Puerto Viejo and Bocas del Toro - February 2019
Maria and Neil Celebrate 19 years!
We arrived in Costa Rica in December of 2018 and, according to our tourist visa, our 90th and final day was approaching. We wanted to stay longer, so we needed to figure out how to reset our time here. There are actually a number of US expats who live in Costa Rica that just leave every 90 days to renew their visa and then promptly return once their count is reset. These trips are referred to as border runs and this would be our first.
Having crossed the border to visit Panama in 2017, we already knew the bus routes involved and how to cross on foot. This trip would be slightly different, though, because we’d be going by the Northern route instead of the Southern route. The timing just so happened to line up with our 19th Anniversary so we decided to make it more of a week long vacation trip instead of just a border run.
In 2017, we had heard of a town in the northern corner of Panama called Bocas del Toro that had tourism and a waterfront community. It sounded like a great place to celebrate an anniversary, so that is the part of Panama that we’d visit to extend our visa. Luckily for us, it was easily accessible from the northern Costa Rica border crossing. We found an amazingly affordable place on booking.com, so we made the reservation. (read our review here)
We had only been to the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica once, and it was a day trip back in 2015 so we were excited to explore it a little more. This time, we’d be staying in Puerto Viejo, a touristy town a bit south of Limón. We really didn’t know much about this area so just kind of picked a random place also on booking.com. (read our review here)
And so begins our trip journal…
Most Costa Rican bus routes originate in San José, the capital. In order to reach San Jose, we are taking the MUSOC bus north from San Isidro de General to begin our journey. This route is about 3.5 hours and we’ve taken it so many times to and from the capital to get to the airport that we don’t even notice it anymore. Because we are so familiar with it, we actually helped set up this route on one of our favorite bus websites called Centrocoasting, https://centrocoasting.com/costarica/san-isidro-de-el-general/
After arriving in San José, it’s just a quick taxi ride to get us to the next bus terminal for the main route of our day. We had read that there were multiple departures, so if there aren’t tickets available for the next bus there would be another one after that for us to catch. (Not many options available for purchasing tickets online or in advance here.) Luckily our timing works out for us to grab a quick breakfast before we hit the road. This route takes about 4.5 hours so we also download a few items that we’ll need for our work time on the bus.
We arrive in Puerto Viejo a bit worn out from the long ride, and ready to find our lodging. There aren’t really addresses in Costa Rica so we have a little bit of a hard time finding the hotel from the bus station. Thank goodness it’s a pretty compact town! We are obviously a little road weary from all of our travel and the hotel owner, Chelo, greets us and can see that we are ready for some beach time. She points out where our room is and also where we can get a beach blanket before the sunset. We are in desperate need of some R&R and after a couple minutes on the beach, we are already in vacation mode! Then we eat a delicious Caribbean dinner of whole Red Snapper fish with rice, peas and coconut milk and bring our day to a close.
The morning of our anniversary is here! Let’s grab some breakfast at a super tiny place tucked into a hostel called Tuyo Roasters. The meal is not only amazing but we meet some people that know Bocas del Toro quite well. They suggest that we find the place where you rent ATVs because there are amazing trails that will bring you throughout the woods and on the beach. It’s a pretty glowing recommendation so we put it on our list of things to do while we are there. We are feeling so at home sitting here chatting and chowing down but we have another travel day ahead of us. We’ll be crossing the border to Panama today!
We have our bus tickets ready to go. An hour ride takes us to the border where we cross by foot and find the Bocas del Toro shuttle van. The shuttle van takes us to the boat shuttle which gets us to the town of Bocas del Toro. Does this sound daunting? Just kind of how public transportation goes here in Latin America.
The arrival in Bocas del Toro is as disorienting as the start to our time in Puerto Viejo. We arrive at a dock that we are sure to take a photo of so that we can figure out how to leave at the end of the week. Also we have to figure out how to get to our lodging, which we decide to walk to with our suitcases.
The walking map takes us directly to our hotel, which is tucked into the back of a neighborhood. After having seen the photos of it online, we wouldn’t have guessed we were heading in the right direction, but then we see the houses on stilts! So we check in and then check out what a cool place we will be staying in for a few days.
A dinner recommendation had been previously given to us for El Último Refugio, a fancier place on the waterfront. To our surprise, lots of people are speaking English and the menu is listed in US dollars (although the Panamanian Balboa is equal to the US dollar, usually prices are listed with B/ instead of $). We eat a meal fit for kings and even have some cocktails; a great way to celebrate 19 years together. We are able to find an ice cream shop in town for dessert. During our time in town we find the ATV rental place, too. It’s closed at this point, but now we knew where to go!
We had a couple of busy days there so we decide to just stay in the room today to chill out. There are some kayaks to borrow so I make my way around the clear water to see what kind of sea life I can find. It’s pretty relaxing and I am proud of myself for venturing out on my own. Don’t worry though, I have my life vest on! Another delicious dinner is enjoyed and wouldn’t you know it, there are more expats speaking English?!?
