November 9, 2009

Last Sunday, we began our trek down to Panama. Instead of taking the two-day direct bus from Nicaragua to Panama, we decided to break up the trip some and hit the Carribean side of Costa Rica on our way down. We didn’t see the Carribean side during our time in Costa Rica a few weeks ago.  We caught a 9 hour bus to San Jose, spent the night in San Jose, and then caught the first bus we could to Cahuita. (We try to spend as little time in San Jose as possible, but the main buses stop and start there, so it’s unavoidable at times).

    I have to say, we’ve gotten fairly good at traveling in Central America. We navigate the towns and bus stations better than we did at first, when we would step off of buses and feel completely clueless about what to do next. Our spanish has improved so we can communicate better to find out where we are and how to get where we need to be. Perhaps most importantly, we’ve learned how to deal with the constant haggling we get as tourists. I’ll explain: locals are always trying to get money from us, whether that’s by just directly asking us for money, or by trying to get it more indirectly. When we step off of buses at a bus terminal in big cities (which usually aren’t destinations for tourists, but rather connecting points to the towns that tourists usually visit), we are literally swarmed with taxi drivers, all yelling “Taxi!” “Taxi!” “Where you going?”. We have to say no to each one of them at least 5 times before they will leave us alone so that we can have a minute to look around and figure out what we actually want to do. Sometimes they follow us around as we walk. We learned the hard way to say no the the drivers that surround the buses. If you say yes, they will grab your bags from the bus and start running to the taxi. You’re not really sure that they are actually going to the taxi; there are so many people around that it would be easy for them to just disappear in the crowd. We’ve heard of several popular scams involving fake taxi drivers and fake taxis, so we try to find our own taxis instead of using the ones that bombard us. The only plus to picking a taxi from this initial swarm of drivers is that you’re able to do a sort of bidding game with all of the drivers that surround you. Fairly quickly, you are able to find the best rate, and the driver who wins your business usually gets dirty looks and dirty words from the other drivers. Usually though, we don’t even want a taxi…we just want to find a local bus because they are much cheaper. It takes us a long time to convince the taxi drivers that yes, we actually do want to take the hot, crowded, 3-hour bus instead of the 30-minute cab. 

Once we arrive in our destination city, our main goal is usually to find a hostel or find food…whichever one seems more urgent at the time. Sometimes our guide book has maps for the towns we visit, sometimes it doesn’t. We usually spend our time on the buses looking up hostels and finding them on the map so that, theoretically, when we get to a town, we can go straight to the one that we want. This usually is a futile attempt to make our traveling easier. The problem lies in the fact that virtually no streets in Central America are marked. So, even if we know exactly where a place of interest is on a map, we usually have no clue where we are on that map, and therefore it’s of little use. We’ve tried asking people where the hostel is, but that usually doesn’t work out much better. We find that the way most people give us directions is pretty impossible. They usually just point and say “Aqui…(point to the right) alla….(point straight) y alla.” which, roughly translated means, “Go here.. there …and then there.” They can’t tell us road names when giving directions, because they aren’t marked. Sometimes they will tell us how many blocks to go, or give us a landmark, which is usually the only way that we can actually find what we’re looking for. So, what generally happens during our search for a place to sleep is that we just take the first one (or maybe the second one) that we come to, as long as the price is right. After stepping off of the bus and walking just a short distance with our backpacks, we are quickly drenched in sweat and tired (me more than Scott). The choices that we make while in this state are often not the best…we’ve stayed in some pretty gross, uncomfortable places because we were too tired to keep walking to find another place. 

If we’re too hungry to trek around looking for a hostel, we’ll stop for food first. We are usually starving after we get off the buses. The bus rides can be long, and often last through meal times. They sometimes stop at roadside stores so that people can get food, but the food that’s offered usually is either heavily fried or heavily sugared (or both). (The convenience food in Central America is not very appealing and nowhere near healthy). So, we sometimes stop for a meal first thing when we get to a town. We’ve tried to make this our habit lately, because we realized that we make much better hostel decisions when we have the energy to keep walking if we need to. 

All of this to say, we’ve gotten better at making our way around. Which is good, because we move around a lot. We haven’t spend more than 2 nights in any one place since we’ve been here.  

On Tuesday, we came to a small beach town called Cahuita, which threw us for another loop. It was the smallest, most remote town we’d been to yet. We couldn’t use any of our usual tricks that we’ve developed about figuring out a city. There weren’t really any people around, there weren’t any hostels or restaurants within eyeshot of the bus station. We had to just pick a road (the one that went to the left or the one that went to the right) and start walking. We walked around quite a bit to find a hostel. Finally, we found someone to ask, and she led us to a hostel that turned out to be ok. We only stayed in Cahuita one night. The main thing that we wanted to do in Cahuita was go to Playa Negra (Black Beach), which is a beach with really dark sand that is almost black. I had never seen a beach like this before.  Other than Playa Negra, there wasn’t much to do or see here, so we left the next morning. 

Then we were headed for Panama. We crossed the border on foot over a rickety old bridge. Our first destination in Panama was Bocas del Toro, an island barely off the coast. We spent the first night on the main island, which is busy and has kind of a party atmosphere.


The second day, we went to a smaller island that was much more remote and relaxed. The islands are in the Carribean Ocean and the culture here is different than inland Panama. It’s an afro-caribean island culture: many of the locals speak creole (which I love listening to, but don’t understand a word of), fish for a living, and listen to reggae. Life is very laid-back, no one moves quickly. We liked it a lot on this island. The view from our hotel was amazing.

