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Category: Central America

Boquete, Panama Won My Heart

In many ways Boquete, Panama won my heart: from the stunning landscape of the highland forest; to the cool breezes arising from multiple creeks crisscrossing town; to the veritable feast of delicious and affordable food offered by home-based restaurants.

We planned to visit Panama as a way to renew our Costa Rican Visa for both ourselves and our vehicle, as we also enjoyed a weekend vacation to one of the two countries in Central America we had yet to visit.

Above all, Boquete was a short four hour drive from where we were staying in Costa Rica. Located in the mountains of Volcan Baru, in the province of Chiriquí, Boquete is nestled in a valley, 3,900 feet above sea level.  

town of Boquete Panama
flower garden with cornucopia in Boquete Panama
abandonded house in Boquete
river running through a neighborhood of Boquete

To Do:

Lost Waterfall Trails. A quick drive beyond the town limits brings you to the Lost Waterfalls Trails. Keep an eye out for the sign which will guide you across a wooden bridge to reach the home of the trail keepers. There a charming cabin overlooks the valley of Boquete, as scents of orchids and other flowers float through the crisp air. To enter the park there is a small fee that helps to pay for trail maintenance. The trail follows a path through the forest, surrounded by luscious plants on all sides, where orchids and bromeliads cling to lichen covered tree trunks. The trail boasts several waterfalls with three vista points from which to view it. Plan to spend a few hours exploring the park or bring a picnic and make it a full day.
bridge across creek to reach The Lost Waterfalls trail
cabin of the trail keepers
holding a leaf while standing on The Lost Waterfalls trail
waterfall

To Stay:

Hotel Rebequet: Opened since 1984, this small nine room hotel was home for our first night in Boquete. Located in a residential neighborhood just a short walk from main street, Hotel Rebequet offers a peaceful stay, plus a home cooked breakfast in the morning with fresh eggs as you like, toast, coffee and juice.  

Pensión Topas: For the rest of our time in Boquete we stayed at Pensión Topas, a hostel operated by a German expat. The spacious grounds of the property offer a pool, gardens, river, and reading nooks. The friendly owner has tips on all the best places to see in town, and can help you book any manor of diversion.

Pension Topas in Boquete
Pensión Topas

To Eat:

Black & White: Located on the main street in town, Black & White is a Spanish tapas restaurant with an excellent happy hour deal. Even though the power went out during dinner (not uncommon for Central America,) we ended the night with several sangrias and multiple little plates of delectable dishes all for the nice price of $20.

Sugar and Spice: This artisan bakery makes European style baked goods, plus the American favorite – cupcakes. A variety of delightful flavors await your selection at Sugar and Spice, with the option to dine in with a mug of coffee or take to-go.

Olgas: A quaint cafe that offers breakfast in an indoor/outdoor, alfresco dining room. Enjoy a cup of coffee from beans grown at one of the local coffee farms as you have breakfast.

Restaurante Las Orquideas: A small restaurant, operated out of the home of a local family, their $4 lunch will satisfy your hunger. Dine in their enclosed patio on a meal that comes with a choice of meat (we had tuna), potatoes, salad, and tea.

Other things to check out in Boquete:

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Moments Around Costa Rica

Beach Club
Beach Club

Moments from around Costa Rica taken on my iphone. Last year we lived in the region of the Southern Pacific Coast. A few weeks were spent in Dominical, a popular surf town, and the remainder of the six months in a small town called Tres Rios de Coronado. The town doesn’t exist on most maps, probably because there are only about fifteen homes, a small market, a school, and two restaurants. A lovely place, far removed from the hustle and bustle of city life.

