Costa Rica or Bust

September 29th, 2012

It was that time again. Three months since my last "out of the country" trip required for my tourist visa. The friend I had gone with before, LizAnne, had just received her pensionado visa, so she didn't need to leave the country again. I really didn't want to go and spend four days sitting in a room by myself at the hostel in Sabalito.

I was also very worried, with the new immigration laws in Panama, that I might have problems coming back into Panama and would be lost without the language skills. I thought of going to Puerto Viejo this time, just to check it out for my websites, and my friend, Magaly, wanted to come along. Having no money (another story) I decided to get creative and I emailed a number of hotels in the area, offering to do a story for our website. One, Banana Azul Guest House, offered me a special rate of $25 a night, much less than the normal $79, so we booked three nights.

Did lots of research on the various bus schedules, David to Changuinola, then to the border, then to Puerto Viejo and we were heading off early Thursday morning. My worker guy, Amilkar, suggested we rent a car and he would drive us to the border, and possibly all the way to Puerto Viejo if he could get the car into Costa Rica. It would only cost us $15 more than the bus, so that sounded like a good deal. He was to take the bus to David early to get the car and then pick us up around nine. As usual with Amilkar, he didn't show up until 10:00, and we were off.

He said he knew a "shortcut" going to Caldera and then connecting with the highway to Bocas, which would "save us" an hour or more. The word "shortcut" is always dubious, and this turned out to be true. We ended up on roads that a four by would find challenging, so we ended up crawling along, trying to avoid the huge rocks that would rip the bottom of the little Toyota off. No time saved at all, although much more adventurous.

We took the turn-off for the highway to Changuinola and this relatively new highway is beautiful, except for the oh so scary old railway bridge you need to cross. They are building a new one right beside it. Not a moment too soon. We crawled across the broken wood pieces, worried the wheels were going to drop into any one of the large gaps.

We finally made Changuinola around four something, Panama time and headed to Panama immigration. The last time I had entered Panama it was on a Sunday and there was nowhere open to buy the necessary stamps, so the border official had just initialed my passport. At the time I remember wondering if this might be a problem for me if I got stopped for ID in Panama. It was now!

We stood in the stifling heat for an hour, watching the frenzied officials run back and forth between offices, on the phone and in heated discussions about what we were going to do. Finally they got it sorted out, with much help from Magaly, and let me pass.

The bridge between Panama and Costa Rica is beyond description. This old railway bridge is literally falling down around you and even walking across is an adventure. It's hard to believe big tractor trailer trucks use it. When a truck comes across you have to do your best to get out of the way or be killed.

We got to Costa Rican immigration and filled out our forms to enter the country. Magaly handed my passport to them and they did their thing, then stamped it. As soon as she handed her documents to the official I saw him shaking his head back and forth and knew this was not good. Although her documents were perfectly valid in Panama, the customs guy would not accept them for Costa Rica. This sent us into panic mode. We had no idea what to do. Magaly was obviously upset, but she said she had no choice but to return with Amilkar to Boquete and not go.

Just then a guy who had been watching all this came up and, in perfect English, suggested he might be able to help. I knew this would come at a price, so I asked how much. One of the best lines I've heard from anyone was when he said, "open your heart". lol. I said my heart said twenty bucks, so he said to go to a restaurant and come back in an hour when his boss had gone home.

We spent a very worrisome hour going over all the options, finally deciding, out of desperation, that we would just continue on and take our chances at getting stopped. Even if we got stopped I simply suggested that we had stopped at customs and, for whatever reason, the official had forgotten to stamp her documents. Bad plan, I know, but we were desperate.

I sent Amilkar back to the border to see what was happening and he phoned me and told me to come to customs. Her documents were all ready to go, magically, after paying the ridiculous bribe of $40 of course. $20 for him and $20 for the customs guy.

So now we went looking for the bus to Puerto Viejo, which I knew cost about three dollars each. We asked at the restaurant where we catch the bus and they directed us to the bus terminal. A guy standing nearby at the restaurant said we had missed the last bus, which had left at 4:00. Obviously upset at more problems, we thought we should go to the depot to check this out for ourselves.

