Time is flying by! I've been here 3 months already, and as a result, my tourist card reached its expiry date. We went through quite the effort to get it extended or to do whatever we needed to do to stay in Panama. However, the Panamanian immigration system is not that efficient, or organized by any means. To make matters even more complicated, the immigration law in Panama JUST changed 6 weeks ago so nobody really knows what is going on. However, we have found out that it is more difficult to extend a visa or get a new card in Panama, and that the permit that is required for someone like myself to stay in Panama requires a huge list of things (criminal reference check, health check, stamp from a notary, payment of $100, letters from a variety of organizations etc etc) in order to be accepted. Past volunteers had opted to stay past the expiry of the tourist card and just pay the fine before leaving (it was reasonable), but with the new laws in place the fine went up and once you leave you can't come back into Panama for some period of time. So, Mario and I decided it would be easiest to cross the border into Costa Rica for a couple days. We did some minimal planning, and the next night, we got on a bus to San Jose.
The bus ride there was great! It left at 10 pm, and 15 hours later, we were in San Jose. The bus ride was smooth, quiet, and with "Transporter" and all its sequels playing during our time on the bus it went by quickly. Our most tedious moment was at the border crossing. We arrived to the border at Paso Canoas around 4:30 am. I was sleeping and not knowing it was the border, went back to sleep. At 6:00 am I was woken up by people getting off the bus to find out we were at the same place we stopped 1.5 hours ago. Apparently the border doesn't open until 7 am, but they were able to check our bags early I guess. Then we waited and waited in line to get our exit stamp... and waited, and waited. Turns out the border opens at 7 but their computer systems were down and didn't get online again until about 8:30 (this is not the first time computer systems at Panama immigration have failed and kept me waiting!). I don't understand how an international border can "close" overnight. Anyways, once they were back online we passed through the Costa Rica border and we were on our way again.
We stayed a B&B-type place called "Hotel Coconut House" in Alajuela, just outside of San Jose. We only had full days in Costa Rica, so we wanted to make the best of it. We spoke with the hotel owners and they suggested a couple of day tours. The first day we did the tour to Arenal Volcano and Baldi Hot Springs. Unfortunately it was raining pretty much the entire day, as put by one of the guests in the hotel we talked to, volcanoes are "shy", so we were not able to get a look at Arenal, in fact the clouds were so close to the ground you could barely tell there was a hill there. The drive was scenic and we even stopped in Sanchi to do some souvenir shopping at the Oxcart "museum", which was nice. However, the day was not a bust, because we spent 3 hours in the Baldi Hot Springs at the base of Arenal. Heated by the energy of the volcano, this elaborate place had over 20 different pools of different sizes and temperatures (some cooler, some so hot you couldn't put your foot in), swim-up bars, waterfalls, waterslides and definitely made the day! The tour included a good lunch and dinner at the Arenal Inn Restaurant.
The next day we took a day tour to Tortuguero National Park, on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. Wow! After a stop at the Del Monte banana processing plantation, we arrived in Tortuguero just before lunch and hopped on a boat to explore the extensive canal systems that run through the park. This was a much better wildlife-viewing experience than what we were trying to do from the van on the way there. Caimans, crocodiles, egrets, tiger-herons, jacanas, anhingas and much more wildlife was waiting to be seen, and even though it was raining (again!) it was a great time. We had lunch at a little hut in the park and even stopped to look at some Poison Dart Frogs on our way back to the van.
We managed to squeeze in a quick visit to Zoo Ave, in Alajuela, on our last morning there. Owned by Canadians, this zoo puts forth effort to rehabilitate Costa Rica's avifauna. They also have a captive breeding program. It was a little pricy, but enjoyable. One hour was not quite enough time, but we are glad we made the stop. We got back on the bus in San Jose at noon and arrived back in Panama City at 3 am, and legal for another 3 months in Panama. The Costa Rican scenery and landscape is incredible, and we spent hours driving through winding mountain roads and cloud forest.
Eventhough our trip was short, we were there long enough to get a sense of the way life works and moves in Costa Rica, especially compared to Panama. "Ticos" or Costa Rican peoples are very pleasant, very friendly, and quite laid back yet productive at the same time. They seem to live by the phrase "pura vida!", translated to "pure life!". I've never met friendlier taxi drivers! Systems are much more organized in Costa Rica as well, particularly dealing with transportation. Taxis are metered and a uniform colour. Buses are in good shape and looked efficient (although we never got the chance to explore the public bus system). The food was good, they sure love their arroz con frijoles (rice with beans), I think we had it at almost every meal! However, it was nice to get back "home" to Panama at the same time, I definitely feel a connection to this diverse country. Happy to get back to Gamboa, happy to get back to the Harpies.
At the banana plantation, there were a few of these Hercules Beetles feasting on some sugar cane, they are about the size of a human hand, yet have a somewhat 'cute' face! This one we affectionately named, Rigoberto!