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Our last stop on our Central American journey was Panama.
Once in Panama we headed straight for Bocas Del Toro on Isla Colón, an island off the Caribbean coast. When we arrived on the island we wandered around on foot with our backpacks and found a place we liked the look of, Casa Max. A double private room with a bathroom and balcony for $38USD was fine by us!
Our first night on the island also happened to be Ash Wednesday. Whilst Carnival is celebrated throughout Latin America, in Bocas they do things a little differently. We walked into town from our hotel one night to find a huge noisy crowd in the main street of town. On closer inspection we found what seemed like every young man in town was lining both sides of the street shoulder to shoulder. We heard a huge roar from the crowd as a red blur ran through the hundred metre long tunnel of people and bolted out the other side. After watching this happen every few minutes, we realised that these red and black blurs were guys wearing devil suits. And the reason they were running so fast down this tunnel was that the guys lining the street had lined up to belt them on the legs with home made whips as they ran past! After speaking to some people around town, we found out this devil whipping had been going on for the whole week previously for carnival. You can read more about these maniacs here. (Bocas Del Toro travel website)
Whilst in Bocas we explored, on foot, by bike and in the water. On our second day there we booked a snorkelling day trip that would take us to see dolphins, Crawl Caye and Hospital Point (both snorkelling stops) and Red Frog Beach. The day was fun, but coming from Australia where you see dolphins frequently, either surfing or standing on the beach made the dolphin portion less special to us then others (as the dolphins were only coming because they were being fed). However at our stop at Red Frog Beach Bec was ecstatic to see a baby sloth in a tree, our 2nd sloth sighting of the trip. Red frog beach was really pretty, and we had a fun afternoon in the surf and sun. You can hire boards here and we're led to believe some days here the surf is really good - although this isn't overly common due to being in the calm Caribbean.
The next day we caught a taxi boat over to Aqua Lounge. A bar built on a wharf with swings and a trampoline you can jump into the water from. We spent the afternoon sipping beers and vodka pineapples whilst jumping in and out of the beautiful blue water, swimming around and under the bar. That whole day there had been an island wide power outage (which we soon learnt was quite common on the island). This hadn't affected us as we'd been outside all day, however that night Bec ordered chicken for dinner (that we forgot would not have been refrigerated all day).. and spent the next 36 hours throwing up and sleeping.
2 days after the food poisoning fiasco Bec was feeling better so we decided we'd hire bike and ride to Bocas del Drago and Starfish beach, a couple of beaches on the other side of the island. So off we went, we hired bikes and begun our ride. The ride was only 16km so we thought it would be quite easy. However, we did not take into account the many hills along the way, the fact our bikes were single speed, the humidity and heat and also the fact that Bec was still slightly sore and sick from food poisoning the day before. Maybe not so easy... It was a struggle to get to the other side, but once we were there it was totally worth it. The sand was white, the water was bright blue and there were big orange starfish hidden in the shallows. There were also cute little fish that kept trying to bite our toes!
We lay in the sun and swum around for a couple of hours before we decided we'd get a taxi back (taxi's in Bocas are utes, so we could easily put our bikes in the back).
The next few days we explored town a little more, and did our final shopping for gifts before heading to Panama City to fly home via LA.
In Panama City we stayed at Casa Cuba, a lovely hostel run by Luis and his wife Theresa. They were such beautiful people and had the walls of their hostel lined with framed photos of every single guest that had stayed there before.
Unfortunately we only got to spend one night at Casa Cuba and in Panama City, as we had to fly home to Sydney to begin our Uni Semester a few days later. Our first whirlwind taste of Latin America was absolutely amazing, but absolutely far too rushed! We saw a great deal but missed out on seeing and experiencing so much more! We both agreed that some time in the not too distant future we would have to return to Central America and spend some more time there, getting to know the people, learning spanish, and visiting some more of the amazing places that we heard wonderful things about from the other travellers but didn't get to see first hand. And who knows; if we have the time, maybe even venture further afield?
Until then, next stop.... Home.