When we got to the terminal another guy said the next bus was at 6:00, which meant about a half hour wait, but at least we could get a bus. Then yet another guy reminded us that Costa Rica was an hour behind, so that meant we had to wait an hour and a half. Not great, but at least we could take the bus as planned. So we said our goodbyes to our friends, and prepared to wait by the parked bus.

A few minutes later I guy came up to us and asked what we were waiting for? When we said the bus to Puerto Viejo, he laughed and said we would be waiting a long time, because the next bus wasn't until the next day! Naturally he was a taxi driver, who offered to take us for the princely sum of $40!!! By this point we were growing ever more frustrated, and we had no real choice, so we loaded into his taxi.

No sooner had we traveled a few hundred meters down the road than the driver slowed for the police check. Magaly and I quickly realized how foolish it would have been to not have her documents correct. Had we not done this and taken our chances, not only would she be sent back, but Amilkar was gone. I told the driver we were staying at Banana Azul and he said nothing, so I assumed he knew where I meant. We hit Puerto Viejo and he pulled up in front of Casa Verde and stopped. When we asked what were we doing here, he said that is where we said. When I said, no, I had clearly said Banana Azul, he had no idea where that was. We stopped to ask someone and soon discovered it was twenty minutes back out of town.

When we finally made it to the hotel, hours after we planned to arrive, the only good thing that happened was that we were greeted warmly. I gave them the briefest of details on how challenging it had been to get here and the first thing I said was now I didn't have enough money to pay for our hotel when we arrived, as I had promised. They said not to worry. Go put our bags in the room and come down for a drink.

With all the problems we had that day neither of us had eaten a thing, so we were starving. We dropped our bags and headed to the restaurant/bar. Michel came up and said, on behalf of the hotel they would like to offer us a free drink of our choice. We met Franklin, the bar tender extraordinaire, who made us two of the best drinks I have ever had in my life. We then had an amazing meal, Cordon Bleu with vegetables to die for. This was obviously a very expensive place and we had no idea what the meals cost, but we were so frazzled we didn't much care at that point. We later learned it was $10, which was a bargain for such an amazing meal.

After more drinks and a fantastic meal we headed up to our room. The room was amazing, with an incredible attention to detail. Photos and knick-knacks and beautiful hand laid tiles in the bathroom and plants and hand crafted wood furniture. It was completely open to the outside, which made me wonder about insects. In researching hotels in the area they all made mention of mosquito nets, but our room didn't have one. Turned out we didn't need one and we slept like babies with the doors wide open and the ocean breeze and the sounds of the waves.

We awoke early to the sounds of light rain on the roof. It soon stopped and it's amazing how quickly it turned warm. We showered and headed down to the restaurant and had a delicious breakfast - real bacon (one of the owners is Canadian, so naturally bacon is high on his list), homemade tostada and excellent fried potatoes with peppers and onions. A great start to a "new" day.

We headed off down the beach on the twenty-five minute walk to town and wandered around checking out the town. There was nowhere to get colones in Panama, so we stopped at the Bank of Costa Rica to exchange our dollars. I wish I had taken this opportunity to check that my debit card worked as my bank, HSBC, had told me it would.

We stopped at Might Rivers for ice cream and met Lealea, the owner. We had delicious chocolate ice cream in waffle cones and shared some great conversation with her. She mentioned that because Costa Rica was so expensive she traveled over to Panama "all the time" to shop for groceries. When I said that must be such a pain going through immigration all the time, she said, no, she just walks across the bridge and never stops. The only time she does stop is, like me, when she is doing her Costa Rica/Panama three month trip. I had to wonder at spending my $40 now for Magaly, if Lealea just goes back and forth all the time! Crazy!

Headed back to the hotel, showered and changed for dinner. Michel had told us that there was an excellent steak house run by Argentinians where you could get an actual USDA steak. We weren't sure about walking the beach at night, but Roberto told us all we needed was a flashlight, which, of course, we didn't have and the hotel was out of them too. Magaly showed me that her amazing little phone had a flashlight, so we headed off. We remembered from our walk down during the day that there were a number of little streams we had to cross, but Roberto assured us it was low tide and we should only have one "small" one to cross.

