Tag Archives: Central American

Panama : The return

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Panama : The return

We are now back in Panama for the last four nights of our amazing trip around Central America. We have seen and learnt so much about both countries. The wildlife, nature, way of life. Also we have seen firsthand the poverty in both countries. We also had some interesting conversations with Taxi drivers about life in Central America. “You can always rely on a cabbie for the real low down on a country”. One told us last night that he and most of the working class people are not impressed with their president or political leaders (to be honest that’s probably the case the world over) He told us that the wages here are very low $500 dollars a month in some cases. We mentioned the fact that we had noticed so many banks , his answer was I quote “ probably to wash money “. I presume he meant drug money from Colombia. This seems astonishing as I look out the window of our hotel room at a skyline consisting of high rise luxury apartments, hotels, banks and a marina full of boats. Also when you consider the revenue made from the Panama Canal how can this be? When we visited this amazing feat of engineering (more on that later). We learned that on average a ship passing through the locks costs $188,000 dollars and rises to a whopping $450,000 for the very large ones. The canal operates 24hrs a day 365 days of the year and around 40 ships a day pass through. So if you just take the average cost for passage through that’s $7,520,000 dollars a day. Which equates to 7.75 billion dollars a year, that’s without all the countries other exports ie bananas and many other fruits, coffee, pharmaceuticals etc. So having seen first hand the areas on the periphery of town, where people are living in run down squalid housing in no doubt cramped conditions, it made me wonder how could this be happening especially for a country with a population of only 4.5 million people. Where does all that money go. Certainly from my point of view not on the infrastructure. Outside of Panama the roads are terrible, the pedestrian walkways even in Panama are a heath and safety risk. In David which is Panama’s second largest city it’s really run down. It has none of the fancy buildings that Panama has, its infrastructure is in bad need of updating. So my question is where does all this wealth go?

Panama Canal : Miraflores Locks

As we were unable to get to the canal when we arrived in Panama back in March due to Friday afternoon traffic. (See my post entitled What a day). We got there around 10:30 quite excited at the prospect of seeing this engineering marvel. When we got to the entrance a staff member told us that no shipping will be passing through until around 2:30pm. So as well as seeing the locks we wanted to view a ship passing through. So rather than going back to our hotel we took a taxi to a shopping mall called Albrook, as it was a short ride from the canal to get a coffee and some lunch. Now if you have seen one shopping mall you’ve pretty much seen them all, but this one is absolutely huge. It has a floor space of 380,000 square metres. In comparison the largest in the UK which is the Gateshead metro centre which is 193,000. Well enough of shopping centre facts back to the canal. We arrived back in time to see three huge ships pass through. It’s mind blowing how close these huge ships are the the lock sides. Also how tall they are. We were on the viewing platform on the fourth floor of the visitor’s centre and on one ship carrying cars towered above us. A really truly amazing spectacle. For some really interesting facts on the locks click here. Entrance fee to the visitor centre is currently $10 dollars.

Boquete: Panama

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We are now back in Panama for our last eight days in Central America. We stayed in a town called David for two nights before travelling on to Boquete, for some respite from the sometimes stifling heat and humidity of the lower regions of Central America. Situated some 3900 ft above sea level it’s a much cooler climate. Making it a favourite place for many Canadians and Americans to retire to. The town has plenty of nice restaurants and coffee shops to choose from, the town even has its own micro brewery, called The Boquete Brewing Company. which I have to say serves a decent pint of beer “I did partake in a few one evening listening to a live band”. Boquete is a great place to kick back and unwind. There are a few hikes dotted around town just a couple of miles away. The main one probably is the Volcan Barú Trail which is 17 mile long hike to the top of the volcano. My walking app estimates that it takes around 12 hours. Needless to say we did not attempt this one. Our five nights in Boquete was just what we expected, nice and relaxing . It’s certainly a place that should be on your itinerary if visiting Panama.

Goodbye Costa Rica.

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Goodbye Costa Rica.

Our journey through Costa Rica has ended and what an amazing journey it was. We saw so much wildlife that we have never seen anywhere before on our travels around the world. Sloths, White faced capuchin monkeys, Howler monkeys, Coati’s, Scarlet Macaws, Agouti’s, Racoons. I could write a long list. We have visited eight national parks, two wetland parks and done a night hike in the jungle. If you have been following my blog you will have read all about them. We also have learnt so many fascinating things about the wildlife here, and so much about the rain forest, their ecosystems and it’s trees and plants that support both the wildlife and themselves. The whole experience has been totally enthralling. Sadly though our journey in Costa Rica is at an end, and now we are back in Panama. Nevertheless the experiences and memories of this amazing country will be with us always.

Paso Canoas border crossing.

