Monday, 9 September 2013

PANAMA & COSTA RICA. THE BEGINNING … AND THE END OF CENTRAL AMERICA…FOR NOW


My flight from Barcelona, Venezuela was delayed, then the bus from the airport to the centre took almost 2 hours, then my host who came to pick me up from Albrook mall took forever, without me knowing whether we understood each other well about the place and the time…but at the end everything worked out well.
Alex (my host)  gave me a night tour around Panama city – the old town,…I was exhausted cos slept only 5 hours the night before and just wanted to go to bed but he was coming up with these ideas and changing his mind all the time so I ended up staying at his friend´s house for the night cos he had to go and work as a private taxi driver!!! (I thought he was a graphic designer). And before that, we stopped at the bay to ask in a posh restaurant if they need extra staff for the weekend, for both of us!! I never thought of working here but some extra dollars are always welcome and would be fun to do some waitressing after 10 years of engineeringJ. So that was my first night in Panama.
Alex and his friends as well, were the typical Rastafarians so everything was “Peace and love” and “one love” and lots of weed which is alright for me, just didn’t know how long my usually organized and not very patient mind can put up with all this. Other than that, they really wanted me to feel at home and have fun so there were lots of proposal and good looking events for the next few days – concerts, beaches, rivers, surfing, islands, which sounded amazing but not really sure how realistic all of them were.
Of course it didn’t happen. Moreover I had to leave running to another CS place (had pretty good reasons to do it after a surprise in the middle of the night) – on the 25th floor near Parque Omar. There were 3 other couchsurfers – a Japanese guy and a French couple (who thought that knew everything) and “by mistakes” locked the doors of both bathrooms in the flat (how useless you have to be to do it twice in the same day!). 


Alex. In the ghetto 
25th floor

Panama viejo
Gates to the old town
Old town
Finally I found the perfect host in the person of John. He lives in a cozy little house in Parque Ancon and once I went there just to leave my bugs while we go up the hill…I didn’t wanna leave. It was like a little green paradise within the city. We saw all kind of animals on the way to the top and near his house – sloths, many birds, squirrels, etc. I spent the whole afternoon on the terrace listening to the birds and…using the wifi (guilty face).
A sloth in the middle of the city (well, in the park)

Puente de las America
John in his lovely house
Santa Catalina
It was a fishing village which existed in quiet seclusion until discovered by adventurous surfers in the 1970s. Protecting their hidden world class surf, Santa Catalina was kept secret by the surfers for quite sometime but now is packed with pro surfers and not so pro J. There are 2 shops and no ATM but plenty of surfboards to rent.
In Santa Catalina I met the only couchsurfer – Zack. I knew he doesn’t host usually but is up for a drink so I called him. I planned to go to a hostel but he squeezed me in his little room. He was on this sail boat and they (usually 7 people) were missing the last crew member. The boat was leaving in a month to French Polynesia. He tried to convince me to be that person because he thought I would fit perfectly with the rest of the crew (don’t know how he decide that) but I had my route to Mexico planned and was looking forward to explore Central America, especially Nicaragua. So I told him no way but during the night hearing all the stories about sailing and living on a boat, going to secluded beaches, husking coconuts and fishing…I started to have my doubts. Took me exactly one night and one morning to decide to drop all my plans and go sailing to French Polynesia instead. Zack was working as a kayak guide and went with some tourist to Isla Coiba (the Panamenian Galapagos) for 2 days so I moved to Mama Ines, a nice family hostel. I got so impatient that couldn´t wait for him to come back to set in motion the whole process of me joining the boat so I contacted the captain telling him who I was and how much I wanted to go with them sailing. Was very surprised when he replied straight away and said yes. I was so happy and the whole hostel got it.
Apart from all this sailing emotions, I rented a nice surf board and had the best surfing in my life so far. Apparently I`m better than I thought. Caught every single wave I tried. Next day Zack came back so I moved back to his house. He was really surprised that I changed my mind about the sailing. We went surfing again, I rented the same board and it was amazing again.


