Onward to Bocas del Toro

Posted from Guabito, Bocas del Toro Province, Panama.

After a short visit in San Jose to see an old friend, I decided to make my way to Bocas del Toro, a pristine beach paradise in Panama. Plus, there was the added fact that immigration only gave me eight days in Costa Rica, so I had one day to get out of the country.

To Puerto Viejo

There’s a company called Exploradores Adventures that, among many of its excursions, offers a one-day white water rafting adventure on the Pacuare River for $99. Very early in the morning, they pick you up at your location in either Arenal, San Jose or the Caribbean coast. Then they shuttle you to their centre, and feed you breakfast. You are given a life-jacket, and a helmet, then bussed 30 km up the river and dropped in. There’s six to a boat. They teach you a few safety things too – like pulling someone back into the boat.

exploradores adventures

Enjoying some warm coffee after freezing for a few hours.

About two hours into the trip everyone stops for lunch, then it’s another two hours in the river before returning to the base. There are photographers along the way, and people have the option of buying photo packages. When it’s done you can take a shower, or have a cold beer before being bussed to your next location – either Arenal, San Jose, or the Caribbean coast.

banana trees Costa Rica

It was just bananas how many banana trees we passed.

This was the best option for me. It was an awesome day, even though it was raining for most of the day. It was a bit chilly considering we were constantly wet, and a bit of sunshine would’ve been nice. On the way to Puerto Viejo we encountered a detour and had to go down some back roads in the jungle where banana trees grow for days.

The evening

I spent the night in Puerto Viejo at a small hostel called Kinkaju. I was pleasantly glad to only have the day left. Many people I know love Puerto Viejo, but the day before I arrived a 57-year-old Toronto man was stabbed to death when he went to take photos of the sunrise. Apparently two young thugs wanted his camera. I know this kind of violence can happen anywhere, but this kind of tragedy seems to be more common on the Caribbean side.

Puerto Viejo

Apparently the only picture I took in Puerto Viejo.

We went for dinner and drinks, but something caught up with me and I had horrible stomach pains. I couldn’t even finish my drink at the bar. I told someone I was leaving and walked home, in the dark, by myself, nearly doubled-over in pain. That’s how bad it was.

The border

I booked a shuttle with a company called Travel Site ($25) and I regret it. They were pushy. Everything they did they asked for tips. They even, at one point, tried to tell me I couldn’t carry my own bag 10m, but I told them to back off, and carried it myself. Then they asked everyone for tips.

Costa Rica border

Waiting to pay our exit fee from Costa Rica.

The van is nice, but you’re only in it for one hour. When you get to the Costa Rica border, you take all your luggage with you. A“guide” has everyone go into a restaurant and pay an $8 departure tax. The tax is actually $7, but unless you thought ahead and paid it at a bank (and retained the receipt) they charge you an extra dollar for this convenient service. Then you stand in another line to hand in a departure card and your receipt, and get your exit stamp.

Panama border

Crossing over to the Panama side.

You walk across a long bridge to the Panama side. The officials there ask for proof of onward travel, and that’s about it. You don’t need to fill out any entry card, so don’t fall for anyone trying to get you to do so. After we got our entry stamp the border “guide” told us we had to go pay an entry tax. I was livid.

Panama border

The steps to the little office where you pay your extortion fee.

There is no official entry tax for Panama. I made a stink, so they called over some guy with a white shirt and an official emblem on the shirt. It was just a shirt, so I asked if he had an official card or badge. He didn’t. He told me I could ask the police, but I figured they were all in cahoots. I climbed the very dangerous steps to some shoddy store front and paid the “entry tax.” They gave me a fake-looking ticket that was blurry and poorly produced.

Panama border

So this is Panama.

After we all payed our scam money they put us in mini vans and began our journey to Almirante.

No one ever checked to see that we paid the stupid tax.

Almirante and the water taxi

The bags were being unloaded, but the “porters” wouldn’t let anyone take their own bags. I grabbed mine from a guy and walked away with it. All 10m. Then some guy whistled to me and jabbed his finger towards a pile of backpacks a number of times. I ignored him. When all the vans had arrived, they loaded the bags on board and then went to nearly every person and asked for a tip. Unreal. But we got over to Bocas town and were on our own to make our way to our lodgings.

Bocas water taxi

The water taxi port. Almost to Bocas del Toro

In retrospect

The local bus would probably be a better way, even though it would complicate the trip. The whole trip took about five hours. Most of that was waiting around for other people to get their stamps, and pay their fake entry fees. I’m sure the local bus would’ve taken around the same amount of time, but maybe only saved a few dollars.

I would’ve liked to have spent more time in Puerto Viejo, so next time I know to tell the immigration official I plan to spend at least three weeks in the country.

But now for Bocas del Toro

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