Journey from San Jose to Panamá City: buses, canals, and ceviche

by Christina

To get to Panamá City, we decided to go by bus. From Tamarindo we went by local bus to San Jose, which cost ₡5,500 per person (~$10 USD) and took about 6 hours. This bus leaves from the stop in front of the “Centro comercial” at 7:30 am and 2 pm (we hopped on the 7:30). Once we arrived in San Jose we walked from the bus terminal to the city center (there’s a very nice pedestrian shopping area) and met our Couch Surfing host Chepe at the Plaza de Cultura.

Chepe also had another couch surfing another guest, Kati from Austria. While we waited for Kati to arrive, we hit up Taco Bell, which is quite popular in Costa Rica. There’s different stuff on the menu; we tried the chifrijo burrito (chifrijo being a local dish) which was tasty but unexceptional. Overall though, it was crazy expensive, pass. You can get casados for much cheaper at a local diner.

Once we collected Kati, Chepe gave the three of us a ride to his house. One of Chepe’s hobbies is teaching yoga, and he has configured his house accordingly, including a studio space complete with aerial hammock. He teaches a weekly class in his home for friends, and afterwards we all hung out for dinner and drinks. Dan and Kati aren’t yogis and they did a great job cooking while the rest of us practiced.

The next day we got our last meal of casados before hopping on our longest overnight bus ride yet: 17 hours. We arrived at the TicaBus terminal at noon (tickets were purchased online for $40/person) and got to the Panamá border around 6 pm. It was a baffling process. We got off the bus and were funneled through Costa Rican immigration where we paid the exit tax ($8/person including the TicaBus $1 convenience fee) and got our stamps. Then we were left on our own to walk through the small lively border town of Paso Canoas to find Panamanian immigration, where we were electronically finger printed and our bags were searched perfunctorily with much bureaucratic fanfare. Still this represented the most extensive border crossing process we have experienced to date.

Note for anyone considering overnight bus travel in this part of the world: it’s freaking freezing. They crank the AC down to below 60 F/14 C and next time I am going to keep my down jacket with me, because I was shivering in my hoodie. Supposedly it’s to help the bus drivers stay awake.

We arrived in Panamá City at 4:30 am. The Albrook bus terminal where we arrived is huge, and its food court was already open, so we got coffee, snacks, and set about planning our visit in Panamá, because we are super organized types.

The bus system in Panamá City is very extensive and is integrated into Google navigation by design. But it’s still super confusing, so make sure to ask your driver about your stop even if Google says its the right bus. For both the bus and metro you need a RapiPass (a rechargeable prox card) which costs $2, but you can use one card for multiple people, and if worst comes to worst, you can pay someone else for a fare off their card.

After a few hours in the food court we headed to Hostal Loco Coco Loco in the Punta Paitilla neighborhood, and encountered a strange thing that became a theme with hostels in Panamá City: the price they quote you when you arrive is higher than whatever you found online. In this case, they gave us the Booking.com price ($11/night instead of $12/night) when we asked why it was higher.

When we moved two days later to Hostal Danicole in the Los Angeles neighborhood (the map location they have on the FB looks wrong btw), we were quoted $12/night on the phone, but we were able to make a booking on Hostelworld for $6.5/night, which they honored when we arrived. Yes, yes, I know I said we would avoid Hostelworld, but look that discount (and Danicole wasn’t available on Booking.com).

So, general review of Loco Coco Loco. The free coffee and breakfast are solid, the common spaces are nice, the location and the common kitchen are decent. Oh also, there’s a monkey named Coco. But in the large dorm (Room F, 18 beds) they blasted the air frigid, freezing, colder than a witch’s you-know-what cold. There were people sleeping in their coats with three blankets. The only reason I survived was because of two blankets, and the walking space heater that I sleep next to (yes, in a twin sized dorm bed). The room also had only one functioning bathroom available for the 18 person room, and so it was always occupied and dirty. So we give Loco Coco Loco a rating of “eh”. You come away with a different experience in a private room.

Of course, our first tourist stop was to the canal. The locks on the Pacific side and near Panamá City are called Miraflores. It is possible to go and look at the boats in the canal without paying entrance to the visitor center; there’s a parking lot north of the visitor center where you hangout and watch the boats for free. But the only way to see the actual locks in action is to cough up the $15/person non-citizen entrance fee at the Miraflores visitor center.