El Castillo Hotel
View of the ocean from El Castillo Hotel
Playa Uvita
Playa Uvita
Playa Tortuga
Playa Tortuga
Tres Rios de Coronado
View of the neighborhood
Puppies
Puppies from our adopted dog, Cool One, that lived at the home we rented
Pink flower tree
Taking a walk around the neighborhood
Tres Rios Waterfall
Waterfall in Tres Rios de Coronado
Mamon Chino Lychee
“Mamon Chino” Sweet and tart lychees
Playa Dominical
Playa Dominical
Dominical Surfer
Surfing at Playa Dominical
Danger Sign Peligro Cocodrilo
Peligro (Danger) Sign at Playa Dominical
Playa Dominical
Playa Dominical
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Beaches of Costa Rica’s Southern Pacific Coast

As anyone who has visited Costa Rica knows, the country is rich with beaches. This is due to Costa Rica being surrounded by the ocean, with the Pacific to the west and the Caribbean to the east. In fact, there is 1,290 kilometers (801 miles) of coastline offering a seemingly endless supply of beaches to visit.

During my time in Costa Rica I became acquainted in particular with the beaches of the Southern Pacific Coast, stretching from Manuel Antonio to Coronado. In previous posts I wrote about Manuel Antonio and Dominical, but now I would like to share a few of the beaches we frequented the most often.

Playa Ballena

Part of Parque Nacional Marino Ballena, this beach is located next to the Beach Club, a hotel and restaurant. The beach is open to visitors all week, except Tuesday when locals have private access. The Beach Club provides safe and secure parking as well as excellent food for lunch. Everytime I visited the beach it was virtually empty, truly giving the impression that you are at the end of the world, miles from civilization. Coconut trees, almond trees, and other jungle vegetation edge onto the beach where little hermit crabs can be seen scurrying across the sand. You may find a pretty shell, but most likely it is already inhabited. If you are lucky you will be at the beach when a family of local Capuchin monkeys travel on their way through a tree-top road network only known to them.

Playa Ballena Beach Club

Playa Tortuga

This vast expanse of beach gives a rather rugged impression with mangrove trees crowding onto the brown sand. When the tide is low the crashing waves seem to be almost a mile from the beach, with the sand covered in tide pools, waiting for the ocean to rise again. The beach is popular with local fisherman who spend hours standing on rocky outcroppings under the hot sun. There is not much shade on the beach, which becomes uncomfortable after a while. Do not be fooled by the pictures below, when we visited the sun felt like it was pummeling us with its hot rays, overwhelming our senses with heavy hot air.

Perhaps this beach is better left to the turtles that it is named for. Every July through December four different turtle species (including leatherback and hawksbill turtles) arrive during the night, when the moon is full, to lay the next generation of eggs. Reserva Playa Tortuga is a local nonprofit that studies the turtle habitat, maintains land, and provides education to volunteers and locals alike. If you are interested in protecting turtles, they happily accept volunteers year-long.

Playa Tortuga

Playa Tortuga

Playa Uvita

Known as the whale’s tail, this beach is the popular destination of the up and coming town also known as Uvita. The beach extends out into the ocean in the shape of a whale’s tail, which can be seen on a map or from an airplane when the tide is out. Or you can visit the beach at low tide to walk the entire tail which is covered in sand except for the very end which is made of rocks. Out in the open ocean beyond is coral reef popular with snorkelers. Because of the reef, the beach is covered with little pink, purple, and orange shells. We visited at low tide and enjoyed swimming in the ocean with gentle waves. The water is quite warm, but at least it keeps you refreshed from the hot sun and air. Because this beach is part of the national park there is a $5 fee to enter as well as cost for parking. But the sight of the tail is worth it for at least one visit.

Playa Uvita

Playa Ventanas

My absolutely favorite beach, Playa Ventanas, is known for its two caves that open from the beach out to the open ocean. When the tide is low you can walk into the caves, but watch out for the incoming tide. At high tide the ocean crashes through the caves with every swelling of the waves. Water bursts out as it funnels through with a loud rushing sound that brings to your attention the mighty power of the ocean. The beach offers a perfectly shaded area for picnics and bbqs. My favorite part of this beach was swimming out past the waves and floating in the water for as long as possible. The waves are not good for surfing, but perfect for swimming and playing. While floating in the ocean, there is a beautiful view of lush green hills covered in the vegetation of the jungle, usually with large billowing clouds gathering at the precipice.