Costa Rica 2012
Our first stop in Costa Rica was San Jose. We got in late, found a hostel that offered airport transfers and left the next morning, headed for Monteverde. So as you can guess, we didn't see much of San Jose.
We ended up staying Santa Elana (a small town very close to Monteverde) at a hostel called Pension Santa Elana for $20US per night. The hostel had internet, a kitchen and multiple bathrooms, so we were happy. The town itself is at altitude and gets very chilly at night (another evening to highlight how stupid we were when packing our bags to think we wouldn't need jeans...). We had a good night sleep in our cozy room and got up early the next morning to do some exploring on foot.
The Santa Elena/Monteverde are is quite little, but really hilly, so walking around on foot takes it out of you. But that being said we always find exploring on foot a nice way to check out any town, and this was no exception.
Our highlight on the first day was the local insect and butterfly sanctuary. I have to say at this point that Bec is terrified of butterflies and moths so visiting this sanctuary, and being in the cages with these "creatures" was no easy feat for her. She took a lot of convincing to even get her there let alone inside. We had a great guided tour around the sanctuary, and got to see creepy crawlies and their winged relatives from all corners and climates of Central America. It was awesome! One of our favourites was the giant Menelaus Blue Morpho butterfly, which was bright blue and nearly the size of a dinner plate! By the end of the day even Bec warmed up to the flying bugs... kind of.
The next day we set off to see the Monteverde Cloud Forest. We had booked in to do a morning canopy tour followed by zip lining. The canopy tour was great. Although we didn't see much wildlife it was an awesome experience to walk around on the bridges built through the tree tops. We also got to climb up the inside of a giant hollow tree. Definitely worth visiting! After the tour we headed on to the next destination for Zip Lining. It's important for me to note here that Bec is again, a little afraid of heights (she couldn't even abseil down a 2m "cliff" in school), so agreeing to go zip lining was a big achievement.
The zip lining course consisted of 8-10 lines of various lengths strung up between trees throughout the forest, ending up with a "Tarzan Swing". The zip lines got gradually longer through the course until we got to the last and longest; The superman. A gigantic 1500m long head first, high speed breathtaking, harness nut squishing, kamikaze blur, hundreds of metres above the valley floor below. The zips could only be topped by the finale, the Tarzan Swing. A 150ft drop from a platform suspended in the air. Terrifying (especially for Bec), and resultantly I ensured she went first so that she wouldn't have a chance to watch other people do it and get freaked out.
It's important to note here that we went with a company called Aventura. It was very professional and all equipment was checked and rechecked. I would definitely recommend them!
From Monteverde we booked a trip to La Fortuna, a town on the way to our next destination. Whilst we were only here for one night we booked a walking tour to Arenal Volcano, followed by a visit to the local hot springs. Both activities were awesome, even though it rained during our hike and Bec accidentally stepped on a snake on the trail - don't worry though, he slithered off unharmed. Arenal was previously one of the most active volcanos in Central America, however when we visited it was not erupting. Whilst we didn't get to see any fresh lava, the walk and the volcano scenery was still amazing! After the hard trail walking in the cold and rain, the natural hot springs (with free rum drinks mixed by our tour guide) were a great way to end the day.
From La Fortuna we headed to River Pacuare, where we did a day of white water rafting. Whilst we were on the bus to the river, our guides proceeded to feed everyone warnings about there being man-eating crocodiles in the river, and the necessity of pulling fellow rafters back into the raft IMMEDIATELY if they were to fall out . They had everyone looking seriously concerned, and even questioning whether we wanted to still go rafting, let alone putting serious doubts about how good Bec and my David Attenborough DVD based wildlife knowledge really was. I mean, surely they wouldn't let us raft if there were dangerous crocodiles? And wouldn't the crocodiles want to avoid the rapids? And aren't they called Caimans over here anyway? Guys?
