Bocas Del Toro, Part 1-San Jose to Almirante
Okay…this may be the Consumingcostarica blog, but I did take a little nibble out of Panama.
Things being what they are, I needed to update my status in Costa Rica. That means leaving the country for at least 72 hours. Neither one of us had been to Panama before but with a little research we figured Bocas Del Toro would be a good destination. Granted, Lonely Planet gave it the kiss of death by saying it was a “must see” before tourism ate it alive. What? One of the most read sites on travel is telling people to see this before it’s over run with tourists….hmmmm.
This also offered an opportunity to travel with Rafa’s parents before they left for the States. So on an astonishingly clear morning, we headed over the mountains to the Caribbean. It is rare to make this drive without a cloud in the sky and the jaw dropping beauty of the rainforest made me forget the crazy road. I must add that they actually painted lanes over the mountain, not that anyone pays attention to them, but they are pretty and at least give you the idea of safety. Of course we stopped at El Yugo for my divine plátanos con queso.
The cool mountain air soon gave way to the humidity of the ocean. Rafa’s parents were completely bagged out in the back allowing us to chat and reminisce of our drive down here. Rafa and I do travel well together, even through the chaos of coming through Central America. The Sixaola crossing into Panama stunned me. “This is the ONLY bridge?”, I say pointing at a narrow decrepit rail bridge with boards between the ties to keep low clearance cars from bottoming out on the tracks. As I am saying this, a full tractor-trailer inches across. Needless to say, only one vehicle at a time. This border crossing is by far, the craziest we have been through. We creep across the bridge, people walking across barely move out of the way. I can’t look at the wide river below but ask if there are crocodiles. “Si! Mucho!” I’m told.
The Panamanian side is even weirder consisting of just a couple a dirty concrete shacks along a very narrow dirt road. Being well experienced in crossings, Rafa takes the info and I stay with the vehicle. At every crossing people try to hustle you and I watch with a cold chill in my belly as a heated argument ensued with Rafa and some guy. Rafa is asking for proof from a plain clothes, non identifiable guy who wants to go through the car. Those little placards hanging around necks don’t mean shit, show me a badge or a gun and then you will have our attention. Tempers settle and the car gets tossed. Not a big deal. Just wish Panama would invest in at least a border crossing polo shirt for these guys. I think my car was the first US plated vehicle to cross here. I know that’s not true, but holy shit, two hours to process us through! Sorry Panama, you’re the Central American loser in all our crossings. Both Rafa and I travel on US passports but they still somehow managed to screw up my nationality as Costa Rican, so we had to watch a seriously illiterate woman type our documents twice. It’s hot, were tired, and we have to make to ferry to Bocas before 6pm, plus we lost an hour to the time change but if it is one thing you learn about dealing with border crossings, is to be patient, polite and quiet. When we finally get to leave the border, we realize there is not a single sign to anywhere. Luckily, we get pointed into the right direction but are in need of constant updates to be sure we are on the right route. A woman pulls along side of us and says to follow her. She went out of her way to get us to the ferry and for that she needs to get some big karma points. One time when Rafa and I were heading to Cahuita we saw an US plated car make a wrong turn. We chased him down (probably scared the shit out of him too) and told him to follow us. We never saw him after we got him back on track but it was still a good deed.
The town where we pick up the ferry doesn’t boost my confidence much either as I watch a huge rat sift through the garbage along the shore by the ferry dock. We leave the car in a lot and I wonder if this won’t be the demise of my gallant and stead fast Bu. We pack into the ferry as it begins to drizzle. Motoring slowly out of the harbor, I see the ramshackle homes perched in the mangroves. The bathrooms merely consisting of a small enclosure set over the water. If is wasn’t for our Panamanian friend and the butter smooth roads, I may have questioned coming to Panama.
I am beginning to realize living down here is a lot like drunk sex: sweaty, messy, and if you’re not careful…may leave you with a contagious disease.