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Trip Report Family Vacation, Caribbean Costa Rica and Panama

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We returned a couple of weeks ago from a wonderful family trip to Costa Rica and Panama. As much as we love Costa Rica, we really wanted to experience someplace new this trip, but wanted to take advantage of my husband traveling to Costa Rica for work and his flight being paid for by his company. So, we spent three nights in Costa Rica, and then traveled to Bocas del Toro, Panama for four nights.

Day 1

My daughters and I landed at SJO at 1:10 and it took about 45 minutes to get through immigration. We grabbed a taxi and met my husband, who had flown down four days earlier, by pool at the DoubleTree Cariari. It was a warm, sunny day, and soaking up the sun felt so good after the brutally cold winter we’d had in Minnesota. We spent the afternoon enjoying the sun, pool and hot tub. For dinner, we walked about 15 minutes to a Japanese steakhouse called Sakura for teppenyaki. The food was very good.

We were scheduled to raft the next day, and then transfer to Puerto Viejo. Our original plan was for my 16 year old and my husband to raft the Pacuare, while my 10 year old and I rafted the Carmen section of the Reventazon (Class I and II rapids). Kids under 12 are not allowed on the Pacuare by Exploradores Outdoors. At 8:30, we received a call from the rafting company. They told us that the Reventazon was too low, so they were going to put my 10 year old and I on the Pacuare, which was running low as well, and put us with their best guide. My daughter was quite nervous, and I was nervous for her. I had rafted the Pacuare in August, and I truly hoped it wasn’t going to be as wild of a ride as it was then, and my daughter would fall out and be scared the entire day.

Day 2

We were picked up by Exploradores Outdoors at 6:15, and made our way to Siquirres where we enjoyed a typical Tico breakfast. We stored all of our belongings in the large lockers they provide. We had no qualms about leaving our passports, cash, and credit cards there, because the property is secured by fencing, and the lockers are big shelves that are secured by heavy metal doors and big locks. From the “Exploration Center,” it’s about a 30 minute drive up the mountains to the area where the rafting starts. Along the way, one of the guides went over the safety instructions, which made my youngest daughter very nervous, but I assured her that there would be no way they would put her on the raft if they didn’t think it would be okay for her.

It was a gorgeous, sunny day and we had a great time on the river. My 10 year old loved it, as did all of us. Our guide, Abel, had guided for Exploradores for 8 years on the Pacuare. Some of the rapids were low, but he maneuvered us through perfectly, so we never got stuck. The river was definitely less wild than it had been in August, but was still a fun time, with some rapids that managed to get us drenched. We had lunch along the shore about three fourths of the way down the river. It was a Sunday, and when we got to the end, many Tico families were picnicking and swimming along the river. The kids waved to us, and really gave big smiles to my youngest daughter. One mom was even blowing kisses to her!

After getting out of our rafts, it was a two minute walk to the center where we had our belongings stored. We bought the CD of our pictures, a couple of t-shirts, and got changed for the journey to Puerto Viejo.

We arrived in Puerto Viejo at 5:30, and checked into Namuwoki Lodge. We also met up with our friends from New Jersey, a couple we met in Costa Rica in 2007, and have met up with on our trips to Costa Rica on 3 other occasions. They had arrived the previous day.

I picked Namuwoki for a two main reasons. One, being the location, as I wanted to be between Puerto Viejo and Manzanillo, and two, because I wanted to stay in a bungalow that offered 3 beds so my daughters wouldn’t have to share beds. Namuwoki also had a pool and decent reviews. We were upgraded to a 3 bedroom bungalow with a loft and 3 bathrooms. It also had a very spacious front porch. The setting of Namuwoki is wonderful, and the bungalows are separated by lush plants and trees. The interior of our bungalow could have used some sprucing up – a fresh coat of paint would do wonders. Overall, we were happy with Namuwoki, but it didn’t have the “wow” factor of Banana Azul.

We decided to walk to Jungle Love for dinner. Well, silly us, we didn’t have a reservation, and we were told they didn’t have an opening until Tuesday. I wish I would have planned ahead. Since we were very hungry and tired from our day of rafting, we just decided to eat at Namuwoki. The food was not bad, but nothing to get excited about, and we felt it was overpriced for what it was.

As were settling into our beds, we were treated to a heavy downpour. One of my girls came into my room and said, “I just had a bunch of water drip onto my bed.” Ha, there must have been a leak because water was dripping down the beam on her ceiling. I told her to just move over in her bed – what else could we do? The rain let up so it was fine, and then we were treated to the sounds of jungle critters the rest of the night.

