Off to Panama

No construction on Saturdays, which did not explain us rising before the alarm clock went off this morning. There were numerous momentary power outages throughout the night, which the microwave would alert us to with beeps to inform us that powers had happily been restored. We were up and eager to see what was in store for the day, even if it was only 6AM.

We consumed the last of our sugary cereal with half the milk necessary. To cut the dryness, bottled water was necessary. A bit of instant coffee and our breakfast of champions was completed with a banana. Ready and packed by 8. When asking our host where to leave the keys, she insisted she would come over for a walk through. Odd, but she must have had trouble with guests in the past and now a walk through is necessary.

Monika, from Poland, popped over and told us that she too hadn’t had a great night. She figures is was was warm bad cheese that did her in with her regurgitating her stomach contents for most of the usual sleeping hours. She is a chatty lady, and what should have been a 30 second process turned into 30 minutes. It seemed we almost had to pry ourselves away to stand on the curb for our shuttle pickup. 8:35 hit and our van arrived. We were off to Bocas.

We were the last pickup for the shuttle. 6 other young Germans in the van, 5 gals and a guy. Of all the travellers we have encountered on this trip, young Germans seem to be the least sociable. Sure there was that one teacher we shared a cab with from Tamarindo to Samara that was chatty, but in general…not a very friendly group. Beautiful scenery outside with miles and miles of banana trees growing alongside the highway and these people just wanted to nap. We rode in silence to the border.

At the border, the van pulled over. The driver got out and we all exchanged some confused looks. What was next? The driver opened the sliding door and started pulling some of the backpacks out. Obviously he wanted us out of the van…so this must be our stop. A guy with short skinny dreadlocks and super positive attitude introduced himself to us all as our guide through the border. This was Julio Cesar, known to his friends as Sugar. He rounded us up and pointed us in the direction of the nearby pharmacy to pay our exit fee. 8 bucks a person for this, or 4950 colones. Some quick math told us that paying in USD was a better deal. It also made me want to ask our guide if he might have got the numbers mixed up during conversion. No matter, we paid our fees and gathered outside for the next stage.

Stamps out of the country were next. At the Sixaola crossing, the same office handles both in and out travellers. Considering we were heading out, all we needed was a stamp and we could quickly pass through. We had to stand in the same line as a minibus sized group in front of us was entering Costa Rica…so 20 minutes of seeking a little shade outside the customs office was necessary. With passports freshly inked, we started across the bridge to Panama. This was a temporary single lane bridge that seems to have become a bit more permanent over the years. The old train and foot bridge that connected the two sides of the river seems to have fallen apart over the years.

Next, some paperwork to fill out on the Panamanian side. An entry form asking for the usual…how did you arrive, are you Panamanian, do you have 10000 in cash on you. Walking across any of these borders and declaring that you have that much cash on you probably is not advisable. I wonder how often they get someone checking off that box. One of the German girls did check the box saying she was Panamanian…by accident. No matter, scribble it out and mark the form again. The papers all went into an office and were handed over. No serious checks. Also no entry sticker that I was expecting to pay $3USD for. So far so good.

Next in our weaving border adventure was immigration. No line. Really just a 2 minute process which included most of that time trying to read fingerprints. The multiple steps that lead us through the border make me glad we did this with a guide. This whole process could be simpler if offices were co located instead of having to cross streets and find little offices tucked away in the back. Of course, just following the crowd and asking questions probably would have worked fine if we didn’t have a guide. We were stamped into Panama and ready for our ride.

We seem to have picked up a few new bodies crossing the border. Now our group of 8 was closer to 15 piled into a van. Julio Cesar sat next to Melanie for a few minutes, then popped out at the duty free store for a couple flats of beer. Maybe the rest of us should have looked at doing the same, but every night is Saturday night to us right now. With our guide and his beer safely in the van we were on the road to Alicante, to meet our boat ride.

We made it to the waters edge, and up the road to our dock. Registering our passport numbers seemed necessary as the guy behind the counter was looking for us to pay again. Everyone wants to be paid again. A point in the direction of Sugar and we were free. A few minutes later another shuttle arrived with many of the stray bodies left at the border and we all piled into the boat.

