A walkabout is a rite of passage- a person will go out into the wilderness to discover his or her identity and purpose, and then return home.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Weekend Trip #6: Bocas Del Toro, Panama [!]


Let me just preface this post by saying that mine and Lindsay´s trip to Panama is hands down my favorite travel adventure (so far).  So excuse my love radiating from this recap.  I just can't contain it....

Dates: Thursday, November 15- Sunday, November 18

First, let me discuss the rationale behind embarking on a nine hour trip, dealing with the hassle of leaving Costa Rica/entering Panama, and venturing to a place that was reputed to have a relatively similar atmosphere to Puerto Viejo [a place we'd already been].  
1) The destination was not just Panama- it was Bocas del Toro, a collection of islands in the Caribbean off the coast of northern Panama.
2) It was Lindsay's last weekend, and we wanted to end with a memorable trip.
3) Islands=water and beaches.  And we could finally get that snorkeling trip in.
4) We'd heard it was really cool.
5) Did I mention we'd be going to PANAMA?  An entirely different country? <- yeah, pretty syked about that aspect.

We figured that if we were already springing for the trip by taking a day off volunteering, we may as well go extreme luxury and book a tour there as well.  The tour included transportation to and from the islands [provided we got to Puerto Viejo on our own], two-nights of accommodation [we got to choose our hostel], and a 9:00am-5:00pm snorkeling/dolphin watching/catamaran trip on Saturday.  We researched how much it would cost us to book all that stuff ourselves, and figured we'd be paying roughly $30 more for using a tour company.  An essentially hassle-free [and hopefully transport issue-free] weekend for $30 extra?  We were sold.

[I've been trying to keep my weekly spending, including on the weekends, below $125.  The tour package alone cost $140, so I knew I'd be going over budget.  The week ended up costing me roughly $230- but it was so worth it.  Plus I made up for it by not going anywhere the next weekend.]

Setting Off
Thursday after volunteering, Lindsay and I headed straight into San Jose to catch the 2:00pm bus to Puerto Viejo.  We made it to San Jose [after being passed by the first bus headed there because in trying to flag it down, I accidentally put my thumb up- international hitchhiker symbol.  The bus passed us with the driver rubbing his fingers together on one hand, demonstrating that we had to pay. Oops...] with plenty of time to spare, the bus showed up on time, and no major excitement occurred on the ride down.  For once, our transportation [at least the first part of it] had worked out.  Good omen?

We had decided to once again stay at Rocking J's for the night, thinking we could handle the crazy party hostel if it was only for a day.  But our experience there this time around was completely different from when we'd stayed there five weeks ago [wow does time fly].  For one, we got in around 6:30pm- a much more reasonable hour than last time.  When we arrived only a handful of people were milling around, no tents were set up on the green, and the bar's music was much more mellow.  As Lindsay and I checked in, a man of about 50 [obviously of some importance there] came over and introduced himself as J- as in the "J" of Rocking J's.  He told the clerk to give us some icees, and then invited Lindsay and I to create a mosaic or a mural [or both], and to come on a tour of the mysterious building out back called the Ark.  We politely declined making art, but figured a tour of the Ark couldn't hurt.  Boy were we in for a surprise.

J's Ark
I'm not even sure how I can go about describing the Ark in a way that makes sense.  I'm going to preface the description by saying that the Ark is a rich mad man's response to the Mayan-predicted end of the world.  Amazing but incredibly  insane.  Unfortunately I didn't have my camera on me [didn't realize I'd want it], so the inside exists only in my mind.  But here goes an attempted description of the Ark in all its glory.

The Ark sits behind Rocking J's, in a large, grassy area.  From the outside it resembles a three-tiered, mural-covered pyramid.  Its foundation is made up of seven enormous shipping crates that have been welded together so that the Ark can float.  The building has been worked on for the past year and a half, and still the top two levels are under construction.  But even without being finished, it's clearly the work of a mad genius.

Like I said, the Ark has three different levels.  The top two make up what will become J's house, and are made completely out of handcrafted, recycled wood and mirrors.  His private space includes a secret artillery room [entered by pressing some button in the living room, and fully equipped with any video game-obsessed youth's weapons/accessories wildest dreams.  I'm assuming much of it is illegal...], artwork from all over the world [personalized so that every piece  includes a picture of his dog], and an "ice room"- an airtight location where everything needed for a bar will be made out of ice.  The public bottom level [for the lucky souls who make it onto his boat before the floods come...] has four different spaces, each located inside one of the shipping containers and entered through a trap door at the top.  One serves as a medical center [complete with specialized enough equipment to perform surgeries], one currently [!] contains $15,000 worth of dried/dehydrated food in enormous bulk bins, one is a dorm with 12-15 bunks, and the final space [and most bizarre] is a recording studio- complete with expensive instruments, tie-dyed and soundproofed walls, floor to ceiling mirrors, and state-of-the-art recording equipment.  Like I warned you- it's absolutely insane.

