It takes over 12 hours before I finally reach my hostel in David, Panama. The border crossing seemed to take forever but when I finally got the necessary stamps in my passport and the dogs didn`t sniffed any drugs in my backpack, I may finally enter Panama.
In my hostel I was warmly welcomed by a girl from London. I get a bed in the dorm, dump my bag on the bed and grab my last bit of oatmeal, which I`m already carrying around for two weeks. I`m dying of hunger and make a big pot. While I'm in the kitchen, I`m suddenly embraced by two people: “Sanne !! So awesome to see you again!” I turn startled and look straight into the eyes of Jennis and Jack an American couple I met at Flutterby (see blogs `On the road again` and `Judgements and prejudgments`. I give both of them a big hug in return and with compassion they look at my pot of oatmeal. “Is that your dinner?” she asks. “Well it's really not that bad. I have spent the past two weeks eating soooooo well, so it's time for some `back-to-basics'” I reply. “Are you crazy! Come we have some leftovers tonight” says Jack. 5 minutes later I'm sitting with a pot of oatmeal, a plate of rice and vegetables, an ice-cold beer and 10 other backpackers at the table. Everybody`s making friends by sharing the small amount of food and drinks they have left. I cut my apple and banana in pieces and put it on the table to share. Panama appeared to be literarily a bottleneck of travelers going south crossing the ones going north. We enthusiastically exchange hostel addresses, must-sees and of course good stories.
When I am walking towards the cold shower the next morning, I laugh spontaneously. What a contrast with my last two weeks, I am happy and feel happy that I`m able to enjoy both modes of travel so tremendously.
The cold water is dripping down making its way into the drain. Suddenly, somebody knocks on the door of the shower. “Sanne, you`re taxi to Boquette is waiting for you.” Quickly, I jump into my clothes, make a sandwich and grab my backpack. It's time to learn Spanish in Boquette! During my trip I have now picked up quite a bit of Spanish, but real conversations with the locals was still a bridge too far. In addition, grammar is still one big question mark, so two weeks Spanish course in combination with a homestay seemed not to be such a crazy idea.
At the school I was warmly welcomed by one of the teachers. From now on everything will only be in Spanish. But first passing an oral exam to see in which class to put me. My level turns out to be better than I thought and I may start in class 2+. My classmates appeared to be in class for over 6 weeks! With a sense of shame I admit that I didn`t had any lessons before, but that I will work my ass off to catch up. My vocabulary appeared to lack a lot of words, so I get a whole list to take home which I need to learn by head before tomorrow + regular homework. “Ok, we're really back to school” I think to myself.
With my head full of information I get into the car which takes me to my Panamanian family. They appear to live just outside Boquette. About 20 minutes walk from the school. I am warmly welcomed by my host mother and her two sisters, I get a high five and a box from my 16-year-old host brothers and my six-year-old host sister shyly reaches out her hand. We sit down for dinner and the question firebombing is going loose. Especially my brothers prove to be extremely interested in the forbidden `fruits` of Amsterdam and my sister was particularly fascinated by my long, blonde hair.
After a four hour bus trip I'm back in San Jose. It's late and dark so walking to the hotel does not seem such a good idea. I decide to take a taxi. The driver laughs when I say that I need to go hotel `Grano Oro`. Apparently I'm the first person he ever picked up from the bus terminal that comes to this hotel. I chuckle when we arrive and the employee stares amazed at my backpack when he opens the trunk of the taxi. I’m sure it’s something different from the usual luggage trolleys he needs to bring to the reception. Behind the counter is the same staff as when I left to Uvita (see my blog `On the road again`). "Good evening miss. de Groot, how was your stay at Flutterby?" I tell them stories and that I like it so much to sleep in a place which is completely the opposite of where I spent my last couple of days. I get a key from reception and the porter carries my luggage to the room. The moment we walk in the room, I can`t help but laugh. The porter asks if anything is wrong. "ON THE CONTRARY" I say “Could not be better." I flop on one of the king size beds, made with silk linen. Still giggling like a little girl, I jump in the shower, a clean, hot shower! With a sink to lay out my clothes and toiletry stuff and when I step out of the shower, my clothes are not splashed because the shower is too small. I put on clean clothes and not much later Jean Sebastien knocks on the door. We catch up on my days at Flutterby and his flight from Paris. "Shall we order room service?" he asks "The company pays," he says with a wink. After four days of condiment-free rice with vegetables, I can’t refuse this offer. We eat on the balcony and talk about Costa Rica. This will be a fun 12 days!