We fumbled along in the dark and eventually came to the "small" stream. It was not so small. I had to take a run at it and jump over and barely made it. Magaly wasn't so sure she could make it and it was quite comical to watch her count down one, two, three and not actually jump. Eventually she took off her shoes and waded across.

We found the restaurant and I had my very first real steak in eight months. We each got two bacon wrapped filet mignons, cooked to perfection. We started with salads that came with a most unique and tasty homemade dressing. Fresh warm bread. Two very good drinks. Pricey at 27,000 calones, but worth it, and everything in Costa Rica is pricey.

After dinner we wandered around town, taking in the nightlife. Lots of open air bars with great music playing, some of it live. I had a craving for chocolate and we remembered going by a place called "Bread and Chocolate" so we attempted to find it. As we got there they were just closing the door, but the guy said we could still buy something to go. I got the best piece of chocolate cake I have eaten in my life, and Magaly got a brownie that she said was equally amazing. About 4,000 calones for both.

Earlier we had gotten the phone number for a "taxi" guy who agreed to only charge us $3 for the ride to the hotel, as opposed to the $4 everyone else charged. We quickly discovered that Magaly's phone didn't work in Costa Rica, as she had been told it would, so we had to take another taxi from the taxi stand in town.

Magaly had been receiving numerous text messages from her kids back in Boquete, but for some unknown reason, she couldn't send them replies. When we got back to the hotel I thought I would try my Skype and it said the messages were sent okay, but the kids never got them. Frustrating!

The next day, Saturday, our first task was to head to the bank to get more money, then we were heading off to Punta Uva, a beach we were told was very secluded and perfect for swimming and snorkeling. Our driver stopped at BCR and I went into the ATM. My card didn't work and all we got was some cryptic message in Spanish that even Magaly couldn't understand. We had passed this huge line of people waiting to get into the actual bank, I thought, and we knew we would be standing there for at least an hour before getting into the bank. I asked the driver to go and check with the security guy that my card would work in the bank and he said yes.

After standing in the hot sun for an hour we finally got close to the door. I could not figure out why they only let one person in at a time and wondered why only one staff would be working on a Saturday. As we got close to the door I saw the sign on the door that they closed at noon, and it was a few minutes to noon. I could only envision that, after standing there for an hour, they were now going to close in front of us. The security guard soon started handing out numbers to the people in line, so this looked promising.

It was finally our turn and we entered what we thought was the bank, but it was only one teller in a small cage. I handed him my debit card and he immediately said "no". After an hour I was in no mood to hear "no". I showed him the symbol on my card, which was the same one as on the bank, but he said this only worked for Visa, which I did not have. I tried to suppress my growing anger and explained to him that we had asked the security guy, an HOUR ago, if the card worked and he had said yes. Didn't matter at all to this guy and he simply repeated the "no".

Now we were in real trouble. I did not have enough money with me because it is never smart to travel anywhere with a lot of cash and my bank in Panama had assured me that my card would work. I called Michel at the hotel and explained my predicament. He said to come back to the hotel and we would figure something out. I was hoping that Michel would allow me to write him a cheque and give me the cash.

Just before we had left for Costa Rica I had changed my PayPal account to my prepaid MasterCard from my now defunct bank account. Michel suggested he could use PayPal to make a payment to the hotel and then give me the cash. I had no idea how much money was left on my card but tried to get something on it. To my considerable surprise it worked! We could still eat!

So we headed back to town, intending to rent a scooter for the day. We figured we would go out to Punta Uva for some beach time, the go back to the hotel to shower and change, then head into town for dinner and back. We wouldn't need to return the scooter until mid day the next day, so we could make a lot of use out of it to travel around and save a lot in taxi fares in the process.

The driver took us to the scooter rental place and I asked Magaly to check exactly what they needed to rent a scooter. After the fiasco at the bank I just was expecting problems now. She came back saying just a credit card, so we paid our driver. Smart man. Luckily he didn't leave us.

I handed the girl my card and she immediately told me it was no good, because it didn't have the raised lettering. I explained that I did not want to charge the rental to the card; I would pay cash. No good. She said she needed the raised lettering to run it through the machine. I explained she had the numbers and the ID from the back of the card and if we took with her damned scooter she could charge the card. No good.

