Carribean Coast & on to Ecuador

Published: March 13th 2013
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On the long journey from Ostional to the central capital we had decided that we'd skip the big city and take another long bus to the Caribbean coast and a beach side town called Cahuita. The journey was pretty spectacular, climbing and descending through deeply forested areas before reaching the flatter plains of the coast. We arrived after dark, but the hostel owner meeting us with his huge dog 'Scooby Doo' meant that we knew we'd made the right decision. Heading out into the town we immediately noticed a huge difference from the pacific side of the country. The Caribbean vibe was there in full flow, with reggae beats and dreadlocks the order of the evening.

After a lay in we ventured out into Cahuita National Park and we weren't disappointed. The park stretched about 6 miles, with a path along the coast - white sandy beaches one side, jungle the other. It was a lovely walk and we encountered a group of beautiful Toucans squawking in the trees. Along with birdlife we saw both Howler & Capuchin monkeys. When we tired of walking we moved out onto the beach and took a swim in the calm waters. It wasn't long however before we were jumping out of the water to stop a cheeky Racoon from emptying our bag of our packed lunch! Having enjoyed the day so much, we decided an early start was in order for the next day to see if more wildlife could be found at that time of day. We weren't disappointed and walked the distance of the park and back. We were lucky enough to see more monkeys, racoons, sloths, a very poisonous yellow pit viper snake & our spot of the day, an anteater. Later in the afternoon we took a stroll to another local beach and found Scooby Doo the hostel dog already there. He'd obviously taken himself out for a walk and he joined us in some great stick chasing fun. When he'd had enough he followed us all the way back to the hostel.

It was time to leave Costa Rica with a short bus to the hectic and disorganised border crossing with Panama. Once across a minibus took us to the coast again and we jumped on a fast boat to the group of islands named Bocas Del Toro. Arriving in the afternoon, we found all the accommodation either hideously expensive or severely run down. After a sweaty stroll with our backpacks we eventually checked into a shared room at a nice enough hostel. Our initial impressions of the town weren't good. It was supposed to be an island paradise, but the streets were littered with rubbish and the beaches not much better. We hired some snorkelling gear and took a short boat trip to a nearby island, but this disappointed too as the water was murky and nothing could be seen. Not deterred we took a bus trip the next day to the far end of the island. Luckily Starfish beach our destination was beautiful, although we were soaked with rain after the walk from the bus stop! We spent the afternoon topping up the tan and swimming in the waters. Lots of starfish were visible through the clear water and we had finally found the bit of paradise these islands were supposed to offer!

Back on the mainland and it was an overnight bus journey down to the capital Panama City. We took beds in a central hostel, noisy dorms unfortunately, but location (despite building work) was right in the centre of the old city. It was interesting to see all of the old colonial buildings getting refurbished and a stark contrast to the close by poorer districts. The canal being the main attraction, we headed up to the museum and viewing area of the Miraflores locks. Deciding to go by public transport, the journey there left us sunburnt and knackered as we had to walk the final half hour. It was worth it. After a look around the informative museum an alarm was sounded and a HUGE container ship entered the locks. The sheer scale of it was incredible, we tried (and failed) to count the number of containers as we watched it travel through the lock system. The big boat experience did not disappoint.

Aside from the old city streets & the canal, Panama City tourist attractions were decidedly limited. We headed to the Metropolitan National Park one afternoon and found it an oasis in the centre of the city, with great walking trails and birdlife. Encouraged by this we hired a taxi for a day and took a trip to the famous Pipeline Road national park. The park is basically dense jungle with a pipeline and road straight through the middle. Over 500 species of birds have been spotted here and we enjoyed a long walk spotting different birds & monkeys along the way. Panama City explored we boarded our flights to Ecuador ready for the next chapter of our trip - South America. The short flight was a big change from epic bus trips and we arrived in Guayaquil still fresh.

It was a short ride – less than 10 minutes to our hostel from the airport – it seemed to be the smallest hostel we’d stayed at and managed to incorporate a postage stamp size swimming pool. Guayaquil is for the most part a built up 60/70s style city it has an arty area and attractive riverside area but not a lot else going for it. Our main aim on arriving was to search out a trip to the Galapagos. Job done and with our tour operator suggesting that we head off out of Guayaquil ASAP we set off for Banos with our last night given over to watching The Hobbit.

The trip to Banos was quite a long trek out to more remote areas with a change of bus at a roundabout in a town we can’t remember. We arrived fairly late and whilst there were numerous hostels the place was backpacker central. After a good walk around what seemed to be a very nice small town we found a decent place. The following day we hired some bikes to take in a ‘waterfall’ route for the most part this was safe although a few times we were passed closely by articulated lorries. This was our first and light touch taste of the roads in South America. Along the route which was very much a day out for locals there were several providers of zip wires over the valleys from which locals willingly hung in all manner of shapes and danger – good fun to watch. We also spotted a donkey that had clearly at some time previously been painted as a Zebra – fortunately it looked relatively OK for its ordeal.

At the end of the bike trail we were told we'd end up at Pailon de Diablo waterfall, this was quite different from the waterfalls we’d seen. It was a huge thundering fall where those courageous enough squeezed/crawled through a small tunnel to get to stand behind/under the waterfall. It seemed that most of the locals of all shapes and sizes out for the day were willing to take on the challenge. The following day we took a more relaxing option of the hot baths, reminiscent of a 50s swimming complex with a major difference that the water is supplied from the thermal volcanic springs. - Very relaxing and again a big draw for Ecuadorians. We enjoyed a local snack Cho Cho made up of beans, red onion and maize. Getting back to the square we looked with some confusion at a couple of stuffed horses that were being used as props for tourist photos.

Quito was the next destination and a long day bus ride. On arriving we took a tram towards the old part of the town. Our hostel was a lovely quirky colonial building and although late afternoon we dropped our bags and headed out to look around. There were a huge number of churches imposing on the outside and the majority glitzy on the inside. The city is the highest (legal) capital city in South America at 2,800 metres. It has many steps and steep ascents throughout the city and getting around the place can be very hard work - the altitude adds another challenging dimension. The following day we explored further afield to the two points described as the centre of the earth, there is a tolerance of each other by both parties claiming to be the correct centre, one stating historical precedence when the French identified the line and the other applying GPS which makes the original a few metres out. The first area was theme park like and the second site had more explanation and more history – exhibiting a shrunken head and various mock ups of indigenous houses.

Later the same day we decided we weren’t high enough and took the cable car to 4,000 metres – where it was extremely cold and quite bleak. The views back over the city were huge. Next day Galapagos.

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