Mama Ines - 8$ per night (dorm room)
The surf boards
Mama Ines
The hostel next door
Little Jovani
He is strong and scary (holding my birthday present to him)
Already 3!
Suddenly there were so many opportunities – I got a confirmation from a nice hostel in Boquete that I can volunteer there, I could have stayed and volunteer at the Dive shop in Santa Catalina since their volunteer fell horse riding and was stuck to bed now (means free dives all the time and going to Coiba island once a week) plus sailing with Karaka! Some choices had to be made. I chose Karaka. Here is the website, it looked pretty good, especially for someone with no experience at all (I had to find out later that the reality was a bit different L) http://karaka.voila.net/crew.html .

KARAKA

Tom, the captain wanted me as soon as possible on the boat so I headed back to Panama city hitchhiking. It was a mess on the boat, new and old crew coming and leaving, couch surfers, people from other boats…I got my own bunk for the 3 days I stayed on the boat (most of the people were sleeping on the deck). I asked Tom if I can travel for 10 more days since the boat wasn’t leaving the next 3 weeks. He wasn’t happy about it but I left anyway. I wanted to see more of the country and a bit of Costa Rica before I start going the exact opposite direction of what I planned.
Someone had quite a few beers. At Brisas del Amador
I left Karaka with Steve, another crew member, who was also going to Boquete to meet a friend. We hitch hiked and one of the guys who picked us up, recommended Las Lajas beach just before we got to the turn off to it and we decided to get off and stay a day there. 25 km of beach and no people. We camped for 5 $ for the tent (Steve had all the camping gear, I didn’t even bring shoes J). 
Cashew fruit
Las Lajas
I thought only the locals can do that
Steve


This is to show him how my eyes are 3 times bigger than his, guess why ;)
Next day, after some cooking and laziness on the beach and hammocks, in the afternoon we finally made a move. A police patrol gave us a ride to the main road and then a few more rides we made it to Boquete. Tucked in the highlands near the Baru volcano, Boquete is a small town on Caldera river, about 60 km from the border with Costa Rica. Stayed in Hostal Refugio del rio, the best hostel in Boquete in my opinion (Refugio del rio). I had applied to volunteer here before I knew about Karaka and they accepted me so I wanted to meet them in person and tell them I can´t do it now. The hostel is simply beautiful, all the staff and the owner are extremely friendly, even has free barbecue on Thursday. The owner, Luchini, even agreed that I volunteer for 2,3 days  teaching English to one of the guys working there and helping with the barbecue on Thursday night. That was it. The other volunteers, a Slovakian couple, were quite nice and friendly and it turned out that the girl (Zuzka) and I have been working in San Francisco the same summer of 2004 and we had so many friends in common. 
I went to Caldera´s hot springs and on the way back to Bouquete, while hitchhiking I managed to get 3 vaccines at the health centre in one of the tiny villages on the way. All for free. The one against tetanus I´ve been meaning to get for a very long time so I was quite lucky.
Zack came too from Santa Catalina and Steve and him went hiking to the volcano, camping on the top. If the weather is nice and you are lucky, you can see both oceans from the top. They didn’t though L. Only a few places in the world offer such a view, unless you are on a plane of course.
The river in Buquette

Hot springs

New type "STOP" sign for my collection
Caipirihna night in "Refugio del Rio"
This is my student
The "bartender" is also in charge of the BBQ


Zuzka from Slovakia
Refugio del rio
Luccini, the owner

I randomly got a message that Andrea and Sebastian were house sitting in Paso Ancho, on the other side of the volcano and they invited me to their house. And the next morning I was on the road again, trying to hitch a ride. Panama is a paradise for hitch hikers, people pick you up very quickly and are so friendly.  It took 9 cars though, going through many small villages. But it was so worth it. There was another BBQ waiting for me when I finally arrived to the house…and some German friends of theirs. It was so nice to meet some old friends – we met volunteering in Lobitos, Peru and 2 months later again in Baños, Ecuador. And now in Panama.
Bored, waiting for my ride..so another STOP sign.
BBQ on the go
She is cold. She is from Brazil.
Like the good old times
New style camping food. Pasta in a plastic bottle
All in. Ready to hike to the volcano.
Everyone in the house - Germany, Brazil, Bulgaria
We all left next morning, me and Anita (the Brazilian girl) hitchhiking to David and the rest – hiking to the volcano. Anita has never hitchhiked before so I took her under my wing and we had no problem getting rides to David. Then I kept going to Changuinola and the border with Costa Rica. Really lucky because in the outskirts of David a nice family picked me up and took me all the way to Changuinola, got there just in time  have lunch with them and to cross the border.

