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Published: January 28th 2014
Nearing Sunrise on Volcán Barú
About 6:30 in the morning amid a sea of clouds.
My first stop in Central America after Chile was Panama City. I stayed 6 long, hot days in Panama City so I could be assured of watching the New England Patriots lose the AFC Championship Game in demoralizing fashion to the hated Denver Broncos and golden boy Peyton Manning. It wasn't a total waste, however, as Panama City is actually quite nice, my hostel was great, and there was a fantastic place to eat close by. The only other place in Panama that I visited was Boquete, high in the coffee growing region and a welcome relief from Panama City's oppressive heat.
Now in Costa Rica where I hope to soon tackle the second Central American peak on my list - Chirripó, a bit higher than Barú but not a night ascent as there is a high hut where I intend on spending the night.
Very chill town nestled in the foothills of Volcán Barú and as such can get rather cold at night. There are plenty of activities to keep you occupied for days... presuming you have a large bank account. I just wanted to tag the top of the volcano, relax in the
Can supposedly see the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans from the summit but we could only see the Pacific because of the clouds, Volcán Barú.
moderately cool temperatures, and drink a lot of fresh strawberry and blackberry batidos
, or milk shakes. Mission accomplished. Accommodation and food
Because I arrived ~9:00 a.m., too early to check in anywhere, I must have scoped out every place in town after dumping my bags at Mamallena and feigning interest in a room. That place was kind of a dump and immediately gave me the impression of a party place (later confirmed by my hiking partners) for which I had no desire after the night bus. I settled on Hostel Gaia in a super clean and quiet 4 person dorm for $11/night. Excellent coffee was provided as was WiFi and laundry can be done quickly and inexpensively. Cheap breakfast could be bought at nearby Fonda de la Merry. They offer tortillas
with eggs but the tortillas
are actually arepas
(fried corn meal patties) and are awesome especially at only 20¢ a pop. There are a lot of gringos
in Boquete (mostly American ex-pats, it seems) and this is reflected in the price of many restaurants. For an authentic, economical, and filling meal head to either outpost of El Saborsón where a huge plate of meat or chicken with several
Volcán Barú Summit Cross
Totally wiped out after all night hike and previous night trying to sleep on the bus from Panama City.
sides (black beans and rice almost universally present) is $4-5. There is a great juice stand in the sewing shop of all places a block or so north of plaza where batidos
go for $1.60. Lots of fruit stands around. Appears to be pineapple season and it's hard to buy a bad one. Volcán Barú
While not a place to sleep or relax, Mamallena does provide a convenient service to the base of Volcán Barú for the overnight hike to the summit commencing around midnight. Transport is $5/person if there are 3 or more but there are always several people interested. The hike is on a bad road that motorcycles and 4x4s can take to the summit and is 13.5 km one way to the top. Took me 6:15 but I was exhausted after the previous night's bus trip and only sleeping a few hours during the day. Sunrise was ~6:45 a.m., we lingered for a bit on the very cold summit, left ~7:45 a.m., and were back at the park entry ~11:20 a.m. where we had to pay our $5/person entry fee. The park ranger will call a taxi to get back to town for $3/person. Good trip
but pretty tough. Transport
For most people, the David bus is the only one of importance. Leaves from the plaza every 20 minutes or so starting ~ 5:00 a.m. and running most of the day. Takes an hour, $1.75. There is a shuttle operated by Mamallena to Bocas del Toro for $30/person which regularly sells out in advance. Can also do the trip by local buses for half the price and twice the time. Boquete to Costa Rica via Paso Canoas border crossing
Notorious and widely despised border crossing but the reputation seems unwarranted to me. I took the 8:00 a.m. bus ($1.75) from Boquete to David, arrived at 9:00 a.m., and was almost immediately on a bus to the border ($2.10). Got to the border a bladder busting hour and a half later at 10:30 a.m. Officially leaving Panama took less then 5 minutes.
Found a Bank of Costa Rica ATM before immigration which worked with my VISA/Plus debit card even though there was no indication (i.e., VISA or other label) that it would. Walked a bit further to get stamped into Costa Rica. Hard part was procuring the entry form which they didn't have lying
around so had to wait in line for that. Filled it out and presented the form, my passport, and copy of a flight from San Jose to Miami (which had already been cancelled) even though it wasn't asked for but a sign on window says you must show proof of departure from the country (bus ticket to Panama will suffice). Officer briefly glanced at it. At this point it was just before 11:00 a.m. Panama time and I set my watch back one hour. Bonus.
