Costa Rica is famous for a number of things, but notably its coffee, its natural landscape and its wildlife. Also, interestingly, it is one of the very few countries in the world that doesn’t have an army, choosing instead to spend its entire defence budget on education. Controversial, eh! Coming from San Juan in Nicaragua, we were following our usual plan of just heading into the country and assuming we’d make it to our destination somehow. It had worked crossing into Guatemala, and again going into Nicaragua from Honduras. This time, we were aiming for Monteverde for a chance to visit the ‘cloud forest’. Unfortunately for us, however, it was third time unlucky…
Desperately seeking Monteverde
The details of this trip make for a rather tedious story, so i’ll summarise by saying that we didn’t make it to Monteverde, resorting to Cañas for accommodation – a pleasant little place from where we would apparently be able to get to Monteverde the following day via Tilarán. However, we bumped into a ‘helpful’ guy in the Cañas bus station who told us that the only bus from Tilarán to Monteverde left at 07:30 and if we wanted to catch it, we’d have to get the 6am bus from Cañas to make the connection. This, of course, turned out to be total rubbish! There was only one bus to Monteverde, I’ll give him that, but it left at 12:30, not 07:30. So there we were, in yet another town we weren’t intending to visit, with a number of hours to kill. And would you look at that, I’ve pretty much told the story anyway!
We did have an amusing breakfast, though, as we seemed to be a bit of an attraction (Tilarán doesn’t see that many travellers it seems). Having ordered a breakfast of huevos y arroz con frijoles (eggs and rice with beans) the guy in the café was very keen for me to try the ‘Salsa Tipo Inglesa’. ‘It’s sauce from England,’ he said, in English, ‘It’s what English people like to put on their beans.’ ‘Is that so?’ I replied, ‘Well I never…!’
The bus from Tilarán to Monteverde was a three and a half hour jaunt on increasingly deteriorating roads into the clouds, and consequently, the rain! When we finally finally finally made it to Monteverde, we realised it had taken us almost 30 hours to get there. It can’t always be that hard to get around Costa Rica, surely?
We decided to chill out in our hostel that night, even resorting to cooking our own food (quite a rare occurrence) as the restaurants in the town were prohibitively expensive; catering for a clientele of mainly American middle class tourists with a budget much more substantial than ours. It was fun though; I love to cook – even if it is just sausages with pasta, sauce and cheese on top!
Sitting around the hostel kitchen table, we met Wynn and Emily, a couple from New Zealand who had bought a little Mazda in Canada and driven it all the way down – what a journey! The climb to Monteverde had unfortunately been the last gasp for their clutch, though, so it was off getting fixed by a helpful local. We each shared stories and experiences of our travels over dinner and various card games, Hels and I feeling a mix of envy and inspiration at them having their own transport! Any future travel plans will almost certainly involve a purchase – or at the very least, a hire – of a vehicle!
Into the cloud forest
The next morning, managing to avoid the many enticing offers of zip-lining, bungee-jumping and Tarzan-swinging – apparently the things you ‘do’ in Monteverde – we just wanted to get to the national park and immerse ourselves in a bit of the lush cloud forest environment with our feet firmly on the ground. We’d spotted a bus that would run us up there at 9:30, so off we went to the bus stop, and waited. And waited. And waited. And at 10:30, we walked back to the hostel where we found that the bus we were waiting for had never existed and the next one wasn’t until 2:30 pm.
Obviously, I was very calm about all of this. ‘Hey, it’s just one of those things,’ I remember saying, ‘let’s just find a solution, yeah?’ I’m almost certain that’s how I reacted, although Helena may recount the story differently …
In the end, we just decided to walk there. It was only about 5km from the town; who needs a bus anyway? So off we went, enjoying the brisk walk through the Costa Rican countryside on the way to the national park.
Due to our much delayed arrival time, the afternoon clouds were already beginning to roll in ominously as we entered the park’s trails, and any hopes we had of views across the valleys were pretty much dashed. As the drizzle began and swiftly turned into persistent rain, our chances of seeing much wildlife seemed to plummet as well, as everything retreated out of the rain. And yet, somehow we still felt charmed by the place and the experience – it is an ecosystem that relies on regular and heavy rain after all – and it felt good to just wander around watching the world being beautiful. We enjoyed a couple of hours walking the trails and taking photos of the forest as the water in the atmosphere made everything glisten. We even managed to catch the bus back to town – the first one in Costa Rica that had actually turned up at the expected place and time! Things were looking up.