Playa Ventana

Map of the Beaches

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Three Things I Learned from Living in Costa Rica

Costa Rica

Living in Costa Rica for six months was a unique experience. The country is completely different from the US and especially my home state of California. The lifestyle is different, priorities are different, and culture is different. Where people are constantly busy working and filling every bit of spare time with an activity in California, I found that to be in stark juxtaposition to the relaxed and unhurried life of Costa Rica. Instead families are close, there is plenty of time to enjoy the slow pace of life, and most importantly – the saying of “pura vida” is truly embraced.

As I ponder the life I led in Costa Rica and the effects it undoubtably had on me, I would like to take this time to share three important lessons I learned.

  1. How to live with less and actually be happy for it. In Costa Rica there are beaches, jungles, volcanoes, and wildlife. What there is not is online shopping, shopping malls, the latest trends, or access to any little thing you think you want. Being away from the temptation of stuff, away from materialism and consumerism was liberating. I felt free from the constant want of things allowing myself to embrace a full life with less.
  2. Life is enjoying the simple pleasures. With all the noise of a busy life shed away, I was left with the tranquility of nature. The beauty of the forests and beaches, the sounds of wildlife fully alive and thriving, and the peace of not needing to be somewhere. Without all the clamor of city life, the pull of technology, and the constant movement of traffic I was able to cherish the simple aspects of life. I was able to truly appreciate nature and our place within it.
  3. Living in the moment. Without the distraction of media in all its many forms, the constant chatter of the world melted away. From there I learned to reconnect with the moment. To let my thoughts rein back in from constantly living in the future. To embrace each day a new.

Costa Rica

Those lessons I now hold dear as I slip back into my life in California. I will always cherish my time in Costa Rica and how it has made me grow as a person. Even though I still feel the same, I know that there are some aspects of myself irreversibly changed and in my opinion it is for the better.

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Kayaking Among the Mangroves

Mangroves

The white heron elegantly swooped past on its way to a higher branch on the mangrove tree. Sounds of scuttling legs betrayed the bright red crabs climbing over spindly roots half submerged in water. In the dense mangrove forest, with the hum of insects as a back drop, we gently paddled our kayaks, hesitantly at first before becoming accustomed to the movement as we glided downstream.

Mangrove forest

Kayaking the Mangroves

Our guide explained that the mangroves are the most efficient producers of oxygen, better than even the rain forests of the Amazon. Because of that the mangroves are a protected habitat in Costa Rica, with laws to keep the trees from being chopped down for development.

Kayaking the Mangroves

As we paddled on I was astounded by the absolute quiet and stillness of the mangrove forest. There were no sounds of vehicles, voices, industrial machines, construction, or any other sound typical of human life. The only sounds were those of birds, crabs, and insects.

Dominical Surf Adventures kayaking trip

At one point the guide pulled from the water what looked to be a fig, but was actually the seed of a mangrove tree. The seeds are dropped to the water where they float until the seed pod opens up with a baby tree inside. The beginning of the mangrove’s life is spent floating along the river, growing until the roots reach the muddy earth below and anchor in.

Dominical Surf Adventures van

After kayaking, we were given a little time to explore nearby Playa Barú, a stunning expanse of yellow sand beach edged by almond and coconut trees. There we stayed to watch the sun make its decent down, the only people on the beach for miles.

Playa Baru

Playa Baru

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El Silencio Cooperative

El Silencio Cooperative

What I love about traveling is coming across places I would never back home in the US. While on a white water rafting trip with Dominical Surf Adventures we stopped in El Silencio, a town only accessed by a rock strewn dirt road thirty minutes from the main highway.

There I learned that El Silencio is a co-operative town residing on a former banana plantation that once belonged to the United Fruit Company (now known as Chiquita). When the plantation was ruined by flooding in 1955, local farmers took over and began to work the vacated land until it was sold to them by the government.

The farmers and their families created Coopsilencio, which has grown to 80 families since the 1970s. Now the co-op farms African Palms for the oil that is processed from the palm’s fruit. They also run a dairy farm, reforestation project and wildlife rescue program.

The co-operative even has their own money, the UDIS, which is valued the same as the Costa Rican colón. Workers of the co-op receive 20% of their pay in UDIS, which can be used to purchase goods and services in the town.

