Nearly 2 ½ hours on the bus, we stopped for 10 minutes to use the bathroom & get food. I got off simply to give my bum a break – the roads in Costa Rica are atrocious. One major pothole caused even the driver to gasp and I swore we’d broken an axle. After that we stopped at Cahuita, Puerto Viejo, Bri Bri, then finally Sixaola. Puerta Viejo was a quaint, sandy little beach town and I could see why it was popular with the tourists. Of course we made several spontaneous stops, but in the end, to my shock and surprise, we still made it in the time allotted.
At the border, the bus stops at a fork in the road (which is really just a parking lot ). Bearing right up the paved hill, trucks waited in line to cross the “bridge”. There is a small bridge first, but then to the right after that is customs, where you fill out a form and have the guy stamp you out of Costa Rica. Don’t expect to hear anything the guy behind the plexiglass window says to you, even if you are fluent in Spanish – the idling trucks waiting to cross the bridge make it hard to hear yourself think, let alone communicate verbally. Another American backpacking couple was there to whom I offered my pen (pens are priceless when you are traveling) and found out that they’d gotten a bag stolen from their car in Puerto Viejo – even with the car within plain sight while they sat out eating lunch. They parked their rental in the lot on the Costa Rican side and would be in Panama for an indeterminate amount of time. I asked if they were worried and Kristin shrugged “It’s fully insured.”
While the other couple was getting their passports stamped, I’m approached by a guy in a polo shirt with José embroidered on it. Right – who’s not named José in Latin America? His real name could have been Jack the Ripper for all I know. He spoke English fairly well and was offering a direct ride to the water taxis in Almirante for $10 a person. I’d read about this and decided that after 2 pretty sleepless nights and a bone jarring 5½ hour bus ride, I’d rather not make 3 more transfers (bus to Changuinola, bus to Almirante, taxi to the boat docks) and instead opted to pay for the exorbitantly overpriced 60 km ride in a rickety minivan to the boat docks.
The old railroad bridge we had to cross didn’t seem sturdy enough to support my weight, let alone the weight of a truck (one of which was right in front of us and I wondered how survivable the drop to the river was). At the Panama customs, the other couple sailed through. I gave my passport and eTicket and watched the guy grow a beard; he seemed to decide now was a good time to spend an eternity thumbing through a passport and checking porn online. (Well, I assumed it was porn, because no guy spends that much time looking at a computer screen unless it’s porn (or, OK, maybe a video game)).
I finally got my stamp (didn’t have to pay anything) and set my watch one hour ahead, but the waiting was not over as José decided he needed more passengers (of course – he’d lose his Latino card if he didn’t pack us in like, well, a van full of Latinos). Twenty more minutes and we were finally on the road. Once out of the squalor of the border town Guabito, the roads were astonishingly smooth. The van, however, was not smooth as we ground gears, bumped, and limped our way up every hill. I couldn’t control a bark of laughter when the driver waved on a large school bus to pass us as we simply prayed we’d make it up the hill. At least the scenery was pretty.
As we pulled onto the sandy road by the water taxis, the driver warned us not to give our packs to the waiting children to carry. I’m not sure why anyone would, considering he pulled up so close to the entrance that you’d step out of the van and fall right through the door of the taxi ticket office. Paying $4 a person we took the Bocas Marine Tours taxi – life vests included even if you had to wear a child sized one – out of the mangrove lined inlet. Once out on sea, I marvel at the fact that the water looked so smooth but felt like we were speeding over large gravel rocks. My feet and, ahem, other places tingled deliciously. Girls, leave the vibrators at home.
Next: Arriving in Bocas Del Toro, Panama