Sunday, 2 April 2017

Puerto Viejo de Talamanca to Bocas del Toro, Panama – Days 197 to 199

A very cute 2 Toed Sloth in the Jaguar Animal Rescue Centre
Our two days and three night stay in Puerto Viejo turned out to be a very good wildlife encounter experience for us, partly though not entirely as a result of our visit to the Jaguar Animal Rescue Centre 4km outside the town.

Neither of us were particularly taken with the town, it’s another of those places made popular by Americans quite happy to spend their money, causing the locals to increase their prices to accommodate them. As a result it’s got many beachside bars and gastro type restaurants charging fancy prices, much higher than those we saw in Tortuguero and it’s a bit loud.

On the beach at Puerto Viejo de Talamanca
Our Hostal Rio was set back a bit so didn’t suffer from the noise and it wasn’t too far to walk, but we weren’t taken particularly by that either, although there’s nothing major wrong with it. It’s owned by a local family of Afro-Caribbean descent who have only recently taken over and Teylor, the son and young father of two who runs it is still learning the ropes but has a way to go before he becomes the perfect host. He means well though, but there are things he could do better, which we told him, so we hope he takes note, because we kind of want him to do well. The family sold a house they had and have ploughed everything into this, which doesn’t seem to be a great deal, so we suspect the bank owns a large slice of it as well.

Jaguar Animal Rescue Centre
Comfy sloths!
We had read in Lonely Planet and on the internet about this place 4km outside the town and wanted to visit. It was founded and is still run by Encar Garcia, a biologist who came to the area with her husband originally to buy a house and retire. Within a few days someone bought an injured Jaguar to her to treat. It sadly died a few days later, but she became hooked on treating native animals and releasing them back into the wild as soon as possible and the Jaguar name stuck, although there are no Jaguars there

Youtube video of sloth: Sloth video

He was just a photogenic little sloth
Today it is a non-profit organisation staffed totally by volunteers, who pay an initial fee to volunteer and pay their own food and lodgings. Some of the volunteers have been there for up to 3 years and are totally hooked on it. There is a US$20 entrance fee and they offer two guided walks round the centre per day, money from these visits being the centres only source of income other than occasional donations. The guides also expect to be tipped, which seemed fair enough as they get no salary and pay to be there! We were shown round by a youngish (early/mid twenties) English girl from Yorkshire who has been there since 2015 and we spoke to an older guy (late 40’s/early 50’s) from London who has been there for over 3 years, both loving their time there.

Here he is having a scratch
A baby opossum
The tour was fabulous and we got close (whilst maintaining the minimum distance of 2 meters from an animal they stipulated – and no touching or stroking!) to many indigenous animals including sloths (so cute!), anteaters, crocodiles, caiman, racoons, monkeys, parrots, birds of prey, snakes and various members of the cat family, all being cared for with a view to release as soon as possible. The birds are allowed to roam free once they are well enough and when they are ready they just fly away. 
A Toucan. I really hope we see one in the wild before we go!
The monkeys are taken into the surrounding jungle when well for several hours per day and if they return that’s fine and if they join another group and go off that’s also fine. The sloths are slightly different as they are solitary creatures and need their own space, but they work round that. To release the cats and crocodiles they need a special permit from the Costa Rican authorities and an agreed place to release them. 

They had a Margay cat there that they had previously released, but he found his way onto a farm and killed all the chickens but only ate one, so he is back, the farmer was compensated and it is scheduled for release somewhere else, by agreement sometime later.

It is good work that they are doing and we really enjoyed our visit.

Poor little anteater had fallen out of a tree and they think he has a bit of brain damage so sometimes walks round in circles and other times gets into all sorts of mischief. They have to pick him up in a blanket to carry him away from places he shouldn't be!
This naughty pig was getting into trouble. He's due to be released soon
To get there we could rent a bike (US$6 each), take a taxi, US$6 each or, as we did, walk the 4km along the flat road next to the beach, which early in the morning for the 09:30am tour was not too hot with a few pleasant stops on the beach on the way. We were going to get a taxi but we were early enough to walk and enjoyed the walk back, lunch on the beach and a swim in the warm waters of the Caribbean Sea. 