Day 3

We woke up early to the sound of howler monkeys. It was the first time my daughters had heard them, and they were really surprised at how loud they were. Breakfast consisted of fresh fruit, eggs, toast, cereal, juice and coffee. No gallo pinto, which really bummed me out. How can breakfast in Costa Rica be complete without it? We rented bikes, and took off down the road. Biking along the lush rainforest was such a fun thing to do. The road is flat, and there are many spots along the way to head into the beach. We explored the area until it was time for us to go to the Jaguar Rescue Center.

The JRC was as wonderful as we expected. The tours are very well organized, the gardens are lovely, and the animals of course were the highlight. We were treated to baby monkeys climbing on us, a toucan that acted like a pet that wanted to steal the show, darling baby sloths, an ocelot and a variety of birds and snakes. It rained while we were there, but it didn’t really affect us since the center had sheltered areas for the tour.

Thankfully, the rain stopped after the tour, and we hopped on our bikes in search of a good spot for lunch. For some reason, many places were not open. Fortunately, we noticed that Alice’s owner was out front, so we asked him if he was open. He told us that all he had available was fish or chicken tacos. That worked for us. The food was excellent and we really enjoyed visiting with the owner, an expat from New York City.

We biked to Playa Chiquita and my 16 year old and my husband spent the afternoon getting pummeled by the waves, while the rest of us relaxed in the tidal pools and hung out on the beach. As we left the beach and got out on the main road, we heard howlers, and looked up in the trees. There was a troop of about ten of them climbing through the trees. The girls spent some time swimming in the pool at Namuwoki after we returned. We had picked up some wine for the adults to enjoy while relaxing on the peaceful porch.

Our plan was to go to Koki Beach for dinner, which is in Puerto Viejo. Well, they are closed on Mondays! We ended up at Café Puerto Viejo, which is right in the heart of town. Normally, I love to order fish, but they had some really interesting pizzas on the menu, so we all decided to get pizza. It was very good – it had a cracker-y crust that I love. I never plan which restaurants we are going to go to before our trips, and prefer to “wing it,” but I guess I should have done some advance planning.

After a crazy taxi ride back to the lodge (he passed a police vehicle after riding its tail for a while), we checked with the front desk to make sure we could check out before 7:00am the next day, and they said someone would be there. Some reviews have mentioned the front desk people not being very friendly, but we found them all to be sweethearts.

The next morning, we were heading to Panama!

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    Day 4

    Caribe Shuttle was scheduled to pick us up at 7:20 for our transfer to Bocas del Toro. I had arranged the rafting and transfer, our stay at Namuwoki, and our transfer to Bocas through Gecko Trails. I felt it would be easier to have one person to work with in case we would have any problems.

    We had a quick breakfast before the shuttle arrived. The shuttle stopped to pick up other people, and after the last group, all of the luggage ended up on the roof with no tarp. We noticed some clouds in the area that looked like they held rain, so we kept our fingers crossed that we wouldn't have soaked luggage by the end of the journey. After driving through some beautiful scenery, we arrived at the border. We had to exit the shuttle, take our luggage, and go through some type of line where they checked our passports while we were still in Costa Rica. Then, we walked the long bridge across the river. For those who don’t like heights, it isn’t a fun bridge to cross, especially if you look down. The trickiest part for me was to keep the wheels on my suitcase lined up with the misaligned boards.

    Once across, we paid a fee (I can’t remember if this was the departure tax, or the entrance fee), and met the driver of Caribe Shuttle from Panama. He directed us to immigration, where we had to show our proof that we would be leaving Panama (our Nature Air tickets). Then, we were loaded into a new shuttle, luggage on top (this time with a tarp since it was raining lightly), and we were off to Almirante. We found ourselves looking out at more beautiful scenery. We arrived at the water taxi dock and only waited about 15 minutes for the water taxi to arrive. After a 30 minute ride across calm waters, we arrived in Bocas del Toro.

    It was exciting to catch our first glimpses of the colorful hotels and restaurants built over the water. The town was very busy since it was Fat Tuesday, and everyone was out and about. Since we were loaded down with our luggage, we decided to head to our rental house which was 10 minutes away. I called the rental manager and he sent two taxis to pick us up.

