For seven days, Taryn and I explored this northern part as best we could, thriftily staying in sandy-bedded hostels and living off rice and beans cooked por nuestras manos propias in ill-fitted, dull-knifed, rusty potted hostel kitchens. We traveled from San Jose by bus east then south through Puerto Viejo, the CR-Panama border, Almirante, Bocas del Toro, David, Boquete, and then back up west and north in a loop that encompassed Panama and Costa Rica’s “National Forest of Friendship”. Yeah, that’s right. They share it. Imagine.
Our first real adventure came on the second day after my arrival. After a five hour bus ride from San Jose to Puerto Viejo where we bedded down for the night, we woke up early to continue down the road south into Panama. The town on the CR side is called Sixaola. The Panama side is named Guabito. To preface this adventure I’m just going to say that the people of Guabito are shrewd and cunning, living on the border of two countries heavily supported by tourists. Lore has it that the entire 1st grade curriculum of their young consists of learning currency conversions. (2nd grade is Creative Border Tax Writing and graduation is complete when you have mastered the art of emptying a male traveler’s wallet and reducing him to tears in front of his wife, children, and father-in-law. Later graduation celebrations are funded with the money obtained by the exercise). We were grossly unaware. We headed across the border after flashing passports on the northern side with our bulging day packs in tow. We walked across an old railroad trussle bridge with missing planks and playing children into a cluster of old office buildings and parked buses and taxis. We were expecting to buy a bus ticket to continue on to that night’s destination, but instead we met a tall black man wearing basketball shorts and a jersey. Not appearing to be any kind of official we continued walking until he gave us directions as to how one enters the country of Panama. It’s kind of a dance really. One must gracefully juggle wallet and passport until one is lighter and the other has a crappy looking sticker on it that you have to pay for. The weight of your bag and the sweat between your epidermis and clothing just adds to the style and aesthetic appearance of the dance. After teaching the ways of his country our new athletically garbed friend began to dance with us, leading us to convert our CR money to U.S. dollars with a man that kept exchange money bulgingly wadded in his cut-off denims (he too wore a basketball jersey, same team I now understand). The following, more advance steps of the dance were to pay an entry tax for the aforementioned sticker, to buy a ticket for a private bus full of other dancing tourists, and finally to buy a return bus ticket back to San Jose that we later discovered departed two hours after we first bought it. This last intricate, flourish of the Panamian dance left us all in true wonder. When the fun was over we departed in our private bus and passed a group of Guabito schoolchildren forcing a poor traveling eskimo to buy slushy snow from a muddy cooler.
As we rode SE to Almirante we began talking to another traveller on our bus. His name was Tom and he was from Holland. He came from San Jose where he was doing an internship so that he could renew his travel visa. If you leave CR every 90 days and come back you can technically live there in perpetuity. He was our travel buddy and we were his Spanish translators as we rode into Almirante and got on a water taxi to our first stop on the trip: Bocas del Toro.
Bocas Del Toro is a small and touristy port town on the southern jut of Isla Colón. Isla Colón sits in a grouping of islands on the NE side of Panama. This area is famous for its beaches that are back to back with National Parks. It’s also famous for its gringo friendly hostels, surfing, island-jumping, and nightlife atmosphere that flickers on after the sun goes down. We quickly found our base at a laid-back hostel named Monde Taitu. Its front side is a bar and its backside is a tangle of hammocks, tree house dorms, and a cramp kitchen. During the day it was a perfect spot to do absolutely nothing, especially in the afternoon while the daily rain came to usher in the beginning of Central America’s rainy season. At night, the bar throbbed with the bass of visiting DJ’s and the vibes of backpackers that came from all over the islands to mingle with others. We ventured into the nightlife a few times, mainly because Taryn and I are attracted to activity, but the same reason would take us to bed early so that we could get up fresh in the morning and continue exploring. In fact, I think we only really got into the local nightlife in the places we visited when we could dance. Or in one instance, after taking a water taxi over to a much talked about club/hostel named Aqua Lounge, we got bored with the crowded, two-stepping dance floor and decided to jump into a hole that was cut into the deck right into the Caribbean. We weren’t in traditional swimming attire but we made the necessary adjustments and cannonballed in. In Bocas we saw red tropical frogs, starfish, and urchins (Taryn stepped on them, we pulled out the spikes four days later.)
