Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Risking our lives to cross the border.

not our picture but i was too scared to dig my camera out

Cabinas Safari’s motto is your home away from home and it was. Although our time in Cahuita had been stressful, the awesome folks not just at the hotel but throughout town had made it one of my favourite places. However, today we were moving on to Panama.

We were close to the border but because our destination was Bocas del Toro, a group of island off the shore, it was not going to be easy to get there. But thanks to an awesome website I found and emails from a friend of a friend living on one of the islands, I had a clue how to do it and what to it expect. There was one comment from the friend that did puzzle me. “Be forewarned about the bridge crossing b/w CR and Panama,” she wrote with no further details. Curious and curiouser. I guess we’d find out soon enough.

At the bus station we used the bank machine to take out American dollars which are the local currency in Panama (although they still call them Balboas, handy). Then hoped on the bus to Sixiola. The ride was relatively short and the town was just as small. Just a couple of stores beside the river. We walked to the Costa Rican border control where we were stamped out of the country by a border guard who didn’t even look up at us. The next step was the Panamanian border control on the other side of the river. Getting there involved crossing the bridge and once we stepped on it, I understood the reason for the cryptic email message. The bridge was an old railway bridge, meaning that it wasn’t made for foot traffic. Instead there were wooden slats with huge gaps between them revealing the river below. At some point in time, wooden planks had been lain down on top of them to make it easier to walk but they were half rotten and no longer nailed down. On the Panamanian side I was surprised to see heavy trucks lined up waiting to drive across. I know I wouldn’t want to drive across it. I didn’t even want to walk across it. Walking without packs would have been a challenge in itself but with packs our centre of gravities were thrown off and we walked very slowly and very deliberately and made it across in one piece.

Now we had to deal with immigration and that proved as challenging as the bridge. The woman at the office wouldn’t let us in until we had proof of exit from Panama. Luckily, there was a bus ticket office across the street. It was just a shack, and I’m not even sure there were buses but they sold us two tickets for $20 to prove we were leaving Panama. Part of me can’t help but wonder if this is some scam run by the immigration lady but I swear I’m not a conspiracy theorist. We headed back to the lady expecting to be stamped in. But not yet. Next she sent us to another office to buy our official tourist card for $5. Only once we had all that did she stamp our passports and welcome us to Panama.

Once that was done, the money changers swarmed us. We changed our remaining colones to dollars and the rate wasn’t too bad. One of the touts then tried to shuttle us onto the $15 “bus”. It was clearly marked turismo and is a minivan. I told him I wanted the public bus and he again tried to convince me his tourist van was the public bus. I spotted the real bus around the corner and told him that’s where we were going. He then changed tactics. He called out “it’s not going where you want to” so I pointed to the sign in the bus’ window that said it was. “It’s too dangerous” he called out. We ignored him and began boarding. “You’ll have to take a taxi to change buses. It’s too much money.” He was still shouting after us as the bus drove away. We paid 75 cents for the first half of the journey to Changuinola where we changed buses. And then it was another $1.50 for the second half to Almirante. $15 my ass.

Once we were in Almirante the drive signaled to us that we were at our stop which is the docks. We follow the rest of the passengers (all locals a good sign) to the water taxi office. The boat ride costs just $4 each which surprises me considering our other boat trips had been so much more. I soon realized why. Bocas wasn’t some far away island chain. It was a group of islands just thirty minutes from town or 10 minutes from land. It was also bigger than I imagined it. Yet once we stepped off the boat it was exactly what I imagined and feared. It was very built up with cars and roads which also manages to give it a run down and seedy feeling somewhere between Belize and Utila. Of course coming from the peace and quiet of Cahuita I was bound to be disappointed.

In such a touristy place, there were also a lot of touts, one of whom begins following us as soon as we step on the dock. He tries to get us to his hostel but armed with reco’s from the friend of a friend who lives in town I tried to shake him. He still followed us to the place and as luck would have it, it was closed for renovations. While Adrian and I try to decide where to go next, ignoring the touts pitch of his “friends” place, we are rescued by a woman. She was the maid at the hostel we’re standing in front of but now she was working around the corner and she says they have room. We follow her. The Estrella de Bocas hotel (yup a hotel not a hostel) looks really nice. It was $25, has a private bath and a tv. With that last point, Adrian was already unpacking. I left the tout as he asked the owner for a commission but closed the door before I could find out if he succeeded.

When we left to the hotel to explore the town, I expected the tout to still be there. Luckily he was gone. But our trip around town took just 30 minutes and was still disappointing. The clouds had rolled in casting a grey pall over the town and the line ups of hotels, and tourist greasy spoons are a bit depressing. Since we didn’t need dinner (we still had lots of pizza left over from the night before), we popped into a dive centre. Thanks to a relationship with our schools in Utila we would get a 10% discount on our dives. Sounds like a plan. I told the guy we’d be back in tomorrow to book something once my stomach bug has cleared. He said he understood as he was recovering too. Oh great, the virus was here too.

That leaves only bars left to check out and since I still couldn’t drink we decided to pass. It was back to the hotel to chill out in front of the tv. After our death-defying walk across the border and yesterday’s trip to the hospital, I think we deserved it.

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