Sunday, January 18, 2015

Panama - Isla Boca Brava

Next stop: the Pacific Coast just a few hours bus ride away from Boquete. We heard about the coastal village of Boca Chica from the expats in town, they use it as their beach getaway spot when they need some sun and heat or want to go deep sea fishing. The said there's a great little island with a couple hotels and lots of monkeys just a quick boat ride out from Boca Chica.

We were only able to reserve one night at Hotel Boca Brava but it was a lovely night in a breezy room overlooking the water. The food was disappointing and the service was perhaps the slowest I've ever experienced so it was a good thing there was a nice view from the restaurant and an ocean breeze to keep us cool-ish.

Hiking along the trails on the island, we took our time that afternoon we arrived, stopping to swim at a couple of warm, sandy beaches and stalked the howler monkeys and the butterflies in the forest.

The next day we went on the snorkel trip to 2 islands out in the bay. The first stop had pretty good snorkeling, the water was super clear and there were a few colorful fish. The next island we stopped at had a gorgeous beach with ultra calm inviting water for swimming. We saw one sea turtle and a few dolphins on our way back to Boca Brava.

Night #2 we were lucky enough to stumble upon a new lodging establishment on the island that had no advertising or internet presence save for the homemade sign along the trail that said they rent tents. Well ok, for $30 per night they give you a round canvas tent like a little yurt, with a mattress, sheets, a fan and a little colorful light. It was really cute! Then there was the one honeymooners' suite which was a gorgeous wood cabin on stilts with floor-to-ceiling windows and an awesome view. Chops and I got that one and it was a good thing since the whole "you can drink the water in Panama" thing caught up with us. Actually it could have been the warm, soggy tuna sandwiches we ate for lunch that I didn't have a good feeling about....

After one last meal of excruciatingly slow service at Hotel Boca Brava we made travel plans and booked our seats on a shuttle (same Mamallena Hostel shuttle) to get to Santa Catalina the next day. It was $35 instead of $15 on slow, crowded, hot chicken buses with multiple transfers, but worth it for the comfort and the speed.

Final review of the island? Seeing lots of monkeys and butterflies and having a jungle trail for our morning trail run was awesome! Very few people but a few misbehaved dogs that terrorize the wildlife.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Panama - Boquete

 Mountains and river outside Boquete

Old truck at the coffee farm

After a few days at the beach we were so ready to cool off in the mountains. We took a boat to the big island, another boat to the mainland and then got on a private shuttle bus run by a popular hostel named Mamallena's for the 4 hour drive to Boquete.

Boquete is a little mountain town with one main drag, a nice river running through it, and lots of coffee farms. It's not as cute as Antigua but it has been named a great place to retire and is now filled with expats which has driven the cost of living up but also brought a lot of money and business to the little town. The coffee from Boquete is world-class, this is where the famous Geisha varietal is being grown that sells at auction for hundreds of dollars a pound - "it's like tea so the Japanese love it!" - was a line we heard frequently.

 Coffee plants at Cafe Ruiz

Volcan Baru, it erupted 500 years ago and blew its top off

We hadn't made a reservation and there was a festival in town bringing in extra crowds so it took a little while for Hubs and I to walk around to a few hotels inquiring about rooms. We finally found a place for just one night that was super cute with a balcony overlooking a little babbling creek with frogs and crickets, El Refugio del Rio. It started raining and we had left our bags with our friends at their hostel so we took shelter under the roof on our balcony and waited for it to let up while clipping fingernails with newly purchased clippers from the dollar store and drinking lime-flavored local beers.

Dinner at Big Daddy's Grill? Delicious fish tacos, margaritas, vegan veggie burgers and ice cream tacos.

We spent Day 1 riding mountain bikes through the hills on dirt roads outside of town, all the way down to a beautiful river filled with smooth, sun-bleached granite boulders that reminded us of the Yuba River back in California. The biking was fun but pretty challenging on the rocky downhill sections, some of us enjoyed it more than others... At the end of the ride we cooled off in the river, none of us opting to soak in the hot springs that were the real selling point of the ride - it was just too hot!

