Coffee, Crocs and Crazy Buses.

So we found ourselves in Panama. We didn’t expect to get this far on this trip but it did seem to have a couple of places worth visiting. The town of David was certainly not one of them! It is, however, a good hub with a well connected bus station.

Waiting at the bus station in David.

So that was our first stop and after asking a few locals we were soon on a bus heading for the mountain town of Boquete. We have learned that if you have a question, about anything really, that it is essential to ask several different people and then take the most popular answer as it is very rarely that they are all the same! The other thing we are learning is that every bus ride in Panama is accompanied by constant, loud music of the driver’s choice! Which is OK if it’s your sort of music or you are just riding two stops down the road, but several hours of ‘Panama’s Greatest Techno Hits’ soon goes from being unbearable to torturous. Earplugs have become a travel essential and we have no idea how people sleep through it.

As soon as we got off the bus in Boquete we knew we would like it. It was quiet for a start. It was also quite a pretty looking town and at an altitude of about 5000 feet, it was fresher and cooler. We had been in the heat and humidity for quite a few weeks now so this was a refreshing change.

Boquete was in a lovely location.

The town is guarded over by another huge volcano, but unlike the perfectly looking one in Arenal, Volcan Baru looked just like the other mountains which surrounded the town. However, the pull of these slopes is that it is perfect for growing coffee and the area is littered with small coffee growing farms. One type of coffee bean in particular grows very well here and in the ‘World of coffee’ the Geisha bean is apparently very exclusive, ‘the Champagne of coffee’, some say. We did some research and found it regularly wins top coffee awards and in Dubai sells for upwards of $60 a cup!

We both like a cup of coffee so we decided to go on a coffee farm tasting tour. We were picked up from our accommodation by our great guide who told us there had been 13 on the tour the previous day, which was about normal, but for some reason that day we were the only two!

Sarah with the coffee beans.

We had a lovely walk around the farm, accompanied by the family avocado eating dog. We learnt so much about the coffee growing and roasting, as well as all the other fruit which was grown on the farm. We then had a tasting session of different types of coffee including the Geisha variety which we both put towards the bottom of our preferences.

The expert at work.

There were several coffee tour options available but we chose this one as at seemed more about sustainability and was also involved with coffee related projects in indigenous communities within Panama.

During the coffee harvest workers come to the region from indigenous communities for the seasonal work and are sometimes paid less than US$1 a day. They are also housed in some pretty poor accommodation, even by Panama standards, where rural housing is less than basic to start with. In fact, we actually thought the workers housing on some farms was the stabling for the horses! It reminded us of our Nicaraguan border experience……. One day we will write a retrospective post on that one!

On another day in Boquete we enjoyed an all day hike, high in the mountains. The trail was supposed to be one of the best locations in Panama to see the very elusive Quetzel bird. These birds are said by some to be one of the most beautiful in the World. We were lucky enough to see one in flight but from a distance in Monteverde so we were hopeful on this trail we would get up close enough for a good photo. It was after all mating season when they are at their most active.

There must be a Quetzal around here somewhere.

Umm.. best place in Panama, middle of the mating season, and five hours of walking. How many Quetzels did we see?……. zero, not even a feather! It was, however, an excellent scenic walk and we did see monkeys and a snake. So all was not lost.

After Boquete we decided we would head for some beach time as most of the last month we have been surrounded by hills and forests and we do like our time by the sea.

Bocas del Toro is one of the more accessible beach destinations in Panama but from Boquete it was still five hours, on two different buses, a short taxi ride, and a thirty minute water taxi. So it was still a long day.

The second bus of the day took us almost the whole way across the width of the country. We had to cross a mountain range in the middle, over which the road twisted and turned and the surface varied from smooth tarmac (not a lot) to pot hole ridden dirt (more than was comfortable). The scenery, however, was spectacular and was almost enough to make you forget about the blaring music and rough surface. Almost but not quite!

Steve gets close up with the locals!

After arriving at the water taxi port area, shaken but not stirred, we commenced our relaxed trip out to Bocas town. Well that is how it started out, however, two minutes into the trip and the driver engaged every horse power he could find. The front of the boat lifted way out of the water and we were soon skimming across the Caribbean Sea at a ridiculous pace. “At least he isn’t playing any music”, shouted Steve. “Maybe he is”, screamed Sarah. “We just can’t hear it”.

Steve in the water taxi.

