Monday, March 23, 2015

Solo Trip to Panama

My time was up again, and it was time to take my second boarder run to renew my visa. I decided that since I already took a trip north to Nicaragua, it was time to head south to check out Panama. Most people think that there's basically nothing in Panama except for Panama city, but that is definitely not the case. After asking around a little bit the favored boarder run location is a place called Bocas del Toro for a few reasons: it has a beautiful caribbean climate, it's just across the boarder from Costa Rica, and it's a good time! Well, that's all the convincing I needed to go there. And once again, I decided to take this trip solo.
The balancing act of walking across the holey bridge
About a week and a half ago, I woke up verrrrry early on a Thursday morning to catch the 6am bus from San Jose to Sixaola (the boarder town). It was a steamy bus with no a/c but it wasn't too much of an issue since I ended up sleeping for the majority of the five and a half hour trip. Now, I was warned in advance that the Panama boarder crossing could be a bit tricky, so I did my research and prepared myself for the experience. First I had to pay an exit tax to leave Costa Rica, then they had me fill out a simple form about my personal info an my travel plans and they gave me the stamp I needed to leave Costa Rica. Then, I walked across a very rickety pedestrian bridge over a large swamp and river in order to enter Panama. The bridge is so poorly maintained that there are holes and gaps throughout the entire way, so you have to look down and do a balance beam kind-of act in order to get across safely. I crossed my fingers that this was not a foreshadow of how my time in Panama would be. The first thing I had to do when I reached the other side of the bridge was pay an entrance tax for Panama in order to get a sticker so I could eventually get my stamp. Then I had to walk over to boarder control and I anticipated the worst. This is the part where I was told I had to present a exit ticket from Panama in the next 90 days, a ticket back to my home country, and proof that I have $500 in my bank account. Well, maybe I got lucky but the friendly man at customs didn't ask for any of that. He simply smiled and asked me what I was doing in Panama and how long I expected to be there and BAM, just like that he stamped my passport and I was through. Hallelujah!
After I got the stamp I joined two young German tourists in a pirate taxi (non-official) for the hour-long journey to Almirante where I would catch a water taxi to Bocas del Toro. On the drive there, I took some time to admire the thick, lush vegetation that lined the skinny road. I felt like I was in the middle of the amazon. In addition to the jungle we passed a sea of banana trees (formally owned by Chiquita) and a few small villages. Finally, we arrived at the water taxi station. I don't know what I was expecting for this part of the journey, but I didn't expect it to be just a Panamanian dude with a big fishing boat with rows of bench-like seating for the passengers. The boat didn't look very reassuring, but at least they provided life jackets. Thirty minutes later, after a windy, bumpy boat ride, I found myself in Bocas del Toro, FINALLY! 
For those of you who don't know, Bocas del Toro is a group of islands off the Caribbean coast of Panama. Bocas del Toro town is located on one of the islands and is the center of life, but many of the surrounding islands are more remote and home to small hostels, resort and quieter beaches. I chose to stay at a hostel that had RAVE reviews on that was on one of the other islands. So, this required me to take one last water taxi from Bocas city to get to my hostel (and this time that water taxi really was just a fishing boat). 5 mintues later we arrived at the dock, and I looked up to see the hostel perched on top of a steep hill surrounded by tropical trees and bushes. I climbed the long set of stairs to reach the top and was greeted by a friendly Australian surfer dude who was working the front desk. He explained to me that the hostel had 14 acres of private land that contained hiking paths, animals, and 40 types of fruit trees. Additionally I was informed that the hostel is completely eco-friendly and runs off of solar power and uses rain water. Also, he told me that there was a coral reef just 50 meters off the dock that we were welcome to snorkel and that they had paddle boards, canoes, and kayaks for us to use, not to mention that they also had their own private pool. I knew I was in for a great weekend from the very start.
The beautiful view from my hostel