COSTA RICA
I was nicely surprised by Costa Rica. Like most of the backpackers I planned to cross it as fast as possible because it´s way too expensive and full of Americans...and the next one is Nicaragua (also beautiful but 5 times cheaper). But Costa Rica has a lot to offer, and the locals are so nice, getting a ride was the easiest …I saw so little though L 

In Puerto Viejo I stayed in Rocking Js, the busiest hostel in town, kind of camping style, you can have a room but almost everyone was staying in a tent or hammock. It is a great place to meet other travellers and it is very well equipped with everything that a backpacker could need. I rented a bike and went to Cucle and Manzanillo, it was pretty sweet ride through the jungle and beaches.
Rocking Js
Rocking Js


The road
Not very successful photo on the bike
Manzanillo




A local guy took me to this cave
...with his dog
Manzanillo
The hammock area

In Rocking Js I met a guy from Venezuela who was really upset about the election results that just happened in Venezuela. Maduro won againt Capriles in not a very transparent way. I just left Venezuela and was still charged with the memory of the people I met there and their hopes for a change after Chavez´death. Together with him, we watched the videos, news in the media, reactions and opinions of the people and he couldn’t hide his disappointment and despair. It was sad and unfair… I can see how all the Venezuelans abroad are not gonna be back for a very long time to their motherland, at least while Maduro is in power.
Waiting for the bus in Puerto Viejo
Took a bus with the Venezuelan to Cahuita National park, got there, got to the hostel, had lunch and went straight to the park. Spent 3 hours in the park before it got dark. Unfortunately next day I had to head back to Panama since Tom (the captain) wanted me back on the boat so I get familiar with everyone and everything. Bullshit! I knew that we weren't going to leave in 3 days as he said (the 3 days extended to 3 weeks) but I went back obediently. 

Cahuita National Park
Cahuita National Park
Cahuita National Park

The guest house
From what I saw in Costa Rica (not much), I wished I could stay longer. I was nicely surprised by its beauty and as every expensive place, there are always good deals and places off the beaten track that one can find if knows where and whom to ask.

I went back to the border hitchhiking. No problem at all, went quick and smooth, only had to pay 3$ for a stupid stamp they stuck to my passport because I was a foreigner. Showed my fake plane ticket from Panama to London and they left me alone. The other backpackers had go and buy an expensive bus ticket to Panama city, otherwise they wouldn’t let them in.
Back to Panama. The border.
Back to Panama
The guy who picked me up in Almirante told me that looking at me he just wants to bite me (tengo ganas de morderte) which I found extremely funny but other than that and our plans to get married and have bunch of kids when I get back from French Polynesia, he was harmless and kind of funny.
The truck driver who wanted to bite me 
David
Stayed in the Purple house hostel, met up with Maxibel from David who I met 4 years ago in Luang Prabang, Laos where she was volunteering. We stayed in touch all this time and it was so nice to catch up in person. She took me to a bar where she used to go for drinks and that was my experience in David. Next day in the morning I left hitchhiking to Panama city.
Maxi
A random Costariquense who joined us for the photo
Back to the boat on the 17th of April. And it took forever to leave.
We all hated Panama city, it was very depressing waiting there on the boat. The water was so disgusting that even the sight of it makes you wanna puke. You can find anything in the water – from piles of plastic and paper waste and scraps to condoms. So it was impossible to swim which reduced the possibility of having a shower close to 0. So every now and then I would go to Balboa yacht club (40 minutes away walking) to have a proper shower. If not, I made friends with the police control on shore and they would give me a key and let me use the shower (pretty basic though, had to use a bucket). 
The deal was: we all pay 100$ a week to keep the boat running and the is food apart. Everyone does everything - cooking, cleaning, keeping the boat in shape. We all take turns at the wheel - steering 2 hours during the day and 2 at night, except Tom who is available 24/7.
At least the susnets were nice

