Costa Rica and Panama

This last March I headed off to Costa Rica and Panama for the first time. Reading about Costa Rica, all my expectations were centred on the wildlife. My first night’s stay was in the beautiful converted mansion Grano de Oro, which I soon found was the perfect place to rest after a long haul flight.

The next morning I was up and out by 5 am, a slight shock to my system but my curiosity for the day ahead took over any tiredness. I boarded my little Nature Aeroplane to Tortuguero on the Caribbean Sea coast and luckily the skies were clear which gave me some excellent views of San Jose and the rain forest below. At the modest Manatus Lodge, I had a small window of time to choose breakfast- I simply can’t resist delicious fresh tropical fruits!

On my early morning boat tour down the Tortuguero Canal my guide’s expertise reflected as he explained about the ecosystem here and through his help, I saw several monkeys, caiman, turtles and also some big water spiders. From this short trip, it made me appreciate that this is a truly special part of the world where so many creatures thrive.

A walk on the beach showed me how big the leatherback turtles are as there was still an impression of a massive hole in the sand which one had dug up the previous year. Later on that day, to my delight (which also surprised me!), I saw a Boa Constrictor wrapped around a tree. And in the early hours of the morning I am sure there was a howler monkey sat roaring right on my roof, feeling a glimpse of a solo explorer with the jungle noises around me I went back to sleep.

Moving on from Tortuguero and heading west to Arenal I was met by my new driver and guide, Don Alfredo, who was just lovely making me feel relaxed and offering so much information on Costa Rica. This just reinforced how much of a difference a great guide makes to your trip. In Arenal I stayed in the grand Arenal Kioro Hotel, I don’t normally opt for big hotels but I was very happy here with my floor to ceiling windows facing directly onto Arenal Volcano! That evening I went to see the Tabacon hot springs, at first I was a little put off as it extremely popular with tourists but in the evening I found an abandoned pool and tested the warm waters which were lovely.

Crossing the impressive Arenal Lake the next morning offered great views of the volcanoes and scenery all around. The time taken to travel only the distance of the width of the lake made me appreciate the size of this peaceful lake. After a bumpy but very scenic drive winding through the mountains I arrived into Monteverde.

After a day of travelling and hotel inspections, I went on a jungle night walk. I felt very privileged to be going into the jungle on my own with an
expert guide and my own guide. What a treat! Even though the jungle life was particularly quiet that night my guide explained how the jungle balanced itself and the animals within, and it was fascinating to see it in the dark. I passed sleeping birds and we tickled dens with sticks to lure out the huge tarantula spiders! Learning that these big beasts have their own enemies in the jungle in the shape of a huge parasitic wasp has in fact helped with my fear of these eight-legged hairy creatures.

In the cloud forest I was teased by the call of the famous Quetzel bird, I knew it was close but I just couldn’t quite see it. Emerald toucans hidden behind lush vegetation here were well camouflaged but with some patience I was able to spot them. The park was a lovely peaceful place to wander around.

I made my way down to the Nicoya Gulf where I embarked the Star Flyer for my cruise to Panama. Never having been on a cruise, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The boat was a traditional sailing ship which was also powered by the engine for speed. I forgot to mention I actually have a phobia of the sea so embarking this trip was a personal dare to see how I would cope!

We travelled across the Pacific Coast and made daily stops including Drakes Bay, Golfito, Isla Coiba, Isla Iguana and then onto Balaboa. Each stop felt very different, offering a contrasting peak into Costa Rica and Panama. With a broad range of activities on offer the trip felt like you had the best of both worlds, I felt I could be quite active if I wanted to be, there was even a yoga class in the early morning, or I could simply relax on deck and watch the world go by.

Snorkelling and kayaking were also possible from the boat or the coast, I braved the water in my snorkel mask and paddled around cautiously but after hearing my most dreaded word shark I moved onto the shore. This, however, was not a dangerous shark, a blacktip reef shark and it was a real highlight to the others on board. With the sails up it felt very dramatic and exciting to be on the boat, it felt like an adventure- like being on a pirate ship (only prettier)!

Drawing into the port of Balboa I could see the skyline of the high rise modern Panama City, it made me think of New York! I was a little sad to disembark but I was ready to explore some of Panama. So I left one boat and soon after jumped onto another! This one travelled along the Panama Canal. Actually being on the canal brought it home to me what it was used for and the sheer size of it.

However, I still can’t get my head around the manpower which was used to build it, over twenty-one thousand French men lost their lives to the near-impossible task in the late 19th century and many more followed.

Sailing up the Canal and passing by the simply enormous cargo ships was a very different experience, it brought it to reality how things are transported around the world and made me think about the people who travel beside it on its journey. The captains have to give over their command of the ships to three specially trained Panama Canal Sailors to ensure it is safely navigated to the other end.

With my short time limit I was only able to do the partial transit but this gave me a good insight to the canal and I felt ready to move on to see more. At Gamboa, I transferred back to Panama City. I stayed in the downtown region which had all the shopping malls one could wish for and there were by no means a shortage of a Casino or two. The people were terribly helpful when I asked for directions on getting lost and helped me get a taxi back to my hotel.

In the morning I went into what felt like a completely different city in the Casco Vieja or Casco Antiguo district as it is also known, the Old Town part of the city. The French-influenced architecture was beautiful and the little dusty streets made for an interesting walk. It was more rustic than the downtown but pleasing to the eye to see more characterful buildings. This is now a UNESCO heritage site which is great news as there were some tired-looking buildings which could really shine with some work restoring them. I visited two beautiful hotels (Canal House and sister hotel Las Clementinas) here which are in keeping with the traditional feel of the Old Town and add a real sense of luxury to your stay.

Squeezing more places to see out of my time here I went up to Portabello on the Caribbean coast, on the way we stopped by the Gatun Locks which was an interesting perspective of the ships passing through with the steps of water clearly visible. There are further plans to expand the canal as the demand of global needs increases.

Portobelo lying on the Caribbean coast was a beautiful little stop for a day trip. The town, or rather the village, is steeped with a history of pirate attacks, it was one of Francis Drake’s favourite invasion stops and he is also said to be buried in the sea near here. El Camino Real is the old route originally created by Captain Morgan transporting the Inca gold from Peru through from Panama City to Portobelo. The old forts were created to protect the port, it was an odd feeling to stand between these ruins and to know that the sight of ships would have stricken terror to the onlooker.

I think Costa Rica and Panama was an ideal combination and although so close together had a very different feel from each other. My expectations to see wildlife was definitely achieved and learning about the exciting pirate history of the Panama was really interesting. My fear of the sea was challenged by the Star Flyer as I really enjoyed my time sailing (it was also heaven not having to keep packing and unpacking) and I survived, therefore, I have decided to go to the Galapagos in October!

My colleague John is our Central America expert here and would be more than happy to discuss Costa Rica and Panama journey ideas with you and Sue is our voyages expert if the Star Flyer interested you!

Thanks for reading

John Faifthfull, Colombia

Author: John Faithfull