Sunday, April 19, 2015

Visa Run: You Don’t Have to Go Home, But You Can’t Stay Here!

Bocas Town, Panama

When traveling for an extended period of time in a foreign country, it would behoove you to know when, by law, you must leave. Because, let’s be honest, no one wants to be on a country’s shit list. For Costa Rica, the maximum time spent in the country on a tourist visa is 90 days. Tom and I, having arrived on December 2nd, needed to skedaddle by March 2nd. Not a day later. 

But we intended to stay in Costa Rica until April. And there was no way in heck that I was headed home early to the East Coast with snow still on the ground. Not me, no way, sir. This was to be our ‘endless summer’ year and I took that notion very seriously. Naturally, this put us in a pickle. But as it turns out, an easily solvable one in the form of a Visa Run…a visa what now? 

We just needed to leave the country for 72 hours and then we could, once again, receive that magic 90-day Visa stamp that would get us through the second half of our trip. (Now don’t go quoting me on this. I speak only of our experience in Costa Rica and only as one-timers. I don’t wanna hear about you standing at the border of China and Thailand going, “But Maureen said I could!”)

Next up, where to go on this vacation from our vacation? Nicaragua was the front-runner for a while, but once I heard of Bocas del Toro, an archipelago in the Caribbean, the decision was set in stone. There was just something about heading to the crystal clear waters of the Caribbean that made me feel closer to home. So, to Panama we go! 

Photo Cred:

Being the law-abiding, danger dork that I am, I padded our departure date by one week and we set off on February 23rd. Given my aversion to 1970’s era prop planes (that still have ashtrays in the arm rests, I might add), we decided to take the “safer” route via ground transportation. 

And in the blink of an eye, we were there…uhm, wait. That’s not right. And in two incredibly long, sweaty, life-flashing-before-your-eyes days we were there. The first leg of the trip, which at this point was old-hat to us, was the bus ride/ferry combo meal from Santa Teresa to San Jose. We left at the crack of dawn on one of three buses headed to Cobano, a slightly bigger town, to catch the one and only bus making the trek to San Jose. Did you do the math there? Three buses full of people and luggage trying to get onto one bus. Logistics, not their strong suit. I surveyed the scene and discreetly nudged our way to the front-end of the mob. It paid off, too. Tom was THE last person on the bus to get a seat. And then they threw on a few more people to stand in the isle for the 5-hour trip just for funsies.

Consumerism at its finest

All in all, this leg was not too shabby. We made it to San Jose by noon, which gave us plenty of time to revel in the civilized comforts of the Courtyard Marriott and a surprisingly not creepy Walmart. Having just spent three months in a remote beach town, these babies were looking pretty good to us. (Oh yeah, and we went to Hooters for dinner. It was weird, the waitresses did an unenthusiastic group dance, and we regret the whole thing.) But I digress.

The plan was to stay overnight and catch a shuttle the next morning all the way to the Bocas del Toro province—about a 10-hour trip. We reserved the shuttle instead of taking the public bus because it was our first time crossing an international border by foot and they boasted that they would guide us through it all. A bit more expensive but in theory it sounded pretty good, right? 

Our route from Santa Teresa, Costa Rica to Bocas del Toro, Panama

Besides almost leaving a fellow passenger at a rest stop bathroom, six hours in, through countless miles of banana fields, it was going pretty well. Then we hit the border. Our driver promptly dumped our stuff and waved goodbye. Excuse me, señor, but where do you think you are going? After 30-seconds of mild panic on my part, we were met by our ‘boarder crosser’ and were told we would be picked up on the other side. Phew. 

Tom crossing into Panama at the Sixaola border
Up next, after some passport stamping and money exchanging, it was time to cross the bridge. You would think that an international border would have sound infrastructure because hundreds of people do this crossing daily and they may be held liable for anything that went wrong. Yeah, not so much. 

Instead, we joked nervously as we dodged gaping holes overlooking the crocodile infested Sixaola river. The bridge had to have been built back in the early days of the Panama Canal in 1913 and never updated. Furthermore, I would not have been surprised if it collapsed in on itself as we crossed. The sides were rusted into oblivion and instead of replacing the missing wooden planks they just hastily slapped larger pieces of plank overtop in random places. Even their ‘fixes’ needed fixing as many of the replacement planks had loose nails that allowed the boards to pop up with any weight on them. So with my backpack strapped on and ready to topple me over due to my overpacking talents, I gingerly tiptoed my way into Panama.