Bocas del Toro is a group of islands just off the Panamanian coast in the Caribbean. It has a definite Caribbean vibe and the locals all speak Spanish with a strong Caribbean accent. There are water taxis connecting the different islands. Some of them are home to bigger style resorts, but Bocas Town (on the main island) is 100% backpacker land. Our accommodation was on the edge of town. It was a bit rough around the edges, with a few floorboards that needed resecuring, somethings worked, somethings didn’t, but it would do us for a few days and besides we had booked a ‘real’ hotel in Panama City for our next stop.

Arriving in Bocas Town.

We stayed on the main island on our first day and took a bus to the very north, about 45 minutes away, where we could access Starfish beach, which was reportedly one of the best beaches in the whole archipelago. It was awful!

At low tide the beach was at best 10 meters wide with compacted grey sand. Over half the beach had been taken over by ramshackle food and drink stalls, leaving virtually no usable beach. The whole scene looked like some building sites we have seen on this trip. Added to this, there were jet skis prowling the water’s edge with the drivers shouting out for potential customers for the inflatable tyres and bananas they were towing along.

Needless to say we didn’t hang around too long and made our way straight back to the bus stop for a return journey to Bocas Town where we boarded the bus with the worst music yet. It felt like a one minute repeat of the same music and played at a deafening level. Plus, the interior of the bus was decorated in bright green fabric. After 30 minutes we couldn’t stand it anymore so we got off the ‘Torture Bus’ and walked back to town instead. Our first day in Bocas had not been a success and we were struggling to work out what all the hype, that we had read and heard, was all about.

Inside “The Torture Bus”

Thankfully, the next day things improved when we took a water taxi to another island to visit Red Frog Beach. So called because there are apparently tiny red poisonous dart frogs that live near the beach. The beach wasn’t amazing but a definite improvement on the previous day. No one seemed interested in looking for the frogs, no one that is except Sarah who walked off into the rainforest at the end of the beach in search of small amphibians. Steve obviously had to follow for fear of missing out.

Unbelievably Sarah found four of them in the thick vegetation and the biggest was less than size of a thumb nail. They are apparently a little dangerous so we were careful not to touch them.

He looks a lot bigger in close up.

We spent the rest of the day laying on the beach and enjoying a dip in the warm water. It was probably back in Escondido, in Mexico, when we last spent so much time on the beach.

Ahhh. Back in the water!

The following day we hired a couple of dilapidated beach cruiser bikes and headed up the coast to Bluff Beach. It was an enjoyable ride, the road hugging the sea most of the way.

“You will be back on your own bike soon enough”

Bluff Beach was in our opinion easily the best of the three beaches we had seen. It reminded us very much of some of the beaches in Australia’s Far North Queensland where we have spent many happy times.

That’s more like it!

Bocas del Toro grew on us during the time we were there and we got back in the water taxi to leave feeling glad we had made the effort to get there. We made our way back on the ‘fun bus’ across the corkscrew road, back to the city of David, for a one night stop before we embarked on five days of luxury (for us anyway).

We were heading to Panama City, an eight hour (£15) bus journey away, or a one hour (£55) flight away. We decided that the cost to comfort ratio swung in favour of the flight on this occasion so we left our hotel in David and turned in the direction of the airport.

In what seemed like no time at all we were on a bus heading into the cosmopolitan capital city of Panama (we had to fit a bus in somewhere on the journey!).

In terms of modern architecture, infrastructure and general facilities, Panama City is way, way, way in front of everywhere else in Central America and it’s high-rise skyline is reminiscent of some of the great skylines of the World. It is sometimes referred to as the ‘Hong Kong of Latin America’. This modern city is a complete contrast to the rest of the country.

The Panama City skyline………and Sarah.

There are, however, constant reminders that you are still in Central America and the poverty is still there if you look, but it definitely has a different feel to anywhere else we have been on this trip.

This was our ‘treat time’ and our hotel was easily the best we have stayed in, not only on this trip but also since we finished work and for several years before that as well. Initially we felt a little out of place especially when we marched in with rucsacks on our front and backs, and clothes we had been wearing for a few days. There is a line from a James Bond film which amused us once and we employed it to good effect. “We are teachers on sabatical and we have won the lottery”.

“I think we might enjoy this”

Once again we put on our trainers and walked a good part of the city. We found a four kilometre cycle and walking path which followed the curve of the bay. It was a lovely walk with well kept gardens and was completely flat, which was an added bonus as it was very hot and humid, so we appreciated the lack of hills.

The path eventually led to the neighbourhood of Casa Viejo which was, at one time, one of the most dangerous neighbourhoods in the city. But it has been undergoing a complete transformation which looks 75% complete, but then most things in Central America look 75% complete…… at best!