After I got settled, I went downstairs to grab a beer at the bar and struck up a conversation with some on the hostel staff. In addition to the Aussie surfer, I met a young newlywed couple from Texas (the husband was a chef and the wife the baker), a young couple with a woman from Scotland and guy from Italy who also was also a chef, a woman from France, a guy from Colorado, a guy from Sweden and one of the two owners who was a 30-something Canadian guy. As I drank my beer and watched them prepare dinner we all got to know each other a little bit, and as most travelers do, they all had really interesting life stories! Dinner was served family-style every night and it was absolutely delicious!
After dinner the staff taught me a fun dice game that they played often at the hostel and we played for a few hours. But, after that I decided to turn in after a very long day of travel.
The next morning I woke up to a little rain, so I grabbed my book and one of the hammocks and just relaxed most of the morning. Luckily, around noon the sun came out so I decided to head into the main island to check out the town. I quickly found out that Bocas is a very international place. It doesn't have the latino vibe like you get in other places in central america. Most of the shops and restaurants seemed to owned by foreigners and offered any cuisine BUT Panamanian food. Also, most people on the island speak English rather than Spanish. However, as I walked around the town a little more and got away from the main area, I started to see the neighborhoods where the locals lived in their little brightly colored beach houses. For those of you who have every been the coast in Georgia or the Carolinas, just imagine those southern beach houses but a little more run down and painted in a bright, tropical color. It turns out that the population of Bocas is 12,000, so the locals are practically outnumbered by the tourists. Anyway, my afternoon consisted of getting lunch at a little Mexican restaurant and enjoying a coconut brown porter from the local craft brewery in town. Later on I headed back to the hostel and once again enjoyed chatting with the hostel staff while they cooked us another scrumptious dinner.
The next day I woke up to another overcasty day, but there was no rain so I decided to take advantage of the dry weather. The hostel staff gave me a tip about an hour-long jungle hike I could take throughout the island to arrive at a secret snorkel spot on the other side of the island. I was feeling adventurous so I grabbed a pair of rubber boots that the hostel lent me, packed up the snorkel equipment and a few other things and started my adventure! Throughout the next hour I would find myself knee-deep in mud (thank God for the boots), face-to-face with a beautiful owl butterfly the size of my hand, and surrounded by tons of little red frogs hopping through the jungle. Finally, I reached the end of the trail and asked a local to point me towards the snorkel spot (I was warned it's really hard to find). The young guy offered to take me there himself and I'm glad he did because it truly was tiny and hard to find. Coincidentally I ran into two Swedish girls from the hostel at the same spot! I spent the next hour snorkeling and relaxing in the sun. I got to see tons of tropical fish, coral, lots and lots of little sardines. I've never seen water like that before. It was so clear that it looked turquoise! I felt like I was living in a postcard for a moment. Afterwards, I caught a water taxi back to the hostel with the Swedish girls and spent the rest of my afternoon at the hostel. I took a nap by the pool and then took the paddleboard out to the reef near the hostel dock and got to see even more fish and coral including starfish and lots of sea urchins. Later that night I enjoyed my last delicious dinner at the hostel and then went out in Bocas town with some of the hostel staff. On the water taxi into town, the most magical thing happened! First, we got to see the bioluminescent algae light up all around us like flickering fireflies swimming beneath us in the water, and then further in the journey a dolphin jumped out of the water right next to our boat! Between that and the fun night we had bar-hopping in town, it was the cherry-on-top of an amazing weekend in Bocas. 
The next morning I woke up before dawn to catch the two water taxis, one regular taxi and two buses I needed to get home to Heredia. I've really grown to like solo travel as it really pushes me to be friendly and meet new people, and I got to meet some really awesome people in my time in Bocas. I would just like to give a shout-out to all of the staff at Bambuda Lodge for being the friendliest, nicest hostel staff I've ever met and providing me with delicious food and great company. It was a short trip, but it was a good one. I'm sure that won't be my last time in Bocas del Toro.

