Friday, January 11, 2008

Great Vacation

We have had such a fun trip to the Caribbean. On Monday we start teaching again, but this has been a great opportunity for us to recharge our batteries.
We started our trip by driving to Puerto Viejo, on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica. The drive took about 5 hours from San Jose, through jungle and banana fields and then to the big port town of Limon. From there we drove for about an hour longer on some pretty bad dirt roads, until we finally made it to our destination...sort of.
We had made reservations at a place called the Banana Azul because we had read some great reviews about it. We neglected to bring any kind of directions to get there, so we probably spent a good hour driving around looking for it. After asking around a little we finally found it.
The Banana Azul was actually about ten minutes from Puerto Viejo, in the little community of Playa Negra (yes, there is also a Playa Negra on the Pacific...any beach with black sand must get this title or something). It was kind of nice to be tucked away from all of the action in town, because even though Puerto Viejo is just a little surf town, it definitely has a lot of tourism going on and people who like to party. Our hotel was really had just been built last spring. It was all made out of wood, and very open. There were lots of beautiful plants, and the beach was only 5 minutes away (although it was pretty overcast, and the waves were huge beach break close-outs). The staff and owners were really helpful, and gave us good advice about traveling around the area.
One thing that we did not know about the area is that there are no gas stations. Our tank was pretty low from the long drive, and we weren't sure what we would do. Fortunately, we found out about Tony, a local guy who sells gas out of his house. We went to Tony's house, and the ladies who were braiding hair in front told us he would be back in ten minutes. We came back three times, but Tony still wasn't there. The next day when we came back, we were relieved to finally find Tony and get the 4Runner filled up.
On the second day of our trip we decided to head down the coast for a little day trip. We stopped by at Playa Cocles, where they were having the Annual Costa Rica Caribbean Pro Surfing Contest. There were lots of people on the beach, dancing to reggae music and watching the surfers. The surf contest was a pretty big production, with a big stage and sound system, so it was cool that we were there for it. We decided to keep driving to Playa Manzanillo to check out a restaurant that had been recommended to us called Maxi's Reggae Cafe. It was in a big, three story wooden building. Our waiter was a huge Caribbean guy, and when he brought us patacones (fried plantains), it felt like an earth quake from the old floorboards moving. The food was really good, and everything seemed to have curry and coconut flavors that we had never tasted in San Jose.

The next day we left early in the morning for the next leg of our trip: Panama. We drove about one hour south to the border at Sixaola. Sixaola is just a little run-down town with some buildings and groups of people walking across a the bridge to Panama. We found a garage to park our car for a few dollars a day while we were gone. The lot where we parked was so muddy that we had to tie plastic bags around our shoes to walk back. Then we gathered our luggage and went to a building to get our passports stamped. After that we walked across the bridge to Panama, which was a really tall bridge over a huge, murky river. There was little more to walk over except planks of wood with big gaps between them, and we were carrying a couple of big bags and two surfboards, so it was very challenging.
After making it to the other side of the bridge alive, we had to go to another office to buy our Panamanian tourist visas, and then another office to get our passports stamped again.
We needed a taxi to take us to the ferry so that we could get over to islands of Bocas del Toro. We found one that could take us for five dollars, so we piled in with some other tourists, including some Brazilians who had about six surfboards between them. It was quite a challenge to tie all of the boards on top of the van with one piece of rope, yet somehow they did it.
The closest ferry launch is Changuinola, but that boat was not going to leave for a few hours, so we had our taxi drive us 45 minutes further to the town of Almirante. There was a group of Panamanian boys who each grabbed a piece of luggage as soon as we got out of the van. Three different boys grabbed some of our different bags, so even though we could have easily carried our stuff 30 feet to the launch, we ended up giving three different tips for their "hard work." We loaded into the water taxi at Almirante, cruised past all of the colorful little houses and docks along the water, and headed towards Bocas del Toro. It was a glassy, overcast day, and the ocean seemed very sheltered and calm. After about half an hour we pulled up to a little port town with old colonial style hotels built right onto the water. We had arrived at Bocas Town.
Bocas Town is the main town on Isla Colon, and Isla Colon is the main island out of the 200 islands in the Bocas del Toro archipelago. The town itself is mainly restaurants, hotels, and tourist businesses, and it is all located on a pretty condensed southern region of Isla Colon, even though the island itself is pretty big. We wandered for about twenty minutes down to the place that we had booked, Hotel Angela, and checked in. The hotel looked really pretty from the outside, with bright yellow and blue paint, and a connecting restaurant that sat on the water. Our room was OK, but kind of dark, and close to the kitchen and front desk. It was still very nice to be there. We decided to get some lunch at a place that we had passed that had looked really busy, with loud reggae music. The restaurant was on a high porch in the middle of town. When we tried to order food, they did not have what we wanted. Then they were also out of our next choices as well. Then the reggae music stopped and we joked that they ran out of music too. We eventually got our food, which was OK, although there was a caterpillar in the lettuce. We decided that we would not go back to that place.