The old……

To be fair Casa Viejo is beautiful. The majority of the buildings have been expertly restored and look immaculate. Some have a look of Raffles, the famous hotel in Singapore, about them. There are still the odd buildings in a state of ruin but you can see that in a few years time this will be a standout place in the region.

……and the new.

As we walked back through the city we crossed some small bridges over storm drains. As we crossed one of them Steve stopped dead in his tracks. “Look at that, am I seeing things?”, he asked. There basking in the sun only a few metres away was a huge crocodile. It was between three and four metres long and just looking around. It could easily have made it’s way up to where we were standing and continued on to Main Street, Panama City. Apparently it is quite unusual to see them there (in the storm drain not Main Street!).

A city croc.
He was quite a decent size.

On another day in Panama City we caught the subway and a bus out to the Panama Canal. We were lucky enough to pass through it 10 years ago so it was good to also see it from land side. Unfortunately, no ships were in the lock during our visit but it is still impressive to see and there is a small museum which shows the history of its construction and transition to Panama ownership in the year 2000. It goes a long way to explain the boom in wealth and construction the country has seen since then.

One of the locks at The Panama Canal.

The canal splits The Americas in two. The Trans America Highway, or Highway 1, runs all the way in various forms from Alaska, through Canada and The USA, Central America, and all the way to Ushuaia at the very tip of South America. It is a continuous road except for one small section. That section is just East of the Panama Canal leading to the Columbian Border. This area is known as ‘The Darien Gap’, a heavily forested area inhabited by drug cartels and Panamanian and Columbian rebel forces. Outside of war zones it is widely accepted as the most dangerous place on the planet. Access is strictly controlled by military checkpoints but it is possible to apply for permits to enter parts of it with an official guide. We decided not to bother and headed back to our luxury hotel to sit by the pool!

Our relaxing time in Panama City was over far too quickly and it was time to pack up the rucsacks and check out. Lottery winnings spent!

We now have two weeks to get back to Mexico for our flight home, so we have more crazy Panamanian buses to look forward to!

“Maybe we really should buy a lottery ticket”, said Sarah, as we walked out of the hotel into the mayhem!

Another Day Another Border.

On trips like the one we are doing now border crossings are a big part so we thought we would throw in an extra post specifically on this subject.

When we first looked at doing this trip the Omicron variant of Covid-19 was well and truly on the rise. Some countries around the World were re-establishing restrictions, while others were keeping restrictions in place that had been planned to be removed.

We were looking for somewhere interesting and warm to escape the European winter and Costa Rica had been our initial thought with travel still allowed for vaccinated travellers. However, as beautiful as Costa Rica is, we were concerned a country the size of Switzerland might not hold us for over three months so Mexico was added to the trip. Then a couple of weeks before we left we had the idea of adding Guatemala and Belize as they bordered Mexico and, with some Covid testing, travel there looked possible.

So with a few ups and downs we ticked off the planned countries and found ourselves in Manuel Antonio. We still had a few things to do that we had planned in Costa Rica but we weren’t that far from the border with Panama, so we decided to continue South to another Country.

A land border crossing, especially these days, takes a bit of planning and preparation. How do you physically get there? What documentation do you need? Are visas required? What vaccination level and testing do they require for Covid-19. Do I need proof of exit travel? What taxes do I need to pay? The list goes on.

From Manuel Antonio our crossing would be at Paso Canoas, which is reportedly the most chaotic border crossing in Central America. Since it is not on the regular tourist trail direct buses and shuttles are not available so we were going to have to do this the hard way.

We did some pre-planning by visiting the bus station in Quepos to try and buy a ticket to the border. Our first issue was finding a ticket outlet as they rarely look as you expect and are often not obvious. We have bought bus tickets in cafes, in the back of souvenir shops, in grocery stores and other unusual places.

The bus station in Quepos

Eventually, we located a ticket outlet which was a woman sitting behind a window protected by iron bars and no signage. She was very helpful and said there was a bus once a day to the border which passed by the hospital 10 miles out of town at about 10.15 in the morning. “Excellent”, we said. “Two tickets for tomorrow please”. She printed them off and we even had assigned seats so we left happy with our progress. All we had to do was to make our way to the hospital by 10.15am.

In the morning we left our accommodation at 8.30am and had no sooner walked to the road when a bus appeared. We flagged it down, it stopped, it was going our way, and it was relatively empty. “Maybe the hand of good fortune is with us today”, said Steve.

