Central America #4: Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica

After fleeing the incessant rain in Bocas del Toro, Panama, I made my way to Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica, with a couple from the US that I’d met a few days previous. The Panamanians charge you 4 USD to exit, after which you can cross the bridge over to Sixaola on foot. The bus terminal is literally as you step off the bridge, so we bought tickets to the tune of 1650 Colones, about 3 USD, and waited half an hour for the bus, which as intercity buses go in Central America, are comparatively new.

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Crossing the border from Panama to Costa Rica

The journey took about an hour and fifteen minutes, but the journey flew as I was embroiled in a conversation about Costa Rican tourist destinations and subsequently world politics. We were dropped centrally and in rather a coincidence, a worker from the hostel the other guys had been recommended bumped into us on the street, and not for the first time, I’d be involved in a conversation in which you try to dismiss the person touting you accommodation, saying that you already have somewhere, before actually realising that they are from the very same hostel where you’re headed.

So we ended up at a place called Rocking Jays, a huge hostel probably able to cater for over a hundred guests at a time. I briefly considered staying in one of an abundant number of tents, but then came to realise that they’d probably end up really hot and insect-infested at night, so decided on paying for a shared dorm room with massive overhead fans and large lockers for 11 USD per night.

A Spanish girl I’d met in Boquete had really lauded this coastal Caribbean town, so my expectations were admittedly high. It has a reputation as a party town with endless charm and nightlife, but as I was there during the week, I must have missed out on the party atmosphere. But then people oft say you make your own party.

Anyway, before all that, I made two trips to change some dollars, as the first time I didn’t have my passport, and you need it to make any kind of transaction in a bank. Afterwards, I headed to a soda, in other words a Costa Rican restaurant where you get good food for a reasonable price. I ordered a chicken and rice meal for 6 USD, which came with plantain, of the verde type thankfully, as I’m not very partial to the vegetable when it’s overly ripe. I also got a tamarindo juice to wash it down, which I’d wholeheartedly recommend. A few minutes after leaving, I figured that the lady from the restaurant hadn’t fully charged me, probably forgetting to include the drink, so I returned and paid what I owed, much to her surprise. I hoped that one good deed would lead to another, as I kind of believe in karma.

I then went to the beach, the sand of which was black due to the surrounding waters being full of volcanic ash, and set about doing a little exercise with some tree trunks and rocks. I’d keep this habit up for another few days, before CBA set in and I decided that I was on holiday and thus wasn’t required to do exercise or eat healthily.

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Volcanic ash beaches

Back at the hostal I tucked into a few varieties of local beer, which at about 1.50 USD per can in the shop are about double the price of lager anywhere else in Central America, and once again realised that my alcohol tolerance levels were down, though in my defence, I didn’t come across many beer that contained less than 5% alcohol content on the whole trip. Now, Puerto Viejo has a bit of a Rasta Caribbean feel to it, what with its location and many of the locals being of Afro descent. So, as the stereotype goes, lots of marijuana was readily available and on every street corner it was being offered out. Supposedly it was good quality and great price, but I wouldn’t know as I don’t often stick warm things in my mouth and blow them, as I’m a vehement non-smoker. Though I consider myself quite handy at inflating balloons. So I stuck on the beer while a few people I’d met in the hostel puffed on their spliffs and ate their space cakes.

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Local beer

Time flew by and it was approaching midnight, so we decided we’d have a wander into town to see if anything was going on. As it happened, we came across a live performance by an allegedly famous reggae band from Chile, so we did some bopping for a while and I failed miserably in chatting up some young trainee nuns. Hopefully, I’d go on to be a wiser judge of what type of girl to talk to in the future.

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Sunset in Puerto Viejo

When we got back to the hostel, a guy from the US I was with suggested we snaffle popcorn from the machine at the now-closed bar, and I acquiesced. Naturally, the security guard caught me red-handed, but he didn’t seem overly bothered, though I did wonder if they’d charge me for what I’d taken the next day. In the end, they didn’t. Perhaps my earlier good deed had kept me out of trouble.

The next day, which I believe was a Thursday, I rented a bicycle for 5 USD for the day and rode 10km or so to as far as I could go, a beach called Manzanillo. Thankfully the road was flat all the way, so it was nowhere near as challenging as the up-and-down ride I’d done in Bocas a few days previous, but unfortunately I only cottoned on to the fact there was a by-the-beach trail on the way back, so missed out on the views on the way out. There was a point where I had to cross a hanging bridge and as there were several bikes already tied to it, I figured I’d leave mine and continue exploring on foot.

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Beaches in Manzanillo

The beaches I came across were indeed picturesque yet short, so no real opportunity for sunbathing as the tide was close in. There was a moment when I thought I’d found a pretty secluded spot all for myself where I could chill out and read a little, but I came across a frolicking couple, both of whom were topless behind a rock. Awkward. After giving up on walking the muddy trails due to the inadequacy of my flip flops I got back on my bike and thought I’d check out the beaches I’d missed on my way in.

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Inconspicuous rocks

On the ride back, I came across a pack of spider monkeys hanging out of roadside trees (you always see wildlife in public places, not nature reserves), bumped into a Spanish guy I’d met the previous week whose bicycle chain had come off, and walked along some rather beautiful beaches in the area near Punta Uva, if I recall the name correctly.

On arrival in Puerto Viejo, I went straight for something to eat and found a Jamaican restaurant on the outskirts of town. I ate Caribbean chicken with a spicy but pleasant sauce, accompanied by Coco rice and plantain for 6 USD.

Back at the hostel, I booked myself on a white-water rafting trip for the next day, and as pick-up time was at 6am, I decided to get an early night and take some time off the casual two or three beers I’d become accustomed to.

In conclusion, Puerto Viejo certainly had a vibrant and friendly atmosphere, locals were friendly and nearby beaches were worth a look, but I wouldn’t say it took my breath away. Then again I was there during the week for just a couple of days, and it’s supposed to really get moving on a Saturday and Sunday. Perhaps at this point I was still waiting for what you might term the ‘wow factor’.

Fortunately this would come by the bucket-load in the days to follow.

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