By now I was losing my patience with Costa Rica and all the challenges we had already. I asked her why people in Costa Rica made it so damned difficult for tourists? Her answer? "Well, if you don't like it maybe you need to go to another country." The Puerto Viejo tourist board would just LOVE her attitude!

Thankfully we saw our taxi driver sitting across the road, waiting to see that we were okay, which we were not. We asked him to take us part way out to Punta Uva and drop us off and we would walk the rest of the way. He showed us where he would drop us off and that it would be about an hour walk from there.

Despite wearing my 45 sunblock the previous day Magaly has gotten a bit of a burn on her shoulders, so we thought walking the beach for an hour in the blazing sun was probably not a good idea, so we headed down the road. We had been told there was a trail through the jungle beside the road, but, of course, there was no trail. There was almost no shade on the road, so it was not good for Magaly's burn. We managed to find a store along the way where I bought her a sun umbrella, so that was better for her. We asked where this trail was and were told to turn at the Internet place.

We walled and we walked and we walked, forever, but finally came upon this little grass shack in the middle of nowhere with a sign that read "Internet". The trail was right across the road and it lead down to the beach. Although there was little more shade available there, it was the most beautiful beach I have ever seen. We walked and we walked and we walked. I thought we would soon be back in Panama, it was so far, but we eventually, two hours later, came upon Punta Uva. There are no words to describe how amazingly gorgeous this beach was.

We were starving and knew there were two restaurants at Punta Uva. We came to the first one, which was so beautiful, with little private thatched huts with one table. We were greeted by Pancho who made us two more amazing tropical drinks and brought us the menu. There was so much to choose from. We decided on salads and hamburgers.

When they brought the salads, the presentation was just amazing. The large square bowls were filled to overflowing with excellent greens and they had placed little flowers around the outside of the bowls. They were delicious.

The cheeseburgers were equally amazing. They were huge and were on the most unique tasting bun, more like a pita bread than a simple bun. They came with the most delicious, obviously homemade, fries. We finished off with chocolate sundaes, which were the only small disappointment because the ice cream had bits of ice in it, no doubt because it is a challenge to keep ice cream in this climate.

When we talked to Pancho about our web site he had Mark, the owner come over and talk to us. He told us they had only been open about a month and a half, and offered to email me some more info for our site. We had also been served by the lovely Anna, who wandered around in her bare feet serving people. All so very tropical. We had arranged with our driver to pick us up and the other restaurant at six, so we headed off to find it. Yet more walking, but we found it, had a Coke and headed down to wait on the beach. We enjoyed the most beautiful sunset. Our driver showed right at six and we went back to the hotel.

We fully intended to shower and change and head into town to see the nightlife on a Saturday in Puerto Viejo, but we laid down, just for a quick nap, and woke up the next morning. No doubt because of all the walking we had done and we were exhausted.

Sunday was by far the best day we had on our trip. We had originally planned to return to Panama on Sunday, but I realized we had not crossed until about 5:00 Panama time on Thursday, so I hadn't spent the required 72 hours out of the country. Although this had not been a problem when we returned through Rio Sereno, the challenges had at this border at Sixiola made me think we might have trouble. If they made me wait until 5:00 o'clock there was no way for us to get back to Boquete by bus at that hour. So, we decided to stay at least one more night and return on Monday.

We were enjoying our breakfast of pancakes with fruit, when Roberto came up and asked if we were interested in going on a tour he was organizing for the guests. First we would visit the sloth rescue center, the visit the "chocolate lady", then get to swim in a mountain waterfall. It sounded good, so we said yes.

We left for the sloth rescue center at 10:30 and traveled for about forty-five minutes up towards Limon. The most amazing part of the trip was that, after traveling the mostly four by four roads in the area, we were on a perfect paved highway most of the way. We didn't think any such thing existed in Costa Rica.

Although the presentation was a little long, and it annoyed me that it was only in English, even the movie, which meant Magaly hardly understood a word, it was interesting. We especially enjoyed seeing the babies. They were all so darned cute!










