When I left you last, we had arrived and already spent a day on Ometepe, a sparsely populated island in Lake Nicaragua formed from two active volcanoes.
We negotiated a good price for a motorbike and a quad bike on arrival, which we would have for two days to explore this beautiful, isolated island. The first day we did a lap of the larger volcano, Concepción, enjoying some amazing vistas and extremely fun roads, even if the Central American obsession with crude, sporadically-placed speed bumps seems to have reached here as well. We stopped often to take in photo opportunities, and eventually the day was called to a halt by a driving rainstorm that thoroughly soaked us all through. We had planned to return to a sandbar on the west of the island (where we stopped earlier) and take in the sunset, but with the clouds still ominously dark during a break in the rain, returning to our accommodation for a beer and a dry-off was favoured.*
The next day we drove down some slightly more bumpy roads and ended up in a small town called Merida, where you can rent kayaks and paddle out to two small islands, the second of which is named Isla de los Monos, or Monkey Island to you and me. After applying liberal amounts of suncream and donning life jackets**, we set off in two 2-person kayaks to see if we could catch sight of some primates.
We stopped at a stone dock on the first island for a swim and some selfies, before continuing on to Monkey Island. After a short while peering into the thick jungle, we thought we were going to be out of luck, but eventually after making enough racket, two curious spider monkeys came out to see what all the noise was near their usually peaceful home. A couple of laps of the island later, we had scoped them out, they had sussed us out, and Jo had gone through a minor panic attack after being steered directly under one of them by Ben, fearing a screeching, flying monkey attack in her kayak, presumably.
I don’t have any pictures of our furry, prehensile-tailed friends unfortunately, but do have some video footage that should make an appearance in my post-trip movie. After jumping back on our trusty, petrol-powered steeds we proceeded to another of the islands highlights, a natural rock pool named Ojo de Agua or basically the Spanish way of saying waterhole (literally; Eye of Water). I don’t think any of us were particularly blown away by this attraction, it was basically one big swimming pool and been extremely tourist-ified, not really offering the natural feeling of other places like the waterfalls in El Tunco or the cenotes in Tulum. Laura was very happy there however, being able to purchase a Coco Loco – a fresh coconut filled with a generous quantity of rum.
The next day we bid a fond farewell to Ometepe, which had been a much-needed dose of tranquility and natural scenery after the erm, ‘experience’ of San Juan. We hopped a (much more sturdy) boat back to the mainland and navigated our way to a city called Granada. Here we spent two fairly uneventful days, completing life admin, laundry and planning our imminent journey down to Panama, through Costa Rica. One of the nights here was Friday 17th March, so I did have an extremely expensive glass of St Patrick’s Day Guinness at one of Granada’s two raucous Irish pubs.
On the Saturday we caught a crack-of-dawn national coach service down to the Costa Rican capital of San José. We had heard multiple, conflicting reports about what you needed to get over the Costa Rican border, with many people saying they wouldn’t let you in without a pre-booked ticket to leave again, as a measure to stop Nicaraguans or other Central Americans entering and staying to work as undocumented immigrants.
As we couldn’t find a definitive answer, nor actually book the bus to leave Costa Rica again the next day, and were loathe to buy a useless bus ticket we had no intention of using just to satisfy the whims of the Costa Rican government, we instead elected to do the most British thing possible: turn up with nothing but our burgundy-coloured passports*** and a request that we be allowed “in the Name of Her Majesty … to pass freely without let or hindrance.”. It worked. Despite having various different lines of convincing argument prepared, we instead encountered a border agent who was in equal parts bored and uninterested, and we had our passports stamped within 30 seconds.
The following day we promptly left San José, again at painful-o’clock in the morning, heading to a town on the Panamanian border named Sixaola. Our experience in the Costa Rican capital consisted of a visit to McDonald’s, our first ever visit to a Taco Bell, and an early night. Costa Rica as a country was pretty much skipped in favour of spending more time in Nicaragua, which is much less cripplingly expensive.
Another stressful border experience later, due to actually definitely needing an exit ticket this time, we had passport stamps for, and feet on the ground in our final country of this leg of our journey, Panama. I had no trouble at the border due to having a flight back to London booked for Monday, but Ben has a boat trip booked to Colombia, the ticket for which we weren’t sure was going to be enough to convince the border guards. Sure enough, he did have to sweat through a good 10 minutes of tutting and head-shaking and checking-with-supervisoring, but was eventually ushered through to the great relief of all present (me).
We hopped on our next shuttle straight after customs, with the aid of an enormous 6’4 Transfer Czar, whom all the other shuttle drivers seemed to work for and be scared of, and whom I politely declined the opportunity of arm-wrestling for ‘double or nothing’ on my $10 shuttle ticket cost. After an hour’s drive and 45-minute boat ride later, we were finally in Bocas del Toro, a beautiful collection of islands in the Caribbean Sea.
It was here that we had to be by the 21st of March in order to meet our next visitor from the UK****, who was flying up here from Panama City early that morning. Fortunately, all had gone to plan, and, fairly exhausted by 48 hours on the road and two consecutive pre-dawn risings, we bedded down early, excited for her arrival the next day.
When Vicky arrived, we got her checked into our hostel (pictured above), and installed her quickly in direct sunlight with a very cold beer, mainly to make her situation as far removed from a Gateshead A&E department as possible. We headed down into the main town on the island we are staying on – Isla Colon – and pottered around, scoping out activities and adventures we could try out over the next three days and four nights.
The next day we set off, with two other friends we met in San Juan in tow, for another session of kayaking. The first place we visited had rented all of their kayaks out, but our second stop had more success after a fifth kayak was delivered in a speedboat from another nearby rental agency. Again donning generous handfuls of suncream, we set off for a lap of a nearby island, Isla Caranero, which Ben and I can proudly say we were the only ones to complete, with the others turning back at the sight of a rather choppy headland and having BLTs and beers instead.
Yesterday a disappointing amount of clouds and rain was present, scuppering plans to cycle to a nearby beach in the morning. In the afternoon when we tried again, we couldn’t find anywhere that could rent us enough bikes, so we took this to mean that the universe was telling us to play pool and drink beer all afternoon, which we promptly did.
Bocas del Toro is a really amazing place, with more than enough to do here to fill two good weeks. PADI courses, snorkeling, nature reserves, beautiful beaches and dense forest attract tourists here in their droves but I would still say it carries an element of the undiscovered or hidden. Whether that secret feeling will still exist in another five or ten years I couldn’t say, so I would recommend checking this place out sooner rather than later.
Today, we will probably head out to find a good beach if the weather holds, and will try to expend enough energy to facilitate sleep on the overnight transfer that we’ve booked to Panama City at 5pm this evening, where I fly home from on Monday and Ben sails from on the 30th.
It’s great to have Vicky with us and be back out by the sea, even if we could do with a tiny bit more sun.
*We also stopped in a cafe and I had one of the greatest sandwiches of my entire life, but I won’t go into it for fear of not doing it justice. Seriously though, it was epic.
**Safety first kids
***Did you know that the British passport is the joint-third most powerful travel document in the world, allowing visa-free or visa-on-arrival access to 175 countries or territories? Well you did now.
****Dr Victoria S. J. Cole. Shares my love of the Scilly Isles and routinely holidays in the most westerly house in the United Kingdom on Bryher. New trip doctor.