Costa Rica to Panama – 15 Hours by Bus!??

Warning – If you are an impatient person NEVER take the 15 hour bus ride from San Jose, Costa Rica to Panama City, Panama!!!

Adios San Jose, it's been real!

Trying to figure out my next move in Central America I came upon a fact I should have taken more notice of before I left. It’s the rainy season and even though the weather is still warm and the rain is brief and sporadic, the beaches will probably not look like they did when I was Google Imaging them from home before I left. One potential plan I had was to head to the Caribbean side of Costa Rica then south to Bocas Del Toro for a month of beach living and Spanish classes. However, after looking at the monthly forecast of rain and storms I randomly opted to book a 15 hour overnight bus ride directly to Panama City where I will try to find work as an English Teacher. Walking back to my friend’s house from the Tica Bus station the realization of how long a 15 hour bus ride actually is hit me pretty hard. The longest bus I’ve been on before was 8 hours in SE Asia and pretty much the opposite of awesome so why exactly did I just opt in doubling that pain? One thing I’ve learned from life is don’t regret things or second guess decisions that can’t be changed so I just put it out of my mind. After a box of white wine and saying farewell to my sporadic road trip partner I put on my backpack and the best “Don’t Mess With Me” face and walked 45 minutes across the city of San Jose alone and after dark to catch my 11pm bus.

The legendary Tica Bus, Nicer than you would expect!

After waiting for the bus for an hour I eventually boarded and passed out hard. I was pleasantly surprised to find out 5 hours had already gone by when the driver woke up all the passengers as we were at the Panamanian border. We lined up outside the empty Costa Rican border control and minutes seemed like hours as I struggled to keep my eyes open. To my horror the minutes actually turned into hours as the line of passengers slowly dispersed to sit on the various dirty concrete stairs around the border control instead of waiting in a long line. After one hour had passed my level of disgruntled was at an all time high, but when hour two went by I thought I must be on a hidden reality TV show called “Disgruntled Explosion!” where the hosts set up unbearable situations to make people crack. As I drastically search for hidden cameras, eventually the employees trickled in just after 6am. I couldn’t understand why the bus would arrive so early if the border didn’t even open until 6am?? What also befuddled me was that this bus ran daily so you think they would have figured out this problem of schedules by now??

Hola Panama! Fancy a Cerveza?

That’s Costa Rica for you and after I finally obtained my exit stamp I pulled my exhausted body across the border to Panama immigration. After nearly another hour to get my Panama entry stamp and lots of confusion because nothing was being explained to me in English eventually the driver pointed at the bus. Never having been so happy in my life to get on a bus and sleep again I was horrified when everyone started taking their bags off the bus and into a little room with tables. No clue what was going on I followed stride and ended up in a claustrophobic little room with everyone from the bus unzipping their suitcases. Realizing they would search every bag by hand for every passenger on the bus made me freak out a little inside because I wanted to sit down so so so badly. First they did a roll call of every passenger then read a list of Spanish lines to which we would all reply “si.” No clue what I was agreeing to or what they were asking, I assume it was something like “So none you guys have 5 Kilos of Cocaine and an automatic weapon in your suitcase do you?” but I will never be too sure. After having our passports checked for a final time they went around the room and started unpacking everyone’s bags. I must have looked the least threatening of the bunch as my backpack was literally just glanced at followed by a deep stare through my eyes and into my soul to see if I was a drug runner or not. One of the things I thought most extraordinary about the whole ordeal was that you had to prove you had enough money to enter the relatively poor country of Panama. Literally you had to show $5,000 cash or show them a credit card to pass into the country. Eventually I boarded the bus and passed out within seconds to a bus seat that felt more comfortable than anything in my life following the 4+ hours at immigration. I’m writing this on the bus now and my only thought is hoping those 4 hours were included in the 15 total to Panama City. Although the bus is comfortable they insist on playing one of the Fast and the Furious movies at full volume, which make sleeping nearly impossible even in the most tired state imaginable. And seriously out of all movies to pick does it really have to be one where a car engine is rev’ed and tires squeal every five minutes! On to Panama City…