We enjoyed walking around town and checking out the scene, and had a decent meal at our hotel restaurant later that night. The little girl who was going to serve us seemed very put out that we had decided to eat there, and fortunately another lady who might have been her mom waited on us instead, while the girl watched Disney Channel. They gave Allie chicken instead of fish, and my prawns had more heads than tails in them. When they got Allie's order right and brought her fish, the lady also brought some kind of sweet mustardy white dipping sauce. It was really gross, and Allie did not eat it. When the waitress saw this, she told Allie in Spanish that it must have been too spicy for her, and Allie just politely agreed.
The next day we decided to take a boat trip to Carrenero Island. We got swindled on the price of the boat trip by a little local kid named Gabriel. Plus, he never came back to pick us up at the end of our trip, so we had to flag down another taxi from Carrenero. The island had a good left point break, and a restaurant called the Pickled Parrot, where Allie hung out and I had lunch later. The owner of the place is an eccentric guy named George from Kansas. From what we saw and what we have heard, he spends most of his days getting really drunk at his restaurant and telling interesting stories, like how his dog Sergeant got attacked by a sloth last week (apparently sloths are more aggressive in mating season).
When we got back to Bocas town we walked around a little more and hung out at our hotel. The guys staying in the room across from us were in there 30s and from Iowa. They would stay out until 4:00 every night drinking in Bocas and hanging out with girls from different countries, even though at least one of them had a girlfriend back home. They describe themselves as "hardworking meat and potatoes boys." When a party boat cruised by they got excited and said "That's how we roll in Iowa, but our party boat is 3 stories tall!"
Later we had a really cheap and tasty meal of mackerel, rice and salad at a nearby restaurant that we passed. Since the meals were so cheap, I decided to order yucca garlic fries and ceviche as well.
We were not sure what we wanted to do the next day, but we were beginning to realize that there was not a lot to do in Bocas town besides party. I had heard about the good waves far from town on Isla Colon, so we hired a water taxi to take us to Playa Paunch. The taxi driver told us that there were no docks to drop us off at in Playa Paunch, and the swell was to big for him to get close to the beach. He took us to a dock at a hotel called Playa Mango, and assured us that the beach was only a ten minute walk from there...what a lie! We have seen some bad roads in Costa Rica, but nothing can describe the muddy, churned-up, sorry excuse for a road that we faced. We thought that it was kind of funny at first, but then we started getting stuck and sinking into quicksand-like mud, or trying to figure out ways to get around impossible four feet deep mud lakes, and the fun wore off. After about an hour of trudging through the muck, it looked like there was a stretch of beach that might be easier to walk along. I investigated, and Allie wisely stayed behind. I passed through a cattle fence and walked across what I thought was a field, but realized was more of a swamp. I kept sinking down about and falling on my face. My board and bag would fall and I would have to dig two feet down in the mud to try to find my sandals. I finally made it across the field, through more barbed wire, and through thick mangroves to the beach. Unfortunately, it was not a beach. The water ran all the way into the mangroves and it would have been impossible to walk through. I made the treacherous journey back to the road, and we kept going.
Finally, at some point the mud turned into a twenty foot strip of sand that seemed like a beach/road. It was much easier to walk along. It had started to sprinkle at this point, but we soon made it to the surf spot. The waves looked really fun and hollow at the reef, but there was not beach to hang out at. We found a hotel up on the hill above the reef called La Coralina, and Allie hung out there while I surfed.
When I finished I walked up to find Allie reading on a bench. The hotel and restaurant seemed empty, but very nice, with really cool wooden furniture, brand new tile tile on the floor, hammocks all over the place, and a big collection a brightly colored lamps hanging from the ceiling of the bar.
We ordered lunch and hung out, reading our books and wishing that we could stay at a place this nice. I had emailed the hotel before coming to Bocas, but they were booked. We were enjoying the sun (finally!) and tranquility, when Allie whispered "Joe! A monkey!" This little monkey crept up to us and got closer and closer. It got climbed onto the table in front of me, and then onto my lap. We had heard horror stories about monkeys attacking people and giving them rabies. I did not want to take any chances, so I tried to get the monkey off, but it clung on tight. Finally I got really scared and shook it off really hard. It fell on the ground and walked away, but not to far. We asked someone at the restaurant about the monkey, and they told us that it was a rescued baby white face cappuchin named Edgar, and he loved to be held. Suddenly we felt silly for being so afraid, and I felt bad for flinging him onto the ground. We hung out playing with little Edgar the monkey for a long time after that.
