Panama: David to Santa Catalina – the first leg of our road trip via the Panamerican Highway

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After a few days of hanging out in Domi, it was time to cross the border. It was nice to start our trip in a familiar place and to see some friends. It was an easy way to make the transition, though, as I mentioned in my last post, it didn’t eliminate some of the inevitable travel anxiety. I’ve been in a really transitional period for the past couple years (blame it on saturn return 🙂 and I think that travel, or any foray into the unknown, can accelerate the process of transitioning, at times causing anxiety and emotional upheaval. The other side of the travel coin is that new activities, landscapes, and people bring so much joy and discovery during difficult times, which creates a nice balance. I find it easier to move through emotional and spiritual transitions when I have a lot of new stimuli coming my way. If I don’t stay moving (physically, mentally, spiritually) the stress of change coupled with a feeling of stuckness creates tension that, for me, makes moving through that change more of a stunted struggle rather than a graceful flow of peaks and valleys. I think this is one of the reasons I really enjoy traveling and trying new things, I want to move through tumultuous periods quickly and smoothly. It’s also a decision to expose myself to as much new knowledge, perspective and possibility as I can while I’m in this raw and receptive state. So in keeping with this instinct, I was ready to move along from Dominical and into the as yet unexplored territory of Panama.

We consolidated our stuff into one suitcase and one small backpack, left the rest at Cool Vibes with Sri and Celine, and hopped on a bus to Panama. The first bus ($5) was around 4 hours and took us south to Ciudad Neily, through Palmar Norte. We passed by the Osa Penisula, but didn’t stop this time, though I am hoping to make it here sometime in February – maybe to Bahia Drake, or into Corcovado National Park, as it’s somewhere I wanted to go last year and didn’t. It’s the most densely biodiverse area or the country, and also super hot, humid, and somewhat dangerous to explore in depth without a guide (there are jaguars, aye!) More updates on this if I make it there. But anyhow, on to Panama we went.

In Neily busses run every 30 minutes (for $1.50) to Canoas – a border crossing town. It took maybe 30 minutes to get to Canoas, where we had to wander a bit to find the right place to cross. (See end of post for logistical information). Once we got into Panama, we caught a little bus to David ($0.50), the first major city once you cross into the border, and an easy place from which to depart for other parts of the country. We spent a night in Bambu Hostel ($33 for a private double room with bath, cheap coffee, walkable to town, pool, bar, wifi, overall a nice place to stay). We went to a Lebanese place for dinner (I forget the name), which was really good – delicious hummus! Albeit a little more expensive than we aim to pay for meals. We’ve found that we can eat out for less than $5/meal (especially if we stick to traditional, local food), but it does take a little effort, and a lot of restaurants are priced higher – very similar to prices in the U.S. – in both Costa Rica and Panama. We generally look for rooms with breakfast included, which helps defray the cost of eating. I also brought 5 jars of peanut butter and homemade peanut butter power balls (all sorts of good, healthy stuff mixed with pb – great energy! – I’m willing to divulge the recipe to anyone who asks nicely 🙂 Peanut butter is expensive here and of generally poor quality (think Skippy).

In the morning we caught a taxi to the airport to rent a car (taxis in David are fixed prices to certain parts of town – we didn’t pay more than $3, but the outskirts of the city could cost more…) The airport seems the way to go for easy car rental, with all of the companies right there for easy comparing.Budget ended being cheaper than the rest by half ($18.50 per day), with the biggest expense being a fee to leave the car in Panama City instead of returning it to David ($190 – whoa). We also didn’t have to get collision through the rental agency because I have it through my travel insurance (a MUST! – Last year I used STA, this year I went through World Nomads, which was a bit cheaper – a tip I got from the awesome travel reference site, http://www.nomadicmatt.com). Once we got our car, we were set to begin the journey to Panama City. I highly recommend renting a car in Panama, the roads are fantastic, even the little ones on the map were mostly paved and in good condition. Panama has a great economy (largely due to the canal and all that comes from that), and money for upkeep of infrastructure – a big part of the reason we chose to rent a car here and not in Costa Rica, where the roads are decidedly less easily traveled, especially to more remote locations. So our plan for the car was to take four days and see as much as possible between David and Panama City, find the places we like, and go back by bus for longer if we want. So we didn’t end up spending more than one night in each place.