The entire tour [which consisted of Lindsay and I, and a neighbor couple of J's], Lindsay and I would make incredulous eye contact and whisper either "I'm scared," [Lindsay] "This guy is crazy," [Lindsay again] or "Don't let him hear.  We'll discuss this later," [me].  The tour lasted two hours, and by 9:00pm we were not only sufficiently freaked out, but starving as well.  We thanked J for the... incredible... tour, and hurried out of the hostel to grab some dinner.

The night was insanely calm for Rocking J's [pretty much a normal hostel where people shut up and went to bed by 10:00pm].  The only excitement of the night occurred when Lindsay spotted a cockroach in her bag, and proceeded to spend the next 30 minutes alternating between shrieking and reaching into her bag to pull stuff out.  I was quite helpful and held the flashlight over her backpack....  Plus said encouraging things.  She eventually found and squashed the offending insect, and then we headed to our hammocks for a surprisingly decent night's sleep.

Border Crossing [My First on Foot!]
7:30am the shuttle pulled up to Rocking J's, and Lindsay and I crawled in.  We were joined by two Australian surfer dudes [Kain with his three boards, while Zac only brought two], and a Swiss German guy, Kevin- while none of us talked all that much on the way to the border, we'd end up hanging out quite a bit over the weekend.  It took about an hour to reach the border, and I think all of were surprised when we finally hit it.  It didn't appear at all like you'd expect the division between countries to look [maybe this was just my American ignorance coming into play, but I was expecting barbed wire, policemen, and guard dogs....  Oh, and also a luggage-checking station].  The entire crossing process consisted of a small office on the Costa Rican side where you filled out an immigration form and got an exit stamp, a rickety ex-train bridge with planks missing that you walked over, and an office on the Panamanian side where you got an entry stamp.  The Costa Rican side moved along fairly quickly, but the Panamanian side was experiencing... difficulties, and the line literally did not move for over an hour.  Finally the window opened, though, we got our stamps, and were whisked off in another shuttle.

We arrived at the dock around 11:00am, and after waiting for a bit, were shown into the least ferry-like ferry I've ever seen.  Compared to the huge boat we'd taken getting to Montezuma [three stories, with the bottom level large enough to transport multiple semi trucks], taking this "ferry" was essentially the equivalent of hopping in the back of an already-crowded pickup truck- except on water.  Not only was the boat the size of a large van, but our trip included a large group of [intoxicated] local teenagers toting booze, who spent the ride shouting to each other and singing at the top of their lungs.  That's not even taking into account the actual ride itself- a jolting, bumpy experience where I more than once feared we'd capsize [Lindsay and I later agreed the trip felt like you were falling down stairs on your butt].  I was quite relieved when we made it to Isla Colon- the main island- in one piece.

When we arrived at midday, the islands' Independence Day celebration had already begun: parades, gunshots, fireworks, you name it.  While it was tempting to stick around and watch, hunger and the need to be relieved of our backpacks won out, so the five of us decided to catch a water taxi to the island where our hostel, Aqua Lounge, was located- a $1, minute-long trip.

Before booking our tour, Lindsay and I had done a bit of research on places to stay.  Aqua Lounge topped the list on most sites we checked out.  It's essentially the Rocking J's of Bocas- a major party hostel, best known for its crazy nights, and THE water trampoline.  There turned out not to be that many beds in the hostel, though, so our party was lucky and scored the last few spots when we turned up.  Lindsay and I ended up in a dorm with a large group of Israeli guys, some French dudes, and a pair of 18-year-old surfers [Jordan from Canada, and Yotom from Israel].  We said hi to everyone as we put our stuff away, but left right away to find a place to eat.  On our way out the back door we ran into Ben from Montezuma- we'd been in communication with him about our plans to go to Bocas and thought there was a 50/50 chance he'd show up.  It was nice to see another familiar face; the three of us headed out to grab some lunch.