We arrived at the bus station in Quepos and searched for a bus towards the hospital. It was now a man in the heavily protected kiosk (who was not quite as helpful as the woman) and he directed us towards a green bus. We found the driver laying down across the front two passenger seats. He informed us the bus didn’t go to the hospital and he didn’t know where the bus went from. In fact, he didn’t care and he had bigger problems like squeezing in another nap!

After 45 minutes we eventually found a bus heading our way. It seemed to take in every street in the area but eventually we saw the hospital and jumped off. We still had plenty of time so we grabbed a coffee in a soda near the bus stop and sat on our bags pleased in the knowledge we had arrived for our main bus with time to spare …… oh did we have time to spare!

10.15am came and went. As did 10.30 and 10.45! We were starting to get a little worried that maybe the bus had been early or that it didn’t exist. Then a woman turned up who wanted to be chatty and spoke a little English so together with our little Spanish we sort of deduced the bus actually came at 11am.

11am came and went with no bus and the clock ticked on. It was getting very hot by now, a few inquisitive iguanas strolled by, and the clock ticked on. “We are going to have to start looking at plan B”, said Steve. “I didn’t think we had a plan B”, said Sarah. “We don’t”, said Steve!

“Are you waiting for the Paso Canoas bus too?”

Then, at 11.30am, a big pink bus came around the corner with ‘Paso Canoas’ on the front. We jumped up frantically waving it down and it pulled to a stop. The driver got off, checked our tickets, put our bags in the luggage compartment, and we boarded a completely full bus with the exception of our two assigned seats. The system worked albeit not to schedule. We also noticed that we appeared to be the only non Central Americans onboard. We were certainly heading off the regular tourist route.

The bus seats were very comfortable, however, there was no aircon and it was 35 degrees outside and opening windows just dragged in hot air. But we were thankful we were heading South, we stuck a film on our phone, plugged the earphones in and settled down for the three hour trip.

Forty minutes later we stopped! The bus had already been on the move for four hours before we got on and so the rest of the passengers were due a comfort break. To be fair we were ready ourselves as we had not wanted to leave the bus stop in case it showed up and we missed it.

Time for a break.

Thirty minutes later we were on the move again, watching Ben Aflick do his thing on the small screen. We passed through several small towns which looked pretty disheveled, dropping off and picking up passengers as we went. We noticed that some people didn’t get on they just handed the driver boxes which were then picked up by people at bus stops further along the route. It all looked a little suspicious to our eye but probably just the way things work here.

Eventually the bus came to a stop and everyone stood up. We followed them off and saw we had most definitely arrived at the border. We could see a big building in the distance painted like the Panamanian flag, so we loaded up our bags and headed in that direction.

Don’t forget that exit stamp.

It is entirely possible to walk straight along the road from Paso Canoas (Costa Rica) to Frontera (Panama) without speaking to any official or getting any stamps in your passport or showing any proof of vaccination. You could continue on and explore Panama to your hearts content … until …… you are either stopped by Police or you come to leave the country whereupon you are hit with a $1000 fine.

The thing is, it is quite easy to enter Panama by accident. Paso Canoas is a little chaotic with trucks and buses everywhere and everyone wants to “help” you or sell you something or both. Added to this the sky was turning ominously black, so it was quite natural for us to hurry on through.

We found the entrance to the Panama immigration, which was locked. Then a truck driver pointed to another door marked ‘salida’ (Exit) which was open. Steve walked in and immediately turned around and walked out saying, “What are we doing? We haven’t been stamped out of Costa Rica yet?”.

Back we went through the chaos of vehicles, people and stalls, past where the bus had dropped us off, and then further along the road. We found, sandwiched between a couple of bars, a small hut where we had to pay an $8 exit tax! This somehow became $9? We are getting used to the occasional dollar being added onto official business in Central America. Arguing it though gets you nowhere, only to the back of the queue. We have been advised by several people to just accept it. There is a definite feeling of some sort of corruption at every level. It is the way this part of the world works.

Sarah queuing to pay her tax.

With our receipt for $8 …. not £9 we walked across the dusty road to another building where an immigration official examined our passports and asked us some questions in Spanish. We just shrugged our shoulders, while he looked at us a little frustrated, then looked at his half eaten sandwich, looked back at us, back at the sandwich and stamped our passports!

