The Nutshell Guide to Costa Rica and Panama

Costa Rica and Panama are both wonderful in very different ways.  

Costa Rica’s lush nature, as well as Ticos’ relaxed attitude create an overall sense of contentment and good life (Pura vida!), for which the country is famous. Nature-lovers and adrenaline junkies will love the opportunity to see all sorts of animals, white-water-raft, zip line and hike.

Despite Panama City being the most cosmopolitan city in Central America, the country as a whole feels more untouched by tourism. There are also greater regional variations, in part due to autonomy of its indigenous populations, as well as its infamously high levels of inequality. While we kept to the Caribbean side and Panama City, the idea of venturing into Darien’s impenetrable jungles and exploring Panama’s Pacific coast, makes me think I might go back.

We entered Costa Rica from Nicaragua’s Pacific side and went straight to Monteverde. NOTE: If you decide to travel to them, both countries require a ticket out of the country for tourists. You can solve this by either buying an airline/bus ticket out of the country ahead of arrival, or by showing an unpaid airline booking (e.g. made via COPA Airlines).

 

Monteverde/Santa Elena, Costa Rica

Stay

Hostel Casa Tranquilo – comfy rooms, good breakfast and, most importantly, the Tico-Swiss owner David is an extremely nice guy, willing to assist with any questions

See/Do

 Night hike through a nature reserve – most animals around Monteverde are nocturnal so this increases your chances of seeing two-toed sloth, frogs and snakes. There are several places to do this in, but I was very happy with Kinkajou Night Walk

Café Colibri – located next to the original Monteverde reserve, here you can see a lot of hummingbirds for free. What made it even better is that in the reserve itself, which was still worth a visit, I barely saw a bird

Walk from Monteverde Reserve to Santa Elena – a nice one hour hike, best done after a tour of the Reserve with great views over Nicoya Bay and great places to rest and have coffee

Monteverde Extremo Zipline – if you like hanging on a metal cable over deep valleys this is definitely the place for you – I don’t and I still enjoyed it immensely

Climb a Ficus Tree – haven’t personally done it but everybody was raving about this one super-tall ficus tree

Eat/Drink

Coffee Centre – a bit out of the way from Santa Elena, this a great coffee shop where you get to sample different styles of coffee for free. There is also an organic supermarket and a restaurant in the complex

Cafeteria Y Reposteria Monteverde – great little café with a wonderful view over Nicoya Bay

Pollo Asado – just what it says on the tin: fantastic, quick roast chicken

Panaderia Jimenez – I’m a great fan of Tres Leches and they had a very good one here so I’m putting it on the list

 

La Fortuna/Arenal and Rio Pacuare, Costa Rica

Stay

Arenal Hostel resort – huge hostel with cool vibe, hammocks and swimming pools

See/Do

Tabacon hot springs/river – lie in a volcanic hot river, for free, with the locals = bliss

Rio Pacuare rafting – Rio Pacuare offers a perfect balance of thrill and beauty for anyone to enjoy. Although you can end up in its rapids (I was one boat flip), seeing its canyons and waterfalls is worth it. I did it with Exploradores Outdoors, as a way of getting from La Fortuna to Puerto Viejo and it was great

Lake Arenal – if you are coming from Monteverde, try to take a transport to Arenal that includes crossing this artificial lake as it is awesome to see Arenal reflected in its waters

Eat

 Soda La Parada – good local food at normal prices

 

Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica

 Stay

 Kaya’s Place Hostel and Brewery – beautiful hostel with great staff and it doesn’t hurt that it also has a craft brewery inside

See/Do

 Playa Grande – about 45 minute by bike from Puerto Viejo  it’s a truly pristine stretch of coast

Cahuita reserve – cycling 16 km from Puerto Viejo might be a bit too much, but the reserve is great if you want to see wild-life and especially sloths

Party, party, party –  Puerto Viejo is relaxed and there are many places to let your hair down, so just stroll around and enjoy

Eat/drink

 Dreadnut – although pricey, it is a wonderful place to have breakfast (i.e. banana pancakes) and decent coffee

Hot Rocks – the main party places serving good drinks

 

 

Bocas del Toro, Panama

 Stay

 Bocas Surf Hostel – located next to the surf/dive school, this very homey hostel is right on the sea in Bocas Town

Bambuda Lodge – beautiful, if pricey hostel on Isla Solarte with a wonderful pool and great food

Do/See

 Playa Estrella – wonderful beach, some 40 minutes away from Bocas town with a lot of star-fish

Snorkel/dive/swim – as you are on an archipelago you have many options to enjoy the sea. Bocas Dive School next to our hostel was great, while you can also go to the red frog beach which is meant to be awesome

Eat/Drink

 Tom’s – inexpensive local place with a wonderful terrace

Bookstore bar – owned by a very charismatic Floridian which you just need to visit to hear one of his hilarious stories

Bocas Brewery – one of the best craft-beer places in Panama

La Buga – wonderful café/dive shop

 

San Blas, Guna Yala, Panama

 Stay/See/Do/Eat/Drink

Franklin Island/ Cabanas Tuba Senika 2 – given that the only way to visit San Blas without sailing around the islands is to get a package including transfer from Panama City with one of Guna hosts, we went for two amazingly restful days on Franklin Island. Once there you will be well taken care of, but will have little choice of what to do but enjoy the turquoise waters, drink coconut water during the day and rum at night

 

Panama City, Panama

Stay

El Cangrejo neighbourhood – central neighbourhood with a lot going in, and only $5 Uber away from most sights

Do/See

Casco Viejo – Although it is rapidly gentrifying, a stroll around this beautiful colonial part of the city will still bring you back in time, while partying on its rooftops (Tantalo and Gatto Blanco) will show you how cool Panama City is

Miraflores lock – seeing a huge cargo shift floating some 30m about sea level really makes you appreciate the ingenuity behind the Panama Canal. Although the museum is nothing special, it is still worth a peek

Mercado del Marisco – Panama’s main fish market where you can see the fisherman bring back catch of the day, and pelicans trying to steal it. Try $1 sea-bass ceviche

Sunset on top of Trump Tower – sipping a cocktail while watching the Sun set over Panama city, was worth suspending my political opinions for an hour or two

Eat/Drink 

New York Bagel Café – best breakfast I had in a long while – yes, it is not local Panamanian but is excellent on global scale

El Trapiche – a local institution serving great food 24/7

La Rana Dorada –  great brew-pub with delicious hamburgers

CoffeeShop PTY – fantastic café hidden in el Cangrejo

 

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