    We rented Casa Mono, and it was even better than the pictures. The layout was perfect for our group, and three walls in the living room and kitchen were made entirely of screens. The gardens surrounding the house were lush, and we felt like we were in a treehouse. None of the doors had window panes, but instead thick mesh screens. There were hammocks on all of the decks and on the patio. We could hear the surf from the house.

    We made ourselves a quick lunch with some limited supplies we picked up while waiting for the taxi. My husband took our daughters to a tidal pool to swim less than a five minute walk away, while the rest of us took a taxi back to town to pick up groceries.

    The house rental manager had recommended the Super Gourmet grocery store to us, but we were disappointed in it since it mainly had expensive, American food, and not much of a selection, plus, very few fruits and vegetables. I can survive without American brands, and prefer to eat the local offerings, so we picked up a few things, then moved on to another grocery store with more local items. There is no short supply of grocery stores in Bocas town.

    We got back to the house and settled in. Everyone did their own thing – some took walks up the beach road, some swam, and some read until it was time to make dinner. We set up our snorkeling tour for the next day using the phone that was provided with the house, and called it a day.

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    I'm really enjoying your report! I'm reading with quite interest - as I'm trying to come up with something for our next family vacation and this sounds like one possibility! I've been tossing around the idea of Panama for quite some time, but have been wanting to get to the Caribbean side of Costa Rica as well, and I love that you combined it with the rafting!

    I am looking forward to hearing about the rest!

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    Volcanogirl - I think that we were there during what that area considers to be low season. When we were there last August, everything was open. But, it was also during a weekend, so maybe that was part of it.

    ShellD - We thought the combination was great. We could have used more time in Costa Rica, but since my husband and I visited there last summer, we focused more on Bocas. We really loved the Caribbean side. A vacation there can be very tour-oriented if you like, or there are a lot of things to explore on your own, or there's chilling on the beach. There's wildlife, thick jungle, good restaurants, and an unspoiled, Caribbean vibe.

    I'll try to get some more posted soon - I've had a lot going on since we got back!

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    Day 5

    We took a taxi into Bocas Town to meet up with Roberto for our day on the water. The rental house manager recommended Roberto for snorkeling tours. It was $30 per person for a six hour day for the six of us. Lunch wasn’t included, but we packed one. Roberto was such a nice man, spoke excellent English, and was very eager to please.

    First, we traveled to Dolphin Bay to watch for dolphins. We saw several of them in the calm bay, and my daughters were so excited. Then, we traveled to a shallow area that was loaded with starfish, and we slowly drifted across the clear water seeing one after another. After that, Roberto took us to a reef that he said very few other boats stop at. So we jumped into the warm water and snorkeled. The clarity was good, and there was a variety of coral and fish. We were able to spend as much time there as we wanted, and we had the area all to ourselves.

    We made our way to what Roberto called Sloth Island. Apparently, some sloths made their way to a small island and thrived. The island is surrounded by mangroves, so we weren’t able to walk on it. We saw three sloths from the boat while we were tucked into a cove in the mangroves.

    Our next stop was more snorkeling in a garden of coral. I’ve never seen so many different colors of coral in one area. It was beautiful. Again, we could spend as much time snorkeling as we wanted. The water was a comfortable temperature, so we didn’t get chilled at all, plus the sun was shining. We stopped at one more location to snorkel, called Hospital Point. The snorkeling wasn’t as good there as the other two spots, but there was still plenty to see.

    When I had researched Bocas del Toro before our trip, I knew that there were multiple islands. But, I had no idea how many extra little islands existed that dotted the whole area. Many were simply mangroves that popped up in the middle of the water. And here and there were houses built over the water – some extremely simple, and others more upscale. We never ran out of things to look at while boating.

    Our last stop of the day was Isla Bastimentos and Red Frog Beach. As we rode through the opening in the “gate” of mangroves, the marina came into view. There were some very nice boats moored there. Roberto walked with us to the other side of the island where the beach was located. He talked about how the development has taken away the habitat of the red frogs. He grew up on Bastimentos, so I suppose it’s hard for him to see, but yet he makes a living from tourism, so perhaps has resigned himself to the changes.

    Roberto left us there, and we picked a time to meet him back by the dock. Red Frog Beach was quite scenic. It’s shaped like a wide horseshoe, the water was a brilliant blue, the jungle right next to the beach, and the sand was soft and light tan. The waves were good for body surfing. A boogie board would have been great to have had along. There was a restaurant/bar at the edge of the beach, where we ordered some sodas.

