i can't claim to be a prolific traveller but i like alternative holidays, lying on a sunbed is boring. i want to be seeing amazing things, experience the culture, meet interesting people, be a bit outside my normal comfort zone, do things i've never done before, and if there's a story to tell i want to remember it, so the notes and observations i make on each trip can now be read here by anyone who has the patience.

Costa Rica & Panama

A journey through Costa Rica and Panama
November 2013

04.11.2013, San Jose, Costa Rica

We arrived yesterday but a bit too late to go out and do much so we set off out early this morning
to explore downtown San Jose. I wouldn't say there's a lot to see and do in San Jose but I also think it doesn't really matter. The easy going, laid back way of life here seems to appeal to my unstructured approach to meandering around the city. The city as a whole seems very social, there's not the tense urgency you get in most big cities. The streets are very much lived in rather than somewhere to inconveniently dash through. A traditional Costa Rican rice, beans and fried banana for breakfast and then spent a good 10 hours wandering between parks, markets and cafes. Had a nice moment in a tiny little local drinking hole we stumbled upon, it was the kind of place you think "is it wise to come in here?" as you walk through the door. There's graffiti all over the walls and the seating is a bench made of upturned beer crates. There's a few locals in there drinking beer and knocking back tequila, the tequila probably helps them to override the stench of fish wafting through from the markets next door. I flex the full extent of my Spanish vocabulary by asking for "dos cerveza por favor" but then the barman won't take my money because the fella next to me at the bar has decided to pay for me in an act of random kindness. I could see no motive or reason to do so except he was a nice fella and he just felt like it, he turned round and nodded to us, finished his drink and buggered off.

Poas Volcano, 05.11.2013

My only disappointment today was that the volcano didn't erupt while we were there.  Imagine how exciting
it would be running down the side of a mountain with flowing lava in very hot pursuit, obviously you'd be filming it as you run, taking selfies with the lava in the background so you can show all your friends some cool photos if you make it back home alive.  The last time mount Poas had a big eruption was 1953 and before that 1918 I think so it must be due a big one but we were spared molten rock today and just engulfed in choking clouds of sulphur.  The first crater is the biggest of any active volcano in the world measuring 1.2km across, filled with a very acidic lake and billowing out plumes of smelly sulphur which at times turns the sky completely white.  The secondary crater is not currently active and its turquoise lagoon surrounded by primary rainforest is begging to be swam in although apparently its not a great idea as its still slightly acidic and is full of strange organisms.
After the volcano the tour bus we're on makes the long winding route back down and does its obligatory stops at craft shops along the way where we are supposed to buy over priced souvenirs.  Next we get a tour around a coffee plantation. Actually very interesting to see how much time and work goes on between planting a seed and pouring a cup, plus I was wired on all the free coffee, obviously I had to try each variety several times and make up for the fact that Becci hates coffee!  Next we visited a huge red church made entirely of metal before then making another stop at a souvenir shop parading as a craft workshop.  Back home at the hotel we meet up with the group we'll be travelling through to Panama with, bit of a mixed bunch it seems and we won't really get to know any of them for another day or two because the majority have opted out of the white water rafting en route to the coast tomorrow.  We are up for it though which means a 6am start in the morning and with that in mind it's time for me to get my head down. 
White Water 
from San Jose to Puerto Viejo

We could take a 5 hour bus from San Jose to Puerto Viejo or we could drive part way and float down the river for the rest.  what do you reckon? The Rio Pacuaré carves its path down through densely forested hills which are home to monkeys, sloths, toucans, giant butterflies, caimans, crocodiles, parrots and herons as well as indigenous Indian communities.  There's blue sky, hot happy sunshine and then throw in plenty of grade 3-4 white water rapids and what do we have to think about?  Lets get soaking wet!!!
Bec and me spent 5 hours on the rapids with our new buddies Phil and Jasenio and with the help of Ray our rafting guide.  In between the exhilaration of the rapids I found myself looking around in wonder struggling to believe I was actually here in this incredible environment.  My mind drifted in awe trying to find enough appreciation for where I was, then suddenly I wake up crashing down white water rapids hurtling around huge boulders trying to stay in the raft with Ray shouting "John! Paddle!".  Only Phil fell in which cost him a round of drinks later.  We had a nice bit of a swim in the calm(ish) parts of the river and then with a bit of confidence built up had a refreshing semi drowned swim through a series of supposedly easy rapids.
Our erratic driver got us back on the road and finished our journey in no time and immediately upon arriving at our guesthouse we ignored the beach across the road and downed a few beers in the bar.  The rest of our travel group had arrived earlier on having foolishly opted out of the rafting but we met them all later and went out for a group meal.  From the group of 16 we have Swiss, Germans, Aussies, Irish, American, English..... and a Geordie.  A few drinks tonight but nothing too heavy, have met some pretty cool people and its an early start tomorrow to do activities with some of the group.
Puerto Viejo