According to International Co-operative Alliance a co-operative is “an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly owned and democratically-controlled enterprise.”

In the case of El Silencio, the co-operative encompasses the town and plantation. I have come across co-op grocery stores, apartments, banks, and businesses, but this is my first community.

If you are interested in traveling to Costa Rica or would like to check out the co-operative lifestyle then make sure to visit El Silencio. They have a volunteer program offering a chance to experience life living and working with the community.

What are your thoughts on cooperatives, whether a business, housing, or community?

Coopsilencio Palm Plantation
Coopsilencio Palm Plantation
African Palm Trees
African Palm Trees
Poster of the UDIS
Poster of the UDIS

 

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Hacienda Barú National Wildlife Refuge

Hacienda Barú, a national wildlife refuge, is located on the southern Pacific coast of Costa Rica, bordering Dominical to the south. The 830 acres of private reserve covers a range of ecosystems including tropical forest, swamp, mangrove, and beach.

Between the 1940s and 1979 the property served as a cattle ranch and pasture, with much of the forest either slashed and burned to provide open space or selectively harvested for timber.

In 1979 one of the new owners, Jack Ewing, decided to allow the property to return to jungle. After a few unsuccessful attempts at crop farming and a failed proposal for the development of a hotel in the 1980s, the owners began to give jungle tours. With the success of the tours the property was transitioned to status as a National Wildlife Refuge and the property opened to ecotourism.

The refuge is part of the “Path of the Tapir” Biological Zone that extends from Savegre River to Terraba River and protects the unique ecosystem of the area. The biological zone protects habitat and ensures uninterrupted movement through the corridor.

Hacienda Baru National Wildlife Refuge

Mango tree
Mango tree
Trail through the wildlife refuge
Trail through the wildlife refuge
Mangrove tree
Mangrove tree

There are several trails that wind through the refuge. The one we took led us to Playa Barú, a beautiful and wild beach. There was no one about except for vultures huddled around the corpse of large turtle they were making a feast of. The beach is one of the many in the area used by nesting sea turtles to lay their eggs. Due to this, the beach is protected by the national government and a turtle research and protection office is headquartered nearby.

"We protect the turtles, we maintain cleanliness"
“We protect the turtles, we maintain cleanliness”
Trail to Playa Baru
Trail to Playa Baru
Playa Baru
Playa Baru

The refuge also has a butterfly garden with about 6-7 local species fluttering around the enclosure. Admittedly, this was my favorite part, we spent way too long (over an hour) capturing these images of the butterflies.

Tiger-striped long wing
Tiger-striped Longwing
Doris Longwing
Doris Longwing
Morpho
Morpho

Blue Bug

Owl Eye
Owl Eye
Tiger-striped Longwing
Tiger-striped Longwing
Doris Longwing
Doris Longwing
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Two Weeks in Dominical

Two Weeks in Dominical

For two weeks we called Dominical home. A rustic surfer town south of popular Jaco and our last destination, Manuel Antonio. Ten years ago the town was just a speck on the map with a few houses and businesses made up of locals and determined surfers from around the world. Over the years the location has become better known amongst travelers from the US and Canada, growing into a popular surfer town that is now a one-lane dusty road with various restaurants, souvenir stores, and surf rental shops. A mix of locally and expat owned businesses give an interesting flair, for a distinctly Costa Rican culture with hints of US vibes.

Dominical
Main Street
Dominical
Costa Rican surfer

Compared to the beaches of Manuel Antonio, Dominical’s is a little underwhelming. The beach is rocky and the waves are constant with a strong riptide, better for surfers. But the coconut and almond trees provide a well shaded area out of the hot.

Dominical
Path to the beach
Dominical
Playa Dominical
Dominical
Shaded from the heat under an almond tree

We rented a bungalow from Posada del Sol, a locally owned hotel. With half of the bungalow open to the outside and nothing but a screen to shield against the elements, a subtle boundary between inside and out contributed to a feeling of living closely with nature. Birds made nests in lamps shades, lizards scurried across the ceiling, and a multitude of bugs called the indoors home.