The two recommended time frames for watching the locks are 9-11 am and 3-5 pm, because the boat traffic switches direction at noon (every 12 hours), and so there’s a lull in activity around that time. When we arrived around 9 am the viewing deck on the second floor was sparsely populated, but by 9:30 am it was packed, so it pays to go early. There is another viewing deck on the 4th floor, but I didn’t like it as well because of the overhanging ceiling which loomed unavoidably in the tops of photographs.

One of the cool things about Panamá City is the Cinta Costera, which is a multi-use path that runs along the waterfront, and then in a giant loop over the water around Casco Viejo, the hip-ening-est neighborhood in the city as far as we could tell. We went for a run one day and absolutely loved it.

Something else we (okay mostly I) loved was the ceviche at the Mercado de Mariscos (the Fish Market). The actual commercial fish market is under construction currently, but the restaurants are still in full swing. You will get harangued aggressively by waitstaff hawking menus and cell phone photos of the food their restaurant serves. We didn’t find a good way to deal with it except “No gracias”.

There are probably about twenty restaurants, selling mostly the same thing at very similar prices, but not all ceviche is created equal. We hit up at total of four restaurants in two visits, mostly sampling fish and octopus ceviche. Of those we sampled La Benedición had the best octopus ceviche and Delicias del Mar next door had the best pescado (corvina) ceviche. Don’t bother with the 2×1 on Saturdays at Mirador del Pacifico, they just serve it in smaller cups. Consider trying the Mediterranean which is mixed with olives and olive oil, but the concha negra (black clam) that we got tasted fishy in the bad way.

While eating ceviche we made another possibly questionable eating decision: we bought eggs from wandering vendor. We got 4 x $1 small hard boiled eggs that I am guessing were quail, but in reality I have no idea. We also got for 75¢ a piece, turtle eggs. When I was told what they were I asked if they were legal and, well, of course he said yes. I figured that if they were turtle eggs from some endangered species, they would cost more that 75 cents a piece. I hope I’m not wrong! The surprising thing was that a soft boiled turtle egg really just tastes like an egg. It just looks like a collapsed ping pong ball.

After two nights at Loco Coco Loco we moved to Hostal Danicole.  Los Angeles is not in the most happening neighborhood, but there were two good grocery stores nearby and fast bus transit to and from Estación Marañón in city center. The staff was very friendly and helpful with suggestions. The hostel had a great kitchen and patio areas; there was even an array of exercise equipment. My one (big) complaint would be the noise. We were in the Italy dorm (all rooms were assigned a country for a name) which is sandwiched between the main patio and the kitchen; we got the late night patio noise through the window, and the early morning kitchen noise through the thin door. If you stay there, don’t stay in the Italy dorm.

On Sunday we took the opportunity to go see a local league soccer game at the Estadio Manacará (not to be confused with the one in Brazil), where we saw Chorillo play Plaza Amador for $6 per ticket (I think you can get tickets online cheaper if you do so in advance). The game was very lively, with impassioned arguing with the ref, all kinds of yellow cards, and a nearly avoided mass brawl on the field, and it ended in a 1 to 1 tie.

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Getting to Manacará via bus was easy, Google will tell you there’s no way to walk there, but Google is a lying sack of doo doo on that matter; there is a beautiful pedestrian bridge across the otherwise death defying 6 lane highway. Just head to the “INADEH Chorillo” bus stop and you’re good to go. Getting away was trickier because we heard a lot of bad things about the Chorillo neighborhood, where our Google-recommended return bus stop was located, and we couldn’t get an Uber driver to touch us (we have 5 drivers accept and almost immediately cancel). So we just walked back to Casco Viejo along the Cinta Costera, which was very lively at 8 pm on a Sunday night and had lots of playground space a kids in that region.

Panamá is also beer country. It has the second highest per capita consumption rate of beer of in the Americas (beating the US in beer consumption per capita by 1.6 liters) and is 16th in the world for beer consumption. The national beers (Panamá, Balboa, Atlas, and Soberana) are cheap at $0.65 a can at the grocery store, and we also found lots of other imported beers stocked as well.

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One of our excursions involved a visit to a Panamá City’s independent brewer, Casa Bruja. They have a good selection, including several gose. They were good though they seemed a little thin to me, but the Tres Tristes Tigres whitbier was my favorite, and not just because of the pun! The joke with the name is that there is a Spanish tongue twister that goes like this:

Tres tristes tigres tragaban trigo en un trigal en tres tristes trastos.
En tres tristes trastos tragaban trigo tres tristes tigres.