The way it works on the tour we're on is we travel with a group of like minded people who are complete strangers at the start and could be from any corner of the world.  We all stay at the same accommodation and we have a group organiser (in this case Cindy who is Costa Rican) who sorts out any activities we want to do, provides us with useful local knowledge, arranges all our travel and sorts out any problems.  Today we went with most of the group together and did a few things.  We did a kind of nature walk in the morning where our guide Harry helped us spot sloths, iguanas, monkeys, raccoons and a load of other stuff along wooded trail, we swam in the warm sea on a quiet forest lined beach and I got bored while Becci and everyone sunbathed so I went for a run along the beach.  Later we then went to a small independent chocolate factory and learned how the cocoa was grown and turned into chocolate and ate everything from the seeds to the finished product.  We then went to swim in a rock pool under a big waterfall.  When we got back in the afternoon, Bec and me hired bikes to cycle through the town and see a bit more of the area before we move on again tomorrow and cross the border into Panama.  the place we are staying at is nice, there is a black sand beach across the road. Feeling quite groggy today with a cold hence today's report being less descriptive/humorous/cynical than usual.  Hopefully I'll be back on form by tomorrow.....

The Bull's Mouth
Bocas del Toro

We made it across the border to Panama...... Just about!  The numerous border checks were easy enough but the bridge over the river between the check points in Costa Rica and panama was definitely the most challenging border crossing I have ever experienced in my life ever.  You do all the filling in forms that nobody will ever read, pay your 3 dollars, get your stamp in your passport and off you go.  Sounds easy and yeh you do it 4 times but to filter out any disabled people, elderly, or the generally unlucky they have a big high, really long half broken wooden bridge to cross the border.  If you drop your passport it's gone, drop your money or camera- gone, take one step wrong and you're gonna be gone too!
So we made it into Panama and got another taxi and then a boat to the islands of Bocas del Toro, don't know if I've spelt that right but that's where we are!  after we arrived and got settled we got a boat taxi to one of the other islands and found a remote, totally natural beach.  Around half of our group came and we just swam in the warm sea and chilled out on the most beautiful beach I've ever seen in my life (so far......).  Bec and me got talking to Jasmine and Andreas a bit more, they are a German couple who seem really cool and pretty much on a similar wave length to us, we plan to go surfing with them on Sunday.
Later on we went out and had a few beers, and a few more beers, some rum, vodka, tequila, more beers...... Whatever, I dunno!  A really fun night out of drunkenness, silly dancing and getting to know our new multicultural buddies a bit better.  Tomorrow we are...... I dunno, I can't remember.  What are we doing tomorrow?!?!

Bocas del Toro

As you can see from the photos today has been pretty tough going!  Well actually it felt that way at 7am this morning when I woke up to the noise of a huge rain storm complimented by an extremely fuzzy head due to last night's partying.  We took a boat ride out to go snorkeling over the best coral seabed I've ever seen anywhere, it was teeming with life across a huge area and full of colour and activity. We got our lunch on a little island that is inhabited only by the family from the restaurant, which stands on stilts over the water. Our boat then takes us to a little desert island, I get out to explore the island with some of the group and Bec goes off to do some more snorkeling with the rest of the group. On the island I wandered off by myself for an hour and had a bit of a Robinson Crusoe moment, the island was uninhabited, nothing there except sea, sand and forest. I walked around to the other side of the island where there was not another person in sight and sat in the shade of a tree that was overhanging the beach with the waves of the sea gently licking my toes. Being isolated like this I used all of my life learned survival skills and found that breaking open a fresh coconut is not so easy after all. When the others came back from snorkeling they did not recognise me, I looked a bit skeletal due to my failure to forage for food and had grown a beard. Once I'd had been rescued and rehabilitated we drank beer, listened to a bit of reggae and swam in the warm sea.

