A few months ago, I left London and my old country home of North Yorkshire with a one-way ticket to Mexico and barely enough cash to see me through my plan of an extended vacation through Central and South America. Costa Rica and Panama were at the top of my list, and because of their proximity to each other and my limited time, I planned to see both countries in one trip.
My overall plan was to come up with the best route to do this within about a week. I figured that food and accommodation there is pretty expensive anyway (compared to the rest of Central America), and so I planned to enjoy my stay in the area. Prior to my trip, I narrowed it down to seeing just capital cities and then a few of the famed Caribbean coastal spots.
San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica, was the starting place of my little vacation within a vacation. I could have easily started from Panama and done this trip in reverse, but as I was already coming from Nicaragua, it was more convenient to start in San Jose. I decided to take the bus, a full-day trip including the border crossing. However, San Jose has an international airport that most travelers will end up flying into and is really a more convenient entry point, especially if you have limited time. Having a little more time and wanting to enjoy the scenery, I opted for the long ride.
With only a day to really explore San Jose, I headed to the center of the town as soon as I got there, as I wanted to get a feel of the place and the people. I started with touring the Jade Museum, an architectural tour de force. The entrance fee was a bit steep at around $14, but it was really worth it. The Jade Museum was a real cultural experience and provided an insight into the history of the country, and how it came to be named Costa Rica (rich coast) through wacky ancient artifacts, mainly made from the local Jade stones.
After touring the Jade Museum, I also headed for the much smaller Contemporary Art and Design Museum just around the corner. At the time of my visit, it was free to enter. I spent about an hour at the museum, which was just about enough time to see all of the exhibits – a perfect amount of time for families with younger children who might usually get a little distracted after a few hours of admiring art pieces. By the time I left the museum, I had gotten hungry and in need of a caffeine fix, which San Jose is perfect for. I headed for Cafe Del Barista, a brilliant little specialty coffee shop close by the museums that I’d read about, enjoying a cappuccino and cheesecake before strolling back towards my accommodation, taking in its unbelievable sunset. I have seen a lot of incredible sunsets, but I have to say that San Jose tops the list.
My next stop was the reggae-loving, no-worries-attitude Caribbean coastal town of Puerto Viejo. San Jose to Puerto Viejo was about five hours away on a pretty comfy bus with assigned seats. This meant no shoving or rushing for seats – something which occurs when traveling throughout the region. I planned to spend three days in Puerto Viejo, but once I arrived, I wished I could spend the rest of my life in the tiny but charming town. With shack bars and BBQ spots dotted all over, I could easily spend a day just walking from place to place without getting bored.
Once I settled in, I headed for the coral reef in the north of the town, walking past rows of coconut palms and colorful fishing boats, while dipping my toe in the clear, warm Caribbean waters. The only thing missing was a snorkel set.
From the north, I headed west to explore the black volcanic sand beaches that lined the shoreline of Playa Negra, passing the charming ruin of an old metal vessel that seems to have created the perfect surf break. The beach was filled with dozens of kids and adults atop surfboards, instantly making me wish I had my own. At a certain point, an estuary to a small river opens up, which once you cross, the sand literally changes color before your eyes, from golden yellow to what I can only describe as Guinness black. The contrast between sand particles and the volcanic surface causes a glittery, shimmery effect under the sun, unlike any beach I’ve ever seen.
From here onwards, the township basically ends, leaving just a coastal road with a shrubbery and palm tree barrier and a seemingly endless stretch of this gorgeous black quiet beach. I selected my spot, and settled in to enjoy the peace and baking sunshine. The weather in Costa Rica is unique because it has two distinct but close bodies of water – an ocean on the west (the Pacific Ocean) and a sea in the east (the Caribbean Sea). This causes two distinct seasons – dry and wet. I visited in April, right at the end of the dry season, but also the beginning of the rainy season.The days were hot, but with the odd tropical storm in the evening.The rain luckily skipped this particular beach visit.
My main goal for Costa Rica was to spot the famous sloths which populate the trees in Costa Rica, so on my second day, I went on the hunt. Sloths are the symbol of Costa Rica, and a visit to this part of the world is incomplete without seeing one of these famously slow critters. Since my time was limited and I wanted to see as much as I could in the short time I had, I rented a bicycle from a local shop for $5 and headed east along the coastal highway. Luckily, there was barely any traffic. My goal was to slow down wherever there was an abundance of trees, stop, and begin my search.
I didn’t have to search for too long. At Punta Uva, a quiet beach filled with locals a couple of miles from Puerto Viejo, I looked up, and there was a sloth making its way towards a leaf. I stayed for a while, hoping to see another one, but I wasn’t quite so lucky. Sloths are relatively abundant in this part of Costa Rica, and even when not found in the wild, they can also be seen in sanctuaries where they are protected.
The third and final day of my trip arrived sooner than I was ready for. I spent the day visiting Chamita, a must-see national park that provides a safe haven for animals. The park is run on donations only, where visitors offer whatever they can. There are several ways to get to Cahuita, including private transportation, but I took a local bus from Puerto Viejo and arrived within 25 minutes. Prior to walking into the park, I didn’t know what to expect, but I wasn’t prepared for the thick, dense jungle that lay ahead, directly opposite from the crystal clear oceans and white sands. Wild animals such as giant iguanas roamed the trees, and I definitely saw enough sloths to make up for the ones I hadn’t seen the day before. I spent all day exploring. The trees became denser as I went deeper into the park. The beaches also became more deserted, with washed up tree trunks and tiny coves, mirroring a lost paradise.
Bocas Del Toro, Panama
Bocas del Toro is a group of Panamanian islands on the Northern part of the Caribbean Sea. The main island of Colon is very popular with English-speaking visitors as well as expatriates. This was my next stop from Costa Rica. Crossing the border is easy, but you need to have proof of exit for Panama, and they’re very strict about that. I took a 90-minute bus ride from Puerto Viejo to the Panama border at Sixaola, and once I cleared immigration at the border, I caught a $10 shuttle to Almirante, which is basically just a tiny harbor town.From Almirante, you can cross to any of the other smaller islands for about $5-$10. I decided to be more adventurous and took the boat over to Battements, a small island a couple of miles away from Colon. I ended up at quaint lodge, Rafael’s Sleep Inn.
Bastimentos definitely satisfied my need to have a local experience, but I must say I felt a bit uneasy about security while roaming the town and its outskirts in the night time. I definitely left with an overarching positive experience. If I was to return to this area, I’d probably head to the other side of Bastimentos Island and stay at Red Frog Beach (yes, the beach has red frogs) or Isla Carenero, an island adjacent to Colon which seemed more secluded and natural.
My final stop in Panama was Panama City, and there’s no way I’d come all the way to Panama without seeing the Panama Canal, even for a day. I took a 9-hour overnight transportation to Panama City, which I had booked in advance with Taxi 25 in Bocas Town. I arrived at Panama City, settled down, and took an Uber to the Miraflores Visitor Center to experience the grandeur of the famous freighter passage.
Panama and Costa Rica can certainly be seen in a week, and if you choose to fly rather than taking a slow approach like I did, you might be able to pack more into your itinerary. With plenty more to see, I someday plan to explore the rest of these countries that I didn’t get a chance to see this time around.