Today we crossed our first frontier in Central America on the bikes and moved into Costa Rica. What a relief! At first all was confusion, with no signs to point out where all the various immigration and customs offices where (in fact we weren’t even sure where the actual border was) but we enlisted the help of Darwin & Alwin, two ‘tramitadores’ who soon directed us to all the right places in the right order. The staff at the border were lovely and the transit time took around 2 hours at the end of which for $2.50 each our bikes had been ‘fumigated’ (it’s an entry requirement and you have to have the certificate!) and for a further $26 we had insurance to ride both bikes there for 3 months (first insurance we’ve had all year!). We even had a new road map, free, courtesy of the lovely lady at the Tourist Information office. Tramitadores are freelance customs ‘experts’, commonly found in Central America, who will help you navigate through the bureaucracy at each border crossing in return for a few dollars. We really struck gold with Darwin & Alwin – they were lovely little guys; polite, smiley and knew the ropes but the most impressive thing of all was that they were only 12 years old!
Sadly Panama didn’t get any better. We rode on the Pan-American Highway through the country to David where we did a right up into the mountains to the sleepy little mountain town of Boquete. At 1000 metres it was refreshingly cooler with views over the nearby Volcan Baru, a mere pimple compared to the Andean giants of South America. It is also full of North American retirees who have bought retirement properties in the area. We spent a day hiking a jungle trail, the ‘Sendero Los Quetzales’. It was a tough path, made worse by recent rain and after a few hours we gave up and turned for home, finishing the hike in a heavy rain shower. More indifferent to bad service in the cafés and restaurants had us packing up early and leaving for our last major stop in Panama, the Caribbean Islands of Bocas Del Toro. The ride across the mountains was another great twisty road but we had to don wetsuits for the high bit in the middle, riding through a 20-minute torrential downpour. We had a tasty lunch of rice, beans and meat before finishing the coastal stretch of the journey that would take us up to Almirante, where we would pick up a taxi launch out to the islands. This coastal road was a stunner, a beautiful piece of grey ribbon with double yellow centre line for most of the 50 miles of it and virtually no other traffic. In Almirante we met a young chap on a bicycle who took us to a secure parking lot for the bikes. Here we unloaded all the stuff we needed for a few days on the island and left the rest with the 2 bikes with a lovely young lass who ran the parking area (it was the back garden of her house). Things were definitely looking up for Panama! The water taxi took 30 minutes to take us out to Bocas town on the island of Colón. Mags stayed with the kit at the harbour while I trudged off in my motocross boots & trousers to find accommodation. Disappointment resumed – the people in the hotels were a dismal lot and seemed not to care less if we took a room or not. The prices too were high – anything from $35 to $50 for an air-conditioned room, a lot more than we’d paid in the rest of the country (typically $15 a night given that it is off season everywhere). Eventually I found a smiling face at Posada ‘Los Delphines’ along with a smart little room for $25.
A day of torrential downpours followed and we used it for an excuse to catch up on email & Internet. We also booked up for an all day snorkelling excursion for next day, the main reason we’d come to the island. Next day after a short light rain shower at 7am, it brightened up and we set off on our day out around the islands in a party of 11. First stop was Dolphin Bay, home to a pod of around 60 Bottle-Nosed Dolphins. It looked empty and our guide explained that recent heavy rain drainage causes the sea water to get cloudy and the temperature lowers driving the dolphins out to sea, as they don’t like these conditions. Eventually 2 dolphins did appear and set off chasing the wake of our boat and set everyone smiling and ‘ooh-aahing’ as only dolphins can. Next stop was Cayo Crawl (or Coral Key) where we would spend most of the day snorkelling in the shallow waters surrounding a cosy little restaurant on stilts. We arrived way ahead of other tour parties and for a while had the place mostly to ourselves. The snorkelling was excellent. The coral reefs are shallow and beautiful, populated with brightly coloured Disneyesque tropical fish straight out of ‘Finding Nemo’! Shoals of little black and yellow stripy fellows preceded Angelfish the size of dinner plates. We saw needlefish, giant sea cucumbers and all amongst coral formations of every shape size and colour. Later on it started to get a little crowded so we came out for some Piña Coladas in the sun and to watch a boatload of brainless American Tourists at play on the reef. Sadly there seems to be little control over who does what at the key and it shows. All of the coral in the immediate area around the snorkel base has been broken or destroyed. We watched one idiot come up clutching a piece of coral in his hands saying, “Gee guys, look what I just found! Do ya think I could take it home with me?”
After lunch amidst a heavy rain shower we had another spot of snorkelling, this time of the boat in shallow coral reefs further out to sea. The rain was freezing cold but the Caribbean was lovely and warm. Snorkelling in the rain was fun as once again we entered Nemo’s world and spent the next hour or so mesmerised by these underwater fantasy landscapes. Our final stop for the day was Red Frog Beach. Here we took a short walk across a privately owned island to visit a golden sandy beach, straight from the old TV ads for Bounty Bars, a real taste of paradise! We saw the little red frogs too; cute little critters about the size of your thumbnail, bright orangey red with black spots, looking like cheap plastic fridge magnets.
We had planned a further day on Bocas, to go out cycling to see some of the beaches on the eastern side of the island and to visit a cave full of bats, but after 3 nights of Bocas hospitality, we’d had enough. They certainly lived up to the low standards of service and hospitality set across the rest of Panama. Culinary highlights included a Chinese meal where my dinner arrived 10 minutes after we’d finished eating Mags between us – no excuse or apology offered for the delay and then stunned surprise when we didn’t leave a tip. We tried different places for breakfast each day – sloppy late service and everything arrived in reverse order with long delays in between i.e. coffee first, then as it starts to get cold the scrambled eggs & toast would arrive. Finally the fruit juice you were expecting first would appear right at the end, just when you are ready to leave. No thank you! We had had enough of Bocas and Panama. It is definitely the worst place we have been to on the entire trip and we both agreed that if we were ever back this way again we would ride straight through, as quickly as possible. There really is nothing here that you cannot find better somewhere else. Add to that the dreadful hospitality, the appalling service and the glum, surly locals and there really is nothing to recommend the place. We did meet some friendly people but they were by far the exceptions. No it’s not a case of ‘Hasta Luego’ Panama, it is definitely ‘Adios!’
We crossed back to the mainland looking forward to the return ride back down that lovely coast road and up over the mountains. The weather held and we blitzed the road even happier in the knowledge that Costa Rica beckoned! Once across the border the change in the locals was amazing. Stopping at a bank in the first town, Ciudad Neily, we were immediately struck by the smiling happy people going about their Saturday business. We rode up into the mountains to San Vito, our first stop in Costa Rica, and found a lovely little Cabina run by a guy called Carlos. He welcomed us and took delight in showing us the accommodation. San Vito was founded in the 1950’s by Italian immigrants who set up coffee plantations along the valley. A wander up into town and we soon had chicken sandwiches and a few beers on the go, served by a couple of friendly young girls at one of the little soda bars. At the local bakery the lady was patient and slowly explained the different types of bread available from a vast array including several speciality Italian breads that were truly delicious. We had another cheery lot in the local supermarket where we bought some stuff for dinner. It seems strange to pick these trivial instances out as happy moments in our trip but after 2 weeks in Panama this all came as such a welcome breath of fresh air. 24 hours into Costa Rica and we like it…a lot!