Along with being a travel blog sharing my adventures in foreign lands I try to shed some knowledge on my readers that I’ve gained from these experiences.  One thing I’ve come to realize about traveling is that the really shitty and awful situations that occur along the way more often than not make the best stories and are the ones people are most interested in hearing upon return.  This is due to the fact that no one really wants to hear about how awesome your time hanging out on a spectacular beach with foreign broads and cheap beer while they were in the office.  However when you discuss stories of 15 hour bus rides and getting robbed suddenly the routine of daily life doesn’t sound so bad!  This is why a true adventure is not a vacation, to me it must have its highs and lows for its more about experiencing things than just enjoying them!  A lot of people get the wrong idea about long-term travelers.  They think they are just lazy, escaping the responsibilities of routine work for a never-ending vacation.  I can assure you that I’ve never been more uncomfortable and miserable at home as I’ve been on the road, but with the extreme lows, come extreme highs so it’s always worth it.  Just a thought…

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Spontaneous Road Trip to the Beach…

Have you ever been hungover and uncomfortable wishing you were on a beach instead of a noisy, busy city? Most of us have, but have you ever taken this wish so seriously you decided to drop everything including you job, rent a car and just go for it? Well I didn’t have a job, but my new friend did and here is our story of the hungover road trip to the beach.

Mission Accomplished - Hangover Cured!

Although I didn’t really have much of a plan once I touched down in Costa Rica, I knew I didn’t have the intention of spending much time in San Jose. I’d heard the city was dirty and boring, mostly used as a one or two-day stop over between travels. As you already know my bag was lost upon arrival to Costa Rica so I was forced to spend a couple nites in the city anyway.

Mattie - The only dog I know with a passport!!

I had a friend who briefly lived and taught English in San Jose and she gave me the contact info of her old roommate because she was still living there. We went out for a few drinks that turned to many and here is where my plans took a drastic change. I woke up in a hot, humid and hungover state in the busy city and yearned to be on the beach instead. I jokingly suggested to my new friend that we catch a bus to the nearest beach ASAP as it would be good for our hangovers. Not only did she own a dog in Costa Rica, but she had a class to teach later that evening so the plan seemed unlikely. However, when I suggested we rent a car and cruise to the ocean so we can bring the dog along, she seemed to be into the idea, so much so that she decided to quit her job to partake in this spontaneous adventure. Although I had never rented a car before and Costa Rican traffic looked rather hectic, we made it happen and before I knew it I was driving a very happy dog and a nice girl up and down the curvy jungle hills towards the closest ocean. Jaco was the destination, a very popular, but known for crime, beach town on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica.

That's a Huge Bird!

Cruising to the surprisingly good Costa RicanRadio filled with American Jams from the 80s and 90s we hoped we could find a hotel that would allow dogs, but we discussed the possibility of just sleeping in the car if it came down to it. By nightfall we had arrived and we took the car briefly to the beach which we didn’t get out and walk around because we heard it was dangerous at nite. After some searching we found a relatively cheap hotel that would allow our dog. The room had air-conditioning, was only a short walk from the beach and will definitely be the nicest place I will stay in a while…

And that's a big spider....

After a fun nite of overpriced drinks we woke up and finally set foot on the black sand beach with big waves and lots of local surfers. Unfortunately it was the rainy season, but as we sat on the beach with rain sprinkling down it was hard not to smile as we had successfully completed our random hungover mission! Paradise had been found temporarily and we opted to stay another day sipping beers by a pool surrounded by a big iguana, spiders the size of your hand and birds bigger than a football.

Chillin Iguana

This adventure shows that sometimes just going with the flow and being up for random situations that present themselves can be even better than making plans. So often when we travel we plan out each and every detail so we can see and experience the things we have been recommended when we venture to a new place. As I had no schedule and nothing to do upon arrival in Central America it allowed for this cool trip. The most common phrase I find myself saying lately is “I’m down for whatever” and thus far it’s worked out pretty well. I’m headed back to the girl’s house in San Jose for a couple more days, even though the stereotypes were true of the city, I actually quite like it. It’s definitely not your typical tourist place with lots of sights and things to do, but if you want to see the laid-back lifestyle of true Costa Ricans give this place a chance….