Water Ski Sunday
Bocas del Toro

Woke up to rain again, only a bit of a hangover today and a guest in our room.  Nicky from the group and myself were the last stragglers out in the Sinking Ship nightclub last night and after throwing some crazy shapes on the dancefloor we sat down for a minute before we were about to leave at which point somebody ran past and swiped her bag.  As well as money and credit card, her key for the guesthouse was in the bag so I had to wake Becci up (as Bec had left the club earlier) and say "do you mind if I let Nicky sleep in our room?"  funny situation in that respect but quite horrible when the bag got stolen and we went and confronted the gang that did it.
So today we had planned to go surfing but when we got to the surf shop they said there's no waves anywhere so there's no point and so we decided to book a boat to go water skiing.  Bec and me went cycling for a couple of hours to explore the island first and then met up with Yasmin, Andreas, Phil and Jason in the afternoon.  I volunteered to go first which didn't go too well for me, followed by Phil who looked like a pro on his very first run.  Everyone managed to get a decent effort in sooner or later except me and Bec really, I only managed to stand up for about 10 seconds at the very most and Bec struggled to get going at all.  Frustratingly I think my lanky legs were not designed to have skis put on them and be dragged by a speeding boat.  It was a really fun thing to do though and we all had a great laugh together.
Got a boat over to one of the islands late afternoon with Bec and had a walk about and a cocktail. Think I've decided that this area is the most beautiful place in the world, and apart from thieves in nightclubs there's a really great feel add vibe to the place.


Yesterday we arrived in the sleepy hilltop town of Boquete.  Its quiet, small, surrounded by forest amongst the hills, 1000m above sea level.  we've got activities planned for the next day so I just wanted to chill out but Becci says "you can chill out when you're dead" so off we go to hire cycles out.   I was not keen at all seeing how steep the hills are but Bec is right I suppose.  It took about about an hour to cycle up, up, up higher into the hills in the pouring rain.  We stopped along the way to watch Phil, Jason and Maria who had gone climbing on a rock face, checked out some of the amazing scenery and then the most fun part....... The route that took an hour to ride up then took ten minutes to bomb down...... Woooooohoooooo!!!
In the evening we did some communal cooking in the hostel's kitchen.   We all cooked different food to share and eat together along with, well, plenty of alcohol.  I would say probably the best meal we had together so far....

Lookin' for some hot springs baby this evening

So today we did a forest canopy zip wire and then visited volcanic hot springs.  Up and out at 7.30am with Bec and Jason full of excitement.  after all the safety instructions we signed disclaimers to take full personal responsibility for our own deaths and/or mutilation. We got up to the first platform.  The scenery of the cloud forest canopy is awesomely stunning but the drop down spins your head to look at. We have 12 zip lines to do and at the moment of waiting to do the first one I feel really eager anticipation to get on it whilst simaltaneously feeling oh shit why the fuck am I doing this??! At the same time as me thinking this Becci is getting really nervous about the height of it and being able to do it safely, once you've done the first line the only way back is to do the remaining eleven! So with this running around her head Bec decides to back out and wait for us back at the lodge. The moment I started hurtling down the first wire I realised I felt totally safe and natural, I had no sensation of vertigo whatsoever despite there being just a metal clip suspending me over the huge drop below. I only wished I could go back and tell Bec its absolutely fine, you'll love it, but not possible. At the end of each line is a platform up in a huge tree and before you know it you're whizzing down the next wire. The fastest line is 85kmph and the longest is 500 metres.
In the afternoon we hiked up to some volcanic hot springs, really great scenery and a great natural forest environment to enjoy the springs because the temptation to place roads, gift shops and a ticket office there has been completely resisted. When I say hot springs they really were steaming hot, and of course the water is full of minerals so we all left a couple of hours later with skin softer than a baby's botty..