We drive off to Arenal, a volcano, which is no longer active since 2010. The area is supposed to be great for hiking, horseback riding and the famous hot springs providing the necessary relaxation after a long day of outdoor. The first night we immediately kick off with one of the many hot springs. We jump in our swimwear and park our butts in one of the baths. The spa features several pools, which are warmer the further you go up. The waterfalls provide the necessary foot, neck and leg massages. Once our hands and feet reached an unacceptable stage of wrinkles, we concluded that it is now really time to go back.
Fortunately we had two more nights at this lovely place. We move to another resort which lies at the foot of the volcano in the middle of the woods and stunning view over a lake. Since we, as journalists, can make good advertising for the hotel, we get the best room. Our balcony overlooks the volcano, the forest and the beautiful lake, where every evening the sun creates a spectacular sunset. From the hotel depart several routes through the park and the days we spend mainly with hikes (eg a non-active volcano whose summit with every step turned out to be even further away than the step before). We see beautiful birds, monkeys, all kinds of amazing wildlife. At night the forest is filled with fireflies. In short, a true paradise.
Unfortunately, all good things come to an end, and so did our stay at `Arenal Observatory Lodge`. We choose a route around the lake so we can stop for a picnic and photos on the way. Slowly but surely, we would make our way towards Puntarenas and make a stop in Monteverde or Santa Lucia, one of the largest and most famous parks Costa Rica. We did not have a 4x4, so we decided to stay on the main roads. Everything went according to plan, until we came towards Monteverde on the 'highway'. This proved to be no more than a winding gravel path which let us through the mountains. The car chugged bravely and every truck driver we encountered, confirmed that this is really the 'main road' to Monterverde / Santa Lucia. We are both not a mathematician, but it did definitely was going to take us longer than the GPS and the locals were explaining to us. Luckily the landscape was stunning and it was not hard to make the most out of it. Luckily Sebastien used his flight certificate skills and as a true pilot he firmly steered us around all the holes and deep ravines bringing us to Puntarenas safe and sound before sunset.
We arrive at nice resort. It feels like a time machine took me out of the green fields of the fertile volcano grounds and dropped me off at the yellow grass savannas in South Africa. A deserted area with the nearest village a 15 minute drive away. The pastures of the resort were filled with herds of cows and horses forming a peaceful scenery with the patches of trees. The small cabins all had a veranda with hammock and if you walked towards the dock, you can enjoy great views over the sea and across the peninsula of Costa Rica.
Sebastien is an avid horseback rider and this resort had to be one of the best places to go for trail rides in the whole of Costa Rica. The next morning we rose early to beat the hottest part of the day. We have a quick breakfast and pull on our uncomfortable, hot, long pants. The guide, Lucardo, is already waiting for us with three saddled horses. We put our foot in the stirrup and swing the other one over the back of the horse till our bum softly lands in the saddle. It feels like a home coming, only now I realized how much I had missed horseback riding. Lucardo talks about the resort, the cattle ranch which is still running and of course about all the reptiles, birds and mammals that we encounter along the way. We reach an open field and Lucardo proposes to put the horses in canter. He didn’t need to make that offer a second time, as soon as Sebastien had his telescopic camera securely attached to his back, we give the horses a small kick to the side and away we go. They were definitely looking forward to this sprint. With one hand I hold the reins and with the other my baseball cap which was threatening to fly from my head. We arrive at the top of a hill and enjoy the views over the sea and the peninsula. Lucardo explains all about the sea, the fish, the islands in the middle and the people who live there. We gallop a few more times, spot a young pair of owls with their chicklets and return after a three hour ride back to the hotel. We put the horses in the shade where they can drink the cold and refreshing water they so well deserved.
This place was definitely worth a visit.
