Panama Island Escape: Bocas Del Torro and Urraca – Adventures in Paradise

Private islands

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Before when I thought of Panama, all I could think of was the Panama canal.  Now I think of Islands.  There are so many little islands off the coast of Panama.

The only way to get around the islands is with boats.  The boats are like busses taking you from place to place.  The first time I visited Bocas del Torro, I thought the island was the destination.  It wasn’t until I spent a little time on the island and I discovered that the adventures are all around you.

  • Red Frog Island
  • Urraca Private Island
  • El Tigre – Native Tribe Island
  • Bat Caves
  • Waterfalls
  • Scuba Diving for underwater ship, sea horses, and amazing

I wasn’t satisfied just to see a small bit of Panama.  I had to come back, so I brought my family.  I did some searching and came across Urraca Private Island.  It sounded magical.  Your own private island, the lady who runs the place has her own monkey, a French Canadian who travelled the Caribbean looking for paradise.  She found 2 islands of mangroves and found a way to put a house on stilts.  These beautiful places are designed with nature in mind.  The electricity comes from the sun, the water in the house comes from the rain.

water out the window

While I was really hoping to find “utopia,” instead we had a great adventure that tested my wife’s limits.  I think over those few days I’d see something in her as an adventure traveler that would make me realize things have changed (at least knowing that there are comfort limits.)  My wife didn’t like the cold showers, didn’t like the rain showers that barely let up a couple of days. Even though it wasn’t the rainy season we spent a lot of time in the rain forest and you don’t know how it will effect a person.

I realized we couldn’t do hostels as a family.  I tried a couple of different styles and we drew the lines at A/C – required, hot showers – required, and no bugs.  We didn’t have screens in the windows and the little fans didn’t do enough to keep the kids and my wife happy.  The adventure became too much of one.

It was a little daunting not to be able to be in control.  You tell the boat when to come and that’s when it will come.  No earlier, no later.  When it’s time to eat and you’re on a private island, you don’t have a lot of choices if you didn’t prepare.  You likely will eat what is being cooked and if you don’t like it or don’t like the prices… tough.  You may not even know the price until the end of the week, and at that point you better be prepared.  Ask for a menu and ask for prices, and ask for alternatives.  I did come across some places, but easily 30 minutes away and that means gas or it means going to dinner on your way back from an adventure.

water bar bocas del torro island paradise

Pictured: Left the food places at Bocas are often out on the water with incredible views. Right: The swim up to it table, difficult to get on those seats at low tide, but beautiful to look at.  There’s a lot of symbolism in this… It looks better than it feels without knowing and realizing it’s going to be an adventure and that’s what it’s all about.

While it may not have been the ultimate paradise for everyone on those three days on the private island.  I really really enjoyed the adventure even though I discovered their comfort limits.  Here are just a few things we experienced.

  • Capuchin monkey
  • Fresh lobster
  • Private beaches
  • Encounters with natives
  • Snorkling and scuba
  • Cave spiders that look like scorpions
  • Seeing sloths in the wild!
  • Bioluminescent waters
  • Dolphins

monkey manprivate islandwater walkway

Crossing from Costa Rica across a wild train bridge was quite the adventure.  It really wasn’t hard to catch a bus from Puerto Viejo or Manzanilla to the border.  You can even pay to get all the way to Bocas del Torro which involves crossing the train bridge then riding a van transport to water transport and then on for another hour to Bocas del Torro.

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Pictured: Jared with his rodent friend that had a rabbit face on Right my 3 year old and Tutsi the monkey

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Pictured: Get your scuba certification in 3 days. Open Water PADI certified. It was the best dive with the worst equipment, but I got what I paid for… it was cheap!

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Local breakfast on Bocas del Torro… a local meal of scone and two meatballs.  I’m sure there was a local name for it.

Secret Destinations of Central America – Costa Rica


costa rica beach

On my way to Panama, I had a delay getting out of Salt Lake City, which resulted in me missing a connection and Atlanta.  My ride to my unplanned hotel stay was with a pleasant van driver who asked where I was going.  I told him I was headed to Costa Rica and Panama and he went on to explain that his friends had been going every year.  He was saying it was the best hidden secret destination of the world.  A great secret.  I had to agree with him.

Why weren’t his friends going to Hawaii?  Costa Rica was offering up warmer beaches, better waves, and the undiscovered and getting away from the crowds.

ARENAL

 

 

 

Costa Rica has so much to offer. 

  • private white and black sand beaches
  • leather back turtles
  • monkeys
  • waterfalls
  • tubing
  • white water rafting
  • bird watching
  • lava fields
  • swinging bridges
  • ziplining
  • sloths
  • volcanoes
  • hot springs
  • red blue and green frogs with red eyes
  • banana plantations
  • native tribes
  • rain forests

The Costa Rican’s are really smart and happy.  Gross national happiness in Costa Rica is even higher than in Bhutan where that’s the most important thing.

happy

I have been enchanted with the country.  It’s quite amazing and impressive.  A very peaceful place.  No army or military to speak of, they decided instead of focusing on arming up and providing defense they’d be better off spending that money building infrastructure and services.  The roads are quite good.  Having driven across much of Central America, it has great roads really minus those that are affected by volcanology.

Let me start with the sloths.  The slowest mammal in the world.  They’ve got 3 toed sloths and two toed sloths.  Very often they end up with problems.  One of the great places to visit is the reserves.  The jaguar reserve, a favorite of the Caribbean side of Costa Rica just outside of the surfing town of Puerto Viejo.  You can handle baby spider monkeys, and little howlers. 