Oasis Surf Camp
Santa Catalina

My new address is number 1 Oasis Surf Camp, Santa Catalina, Veraguas, Panama.  Please forward all future correspondence to this address, I will be here for the next 3 days.
The nearest town is a 20 minute walk and there's not a whole lot there anyway.  We have reached the Pacific coast and the bay where we are staying has very little civilisation, just a few little huts and homes, a little beach restaurant and bar, a surf shack and then the rest is sea, surf, palm trees, black sand, rocks and forest.  It was blazing hot sun when we arrived with a nice breeze and felt good for a run to either side of the beach.  It's now raining with occasional cracks of thunder and lightning, apparently it does this pretty much every evening.
Tomorrow we are going to get surf lessons and surf all day and surf probably all day the next day too.  Some nice big waves by the look of it so should be good.
Having travelled through Costa Rica and Panama with a group that includes 6 Germans and 1 (German speaking) Swiss I feel more inspired than ever before to learn more language, namely Spanish and German.  I feel pretty dumb sometimes relying on everyone speaking English to me.  I was learning some German words from Maria on the bus journey today, it was in a casual jokey way but I do have a genuine interest now, which is the complete opposite of my attitude 15-20 years ago.

Surf's Up!

I wasn't great at water skiing BUT..... I am great at surfing! (well, relatively anyway).  I didn't bother with the surfing lessons.  Some of the others had lessons and while I was waiting for the surfer teacher dude to show up Phil gave me his board because he had injured himself.  So I jumped on, got a few tips from Andi and after a bit of practice I felt like I'd been doing it every day for my whole life.  By the afternoon I was even giving lessons myself, but for free because I'm such a cool, free spirited surfer dude now.  Feels so good catching a big wave and riding it all the way in.  Actually, the address I gave yesterday, just put that down as my permanent address and maybe send me some money because I think I'm gonna set up home here!  I understand now, Mr Foster...... You were right!  Surfing IS cool
Wwwwipe Out!!!!!

Up for breakfast at 8am, wolfed it down, got my board, ran to the sea.
The waves are big today so I thought great we're in for an awesome days surfing dude!  But I soon realised it's so much more hard work.  I caught 2 waves in the morning but the rest of the time I got completely wiped out. Bec joined us and came back out 20 minutes later with blood all over her face after her board smashed her nose.  By the afternoon I had decided to announce my retirement from the international surf scene.  I've had a good career, with many highs and lows but right now I feel like I need a rest and a beer.  We'll see how it goes, maybe I'll feel the waves calling again one day......  tomorrow morning perhaps.......

Panama City

We have arrived in Panama City.  I hate shopping centres but its pissing down a big rain storm so I thought yeh it'll keep me dry so went off to the huge shopping mall for a couple of hours.  Little bit of a novelty at first but after a while, well, its just shops like anywhere else in the world.  Came back with a bottle of rum and a big cigar and that's about it.  Tomorrow we go see the Panama canal, the old town and colonial city etc, all the touristy stuff.
So tonight we're off out on the town, the bars and clubs don't bother opening until around 10.30pm so looks like being a late one.  I'll be back for breakfast, hasta luego!