Bus terminal was back towards the border and there was a bus leaving later at 10:45 a.m. directly to Golfito but I took the 10:00 a.m. leaving immediately for Neilly (35 minutes, 440 col.) mistakenly thinking it would be faster to connect to something there. Bus from Neilly to Golfito left at 11:00 a.m. (675 col.) and arrived at 12:15 p.m., same exact time as the direct bus from the border. Both drop passengers right at the muelle
(dock) for boats to Puerto Jiménez.
Next boat to Pto Jim was leaving at 1:00 p.m., 30 minute ride for 3,000 col. Also 2 other boats later ~2:00 p.m. and 3:00 or 3:30 p.m. 2
Farm near the base of Volcán Barú. In addition to serious natural disasters, volcanoes make great soil for agriculture.
or 3 boats leave earlier but one is the slow boat at 11:30 that takes 1½ hrs. There is also one pubic boat/day from Golfito to Zancudo and back (a private transfer arranged by the tourist office at the dock was $60 for 2 tourists that I met in Golfito - pricey).
Not a grueling trip by any means except for the heat which was non-existent in Boquete.
Probably the cleanest, most modern city I have ever visited in Latin America. Staying in the banking district helped with that impression. Also definitely the hottest. Casco Viejo is the old town currently undergoing massive restoration. Apparently used to be quite a sketchy dump. Accommodation and food
Hostel Siriri is fairly new but somehow very popular. It was nearly full almost every night I was there. $16 nets an 8 person air conditioned dorm room (operates at night only but no biggie), sketchy WiFi, breakfast, great coffee, and a POOL! Don't even think about staying somewhere without AC. The neighborhood is called El Cangrejo
which I'm pretty sure means The Crab. I suppose after vultures, when I think of banks I think of crabs
so it does make some sense. I ate nearly every meal in air conditioned comfort at Niko's, open 24-7, dishing up plates of rice, beans, veggies, plantains and lots of turkey and chicken. Great sandwiches (Niko's Steak and the fries rock) for late night munchies. I did get one meal from the taco street vendor around the corner from the hostel. Dubious hygiene aside, the tacos were awesome. Transport
Getting around town is easily accomplished on the city's sleek air conditioned buses after procuring a magnetic swipe card for $2. For some idiotic reason, these are not available at the airport but I walked out to the airport bus stop and met a couple from Venezuela who asked another passenger to swipe for us if we paid her the $1.25/person fare in cash. Took a while to get to the city center and I don't think a taxi (~$30 or more) would have saved any time. The traffic was awful and the bus only made a couple of stops anyway before my stop at the Multi Centro Mall. Most fares around town (i.e., The Crab to Albrook terminal) are 25¢ but not on the Corredor Sur buses. Intercity buses
leaving Albrook require yet another swipe card ($1) to pay the 10¢ or 25¢ terminal tax but you may be able to get someone to swipe if you don't want to buy a card.
Leaving Panama City for David, I opted for the executive night bus leaving at midnight for $18.15, cash only please. The bus was pretty schwanky and some might think it freezing. Other departures at 10:00 and 11:00 p.m. but the last bus made the most sense since it is only a 6½ hour trip. Oddly, can only buy these tickets starting at 9:00 a.m. on the day of departure. The same holds for the cheaper daytime buses to David but you might not be able to buy those until an hour before departure. Panama Canal Railway
Took a bus from Albrook to Colón ~3:15 p.m. (~$3, pay on bus) with someone I met at the hostel to catch the train departing from there at 5:15 p.m. (left on the dot). The train ride was nice but definitely not worth the $25 fare for a little more than an hour trip to the Panama City station near Albrook (cramped $4 taxi ride split among 5
of us or can wait for a local bus coming from Miraflores, 35¢). In the other direction, the train leaves Panama City for Colón at 7:00 a.m. Too early for me but probably better light for pictures and more ships in the canal. Miraflores Canal Locks
For me a must see and a tour is completely unnecessary. Entry is $5/8 for the observation deck only/full admission (which includes an OK museum and barely interesting movie). Best to get there early in the morning as the last ship passed the locks ~11:30 a.m. when I was there and there weren't any more scheduled until 3:00 p.m. Can easily get to the Miraflores entrance from Albrook for 35¢, takes ~20 minutes plus 15 minutes or so walking to the complex. Bring mucha agua
and a snack.
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