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We decided to try to find Wizard Beach, which we had heard was the most beautiful island on the beach. We could either take a boat to the beach (which was on the opposite side of the island) for $16 or take a rough trail that cut across the island. So, we put on our swimsuits and our flip flops and began walking, not knowing just how rough the trail was going to be. The trail was hard to find: we asked a boy sitting on the ground holding a large super soaker squirt gun if he knew where the beach was. He hopped up immediately, and started marching in the direction of the trail. We followed him up some stairs, through someone’s porch, and through a gate, where he stopped, confidently pointed and said “alli y alla y alla” (here, then there, then there). We thanked him and began up the trail. We quickly learned what a terrible idea this was. It was so steap and SO muddy. We were slipping and falling all over the place. We gave up and turned back- we honestly did not think we would ever make it. We saw the little boy on the way. “You no find it?” he said. We told him it was too slippery; he just shrugged and went on his way. We went back the hotel to rinse off our feet and decide if it was worth paying for the boat. On our way up to our room, we ran into the super-friendly man who worked at the hostel who we had made friends with during the short time that we’d been on the island. He laughed when we said we couldn’t make it on the trail. “The man who lives next door just walked it this morning, and he’s an old man!”. We showed him our shoes that we were trying to walk in and he told us that we needed rubber boots and that the hostel had some that we could borrow. The boots were tall, black rubber galloshes that hit us mid-shin.









 Scott’s fit him well… mine were 5 sizes too big. Even still, they made the walk so much easier. We could never have done it without those boots. It was unbelievable muddy and slippery and slimy. But, with those boots on to protect us from whatever was living and growing in the soupy mud, we had a blast! We were slipping and sliding and sinking in everywhere, all the while laughing about how we were headed to the beach in big black rubber boots. And the beach that we arrived at was AMAZING. Powder soft, yellow sand, clear blue water. The water temperature was great, the waves were great. The sun was out, and the beach was almost empty. It was one of our favorite days yet. 

The next day, we left the islands and headed inland to a town called Boquete, our final destination in Panama. This is where we are now and where we will be for the next two weeks while we attend spanish school. We LOVE this town. It’s in the mountains so the weather is cooler, which we were definitely ready for. The town is surrounded by mountains on all sides, and there are two rivers running through it, so the views are amazing. 

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 It’s a cleaner, fresher feeling town than any that we’ve been to yet. It’s small, so you can walk everywhere, and everything that we need has been fairly easy to find. The food is good, the people are nice. It’s the rainy season here, like everywhere else in Central America, but here the rain is very predictable. The mornings are gorgeous: sunny and 70 degrees. Just after lunch, clouds start rolling in and it rains for most of the afternoon. We’ve set up our classes so that we will have the mornings free to enjoy the weather (there are tons of things to do here…natural hot springs (which we did on Sunday), swimming in the river (also on Sunday), mountain hikes, waterfalls, gardens, animal refuge centers…) and then we’ll be in class from 1-5:30 while it’s raining. For the first week of class, we are doing a homestay with a woman who lives about 15 minutes out of town. We started our visit on Saturday at around noon. The woman we are staying with is Francia. She is 67 and lives alone, and her son and his family (wife, two daughters, 7 and 14, and son, 16) live right next door. She is so incredibly sweet and kind. She has made us feel so at home, and the dinner that she cooked for us was delicious (except for a few things). She doesn’t speak a word of english, so we have to rely soley on our Spanish…which is good but also exhausting. We’ve gone to bed at 9:30 both nights that we’ve been here. After a week with Francia, we will spend the last week staying in a hostel in Boquete. We visited our school (called Habla Ya) on Saturday for a morning salsa lesson, and I left feeling so excited about the school. Everyone who works there is so friendly and helpful. We’ve talked to people around town who tell us it’s a really good school: it’s intense and they work their students pretty hard, but the students learn a lot. Our spanish has improved quite a bit just from being here, so we’re hoping that after 40 hours of classes, it will improve quite a bit…   






















6 Responses to “”

  1. Claire Says:

    *sigh* your life sounds so great.

  2. Laurie Says:

    I’m glad that you like Francia and that you are getting some food you like. Although, secretly I liked when you were getting yucky food, because it would make you think my cooking was gourmet when you return (jk, sort of). Did she make enough for Scott? It will be nice to be in one place for awhile. That traveling every couple of days can be exhausting, especially the way you two travel!! I hope the school is what you expected. Sounds like it will be! As usual, it’s great to read your blog. Love you both!! Mom

  3. Laurie Says:

    Again, great pictures!! Especially you guys in the boots. And is Scott shrinking?

  4. Michelle Says:

    Thanks for the detailed update. Hope school is fun and you have a great stay in Boquette. I loved the boot story. Love, Mom

  5. Whitney Says:

    I had that same experience with the taxis in NYC, so that’s not too unique! Just kidding… I know how aggressive they are… that situation led to Craig’s most frightening moment of his life when he was in Venezuala! Hey, if you guys happen to run into any cigars while you’re down there and can bring some back for me to give Craig for Christmas, I would love that and gladly pay you back! I know that may be complicated since you don’t have access to a ton of money so I certainly wouldn’t want you to go to any trouble, but just a thought! If you DO come accoss some, just maybe get 1-3 fairly nice ones (maybe up to the equivalent of $10 each in US). Again, you’ve got plenty else on your plate, so don’t worry about it unless you just happen to run into a situation where it would be convenient. Thanks! Can’t wait for the next update!

  6. Julie V Says:

    Yay for Panama! Sounds wonderful. You guys will be Spanish pros in no time!

    I remember hearing that South/Central American families always made you eat way more than you could possibly shove in your face, but now that I think about it, that might just be Mexico. Let’s get Gumby’s pokey sticks when you get back 🙂

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