Posada del Sol
Our bungalow at Posada del Sol
Posada del Sol
Outdoor shower
Posado del Sol
Bird’s nest in the lamp shade

Among the restaurants two became our stand-out favorites: Mono Congo and Arena y Sol. Mono Congo is an expat owned cafe that serves coffee drinks, smoothies, breakfast, and lunch. Besides the great coffee, my favorite menu item was the passion fruit chocolate tart, a delicious dairy and wheat free concoction of smooth dark chocolate in a sesame seed crust. Arena y Sol was our go to spot for lunch, where we enjoyed their $6 wrap and smoothie special.

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Manuel Antonio National Park

 

Manuel Antonio National Park

Visiting Manuel Antonio National Park was like becoming a wildlife photographer. All around were animals: in the trees, on the trails, hanging from signs. Just amazing. It was exhilarating to capture on camera the antics of the different monkeys and sloths we encountered.

For the size of the country, it packs a punch in the biodiversity department. Home to 4% of the world’s species, Costa Rica has over 500,000 species, with many unique to the humid jungles of the southern Pacific coast. In this particular jungle we saw three monkey species, two sloth species, deer, raccoons, lizards, and birds. However, that does not begin to cover all the other wildlife that only comes out at night or the more shy animals that hide in the depths of the jungle.

Like many places, Costa Rica is working to balance the needs between a growing demand in development and the wildlife that calls the jungle home. Costa Rica protects 25% of their land under the national park system, with additional land protected by wildlife refuges, national wetlands, and biological reserves. The Environment and Energy Ministry manage the parks and strongly encourages community participation. One way the public is encouraged to contribute to the conservation of the jungle is through a program that gives farmers funding to support the planting of trees and their management as a way to stop the clearing of land for cattle. The money to support the program interestingly comes from a gas tax.

Costa Rica’s strong stance towards wildlife conservation and protection is admirable. This a place that other places can look to for inspiration and lessons on how to protect wildlife habitat while also considering the needs of development.

Howler Monkey
Howler Monkey
Three-Toed Sloth
Three-Toed Sloth

Mangrove Tree

Mom & Baby Spider Monkey
Mom & Baby Spider Monkey
Spider Monkey
Spider Monkey
Two-Toed Sloth
Two-Toed Sloth
Playa Gemelas
Playa Gemelas
Capuchin Monkey
Capuchin Monkey

Capuchin Monkey

Capuchin Monkey
Capuchin Monkey

Source & Further Reading about Costa Rica’s Biodiversity:

INBio Costa Rica: Biodiversity and Conservation

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Crossing the Border into Costa Rica

This is a continuation of the series reporting from our Panamerican roadtrip on what to expect when crossing the border by vehicle in Mexico and Central America. For more articles on crossing the border (including Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua) click here.

In Nicaragua the roads outside of León, through Managua, and towards the Costa Rican border were well paved. Yet we still managed to get lost, this time in Managua. We could not find the turn off for the CA-1 so we turned onto a probable highway, hoping for the best. Of course it wasn’t the right highway, but it took an hour before it dawned us, so with a bit of map sleuthing and road maneuvering we got ourselves back on track. The rest of the drive to the border was smooth sailing.

Entry Point: Sapoa, Nicaragua to Peñas Blancas, Costa Rica

Paperwork

  • Passport
  • Driver’s License (DL)
  • Vehicle Title
  • Copies of: passport and DL for all drivers, title, insurance, passport page with stamp

Cost

  • $3 exit fee for Nicaragua
  • ? fumigation (Costa Rica)
  • $35 for insurance (Costa Rica)

Leaving Nicaragua:

  • Before reaching the border you will stop at a small booth towards the middle left of the road. Present passports and vehicle permit to the guard. The guard will sign the vehicle permit and return along with a declaration form to fill out.
  • Continue driving past a set of buildings, turn left and park in the lot on the other side of the buildings.
Parking lot and customs building
Parking lot and customs building
  • Outside of the building an official with a DGA shirt will ask for your vehicle permit and declaration form. She will sign and return.
  • An old man outside of the building, not an official DGA, but some sort of guide will give you a Sistema de la Integracion Centroamerica form to fill out.
  • Then go to the window on the left side of the building (the middle of the building has a sign that says Banjercito) with a sign that says “DGA Direccion General Servicios Aduanos.” Give vehicle permit, declaration card, and vehicle owner’s DL. The official will sign and stamp the documents before returning them.
DGA Direccion General Servicios Aduanos office with DGA officials standing to the left
DGA Direccion General Servicios Aduanos office with DGA officials in white
  • Next walk to the police office to get the declaration form stamped.
Police office
Police office
  • Then walk around the police office to a booth with a sign that says “Despacho de Entrada.” Pay the $1 exit fee and you will receive receipt and slip of paper with a stamp.
Office for "Despacho de Entrada"
Booth for “Despacho de Entrada”
  • Next walk across to the window with a sign saying “Todo Despacho Migracion.” Present passport and Sistema del la Integracion Centroamerica form. Pay $2, receive a passport stamp, and receive a receipt.
Office for “Todo Despacho Migracion”
Office for “Todo Despacho Migracion”
  • Return to your car, pull out and drive towards a small shaded table on the left. A guard will ask to see the sign and stamped declaration. Then further on at a second shaded booth a guard will ask to see your passport.

Entering Costa Rica

  • When entering into Costa Rica, stay to the right and enter the fumigation booth to be sprayed. Before entering into the booth a fumigation official will collect the fee, however we only had US dollars which the official would not accept. Happily an aduana (customs) official came by to see what the situation was and just waived us through without payment. I can’t imagine that always happens so be prepared with Costa Rican colones.
  • Continue driving until you reach a large white building on the left and a little row of buildings to the right. Pass through and park to the right past the row of buildings.
Big white building
Large white building where you get your passport stamped and luggage screened
  • Walk back to the large white building. A guard outside will give you a declaration form. Fill out the form, enter the building and stand in line. The official will ask for your passport and declaration form before stamping your passport. *Please note that Costa Rican policy requires that you have a return ticket, either by air or bus, before allowing you to enter the country. If you fly into Costa Rica the airline agencies will not let you board the plane without a return ticket. But since we drove in we were able to circumnavigate the policy. When the official asked for our return ticket we explained that we drove in and would be driving back out so we had no airplane ticket. That explanation was accepted. However, if it had not been, we were advised that simply purchasing an inexpensive bus ticket would have sufficed.
Sign to follow to find the insurance office
Sign to follow to find the insurance office
  • Next you will need to purchase insurance at the Seguro Obligation para Vehiculos office. To get there you walk past the row of small buildings to the right, and enter through a gate where many semi-trucks are parked. There is a large gray building with a window at the far end to purchase the insurance. You will need to present title, driver’s passport and license. Pay the fee and receive the insurance document.
Building with insurance office
Building with insurance office
  • Then go to the copy shop down the ramp and to the right of the building. Make a copy of the insurance and passport page with stamp.
Copy office
Copy office
  • After, go back to the little row of buildings, find the little white building with “aduana” sign and present all copies and originals (passport, passport page with stamp, DL, title, and insurance). The official will give you two forms to fill out. Complete the forms, return to the official and she will keep the declaration form and return a packet of documents.
Aduana office
Aduana office
  • She will ask you to remove your luggage, which you need to take back inside the large white building. Inside are luggage scanners where you will put the luggage through. Return to the aduana office and show the official your luggage. The official will then go with you to your car to have a look inside.
  • After the official approves your car take the packet of paperwork back to where the insurance office is. Around the corner from the insurance office is another office with a sign saying “Oficinia de Atencion Turistas y Vehiculos.” Enter the office and give the official behind the counter the complete packet of paperwork. She will process the paperwork and give you back a vehicle permit.
Oficinia de Atencion Turistas y Vehiculos
Oficinia de Atencion Turistas y Vehiculos
  • Return to your car, drive a few meters and stop at small exit booth to present the vehicle permit. Continue on.

Have any questions or comments – let me know in the comment section below or email me at shanontheroad@gmail.com.

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