The sloth we saw in the wild sleeping in a tree
On the track near to town Jackie spotted a sloth in the trees which was the usual long distance away, too far for my camera but round the next corner was a sleeping sloth hanging upside down in a tree at a perfect distance, so managed to get a nice photo along with other people who came over when they saw us taking photos. Apparently their claws are naturally in the clenched position and they have to use energy to open them, so they can hang upside down and sleep by just hooking their claws over a branch, a bit like a coat hanger!

For our second day
Walking in the jungle
We decided on a walk along a track up in the hilly jungle at the back of the town. A track was shown on my phones sat-nav so we followed that on a steep uphill and slightly muddy downhill return, initially a little disappointed in the lack of wildlife. However, on the return Jackie spotted a sloth hanging, which was nice, but we’ve seen quite a few now, but a little further on my eyes were attracted to bright movement on the ground ahead of me. It was a tiny red frog, no more than a centimetre long. I watched it hopping off into the undergrowth and managed to get a couple of photos, but didn’t get too close as I suspected and later confirmed that it was a Strawberry Poison Dart Frog, which has a very toxic skin and not to be messed with.

Strawberry poison dart frog - don't touch!
A later walk in the day, recommended by Teylor at the hostel was up another track in the jungle to a camp that a colleague is constructing high on a hill with good views of the bay. We walked up there, had a look at the camp and on the way down spotted one of those big blue butterflies that have evaded my camera so successfully. It was fluttering ahead on the track ahead and kept outside the range of my camera for sometime, so I assumed I would be unlucky again and would be chasing about in vain yet again. However it did finally settle for a while and I crept up on it and finally got a photo - result! In the end we were quite pleased with our tally and Puerto Viejo de Talamanca defied our initial prejudices.

The camp in the jungle
Border Crossing to Panama
Costa Rica border. Right is the first booth to visit
So the next day, Friday 31st March was our day to travel out of Costa Rica for a while and into Panama. Puerto Viejo is only about 45km from the border and its possible to get a public bus to the border, emigrate out of Costa Rica (two different booths to visit, one to pay US$8 exit fee, the other to get the passport stamp), walk across the river bridge into Panama, immigrate(two different booths to visit, one to be photographed, fingerprinted, quizzed as to the reason for your visit, show proof of exit from the country and get the entry stamp in your passport, the other to pay US$4 customs tax) and then catch two busses to Almirante and then a river taxi to Isla Colon. Approximate costs are US$4 for the bus to the border and then two busses in Panama at about US$2 each and then about US$6 for the water taxi, about US$14 in all. Alternatively a company offers a shuttle service for US$25 which includes all transport including the water taxi to Isla Colon and someone to take you across the border and tell you where to go.

Walking with our guide to Panama. Old railway bridge on right
I was kind of in favour of the do-it-yourself option as I feel we have done too many of these ‘easy option’ transfers and are getting soft and too much like tourists and not travellers, but we’d heard and read about the high pressure tactics of some of the bus drivers on the other side and how easy it is to miss one of the emi/immigration stages and then get into trouble later. It seems often people go for the easy option of taking a shuttle bus for US$10 once getting into Panama rather than the two public busses, so then it would be US$20 and not much different from the all in package of US$25, so we decided to go for that.

The other side of the railway bridge in Panama. On the right is the last customs booth we had to visit
To get there was up those stairs. No disabled access then!
Asking Teylor at the hostal if he could print out our flight ticket of Panama City to Managua in Nicaragua so we could prove our exit from Panama, he told us he can offer the full package transfer at US$25 with everything included so, wanting to support him we said OK. We went off on his bike and came back later saying it’s all arranged. We paid him the money but got no tickets, it’s OK he said, the bus driver will give us two tickets when he picks us up in morning. I think we can tell someone’s character and he’s not a con-man, so we accepted.