We supplemented our Monteverde experience with a coffee and chocolate tour the following day – coffee and chocolate, what’s not to love! – but soon had to get back on the road. On Wynn and Emily’s recommendation, we decided to head across the country to the Atlantic Coast to check out the relaxed vibes of Cahuita and hopefully spot some sloths.
We seemed to have shaken our bus woes and made it to Cahuita with no issues. It was a quiet little place on the coast with a main street of bars and restaurants, and not a great deal else, apart from a small national park that ran along the coastline. This was where we were supposed to be able to spot sloths.
Our five hour expedition the following day into the land of the sloths almost proved fruitless. The big problem being that sloths are not that easy to spot. They aren’t that big, they don’t move around much, and they often just curl up on a branch somewhere perfectly camouflaged from view. You find yourself staring up into the trees for ages: is that a sloth? Nope, it’s a bird’s nest. Maybe this is a sloth? No, it’s just a slightly misshapen branch. That sort of thing. That one, surely? I think that’s a sleeping monkey…
That’s not to say that we didn’t see wildlife; we saw plenty of monkeys, lizards, insects, interesting birds (including woodpeckers), and even raccoons. But no sloths.
Then, just before we gave up and headed home, we stumbled upon a guide who was pointing enthusiastically high up into a tree, and sure enough, nestled in amongst some leaves, there was a ball of fur. We couldn’t see its head, or any distinguishing features, but we were assured that this indeed was a sloth. Success, of a sort.
That evening, the heavens opened, and we sheltered in the hostel until the worst of the rain had passed at which point, we headed out into the town in search of pizza and beer. The rain had caused puddles to form on the sides of the roads which were teeming with very noisy and large frogs, which entertained us on our walk, and then, as we turned the corner onto the street with the pizza place, Helena said, ‘You have got to be kidding!’
I didn’t initially understand what she was referring to, but she pointed a power line that was strung across the road between two telegraph poles, in the middle of which was hanging something that looked suspiciously sloth-like. ‘Surely not?’ I said, thinking it was some piece of clothing that a child had thrown up there and got stuck or something, but as we got closer it was indeed a sloth. A very wet, very dopey sloth!
‘Have you got a camera?’ Hels asked. ‘No, you?’ came my reply. ‘No, I left it at the hostel! Bloody typical.’ So we stood and watched for a while, taking in the crazy creature before deciding to head to the restaurant. Sitting scanning the menu I offered to go and retrieve the camera. ‘Do you think it’s worth it?’ asked Hels. ‘It’s a sloth, it’s not going anywhere fast,’ I said, and so I headed back to grab the camera. In the fifteen or so minutes it took me to get to the hostel and back again, the sloth made it about three metres along the line. That’s one blessing of these useless creatures I suppose; once you have found them, they give you lots of opportunity to photograph. It’s certainly not like trying to grab a snap of a hummingbird!
Off to Panama
So that was it for our brief stay in Costa Rica, just two locations but both of which we enjoyed. Crossing the border into Panama we were convinced to take a minivan transfer to the small town of Almirante from where we could get a water taxi to Bocas del Toro, a picturesque archipelago where we hoped to have one last chance to freedive before heading into the behemoth of a continent that is South America. The van turned out to be a shocking choice as part way into the journey the windscreen wipers broke. You might have thought that the driver might stop, or slow down at least … but no, he just carried on driving through the pelting rain with next to no visibility. Needless to say, when we arrived at the dock and they tried to usher us into their mate’s water taxi, we headed in the opposite direction entirely to the much more professional looking Taxi 25 outfit a little further up the dock.
A 40 minute blast over the Atlantic landed us on Bocas where we found just that little bit more life than we had in Cahuita. There were enough people around for the place to feel lively but not crowded and enough bars and restaurants to keep your tastebuds entertained. Booking into a hostel dorm, we met the South African Ryan, whose opening question to me was, ‘Are you into rugby?’ Realising from his accent he was South African, I replied, ‘Yeah – didn’t you guys just get beaten by Japan?’ And so began our acquaintance! He was livid about the defeat by the Japanese, but he got his own back a couple of days later when we sat in a bar and watched South Africa beat Samoa, followed by Wales beating England. ‘Hard luck mate,’ he said, with a glint in his eye, ‘I actually thought your boys played quite well…’ Yeah, yeah – whatever!