After eventually arriving at the river, we were split into groups and introduced to our rafting guide who's name was Ricky but was dubbed Ricky Bobby after the "Talledega Nights" character; and who's Tico accent "Shake and bake Baby!" impersonation was seriously funny. Ricky ensured us there was certainly NO crocodiles in the river (I knew they were pulling our legs about the crocodiles. Seriously...), and that we had visited Costa Rica in the dry season, so the river was going to be relatively tame. Despite this, he still screamed "Oh My God!" at every obstacle larger than a pebble we had to pass by. Me and Bec both managed to fall out of the boat at separate occasions, and I nearly got crushed by the raft full of people in shallow water. Bec lost her thongs overboard on one particularly bumpy part of the river. We wrote them off as completely lost only to have them float back past us about a mile downstream. My only pair of shoes got a good washing in the river after being completely trashed with Arenal volcano mud the night before.
Our guide Ricky was the man, and his cheeky sense of humour made what was already a great day even more fun! The day included breakfast, lunch at a pit stop on the river and 3 hours of rafting. We also got to take onward transport from the river to Puerto Viejo included in the cost of the days rafting - a massive bonus.
From River Pacuare we boarded a bus to take us to the town of Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean coast.
We spent our first night at a hostel called Rocking J's, in a tent, inside a building... Not ideal. We moved hostels the next day to a place called Lizard King. We had a large room with a private bathroom, and the hostel had a pool. Lizard king cost around $45US per night for the both of us. So not too bad considering we'd been paying $20+ for A 2 MAN TENT inside a building the night before.
On one of the days we hopped on one of the local buses and visited Cahuita National Park (a stunning rainforest on the beach). We got lunch at a local soda and then walked through the park (~10km) looking for sloths (Bec's favourite animal). Unfortunately we didn't see any sloths, but we saw a tiny, bright yellow snake and a lot of birds.
We spent the rest of our time in Puerto Viejo lazing at the beach, washing some clothes (finally) and eating lots of tasty cheap food.
Next (and last) stop.. Panama.
After travelling through 3 countries in one day we finally made it to La Ceiba, Honduras.
The only reason we spent the night here was because we missed the last ferry of the day to Utila. In saying that we had a great night of dinner and drinks with some friends we'd made the journey from Belize with, and had extremely cheap and pleasant accommodation.
We rose early the next morning to get the ferry to Utila, one of the Bay Islands.
On the ferry a lot of people got sick as it is quite a rocky journey and there are not many windows in the seated area.
We've since heard they call that ferry the vomit comet. And we can definitely understand why.
Once on Utila we made our way to Alton's Dive Centre, as we had been recommended it by a fellow traveller. Sean and I signed up for our advanced diving certificate, settled into our room (free with dive course) and went off to explore the streets. The island had a great bakery with tasty baguettes and HEAPS of dive schools. Utila is seriously dive city, and whilst it is a fun backpacker vibe kinda island, if you're not a diver there isn't a whole heap to do there. That night it was Superbowl Sunday so we went to a place called RJ's and watched the game with a hearty meal of rice, chicken, beans and salad. The Central American standard (no complaints here).
During our dive course we got to visit shipwrecks, dive at night under torchlight seeing illuminated coral and glowing octopuses, and dive down to 35m. That's deep! The course took 2 days and BOOM we were accredited.
It is easy to see why Utila is so popular with scuba minded backpackers. The water is warm, clear, full of fish and coral and due to the abundance of dive schools in close proximity to one another, prices for courses, tanks and boat dives are extremely competitive. It's a wonderful place to visit on a budget and to catch the diving bug if you haven't already!
Whilst on the island we'd heard stories of a local bar called Skid Row. Rumour was if you could down 4 shots of the bars homemade spiced rum, you'd get a free singlet letting everyone know how tough you were (Ha!). So off we went with a couple of guys we'd been hanging out with and we attempted the challenge. I don't remember much of the night after the first shot challenge but I know I woke up the next morning with a pounding headache and TWO skid row singlets.
By this stage of our trip we'd realised we had seriously underestimated how long it would take us to get to Panama, and we decided if we were going to make our flight home, we'd have to bypass mainland Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador. So we booked a flight from Roatan (the other Bay Island) to San Jose 2 days later.
Next stop Costa Rica..
An Aussie who loves travelling, hiking, trail running and pretty much any activity you can do outdoors.