Which translates to:

Three sad tigers swallowed wheat in a cornfield in three sad utensils.
In three sad utensils swallowed wheat three sad tigers.

Another interesting tidbit is that there is a large Chinese population in Panamá City and accordingly, a lot of Chinese food, though with it’s own particular spin. We went to something that I would say is roughly equivalent in style to Panada Express, but its plates also came with fried plantains and a wide variety of salad options, including a beet salad that I ordered called “remolacha” (which it turns out just means “beet”). The go-to famous place for Chinese is Lung Fung, right near Danicole, but we looked at the entree prices ($15 and up) and decided to be kind to our budget and take a pass.

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On our way out to the airport we killed some time at the Albrook Mall, which it turns out, is the largest shopping mall in the Americas, and the 18th largest mall in the world. You can get a coffee or soft serve for a reasonable price and chill in the main food court (there are three) watching the carousel, and there’s also a bowling alley with an insanely overpriced arcade. $1.50 for a game of skee ball? No. But it turns out that carousels and arcades are good for light paintings.

Getting out of Panamá City we hit a surprise bump. When we went to check in for our Air Panamá flight (no online check in, side eye), we were told that to enter Colombia we would need to show a ticket for transit for leaving Colombia. Our reservations in Peru and Chile in coming months were not acceptable proof that we would not loiter in Colombia. And we’re super organized, remember? So after assessing our options I was at the point of throwing down for a flight from Bogotá to Quito when I realized there was a “reserve now, pay later” option, and that got us on the plane. Another traveler later pointed out that you can always cancel an airline ticket within 24 hours, so there’s another work around.

However, after our short and uneventful flight to Medellín, the Colombian immigration agent we saw (who we saw before collecting our baggage, which was a first), didn’t ask for anything of the kind. This was something I had been told to expect entering Costa Rica, but never happened. But with that anticlimax, we made it to our first stop in South America!

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A week in Tamarindo with a friend!

by Christina

After our third night at Tamarindo Hostel Eco-Camping, Dan and I packed up and moved to Coral Reef Surf Hostel where a friend came to stay with us for the week! Dean arrived around 1 pm after a painfully early flight from DC to Liberia, and we immediately fed him beer, because that’s what friends do. We also took him out to Soda Tipica Nuestra Casa for casados for lunch, and cooked dinner in that evening.

Sadly, we weren’t super stoked with Coral Reef. Our private room was cramped with almost no sound insulation from the patio area, where people tended to hang out late at night. Plus the the kitchen was very small, and since cook frequently this was a bummer. We also learned that the hostel didn’t get any of our “deposit” that we paid to hostelworld.com when we made the reservation, and the staff told us that working with hostelworld is a pain. They prefer booking.com which is friendlier and easier for them to deal with, and doesn’t take such a big chuck of their profits. So going forward we won’t be using hostelworld for anything other than research.

Because there was a two night penalty for late cancellation, the staff at Coral Reef cut us a deal and let us stay for just two nights, after which we headed back to Eco-Camping where they cut us a deal for a spacious private room with AC and an attached bath. It was also fun to hang out with Slava and Matteo again. While hanging out at Eco-Camping we got to see a some wildlife! The iguana are plentiful, and we even laid eyes on the raccoon that sometimes savages the kitchen looking for food. And of course we did some more ring exercises!

Over the course of the week, Dean, Dan and I spent a good chunk of time at the beach sunning, swimming, enjoying sunsets and practicing handstands (okay that last one was just me). It is currently rainy season in Costa Rica, but for the most part we had good luck with it only raining a small portion of the day, except our last day when it rained heavily all day.

On Friday we bought a fresh pineapple and I made pineapple rum punch, which was delicious (and mayyyyyyybe hangover inducing). I created a simple syrup and boiled about half the pineapple in it until it took on a lot of the pineapple flavor. I mixed the syrup with peach juice, a generous portion of rum, and squeezed in some tart mandarinas (which I had purchased thinking they were limes). After dinner and rum punch, we ventured out into the rain to check out Ladies Night at the Crazy Monkey, which is the hotel bar at the Best Western and has some pretty rad promo videos that must have been filmed during high season. Possibly due to the rain, it was dead, so we had a pricey beer and then picked up some snacks on our way back to the hostel to finish off the rum.