Off we trudged back to Panama, just as the clouds split open and then rain started to fall. We went back in through the ‘out’ door and were directed to the end booth where the most miserable man in Panama was sitting. His job was to verify our vaccination status. I could write several paragraphs on this happy chappy, but suffice to say, he wouldn’t accept digital proof, photos of our certificate or photocopies. No he wanted the original!! Thankfully, Sarah was as organised as ever producing the certificate from her bag of tricks. Mr Miserable, took it and kept it and waved his hand towards another booth. At this booth we were met with what was apparently an immigration officer, no uniform in sight, just jeans and a cardigan. But with very few questions we exited the building into an absolute downpour with stamped passports.

Second time lucky. But that sky looks ominous.

Steve saw what looked like a bus station across the road, so we headed in that direction. Steve tried to squeeze between a parked car and a fence but unfortunately knocked an umbrella which was covering a cool box where a guy was selling drinks. The umbrella collapsed on Steve and the cool box, knocking it over and its entire contents spilled out and started rolling down the street through the river of rain water. The guy was going mad, we were trying to calm him down and catch the bottles and cans. We also had the workers from the bus station trying to take our bags and get them onto their bus to secure the fare. It was total chaos.

After a stressful five minutes we found ourselves, soaking wet through, sitting at the back of a bus next to our bags heading towards David, our final destination.

One hour later with the rain stopped and the sun back out, we pulled into the busy bus station. We walked the final kilometre through the town to our hotel. We checked in and jumped straight in the shower. Another day’s travel completed. We would be off again in the morning on what we hoped would be a slightly less arduous day!

Almost there!

Flying in the Forest

After a four hour transfer by bus, boat and bus we arrived in the small town of Santa Elena, which is the main service town for the Monteverde Cloud Forest area. Essentially, the difference between a Cloud Forest and a Rain Forest is altitude with the Cloud Forest being much higher and Monteverde sits around 5000 feet. This also drops the temperature by a few degrees making it, for us, a very comfortable 25 degrees.

The town of Santa Elena was much smaller than we had imagined. The area is well and truly on the ‘tourist route’, so we expected something along the lines of La Fortuna. It was, in fact, pretty much a one street town. It still had everything you needed, albeit on a smaller scale, including accommodation, bars, restaurants, supermarkets, souvenir shops etc. However, its main function appeared to be the organisation of tours to the Cloud Forest to walk at ground level, walk on hanging bridges through the trees, or zipline at speed above them. We ended up doing all three.

Steve wanders across one of the hanging bridges

The hanging bridges walk was pretty unusual as it gave you a different perspective of the forest as you walked through the thick canopy of trees. Some of the bridges were quite long, a few hundred metres, and when the wind picked up or there were more than a handful of people on them you could certainly see and feel them swinging. You could see one or two people who obviously had issues with the height really struggling.

We did our ground level walk through the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve. The area had four different trails of varying difficulty and length which allowed at least some sort of access to most people. We were up for a bit of a hike so we covered all the trails, which added up to over eight miles. We probably enjoyed it more than the hanging bridges. Some of the trails were quite steep over uneven terrain and at the furthest points, where fewer people venture, you had a sense of being alone in the super dense forest. I think if you stepped a few metres off the track you would be lost very quickly.

Don’t stray from the path!

We didn’t see all that much wildlife in there but it was more about the atmosphere and location. At one point, quite high up, the forest opened up to a great view across the valley towards Arenal Volcano. It looked remarkably close and we couldn’t believe how it had taken four hours to travel from there. But then looking at the steep, rugged, dense carpet of trees stretching as far as you could see in every direction it was obviously a major achievement to get any sort of road in there at all.

How did it take over 4 hours to get from there?

Our final activity in Monteverde was to go ziplining. This is what many people come here for and so we had to give it a go. There are four different companies that offer the experience, all of which are similar but each one has something different to the others to try and entice the custom. We did our research and decided on one which included a couple of ‘Superman’ style sections, one of which went through a tunnel, an optional 50 metre high ‘Tarzan’ swing, plus it was the longest zipline trail in the area at almost three miles.

All dressed up and ready to go.

When we arrived we found it very busy and on our tour as there were 35 people. Our expectations of the day sunk pretty quickly as we had visions of long wait times between each zipline. However, we were completely wrong. We were kitted out with a harness, helmet and gloves and after a short safety brief, several members of staff set off along the route positioning themselves at the start and finish of each line. This meant that as soon as you finished each section you were unhooked and were free to walk through the forest to the next section where someone was waiting to hook you back on, and off you went again. This reduced waiting to a minimum and the whole experience was amazing.