First stop, Boquete, which took only 45 minutes to get to by car from David (a little more by bus). Boquete is a small, quiet, relatively developed mountain town that is known for it’s coffee, eco-adventure and lush landscape. It’s a popular place for both tourists and vacationing locals, and with good reason. As we approached the town, the forest glowed greener and the air grew fresher, clearer, tinted with a faint scent of some flower whose name I dont know. Probably one of the many varieties of red, pink, orange, and yellow the dotted the landscape in every direction. I was told that one of the reasons Boquete is so special is that it maintains it’s lush green backdrop all year round. It doesn’t endure a dry season, and the weather is apt to be a little more unpredictable than other parts of the country, with cooler temperatures and the possibility of rain at any time, especially during the afternoon, when a mist commonly settles onto the mountains that surround Boquete town. The change from super hot and dry is really pleasant, as was our lovely spot at our hostel, Refugio del Rio which is, as the name suggests, right on the river. We paid $42 for a double with private bathroom, with a sliding door that opened out on to a little terrace overlooking the river and a hot tub, which we promptly used after a hike to The Lost Waterfalls. We arrived in Boquete mid-afternoon, so didn’t have time to hike Volcan Baru or walk the Sendero de Los Quetzales (both come highly recommended for hikes in the area – the volcano is the highest point in Panama, and the Quetzal trail winds through forest, offering beautiful vistas, encounters with flora and fauna and, according to one reviewer the potential to see a jaguar). We did have time to drive to the starting points for a hikes to the three Lost Waterfalls (if you don’t have a car there are busses that go here). The drive itself was lovely, winding up into the mountains and past little off-the-grid houses of locals. The first part of the hike led us up to a little house with an incredible view of the mountains and forest, where a family lived and collected the $5 entry fee to the waterfalls. We were greeted by 3 young children, who agreed when I said that they lived in paradise. I began to fantasize about a life lived on top of a mountain, interrupted only every so often by a tourist wanting to pay to hike. I imagined how it might be to wake up to a sunrise over the hills, meditate on a little terrace with a cool mountain breeze, and spend my days reading, writing, growing food and cooking, playing with children, and living simply in a beautiful, remote land. Ahh, maybe one day. Then again, it’s always easier to romanticize such a life than to live it once one has already gotten used to modern day conveniences. 

So anyhow we hiked up to the Lost Waterfalls, which are worth the hike if you’re spending time in Boquete. The path was pretty sketchy in some spots – steep and slippery when wet, so after rain may not be the best time to hike. But on a hot day it would be pretty sweet because you can swim at 2 of the falls and the water is REFRESHING. That was about all we got into in Boquete, but we plan to go back in a week or so to spend a couple more days. Of everywhere we went it’s the one place I really feel the need to return to. In addition to the other activities I mentioned, you can go white water rafting, visit hot springs, go on coffee tours (apparently they have this amazing coffee that is special because of all the minerals in the soil from the volcano – maybe I’ll learn more about it next week to share more specifically…), and our friends just told us about these really cool canyons you can hike to and jump from cliffs into the river that runs through the canyon. So more on Boquete later.

After we left Boquete, it was on to Santa Catalina, a little town known for great surfing and as a jumping off point to get to Isla Coiba. Coiba is known for great diving and snorkeling in its marine park, which is full of increasingly rare species. Over 23 species of dolphin and whale have been identified in the area, 17 species of crocodile, turtle and lizard, 15 species of snake, manta rays, and tons of fish – the island is also popular for sport fishing. The island use to be a penal colony so is virtually absent of human development, hence the pristine ecosystems. This also means that the island is not super easy to get to, and it’s recommended to do most activities with a guide. There are tours organized from Santa Catalina and surrounding areas. Our hostel – Hibiscus Garden, was in Playa Lagartero, a 10 minute car ride from Santa Catalina town, and they organized tours to Coiba and other activities straight from the hostel (I think it was maybe $50 for the boat to Coiba, but we didn’t go so I’m not sure the pricing for everything). Hibiscus Garden was a pretty sizeable hotel/hostel, with property on the bay side of the water. Not the best for swimming (at low tide the water goes out for a kilometer or so, leaving nice beach for walking and shell hunting), but a nice private, quiet beach to lay out. The hotel is geared towardds people who really wanted to be anchored there, with a (relatively expensive) restaurant that served good, fresh fish, salads, sandwiches. There’s also a kitchen in case you don’t want to shell out for every meal, the rooms are small but cozy, and the staff is friendly.

