Day 1: Sixaola-Panama Border Crossing
Last night, Kim and I took the evening bus from Liberia to San Jose and spent the night with a friend. This was designed to break up the long trip ahead of us to Bocas del Toro, the picturesque chain of Panamanian islands. On a bright Saturday morning, we rolled up to San Jose's Caribe bus station at 5:30 sharp.
After waiting patiently, we were finally next in line at the ticket booth when the person in front of us purchased the very last seat on the bus. What bad luck. We vowed to arrive at precisely 5:00 a.m. next time, as we would potentially have to stand for the next six hours to the border.
We were pleased that the ride wasn't nearly as tedious as we'd imagined. Kim and I camped out on the floor of the aisle, making the most of the situation. Everyone on the bus dozed off, and before we knew it we had arrived at the southern Caribbean border town of Sixaola.
Suitcases in hand, we followed the crowd two blocks up the street to a hill. At the top, Kim and I got our passports exit-stamped out of Costa Rica, and then crossed the rickety bridge leading south. Rotted holes in the wooden slats along the bridge allowed pedestrians a view of an unsettling 100-foot drop to the river below. Visitors with a healthy fear of heights have three options: either take a bus over, turn back, or just grin and bear it. We chose the latter. A young Panamanian boy offered to help us carry our bags for $1, but we politely declined.
Reaching the other side of the bridge felt a bit like cheating death. Here, the Panamanian customs officials greeted us with somewhat unwelcome news. They demanded proof that we had plans to leave the country within 90 days -- and claimed that only a bus or plane ticket would suffice. The transportation ticket office, responsible for selling such bus tickets, was conveniently located right next door.
This was obviously a ruse used to force unknowing visitors into buying an $11 ticket to San Jose. Grumbling, we paid for this passage-- which we were never going to use -- in order to satisfy the requirement, and ponied up the $5 entrance fee into the country. We hired a taxi to drive us 45 minutes to Almirante, where a ferry departs hourly for Bocas del Toro. (There used to be a more scenic departure point from the nearby town of Changuinola, but that route is now flooded and has been out of order for the better part of a year.)
After a gorgeous 20-minute cruise, the boat pulled up to the dock in central Bocas del Toro. The quiet port town exuded a laid-back ambiance, with colorful buildings that neatly reflected off the Caribbean sea. We were both relieved to find that the long journey was entirely worthwhile. Kim and I ate a typical lunch from the dock at the Pirate restaurant. The meal was exactly the same as a Costa Rican casado (rice, beans, salad and a meat) -- except that the rice was cooked in delicious coconut milk, a Caribbean specialty.
Having gained an hour upon entering Panama, it was now nearing 6:00 p.m. Kim and I checked into the Bahia del Sol Bed and Breakfast, and were greeted by a friendly American couple named Jack and Lee. Their inviting wooden home rests just outside of town in a quiet residential district -- and, like all destinations within five minutes of town, costs only $.50 to travel to via taxi.
While collapsing onto our suite's plush canopy bed was tempting after such a weary day of travel, we somehow resisted the urge. Instead, we went for a walk into town and enjoyed one of the most stunning sunsets I have ever witnessed. The sun's fading light cast shades of hot pink and cerulean blue over the Caribbean waters, which were so incredibly clear that the tropical fish pecking algae off rocks could be seen 10-15 feet below the surface. That night, I dreamed of underwater explorations in anticipation of tomorrow's dives.