This combined trip to Costa Rica and Panama was a bit of a “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles” experience with the various transportation involved, but we encountered no problems along the way. All told, our trip was roughly two weeks long, though this travelogue is for Panama only.
Here's our itinerary:
Fly from San Jose to Bocas del Toro, Panama
Water taxi from Bocas del Toro to Changuinola, cross Panamanian/Costa Rica border on foot and carry luggage across inter-country bridge (yes, you read that correctly)
- Van transportation to Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica on Caribbean coast
- Rent car in Puerto Viejo for remainder of trip, drive to San Jose for return flight to US
Boca del Toro, Panama is an easy one hour flight from San Jose, Costa Rica, so combining the two countries into one trip is a natural fit. Geographically, Bocas is just south of Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, yet transportation between countries can be challenging, and flying into Bocas town from San Jose avoids the customs hassles you may encounter by driving, unless you have a private car. Car rental companies won’t allow you to bring their cars across country borders, no matter how close they may be to their neighbor, but ground transportation can easily be arranged. From Bocas town you can explore the town and surrounding beaches, or head out for some of the outer islands like Isla Bastimentos, Isla Popa and others.
Flying into Bocas del Toro in the small 6-seat commuter plane, all I see is beautiful water with a million shades of turquoise. It seemed like there were small islands everywhere. I think I’m going to like it here. We landed, then went through immigration and customs, a room the size of a janitor’s closet, then encountered our first obstacle - getting out of the terminal. Construction workers had just poured a cement floor - the entire floor - of the main terminal. There were no cones, no flags, no DETOUR signs in sight - welcome to Central America, where personal safety is your own responsibility. It’s actually refreshing in some ways, but I digress. So we walked the plank, a 12” wide wood plank used as a temporary walkway, down to the street.
And just coming to greet us was Jack, our host and owner of KoKo Resort and Bahia del Sol, our home for the next few nights. Jack is a big guy with a booming voice, and he had on a bright Hawaiian shirt and multiple woven ankle bracelets. I don't think he stopped smiling the entire time we were there. He and the cabbie loaded us up and we're off to the resort. We arrived to find a narrow path winding its way through a small neighborhood on the edge of Saigon Bay. A little way down the path, we met Jack's wife Lee, and they gave us the lay of the land. They own Bahia del Sol, their home which has a few rooms on the second floor for guests, and KoKo Resort next door, where we’ll be staying. Jack and Lee run both places out of their kitchen where we'll also have breakfast made by Jack every morning.
KoKo Resort isn't a 'resort' at all, but a collection of eight bright yellow, wooden bungalows built on pilings over the water of Saigon Bay. The pilings are about 6-8 feet deep and the water surrounding them is crystal clear, with lots of fish, a few crabs, and small starfish dotting the pilings and sandy bottom. The place was brightly painted inside, comfortable and clean. There was a hammock on the porch, always a plus, but no railing, not such a plus, a nice kitchen and a/c in our loft bedroom upstairs. We spent our first night checking out the neighborhood with little kids smiling and running around, and later headed into town for some snacks, and a few things for our fridge. Restaurants and bars are plentiful in Bocas town Most places we saw were filled with locals and expat locals and European backpackers.
Jack and his wife are friendly at breakfast and very accommodating, giving us more tips and ideas for our visit. Jack cooked up a delicious bacon and eggs breakfast with potatoes and toast, all the while joking and talking politics. We also met the other guests who were staying at Jack and Lee’s place, a nice young couple from England on an extended holiday.
In Bocas town there's a pretty little park with big shade trees and a few small eateries with local food. It reminds me of what Key West must have been like 50 years ago, just a very laid-back vibe. We walked past kids playing baseball in the street, and they even gave Lori a turn at bat. Everyone’s been very friendly, and these kids epitomized that, enjoying the fact that Lori joined them (by the way, she didn't hit past the second baseman). Back in the hood, we’re surrounded by the peaceful night time sounds. Where is that music coming from?
I really like this place and Saigon Bay is beautiful. The locals don't have much but they are warm and greet you with a smile. Lori, in her usual fashion, charmed the kids into having their photos taken and it wasn't long before they were seeking 'the photographer' out. I felt very comfortable, and only wished my Spanish was better, a lot better.
The next day, Jack arranged for a driver to take us and the couple from England to Starfish Beach on the far outskirts of the island. It was a beautiful beach with big orange starfish everywhere, and visibility for snorkeling was crystal clear. One site of interest we saw was one of Manuel Noriega's beach homes near Starfish Beach, which was still being maintained by locals working there.
We ate lunch at a local joint - with ceviche so fresh and delicious it must have been made-to-order - and headed back to Bocas town.
Back at KoKo that afternoon, we used their complimentary kayaks to explore Saigon Bay, which was calm and peaceful. All around the bay were colorful, small homes on stilts. Locals in long, carved dugout canoes made their way in and out of the bay. We spent the rest of the afternoon on the porch watching storms roll over the mainland, sharing the hammock and sipping local rum.
Day 4 and our senses are beginning to dull from the idleness of our days, or maybe the rum, and I’m content to just live in this small neighborhood on the bay. Funny, we had every intention of exploring some of the outer islands, but this place has put the brakes on any ambitious plans we may have had, no matter how slight. On our last night in town we splurged on a moderate restaurant near the marina called 9 Degrees.
Headlining tonight, we read on a poster on the way in, was a local reggae group, no doubt playing the usual set of Marley favorites. Dinner was very good, and the view over the water was the perfect accompaniment to our meal. As the band started to play, we asked for the check - not sure we wanted to endure what was sure to be a round of cheesy reggae. We couldn’t have been more wrong, as they started their set with Bob Marley's "Redemption Song”. Turns out they were pretty good, and as the singer made his way around the restaurant, he invited the young children of the cruisers in the anchorage to join him.
“Old pirates, yes, they rob I, sold I to the merchant ships”, then handed the microphone to the four kids.
“Minutes after they took I, from the bottomless pit”, they sang.
And suddenly the band stopped playing, and let them sing. “But my hand was made strong, by the 'and of the Almighty, we forward in this generation, triumphantly.”
These dusty little cruising kids knew every single word, and sang it perfectly without any band accompanying them. They couldn’t have been older than 8 or 9. And there wasn't a dry eye in the place.
It was one of those beautiful moments in time, those “little gifts” that you can't describe, you just savor the moment and the imprint that lasts. Truly our good fortune.
The journey back to Costa Rica was an adventure, not necessarily for the feint of heart. The water taxi from Bocas town to Changuinola was loaded to the gills with passengers crossing back to the mainland. One more may have sunk us as we sat at the waterline watching the wake spray high above our heads.
Once on terra firma, we completed our customs declarations, waved goodbye to the armed guards and headed out of Panama, across a rickety old bridge into Costa Rica, dragging our luggage behind us. I've never been happier that we travel light. The only delay at the border was due to their lack of personnel - only one guy was there to check herds of people into the country. No worries though, standing in line gave us the opportunity to chat with folks from other parts of the world. We loaded into a van and headed down the twisty-windy road to Puerto Viejo. It was like being on a two hour long roller-coaster ride. Luckily the vomit from the young girl hanging out of the window in the van ahead of us passed us by. Ugh.
We thoroughly enjoyed Bocas del Toro and will visit again, for a much longer stay. I want to return to that idle state of mind and go even deeper into the sleepy Caribbean where barefoot kids know Bob Marley.