From there it should be a straight shot to the ferry. Should is the operative word. Only twenty minutes into the next leg we came upon a crowd of parked cars and chaos. Our driver, who spoke no English, signaled us to get out. (Let me just state that I by no means expected him to speak English. Just pointing out that our remedial Spanish skills really did not suffice when faced with an impromptu, road-blocking strike). Although severely confused, we followed him into the midst of the hubbub, still not knowing for sure what was going on. Had people been standing in a line with picket signs, chanting, it would have been clear. But alas, it really just looked like a party. They were having a barbecue in the middle of a two-lane bridge with umbrellas, music and food simmering on the grill. If we weren’t en route to a tropical island, I would have been tempted to join in. 

Once we shimmied our way through the fiesta to the other side, our driver sidled up to the door of a minibus. After striking some sort of a deal, possibly selling us into slavery, he signaled us to get in and then waved good-bye. Not again! Why do they keep doing this to us! Having learned to go with the flow, we handed our precious cargo to a random Panamanian who threw it on top of the bus and strapped it down with a single rope. Mmm, now that’s what I call safety. We then squeezed in like packed sardines, not sure where we were headed but happy to be moving again.

Almirante Water Taxi
It was clear within the first few minutes of this ride that this is how we were going to die. Yep, I was sure of it. The driver, who must have thought he was trying out for the Indy 500, gunned it up and down the sides of mountains at a speed I did not think possible for an over packed, rundown minibus. No curve or guardrail-less 1,000-foot drop stood in his way. He had a mission to get us to the port, dead or alive. 

Luckily for us, it was the latter. Turns out the shuttle driver actually paid him to drop us off right at the front door of the ferry office instead of a half-mile down the street with the rest of the riffraff. Score one for us! 

Aqua Lounge, Carenero Island
With our perils behind us, we jumped onto the taxi boat and headed the half hour to Bocas Town on the Isle de Colon. From then on out, it was four days filled with island hopping, 2 for 1 drinks, water trampolines and the American dollar. Paradise found.

Lessons learned. Number one, I would definitely take the prop plane next time. We risked our lives just as much on the road and would have been there about a day and a quarter faster had we flown. Number two, there was such extreme poverty along our route amongst the banana farms that what I thought was roughing it back in Santa Teresa was, in fact, luxe living comparatively. It also made me that much more grateful to check into our swank hotel in Bocas Town. Apparently I can’t end a post without circling back to how grateful I am. But it’s true. I’m grateful to travel, to see the world, and to never get back on that bus again.

Tom enjoying 2 for 1 Happy Hour at our hotel, Palma Royal in Bocas Town, Panama

Aqua Lounge, Carenero Island

Island Hopping

Tom, the Explorer

Enjoying the shade at Red Frog Beach, Bastimentos Island

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Santa Teresa, With Love

Playa Santa Teresa

We first fell in love with Santa Teresa and the surrounding towns back in 2013. It would be Tom and my first vacation together. We wanted something off the beaten path with pristine beaches. Once we zeroed in on Costa Rica, our travel savvy friends were adamant that above all else, we needed to go to Santa Teresa. Always one to take personal recommendations to heart, the decision was made. And it did not disappoint. 

I’m a pretty seasoned traveler myself; having been all through Europe, the Caribbean and Mexico but this locale was different. It was rugged yet beautiful, untouched yet swarming with an international crowd, dirt road accessible yet wifi equipped. It felt like a hidden oasis. I was hooked. 

Super Bowl Sunday, Nativo Sports Bar, Mal Pais

With that trip, the seed had been planted. A little less than three years later, we piled our belongings into storage, left our jobs and headed to paradise at the southwest tip of the Nicoya Peninsula. 

We spent most of our time zipping through the palm tree lined roads on our quad amongst the four local towns: Mal Pais, Playa Carmen, Santa Teresa, and Playa Hermosa. All of which sit along one dirt road that takes about 45 minutes to get from the southernmost town, Mal Pais, to the northern edge of Hermosa.