From Bocas we headed south to David, skirting around the southern part of the “National Forest of Friendship” so that we could reach our next stop in Boquete. We didn’t really make it all the way though, which would be because I forgot my only pair of hiking shoes drying on the roof of our hostel along with our small Pooh Bear towel that Taryn bought because she forgot the beach towel. We’re quite the absent-minded pair, but endurance and energy see us through, as they did in this case, but only after I left Taryn in an internet café on the mainland, returned by water taxi, and met her to rush to the bus station an hour and a half later. We scrambled on a bus that was about to leave and scrunched in between two rather beefy fellows that felt it was their entitlement to sit with knees flared and backs slouched, enjoying the incoming breeze from the windows while Taryn and I creatively tried to lean together, middle-of-the-bus butt cheeks floating, riding like Siamese twins for a not so comfortable 5-hour bus ride to David. Halfway through the trip we switched buses in the middle of the jungle, which didn’t really give any of us in the bus a sense of ease and relaxation. Before exiting the bus with our bags to enter the other we all looked at one another and nodded, if things went down we were all in it together. Even though we switched buses, we got back in the exact same seats. Taryn and I reassumed our yogic position and listened to the rest of the Panama Baseball Championship game on the radio as we raced through the moonlit fog and jungle. David was nothing but food and sleep for us weary wayfarers. I do however remember falling asleep to a man singing a Mexican country or Ranchero tune on a music video shot in the middle of NYC. In this moment of dreary surrender I vaguely remember feeling a long way from home.
A cheery lady at the local panadería said claro que sí the next morning as she slid coffee and danishes across the counter to us on the Tuesday morning before we left for Boquete. This bus ride was much better than the last and kind of eventful because even though it was 8am we were ridin’ dirty in a tricked out old school bus complete with fuzzy yellow poles, street-paint muraled panels, trendy decals, and a soundtrack of the latest reggaeton and bachata. The elderly paid no mind to music telling them to shake their crassly referred to assets for the pleasure of stunner-shaded, grill-mouthed Latino men. They just filed onto the bus after clinking their change into the waiting hand of the bus driver and waved at their friends and neighbors that they shared the commute with every morning.
Boquete is a township in the campo. To call it a city would be inaccurate and it would also take away from its charm. It’s a popular tourist destination, riddled with bed and breakfast-like hostels because it sits at the eastern base of Volcán Barú, and all of its surrounding trails such as Alto Lino, Bajo Mono, and Sendero de Los Quetzales. We came for the volcano, but got some bonus hot springs the day before to rest for the big trek. We learned about the hot springs and pretty much everything else in the town from our overly energetic hostel owner and manager Pancho Palacio. According to evidence I gathered from pictures and posted articles, Pancho was somewhat of a famous basketball player in Panama before he settled into running his hostel Hostel Palacio. I knew when we arrived that our stay would be interesting. He exploded his exuberance onto us with ¡Buenooooos Días! He then immediately began spouting off great prices that we couldn’t really refuse. He so wanted to show us the room in which we’d be staying that he barged into it before the other unbeknownst occupant was even out. He looked up from his bed where he was reading a magazine with a knowing smirk and then continued reading as Pancho began to tell of us all the room’s amenities. There weren’t that many to gloat over but he made sure to let us know that it had a window and a closet. He then gave us the information with a group of four other backpackers that had also been corralled into the hostel’s living room. He took out a photocopied, hand drawn rendering of Boquete and its spider web of trails and attractions. We huddled together with our heads over the map dodging his spastic gesticulations of pen thrusts and slashes. By the time he was finished the map was covered in dark blue gashes from his relentless pen strokes. We definitely had an irrevocable understanding of which way was north, and a vague idea that the hot springs were southeast and Volcán Barú was northwest. Thoroughly entertained and absolutely unable to take anymore ticklings of withheld bursts of laughter, we escaped Palacio and his pen to our room, empathizing with two helpless travelers that Palacio forced to stay for a second round of La Información because he claimed that they had come too late in the session and needed to endure the full duration of his bequeathing of knowledge.
