Friday, May 3, 2013

Puerto Viejo and Bocas del Toro

For the final post in my three-part series on the Costa Rica + Panama adventure, I am going to try to focus on what we did for the ~half the trip that we spent *not* riding our bikes, and hanging out in the beach towns of Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica and Bocas del Toro, Panama.

Highlights in Puerto Viejo included:

  • Semana Santa – the sleepy beach town was absolutely *jammed* with people on Friday and Saturday nights, as we had arrived during Semana Santa, or Holy Week. This is the biggest holiday of the year, and while many Costa Ricans observe it respectfully with family and religion at the center, others head for the beach!
  • Rocking Js – your archetypical Party Hostel. Cheap rooms, cheaper hammocks, even cheaper tents. An on-site bar with cheap drinks and a beer pong table and “all you can drink” specials, beachfront bonfire pits, crazy intricate mosaic tilework and lots of young spring-break-style travelers
  • Pagalu – after one night at Rocking Js, we relocated to a more “adult” or quiet location. Of course we ran into two girls there that Tahoma knew from high school. Whaaaa?? Pagalu featured a pleasant, breezy common area and a shared kitchen, and I swear it was the cleanest hostel I have ever seen. The owners and their staff were constantly sweeping the floors or putting dishes away or removing old food from the fridge. The location was still quiet convenient – one block off the main drag and directly across the street from a grocery store. Many longer-term travelers seemed to use it as a base of operations. They don’t take reservations, so you may have to stay somewhere else your first night in town, then stop in to Pagalu in the morning and see if they have any vacancies. We got a private double room for $26/night – two dudes, one bed. Euro-style.
  • Surfing – we aren’t very good surfers, but we were able to rent boards and drop them in the water

Highlights in Bocas del Toro included:

  • Surfing off a remote island – we rented boards on Isla Caranero and paid a water taxi driver $15 to take us to Playa Primera, a.k.a. Wizard Beach, on the far side of Isla Bastimientos. There is no dock over there, so he just dropped us off in the ocean, out beyond the breakers. We jumped on our boards and paddled+surfed ashore to drop off our backpack. When it was time to go, another driver came to pick us up. We paddled out past the break to meet him, and climbed directly into his boat from the water.
  • Awesome mountain biking – since we already had mountain bikes with us, we explored an ATV trail to its far end, splashing through plenty of mud puddles and creek crossings, and stopping at a few beautiful beaches and swimming holes. This was a rather wet day and I didn’t bring a camera, so no photos.
  • Seeing a bunch of wildlife – most of the photos below were from our all-day boat trip
  • A full-day boat trip for only $30/person – dolphin-watching, snorkeling, monkeys, sloths, starfish, a buy-your-own lunch stop and two hours of lounging/playing around on a deserted tropical island. But be careful, as you might end up…
  • Saving a sinking ship – we spent about half an hour walking around the perimeter of one of the Cayos Zapatillos. At one point we saw our boat’s captain and first mate chatting up some German tourist girls, but thought nothing of it. When we got within sight of the boat, however, we saw that it was riding a bit low. And by “riding a bit low,” I mean sinking. Life jackets and water bottles floating away. Sinking. We ran over to the boat and helped a few other boat captains to bail it out. At first they accused us of neglecting our boat, but we clarified that we were only tourists/customers, and not the responsible party.
  • Crazy bars with piers and water access – I wish I had some better photos to post. We went to three different bars that had wooden docks that enclosed swimming areas. One place even had swings that you could jump off of, into the water. This gives you visions of a crazy party where everybody ends up in the Caribbean Sea, no? We did jump in once, at the place with the swings. All in all the parties were a bit less wild-and-crazy than we expected, but to be fair we were there Monday/Tuesday/Wednesday/Thursday nights
  • A gringo cover band – a local gringo band called Cartoon Hamburger was playing their Last Show Ever on one of the nights that we were there. The entire local gringo/expat population showed up to watch and reminisce. Half a dozen folks had guest appearances on stage. Our favorite was the local bar owner who sang AC/DC’s “Big Balls” while wearing a black wig and a rather offensive T-shirt. Fun times.
  • which leads us to a few examples of what happens if you stay “on the island” too long:
    • Some of the music fans were just drunken wastelands. A younger dude knocked over my beer and seemed utterly confused by the experience. A gal knocked over the large sandwich-board style sign that announced the nights entertainment, also while having no idea what was going on around her.
    • We met an Australian dude who couldn’t stop talking about cocaine. Every other sentence. C’mon, man…
    • Our hostel manager said that he planned to stay on the island for a few years to “build his resume.” We’re sure that many types of future employers look eagerly upon that line, “managed a youth hostel in a party town.” It turned out that he *owned* the hostel, so maybe he wasn’t completely nuts. :/ “Successful small business owner” sounds a bit stronger.
  • Spelunking – During a long run, we stopped into a cave that they called La Gruta. For a buck each the caretaking couple lent us a headlamp and let us take a walk through.

On to some photo highlights…

dolphins! these guys swam right under our boat! just like the whale-watching tours in the San Juan Islands or Hawaii, the boat captains can’t drive up to the animals but if the animals choose to approach then the captain just cuts the motor and you sit and watch.


I also captured a few videos of the dolphins jumping around. This is probably the closest/best shot that I got:

dolphin gets its jump on, somewhere near Bocas del Toro

A three hour tour? A three hour tour?




a monkey in a tree! we also saw sloths, but in the fading twilight I couldn’t get any good pictures


Most of your chances to see wildlife up close happen in captivity. These parrots had their wings clipped, so they hop up and down a ladder in order to get on/off of their favorite trees.


The main destination on this boat trip was the uninhabited Cayos Zapatillos – two small islands that consisted of nothing but white sand, a few trees, and sparkling blue Caribbean waters.


This post has been brought to you by Balboa beer – its intense flavor has been conquering taste buds since 1910. Or at least that is what they say on the can. Somehow this entire concept seemed offensive on some level…


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