Cabo Blanco Reserve
The area has so much to offer. To start, the ocean is ALWAYS above 80 degrees. There is none of this ‘dipping your toes in’ business and ‘getting used to it’ like we have to do in Jersey water. No, you can just march right out, dive under and stay in forever. For a surfer, it is heaven. The waves are consistently good year-round and there are so many different breaks to choose from. Whether you are a pro, a beginner or somewhere in between there is something out there tailor-made for you. Having a boyfriend who surfs has been both good and bad for me; good because he can give me lessons fo’ free, bad because in said lessons, I feel totally fine about throwing a tantrum over a ripping current and retreating to land before even riding one wave. For the record, I went back out but needless to say, my skills and attitude need some improvement.

Next, there’s the food. The food, the food, the food. It is Ah-mazing. If you are a foodie looking for a vacation, Santa Teresa is the place. What makes this area so unique is that the lifestyle and location have attracted expats from all over the world, making the community extremely international. Along with the typical Tico food there is exceptional Israeli, Argentinean, Asian, Italian and Mexican food everywhere you turn. The ingredients are incredibly fresh, locally grown or caught, and devoid of the processed mumbo jumbo plaguing the food in the US. The coconut water actually comes from REAL coconuts, not a carton that’ll cost you three or four bucks, if not more. The fish you eat at dinner was caught that morning in the same waters you swim in (but don’t let that creep you out). Never much of a fish lover at home I was hooked after my first ‘casado con pescado' (look guys, I speak Spanish!). Avocados are super cheap and always ripe, which has driven my obsession into uncontrollable territory. Daily smoothies are a must. Mango, pineapple, passion fruit, watermelon, papaya - you name it, we’ll blend it.

Along with the surfing and the food, the area is known for yoga. Almost every hotel has it’s own studio offering open classes with ocean views. You can’t help but get swept up in the lifestyle. To be honest, I always had an issue back home finding a yoga class to fit my style. Either it wasn’t the right mix of sweat and spirituality or I didn’t vibe with the teacher for whatever reason. But in Santa Teresa, I quickly melted into the flow of self-practice and no judgment. Sunset sessions were taught by the best OCNJ expat, Jessica Gesler Mausteller, at Horizon Yoga Hotel. She became my little yoga cheerleader and ended up taking me to an epic class at Pranamar on my last day in town that I will never forget. There were musical instruments, singing, pop electro music and a lot of sweating. I can confidently say that I’m now at the start of a lifelong practice.

Sunset Yoga, Horizon Hotel, Santa Teresa

Costa Rica as a whole has blown up as far as American tourism is concerned. Americans (and Canadians) are everywhere. For good reason, too. The beaches of Santa Teresa have been voted some of the best in the country. Condé Nast put it on their Top 15 Places to Go in 2015. Having traveled around a bit myself, I whole-heartedly agree. Bountiful, easily accessible, white sand beaches stretch out for as far as the eye can see. They are never crowded and always offer some much needed shade. All you have to do is walk across the street and a perfect beach awaits.

Lastly there’s Pura Vida. I’ve mentioned it before in a previous post but it needs repeating. Translating to 'pure life' in English, it is used as a greeting, a thank you and as an overwhelming message that life is good. As a national saying, it really embodies the spirit of the country. Costa Rica is still a developing nation and many of the Ticos live off far less than our consumer-based lifestyle in the US provides. There is still much poverty and the average hourly wage, at least in Santa Teresa, is around $3 US. It’s not easy to live off of that, as I’m sure you can imagine, but they make it work. When you see whole families living in shacks or piling onto one motorbike, mom, dad, baby and toddler, it really puts life into perspective. They are happy though. They appreciate the environmental paradise they live in. 

Taking in the Pacific Ocean in Playa Coyote

Family matters. The environment matters. Realizing how lucky we are and then living in that gratitude, now that’s a life well lived. 

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Trials and Tribulations of the Tico Lifestyle

I never considered myself high maintenance until I moved to Costa Rica. Having lived the first 28 years of my life in the US, I took all of its comforts for granted. If I needed anything, whether it be a bank, an outfit, a new set of tires, it was always at my finger tips, easily attainable. Not necessarily on a Kardashian level of vapid consumerism, but American none-the-less. Here in Santa Teresa, on the southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula, life is different. The closest major city, San Jose, is 5 hours away by land and sea. It involves a bus or car ride to a ferry to another bus or car. The roads are dicey, steep, and not always paved. Because of that, resources are limited and shortages are common. Water is shipped in and often stored in tanks allotted to a certain cluster of homes or a single property. Running out of water is a realistic prospect and if you happen to be in mid-shower when it runs out, have a sink full of dirty dishes, or are in need of a good toilet flushing, you are out of luck! For an undetermined amount of time, I might add. And yes, all three have happened to us. 