Boquete’s small town feel coupled with the quiet nights we spent cooking in the hostel’s magazine clipping-plastered kitchen with the laptop playing and the rain falling outside on the large leaves of the rainforest gave us both a deep sense of coziness. Little did we know it would be crucial. The morning we left to scale the volcano Taryn’s watch slept in with us, neglecting its 4am wake-up call duty. I leaped out of bed the same way I have done in the past when I was late for a first shift at a coffee shop and flipped on the burner to boil our oatmeal-trail mix concoction for breakfast. We ate it as we rode in a taxi to the trailhead. We also realized at this point that Taryn had accidentally left her rain jacket. But as the sun was rising overhead and the thick jungle air was heating our skin to a slight sweat, we decided that it would not be missed. We signed in with the park ranger at his entrance post as he showed us yet another hand drawn rendering. This one was of the volcano’s trail (I guess they feel that real satellite/GPS maps are for the weak and feeble minded, of which they certainly are not). The trail was pretty impossible to not follow though so we had no trouble with navigation. The elevation however was an opponent to be reckoned with. The large stones and scraggly rocks strewn across the road was intentionally placed not for the hiking boots and sneakers of grunting, slogging backpackers, but instead for the knobby tires of the 4x4 jeeps, range rovers, and trucks that drove up daily to service the communication and TV towers at the top. We felt the initial impact of the climb with heavy breathing and an additional coat of sweat and quickly fell into a rhythm of breaks, photo-taking, trail mix snarfing, hydrating, and bag switching. Things were swell. We were fooled by the kilometer marking of the trail being unfamiliar, but we soon reached the top, well, after 4hrs and 46 min., and wove our way to the tippy top of la cima where a yellow cross and image of la virgen Mary stood.
Lunch wassavored and slumber fell upon, us along with the blindingly white clouds that we tried to beat to the top but didn’t. After a time we woke up and squinted around, wishing an airlift to the bottom was a complimentary service of the Hostel Palacio, then again I think seeing Pancho and his unpredictable hands at the helm of a helicopter would make me rather choose gravity and free fall as my vehicle of descent. The decent is difficult to describe. We tried our best to fight the bone-jostling bounce of the walk down with attempts at humor and distracting conversation, but about half way down I gave into the despair that throbbed through the base of my neck and my temples in the form of a nauseating headache. Taryn fell prey to the same ailment. We think it was the altitude, standing at 3,474 meters (11,398 ft) as the tallest mountain in Panama. Needless to stay our moods darkened, especially mine. Taryn possesses a hidden strength that must come from her Italian lineage that is no doubt connected to Rocky Balboa, Marco Polo, and the gladiator himself Marcus Aurelius (“husband to a murdered wife, father to a…sorry). After the darkening of our moods came the dampening, and then the drenching. The rain came as it always does at this time of the season and reminded us of the fragility of the human condition, especially when exposed to the elements. I took my coat out of my pack and dutifully zipped Taryn up in a Gore-Tex shell of water-proof shelter. I silently and sourly rued and ruminated over the mishap with her coat as I trudged through the mud, but managed to say nary a word. When we finally reached the bottom, and I have to say that that word does not express the full weight of the relief of the hike’s end, we chatted with the park ranger while we waited for the taxi to come. Well, Taryn chatted, something about the chickens that were pecking about his post were not for eating but instead game cocks born and bred for the glory and bloodshed of the arena...poor peckers would be better off as future poultry cooped in a cage I say. I sat slumped against the wall in a slop of soaked clothing, shivering and whimpering (I tried to look strong whenever the ranger looked my way, success questionable). When we ran into the hostel to the scarce warmth of its damp blankets an hour after waiting for the taxi and the trip back, Taryn continued to show her strength and went to the store as I napped. She woke me up with some Excedrin and Swiss Miss Hot Chocolate. Those companies should merge. The evening was spent hanging up our wet clothes and hanging out in the hostel’s kitchen with a bi-national, seemingly anarchist couple, one was from the States and the other hailed from Argentina, which gave him quite a pretty Spanish accent. We laughed together when we realized that the kitchen’s counter and sink we’re untouchable. Any time one laid down a dish or tried to wash one a pinging electric current sprang from its surface, being ungrounded by the wet floor. Good times.