Someone is enjoying herself

It was one of the best things we have done like this in a long time. All in all there were 14 lines to travel along. Most were seated, a couple of which we were able to do in tandem. It was a fantastic feeling flying through the canopy of trees, emerging into open sky then decending to just a few feet above the trees. The views and the feeling were amazing, we were loving it!

We were surprised how long each line was. Each one was a few hundred metres in length and with some steep forest trekking in between it was quite a strenuous day. Some people were really struggling towards the end, but the last two lines certainly took people’s minds off how tired they might have been feeling. These two were the ‘Superman’ lines, one of which went through a tunnel but the other one was a kilometre long line where your harness was rearranged and you were suspended like Superman under the line.

Off she goes!
You can just make out the line and the “Superman”

You were then sent off from inside the Forest, emerging just above the canopy for a few seconds before the trees disappeared and you were left flying across open sky at 60kph with the valley floor hundreds of feet below, before disappearing back into the forest and the awaiting finish platform. To say it was exhilarating would be an understatement.

Just when we thought it was all over we were presented with the option of doing a 50 metre high ‘Tarzan’ swing. Several people decided against this one including Sarah. She will jump out of an aeroplane, climb an ice covered volcano, zipline through the Cloud Forest and numerous other things but the whole ‘bungee’ thing is not for her. We did one 20 years ago in New Zealand, she ticked the box and retired from that experience. Steve on the other hand couldn’t resist and took on the free fall drop and swung through the canopy to finish a fantastic day.

Steve prepares for the drop!

We had four fabulous days in Monteverde and our expectations had been well and truly surpassed. It sounds ridiculous but we had been unfortunate to have beautiful weather during our stay, with blue skies most of the time and we were slightly disappointed that we had not seen hardly any cloud in the Cloud Forest. However, as we left Santa Elena and made our way down the mountain we were treated to a lovely view in the forest below as a huge cloud filled the tree covered valley. It was the icing on the cake!

A cloud in the Cloud Forest!

Another four and a half hour journey took us South from Santa Elena to the Manuel Antonio National Park. We are finding our current trip to be logistically different from a lot of our more recent trips. We have sort of got used to travelling with a certain amount of freedom to go when and where we want. Whether that is on our bikes, in a car, or in a campervan. On this trip we are bound by public transport constraints, mainly timings and routes. As such, without paying for expensive, private transfers or hire cars, those out of the way unusual places and secluded beaches are beyond us. We are tied pretty much to the main tourist points of interest. Don’t get us wrong, we are still seeing and doing some fantastic things, but we are noticing a certain lack of freedom and a definite increase in how busy some places are.

Manuel Antonio was busy. It is definitely a beautiful location and you can take a step back and imagine what it looked like 20 or 30 years ago. A rugged coast line with steep cliffs dropping into scenic bays. Then a long, crescent bay running into a rainforest peninsula with two lovely beaches, one on either side. It is understandable why it is popular.

You can understand why this place is popular.

But, as is the way with so many places in the world, a beautiful location is discovered and more and more people hear about it. Tourism infrastructure is set up, making it more and more accessible attracting more and more people and the expansion continues. Banana boats, jetskis, parasailing and the likes move in and the place becomes overwhelmed.

We had a pretty long walk and a good camera position for this shot!

I suppose you could look at it, that through this cycle of several years everybody has their own opportunity to sample their own idea of paradise. Whether that is being the only one in the newly discovered beach location, or flying out of control on a jetski or drinking your fill of the local beer with the latest techno music blasting out in the background …. all at the same time! The people who want the quieter time move out, find somewhere new and the cycle starts again.

Manuel Antonio is now a five mile stretch of restaurants, hotels, shops and tour operators stretching back from the National Park to the town of Quepos, with a constant stream of traffic filling the road.

We gave Manuel Antonio a couple of days, sat on all the beaches, and walked the National Park from top to bottom.

A mother and baby sloth….somewhere!
A bit of a cutie.

We saw some wildlife at close quarters and were lucky enough to see another sloth in motion. We enjoyed it but it would not be our number one stop on this trip.

So we packed our bags and headed off in search of something different.

She definitely played the part!

Caught with your pants down!

After our extended stay in Puerto Escondido we hit the road again, well actually we hit the air again. We flew back to Mexico City, stayed overnight in a hotel at the airport, and then caught an early morning flight to San Jose, the capital city of Costa Rica.

As we were only staying overnight in San Jose we picked our hotel strategically within walking distance of the bus station. This strategy is always a gamble as more often than not the area around city bus and train stations is rarely the best part of town. San Jose was no exception.

We weren’t staying in the best part of town.