First Night in San Jose- Lost Bags and Costa Rican Dennys?

An excerpt from my Latin American Phrasebook says, “If you don’t want to be kept waiting, you could ask, when arranging to meet, if the appointed time is a la hora inglesa (on English time) meaning promptly, or a la hora latina (on Latin time), ie, approximately half an hour later than specified. This hilarious comparison of time describes my first couple days in San Jose, Costa Rica perfectly. To us people from the United States it would seem a bit out of the ordinary for things to run slowly, but down here its just makes sense that way.

Cool Islands and strange blue rivers and holes in the water, Belize?

So I landed in San Jose, Costa Rica yesterday after a flight from Denver, and a 2 hour layover in Houston. The flight was easy, cheap and smooth and so low flying that I could see spectacular views of what I think was Belize and the Yucatan Peninsula from the plane window. Although I was exhausted from 2 days of going away partying I spent most of my flight chatting to an older American woman who kept apologizing for sitting next to me because she wasn’t a hot young girl and that’s what she thought I should be sitting by??? Although I agreed with her I was confused at this thought, and listened to her motherly worries as I described my planless Central American adventure. As I made my way through customs I watched in jealousy as all my fellow passengers collected their baggage and happily made their way to hotels. As I waited and waited for the empty baggage claim to finally produce my beloved backpack I had spent the last day packing my entire life into, I watched in dismay as the machine eventually turned off and realized my sweaty t-shirt and shorts would ultimately be my only possessions for the next who knows how long.

Passed by this walking at nite, dont think its a place i want to be....

What worried me about the whole situation was that I had yet found a place to stay for the night in San Jose. I had connected with a girl from Costa Rica through couchsurfing.com who said I could sleep on her couch for a few days. She left her number and told me to call her upon arrival. The issue was that I did not have a phone so my plan was just to collect my bags, head downtown and find a payphone to reach her. When you loose your bag at an airport they ask for the address of where you are staying or the phone number to reach you at. To the bewilderment of the baggage worker I had neither so he gave me a claim form and his number to call him when I figure out my life better.

As I exited the airport slightly confused I decided I needed to find internet ASAP to get a hostel address where I could tell them to send the bag. Just so you know I’m a blond-haired, blue-eyed, half American, half English boy so to Costa Ricans I look like THE SUPER GRINGO.

San Jose is a city of contrasts. In the background is an amazing state of the art football stadium, in the front trash covered practice fields with dirt holes....

You can Imagine the moment I left the airport I was a magnet for taxi drivers who wanted to be my “amigo”. Another mistake I made was not doing any research what so ever about Costa RIcan currency before exiting the airport. I had been so exited to go to Panama, I neglected to research my first week or so in Costa Rica and forgot they had a different currency. A taxi driver pointed me to an ATM and I used my strategy of choosing the bottom left button as the quantity of money hoping I didn’t just take out my life savings by accident (this happened to me in Albania!!!). The friendly taxi driver helper guy understood my problem and told me there was a hotel a few minutes away where I could get wi-fi. He told me it would be a $2 cab ride and sent me off in a friend’s car. Before leaving he asked for some money for helping me out and although I did think he deserved a couple bucks I still didn’t know the exchange rate for Costa Rican Colones. Of all people to ask I asked this guy what the exchange rate was and he said 500 Colones to the dollar, so I handed over 1000 Colones praying that was the real rate!!

First Spanish style building I came across...

I made it to the hotel which confirmed the exchange rate, but told me I couldn’t use their internet because I wasn’t a customer.  Luckily, across the street was a Denny’s where I could use wi-fi. Sitting in Denny’s looking at large American Tourists eat “Moons over my Hammy” while I drank my first Costa Rican beer was a strange and sad experience, but I found a hostel online and got the waiter to tell me how to take city buses to that location to avoid more cab fares. I arrived in an interesting hostel, paid for a dorm bed and attempted to call the number given to me to tell them my address. To my dismay the number was either busy or didn’t answer for the remainder of the night.