After an hour-long drive from the west to the east coast we arrive at the port of Tortuguero. A 31,000 hectare mangrove and rain forest which adjoins the northeast coast of Costa Rica. The boat to our hotel proved to have left already, but the parking attendant still had a boat that he provide to us as a means of transport The boat was filled with other locals, our bags were loaded and the local dog appeared to be in a need of a hitchhike too, of course. The boat driver deftly steered the boat through all the twists and turns of the river and floating logs that bobbed up in our way. On the riverbeds were crocodiles and iguanas warming themselves in the sun. Birds fly back and forth and the river is bordered on both sides of the dense rain forest. Our lodge appears to be the last of all the lodges that are in and around Torteguero. It is quiet, spacious and the rooms are beautiful! There are several possibilities to explore the park by boat or canoe, or take a walk in the private reserve behind the hotel. However, rubber boots were a must to keep your feet dry from mud and protect against passing snakes. We make a small tour through the reserve and are quickly greeted by a family of howler monkeys. It's great to see how the men guard the group, the mothers carry their babies around and the young jump from branch to branch, pushing the limits of the adults in the group. We see so much wildlife, many animals, sloths, birds, monkeys, etc. The area is beautiful and reminds me of the Amazon (which I've seen only on TV. I have not yet had the honor to visit).
The last morning we have to leave early. A long trip to Puerto Viejo in southeastern Costa Rica was waiting for us. We spend our last days on the beach (a break from the ‘busy’ schedule), enjoying a delightful Caribbean cuisine, even having time to visit an animal shelter.
Time flies and before we know it's time to go back to San Jose. Sebastien, is flying back to Paris and I need to grab the bus to Panama. Our last hotel appears to be a combination of hotel, spa and health center. They offered to open the spa for us, which we find a nice/convenient. What exactly is relaxing about a 40-degree steaming hot room, I still do not know, but it was an experience, especially after a cold shower.
We return our trusty little car back to the car rental and get a taxi to the airport. Sebastien and I say goodbye and thank each other for the nice two weeks. One last wave and then I grab my backpack and leave for the bus terminal. “Back to basics now Sanne” I murmur to myself as I leave for Panama.
With a somewhat disappointed face I look down at my plate. Despite all the free condiments that are available in the kitchen I did not have the powers to turn my budget meal into a culinary delight.
It's been over a day since I waved everybody from the Coffee Ranch goodbye and took the bus to Uvita, a peaceful hostel on the Pacific coast. The hostel is on the beach and consists mainly of wood timbered treehouses. I sigh deeply, grab my plate and decide to make the best out of the brown mash that patiently waits on my plate, ready to kill the taste buds on my tongue. I slide towards the long dining table and sit next to a group of American teenagers. They talk about all the hot `chicas` that they met on the beach and in the hostel and how their surf moves would clearly make a deep impression on the ladies. I smile, pleased as I am that I, with my 25 years, are wide beyond their category and thus do not have to come up with creative rejections. Opposite of me sits a boy of my age. He rolls his eyes sarcastically, clearly showing his displeasure of the behavior of the teens. He looks at them and then at me, while he lifts up his right hand as if he shoots himself in the head. I chuckle. "I hate Americans" he says, "and I am one myself. So I can say it." I peek at the guys next to me, but they are so full of all the beautiful women that they don’t hear a thing. I raise my glass of water and while my tap water cheerfully touches his beer, we introduce ourselves to each other. "Enjoying your meal?" He asks. "It is food." I reply with a nod. He laughs: "I like you." Dennis appeared to be on the road for more than three month, much like myself. After more than a year, 70 hours per week working in the psychiatric ward, his battery was depleted. He resigned and bought a one-way ticket to Colombia. “The only thing that I have done since is going to the hostel, to the beach, to the hostel to the bus, to the next place. I do not care what kind of park, what kind of volcano, whatever godforsaken mountain ... nothing! The only thing I do is parking my butt on beach and let myself float around in the sea.” He concludes his story with legs and arms outstretched, as if he imagines himself on the spot in the ocean. I just piss in my pants with laughter.
There's a guy passing behind me and Dennis follows him with his eyes. That gives me the green light to further questions about the conclusion that I had drawn from the moment our conversation started; "Is it difficult to travel alone when you bat on the other team?” Dennis looks at me with admiration. "You're a smart girl." He sighs deeply, "Yes it is hard, the girls are often looking for someone who wants more than just a good conversation and the men, well... they are scared that you want more than just a good conversation.” I understand him, but I also confront him with the fact that he himself places people in a cubicle as well. We all do it. It creates order in our heads and as long as we do not express an opinion on to it, I do not see what's wrong with it. “But people judge me, I feel it” and the tears begin to stream down his cheeks. “I think you only see a mirror of your own judgment” I reply, and we stare at each other. “Are you the new Oprah or something?” He asks and we both burst out with laughter. “But you have a good point.”