From there we headed up towards Bribri to visit the "chocolate lady". She was quite the treat herself, taking us to see the cocoa tree on the property, then giving us a demonstration of all the steps required to end up with chocolate from the fruit. She only spoke Spanish, but a girl who I assume was her daughter, spoke perfect English and translated as her Mum spoke. At the end of her demonstration they offered us a chance to taste a wide variety of different flavors of chocolate, some pretty strange, like pepper chocolate. Naturally they had lots of product for sale, but, as much as I like chocolate, the thought of it melting in the van stopped me from getting any. In her own cute way Magaly had been giving me or denying me permission for chocolate anything on the trip, and the frown on her face told me I best not buy any anyway.

From there we headed further up the mountain, past Bribri, where we stopped for some much needed junk food, at my request because I was starving. We parked the van and started up the mountain. It was a most arduous journey as we crossed back and forth across the river, stepping on slime covered rocks and doing our best not to fall in. Three of our group didn't manage to avoid falling in, and one guy watched his camera disappear down the river. The trail grew ever more slippery and steep and it was incredible that no one bought it on the way up.

Yet one more crossing and the waterfall came into sight. Again, no words can explain how gorgeous it was. Everyone quickly stripped off down to their suits and headed into the pond beneath the waterfall. Even this was a challenge as the water was way over your head and we had to shimmy down a slime covered tree laying in the crevice between the rock walls to get to the waterfall.

Stupid me, when I reached the waterfall I jumped into it, not realizing that the water was cascading down several hundred feet from above. It hit my body like so many pieces of concrete. It was an instant full body massage. Not painful, but very intense, to say the least.

The trip down was a little better and this time no one managed to fall in. It all took a couple of hours to to the trip, but worth every second of it. An experience I will never forget.

We had been told to try the bank in Bribri, the National Bank, so our driver graciously agreed to stop for me. No luck though, as we only got yet another cryptic message that even he couldn't understand. I was growing more panicky as we had no way to pay our hotel bill, but neither bank had worked, so we didn't quite know what to do. Washing dishes for a very long time came to mind, although we certainly would not mind staying longer at the hotel. lol

Monday we planned to have one full day just lying on the beach at Punta Uva, just to try to avoid any more problems, get some sun and totally relax our last day, to be ready for no doubt yet more challenges on the trip back to Panama. I talked to some of the other guests and a couple agreed to share the taxi with us to Punta Uva.

It turned out that two of them had forgotten that they were scheduled to go rafting and had left leaving their apologies. Skylar also said he was going to grab a bike from the hotel and go into town, so we ended up going alone. On the tourist guide map for Puerto Viejo it showed that the Punta Uva lounge was closed on Mondays, so we were glad we had planned the trip for Tuesday.

When we mentioned to a girl at the desk how much it was to get to Punta Uva, she said she had a friend who ran an actual legitimate cab with an actual meter. We soon met Kale, who drove a clean new four by with air! When we got to Punta Uva the meter read 4,500 calones, about $9, much cheaper than the private guys. We made arrangements with him to pick us back up at 4:00 o'clock. He said he had to go to Limon, but he should be back. If not he would get his partner to pick us up.

We had borrowed some beach chairs from the hotel and set them up in the shade. We laid our towels out in the sun, intending to catch some rays later, then go for a swim. Not an hour later the sky started looking very threatening. We laid down on our towels and were glistening in minutes. It was so hot and the sun was so intense. Just as we planned to go into the water there were some lightening strikes and the sky looked even more threatening. We decided it was best to avoid going into the water and headed up to the restaurant, which, of course, was closed. Can't win for trying.

One of the locals explained that there had been several events planned for the area on Mondays, so the restaurants had all decided to close on Tuesdays instead. GGGrrrrrrr! She said one might be open, the one we had stopped at before, so off we headed for yet more walking. After the challenging climb the day before, neither of us were in the mood for yet more walking, but we were starving.

To our considerable delight the restaurant WAS open. Yippee! We had one of the best meals ever there. Huge salad and had the penne and Magaly had a chicken sandwich. We were stuffed.

