February & March 2016 (20 days)
Day 0: Arrival at Panama City
Arriving at Aeropuerto Internacional Tocumen Panama (PTY) you can take the bus just outside the airport to the city center. This is cheaper than taking a bus or taxi at the airport. Check the map at the bottom of this page for exact location of the bus station outside the airport (500m walking). I learned this thanks to Joey Bonura. Check his article: Travel Hack: How To Pay Only $1.25 Getting To And From Panama Airport
Accomodation (+): 4 nights at a friendly Airbnb with host Nienke in the city center.
Day 1: Citywalk & Miraflores locks
Taking a walk about 9km through the center. Starting from our Airbnb in the “Marbella” neighborhood going to “Iglesia del Carmen”. Afterwards back down to take the promenade next to the ocean “Cinta Costera”. We passed the local fish market and visit the old city part “Casco Viejo”, which is a must to do in Panama City.
Afterwards we took a a taxi to the Miraflore Locks to look at some big boats. The boats take some time to pass through the locks, so count this in your own time when visiting!
Day 2: San Blas Islands
You can book a tour with several tour operators to do a trip to the famous San Blas Islands from Panama City. We chose for a day Trip with SanBlasTrip.com [Tripadvisor reviews].
The only thing you have to sacrifice is get up very early in the morning and defy a bumpy trip in a 4×4 to a little harbor where all the boats depart to the little islands.
We did 2 islands and 1 piscina natural. In total just enough time to have been on some pearl white beaches and small bounty islands and a do some swimming and snorkeling!
Day 3: Panama Canal Railway > Colon > Portobello
We booked a ticket with the Panama Canal Railway Company [tripadvisor reviews]. It takes you with an old train on a drive next to the Canal (48km). You have one dome car with big viewing windows, but there are also viewing platforms on every passenger car . We where an a viewing platform the whole trip. You don’t see the canal the whole trip, because the tracks also go through the forest, but some views are very nice, in example the one where you will see all the tree trunks coming out of the water in “Lago Gatún”.
From the end station of the Panama Canal Railway we went to the bus station of Colon to find a bus that would lead us to Portobello.
Travel guides will say and write that you have to take a taxi from the railway station to the bus station because Colon is a dangerous place. Colon is indeed not a nice, beautiful place, but the bus station is 300m walking. So spare yourself a taxi and just walk that little bit to the train station and you will do just fine!
The bus drive to Portobello is very beautiful. Also the experience to drive on a “diablo rojo” (old American School bus used as local public transport in Panama) is a must do. Portobello is a small historical harbor.
Day 4 & 5: Boquete
We took a long distance bus from Panama (Albrook Bus Terminal) to David (6-8 hours drive) and transferred in terminal David to a local diable rojo that took us to Boquete.
In the evening we had dinner at very local and inexpensive restaurante “El Sabrosón” [tripadvisor reviews].
The next day we walked the Quetzales Trail (Sendero Los Quetzales) [tripadvisor reviews]. We took a local taxi together with some other tourists from Boquete park to the start of the trail. At least we thought it was the start of the trail as the driver was telling, but she actually dropped us off way to early. So pay attention, you normally can take a taxi to the start of the trail which starts at the Alto Chiquero ranger station.
The Sendero Los Quetzales is normally a one-way walk and you have to arrange your own transport on the other side. Unless you pay for a private taxi, public transport is limited in time and can take some time because you have to go back via David. We decided to walk to the mirrador and then just go back. When we returned, the ranger station was already closed and also the last bus back to Boquete was gone. So we had to walk further on the road heading the village wich would be moren then 10km. Luckly we come across friendly American tourist with his rental car and he took us back to the center of Boquete.
Day 6 & 7: Bocas del Toro
We took a bus back to David and from there another bus to Almirante. Here you can take a boat taxi to Bocas del Toro. There are some private shuttle buses from Boquete to Bocas, but going back to David with the public transport is off course the most cheapest. In Almirante there are a couple of company’s that will take you to Bocas wity a watertaxi. Prices are almost the same, but you can try to offer lower. Some give reduction if you’ll take the same boat back.
