My best friend speaks Spanish fluently and as a result, I sometimes get to accompany her on vacations that I might not be able to take otherwise. A few years ago, we traveled through Central America over the course of two weeks. It was, by far, the most exciting trip I’ve ever been on, mostly because of the off-the-beaten track nature of our travels.
It will be hard to boil down my trip into a few highlights, but I’ll do my best. All photos are my own. If you would like to take a similar trip, I've listed destinations by the order in which we visited them. We flew into San Jose, Costa Rica and flew out of Panama City, Panama.
There are two things to do in Costa Rica: go into the cloud forest, and go to the beach. We got to do both. Additionally, there is a massive ecotourism industry in Costa Rica, and while we weren’t technically on an eco vacation, we did take part in many outdoor activities. San Jose is a fun, vibrant city, but the real joy of Costa Rica is being in nature.
San Jose is the capitol city of Costa Rica, located smack-dab in the middle of the country, and it's worth spending at least a couple of days there exploring the little streets and dining on local cuisine. Try some blackberry juice. The architecture of San Jose is lovely and depending on the time of year, you will see beautiful gardens all over the place. Notable attractions include the National Theater [website in Spanish], the downtown area (full of cafes and shops), the Gold Museum, and the Botanical Gardens, operated by the University of Costa Rica.
Monteverde is a HUGE cloud forest that straddles the Continental Divide, which is pretty cool when you think about it. It’s a birdwatcher’s paradise. While we were there, a bunch of tourists were freaking out because they’d just spotted a quetzal, a super rare bird. You will also see monkeys galore. Take one of the many available hikes and take in the gorgeous views. There are some pretty crazy plants in there, too. Many locales in Costa Rica offer zip lines, which we didn’t do but looked awesome. Other activities include canopy tours where you traverse a cable through the treetops using climbing equipment, Jeep tours, and exploring via the forest's vast system of hanging bridges and walkways. A canopy tour costs around $40 and a double room in a Monteverde hotel costs from $30-$180 a night, depending on the accommodations.
From Monteverde, you can travel by boat to La Fortuna and Arenal Volcano. As you travel across the Arenal Lake, you will see the Arenal Volcano looming in the distance, perhaps smoking. At night, you will see flames reaching into the sky. You can hike up the volcano to the observatory lodge (at your own risk, and bring water because it's HOT). You can also book a tour of the volcano if you'd prefer a guide. La Fortuna is a town growing in popularity and full of little hotels, which start at around $70/night. You will find numerous travel agencies for booking hikes, horseback rides, trips to waterfalls, whitewater rafting, you name it.
One of the coolest things - other than hiking up an active volcano - to do in La Fortuna is to visit the hot springs. There are several resorts in the town where you can purchase a day ticket to the springs (we went to Baldi). Most have swim-up bars, but the best part is that, at least at Baldi, the pools are often spread out from one another and secluded, so you can often have a pool all to yourself.
We next traveled south to Dominical, a little tiny fishing town on the central Pacific coast (we stayed over a night in San Jose in between). You can rent a cottage right above the beach or stay in one of many hotels in the town. While there, it's not much money to hire someone to take you on a horseback ride through the jungle to one of many magnificent waterfalls. The beaches are stunning and warm, but beware of rip tides. The best thing to do in Dominical by my reckoning is to lie in a hammock, listen to the monkeys, and have a tropical drink. A rental cabin in Dominical costs from $525/week and a hotel can run you about $75/night. A horseback ride can probably be secured through your hotel or any travel agency (they're everywhere in Costa Rica) and usually includes a meal. Also, while I'm not a surfer, everyone says the surfing is amazing there.
From Dominical we traveled south into Panama. It's worth noting that Wikitravel says, rightfully in my opinion, that Paso Canoas, where we crossed, "is one of the busiest (if not the busiest) and disorganized border crossings in Central America. It is very easy to accidentally drive across the border without realizing it." (!!) Crossing the border is doable but takes some homework. All the information you need about crossing the border can be found here.
Once you get into Panama, you will see banana plantations stretching in all directions, including the ones owned by Chiquita. We traveled straight to Bocas del Toro, an archipelago of seven islands off the northwestern (i.e. the Carribbean) coast. To get to Bocas, we took a bus to the town of Changuinola and then traveled by boat from the docks there. We spent most of our time in Bastimentos (described below), but traveled back into Bocas Town via water taxi a couple of times for dinner and nightlife. The restaurants we visited were all extremely low-key, serving local cuisine only - which includes Panama brand beer. Other local foods include beans, plantains, bananas, rice, and so much fresh seafood you can hardly stand it. Additionally, all of the restaurants and bars open out on to the water and can be visited directly by water taxi.
We elected to stay for several days and nights in Bastimentos, one of the Bocas del Toro islands. Bastimentos is very, very small; it's basically made up of one street along the water and another set back from the water, which is where our hotel was located. The structures along the water are on stilts; some are restaurants or bars, others are homes. Nothing - nothing - is air conditioned. The beaches are all walkable and all gorgeous, but again, beware of rip tides. From Bastimentos, you can hire water taxis to travel to other islands, to Bocas Town, or on snorkeling trips. The one we took ferried us to three different snorkeling locations. We also taxied to a remote beach, where our only companion was the owner of a beachside bar and grill, which happily was open and serving grilled seafood.
Leaving Bastimentos may have been one of the greatest trials of my life. But it was worth it - we traveled from Bocas to the Panama Canal, a sight I honestly thought I'd never see. In addition to the canal itself, you can view the Panama Canal murals in the administration building, which also offers rooftop views.
From there, it is a simple journey to Panama City, a cosmopolitan metropolis. In Panama City, you can go dancing, visit fabulous restaurants, and spend time in the city's many museums. The shopping is great, too - many, many malls are easy to navigate and full of souvenirs both tacky and sophisticated. My favorite adventure, by far, was taking a guided tour around the old city, Casa Viejo, which highlighted church squares and plazas, outdoor markets, and the Presidential Palace.
All in all, my travels through Costa Rica and Panama are perhaps one of the best things I've ever done. Yes, I almost got pulled out to sea (another story for another time), and I did get some nasty sunburns, but all in all, these two countries are absolutely fabulous to visit. You will experience cities both small and large; wonderful outdoor activities; warm people; stunning vistas; relaxing, quiet beaches, and delicious food. If you have any questions at all about visiting either of these places, click the links above or check out some of our guidebooks on Costa Rica or Panama. Best of luck with your travels!