Panama City, Panama
Of course, we’d never seek a corporate sponsor for our trip – gosh, perish the thought! – but if we did have one there could only be two contenders. Superglue or Velcro. Without which we would literally be falling apart.
We’ve been in Panama for two weeks now, and a good few hours of it has been spent fixing, sticking and investigating all our little breakages of recent weeks. I’ve even sewn a new curtain to replace the back window blind.
But enough of all that excitement. First there is one final chapter of our Costa Rican adventure to share.
We’d travelled to the Osa Peninsula for one reason – to hike into Corcovado National Park, a wildlife-rich world-famous tropical rainforest which National Geographic called ‘the most biologically intense place on earth’.
If you are very rich and/or unimaginative you can fly in to the park’s Sirena ranger station, but most people hike the 19km from the last piece of road at Carate. The information we had about the trail was a bit sketchy, but we chose to go without a guide because the path more or less hugged the coastline and much of it was actually along the beach.
The first hour, on a shadeless beach of steep soft sand, was pretty challenging. By 9am the heat was intense. We were carrying way more than we normally would, because to stay at the ranger station we needed all our food for three days, plus bedding and enough water for a very hot and humid 8-hour hike.
After that test we moved inland to the shade. We took our time, delighting at our first ever sight of a troop of squirrel monkeys, and an anteater which appeared to have such poor sight it climbed down a tree and virtually brushed past us on the path. Scarlet macaws swooped around the tree-tops in pairs.
The trail was not always clear and we relied heavily on the footsteps of walkers who were ahead of us but out of sight.
As we reached the next long stint of beach walking, we’d caught up with a park guide who warned us that we had to reach the ranger station before high tide, because we’d have to wade a fast-flowing river at the end which could become dangerous.
By now we were tired but with the time pressure there was little room for rest. We tramped across the searingly hot beach for about an hour, sliding down the sand with every step. It was incredible – a delicious slice of heaven with a little dollop of hell on the side. A mind-blowing untouched jungle-backed beach, but also the hardest part of the trek.
We both felt as if we might be dangerously overheating. I am aware of how melodramatic this sounds, but at one point I did fleetingly think: “I’d actually quite like to faint now, because then I will have to be carried for the rest of the way.”
Then I looked at the state of Jeremy, and revised my plan: “Bad idea. If I collapse now there’s more than a 90% chance I’ll be left to the vultures.”
We finally reached the river crossing and luckily there were other walkers just ahead, so we could see how deep the river was before taking the plunge. I waded waist-high in my underwear, all inhibitions diminished by my desire to get there without a set of entirely soaked clothes.
On the final stretch we encountered a Baird’s tapir, an endangered species which is rarely seen in the rest of the world. A great lump of an animal, we reeled back a bit when we first saw it grazing by the path, before realising we weren’t likely to be mauled.
At dusk we arrived at the ranger station, which is also a major research site, and celebrated with a very weak and wobbly air-punch. The bad news was that our only way out of there was to hike back the same way. I wondered if I was up to it. We thought maybe we were being a bit pathetic, but were reassured when one of the guides told us loads of tourists either didn’t make it to Sirena (sometimes having to sleep on the beach because they got lost or couldn’t cross the river) or refused to hike back after they arrived!
We were sore the next morning, and took it slowly, although the day had started with a rude awakening. I reached into my bag for something and was wearing a glove of biting ants when I drew my hand out. Great! A massive infestation of my least favourite insect – zillions of which had found a food spillage in my bag. We’d gone to a lot of trouble to keep things dry in the rainy humid weather, but the whole backpack had to be plunged into water to flush those buggers out.
We bounced back and spent the day hiking some of the shorter trails around the ranger station, which is a haven for wildlife. We plunged through mud and streams, marvelling at the forest, and saw spider monkeys, more anteaters, and a Great Curassow.
It was hard to photograph things in the dense foliage. I spend ages trying to snap an amazing lizard which had a yellow throat that fanned out. I finally gave up, vowing to find another one by the end of the day.