We spent the afternoon wandering around ‘downtown’ looking for something worth visiting but, to be honest, the whole the area was pretty awful. We decided to check our route to the bus station and maybe we would be able to buy a ticket in advance. Our route was lined with seedy bars, strip clubs and run down hotels which charged by the hour! We found the bus station and were told our bus to La Fortuna would leave at 8.40 the following morning. We weren’t able to buy a ticket in advance, but apparently it did not get too busy and if we turned up about 20 minutes before we would be fine.

Steve didn’t think too much of downtown San Jose

The following morning we headed to the bus station. As we got closer a woman rushed out of a doorway, still adjusting her miniscual dress and underwear as she went. She hobbled precariously along the cobbled street in high heeled, ill fitting shoes and make up smeared across her face. As we approached the doorway a man was standing there adjusting his trousers. He was laughing and said something in Spanish to Steve (who didn’t understand a word) but knew enough from the body language to shake his head and his hands and say, “No, no, no”. As we walked on Steve turned to Sarah and said, “We have to come back through San Jose in a month or so, on our way back to Mexico, maybe we will stay in a different part of town!”

We arrived at the bus station 40 minutes early and were greeted by a queue that wound it’s way like a snake around the waiting area. It was chaos. Steve did a quick head count and estimated there were about 70 people in front of us. “No way are we getting on that bus, not even in Central America”, he said. We slowly made our way to the front of the queue as the number of people behind us continued to grow. “Remind me not to believe anyone giving out information at a bus station again”, said Sarah. She also struck up a conversation with three Norwegian girls in the queue behind us and agreed that if we didn’t get on the bus we would all share a taxi together.

Closer and closer we edged to the front as the people and bags were wedged onto the bus. “Where are they putting everyone?”, said Sarah Then Steve got to the the turnstile at the front of the queue (we were next in line) only to be told in broken English, “Bus full. No more. Wait here”.

The man ‘organising’ the chaos disappeared and after about 10 minutes he came back, by which time our bus had left. The man pointed to a pink bus and let us through the turnstiles. The next five minutes involved a lot of people speaking Spanish, and a lot of arm waving, and furious discussion. We couldn’t work out where and when the bus was going, not even which country, never mind which town! Even the people among us who could speak a little Spanish were only guessing at what was happening. Eventually, a driver turned up for the bus and luckily not only was he a really nice guy but he spoke excellent English. He explained this bus would take us to a town part way to our destination and he would ring the bus company to organise another bus to meet us there, and this would take us the rest of the way to La Fortuna. “Sounds like a plan”, we thought and on we jumped along with 30 or so others who had joined the queue behind us.

A rickety bridge en route

The bus driver also explained that the bus would be making many stops along the way and all sorts of people would be getting on and off, some good, some not so good. He said every day someone has something stolen on the bus, including money, passports and credit cards. So he warned us to keep our personal possessions close and be vigilant.

“It’s only 9am, we have a five hour bus journey ahead of us and already today is turning into a bit of an adventure. Well worth the £4 fare”, said Steve!

The first bus was pretty comfortable and three hours passed quickly. The bus driver was right, all sorts of people got on and off the bus and sometimes it was packed. Sixty people was the busiest it got, many of whom were standing. It would have been very easy to take something from a bag in the overhead storage but we kept ours on our laps.

“Keep an eye on the bags Sarah, I’m just having a snooze”

We arrived at our first destination and the great bus driver organised the original 30 into a line and told us to wait there and a bus would be along shortly. Five minutes later, as promised, a bus arrived. It was much lower down the scale of comfortable buses but it went forward and the driver seemed to realise he had a clutch. It was already an improvement on Guatemala!

We left San Jose at 9am and after five hours, two buses, hundreds of passengers, £4 spent and one seriously dodgy bridge, we had covered the 85 miles and arrived in La Fortuna. Yes! You did read that right, only 85 miles. Luckily we had been to Costa Rica before and knew that travelling by public transport is not the quickest. In fact, travelling full stop is not quick. A lot of the country is very rugged and hilly, and often unpaved. Then when you throw in the ‘Central America’ element you really are not going anywhere fast.

But we were in La Fortuna in time for a late lunch, so we went to see if the town was worth the effort getting here.

We are lucky enough to have previously travelled to Costa Rica. But that time it was a break from work and so we spent most of the time relaxing on the beaches on the Pacific Coast. Although there was one night which we spent in a dilapidated old cow shed on the Nicaragua border, but that is another story from another trip! We had wanted to visit La Fortuna on that occasion but the beaches were so good we couldn’t pull ourselves away. So this time we were determined to get here.