Hangovers, canals, cigars and skyscrapers

Got down into the city at about 11pm last night, the bar we were in started getting busy after midnight, they definitely don't like an early start here.  If ordering drinks in Spanish in a noisy club isn't difficult enough they like to confuse us a bit more by fluctuating the drink prices.  When we arrived a local beer was $2.50 and by the time we left it had inflated to $4 having briefly hit a high of $5.  We discussed a business idea of coming out again the next night and speculating on the market value of the drinks, buy low and maybe set up a mini bar ready to sell when stocks rise.
This morning we went out to one of the locks on the Panama Canal and watched the enormous cargo ships pass through.  Its interesting to see the scale of it all but as is usual with the tourist spots when we reach the viewing platform over the museum there's a gaggle of noisy tourists spoiling each others photos, but not mine though because I'm tall enough and have lanky probing arms to get a good shot.  We went off then to a wooded hilltop nearby to get a birds eye view over the canal on one side and a skyline of sky scraping buildings on the other.  Its really really hot today so I was glad to make a stop at a nicely air conditioned duty free shop on a little off shore island and buy some rum and some fat cigars the size of baguettes while we were there.  Next we went over to the old colonial city, first we stopped for food at a 'traditional authentic Panamanian' restaurant which actually wasn't that at all, it was a Panamanian themed tourist restaurant but that's just me being cynical again.  It gets a mention anyway because the only vegetarian option they could offer me was cheese ravioli in banana sauce which I decided to try out just because it was an odd sickly sounding combo but actually it didn't make me puke, it was somehow reasonably tasty in a curious way.   We walked about around the old buildings which is all nice and scenic but personally I preferred the dilapidated run down buildings that were covered in graffiti, I like how they look and they take a good photo.  We could hear lots of load drumming and wandered towards it to find a big marching carnival procession, everyone around was dressed up in smart colourful clothes and the sound of the bands which mainly consisted of drumming was deafeningly brilliant.
Walking back along the waterfront there's great skyline views of the city giving enough distraction for us to get a bit lost in some dodgy neighbourhoods walking back to the hotel.
Most of our friends leave for the airport tomorrow morning so it's our last meal out together and everyone's feeling a bit tired/hung over/sad to be leaving.  We've got another full day in the city though......

Goodbye friends, goodbye Panama

Up before 6am today to wave goodbye to Maria, Yasmin, Andi and Georgia. Got an hour or two of sleep and then up again to say goodbye to Carina and Silvi. Have made some good friends on this trip and it feels sad to say goodbye after 2 weeks of getting know new friends. Bec and me had breakfast and then said our goodbyes to Phil and Heli too as they will leave in the afternoon while we are out in the city, all feels a bit strange, I've said maybe we should do a tour of Germany next year to meet up with all our new German friends! We set off to explore the city a bit more trying to hide a slight lump in my throat from all the goodbyes, don't tell anyone I said that, especially Phil! Usually Bec and me like to find a walking tour in one of our travel guide books to navigate ourselves around all the points of interest. Today though we've upgraded to a GPS tour map and are walking around holding a tablet. This has pros and cons, yes it's easier to find everything with a sat nav style guide but part of the fun is taken away because it's harder to get lost! For instance being unable to decipher poorly written directions with a not to scale map in Ho Chi Minh City, in Kathmandu and in Delhi got us into all kinds of trouble and often leads to some strange and unexpected experiences. Anyway we trekked from one skyscraper to the next, there's lots of shiny new modern buildings here and many more under construction, business seems to be thriving in Panama.  So unfortunately we didn't get lost but we did get soaked in heavy rain, it's really hot again today but occasionally without warning it will suddenly start tipping down.
After a good 7 hours of walking we got back to the hotel and much to Bec's annoyance and frustration I felt exhausted and a bit sick and instead of going out for a meal on our last night in Panama I crashed out on the bed.  Last day tomorrow, we fly home late afternoon.

Old town and onward.....

Off we fly home today but we have half a day free so no point kicking around the hotel all morning.  We set off early to walk along the waterfront to old town Panama, yes we've been there already but we felt like we didn't see everything properly and now we have our new toy to use with the GPS guide map.  It was worth doing because we visited a load of stuff we missed the other day apart from one little area that the police wouldn't let us get to because the president of Panama and/or Robert de Niro was there (?).
We also found a great little cafe called café René which kind of slightly made up for my poor attempt of a last night meal last night.  3 course lunch for $8.50, really fresh and tasty, fast friendly service, best meal of the trip and way better than one of those tacky themed tourist restaurants were the waiters are made to wear silly hats.
It's been a great trip, we've seen some beautiful places along the way- an active volcano, rainforests, desert islands, tropical corals, crashing rivers, waterfalls and pristine natural beaches.  We've also done some brilliantly fun activities- white water rafting, water skiing, a forest canopy zip line, snorkelling, surfing, cycling and bathing in volcanic hot springs.  I've also made lots of new friends and although everyone always says this and most likely don't follow it up I do intend to keep in touch and meet up again with many of them, I never knew Germans could be such good fun!
Auf Wiedersehen!

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