Friday, February 8, 2013

Visa trip to Panama

A funny quirk about visiting Costa Rica is that the travel permit (technically not a visa) to stay in the country last only 90 days.  In theory you can get a renewal in San Jose, but in practice everyone just leaves the country for three days and then comes back in.  It's a small country so travelling to the border is not difficult.  At least, not too difficult. 

Kim and I decided to go to the closest point in Panama, a beautiful set of islands named Bocas del Toro.  We took the bus to San Jose to do some shopping, and then the next morning we got on the bus named the "Bocatorenyo."  This took us first to Limon, on the Caribbean coast, and then down coast to Panama.  The border crossing was completely disorganized, only made slightly better by some taxi drivers who offered advice as to which line to stand in (but don't trip over the railroad tracks).  It took maybe an hour and a half to cross.  Then we zoomed through banana plantations and  couple of small cities in a very high speed mini-bus, to climb down into a water taxi (called a launch).  We then sped across 5-10 miles of open water and landed, just about dark, at a dock in "Bocastown".  Jose, a man sitting next to me in the taxi, showed us to a wonderful downtown hotel called "Cayo Zapatilla;" $20 per night, no air conditioning.  We gladly took the room.  We found the room to be very comfortable as long as we kept the hallway door open to allow air to circulate.  At night we blocked the door open 6" or so using one of the beds, so no one could get in while we were asleep.  We had no trouble.

Bocastown turned out to be a very entertaining and lively place to be and we stayed there for well over a week!  Our daughter Rose and her companion Eric joined us after a few days.  There were a variety of places to eat, and we rented bicycles and kayaks, and went around the island checking out beaches and places to snorkel and look at the marine life.  Bocas del Toro is home to huge and diverse mangrove forests and swamps, as well as fabulous beds of corals, sponges, seagrass and other marine life.  The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute operates a small Marine field station there, which we visited.  We snorkeled in some shallow water just west of the marine station.  I found out that I need a special mask because I couldn't wear my eyeglasses with the mask we rented.  Still, what I saw was spectacular!

I spent a few days looking for Passiflora vines on the island.  The island, about 15 km across, has a fairly well-developed rainforest, with some large trees and typical fauna such as howler monkeys, parrots, toucans, and oropendolas.  I found five Passiflora: ambigua, menispermifolia, arbelaezii, biflora and auriculata, along with Heliconius hecale, sara, erato, maybe melpomene, and Dryas julia.  And only one flea beetle: Disonycha quinquilineata.  I have seen that flea beetle at La Selva (on P. biflora) many years ago, but never in the past few years.  The few plants I found had no sign of flea beetle feeding damage, so maybe they are rare or absent from the island.

 We cooked a few meals in the hotel kitchen, and spent a lot of time looking off the balcony at the street and central park below.  On the second day we were there, and for every night after, these constumed "devils" would appear around 5 pm and carry on down on the street below.  They carried whips and would try to whip any older boys or young men carrying sticks.  The boys would taunt the devils and run up to them, and they crack their whips in the sticks or on their legs if they could.  The number of devils escalated every night until there were about 7 or 8 the night before we left.  They would grab a bike from the boys and toss it in the street.  The boys would then try to get it back without getting whipped.  During the day we saw people were making the devil masks out of newspaper and plaster.  We were told that the devils were building up to Mardi Gras, on which day they have to run a gauntlet of citizens with whips of their own.

I was disappointed that there was so little music on the street.  One night there was a pretty awful band playing rock classics like Santana's "Oye como va", and another duo played andean flute music, but that was about it.  Oh well you can't have everything! 

We has a pretty good adventure for our required "visa trip"!  The only real downside was that we got a little bit sick with something "internal"; probably a virus going around.  We were extremely happy to get back to La Selva!


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