More photos from the sanctuary. Baby Capuchin monkey
Next day at 08:30 the shuttle arrived, our bags went in and we went off to pick up the other five people, two of who, a couple from the Netherlands stayed at our hostal in Tortuguero, so it was good seeing them again. They, however had wrist bands on indicating they had paid, our driver said there was no need for tickets and off we went. We asked if he was going to accompany us all the way and we thought he said ‘yes’, however on reaching the border he left with the shuttle, leaving us with another amiable Afro-Caribbean guy who pointed us to a shop and said we have to go in there and pay our US$8 exit fee. We did this, actually paying 4800 each in Costa Rican Colones rather than our dollars, getting a receipt from them. Our new guide then took us to another booth on the left where we got our passport stamp and finally we could proceed over the bridge into Panama.

Monkeys playing. A Howler and a Capuchin
We walked over a road bridge, which was next to a very old and rusty railway bridge (trains haven’t run for years apparently), that we’d read people had used up until very recently. It’s now considered unsafe (justifiably) so avoiding the odd truck coming the other way we walked across in the full midday heat, showed our passports to the Panamanian guard standing on the other side and proceeded on about 20m. ‘You have to go in there’ our guide pointed down a short road on the left with an open fronted building semi hidden; how would we have found that on our own? Here we were fingerprinted, photographed (‘take your sunglasses off your head please’, oh yes, forgot about those), asked how long we were staying, where we were staying, handed over the customs form we were handed and filled in while waiting in line and got our stamp in our passports. He didn’t ask us for our proof of exiting the country, despite us having it at the ready, but the guard at the next window was asking everyone for theirs.

All 7 of us gathered together again and went to find our guide, who was lounging about eating lunch. We’re not done yet, now we have to pay our customs tax, this is back onto the main road, under an old railway bridge then up some steep steps to another booth. I suppose when everyone came over the railway bridge rather than the road bridge as now they would have passed this, but now it seems well out of the way and we would never have known where to go. Up the steps, no disable access – how do they manage? Paid our US$4 each, returned to our bags which were being looked after by our guide and we were done with immigration, walking to a new shuttle bus in a car park.

Look at this cute green, red eyed frog Jackie found
That was it for that guide he waved goodbye, passed his hat round for tips and was gone. We now had another driver who spoke almost no English, we had no tickets or any way of proving we had paid for the water taxi to Isla Colon. Will this work – no idea!

Off we went, this shuttle with air-con so we were happy people. He stopped in the first town (where we would have had to change busses had we done the DIY option) to get some money out of an ATM so we followed suit, the machine spitting out US dollars and charging US$5.5 commission for the privilege (Panama have their own currency, but its pegged at 1:1 to the American dollar, so up to now we’ve only seen US dollars used, no idea what Panamanian currency looks like). 
Love him to bits!
On we went until he reached a bridge someway into Panama with a queue of vehicles and pandemonium going on around. Our driver waved his arms about eventually pulling in to the side of the road, opening our side door, motioning us to all get out, got our luggage out and motioned us to follow him walking, us with no idea what was going on. We walked past all the parked vehicles, past a protest that was going on that had caused the bridge closure and onto the bridge where there was pandemonium on the other side from stopped vehicles.

Green frog eggs, unfortunately being attacked by ants
Our driver was on the phone to people while we all waited in the sun, eventually we followed him on almost over the bridge where he spied an empty shuttle waiting in a queue in the other direction. He went over had some discussion, handed over some money and motioned us all to get on. He turned round, wove round various vehicles and set off at relatively high speed with some interesting overtaking and loud music and transmission whine hitting our ears. So what now when we get to the dock with no tickets for the water taxi? We’ll see!

On the beach just before our swim
We arrived in one piece, my hat and knee being fairly effective in blotting out the loud music noise coming from the speaker next to me, our luggage was unloaded and we were at the dock with a couple of amiable young guys doing tricks with a football while we waited for the boat. For about the fifth time our friends from the Netherlands were asked for a tip (they must have thought they were rich, we weren’t asked!). The boat arrived, our stuff was loaded on and we were off bouncing over the small waves and out to sea towards a distant land.