That was the point though, get out of my comfort zone, embrace a different culture and have some adventure. But understandably and comically so, there were a few hiccups on the road to assimilation. 

1. My Shopping Addiction Had To Go 

When I lived in Philadelphia, I found any excuse to shop. A rare week would go by when I didn’t pick up a goodie on my way home from work. Every store imaginable was on my route home and I just couldn’t say no to a Gap sale. (Don’t roll your eyes, hipsters, The Gap is an American institution). The floor in my bedroom was always covered with shopping bags and newly snipped clothing tags littered my trash can. Clearly I “needed” out of that habit. Luckily, there are no malls down here, no box stores, and no CVS to squander my money away. Since living here over the past four months I have purchased ONE item, a trucker hat (how very early 2000s of me). There are boutiques and surf shops a plenty, but needing material things becomes so secondary to enjoying everything else. It’s easy not to shop. You quickly learn to count your pennies, to not live in excess and to appreciate what you have. As long as I have a bathing suit, I’m good to go.

Casa Toucanet
2. I Needed A Serious Chill-Pill

Another thing that took some getting used to is the pace of life. With a town full of yogis and surfers, it’s only natural that the laid-back lifestyle and Pura Vida mantra of Costa Rica are fully embraced. It can take some getting used to when coming from the frantic, fast-paced world of the US. Before I left, I was commuting 4 hours a day to my office. It was h-e-double hockey sticks. So going from that to having my only commitment of the day be a sunset yoga class was quite jarring. I felt guilty, like I wasn’t accomplishing enough. Fast forward to now, I finally feel like I’ve been here long enough to see life outside the rat race standards I used to let define me. If I want to spend two hours eating breakfast, so be it. It’s an art form that Tom and I have perfectly mastered. And while I know this pace isn’t sustainable, at least we are living in the present, fully embracing the time we have right now. 

Quad Life
3. Tico Time, The Struggle Is Real

Put together a remote location and a laid-back attitude and you can imagine that it takes a while to get stuff done down here. Things that could take an afternoon at home or a minute online, can take hours, days, and weeks. Case in point, we started the purchase of our beloved quad (ATV) on December 21st, 2014 but did not finish paying for it until January 4th, 2015 two weeks later. The payment needed to be in cash, dollars not colones (the local currency) and the only ATM in town that dispensed dollars constantly ran out of money. The seller didn’t mind waiting, though. To him, this is an accepted part of life. Pure Vida, no worries. It didn’t keep Tom and I from feeling like fugitives as we drove around on our half-payed-for quad. 

4. Help, I’m Hangry!

There were a few weeks that the town ran out of propane. Most homes in town are equipped with burners instead of real stove/oven combos, which use propane tanks. And wouldn’t you know, our tank just happened to run out during one of these weeks. We were forced to eat every meal out or succumb to microwave cooking. True confessions, I may have resorted to ramen noodles. These were trying times. Rumors that certain grocery stores had just gotten a supply ran rampant through town. Tanks were precariously stacked on the backs of motorbikes and quads as everyone raced around in search of propane. In the end, our lovely Tica landlord brought us a tank from San Jose (remember now, that’s 5 hours away) on her next visit, which happened to be a few days later. From then on, it was clear to us that we just had to sit back and go with the flow. 

5. If I Had To Describe My Life In The Form Of A Disney Movie …

… It would be A Bug’s Life. Seeing as we moved to the jungle you’d think I’d be able to handle the creatures that run rampant. But alas, I have zero chill when it comes to critters. Mainly because the creepiest of which always seem to find their way into our bedroom and even *gulp * the bed. Our nighttime visitors consist of geckos, scorpions, centipedes, giant ants, and spiders. Of the bunch, the geckos are my number one arch-nemesis. They find their way in through any crack or crevice, even entering once through the air conditioning unit. One minute you’re happily watching your nightly Netflix and the next, two screeching lizards burst in and speedily zig-zag all over the walls and ceilings. All I can say is, thank God for mozzie nets or I would never sleep.

Cabo Blanco

But so what, right? You laugh about it, you adapt and then you head to the beach because the ocean can wash away all of your problems (it’s science, look it up). That’s the gist of life down here, it’s a little rugged, a little ‘last frontier’, but overall, its beauty and the subsequent feeling you get once surrounded by it can trump everything.