The next day we went to do something extra touristy: a zipline canopy tour. For $45/person Pinilla Canopy Tour picked us up from the hostel, drove us the thirty minutes to the location where we did eight ziplines in about an hour or so. It was a lot of fun, though not as terrifying as I had imagined, and Eddy and Nano were great guides. Eddy even coached me in Spanish as we chatted while setting up between lines. At the end of the tour we we’re served a pineapple treat then shuttled back to our hostel. We enjoyed our experience, but I am of the opinion that it (and canopy tours in general) was over priced. Would I do it again for $20? Sure, probably, maybe even for $30. But for $45 or $50? Um, no. But, we wanted to see what all the fuss was about, and I’m glad we did.

One of our culinary adventures for the week involved hunting for a not-restaurant that Dan found mentioned on the interwebs: a vendor serving comida típica out the back of a corolla. And we found her! Her name is Vicki and she cooks at home, loads up the trunk with pots, and hangs out on the corner with an umbrella for shade, selling casados for ₡2000 a plate or ₡2200 with a drink. This is one of the best prices you will get in town, and it’s good stuff. Each time we got our meal and ventured down to the beach to eat and enjoy the view.

We also spent some time sampling the plentiful local happy hours. We hit up Volcano Brewing Company, the only local craft brewery, which serves up hoppy beverages of their own, as well as quite a lot of Stone Brewing’s creations (and others). They have a happy hour from 5-7 pm everyday that offers $3 for 12 oz drafts. Their IPA and pale ale were pretty awesome. One evening we hit up Longboards BBQ for $4 piña coladas during their 5-7 pm happy hour.

On our last evening we went to Sharky’s to take advantage of $4 Margarita Mondays. They offer a rotation of all-day $4 drink specials each day of the week, including drafts, margs, and bloody marys. It was truly inevitable we end up there, as Dean freely admits to a weakness for mango margaritas, which were available as part of the special (excellent), along with passion fruit (great), strawberry (eh), and classic (no one got one). We also got the half-price wings, but at least of a few of them were quite under-cooked, so eat at your own risk (we survived just fine… so far).

On Tuesday morning we were all up early for a last breakfast at Eco-Camping before heading our separate ways. Dan and I bid Dean a fond farewell and got on a bus to San Jose, and a little while later Dean took his shuttle back to Liberia. He’s home safe now! (It was great to see you Dean!)

I also want to make a special note regarding Hostel Eco-Camping. This was definitely one of our favorite places to stay so far on our trip, and a big part of that was Matteo and Slava who were not only great to hang out with, they did a great job keeping the property clean and beautiful. Thank you guys for making our stay so great!

Next week… Panamá!

 

From Santa Teresa to Tamarindo

by Christina

Our original plan was to spend a week in Santa Teresa before heading up to Playa Sámara for another week, then finally make our way to Tamarindo to meet a friend who is coming to visit. This, however, proved more expensive and/or logistically challenging that we had first anticipated.

Because there is no way to go directly from Santa Teresa to Playa Sámara.

It looks simple on the map. Just head up the coast about 100 km. Only what the map doesn’t tell you is that there are rivers with no bridges, so that in rainy season you’ll have to make the decision to either ford the river, or caulk the wagon and float it. This is why you will see a lot of vehicles around with snorkels and winches on them.

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So how do you get to Playa Sámara from Santa Teresa? You either cough up $50/person for the “direct” shuttle fare and take the long way around through Paquera and Nicoya, or you pay for multiple local buses through Cóbano, Paquera, Nicoya, and then finally Playa Samára and it takes you forever. Caveat to this: we didn’t actually do either of these things, this is just our understanding based on internet research (including this website that came up a lot while hunting around forums http://www.thebusschedule.com/cr/) and questioning the staff at our hostel.

Well, since re-locating frequently tends to drive up the cost of travel A LOT, we opted to simply stay put in Casa Zen for a few more nights and then head directly to Tamarindo. The route via public transit to Tamarindo looked even crazier, including the ferry from Paquera back to Punta Arenas, then a bus to Liberia, before the final leg to Tamarindo, clocking in at a total of 22 hours projected transit time. So we decided to just cough up the $100 shuttle cost to Tamarindo which took us only ~5 hours, but it hurt to spend so much money. For reference, it cost us $30 total to get from San Jose to Santa Teresa.