Later, we did find one, but not in the way we’d expected. We’d spotted a snake rearing up in the leaves ahead of us, and when we caught up with it we noticed it had something in its mouth. I photographed it and we zoomed in, only to see one of those poor yellow-throated lizards, still alive and in the jaws of the snake.
As we sat resting on the deck at the ranger station, toucans shuttled back and forth in the trees in front of us. There were spiders that looked like they’d been on steroids, and flying crickets the size of sparrows.
We started our return to Carate at dawn the next day, wading the river in the half-light. We dodged the high tide, scrambling over rocks and climbing onto higher trails. As we rounded one corner, a park guide gestured to us frantically from further up the hill. “Up here, quick!”. They’d spotted a puma. We scrambled up, and there she was, sleeping on a fallen tree. Unforgettable.
Blistered and knackered, we got back to Carate and shared a collectivo back to Puerto Jimenez with some of the park guides. We’d found it hard in parts, we said, but we felt privileged to have been in paradise and would do it again. The wonder of Corcovado was something they were clearly proud of, and they said they supported the conservation of the forest. But it had come at a high price for local people. One of them had actually lived at Sirena, as a youngster, before the area became a national park. The government had forced them to sell their farm there for a paltry $13,000, he said. His friend had a similar tale of his family’s land nearby.
Later we hobbled to a local restaurant for dinner, and that night set a new record by being in bed asleep by 7.45pm.
Reluctantly, we left our much-loved campground in Puerto Jiménez, and drove towards Panama. Our last night in Costa Rica was spent at rather less of a beauty spot – a truck stop on the border, where the little van was lost in a forest of massive American rigs.
Arriving in Panama we went straight to the city of David, where we spent a few days looking into our mechanical issues [should be sorted soon] and getting our propane gas leak checked out [small leak, but can be safely used until we replace a part].
While there we managed to coincide with fellow road-trippers Andy and Dunia, of Earthcircuit – whom we’d first met in Honduras – and spent a couple of evenings catching up over some cervezas.
We did what the locals do and headed from there into the hills, to cool off. Boquete is gourmet coffee country, so we were wired on caffeine after sampling several brews. After sploshing about in the rain and feeling chilly for two nights we thought, “Hhmm, this is like being in the UK. Let’s move on.”
En route to a beach south-east of David we drove through the most incredible storm. We pulled off the road and waited it out, and when we left again the highway was strewn with trees and branches. We ploughed on to Las Lachas, but when we arrived it was pretty bleak. I waded through enormous river-fed puddles to see if the van would make it through them. We pulled on to the beach and ate a limp peanut butter sandwich, looking out at the grey beach, grey rainy sky and howling wind. “This feels like a holiday in Aberdeen,” we said. “Let’s go”.
We headed towards the Azuero peninsula, a relatively drier and more remote part of the country. Next day we had a spectacular sunny drive to its southern tip. The rolling pastures, the smell of cut grass in the clean air, and little cottages with pristine gardens also reminded us of the UK, but this time in a good way.
We had a great piece of luck by coinciding with a festival as we passed through the village of Ocú. We stopped for a few hours and watched a mocked up ‘campesino’ wedding, as part of the Festival del Manito. After the church service, one of the couples was paraded through town on horseback, as the men swigged from bottles of Seco, the local firewater.
We went on to spend a few days body-boarding, swimming and camping at a great spot overlooking the bay at Playa Venao, before dragging ourselves away to head for Panama City. Driving over the Bridge of the Americas – at the southern end of the canal – was quite an introduction to the place, giving us a breathtaking view of the city.
There is much to organise here, in preparation for a trip to the UK we are taking in a couple of weeks. We spent one day driving to the customs office and storage places, to sort out all the bureaucracy involved in leaving the car here while we go home.
Based on past form, we expected to get lost in the city. There was a reasonable chance of some shouting and swearing. As I got into the driver’s seat, ready to set off, I decided to pre-empt what may come.
“Jeremy,” I said. “Let me say that whatever comes out of my mouth this morning, I want you to remember that I love you.”
And in what may be another new trip record, we’d only driven 100m before the first u-turn-related expletive.
Things we now know to be true: It makes sense to get in early with the apologies.