In case you didn't notice, there's also a KFC to the left and outside of the picture a McDonalds down the block to the right. So if you've always wanted to venture abroad but can't stand the thought of eating rice and beans instead of burgers and pizza, have no fear for the golden arches are here! But be sure to bring enough cash because you'll be paying the same prices you do in the States, if not more. Lucky for me, I'd have no problem eating eat rice, beans, and chicken 3 meals a day for a year! (as long as you throw in some pasta and veggies every now and then).
During my time in San José, I managed to visit some of the city's museums including El Museo Nacional, part of which was originally a barrack for the Costa Rican military until it was dissolved in 1948. The museum houses exhibitions relating to the history and wildlife of Costa Rica. One of the exhibitions was devoted entirely to the Blue Morpho Butterfly, which are found all over the country. After chasing butterflies for 20 minutes I finally managed to get a few good pictures.
One side of the wing is colored brown with a pattern of dark blue circles, and the other side is a light blue with a black rim. You can't tell by the pictures but these things are really big, about the size of your fist. Anyway, I thought they were pretty cool.
There's not much else worthy of mention about my time in San Jose. I managed to get to a decent gym for a few days, catch some of the soccer matches in the Copa América, and experience some of the nightlife with some Ticos I met. It was a great way to get off the beaten trail for a few days and recharge my batteries.
I met a bunch of cool people in Jacó and spent the next couple days there hanging out, attempting to surf (but mainly getting crushed by giant waves definitely not meant for beginners) and partying with all the other gringos and tourists. It was a blast, but a bit pricey since it was quite touristy so I limited my time there to 3 days.
From Jacó, I began the 20 hour bus ride to Puerto Jimenez, a small port town on the Peninsula de Osa in the very southern Pacific part of Costa Rica. The main attraction there is Parque Corcovado, a giant natural reserve that apparently has some of the most diverse and amazing wildlife in all of Central America. I had met several girls from Boston and New York in La Fortuna who had visited Parque Corcovado, had an amazing time there and highly recommended it to me so I took their advice! It definitely lived up to expectations. The first day I walked along some of the beach trails just outside of the town with some Europeans I had met on the bus, where we witnessed a multitude of brightly colored macaws, screeching monkeys, iguanas and a million little lizards, and best of all, about 6 or 7 caimans, which are basically a type of crocodile. Luckily for us, we arrived at the caiman viewing area at the same time as a Dutch couple who had bought several pounds of beef which they planned to throw into the marsh in hopes to coax out the prehistoric creatures. As you can guess, their strategy worked quite well. At first just a couple caimans were present to devour the meat slabs being tossed to them, but within a couple minutes I think their entire family and many friends had wandered over to take part in the feast. At one point a clueless puppy ventured dangerously close to snapping jaws of the caimans but it managed to sense the danger and edge back in enough time to spare us a scene that would have been a hit on National Geographic. Of course, it was right after this that I managed to delete my camera memory so unfortuantely I can't share any of those pictures. It's too bad because I had some really awesome shots!
The following day my European hostelmates and I woke up at 4:30 to catch a 5am taxi to the Leona Ranger station in the southern part of Parque Corcovado where we began an 8 hour hike through the natural reserve. The taxi ride took about an hour and a half and dropped us off where the road ended about an hour from the Leona Ranger station. We then walked for an hour along the beach to arrive at the station where we entered the forest trail.
The hike totally lived up to expectations. We had beautiful weather and saw an abundance of wildlife, including several of the trees such as the one in the picture below. I had never seen such a big tree trunk in my life; one definitely could have made a comfortable one bedroom home inside.
I think they're called strangler trees or something like that, which would make sense based on the way the roots slither outward at the base of the trunk. We also saw a million of these brightly colored land crabs, and were careful not to step on any of them as we trekked through the forest.
Lizards, including iguanas, were plentiful as well.
We managed to see all four types of monkeys that exist in the area: the spider monkey, howler monkey, squirrel monkey, and white face monkey such as this lazy guy.
We also saw some brightly colored frogs, small snakes, and unusual mammals whos names I've already forgotten. I was really hoping to see a giant boa constrictor, but unfortunately they were all hiding that day.