All the traffic cops in San Jose got together and lined up for a photo?? How many accidents occurred at this time?

I was given a bag tracing ID for the continental website, but my bags status was “searching for bag” for the entire evening. I strolled around, ate some local food then spent the evening chatting about NBA basketball with an Israeli guy… Not sure where my possessions are stay tuned for my next story…

I’m Moving to Panama on Tuesday. Why? … Why Not?

Goodbye America, Hello Panama!

Last Friday I quit my job, bought a one-way plane ticket to Central America and started figuring out how to pack my entire life into a backpack.  I’m flying to San Jose, Costa Rica after which I will make my way down to Panama in search of work, the perfect beach and a new way of life.  The idea is to get an English Teaching position in Panama City, but upon departure I have no real concrete plans.  I don’t speak a word of Spanish, I’m traveling solo and I don’t know anyone down there.  How long will I stay?  Your guess is as good as mine…  There is usually a string of questions and bewildered stares associated with telling people about my plan all of which I will attempt to answer here.

Why are you doing this?

Have you ever woken up from an amazing dream and desperately wanted to go back to sleep to return to that world?  In your dreamworld you were sitting in a “Corona Commercial” style beach with your friends deciding whether to drink another beer or go surfing, but in reality your alarm is buzzing for you to get up and start the work week.  Have you ever wanted to try and make your dreams a reality and instead of snoozing one more time in hopes of a brief return to your dreamworld?  This is why I’ve decided to quit my job, leave everything behind and head to Panama, I got sick of snoozing…

Not for me...

Last summer I spent 4 months in Europe backpacking mostly in the east.  Upon my return I thought I had scratched my travel itch successfully and tried to act like a normal 24-year-old American guy.  I started my own cleaning business called Hangover Helpers cleaning up after College parties and providing burritos and Gatorades to those ailing a hangover.  I also worked in an office creating technical videos for a software company all the while living in my parent’s basement to try and re-coup the funds I used during my summer travels.   Even though the business was starting to pick up and we created national media attention for our novel idea, I quickly realized spending my weeks in an office and my weekends cleaning up disgusting party messes wasn’t what I was built for.  I found myself constantly staring at maps daydreaming of living in obscure countries.  Many of my friends were already beginning to progress in their jobs, move in with their girlfriends and start acquiring nicer things.  “Living for the Weekend” seemed like a common theme among my peers, struggling through 5 boring days of work waiting for 2 days to relax and hang with their friends.  I began to realize that at this point in my life I’m not ready for this type of lifestyle and if I heard one more radio announcer exclaim their excitement with Monday being over I was going to scream!  Every paycheck I would receive I would think of in terms of plane tickets and how long I could travel for with that dollar amount rather than saving to buy a new car or TV.   After one particularly long week I realized that another adventure was inevitable so I began trying to sell everything I wouldn’t need, put in my two weeks notice at work and avidly searched for the cheapest plane ticket out of the country.

Why Panama?

I grew up near the mountains and studied French in school.  To change things up I decided I wanted to go to a Spanish speaking country near the ocean.  With these simple guidelines I sat down with a map and looked for a cool place to go.  Panama speaks Spanish, is only a couple hundred miles wide bordering both major oceans.  I read that the living is cheap, beaches are beautiful and seafood is delicious, why not?

Are you nervous? You can’t speak the language, going alone and don’t even really have an actual plan…

Boredom scares me more than anything else.  A complacent routine lifestyle doing the same thing every single day absolutely terrifies me.  Besides, the things in life that make us slightly nervous are usually the best ones anyway.  From getting married, having kids or going on an adventure the nerve racking excitement and anticipation are good feelings.

Are you crazy? 

I guess it depends on your definition of crazy.  To me spending the prime years of your life sitting in a cubical, staring at a computer screen until your eyes water, day in and day out its absolutely nuts!  There so much more to life than working for a bigger paycheck, I think it’s crazy not to take an adventure or two and experience something new…