Now land border crossings can be a bit of a challenge, from memory we have done about five. Thailand to Cambodia at Poipet probably being the worst and most stressful. I always research the crossings thoroughly before any trip that involves them. Sometimes though when just reading about them they sound a total nightmare. it’s amazing what the mind conjures up when you have no images in your head. My mind conjures scenes from a Mad Max film or Dodge city. Well to be honest Poipet was just that. So my advice is go onto YouTube and search for the crossing you are going to and someone would have filmed themselves doing the whole thing. Beware though some are painful to watch as it’s just an exercise about look at me, see how handsome or beautiful I am. Despite this they can be a useful source of information. You then have an image in your head of the whole process and then realise it’s not as scary as you imagined at all.

When we crossed the border in the beginning of our trip we went across at a place called Sixola. The whole thing was a breeze. Friendly control officers helpful people. The whole process took around twenty minutes.

Crossing at the main border, Paso Canoas,was a very different experience. We read that it was always very busy and can take up to two hours to cross. Big queues of people, and a ten minute walk between the departing and arriving customs over very uneven ground. Oh well it had to be done, we had no choice. We took the bus from Golfito to Paso Canoas, which took around a hour and a half. The bus drops you off right across the street from where you get your exit stamp to leave and costa around a £2 each. For a taxi to do the same journey you are looking at paying between $60 to $75 dollars. When you leave Costa Rica you have to pay an exit tax $8 dollars or 5400 CRC. You can pay this at the office opposite where you get your exit stamp, but sometimes their systems are down making life difficult. Thankfully where we stayed in Golfito we were told by the host that you can pay the tax online through BCR bank. The page is in Spanish , but most modern smartphones have a translate option for web pages. Click Here for official site. We didn’t actually need to show our receipt for the exit tax as when you purchase the tax online you have to record your passport number on the form so I presume it showed on the customs officer’s computer as paid. This process took about ten minutes. She also told us that it’s best to have printed copies of all of your paperwork Covid vaccination records, Panama entry affidavit, proof of your onward journey from Panama. Also sometimes proof of funds for your stay in Panama, in the form of a credit card or three months bank statements. Fortunately we got all this done in a local print copy shop in Golfito. You can get this done at the border but I imagine it would be much more expensive.

Getting back into Panama was very different. Firstly the walk to get your exit stamp certainly did not take 10 minutes like other blogs I have read, granted the path we had read about was uneven but if you walk along the edge of the tarmac road, taking care avoiding the very large trucks passing you will be fine. On reaching the exit building, another added bonus was there were no large queues of people waiting to cross which we had read about, it was just us. The next part is where it got quite stressful. At the customs officers window you first have to show your exit stamp from Costa Rica, he then hurries you through a door to see a doctor “ I have to say he did not look much like a doctor, he could have been anyone. He then gives you a form to fill out. We were then approached by what we thought was a border official, he had a tee shirt with an official looking logo and an official looking lanyard. As I was filling out the forms he was joined by another guy, they were both very friendly and helpful but were getting a bit close to us for our liking. So Jackie kept guard on our luggage while I filled the forms out. One of the guys then took the forms from us and passed them through the window to the doctor, along with our printed covid vaccination records. They would not accept our digital NHS QR codes on our phone, thankfully we had printed copies. The Doctor then stamps the paperwork for you to take back to the customs officer. He asks you where you are staying in Panama and proof of your onward journey from Panama. They sometimes ask you for proof that you have enough money to support you when in the country. Thankfully this wasn’t needed in our case. He then takes a picture of you and then records your finger prints digitally. Stamps your passport and your done. When we left the building to catch our bus one of the supposedly official customs officers approached us and wanted a tip for his help. We initially said no, but for his cheek I gave him the only few colons (Costa Rican currency) we had, which was no use to us in Panama. So beware. Border scams don’t you just love them.

Getting the bus from the border to David is really easy, just by pass the hoards of waiting taxi drivers to the bus stand and there are loads plying for you trade. These small mini buses charge $5 pp (at time of writing) as opposed to between $55 and $70 dollars for a taxi.

Golfito : Costa Rica.

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Golfito : Costa Rica.

Our last stop on the pacific coast of Costa Rica, before we cross the border back into Panama is the town of Golfito. The town is situated along a narrow strip along Golfito bay, backed against steep green hills covered by rain forest. Golfito was once a major port town on the South Pacific Coast in the days when there was little else in the area except huge banana plantations.

We decided to go to Golfito firstly as it looked a good place to chill for a few days. Also it’s not far from the next leg of the trip, crossing the border at Paso Canoas, back into Panama. We found a nice little apartment on Airbnb overlooking the bay which is reasonably priced and is very nice, with great views of the bay.

View from our balcony
Night view.

Golfito town was built by the United fruit company to house the thousands of workers who came to the area to work on the banana plantations. A railroad was also built to transport the bananas from the plantations to the docks. The railroad is long gone now. There are just a couple of old steam engines left as a reminder of the past.