The alarm worked the next morning and at 4am we got onto another bus that took us from Boquete to the big bus station in David. The ride back to San Jose, CR was much shorter this time as we went through the western side of the border with a more direct route. After 8 hours of reading, napping, and eating mangoes at different rest stops along the way (Taryn is addicted), we returned to Costa Rica’s dirty capital before nightfall and met up with Taryn’s best San Jose friend Jillian. She is also a student abroad for the semester. I should have known that as much as Taryn talked about her that their tryst would be fused with the frantic energy only two well-bonded girls can possess. We hugged andthen I held on as the two began frolicking together in frivolous glee down the wet streets complete with renegade taxis and ankle-breaking potholes. We spent a small portion of the evening conversing in a bar called Un Buen Lugar (A Good Place) about our trip and about Jillian and her time since the two “besties” had been apart. Taryn’s description of Jillian was pretty spot on. She has a genuine personality that is charged with charisma and care for others yet still rooted in a calm, deep knowledge of her identity. On top of that I would add that she seems unable to be pessimistic about the future. She was quite a lovely person to meet.
In San Jose I was able to rewalk many of the same streets and revisit many of my old haunts in the city. I was also able to see a new side. It was one that didn’t come from a change in it, the object, but really a change in me, the subject. My presence in the city was obviously much less temporary and noncommittal than before; the heavy pressure that I mentioned before of being outside one’s culture and comfort zone was not able to set in. I think it’s absence afforded me the opportunity to see the city in a more romantic light. The smog seemed lighter and the no’s to beggars and haggling with street vendors and taxi drivers was sentimentally re-experienced. Taryn and I enjoyed mornings out at breakfast in the city, exploration and wandering. That added to relaxing afternoons spent in the hostel or in a coffee shop waiting out the rain and then going out to dance at night made the city quiet nice to be back in. The day before I left Taryn and I went out to a farmer’s market in the morning. We were in search of a fish that we had never cooked before. We didn’t find it there, but instead we found an attractive little pocket of San Jose’s hippie population. We ate gallo pinto and platanos fritos while we watched couples do yoga together outside in the grass and dread-headed liberals beat out their liberated souls on drums of different sizes and pitches. We loved it. I unfairly coaxed Taryn into buying a feather earring, pulling the boyfriend’s high card of “but it looks so good on you!”
(Off-guard squint) (Transformation Complete!)
She declared her liberal fashion transformation complete and we went off to continue our search for the big catch like Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea. And would you believe it!? We got a Marlin! Marlín Rosado- four filets weighing in at a half kilo for 1,500 colones. Yeah that’s 3 bucks. Godspeed finding that fish robbery in the States. We earned it though. We had to brave three thriving markets with inveterate vendors and a lunch of gut-filling fried fish fare to find it (I did not mind). We returned with our loot and began prepping for the Bobby Flay marlin recipe. Taryn and I have fantasies of being on a cooking show I guess because we premeasured all of our ingredients and did everything with an Iron Chef focus and intensity. That is until Jillian came over to the hostel and I lost my line cook to the cacophony of chit-chatty girl laughter as they cooed over a fresh climbing mag in the corner of the hostel's bar/kitchen. Per usual I was stuck in my obsessive mode of food network perfection, and it actually panned out. Jillian and Taryn lacked the excitement I think the dish deserved but nonetheless I plated the marlin marinated in barbecue sauce and ancho chile powder on top of the saffron rice and side of avocado lime puree with a ridiculous level of flare and poise. Eating it was more laid back, and so was the rest of the night. We fell asleep to a movie and woke up early to pack and get in breakfast and a cafecito before I made my way to the airport. The goodbye was quick to avoid tear duct excretion. As I rode back in the bus I wrote out the notes for this blog post and enjoyed mentally reliving the trip. Big thanks to Taryn for being such an adept and dedicated travel buddy. Travel suits you well, dear. And finally, Gracias a Chepe.
Cartel Coffee Lab, Tucson, AZ