Thursday, March 2, 2017

Still in Bocas

Still in Bocas del Toro, Panama


San Jose, Costa Rica to Bocas del Toro.

San Jose, Costa Rica is actually closer to Bocas Town than Panama City and we had a very good flight with AeroMexico from Vancouver through Mexico City to San Jose.  The AeroMexico staff were really friendly and the service was excellent but furthermore, because we did not land in the US, the TSA security issues were much less aggressive than on flights into the US. The only thing to be aware of is that it may take a bit of searching for the correct baggage carousels in Mexico City. For those who may be curious, the cost was about $225 US each for a one way ticket. I have been asked to include costs more than I typically do and I will try to remember.

On our sail down the west coast of Costa Rica we stayed close to the coast for all of our land travels so we had not gone into San Jose, the capital. Frankly, we had only heard negative reports about the city and had mixed emotions about spending a few days there.
Post Office in San Jose
We had an excellent time! It is an extremely walkable city with several streets closed and turned into pedestrian walkways that extend throughout the central city. There are numerous parks and plazas and the people were friendly. There are several museums in the downtown core.
Butterfly feeding station in National Museum
We managed visits to the National Museum and the pre-Columbian Gold Museum, both were well worth the time spent. The city does not have the antiquity of Antigua, Guatemala or Leon, Nicaragua but there are some beautiful surprises to be found while walking. The Mercado Central, or covered central market, is an active commercial hub of the city on the Avenida Central pedestrian walkway about 3 short blocks from our hotel. There are some tourist goods in the market but it is primarily the go to place for Ticas (Costa Ricans) doing their shopping or for having a delicious cheap meal.
One of the many Parks and Plazas

We had found the Hotel Novo on line <> and after discounting a few negative reviews and determining the type of travellers giving it positive reviews we decided the location and price were too good to pass up. $45 including taxes/night for a private room with bathroom, shower, air conditioning and breakfast included. The narrow street-side entry between shops on Calle 14 leading back to the registration desk was definitely unassuming but the smile and welcome Teresa gave us immediately made us feel at home. The elevator worked, which was much appreciated with our luggage full of boat things and our third floor room, the top floor, overlooked the street. The air conditioning worked, as did the TV and the sheets and towels and room were clean. The included breakfast in the second floor restaurant had several choices and was very good. The only down side to the street facing rooms is the bus stop on the street in front that starts dropping passengers, with much shouting and horn beeping, at about 4:30 am. The rooms away from the street have no windows so I did not want that and once we had determined that the noise did not involve us we managed to sleep some more. The hotel was located just around the corner from the Avenida Central Pedestrian walk.

Security in all the Central American cities seems to be a common concern for travellers but like everywhere else we have been if you are not out late at night and have lots of people on the street as well, you are probably safe. There may be barrios that are less safe but the downtown pedestrian walkways seemed fine as we made our way back to the hotel at about 10:00pm after an exceptional meal at the Tin Jo Restaurant. The Tin Jo started years ago as a Chinese Restaurant after the new immigrants to Costa Rica found out their university qualifications were not recognized there. Their children, after getting university educations in the US and spending time travelling in southeast Asia returned to transform the Tin Jo into a fusion of SE Asian foods. There are six large themed rooms, Thai, Indian, Japanese, Chinese, Indonesian and a bamboo room complete with a bamboo forest. The menu draws from these countries and the meals were excellent. By Costa Rican standards it is expensive but some appies, two meals and a bottle of wine for $45 seemed pretty good.

We had heard that seats on Nature Air from San Jose to Bocas cost $106 but they must have sold out because we were quoted $225 each so we decided to take a van. Teresa at Hotel Novo called for our van tickets and arranged to have us picked up at the hotel so unfortunately I do not have the company name but the cost was about $70 US for a trip that included three different vans and the water taxi from Almirante over to Bocas. We had not seen the Caribbean coast of CR and the infamous border crossing point is definitely out of the annals of 1950’s travel in Central America so we were pretty happy not to be on the flight. The entire trip, including a breakfast stop, a two hour lunch stop, about two hours crossing the border, a sloth rescue stop and a boat taxi ride took about 12 hours total.

As is so often the case, fellow travellers added immensely to the enjoyment. There were only five passengers including us, on the new van that picked us up in San Jose so we quickly shared stories with another couple, Jon and Dede as we headed east through the verdant mountains to the Caribbean coast. The van skirted south of the port city of Limon and stopped for lunch at a small beach side resort. We transferred our luggage to a larger bus to complete the run to the border. The border crossing at Sixaola serves a potholed one lane road that handles local trucks and backpackers heading to Bocas only. The big main border crossing on the Pan American highway near David is the usual crossing for big trucks so Sixaola is a bit of a forgotten backwater.

The vans do not cross the border so make sure all your luggage is with you. The roof top unloading is chaotic, handled by a group of “employees” while you are trying to fill out exit forms and get into the correct line for clearing out of CR. The bus had to be called back to retrieve baggage that was left on the bus, much to the relief of our friend Jon and a young, about nine years old, girl who was clearly happy to see her back pack returned.

The bridge to Panama
First one must clear out of Costa Rica where a $4 US per person payable in CR Colones or US dollars, unfortunately they never have change for US$20’s so the people in the line are quick to form groups of five to solve the change issue. The original single lane trestle bridge and parallel Bailey bridge see far more foot traffic than vehicular but semi’s do make the slow transit.

We have heard of other cruisers returning to their boats in Bocas who have had problems crossing and were required to return to CR and purchase a ticket out of Panama before they were permitted to enter. We had all the boat information with us including our Panamanian Cruising permit with multiple photocopies of everything and after our Immigration officer had studied everything thoroughly and had taken her copies she deemed desirable we were allowed to enter. I think it was $8 each at the Immigration office plus a few dollars for customs that was payable in a small dilapidated shack across the road and we were back in Panama.
What a smile!

Our third van of the trip was there to take us to the water taxi dock in Almirante. Again the drive is through beautiful country to the town of Changinola and onto Almirante. Enroute our driver saw a sloth starting to cross the road and pulled over to help it. After the driver had encouraged it to head the other direction Jon picked up a big branch and offered it to the sloth. He/she slowly and deliberately reached up and grabbed the branch with three legs and accepted the ride Jon gave him to a big tree well off the road. Mags managed to get a good video clip of the sloth getting onto the branch that she has posted to facebook. It is impossible to look at the perpetually smiling face of a sloth and not smile yourself.

We shared the water taxi to Bocas with 24 of our closest and dearest friends, well certainly our closest friends as the boats are always packed for the 30 minute trip to Bocas. As we passed the marina it was good to see Kanilela at her berth. It felt like we were home.

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