Anna, my German roommate suddenly jumps on my back and put two beers in front of us. “Come lovebirds, let’s go to the beach! Time for a campfire.” Dennis and I give each other a big wink and follow with beer in hand, firewood and guitars, ready for the beach.
Everyone I speak to that night has issues, uncertainties. That does not matter. Certainly not now. The fire is high, the beer is cold, the stars shine and we sing songs. And Dennis.... he is making friends.... with the American teenagers. Yet this turned out not so bad after all.
As you probably noticed reading my travel diary; I`m having an absolute blast over here! I`m nowhere ready to go back home. However, this does require making choices and sacrifices; whether or not going back for a funeral of your grandmother (see blog `Bye grandmother`); whether or not to going home for a wedding, etc. But one of the most difficult decisions until now, I still had to make; whether or not sell Ymke, my horse. After much deliberation, I decided it would be the best for all parties to sell her. I crawl behind the computer and put an ad on the internet. I calmly fill in all the blanks, until the moment I complete the ad and see the draft appear right in front of my nose. "My Ymke is for sale on the internet ...." I think to myself. Although I've placed the ad myself, my stomach starts to churn. I close down the laptop and abruptly decide to go to bed and calm myself with some music. Rodelle jumps next to me on the bed and asks with big puppy eyes and a low, wagging tail if it`s ok for him to join in. I agree and overjoyed he curls up beside me. I stroke with my fingers through his white curls and tears begin to roll down my cheeks. Rodelle looks up and puts his front paws on my chest to lick my tears. We look at each other affectionately. “I know it's the right thing to do, but it's so dam difficult” I tell him. He whimpers back, licks me one last time on the cheek and goes back into curled up position. “Yes, sleep is indeed the best remedy” I think to myself. I put my iPhone on the side, turn off the lights and eventually fall asleep.
At night I wake up, I look at the clock. It's 2 AM, 9 AM in the Netherlands. Would there have been a reaction to my ad? I look at my phone. 25 responses.... “It`s like the bloody sign-up page of the bachelor” And that after only a few hours. I read them all and to some I write a response.
After a week, a number of skype calls and a lot of mulling over my decision, Ymke is sold. To a man from the Beemster region, 10 minutes by bike away from my parents place. I would be invited to visit her whenever I want and ride her once I'm back in the Netherlands.
The day of the pick-up, I Skype with Lienke, my former sister in law, who takes care of Ymke now I`m gone. The loading went well. A WhatsApp message pops up. It is the new owner. Everything went well. 3 pictures of a cheerful Ymke enjoying delicious, fresh green grass. Rodelle looks at me. “Yes, you were right, everything is gonna be ok” I say with a smile and together we make a detour on the plantation.
It's Tuesday and I'm super excited. Today Mariel comes to see me. A half German, half Spanish girl I traveled with during my last days in Cuba (see blog "Hasta la Victoria Siempre'). She is expected to arrive around 5 PM by bus in San Isidro, so plenty of time to do some shopping with Kalina in the village. We drive our standard route along the local shops and suddenly I spot a tall, redheaded girl, with an unmistakable blue dress. Quickly I park the car on the side, and leave Kalina in total amazement behind in the car. “Mariel!” I shout with both hands in the air, “What are you doing here so early?". We jump into each other's arms. Her bus drive was much faster than expected and after several phone and SMS attempts, she decided to wait patiently at the church until I would appear. I quickly explain the situation to Kalina and introduce the ladies to each other. We do some last minute shopping and spend the rest of the day catching up on all our adventures. Mariel had left Cuba for Guatemala and made her way through Central America all the way to Costa Rica, so more than enough adventures to share. Mariel already was an enthusiastic vegetarian but since her arrival in Central America she started following a vegan diet. Which was surprisingly easy to sustain in such countries. She offers to cook that night and we of course don`t decline that offer... She dishes up a delicious meal what doesn’t lack of anything. It is delicious and the following days we enjoy much more vegan food. The famed Wednesday has come again, which means no obligations after 12:30. Mariel and I pack the car and drive onto highway 32 towards one of the entrances to the national park. Once we pass the first mountain, we gaze into the distance in utter amazement. Mountains, green mountains, as far as our eyes can see. It is difficult to comprehend how vast and green it is, let alone to capture a photo. Tracy Chapman sings on the radio: "You've got a fast car..." Everything is perfect. We arrive at the park. Again, green, green, green. Suddenly we hear rustling. It gets louder and louder and the trees begin to move wildly up and down like a Dutchman who is trying to dance salsa in Cuba. "Is it a puma?" Asks Mariel. "No, it comes from the treetops. It must be monkeys" I whisper. We gaze carefully down the tree tops and then they appear; a group white faced capucin monkeys. We try to capture a picture and follow them slowly. A thing that is not appreciated. The group armed themselves with some fruits and then starts attacking with precision artillery. We decide it was for the best to just leave them alone and slowly make our way back to the car.
