Day 4: Shipwreck!
As much as we had enjoyed Bocas del Toro, it just wasn't home. Sure, Panama has its perks and advantages apart from its breathtaking beaches (mainly the well-paved roads and better domestic beer), but we missed our adopted homeland. We love the good-natured smiles of Costa Ricans and simply knowing how everything works and what to expect. We were ready to return.
But first, I had one last dive to complete: Punta Manglar, also known as "The Wreck." This was the dive that I had been looking forward to all week.
Absolutely nothing in this world gets me more worked up than the prospect of exploring a sunken ship. We arrived at La Buga Dive Center at about 9:00 a.m., raring to go. Once again, I would be diving and Kim had her snorkeling equipment in tow.
My guide helped me gear up, and down we went, hovering at about 20 feet to play with a small school of jellyfish. Each was about a foot in diameter, and I was stupefied when the guide casually -- and fearlessly -- touched one. He touched a jellyfish! The fact that he hadn't been stung seemed like a miracle, and I had to try it.
Despite its translucence, the jellyfish was rather solid with a slimy film covering. Imagining the look of horror on my sister's face were she here to see this (she has an irrational fear of these invertebrates), I begged the guide to take my picture. Posing, I spun the jellyfish from its center and watched it cartwheel about in circles. This time, I moved it a bit too forcefully and it stung the cuticles of my fingernails -- but the jolt was more of a tingle than a full-blown sting. The guide then pointed to our left, and that's when I saw it.
The shipwreck was undoubtedly the largest I have seen during my young diving career. The gargantuan hull of the boat loomed above us, covered in algae and an array of corals. Circular port holes lent a dramatic "pirate ship" feel, despite the fact that -- in reality -- it was just an old car ferry that had been purposely sunk back in 1999 to facilitate an artificial reef.
Starting at the bottom and working my way up, I saw clams, lobsters, sea slugs and frogfish covered in sand. The bright purple and orange tropical fish inhabiting this boat were astounding. Floating up to the deck, I nearly spit out my regulator at the sight of -- in the middle of the most beautiful coral and brightly colored fish I had ever seen -- a rusty toilet.
Yes, a rusty toilet. Laughing underwater is somewhat rare, but this was too much. No one had prepared me to find a random commode glued to the middle of a seemingly mysterious pirate ship -- and it more or less killed the theatrical effect.
Even more hilarious were the beautiful, albeit feisty, pink and purple fighting fish that were no bigger than a travel-sized makeup mirror -- which continually attacked my goggles, camera lens and finger tips as I tried to take photographs.
Suddenly, the guide tapped me on the shoulder and motioned me to the surface. I wondered what I had done wrong. When we reached the top, he apologized and explained that he had a cold and was having trouble equalizing the pressure in his head. Luckily, the captain was a dive master, and was able to accompany me on the rest of the dive.
Later, Kim and I showered, packed our bags, and hopped on the ferry back to Almirante. We decided to make use of the tickets we had bought under duress four days ago. The bus departed from Changuinola for San Jose -- Kim was headed to San Jose anyway, but 1/2 of my fare would be wasted, as I was getting off at Puerto Viejo, a mere two hours from the border. Thankfully, this bus was a great option, and the seats were plush and comfortable.
When we got to the border, Costa Rican customs officials asked for proof that we intended to leave the country within 90 days. We were fully expecting such a request on this side, and presented our printed flight itineraries, avoiding the purchase of another unnecessary bus ticket. Unlike entering Panama, no Visa fee is required to enter Costa Rica.
As soon as our passports were stamped, the skies opened up and it started to pour. I boarded the bus, sopping wet, and closed my eyes. When I opened them again, the bus had arrived in Puerto Viejo. I got off and took a taxi to Hotel Kasha, in Playa Chiquita.
The owner, Louis, welcomed me to his beautiful property with a warm handshake. He gave me a tour of the grounds, and when we got to the pool I had to resist the urge to jump in.
I took a stroll to get to know the area that afternoon, and within minutes, I was invited to a feast of exotic Asian delicacies by the owner of the Centro Gaia community center. The owner Silvio gave me samples of durian, known as the king of all fruit since it takes 10 years for the fruit tree to mature and produce. We also tasted mango star, a red pod that reminded me of the cacao plant.
Silvio explained his mission to bring sustainable development and awareness to the Talamanca area. After a late lunch of fresh Italian pasta and salad, it was time for me to call it a day. I needed to get plenty of rest for my intense Rescue Diver training course the next morning.