    After our time at the beach, we boated back to Bocas Town. We made one more stop, and that was at a local’s who sells fish. He didn’t have any fresh fillets, so we picked up some shrimp for our dinner the next night. Roberto was booked by another group for the next day, so we reserved the day after that.

    We taxied back to the house, got ourselves showered, started happy hour and grilled burgers for dinner. Nothing fancy, but they were great burgers that we had picked up at the Super Gourmet. After dinner, my oldest daughter and I played a game of Yatzee while the rest of the group took an evening walk. I think we were all in bed by 9:00 after a fun, full day.

    Day 6

    Woke up to another sunny day. We decided to call a taxi to take us to Bocas del Drago, which was on the other side of the island. Most of the taxis on Isla Colon are Toyota trucks. The first day we were picked up, we had two taxis, but on most of the other rides, all six of us had to cram into one. It wasn’t a problem on the short trip to Bocas Town, and it also saved us $10. When I called the taxi for our trip across the island, I told them there were six of us, but we still ended up with only one taxi. Bocas del Drago was about a 30+ minute ride along windy roads. At least we had air conditioning. The drive there was very scenic and it would have been fun to have rented ATV’s to make the trip.

    Something I’ll mention about the taxi drivers on Bocas – they are prompt. When we requested a pick up at a certain time, they were right on time.

    Bocas del Drago was another scenic location. We could have stayed on the beach there, but we decided to walk along the beach about 20 minutes to Playa Estrella, or Starfish Beach. Oh my, it was a beach of Caribbean dreams. The water was calm and clear, palm trees were draping the shore, and there were huge starfish scattered around in the water. There were several “restaurants” lining the beach. We were able to claim a table and chairs under a palapa along with a couple of loungers as long as we ordered food from that particular restaurant.

    When we snorkeled, we mainly saw starfish, but we found a crab scurrying along carrying its baby, and a tiny conch shell. Some reviews claim that there are not many starfish around anymore, but we saw quite a lot in a small area, so they must move around. The beach was busy, but not crowded or so busy it wasn’t relaxing. A boat buzzed by pulling a water skier, and another one pulled some people on an inflatable “torpedo.”

    When lunchtime came around, I couldn’t help but wonder if ordering food from a beachside vendor was wise. We were able to see the kitchen of our chosen “restaurant”, and it looked spotless, and we noticed that the bartender and workers all wore gloves. So, we all ordered the chicken dinner which came with coconut rice, fried plantains, and salad. It was delicious. And I’m happy to report that no one got sick!

    It was a very relaxing day on the beach. Our taxi driver was waiting for us at the specified time after we walked back from Starfish Beach.

    When we returned to the house, we decided to walk to a beach bar and grill up the road. The road by our rental house was paved, but shortly turned into sand, and was right along the beach. After about a 10 minute walk, we were at Paunch Beach, a surfing beach. The beach bar was called Paki Point, and it was completely open on one side, with couches and tables scattered throughout - a perfect spot to have a drink or a bite to eat while watching the surfers. We ordered drinks and smoothies and an appetizer, and soaked up the atmosphere and the view. At dusk, we headed back to the house and prepared our shrimp dinner, and spent the rest of the evening enjoying each other's company.

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    Thanks, Xelas. That is a tough question to answer because it really depends upon what you like to do, what type of vacation you are after, and if a week means you are sacrificing other locations.

    We only had 3 full days and if we had stayed longer, we would have taken the bat cave tour on Isla Bastimentos, spent more time in Bocas Town, maybe checked out the town of Bastimentos, and gone horseback riding. If those things plus boating, snorkeling, exploring islands and beaches appeals to you, then I think you could keep yourself occupied plus be able to soak in the vibe. There are also surf schools, kayaking, and chocolate tours to the mainland available.

    In short, for us, 3 full days wasn't enough, 5 would have been ideal.

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    Yes, we definitely got our snorkeling "fix" in. We're hoping to get to Belize next year, and I'm really looking forward to the snorkeling there.

    I'll try to finish up my report soon!

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    Day 7

    It was raining in the early morning hours before the sun came up. It was pouring, actually, and I thought, “Oh no, there goes our boating day.” But, the rain stopped just as the sun was rising, and there were pockets of blue sky.

    We met our trusty captain Roberto in town and mapped out our plan for the day. Our friends from Jersey had to be back in Bocas Town by noon, since they had to catch their Nature Air flight that afternoon. We decided to head out to Cayos Zapatillas because we really wanted to see the islands and also do some more snorkeling.