We were informed it was a 25 minute ride on the water and we should be putting on our life jackets. We all put them on, maybe reluctantly, and enjoyed the start to the boat ride on the calm water leading into these docks. This seemed downright relaxing, a nice afternoon on the water. We rounded the corner and you could see beautiful blue hues and white sand bars deep below us. The captain then opened up the throttle. The bow of the boat rose into the air and we were off! A few little waves chopping at the bottom of the boat made for a noisy, windy and bumpy ride. Then the bigger waves…it might have been about 15 minutes of this hard riding that had us all wishing there was some kind of seat cushion on these benches. We bounced and jostled around like one might in a car with no suspension on a Honduran roadway. Sorry, no pics during this part of the journey as I certainly would have lost my phone in the ocean.

We finally pulled into Bocas Town. Off the boat and on our way to our condo rental. Immediately you could feel that this place was very different from Costa Rica. Less traffic. Sidewalks. Melanie was happy. We just had to find our place now. A few blocks down an unpaved road and we were there. A friendly lady opened the security gate and after a few formalities showed us our room. This place is only $45USD a night…clean…but not fancy. Now that we are approaching the end of our trip, we might need to start looking at something a bit higher in the fancy scale.

We really needed a lunch at this point. We headed into town and stopped at the first cheesy restaurant on the water we could find. El Pirata. Almost nobody in the restaurant, but they had dining tables on their pier. We headed straight out to water for a cozy afternoon meal. Menus arrived, and surprisingly we could get a 5 dollar lunch and beer for 1.50! Melanie wasn’t into the cheap beer, so went for an iced tea. We had some really great hibiscus iced tea in Guatemala and Nicaragua…why not here? The beverage she ordered came out black. A single sip…resulted in some serious mouth pucker. They must have filled the glass half full of Lipton iced tea crystals and the other half with water. We spent the duration of the meal just adding water to dilute the concoction to the point of drinkability. No more sugar for us today!

We headed out for a stroll after that tasty chicken and coconut rice lunch. The sugar might have been responsible for that sudden need to go for a walk. We walked to the south end of town, the north end, and all the way westward to the end of the airstrip. We now have a good idea of what is here, and can plan accordingly as to where our fancier next place might be. The north is nice, but quiet. The west is a bit more shacky, but the people seem really nice. Little kids would wave and say Hola as we walked by. One friendly little guy ran up to Melanie and hugged her leg while a lady in the distance started yelling something probably to keep him from approaching strangers so easily. Now Melanie will have to be careful of who she smiles at. On our walk back, we encountered a barber shop.

I had been wanting a trim for a week now. We haven’t had a whole lot of luck finding any barber shops around and Melanie is a bit reluctant to just shave my entire head down to a No. 1. When asking the guy inside, how much…all he wanted was 4 dollars. Done…Melanie wanted to sit for a bit and the boy in the chair was almost complete. As the finishing touches were put to the boy, the place started to fill up. A big guy with dreads, two older boys. This was not a big, or clean place…but it was busy. With the amount of hair on the floor, this guy must have been working hard all day. You could smell the warm hair grease in the air. 10 minutes in the chair, clippers only and a few different guides were finished off with a dusting of talcum powder. Next stop for us was home as I needed to get the powder and other peoples hair debris off me ASAP…especially before dinner.

We showered. No pool, so the fresh water rinse was necessary. Melanie reminds me that fancier places have pools…yes dear…we can look at options. Dinner was down at the south end of town at a place recommended by a Californian lady that had a little clothing shop under the tasty Azul restaurant. Fixed tasting menu for the whopping price of $20 per person. Four dinner courses and two desserts. Our first fancy meal in a long time…tasty, and probably wont be repeated for a few days. We enjoyed it and have now retreated to our budget abode for the night. Bellies very full and ready for a decent sleep.

There was something in the reviews about this place where people were unhappy with the roosters in the morning. I guess we will see!