The sky had opened up and it looked like it was only going to rain all day now, so we had the restaurant call Kale to see if he could come early. He was still in Limon but would send someone else. It turned out to be a private guy, who, once we got back to the hotel, tells me it's 7,000 calones, about $14. I protested, informing him that we only paid 4,500 calones to go in the other direction. No good. He wanted his $14. More ggrrrrr.

Can't remember which night it was now, but one night we had gone into town to eat at Chilly Rojos, a place that had been recommended to us by the hotel. It was a fun place, absolutely packed but the owner offered us a drink at the bar while we waited, which was about two minutes. We enjoyed an excellent meal of chicken falafel. Very tasty and not too expensive. Only about $10 for both of us, minus the not so good drinks. Small and bar mix.

When we had first booked the hotel Colin had said we could stay in the Ocean View room, up on the second floor for one night, but we would have to move for the next two nights, into the sloth rooms, which were in the separate, original house. To our delight after the first night they said they had managed to reorganize and we could stay in the same room.

When we decided to stay another two nights they didn't have room at the hotel, but Michel gave us the "little house" which was where he had lived when he first came here from Montreal, and which was just a short walk down the road. It had a bedroom and a kitchen, which meant we could now cook and avoid the expense of eating out. It was a very cute, very Costa Rican house with a thatched roof and a separate building with a suicide shower and a separate toilet room. All very quaint.

Monday we had gone into town and shopped for dinner and breakfast stuff - bread and coffee and juice. That night we cooked together for the first time. The hamburger had looked a little dubious at the market, more gray than pink, so we had bought frozen patties. We had hamburger with my special mushrooms, fried potatoes with onion and delicious fresh green beans. Felt like we were married and in our own place. Fine with me!

Much to our regret we had to leave on Wednesday. We had arranged for Kale to pick us up at the hotel at 8:00 o'clock to get us to the bus which left at 8:30. We were up at six and ready early so we headed to the hotel to pay our bill, hopefully, and have one last breakfast at the hotel. Michel most graciously agreed to let me write a cheque, so that wasn't a problem. The problem is only that I barely have the money to cover it, but that's yet another story.

After the expense of getting here we were pleased that the bus to the border was only 1,500 calones, $3 each - a whole lot better than the $40 cab ride here. It took just over an hour to reach the border at Sixiola. Just before we got there I reached into my pocket and found the keys for the little house. I thought I remembered Michel saying they only had one set, so I panicked at what to do to get them back to him. I asked a taxi at the border if he would take them back, but of course he didn't know if he would have a fare or not that day. Our ever so helpful "guide" at the border suggested he would take them to the bus driver who could leave them at the ticket office in Puerto Viejo for someone from the hotel to pick up. This came with a price, naturally. He wanted the equivalent of $10, but he got what change I had left on me, about $4.

We were in and out of Costa Rica customs in minutes, walked back across the bridge and stopped at Panama customs. I had this lump in my throat and could almost feel myself shaking at what might happen, with the new law and all the challenges we had the first time crossing. I was dealing with moving and watching our luggage so Magaly took my passport in. Except for not having change to pay my $5 fee, everything went smooth, to my considerable relief. I should learned by now that this only meant something bad was about to happen.

We asked where we caught the bus to Changuinola to get the bus back to David and were quickly informed that there was a strike on and there were no buses running between Changuinola and David. There was a guy with a van who would take us to Almirante instead and we could get a bus from there to David. Instead of the $3 naturally it was $10 a piece instead. We had no real choice so we piled into the van with a whole lot of other people.

When we got to Almirante we were surprised to see a gorgeous highway coach sitting there, the kind with air and a washroom and comfortable seats. I just knew it couldn't be ours, but it was! For the very first time on this whole trip I was pleasantly surprised, because the fare to David was only $7! A true bargain compared to everything we had been experiencing the last six days in Costa Rica.

We had planned to catch the bus back to Boquete, but quickly realized we would need to pay extra fares for all our luggage. I suggested we see if we could possibly find a cab who would give us a good price. We got off the bus and Magaly approached a taxi, who agreed to take me to my place, then Magaly to hers, for $15, not much more than bus fare and then taxi fares back in Boquete.

We got home around three, exhausted, totally broke, but happy to be back in Boquete. I was welcomed home by even more problems with the house, but I won't go into that here.