This landed on my back and climbed onto my shoulder one night
Halfway over our driver slowed and veered over to another open boat nearby where a guy was waving his hat. ‘Here’s where we have to change boats’ Jackie said to the Dutch girl. She looked a bit aghast as we pulled alongside it, but a fairly well dressed guy climbed off the scruffy boat and into ours and off we went again. It caused a bit of laughter from us anyway!

Finally we arrived at the dock our stuff was unloaded and no-one asked us for any more money. Well, it seemed to work, not how anyone had planned I’m sure, but we got there – amazing!

The elusive big blue butterfly
We were only 500m from our accommodation according to my phone sat-nav so we decided to walk, leaving our Dutch friends to get a taxi. Not sure whether we’ll see them again, but we had an interesting experience together.

Youtube video of blue butterfly: Blue butterfly video

The bedroom with 1 meter ceiling height!
Our accommodation, Sun Havens Apartments is quite nice, but what must be the smallest apartment in the world. It’s about 2m wide by 4,perhaps 4.5m long and has a mezzanine floor with a double bed. Downstairs is a compact bathroom with shower, toilet and sink, there’s a small kitchenette with an oven, toaster, blender and coffeemaker and all crockery and cutlery, a fridge and freezer, dining table and two chairs, a picnic chair and some storage units. Upstairs is filled with a double mattress and a small cupboard and just enough room for our two suitcases. Floor to ceiling up there is about 1 metre, so you have to shuffle into and out of bed! It sounds horrendous but we quite like it, there is air-con which is fabulous and a TV that has some excellent music channels, so we’re quite happy for five nights here.

Our bijou apartment. Door in through the stairs, bathroom to the right by the door, kitchen, dining area, fridge on R
View from the top of the stairs
Isla Colon and this apartment was our second choice, our first was to go over to Isla Bastimentos and stay in a hotel over there, which we had booked. Lonely Planet describes it was being like an unspoilt paradise compared with the busy Bocas Town where we are on Isla Colon, but when we read Tripadvisor reports on the island we cancelled. It appears theft and muggings are rife, particularly on a jungle path to remote beaches, that I previously had been particularly keen to walk on. 

The bijou bathroom
The last reported mugging was only 6 weeks ago, masked youths appear from behind trees brandishing a machete and take everything. Not wanting to be prisoners in our hotel for 5 nights we decided to cancel, losing the first nights payment. And we thought Panama was safe! By and large I think it is, but they just haven’t got this area sorted out, partly due to the poverty of the indigenous population and their resentment of the big developers who are moving in altering their homeland and bringing lots of rich tourists who don’t care about them. A difficult situation.

Anyway, tomorrow (Sunday) is likely to be an interesting day. Jackie joined a Bocas housesitting Facebook group a week or so ago hoping that we might be able to get a housesitting assignment on the island rather than paying for accommodation. We nearly did from a lady in California who owns a house here and thought her caretaker might want time off to visit his family. In the end he was reluctant to go thinking we might replace him, so the lady apologised and had to decline. In the meantime Jackie got chatting on messenger to the woman of a USA expat couple who have lived here for a few years and, tomorrow she’s agreed with them to meet up.

Bocas Town, Isla Colon
She said how much she likes a particular brand of rum and how it only costs US$10 for 1.5 litres at the border but is US$20 on the island so we’ve got one for her and will hand it over. I think they’ve got a bit of money as they asked us if we like snorkelling. Yes we said, so tomorrow they are meeting us outside a posh hotel and they will take us out on their boat. They have spare snorkelling gear so we can go for a swim and snorkel and we’ll stop off somewhere for lunch. Sounds lovely, hope they are not too rich and posh for us…..
The bandstand in the main square
One of the main streets in Bocas Town

There are many cats in Bocas Town and not so many street dogs. It means we have to stop every few minutes!

A final photo of that little cutie sloth. A pity the shot was a bit blurred. I waved at him, but he just looked at me!

1 comment:

  1. Lovely pics. Love the green frog, piggy and Mr Ant Eater! Xxx