Taking a break on the bike tour

Biking is awesome!

Hot rocks in the sun

Cooling off in the river

Looks like the Yuba!

We moved to the Mamallena hostel for the night. That night was one of the most torturous nights I've ever experienced. Part of the draw of going to Boquete that week was their annual Flower and Coffee Festival which sounds just lovely! After exploring the fair we figured out that there were a few flowers, a few booths selling coffee and a whole lot of crappy carnival rides, nasty hot dog corkscrews on a stick, tables selling cheap Chinese crap and 2 competing stages playing extremely loud music with obnoxious DJs going until 4am. I am not exaggerating - 4am. Now, I usually love local color, the more down-home the better. But I really don't want to stay up until 4am with the drunk locals.

That night was the kind of night where you look back and think, "what the heck was so bad?" But at the time I was ready to pack it up and fly back home to Guatemala. We were laying in bed with earplugs in trying to fall asleep but the music from the 2 stages was blasting right through the closed window and booming in our brains. I hated the room, I hated the crappy fair, I hated Boquete, I hated Panama, I hated the whole frigging trip. I was ready to say eff it all, I don't want to spend another dime in this over-priced crappy country, let's go back home, going back to work sounds awesome right now. Until 4am. The music finally stopped and we slept for 2 hours until the hostel started waking up and the morning noise got us up. I felt like a travel failure and a crusty old lady that complains about the music being too loud. Our friends were like, "oh that sucks, I always have earplugs for noise when I sleep in hostels." Yeah, I had earplugs in! With the pillow over my head! I've stayed in cheap hotels and loud hostels and I've slept in a tent at Burning Man. It's not my first rodeo. But obviously the Flower Festival schooled me. Now the Chinese know my weakness is sleep deprivation... great.

Anyways... so that was challenging. But at least I had the comfort of knowing that we would spend the next morning looking for a new room as far away from the Festival as possible.

That day while we moved to a new hotel, drank some delicious Boquete coffee and went on a coffee farm tour, our buddies rented scooters and went farther up into the cloud forest looking for coffee, waterfalls and more swimming holes. We all had a good day and it was nice to get away from the group for a few hours and spend some time just the 2 of us. The coffee tour was awesome. It was harvest season so we saw the washing facility in full swing and our guide had been working on the farm since he was a kid so he knew every job there inside and out from a personal perspective. He didn't seem to like all the expats moving into town though.

Carlos was a super guide, looking at the way they dry the "Natural" beans in the sun

Seeing how they sun dry the "washed" beans

This bag of beans is destined for Germany. This bag is $50 per pound wholesale! 

Chops enjoys his coffee cupping, we tasted a few different types from Cafe Ruiz at the end of the tour

Hey, speaking of expats, we found out we have family living in Boquete! My Aunt's husband's Uncle Ian and his wife are there, renting a house, volunteering, touring around and generally living out the retirement dream. So we met them for dinner at the swanky old Hotel Panamonte in town and even got to celebrate Barb's Bday and meet a few of their friends. We felt like we landed in the middle of an awesome series on HBO, they were all such characters! That night was without a doubt one of the highlights of the trip. We miss you guys! We'll be back to visit soon!

Dinner at Hotel Panamonte

Big Ian and Barbara

The third and final night in Boquete we spent at the blissfully isolated and quiet Refugio de la Montana. After some good dreaming we were thinking how great Boquete was and how we should spend a few more days there to do some hiking and try to spot a Quetzal - apparently they are rare in Guatemala but they're all over the place in Panama. But our friends were ready to move on to somewhere new so we left town early and headed out the the beach on the Pacific side.

Boquete: it's cute in its own way... not super photogenic

Breakfast Panama Style: eggs and various kinds of fried white carbs, great coffee and extra sugary juice. Good hot sauce. 

Monday, January 12, 2015

Panama - Bocas del Toro

Aaaaahhhhh the beaches...