The following day, I took a ferry across the Golfo Dulce to the town of Golfito, where I met a Swiss girl and together caught a bus to the border with Panama. I remember the border crossing from Costa Rica to Panama being somewhat chaotic when I went last year, but this was a nightmare. The whole border area was dirty and chaotic with no signs clearly signaling where to go for passport inspection. We managed to find the Costa Rica immigration office and got into the line, which was more of a funnel of about 50 people trying to make their way to one of 2 opens windows. As we were standing in the mob, I noticed there was a suggestion box located next to one of the windows and I was very tempted to draw up a schematic with a new system of lines showing directions of traffic flow. Honestly it would not have been that complicated, but I deduced that the suggestion box was present more as a decorative and had most likely not been opened in several decades so I decided against sharing my ideas. After about an hour of waiting we got our stamps and headed to the Panama immigration office where there was a brand new line waiting for us. Once we made it to the window, we were informed we needed to have proof of exit out of the country (because of course all backpackers and other tourists are planning on staying in the country and stealing all of the precious jobs from the Panamanian citizens) so we had to walk all the way back to the Costa Rica side, find the bus company, and buy a $15 open-ended bus ticket from Panama back to San Jose, Costa Rica. Most backpackers that don't have any travel booked out of the country have to do the same. Do you think that there may exist some collaboration between the "bus company" and the immigration office? That sure is a lot of profit coming from sales of bus tickets that are never redeemed!
After finally getting our Panama stamps and escaping the chaos of the border area, we got on a bus to David, the second biggest city in Panama behind the capital. It's not far from Costa Rica, only about an hour and a half from the border. After spending two weeks in Costa Rica paying prices similar to those in the States, it felt great to be back in a cheap country! And to make life even easier, the Panamanian currency (called the Balboa) is exactly equivalent to the US dollar so both are accepted everywhere. After I checking into a hotel, I had a giant lunch for which I payed about $3, got my first haircut since May which cost me another $3, found a local gym for which I payed $1 to use for the day, and bought a variety of other snacks for less than $2. There's not a whole lot to do in David, so I wandered around and explored a bit at night and then went to bed early.
The next day I called Gabi and Kobi Klaf, an Israeli couple I had met in La Fortuna, Costa Rica a couple weeks before, as they had told me they were planning spending a couple months in Boquete, a town about an hours drive from David, and welcomed me to visit them when I arrived. Gabi and Kobi have been travelling for over 5 months now with their three children ages 6, 8, and 10, and plan to continue their adventure for at least another year. They started their trip in Colorado and have moved south through the States and all through Central America by public transport or hitch hiking, stopping in various places for weeks or months at a time to search for volunteer activities. I still don't know how they're managing this trip because Dahnya, Orazi, and Solai are some of the most wired kids I've ever met. They keep a really amazing blog, so feel free to check it out if your're interested in learning more abour their adventures! (workingtheworld.blogspot.com) Anyway, Kobi was nice enough to pick me up in David in the 4x4 Mitsubishi SUV he had just purchased in Panama to give them a bit more flexibility and freedom in their traveling (thank God, I don't know how they lived without it). We drove back to their new temporary home in Alto Boquete, just outside of Boquete, which is a basic but nice and well made cottage consisting of a single room (kind of a mix between a living room and kitchen), a separate bathroom, and a large outdoor patio where, of course, they spend most of their time.
The cottage belongs to and was built by Gabi's father, Yosi (sorry if misspelled!) who has lived just outside of David the last 12 years with his Panamanian wife and their daughter, Ilana, so the arrangement worked out quite nicely for the Klafs! Gabi and Kobi were nice enough to offer me to stay with them for as long as I liked as they had a nice big tent set up outside the house and no one using it.
I took them up on their offer, thinking I'd stay with them for a night and then find a hostel in Boquete, but I ended up spending the next 5 days with them! It was a very unique and wonderful experience staying with the Klafs for those 5 days because for the first time since I had started travelling (not counting my homestay in Nicaragua with Ileana and Ninoska, which was just as amazing but in a different way), I felt like I was living, rather than simply passing through, in a home as part of a family. And after those 5 days with the Klafs I really did feel like part of their family! It was great spending time with the kids, and I think they enjoyed having an older playmate. I know for sure that Kobi and Gabi were happy to have a new diversion for their kids to give them a bit of a respite from their usual parenting routine.