After lunch [a laborious process of finding a restaurant and waiting for food that took us until 3:00pm], we just hung out at the hostel, talked with the guys we'd ridden down with, swam, and relaxed.  Around 6:00pm, Lindsay and I decided to head to the main island for some exploring/dinner, and managed to convince Ben, Kain, Zac, and Kevin to come along.  Turned out to be a good thing we left for dinner so early- we wouldn't end up eating for another three hours anyway.

We manage to arrive on Isla Colon at the exact perfect moment to watch the Independence Day Parade.  The streets were swarming with people- everyone from every island had come to congregate on Isla Colon for the evening.  The parade was made up of at least five separate groups of baton twirlers/drum lines [each with their own distinctive outfits], and in between each group, random guys would be walking around spraying fire from a can [seriously], or lighting off fireworks in the middle of the crowd- one batch of pyromaniacs lit theirs off so close to us, I could feel the hot ash raining down.  The atmosphere was incredibly festive, and the music was so invigorating I don't think any of us stopped bobbing to the beat the entire two and a half hours we stood there.  Our group definitely stood out- some of the only foreigners, and consistently exclaiming about something in the parade.  We were probably just as interesting a spectacle for the Panamanians as the performers....

Eventually it got late enough that we needed food- fast.  We searched the main road for a cheap rotisserie chicken place that had been recommended to us, and after successfully annoying the workers [mainly thanks to Kain's "chicken dance" while attempting to convey his order...], we sat down to the best chicken I can remember having.  Ever.  The delicious French fries that accompanied the meal didn't hurt, either.  Having satisfied our bellies, we wandered back up the street to catch the parade's finale, in the process simultaneously meeting another group of travelers and losing Kevin.  After pacing the streets shouting "Kevin from Switzerland!" at the top of our lungs for 20 unsuccessful minutes, we gave up looking for him [<- terrible travel buddies, I know], and headed to a local bar/dance club.  [Hey, Kevin eventually made his way there as well, so it all turned out okay.  Stop with the guilting.]

Ended up seeing most of the others from Aqua Lounge at the bar, and we danced insanely for a few hours.  Hot, sweaty, crowded- and so much fun.  Eventually Lindsay and I headed back to the hostel, though, to try and get some sleep before our tour the next that morning.  The hostel ended up being too hot and loud to really get any sleep, but it's the thought that counts, right?

Yes I Will Lounge on a Catamaran for Seven Hours
^That's exactly what Lindsay and I did from 9:00am-4:00pm on Saturday.  With a bit of dolphin watching [I saw one's back] and snorkeling [for, like, 20 minutes] thrown in.  But the day was spent mostly sunbathing [and burning] on a catamaran.  We lucked out with the weather- apparently it was the first gloriously sunny day in over a week. Success!

Saturday evening Lindsay and I showered and headed into town for an early dinner.  We had okay sushi, but really delicious martinis, so overall dinner was good ;) Then we headed back to Aqua Lounge because that's where the big party was going to be.  Plus it was Ladies' Night, which in Latin America means free drinks for girls for an hour.  I ended up heading back to Isla Colon for about an hour with Jordan and Yotom- searching for an Internet cafe for Yotom- and we made it back to the hostel at the very end of Ladies' Night [literally, we arrived at 10:33pm, when free drinks were supposed to end at 10:30pm].  But somehow I managed to squeeze in getting three free drinks- two of which I gave to the guys, no worries Mom.

Saturday night was essentially a repeat of Friday- but much more fun, for some reason.  Lots of dancing, meeting people, good music, etc.  The bar closed at 3:00am and all non-guests were kicked out, but the rest of us staying at the hostel continued to hang out.  I ended up crawling into bed around 5:00am, while Lindsay didn't come into the dorm until 6:20am- 20 minutes before we had to wake up to catch our ferry back to Costa Rica....  We both were feeling really great when the alarm went off at 6:45am.

Home Again, Home Again, Jiggety Jig
Ferry to dock, shuttle to border, second shuttle to Puerto Viejo, just missed early bus to San Jose, waited for five hours until 4:00pm for bus to the capital, waited at sketchy station until 10:00pm for bus back to Atenas.  Was asleep before head hit the pillow, and waking up Monday was brutal.

I feel like our trip to Bocas del Toro was my favorite because it had all the aspects of what traveling should be like.  Parades, fireworks, music, dancing, delicious & cheap food, fun people to group up with, gorgeous scenery, late nights, and a bit of relaxation, just for kicks.  In one word: amazing.

And did I mention we went to PANAMA???

xoxo, Cleome

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