So we put our deposit down for the shuttle on Saturday, and spent another three nights at Casa Zen. Our routine of cooking, swimming, writing, and enjoying the fruit breakfast at Casa Zen continued uninterrupted. Dan actually began to complain of being bored.

We also met a fellow backpacker named Aviv who turned out to be traveling with a TRX. One night we hung out on the yoga deck doing handstands and acroyoga, and he was nice enough to show us how to use the TRX. Oh, and by the way, he can also just press up into a handstand, like, no big deal. One of my fitness goals for this trip is a freestanding handstand, so I was both mad jelly and inspired. He would probably also like me to mention that I took this photo at the end of his practice and that his form wasn’t at its best.

The big advantage the TRX has over gymnastics rings for travel is how small and light it is. That and you can hang it over a door for use while the rings require a horizontal support like a tree branch or a swing set (though I’m now wondering if you can’t throw the straps for the rings over a door as well… I’ll report back on that). However, the weakness of the TRX is that it isn’t good for exercises that require a spread grip, like pull ups, dips, or muscle ups (Yeah, ’cause I can, like, totally do muscle ups, for sure. Trust me, I’m a doctor). But with rings you can do pretty much any exercise that you can do with the TRX, you’ve just got more weight/bulk to deal with.

We also experienced something unexpected in Santa Teresa: earthquakes! Did you know they get earthquakes in Costa Rica? No? Me either. Until I got woken up in the middle of the night feeling the earth rattling our bunk. It’s crazy disorienting waking up during an earthquake. It turns out they are fairly common on the peninsula, with a total of 42 quakes in Santa Teresa in the preceding year.

When we got to Tamarindo after an uneventful ride, we went to stay at the Tamarindo Eco-Camping Hostel, which offers rooms and camping space, along with wifi, morning coffee, and a spacious outdoor kitchen. Oh, and a freaking slackline! Woo! Maybe that’s just a perk for me and Dan, but we’ve been messing around on it since we got here. There’s also a great spot for me to hang my rings and get some body weight exercises in.

And I met another practitioner of body weight exercises! Slava has been traveling in the Americas for about two years, and staying in Tamarindo for two months now. He doesn’t use any equipment for his routine, just existing structures for things like dips and pull ups. In fact, he used to do pull up competitions!

My streak of getting in the ocean in Costa Rica every day (except our arrival day) continues! The beach in Tamarindo is much more swim-able than in Santa Teresa. It still has rocks, but they are fewer and further between and the sand is finer and harder packed, making it excellent for running (running selfie!) and handstand practice! It’s also a very shallow slope with smaller gentler waves, and you have to swim far out if you want to get into deeper water.

Sadly though, it turned out to be Dan’s turn to get sick. For the first time ever I think I heard him complain of the cold, in Costa Rica of all places, which meant he was growing a rock solid fever. We’re not sure what it was, but he’s nearly fully recuperated now after two days of bed (and hammock) rest.

We even got him out of the hostel on the second day to go out to a place called “Comida Típica Nuestra Casa” for casado and olla de carne (which translates as “pot of meat” or “meat pot”). Casado is a typical Costa Rican dish that involves different options of chicken, beef, pork or fish, alongside rice, beans and a cabbage/tomato salad (often comes with plantain, but ours didn’t). Olla de carne is another typical dish that is a hearty soup of root vegetables including yucca and potatoes, corn, and beef, with a side of rice. This was really good. I asked if you were supposed to dump the rice in the soup or eat it on the side, and was told any which way would do.

One note in general about Costa Rica that also applies to Guatemala is the bugs. We are getting chewed by bugs, mostly mosquitoes. Of course, we’re also slacking on using the bug spray we have with us because of the stench. This made us worried for a hot minute that maybe Dan had Zika, but we were told its very uncommon here, so it was probably just something he ate.

Today we also managed to get something that Dan has been looking for: a Churchill. This is a special type of “granizado” or slushy (the word is derived from the Spanish word for hail). This particular style of granizado was named after a famous business man in Punta Arenas, who liked interesting things in his granizados and who happened to resemble Winston Churchill. The Churchill is shaved ice and strawberry syrup, powdered milk, sweetened condensed milk, and ice cream. You can tell it made Dan happy. We got it at Pipos Dogs. Also, on the way there, we saw monkeys!

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Next week: our first visit from a friend! Who could it be? What will we do? Stay tuned!