The town was built in three separate areas

Zona Americana Or the white zone. It was here that the professionals and senior executives lived in large white painted homes built in the British colonial style, with the best of amenities

Zona Amarilla Or yellow zone where the middle management, foreman and supervisors lived. Not as well appointed as the white zone, but still comfortable and well made. Access to both white and yellow zone’s were strictly controlled by guardhouses and security.

Zona Gris The grey zone where the labourers and dock workers lived. In cramped conditions and much fewer amenities, which amounted to just basic living. Often resulting in violent disputes within the community.

Now all that has gone, thankfully, but there are still plenty of reminders from the past. Many of the timber constructed buildings are still standing, some are renovated and some are in quite bad disrepair. Now the town has a quite noticeable American and Canadian expat community, and has had a major revamp in some areas. Like it’s two marinas, where expensive yachts and sports fishing boats are moored, it also has a small airport.

Sierpe Frogs : Sierpe, Costa Rica

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Sierpe Frogs : Sierpe, Costa Rica

As I said in my previous post I felt the only way to describe how amazing our mangrove and night hike tours were was to cover it in a separate post completely .

All through our journey through Costa Rica we had wanted to do a night hike to see the elusive Red eye tree frog, or any frog to be honest. We have heard plenty of them when visiting the National parks, but despite hearing the amazing chorus of all the frogs calling out we never actually got to see any. It seemed every time we did our research on the different companies offering night frog tours or hikes the reviews were never great. A lot of the night walk tours are on private reserves where a man made frog pond is built just to get the tourists in and to make a whole lot of money in the process, something we definitely do not subscribe to. It seemed we were never going to find a good company or tour that would satisfy our ethical way of thinking. It was not until Jackie was browsing the net that she stumbled upon Sierpe Frogs on trip advisor, which is strange it’s a platform we hardly use as we have found that most of the review posts on there are years out of date. But in this case the majority of the reviews were up to date and were excellent, and there were none rated below good. So our decision was made. When we arrive at Sierpe we will contact Raby Nuñez the proprietor and book our tour.

We met Raby at 5:30pm at the dock, as we had to cross the Sierpe river to start our walk. Raby was a really lovely guy and spoke perfect English so we were off to a good start. Raby’s friend, Jeffrey who was training as a guide came along too. We disembarked the small boat and started our walk. We walked for about 25 minutes, up hill for the most part. All along our journey to the start of the trail Raby was explaining about the many types of different plants and trees and how they help and supply food for the wildlife. His knowledge was excellent. We reached a bend in the road when Raby pointed out a huge ants nest. We were astounded when he told us the nest can be up to six metres deep “ wow “. Eventually we got to where the walk started. I could describe it as a path but it was far from that, it was a real trek through the jungle and in places very slippery under foot, which did not impress me as on more than one occasion my worn out knees have given way causing me to fall “I’ve got two grazed knees to prove it”. It was a good job we brought out very good Brasher walking boots with us because in places the track was very muddy and wet. Whilst we were walking along to get to the path Raby asked us if we minded him picking up the frogs to show us or just point them out. We asked him if by picking them up would they get harmed in any way, but he reassured us it wouldn’t . Incidentally he told us he doesn’t even use insect repellent whilst handling the frogs so that no harmful chemicals can be transferred. So we were happy to say we were okay with it. Raby’s knowledge on all types of frog species was excellent. He is really passionate about the little fellows. Raby’s passion for frogs and lizards, started as a small child, so it is great that he can now turn his love of nature and wildlife into his job. We learned so much about the species and every frog he picked up was placed on a leaf for us to admire and look at and for me to photograph them. Raby or Jeffery then placed them meticulously back in the same place he found them. Another highlight was seeing a Wedge billed wood creeper fast asleep in the nook. An absolutely amazing and unforgettable night. Apart from where I was stung by a huge wasp, which somehow managed to get up my shirt sleeve. Boy did it sting. Oh and also being thoroughly exhausted by the experience, but so so worth it. Apart from the bee sting that is.

As we had such an amazing time on the night hike we also booked a mangrove tour with Raby. Once again we were not disappointed. The trip lasted three hours and once again saw plenty of wildlife. Howler Monkeys, white faced capuchin monkeys, and for the first time on our trip the adorable squirrel monkeys. We also saw a Boa snake curled up in a tree. Plenty of iguanas enjoying the sun, a toucan crocodiles,oh and a raccoon perched on a branch high up in a tree. I had no idea that’s where they live and sleep during the day, being nocturnal. We would never have spotted all this amazing wildlife without our guide. Another amazing Costa Rican experience. All made possible by Raby, Jeffrey and Sierpe Frogs. Who I cannot recommend highly enough