    It took about 40 minutes to reach the islands. They are beautiful, uninhabited islands located on the outer edge of the archipelago. Unfortunately, there were still some pockets of rain in the area, and the water was churned up because of it. The visibility for snorkeling was not good. We tried a couple of spots, but we couldn’t see much. We decided not to stay on the islands since we wanted to snorkel and our friends had to get back early.

    We went back the area Roberto called “Roberto’s Reef” and snorkeled. It was really calm and the sun was shining in that location. When the time came for our friends to head back to Bocas Town, we decided to have Roberto drop us off at Red Frog Beach and pick us up later. As we pulled into the marina this time, there was a fabulous superyacht called “Secret” docked there. It was quite a sight. I didn’t spot any celebrities, however, and never did find out who it belonged to. We sadly said our goodbyes to our friends and headed up the road to the beach.

    We saw a sloth in a tree on the way to the beach. My husband and oldest daughter spent the afternoon in the waves (which were bigger than two days before) while my youngest daughter and I stayed in the calmer waters by the shore.

    When we got back to Bocas Town, the girls wanted to shop for souvenirs. There were vendor booths set up in the park that had the best selection of items. Town was quite busy, and there was loud music playing in the park. I can understand why tourists who never get away from the noisy town might not be impressed. Although the town has a charming look from the water, to me, the best part of Bocas del Toro is away from Bocas Town, but it was fun to wander around for a little while.

    The house seemed lonely when we returned without our friends, but before long, we had some new visitors arrive. Howler monkeys! We counted eight of them moving through the trees. We watched them for a long time. We decided to walk up to Paki Point and have a drink and perhaps dinner. We didn’t realize that they close at 6:00 and it was 5:55 when we got there. So, we walked back home and finished up a variety of leftovers in the refrigerator for dinner.

    Day 8

    I got out of bed before the sun and the rest of my family were up and enjoyed listening to the sounds of the jungle while sipping coffee. Just as daylight broke, I noticed movement in the trees. The howler monkeys were back. They were moving all around in the trees right up next to the house. Two of them had babies. They stuck around for over an hour. It was such a thrill to see them again.

    We took a taxi to the airport and checked in about an hour and a half before our Nature Air flight back to Costa Rica. When I originally booked the flight, it was supposed to leave Panama at 9:30, and with the time change, arrive in Costa Rica at 9:30. Our international flight was at 2:25 that afternoon. Well, about two months before our trip, Nature Air changed the flight time from BdT to 11:30. I told my husband that we were taking a big chance not switching to the flight the day before, but he said he wasn’t worried about it. I was happy that our departure day had blue skies, so at least weather delays wouldn’t be an issue.

    The flight was about 20 minutes late departing and my husband was about to start worrying. It was fun to fly over the border crossing at Sixaola where we had crossed on foot a few days earlier. We had a very smooth flight.

    When we landed at SJO only 10 minutes late, a bus took us to the immigration area in the main terminal while our luggage went to the luggage pickup area. Fortunately, the immigration line was short, so we weren’t pressed for time. We exited the airport, crossed the street, went up the escalator, and then took the bridge across the street to re-enter the main terminal. We had purchased our departure tax they day we arrived in Costa Rica, so were able to skip that line, my husband has priority boarding on Delta, so we were able to be in the shorter line for check in, and with kids under 18 with us, we took the shorter line for security. By the time we finished the whole process, we had an hour and a half before boarding. We got lucky that it all went smoothly.

    None of us were ready to go home. We loved everything about our trip. We would like to go back to Bocas del Toro someday, and include other parts of Panama. There was definitely a different feeling between BdT and the Puerto Viejo area – one not necessarily better than the other. It was all great!

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    Thanks for info re. BdT. Have a friend living in Bouquete, might be there next winter, a week in Bouquete and a week on BdT. Some info about super yacht you saw:
    Secret - 82.3m (270ft) - Abeking & Rasmussen - 2013
    Nancy Walton - net worth USD 3.9 billion

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    From the Walmart fortune. Wow. It was a beautiful boat, but seriously over the top. I'm glad Bocas Town doesn't have a marina that can dock those types of boats - it would take away from its charm in my opinion.

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    Thanks for the report! My husband, 10 year old daughter and I are looking for a spot where he can surf (lefts, if possible) and my daughter and I have snorkeling and wildlife tours. Panama might work! He thinks Costa Rica surf is too crowded.

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    There's targeted attacks and robberies of tourists.

    Beware the Country is not what it appears on the surface.

    By going there you support Racism, Corruption & Human Rights Violations.

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