We did a bunch of activities in those 5 days, including hiking on the Sendero Los Quetzales, having a BBQ, picking oranges, practicing gymnastics skills, reading Greek mythology stories, having meditation/relaxation sessions,and stargazing.
In the car on the way to the Sendero Los Quetzales
Left to right: Ilana, Dahnya, Orazi, Gabi in back (Solai hiding behind Ilana)
Random bridge we found on the way to Sendero Los Quetzales
Kobi on top, Ilana, Orazi, Dahnya, Solai underneath
Practicing gymnastics skills after the BBQ
BBQ attendees: Yosi, Kobi, me, Patrick and wife, Gabi, Solai, Ilana, Patrick's daughter, Dahnya
(Orazi taking photo)
One of the best parts about Boquete was the sky. I have never seen such an amazing sunset anywhere else in the world in my entire life. Something about the way the sun sets behind Volcán Barú and shines up on the clouds makes the sky look like it's on fire, and it's almost the same every single night as long as it's not raining. I tried to capture it with these pictures, but they really don't do it justice.
The night sky is just as impressive. I don't think I had ever seen a sky with so many stars as I did in Boquete, and definitely never so many shooting stars. We must have seen 20 within a half hour! Another thing I enjoyed about Boquete was the cool climate, as it sits at an elevation of about 3,200 feet. In fact, it got so cold at night that I had to sleep in long pants and a jacket! But after spending so many nights sweating in hostels, the cold was definitely welcome.
I really enjoyed the town of Boquete as well. It's quite touristy, but at least you can still find cheap food! One of the days when I went into town on my own I spent the morning rock climbing on a natural rock face, formed by the last eruption of Volcán Barú, which was a first for me. It's definitely different than climbing on the artificial rock walls, and I think in manys I enjoyed it better.
It was hard saying goodbye to the Klafs, and I really wish I could have stayed with them longer if I had the time. Ironically, the kids were the most quiet they had been the whole week my last morning with them as they were busily working on their very artistic going away gifts for me.
We spent our last afternoon together in town eating lunch, playing soccer, and eating cake and ice cream, which I should mention were paid for out-of-pocket by Orazi and Solai with their own money. They did, however, talk it over with their parents to make sure it was within their budgets. We said our goodbyes that evening and I hopped on a bus back to David, where I actually ended up spending the night with Gabi's dad, Yosi, his wife Korina and daughter Ilana in their beautiful home. They even had a whole guest room with a double bed for me, and a shower with hot water! Talk about luxury. I was originally planning on just spending the night and moving on the following morning, but ended up waking up early with everyone else, taking Ilana to school with her parents, going grocery shopping, and then to Yosi's favorite bookstore which he had been raving about the entire time and telling me that I needed to check it out and buy at least two books. So we went to the bookstore, I bought my two books, and of course by that time there was no sense in leaving so I ended up staying an extra night, bringing my stretch of free accommodation to a week! Thanks again Klafs and Yosi!
I went back to the usual backpacking routine the following day as I caught a bus to Playa Las Lajas, supposedly one of the most beautiful beaches in Panama, where I hung out all day under a little beach hut and finished the book I had started the day before. Rough life, I know.
The next day I woke up early and got one of the coldest buses I have ever experienced, heading to my current location, Panama city. I had been warned about the excessive level of air conditioning on the long distance Panama buses, but wasn't expecting temperatures I like to freeze meat at. The bus ride took about 6 hours, so when we finally made it to Panama City I had to sit in the sun for a bit to let my toes thaw. For once I was happy to be walking around with my big backpack in excessive heat! Of course that happiness lasted only about 5 minutes until it was back to sweating profusely as I wandered around searching for cheap accommodation. It started raining soon after I arrived so I haven't seen much of the city yet, but as soon as it stops raining I'll begin exploring one of Central America's largest cities!