Time to say goodbye
Sebastien, a friend whom I had met at the Dominican Republic, is coming to Costa Rica to make a travel reportage. And me, lucky bastard that I am, am invited to join in. “But I don`t have the budget for your type of accommodations!” I say during one of our skype calls, knowing Sebastien will not be pleased with anything less than 3 stars. “No worries Sanne, the company pays.”
And so my last days on the coffeeranch are coming to an end. I drop Kalina off for a last time at school. Give all the employees a hug and thank them for the great time. Cuddle all the cats and dogs and catch up with Phill who just came back last night from the States. He offered to give me a hitchhike to the bus terminal with a pitch stop at hotel Grano Oro. The most luxurious hotel in all San Jose and the first night of my trip with Sebastien. As I had 5 days’ time between Sebastien`s arrival and my last working day at the ranch, I decided to give myself a little holiday at Flutterby house hostel in Uvita on the southwest coast of Costa Rica.
Once we arrived in San Jose I get on the bus to Uvita. I'm the only non-Tican in the bus, which generates the necessary curiosity. When everyone is finally finished asking questions, I stick my head out the window and smell the lush green rainforest we are driving through. What a delight! I feel completely free.
I get dropped off at the bus station in Uvita. The rumors of Uvita prove to be true. Except highway, a roadside restaurant and a gas station, it does not seem to be much around. My backpack is removed from the cargo and I decided to ask at the station how to make my way to the hostel. This appeared to be too far to walk, but the friend of the owner was more than willing to give me a hitchhike for a small price. The closer we get to the hostel, the more trucks we pass, loaded with surfboards. Surfers on bicycles with their boards under their arms. It was like a pilgrimage towards the beach. The hostel was a reminiscent of a children's playground for adults. Everything was constructed of wood, painted in different colors and all the rooms were large treehouses where you had to climb a ladder and through a pulley get your backpack up.The hair length of the boys were on average longer than that of the girls and I think I was the only person without a tattoo. It was clear that the highest effort that was delivered here was surfing, cooking and possibly.. if you were a real fitness fanatic.... a walk to the falls. I choose a bed in the treehouse, get my stuff up with the pulley and head for the kitchen to prepare a meal. (Want to know what happened that night? Read my blog `judgements and predjudgements`). It did not take me long to settle in the hostel and with the other travelers. I met a couple who had been on the road for two years on second hand bikes. They started in Chile en route to northern Canada. There is a half burned-out musician, a former teacher who does not know what he wanted to do with his work and has taken a break, a group of friends who are on a month long holiday, a group of teenagers who have spring break at Flutterby to surf all day and many more. I take long walks on the beach, drink out of a coconut, see howler monkeys and take the odd dip in the sea. I get a hitchhike to the waterfalls from a Portuguese couple and spend the day in the cooler climate of the mountains, which provides a lovely relief after the cramped and muggy climate of the beach. At night, we eat together, drink a beer and when quiet time at 22:00 kicks in, we all go to the beach, make a campfire and drinking water, beer or rum (mainly depending on everyone's travel budget). They were really five days to never forget and before I knew it, they were already over. Time to catch the bus back to San Jose. I give everyone a hug and hope to find them all again one day.
After a burn-out it was time for a change. I quit my job, sold my stuff and bought a one-way ticket to the Dominican Republic. What was supposed to be a 4 month adventure turned into 2,5 years and counting......
Photo by: Vanessa Marques Barreto