Unfortunately for Helena and I, the freediving instructor had just left Bocas a few days before we arrived, so we resorted to exploring the island and its beaches for a few days instead, enjoying the chance to have some time to chill out. Hiring a couple of cruisers – which are heavy, single speed bikes that are horrible to ride – we headed off around the island only to find that the bikes became even more useless when the tarmac surface ended. We also took a bus to the other end of the island with Ryan to relax on the Playa de Estrella where we did very little for most of the afternoon, apart from the occasional bit of starfish spotting. In all honesty, we suspect that the diving would have been rather suboptimal in Bocas because the visibility was very limited in the water due to the silt from nearby rivers, so we were pretty happy with some beach time. It just served to emphasise how spoilt we have been with our diving conditions on this trip so far!
And then it was off to the big smoke, Panama City, our final stop in Central America. We went as a three along with Ryan, booking into the same hostel when we arrived. Panama City immediately felt very different to every other capital we had visited in Central America: high rise buildings, clean streets, open public spaces being used by city residents for exercise and leisure. There was none of the rough and ready feel of Guatemala City or San Salvador. It was actually a bit of a relief, and we enjoyed going running along the park that lines the large bay between the new city and the old town, Casco Viejo.
We took the opportunity to visit the world famous canal on the same morning that we arrived. The fact that Panama had a canal was about the only thing I knew about the country before I arrived there. I didn’t know quite what an impact it has had on the country’s economy, nor did I know much about the history of the canal itself. It is almost exclusively down to the multiple billions of dollars that the canal brings to the Panamanian economy that sets the country apart from the rest of Central America, and the effect is very noticeable.
I’m not sure why I was so excited to visit the canal, but I’d been looking forward to it for some time. Maybe because it was something unique? Whatever the reason, we were not disappointed – the canal is a very impressive piece of engineering, and its sheer scale is staggering. We arrived in a break in the traffic, so initially we were just looking at the empty Miraflores Locks; they were a superb scene nonetheless.
A stroll through the visitor centre revealed all kinds of amazing statistics and information, not least that the canal was actually started by the French in 1882, who were planning to excavate a sea-level canal, but they were hampered by engineering difficulties and epidemics including yellow fever that dessimated their workforce. The Americans came in to finish the project, re-engineering the original French ideas to include a series of locks and a massive, dammed inland lake, and managed to complete the canal and open it for passage in 1914. It is such an impressive piece of engineering to have been completed at that time in history.
Before we had got a chance to see any ships passing through, it was unfortunately time to go, so we made our way back to our van. When we got there, however, the guy asked, ‘Did you see some ships go through?’ Since we replied in the negative, he offered us the chance to go back, saying he’d send someone back to get us later. We jumped at the chance and went back in.
And it was so worth it. Yes, the locks are impressive on their own, but they really come to life when the ships start passing through. We watched in awe as an oil tanker approached from the north and was attached to three trains each side that would guide it into the lock, making sure it didn’t touch either the sides or the lock gates. It edged its way in, with only a few feet each side, and was soon sat in the lock securely, and ready to descend.
While this was happening, however, there was a second ship being brought in to the other lane. The view was initially obscured by the tanker, but as it came in, it grew in size, revealing its gargantuan proportions, eventually dwarfing the little tanker as it descended into the lock. This was a ‘Panamax’ vessel; the largest size of ship that could traverse the canal. In fact, ship builders around the world have, for decades, built ships with the dimensions of the Panama Canal’s locks in mind. This thing, carrying up to 4500 shipping containers, would be using every available inch. It was amazing to see it being brought in, and even more amazing to watch the tiny little trains straining at their cables trying to slow it down as it just inched slowly, but very persistently it seemed, forwards. What an incredible feat of engineering; and our transfer guy was right, it was something very special to stand and watch the canal in action.
Interestingly, despite the Panamax seeming large, it is not the largest ship on the ocean, not by a long stretch. The really big ships the days can hold up to 13000 containers, but there’s no way they can pass through the canal, which means their journeys are limited. In fact, they still use Panama’s location, but they dock at one side and unload all of the containers which are then transported overland on trains to be re-loaded onto a different vessel on the other side. Panama is now, however, constructing a series of new, much bigger locks, that will allow not only an increased number of vessels to pass through, but also a much larger size of vessel too.
And so there we were. After bidding Ryan farewell, off on a flight to Columbia, we enjoyed wandering around both the new and the old parts of Panama City, taking the time to reflect briefly on the past two months. It had been a bit of a race at times, especially towards the end, but since we landed in Belize, we’d visited seven countries in two months, taken countless bus trips and boat trips, crossed and re-crossed borders, visited off-shore and inland islands, climbed volcanoes, explored jungles, had surf lessons, learned to ride a motorbike, free dived in the ocean and even learned a bit of Spanish along the way. So what can we say now other than ‘¡Hasta Luego, América Central! Fue fabuloso!’