The hotel was recently taken over by a retired couple from England who recently decided they wanted to leave Florida (where they’d been living for 10 years) and move to Panama, so they sold all their belongings and took a chance on taking over management of the hotel while they look for a place to start their own hostel. It was really sweet to hear this guy in his mid-sixties talk about selling his house, cars, personal belongings, everything, to start a whole new life. I think that’s a difficult thing to do at any time, but I can’t imagine it as an older person with fifty years of accumulated belongings and a stable home. Noe and I told him about our trip and he was curious how we managed to make it work. We explained tto him that we both consciously choose jobs that are low pressure, so it’s easy to leave and come back to, or find similar work anywhere, and that we keep our expenses low and don’t really own anything. For me, the combination of these two things, and the irrepressible nomadic urge have sufficiently enabled me to begin this somewhat untethered lifestyle, and I’m glad I figured this out for myself before making any huge commitments. I do think that travel is possible with children/owning property/having a business, etc. But it certainly requires more planning and effort the more thing we have to worry about. Just owning things, having material possessions to do something with while I’m away, begins to feel like a load to carry around, and I find the less stuff I have, the lighter I feel. But I also love my car, my bike (before it was stolen), clothes and shoes, books, etc. So part of the travel planning process is – what to do with my stuff while I’m gone. The planning this second time around was much less stressful, as I already had some ideas about the types of things I would need to worry about: lending/renting out my car and making sure the insurance, registration, inspection was all set, subletting my apartment/findinng storage (luckily it worked out that I could leave my stuff in our big attic), getting travel insurance, suspending my phone line, alerting banks and credit cards to my travel plans, paying off all debt BEFORE leaving (this one felt really good), buying/borrowing travel gear, lining up a job for my return, and making a flexible plan for travel that gave me some sense of what my budget would need to be. There’s lots of other little things but these are some major things that I learned, and didn’t take care of as well the first time, which made for a (somewhat) stressful return. The more I get into living a split lifestyle (in general avoidance of winter in addition to just wanting to see the world), the more I start to think about planning my life around this priority. I often find myself thinking of how to balance the desire for a home and stability, with the intense wanderlust that comes up whenever I’ve been in a place too long. The more research I do, the more opportunities I find for creating this balance – housesitting and long-term volunteering, teaching english abroad, work exchanges on farms, boats, hostels, investing in property in the right place at the right time (Panama is really looking like a good place right now for so many reasons), and I haven’t even yet gotten into what it takes to start a small business, either online or wherever I would want to land for a while. I often feel so naive about what it really takes to make this kind of dream happen, especially when thinking about buying land or starting a business, but I also know that right now my job is to obtain information, and traveling is a great way to do that. I’m meeting people every day that are using their creativity and, very often, limited resources to fulfill their dreams and live their ideal lifestyles. This couple that manages Hibiscus Garden, for example. And in the past week I’ve met people that are “hitchhiking” on sailboats to sail around the world, offering services as chefs, linehandlers, & night watchmen; small business owners that hire trusted managers to watch their businesses for months at a time so they can travel; an translator that works for Lufthansa – a company that affords her up to four months off per year; fellow service industry folk who work their ass off half the year to save for travel the other half; people that own property in beautiful places and are able to do house trades to stay wherever they want; young couples managing hostels and B&Bs, and all sorts of online businesses that the owners can maintain from anywhere. I can’t believe how any possibilities are available for people who want to travel, and how many people of different ages and backgrounds are unsticking themselves to discover new ways of living. We are living in an shrinking world with ever-expanding opportunities, and even more expansive minds that are wising up to all this life has to offer. I’m not sure eaxctly what woke me up to my deepest desires, but I am so grateful for the chain of events that has led me to where I am now. I frequently feel lost, I still have no sense of what my life purpose or chosen career will be, and I am constantly changing my mind. It takes effort to keep pushing my boundaries and step out of my comfort zone, and is frequently uncomfortable and even scary. But at the end of it I have broader grasp of the world and myself, and a comfort zone that is a little bit bigger, which makes all subsequent experience a little bit easier. In short, I’ve never regretted choosing to experience the discomfort of change, because the rewards that come back are always worth it.

So, with a little more experience, a little more information, and a broader view of the world, we left Santa Catalina in search of what else Panama has to offer. Turns out, it’s a lot.  

CR TO PANAMA BORDER CROSSING: If you want to cross the border to Panama at Canoas, it’s helpful to know a few things: across the street and little ways back from where the bus leave you in Canoas, is the place where you get your passport stamped to leave Costa Rica. Near there is an office to buy a bus ticket from David to San Jose ($21), the only option for a return bus ticket in the town. You must have some kind of return ticket from Panama to Costa Rica – flight or bus or something like it. They also asked me for a printed copy of my return ticket to the states, and a printed copy of my bank statement showing that I had at least $500. If you can find somewhere to get a bus ticket back to CR from Panama before getting to the border, that’s probably helpful, especially if you aren’t planning to go back to San Jose. Otherwise, there’s no other fee for crossing, so $21 to cross (for a bus ticket we may or may not use), isn’t bad. If you don’t have all this stuff pre-printed, there’s an internet cafe near the border crossing where you can print stuff out. Again, would have been helpful to know this prior to getting to the border. We were lucky that there was no line, so the process was fast, but had we waited in line for an hour to ccross, only to find out we had to go get the necessary paperwork and come wait in a line again, we might have been a bit more frustrated. Last year when I crossed into Panama in Guabito (to get from Puerto Viejo to Bocas del Toro), the process required less: only my passport, and a return bus ticket (which I bought at the border and was more flexible to use on different busses than the one we had to buy in Canoas). I’m not sure if the difference is due to different border patrol, changing laws, or a different process at different parts of the border…

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