Loved that burnt ship next door
First we all cleaned and prepare the boat for the big crossing and then was the big shopping mission. Every day for about a week we all went to the city (we were anchored in Isla Perico, on the causeway) to get food supplies and personal treats. Bought lots of shit clothes, treats, also alcohol and cigarettes to trade with the locals or sell it to them. But just imagine the amount of food needed for 7 people for 4, 5 months! Yes, it´s a lot. At the time of writing this, im still not convinced that it is enough. Well, I guess we can buy more stuff in French Polynesia, it´s just very expensive there. We all ended up spending 350$ which is not bad, considering it is for 4 months (hopefully J, some people eat double my portions…).
There were some repairs that needed to be done on the boat but we spent most of the days just sweating our asses off and using the internet at Shoppette. We also had a few parties on the boat when couchsurfers form Panama city or just travelers would come, we would make pizzas on the barbecue and sometimes even jam sessions were happening. 

Waited for the new main sail forever, at the end we left to Las Perlas archipelago where we spent 8 days until got a message that the main sail finally made it to Panama city. It was a rewarding escape from ugly Panama city and we all spent our days swimming, kayaking and walking around the islands. We went to Pedro Gonzales, Bayoneta, Viveros. It was Steve´s birthdays on the 7th and we went and made a big fire on Viveros and some of us slept there in hammocks or tents. 
Pam, Michaela and Zack
Louis, the baby
Steve, Zack and Louis
First island


And first beach
Karaka
Karaka
Isla Pedro Gonzalez

















More freshness

Goodbye Pedro Gonzales
On the left: The dinghy
Our last anchorage was a beauty. Off a small islet south of Isla Viveros there was this small little white sand beach with beautiful rock formations all around the island.
Some local rock art
Michaela running
You want a beer?

Finally beach, I was so happy not to be in Panama city anymore
Beach, beers and coconuts...The happy times


Karaka in the background

Steve hunting for crabs
Michaela´s coming too
Had my doubts about whether or not I should go on the boat, especially seeing how the others fight all the time and how slow and disorganized everything is but I stayed hoping that once we are out sailing everything will turn out all right. So it happened. Well, kind of J. People still fought and I still felt useless in my efforts to help them when it was needed but little by little it was getting better. Looked like that if you have no experience sailing, you have to learn by yourself how everything works. No one would bother explain to you what you are suppose to do and people will get frustrated when you don´t know how to do it. So as much as I wanted to help, I just stayed aside helpless, looking what the others do every time when we had to tack, drop the sail, change the sail or anchor and tried to remember it so next time I can help. Little by little I was getting the hack of it but it was very frustrating and made me feel useless. I almost decided to drop everything and keep on travelling north but I just couldn´t back out and leave without trying. French Polynesia and the whole sailing experience sounded too good just to drop it so easily after the first obstacle. One thing was good – I wasn’t getting seasick. 
My hatch
Michaela making kayaks covers
Tom organizing the engine compartment
The captain
Jam session
On the 15th I washed my clothes with fresh water for the last time and Steve and I did the last run for mangos to Balboa yacht club, filled up two half sacks with green and almost ripe mangos, had the last hot shower at the yacht club and made it back to the boat just in time to spend last 15 minutes on internet before the departure. Here we are, all 7 of us, willing to share the good and bad in the middle of the Pacific (more info in the next post what was predominant).
Karaka´s crew: Canada, USA, NZ, Canada, France, Bulgaria, Canada (Quebec)
Yeyey, we left (the skyline in the back), Steve at the helm
Shorts up to the chest, a wry face...yeah, we are ready to go
Karaka and her new main sail

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