, and go to Bocas del Toro for a couple days. Well, Bocas sucked me in for a week, and the rest of my plans went out the window.
After a couple days in Puerto Viejo, just hanging out at the hostel and the beach, and riding around a bit on the scooter that Fadi rented – he sure loves his speed vehicles, Fadi Susanne and I took off for Bocas for “a couple days”. While waiting for the bus, we met Julio, who was living in NYC but grew up in the Dominican Republic. He was also travelling alone so I told him he could roll with us if he wanted. So now we were four strong. I have to say, I LOVE this about backpacking alone. I think it’s true whether backpacking with friends or solo, but I think that being a solo backpacker makes it even more likely that you’ll link up with others and travel together for a while. It’s like as soon as one backpacker sees another, the standard series of question ensues: where are you from? How long are you travelling for? Where have you been? Where are you going? And then if you’re headed in the same direction and like each other, well now you have a travel buddy. It’s funny, names are often way down on the list of questions asked, and even further down and often not at all, will people ask about your profession or topic of study. It seems being on the road, the information we find important about each other is very different, and it’s really refreshing to have conversation geared more towards sussing out another person’s sense of adventure and travel style than what they do to make money.
So the four of us took a bus to the border of Panama, and got to experience an interesting border crossing. Basically there’s a little stand on one side of an old bridge, in the town of Sixaola where you check out of Costa Rica and pay a $3 fee to enter Panama. Then you walk over the bridge with all your stuff and check in on the other side, in the town of Guabito. There’s a bunch of taxi and shuttle drivers that are waiting there to give people rides. We found a shuttle, and joined up with two of the three Australian guys from the hostel, who were randomly on our bus to Panama. Luckily there were only about 9 of us in the shuttle, because Mick and Riann said the last time they went to Bocas and caught the shuttle they squeezed 18 people into it and a bunch of them had to sit on the floor. On top of that they had people’s luggage piled so high on the roof that it all kept falling off so they had to keep stopping which made the trip way longer than it was supposed to be. I was grateful that this wasn’t the case this time (though later, when leaving Puerto Viejo for the second time I would have my own experience of having to sit on the floor of the bus with feet and limbs in my face – not the most comfortable, but I guess it’s all part of the experience).
The shuttle then took us to a boat in Almirante, where we said goodbye to Mick and Riann, and Julio, Susanne, Fadi, and I hopped on the boat and rode about twenty minutes to the island of Bocas del Toro , an archipelago off the Caribbean coast of Panama.
Susanne and Fadi on the boat:
As soon as I stepped foot off the boat I knew I liked this place. It was a good-sized town, a lot going on but a small town feel. There were lots of people milling about in the streets, the water was beautiful, and I immediately felt a really nice, warm energy about the place and the people.
Julio and Susanna walking to the hostel.
We got off the boat, gathered our stuff and set off looking for a hostel, and I couldn’t stop smiling as I thought, yeah, I’m gonna like Bocas.