La Fortuna, or The Fortunate, gets its name from the aftermath of a huge eruption in 1968 of the nearby volcano Arenal. El Burio, as the village was known then, was completely spared while other villages were destroyed and so its name was changed. Not only was it lucky to be spared but the eruption changed the whole geography of the area creating the beginings of a tourist industry that has gone from strength to strength, with the town becoming a centre for nature and adventure tours.

Arenal volcano high above the town of La Fortuna

It is now possible to view the volcano by almost every conceivable form of transport including on foot, bike, horse, kayak, SUP, plane, the list goes on. Unfortunately, you are only allowed to legally hike part of the way up, as it is still active and a constant flow of steam can be seen just to remind you.

On our hike up the Volcano, still a long way to go.
Walking through the rainforest

Arenal looks the part, it is the stereotypical conical shape and stands alone towering above the town.

We had a great time here. We hiked to the start of the now solid lava flow through the rain forest. We did a smaller but excellent walk in a small reserve near town and we took a trip to the Rio Celeste in Tonario Volcano National Park, where we again hiked through the rainforest to a ridiculously blue river and stunning waterfall.

The ridiculously blue water and waterfall at Rio Celeste
Amazing birds in La Fortuna

As has been the case for most of this trip it has been pretty hot. So one day we decided to cool off by taking a dip in the river on the edge of town. There was a rope hanging from one of the trees and a couple of people were swinging out to the middle of the water and making the several metre drop into the refreshing water. The longer we watched the more Steve was edging towards making the swing. Eventually he decided to go, stepped up, grabbed the rope and out he went straight into the water. He made his way back up the rocks and to his absolute complete surprise found Sarah stepping up to the rope. “Anything you can do” was the last thing he heard as she swung off the rocks and plummeted down. Steve held his breath until she surfaced with a big grin.

Steve going for a splash
Anything you can do I can do better!

At the end of one particular day we stopped off at some natural hot springs which are obviously very popular. The water flows down through the rainforest in a series of small cascading waterfalls which do create quite a strong flow. We got changed into our swim gear and found ourselves a nice position wedged in, protected from the flow. We relaxed and watched the sky go dark as the sun started to disappear, it was a great feeling as we thought about just where we were.

We decided to get out and head back to town for dinner. Steve found himself a safe place to drop his swim shorts and put his dry ones on. He trapped his wet shorts under his foot but as he went to put his leg in his dry shorts the flow of the water took his swimmers away. He was caught with his shorts half on and half off not knowing whether to go after his swimmers or protect his modesty. After a few seconds of hesitation he went for the latter and watched his swimmers float away. A few seconds later a girl a little way down the thermal pools jumped as something grabbed her leg. Her panic was short lived as she bent down and pulled up Steve’s shorts. You could see the confusion in her face as she looked around for the naked owner and saw Steve frantically waving at her. The shorts were retrieved by relay and everyone went home happy.

He is still in possession of his shorts at this point.

One of the major attractions of Costa Rica is the wildlife. There is a whole array of colourful birds here plus some glow in the dark frogs and good sized lizards. They even have tapir and jaguar although they are rarely seen. Add a few humpback whales into the mix and you have something for everyone. The real star of the show though is the sloth! Seeing one of these peculiar creatures is high on most people’s list. The last time we were here we saw one, high up and not very clear. This time we hoped for better.

We had only just arrived at our accommodation, when the guy who checked us in came over and asked if we wanted to see a sloth as there was one in a tree in the grounds. We trotted off with him with Steve muttering something about only been here five minutes and we had already seen a sloth, they must be everywhere.

We found the sloth quite low in the tree and very visible, then it started to move very, very slowly, hand over hand, for about two metres, whereupon it stopped obviously exhausted. Apparently they sleep up to 20 hours and move about 40 metres a day. Steve said he had known plenty of people with similar productivity!

We didn’t realise how lucky we were to get this shot.

Sarah managed to get a couple of good photos and a great video, and little did we know at the time how lucky we were. As we have travelled around since then we have met so many other people who have only glimpsed sloths from a distance, even the guides in the National Parks have been impressed with Sarah’s video.

There really was a ton of things to do in La Fortuna and from our experience and speaking to others it was pretty much all of a great standard. However, some of the activities are reportedly better in other locations, and ziplining was on our list. Apparently the place to do that is in The Cloud Forest at Monteverde.

So it’s Monteverde or bust for us!

“Are you coming to Monteverde Mr Green and Black Poisonous Dart Frog”?