Perhaps another reason we stayed in yesterday was because today we are renting the ATV’s from Flying Pirates! After returning to the office in town, we catch their shuttle to the northeastern part of the island (Isla Colon) to start our adventure. The area is actually private land specially designated for ATV tours, how cool!
Have we ever ridden ATVs before? Nope, but we are willing to figure it out and that couple we met said it couldn’t be missed. Luckily, Neil gets a quick lesson on how to ride the ATV once we arrive on the property. The instructors say we are the first guests to arrive that day and will have the trails to ourselves!
And we’re off! Well I’d guess going about 10 mph as we figure out what we’re really doing. We have a map to show us where La Piscina, the blue lagoon, and other landmarks are along the jungle trail. The scenery we’re passing is so beautiful! Beaches with crystal clear water as far as the eye can see. Our first stop is La Piscina (the swimming pool), a natural cove where we’ll enjoy some wine and cheese that we tucked into our trunk at the beginning of the journey.
Uh-oh! Unfortunately for us, the wine is brown and no good, but the cove is so peaceful and there are still meats and cheeses to enjoy! We even take a quick swim before anyone else is around.
Next, we head over to the Blue Lagoon, which is as amazing as it sounds. The ride there is shorter than we expect too. I guess we are getting a hang of the ATV. There is coral all around and tons of tropical fish which Neil takes a swim with. As I sit on the side and watch Neil enjoying himself, a small octopus walks over my leg. Yes you read that right, an octopus. Never expected that! And I feel his tentacles suctioning on me. I think this is even a little too much nature time for me, so back to the ATV!
In addition to finding these two amazing places on the property, we take some trails through the woods. Some of them rougher than others, and at one point Maria just hops off and lets Neil figure out how to get to the other side, where she jumps back on. And once we really get a hang of it all, we are cruising along just laughing and enjoying ourselves. There is even a part where we are driving on the beach with the right tires in the sea. Maria takes a turn and drives the ATV through the gate, a real thrill seeker! What an experience. So happy those people told us about this place!
As the day draws to a close we take a quick stop at a waterfront bar along the trail to let our adrenaline settle before we return the ATV. When we arrive back to our stilt house, we have a celebratory bottle of bubbles from Neil’s coworker waiting for us. How nice!
And as soon as our time had begun, it was coming to an end. We have one last morning to sit and enjoy our waterfront view of water taxis and crystal clear water before making the trek back to Puerto Viejo.
Luckily though, experience is on our side to find the water shuttle, catch the same shuttle van and then bus back. We have even decided to stay at the same place, Poshtel KanWolaba, after feeling so welcomed here at the beginning of our trip. This room is just as nice as the first and we settle in.
Looking for something a little different than we usually eat, we ask Chelo if there is a taco place around. Wouldn’t you know it, one has just opened up this week! So we set out to find the brand new taco place, Go Baby Go. That proves to be a little tricky because it is so new that nobody knows it yet. The Visitor’s Bureau is also shocked that we know about a new business and they don’t! Well once we make our way down pretty much the entire strip, we are there. And yes, we are ready to eat!
Neil and I are always searching for new foods to try so the jackfruit taco seems like just the thing we’ll like (read our review here). Just as we’re wrapping up, someone calls over to let us know there is a sloth on the nearby powerline. I know that these animals are local to the area but do I really want to see my first sloth clinging for life? Not really, so I just take a quick peek. Animal rescue does arrive to save this intrepid sloth, but sadly it’ll be the only sloth we find this trip.
Once our bellies are full, we head over to the Chocolate and Wine Pairing shop we’d found earlier that week. Cacao is a plant that is indigenous to this part of Costa Rica so we have to check this place out! Cho.co works with lots of local farmers to help promote their products and builds coffee, wine and other tastings around it. I actually wrote an entire WineAndCheeseFriday entry about it, (so read more here).
It’s still early when our tasting is over so we go looking for more to do. There is a bar with people doing karaoke so we make our way in. Not really in the mood to sing, we’re happy to find another couple nearby just watching and hanging out. They live in the nearby town of Manzanillo and he is a tour guide, so he has no problem striking up a conversation with us. We never end up singing but we do grab a quick bite to eat before the power goes out and stops the party. Pura Vida!
We’ll be heading back to Pérez Zeledón tomorrow so I guess it was fine that we call it a night.
Today we only have time for a quick walk on the beach but we decide to jot down a few notes about this new place, Puerto Viejo:
Weather better than Dominical (the beach near us) because it’s not such unbearable heat
Significantly bigger than Dominical too. Lots to do, beaches, tours out of PV, and lots of restaurants
Given the recommendation to come in Sept for the good weather
Nice water, coral on the shore
Accepts USD and CRC as forms of payment
Caribbean influence - coconut rice, weed, different cultures than other parts of CR
Very walkable, no need for a car or bus
Although we only came for a quick trip, Puerto Viejo really has made an impression on us, I think we’ll be back! Now onto the 4.5 hr bus to San Jose. And after that, the 3.5 hours back to San Isidro. Yes, it’s a long trek but at least we are heading back to our cabin in the woods with another 90 days to spend in Costa Rica.