Friday, March 6, 2015

The Costa Rican Diet

No one was more excited than my mother when they found out where I'd be completing my TEFL training program in Costa Rica. I was placed in a small beach town called Samara located on the Nicoyan Peninsula of Costa Rica's western coast. My mom, who is a holistic health coach and certified personal trainer, has had a fascination with the Costa Rican diet ever since reading the "Blue Zones" by Dan Buettner. This book travels to the "blue zones" which are geographic regions where high percentages of centenarians live remarkably long, full lives to study their lifestyle, diet and habits in order to discover how to live the longest, healthiest lives possible. The Nicoyan Peninsula was one of the five blue zones the book chose to highlight. In the end, many of the factors of the Nicoyans long life expectancy were attributed to their strong life purpose, family/social bonds, physical work and plenty of sunlight. However, the book also highlighted the simplistic diet of rice, beans, plantains, coffee and fresh fruit. After hearing about all of this, I (and my mom) was excited to get to know the Costa Rican diet myself, however the reality that I discovered here in Costa Rica is that in many ways the traditional diet is dying and the westernized diet is taking over.

A typical Costa Rican "casado"
In the month I spent in Samara, I spent time asking the locals about their diets and they seemed to be eating a lot of rices, beans, etc. Rice and black beans are a common dish to eat three times a day in Nicoya. A typical breakfast consists of gallo pinto (rice and black beans cooked together), eggs, corn tortilla, natilla (similar to sour cream) and sometimes fried sweet plantains. Lunch is usually a "casado" which means a large serving of white rice, stewed black beans, picadillo (cooked veggies and meat), a fried sweet plantain, some kind of meat/fish and a small simple salad. Dinner is either another casado (usually a smaller portion) or an "olla de carne" which is a brothy beef stew. All meals are usually accompanied with coffee or a "natural" which is a natural fruit juice smoothie. Although some foreigners will complain that this diet is one-noted and a bit repetitive, I was completely on board since the beginning! I eat my version of a "casado" every day for lunch (mine is usually rice, beans, tomato, avocado, an egg, plantains, cabbage salad and LOTS of fresh cilantro) and sometimes even have gallo pinto for breakfast. The only adjustment I've made it to cut out the naturales, which adds a lot of sugar into the diet. I usually just drink water.

After my month in the sleepy town of Samara, I came to the big, bustling, urban metro of the central valley and immediately noticed that a lot of people were eating differently than the Nicoyans. First of all, in Samara there were no major food chains and in Heredia there's everything you can think of. Applebees, McDonalds, Burger King, Subway, KFC (referred to as "Kentucky" here), Taco Bell, TGI Fridays and on and on. Not only do these restaurants exist, but they are THRIVING here. I remember growing up that it was common to celebrate a birthday or other event at McDonalds. Most of us Americans have grown out of that and McDonalds is usually ordered through the drive-thru late at night by drunk college students. Here in Costa Rica, McDonalds are very nice on the inside (some even have flatscreen TVs) and they are always FULL of families, friends and other people at every hour of the day. Rather than being a shameful place to eat (which it is in the US), many people find it as an acceptable place to eat out. Furthermore, the junk food has expanded beyond the main restaurants. Burgers, fries, hot dogs and especially fried chicken can be found at lots of small fast-food corner shops throughout Heredia. I'm not exaggerating when I say there's a fried chicken place on nearly every block of downtown Heredia.

Another thing I noticed in the central valley diet is that instead of drinking natural fruit drinks with every meal, they use fruit powder mixes.  Before I came to CR I only thought "Tang" came in one flavor; that almost-orange artificial citrusy flavor. However, in Costa Rica you can find nearly 20 different flavors of Tang in any local supermarket. Though some ticos in the central valley still make the effort to drink the "naturales," many use the sugary powder replacement. In fact, many of my tico friends say they don't like the taste of water, I'm sure it has to do with the fact that their palates are more accustomed to sweet beverages. I believe that these sugar-loaded drinks alone could be the reason that Costa Rica is in the top 5 countries in the world for sugar consumption. Yikes.

In general, the central valley's diet is just becoming westernized. Some ticos still choose to have rice and beans three times a day, but many would prefer a western diet. USA's fast food influence and the high sugar intake has impacted Costa Rica dramatically in the form of health. A recent study found that 67% of women and 55% of men in Costa Rica are considered overweight and child obesity is on the rise as well. I guess the values of the Blue Zone of Nicoya aren't shared by the majority of central valley.

As a health nut, it's sad to me to see how our (USA) impact has tarnished a beautiful country with a healthy diet in the most corporate, negative way. I hope that one day ticos too will grow out of their McDonald's phase and take advantage of the abundance of fresh, healthy food at their finger tips.

For more information about the blue zone of Nicoya, follow this link!