In Bocas we stayed on the main islands, but totally at the other side (Bocas del Drago). You only have a couple of houses and one restaurant on this side, so it’s very relaxed. The center of Bocas gives a very busy impression with lots of young (party) people.
From our cabanas in Drago you can take a short walk (2km) to the “Star Beach” [tripadvisor reviews]. But there aren’t that many starfish left anymore and it can get a bit busy during the day when other tourists will arrive, mostly by boat, and take over the beach.
However “Yarisnori” is the only restaurant, it is a very good one and advisable to have at least one seafood meal! [tripadvisor reviews]
Day 8: Rio San San
Time to head up to Costa Rica but before approaching the border we asked the bus driver to drop us off at the Rio San san bridge. Here you can find Aamvecona: an organisation for conservation and protection of the San San Pond Sack wetlands. We booked an eco-tour [tripadvisor reviews] and hoped to see some manatees, cause that was what we came for. We waited for more then one hour on the viewing platform without any luck. They told us 90% of the time they would come and have a bite of the bananas they put in the water to attract the manatees. Nevertheless the boat trip was worth it. We got some more explanation about the manatees, saw some slots next to the river, the preparation for protecting the turtle eggs and got some fresh coconuts to drink. This was a real eco-tour where as an eco-tourist, you also supported the conservation and protection of the San San Pond Sack wetlands. Also 10% off the tour-money is used for protecting the turtles.
After our Rio San San experience we took a taxi to the border. Not a very busy border crossing and a quick check-out before walking over the bridge of the Rio Sixaola. We didn’t had to wait very long at ‘Terminal de Buses Sixaola’ for a bus that would take us to Cahuita. In the meanwhile I could watch some youngster playing at the local football field.
Day 9: Cahuita
Cahuita is small village at the Caribbean coast. We arrived at the bus station in the center and you will soon notice its crowed with tourists. Once reason for so many tourist is the Cahuita National Park. A little peninsula where you can do a walk between the ocean an the edge of the forest. It has a lot of different animals (we saw sloths, snakes, birds, monkeys, big spiders, crabs, … ). Easy to find thanks to a lot of other visitors and mostly good photographers who point out where to look.
We did the whole walk starting from the main entrance of the park in the east of the village to the other side (9km). Park entrance is free contribution. Count in that at the end of the walk you arrive at road nr.36 and still have to go 3,5km back to Cahuita center by foot or if you are lucky you can catch a bus. You have to walk pieces on the road, only the last end has a walkway next to the road.
Accommodation (+/-): B&B Buena Suerte [tripadvisor reviews]. A terrible bed, but a very good breakfast and nice garden.
Day 10: San José
Capital from Costa Rica, no more no less. We are going to switch from pubic transport to a rental car and just do a one night stop.
With a little map from the hotel, we start walking (4,3km) through the center and came along these things: Estación Atlántico (old train station), Plaza de la Democracia, Iglesia la Soledad, Plaza de la Cultura, Correos de Costa Rica, Post-office, Edificio Metálico (iron building made in Belgium), …
Day 11: Poas
Yes, carfreedom ahead! We picked up our rental car in San José en went on our way to Arenal. But first, up to the the Poas Volcano. You can drive almost to the top, park your car, pay some entrance fee and walk 750m to the viewpoint. When coming back down you can also choose a longer pathway through the forest, there is another little crater with water.
Driving back down out of the park, we stopped at a little coffee & souvenirshop, buying some homebrand coffee and have a look at some Colibri birds. Our next stop should be the village Zarcero and after that the Catarata del Toro. However, in some kind of way we choose the wrong roads and ended up on a different side of the volcano. Some smaller roads are not in good condition to drive on it with a normal 2xdrive car, so we had to follow the main roads. We passed by the La Paz Waterfall Gardens, you can see one from the street, the other are inside a center with entrance.
Day 12: Arenal
Arenal is a beautiful shaped volcano, as you would expect a volcano would look like. It has a couple hotsprings and warm rivers. We found one just near the road that is easy accessible. Other bathing places where commercial wellness centers where you have to pay to get in. Check the map for location, if lucky you’ll find a parking space next to the road. It can be very busy.