Still amazingly not sun burned

So we decided to go to Panama for our R&R trip (R&R in State Dept speak is Rest and Relaxation to get away from the hardship of living in Guatemala, they pay for a trip back to the US or to another country if it's less than the value of the ticket to the US). Panama is the last Central American country to check off on my list and we were meeting friends from there. Two weeks to see the country? Sure should be plenty of time. We were right. Panama is gorgeous and interesting but it's a lot like Guatemala, a lot like a big Rio Dulce in fact: hot, humid and jungly. The best part were the gorgeous beaches, both on the Caribbean side and the Pacific side.

 The Girls, we made friends in the '90s

The Guys, tagging along with the girls...

We started our vacation in the northern part of the country with a quick internal flight on Air Panama to Bocas del Toro. A tiny little one-goat airport on Isla Colon welcomed us and we walked from the airport into town to grab lunch. We also did some grocery shopping for our stay at the hostel and bought some umbrellas as we were warned it had been raining everyday since our friends arrived a few days earlier.

After a quick lancha ride over to Isla Bastimientos we were in full vacation mode, catching up with our friends, getting settled in the hostel and swimming at Red Frog Beach. Named for the thunbnail-sized brilliantly red poison dart frogs that live there.

Bocas del Toro boasts white sand beaches, snorkeling, coconut chopping, wildlife spotting, bat cave exploring, beach walking and seafood eating.

 Jungle hiking

A sloth! Known as a mono perezoso in Spanish which means lazy monkey

We stayed at Bocas Island Lodge Hostel which wasn't our favorite. It was run by a bunch of stony backpackers doing a work/stay trade so it was a total Mickey Mouse show. No one knew what was going on. We messed up the dates when we made a reservation and booked an extra night, when we tried to get our $50 back for the one night extra we were told no refunds under any circumstances, which seemed a little harsh coming from this poorly run place. The room we stayed in had a shared bathroom and was tiny but they charged a pretty steep $50 for it. In Guate that room would have been $20. Our friends were told breakfast was included but no one at the kitchen knew anything about it and tried to ignore them when they sat down to eat. We got booted out of our room for a day so they could install a fan but instead they just ripped out the lighting and left us with a tiny desk lamp which wasn't even close to being bright enough to see so we had to use our headlamps at night. Pretty weak all around.

Anyways... back to the good stuff. We toured the bat cave on the island - swimming and jumping and climbing and squeezing our way through the cave for about an hour. We stopped at a gorgeous island named Isla Zapatilla that had so many palms dropping coconuts it looked like the island was actually made entirely of coconuts except for the gorgeous white sand beaches with warm aqua blue water perfect for swimming. It rained, which sucked, but at least we were already wet from the swimming.

Rocky islands near Zapatilla

 Beach hiking

More beach hiking

Hermit crabs everywhere!

One day we hiked down the beaches exploring as far as we could go and found a local named Polo who lived at Polo's beach and sold beans and rice and fried potatoes to anyone who came to visit him. He spoke a crazy creole mix of English, Spanish and who knows what else with a Caribbean accent. Each sentence was punctuated with an enthusiastic, "Wooooooaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhh!" Couldn't understand hardly anything he said but his favorite pastimes seemed to be drinking, cooking and hanging up homemade signs on all the coconut palms on the beach saying, "NO TOCA LOS FUKIN COCOS". He was quite the excitable fellow and walked back to our hostel with us where he then proceeded to ask a few staffers if they would buy him a boat ride to the big island so he could buy more groceries, beer and pussy. That part we understood just fine after a few repetitions.

Our new friend Polo

Chops gets his mean face on before chopping the coco

Coco gets chopped!

We tried to take surf lessons but were told the surf shack that used to be on the beach washed away a few days ago and no one had seen the dude since then. We tried to go to a yoga class but the instructor was a no-call-no-show so we did some yoga ourselves overlooking the waves on a slick rain-soaked wooden deck. Panama was shaping up to be a lot of talk but not a lot of action. For as developed as they like to think they are, it was feeling a lot like the banana republic we just came from. We took it slow and did a lot of reading and relaxing.

Little flower by our private yoga deck

Early morning yoga - Warrior I

Bocas del Toro was lovely but after 3 days were were ready for the next stage of the trip: the mountains!