 

SLOTHHOWLER 

The sloths you can look at, but you can’t touch them because of the special oils in their fur that grow and collect moss to hide them in the trees.  You can also see the toucan and a number of other birds and get close as you’ll want to get with the local vipers. 

SLOTHSLEEPING

The rain forest has trade offs.  There’s sure a lot of rain, but the dense forest is a must see.  Travel to the pacific side for a drier visit.  You’ll see resort cities and stretches of beach where you could see no one.  Throughout the country the national parks and volcanoes are amazing sights to see both the flora and fauna.  I recommend Arenal it’s a great volcano with cities that surround it designed for all types of tourists.  I highly recommend tracking down the hot springs.  Ask the locals where you can go behind the warm river water fall and at night to candle light.

 

 frog RAINFOREST

Big Iguanas, Toucans, and Waterfalls… It’s not hard to see why Costa really is a paradise.  You can also see why people are trying to keep is a secret.

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Nicaragua: Historical Gem in the Rough

Granada Historical Cathedral

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Cathedral in Granada

Nicaragua is one of the poorest/cheapest countries in the Americas.  It’s been an underdog for a couple of decades.  As a tourist attraction it’s easily overlooked for Panama or Costa Rica or Guatemala.  Many may not even consider it.  Nicaragua is really under the radar as a tourist destination, and as someone who loves discovering places off the radar where they knock your socks off and they haven’t been discovered I LOVE Nicaragua.  I actually had doubts about writing this because some who have made Nicaragua as their home away from home or for their escape may not want extra attention, but that hasn’t stopped me in the past.  I’ve been to Nicaragua twice and love loved both times.  The first time I did a bunch of research.  In my pursuits I came across a lot of warnings and enough to really scare you.

“Armed robbery attempts have increased in popular tourist destinations where armed, and sometimes masked, assailants emerge from roadside locations to stop vehicles and rob passengers. One common tactic is for assailants to place rocks, tree branches, or other large objects along roads and wait for cars to stop. When the driver gets out of the vehicle to remove the obstruction, assailants come out of hiding to rob victims.  Criminals posing as Nicaraguan traffic police occasionally target visitors. The imposters conduct traffic stops and rob vehicle occupants at gunpoint.”

One post I read was an expat from the US that runs a white water rafting place, they had moved from central Oregon.  In the post, they went on to explain that Nicaragua gets a bad rap that it doesn’t deserve.  They compared the crime rate in the worst city in Nicaragua with an average city in Oregon and explained it was worse in Oregon.  Looking again there are horrible warnings designed to scare you.  In my research the crime rates are comparable to the US and in many cases worse.  Compare Numbeo country crime rates of Nicaragua 41.93 and US 53.44 a higher crime rate.  Hey, I’m a fan of Costa Rica and Nicaragua, they both have a lot to offer and shouldn’t be compared since they are so different in terms of what they have to offer.  Costa Rica has the beaches, and Nicaragua has the big lake and historical colonial cities.

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The cost of living is one-third cheaper in Nicaragua. Tourists are very concerned about safety, so it is necessary to look at crime statistics. The homicide rate per 100,000 inhabitants in Nicaragua was 12 in 2005, 13 in 2011, an increase of 8%. The homicide rate in Costa Rica in 2005 was 7.8, with a 32% increase in 2011 to 10.3.  The ten most violent US cities each have more homicides than the whole country of Nicaragua.  Chicago a city I wouldn’t even bat an eye to visit had 50x the homicide rate.

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I hope you notice the HUGE lake, the largest freshwater lake in Central America, and really the largest islands in freshwater in the world.

Nicaragua, officially the Republic of Nicaragua, is the largest country in the Central American isthmus, bordering Honduras to the north and Costa Rica to the south

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In Nicaragua it’s about the lakes, volcanoes and natural beauty.  Lake Granada has hundreds of small islands in addition to the big volcano islands.  Beautiful personal islands with one house.  Jump in the water, it’s nice all year round.  I have heard about the fresh water sharks, but they don’t hang out near the city on the Granada side.  Catch a ferry over to Ometepe, and stay on the island.  I went on a kayaking excursion.  Amazing views.

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Ometepe Island in Lake Nicaragua

Colonial Towns Granada – Ometepe holds the distinction of being the largest island in a fresh water lake in the world. It is also full of pre-Columbian history, statuary, and other relics, plus two magnificent volcanoes.

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Granada is a very historical city.  Nothing compares with it across central america, the closest is Antiqua, Guatemala.  Incredible beauty.

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At night go out on the closed walking streets and be serenaded with incredible food from around the world.

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Managua has the big man in the hat on the largest hill in the city.  Great views. You may not agree with the politics, and some local friends of ours are waiting for change, but it’s amazing.   I personally would recommend spending your time with Granada as your base.  Don’t hang out in Managua.  It doesn’t have much to offer.  Get out to the lake and you’ll feel the relaxing atmosphere.  As a non native Spanish speaker, I still found enough people who spoke enough English to get around.  You will want to have a few words.  One of my friends only used USD while in Nicaragua.  Even the ATM provided choices for USD or local.  Our hotel took credit cards.  You likely will want to make sure you have cash before you take the ferry out to Ometepe.  On the islands things are pretty spread out and the roads are pretty rough, but that’s part of the adventure.