Arenal is also a good place to zipline, you’ve got plenty of choice. We choose the company Arenal Mundo Aventura. They have 12 line’s above and in the surrounding of La Fortuna Waterfall.
Accommodation (+/-): Cerro Chato Eco Lodge [tripadvisor reviews]. Nice wooden cabin with bathroom. There is a little swimmingpool in the garden.
Day 13: Celeste Catarata
At the time of travel, they described Celeste Waterfall as a one of the more new places to visit in Costa Rica. Its also not that easy to reach. The last part is a bumpy gravel road and our car had a hard time getting up the steep sloops.
The walk up and back in the park is about 5km. You have to pay a little entrance fee and some parkingmoney. The path goes to the beautiful big and bleu waterfall. If you follow further up, the path will lead you to the place where the water turns into the bleu water that makes the place so famous.
Day 14 & 15: Monteverde
Monteverde is inland and higer up. We came from the north-east. The road is again with steep slopes giving our car another hard time. The road coming from the south (wich we drove when we left Monteverde) is in much better condition and more flat.
In Monteverde mountains, clouds an forest come together and create ‘cloud forest’. You could do a lot of hanging brides between tree tops, but we choose for a walk in the Monteverde Biological Reserve. It was the time the Quetzal is making a new nest, so ideal to spot! It also has one hanging bridge and plenty of roads to walk. The most north is the most interesting place but at our time some walking roads where closed.
Accommodation (+): AirBnB
Day 16: Uvita
At the Marino Ballena National Park in Uvita, you have a very special whale tale you can see. Actually you can see it only from above. It’s a peace of land going in to the sea in the shape of a whale tale. Before flood comes into, you can walk to the back of the thale.
Accommodation (+): Hostel Cascade Verde. [tripadvisor reviews]. Has a nice terras on ground and 1e floor, surrounded with plants. Mostly made in wood and bamboe, so don’t expect to much privacy.
Day 17-18-19: Drake Bay & Corcovado
We left our rental car parked on a safe place in Sierpe. There we took the boat taxi to Drake Bay. A nice speedy ride on the water, first through the rivers, then a part where you have to go over the waves in to the sea and especially the landing in Drake Bay, cause boats have to go straight up the beach.
Drake Bay is our base to get into the Corcovade National Park. You can only enter with a guide and as demand is high and places are limited, you best do it in advance. Form Drake Bay we went by boat taxi to the Sirene Ranger station. From this central point there are some circular walking paths, they are not signed, but your guides knows the way.
We did three walks and had dinner and a sheltered sleeping place at the sirena ranger station. The park has some Tapirs and we saw the same Tapir on two of the 3 walks. One walk was a night walk to search some bugs and maybe a snake. During the last walk we had a swim in the river. While we walk back some apes suddenly starts to scream very loud, like an alarm is going off! Our guide thinks he saw the shadow of a puma and thinks he maybe was watching us!
After the Corcovado adventure we had booked a tour with the bug lady! [tripadvisor review] We did not now what to expect, but this is an awesome kind of tour and a must do if you are in Drake Bay, and if you like bugs! It’s actually a very short walk, but you will be surprised how much bugs you can find in such a small area. You will quickly understand why you have to go out at night, when it’s dark to find some spiders everywhere, even a Scorpio, …!
Day 20: Cartago
Before heading back to San José, we took some mountain roads and catch some views along the way. We stopped in the old city Cartago.
It’s some kind of weird habit, but mostly I try to visit to local graveyard.
Day 21: Depart from San José
Just one night to get the rental car back and a flight home. Before we went to the airport we did a stop at Museo de Arte Costarricense, it’s an old airport terminal. And afterwards to have a pick nick, Parque de Diversiones. It has free entrance, so you can always have a walk inside, look at the remade miniature buildings.
Accommodation (-): Hotel Luz de luna. [tripadvisor reviews]. We regret that we didn’t book Hotel Arenjuez again!
Heading back to Brussels!
Bye Bye Costa Rica & Panama