We asked the owner of the hotel, Stacey, if there were any openings. She said that there were, and we knew that had to change hotels. We took a taxi back to hotel Angela, checked out (unfortunately we could not cancel our reservations for that day), and got ready to go to La Coralina. Stacey sent a young Panamanian kid named Roberto to pick us up in her truck. La Coralina would not be that far from Bocas Town if the road were not so bad, but as it is the place is pretty isolated. Roberto picked us up, then went to buy some eggs for the restaurant, and finally we went to the hotel. We stayed in a cabina the first night that was small, but really comfortable and stylish. The only bummer was that they had been having problems with the generator, and it reeked like gasoline outside of the window. Still, it was so nice to be staying at such a wonderful, relaxed place. All of the people who worked there seemed really nice, and the guests who were staying there were all friendly and happy to be there as well.
In the morning I took the five minute walk to Paunch Reef, and even though I got on it early, there were already five Brazilians in the water - one of them was surfing in a speedo. The waves were pretty good, but it kept getting more crowded as more people kept getting dropped off from water taxis to surf.
I went back to La Coralina for breakfast, and then we planned out our day. Stacey told us about a swimming hole further down the road that you can ride bikes to. It is past an old farmhouse with a landing strip that Noreaga owned and used for smuggling drugs. We rented bikes and were on our way. Soon we realized that the beach cruiser bikes we had were not the best for riding. Allie's was a boy bike that was really, really high up, and mine had handle bars that were really loose.
The road was pretty, but tricky to ride with our rickety bikes. We went past a surf spot called Dumpers, and then we saw the disgusting dump that is right above the spot. All of the trash from the island is trucked to this place where it is burned. It smells horrible and it is covered with flies and vultures. We kept going past some jungle houses and scary dogs. Then we got to a place where the road washed out and we had to walk our bikes along the sand on the beach before going back to the road. We continued through the jungle until we got to the worn-down little farm house. An Indian family lives there with goats, horses, and a big pig, and they charge one dollar for you to cross there land to the swimming hole. We continued on the trail until we got to a swampy part that we had to cross. There were some old wooden planks and branches in the mud, but we still got very dirty.
Finally, we made it. The swimming hole was actually part of the ocean that was protected from the waves by coral reefs and rocks that enclosed it. You could see waves breaking outside, but inside it was smooth as a lake. We went in, and it was really fun to float around in the salt water. We were surrounded by nothing except lush trees and vegetation, and it made the tricky bike ride worth it - maybe.
When we returned to La Coralina we learned that we were going to get a free upgrade to a nicer room for two nights because another visitor was coming. Our new room was nice and reminded us of our place in Escazu. I surfed more and we hung out around the restaurant, talking with people, eating, and drinking Panama, the local beer.
The next day I surfed again for a change. Later on we took a trip with another girl who was staying at the hotel down to Bluffs Beach. It was a really hot day, and the walk took about 20 minutes. Bluffs was a really pretty beach, and unlike the other beaches we had been to so far, it had lots of sand to lay out on. I surfed the beach break for a long time, and in the afternoon we went back to the hotel.
My stomach had been feeling kind of weird already, and when I got back to the hotel things just got worse. I was sunburned from the beach, but I got really cold. Even though we were in very tropical weather, I layered on pants, two pairs of socks, a jacket, a shirt on my head, multiple blankets and towels, and I still could not get warm. Allie took really good care of me, although she must have thought it was strange to see me shivering in the hot weather. Stacey told us that a 24 hour flu had been going around Bocas, and I was lucky enough to catch it. I stayed really cold for a long time, but then I started burning up. I did not leave the room at all, and did nothing except lay down and drink water.
It was a really bad flu. Today I felt much better, although still pretty weak. I ate some bananas, rice, and bread, and I am still hanging out in the room resting as I write this. I have been really lucky to have Allie taking care of me, and she even passed up going on a boat trip around the islands to stay and keep me company. She has been reading out in the sun today, and spending a lot of time with Edgar the monkey. Edgar is the most amazing thing ever, and we even got to sleep with him one night. He is very cute and smart, even when we pees on you. It is really neat to see him use his little tail and fingers to grip onto things and climb around, and he really loves company. Tomorrow we are going to catch the water taxi back to the mainland, cross the border, and drive back to Escazu. It has been a wonderful trip, and it is neat to know that we live so close to this exotic place. We would love to come back here if we get a chance, although the comforts of the city do sound nice right now. Either way, this has been the perfect way to spend the remainder of our vacation

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