Seeking Refuge from Costa Rica’s Steamy Jungles in Panama’s Misty Highlands

Pacific PurgatoryA small rainbow colored dart whizzed out from the dense vegetation of the southern Costa Rican jungle and right past my nose as I pedaled nonchalantly through the humid air.  It had caught me completely off guard and my mind reeled for a split second as my eyes raced after its retreat back up into the trees, trying to identify the flying object.  Well, Toucan Sam certainly was a lot smaller than I had expected him to be, and quite a bold little fellow as well.  But the moment had caught me and as I pulled over to peek back up through the foliage at the marvelous little avian, I felt the wondrous satisfaction of a return to nature, the firm reinforcement of my conviction in my journey, and the excitement to be back on the road again and approaching the border of the final overland border crossing before reaching the end of North America.

Sadly, after experiencing one of the most blissful moments of transcendence into the beauty of nature during the sunset of the evening before, I must admit that things went dreadfully downhill with what came to pass later that same night.  I strolled back from the beach at twilight, passing through the darkened unpaved streets of the peaceful country town of Uvita.  Upon arriving at my tent, which I had pitched before heading to the seashore earlier that day, I felt quite at peace, and after reading for some time, I finally decided it was time for lights out and a nice restful night of sleep.  However, this night was soon to become one of the most notoriously memorable camping experiences of my journey.  

Ferocious barking erupted some fifty meters away from my tent in the shadowy darkness of night.  I momentarily froze in panic and then surreptitiously raised my head to listen for whether the noise was coming towards me or whether something else nearby was provoking it.  But as the seconds drew into minutes and then long stretches of time began to wear away, the barking became less aggravated and evolved into a monotonously droning pattern.  This continued on for I know not how many hours, but as I lay there restlessly, I only prayed that it would end soon.  However, this was only the tip of the iceberg.

Some time after the barking had trailed off into the night and I was beginning to doze into a frustrated slumber, the first drops of rain began to patter down onto the sandy soil around my tent.  Within moments it had grown into a deafening roar and the ceiling of my feeble tent shuddered ceaselessly under the onslaught.  As you can imagine, at this point the option of sleep was beginning to become but a dream, however I had already nestled myself into that groggy near-slumber at which I had no desire to read or explore options for blotting out the noise – I just wanted to lie there in agony and pray that it would all be over soon.  But it wasn’t.

Several hours later, as the rains began to subside, I knew that the dawn was not far off.  I hoped that I could at least get at least some brief stretch of shut-eye before the dawn appeared and the blazing heat of day arose, but once again my plan was foiled (and I would have gotten away with it too if it wasn’t for you pesky livestock!).  The roosters of the apocalypse began crooning mercilessly, tearing through my desire for peace and harmony within my tent.  And that was it, that was my night.

Goodbye Pacifica RicaOnce the first rays of dawn began to streak across my tent and the sweat started to drip down my face, I knew that it was over, it was fruitless to attempt further sleep.  The temperature would only continue to rise and soon I would be lying there along in my mini-sauna with all of my sticky synthetic materials glued to my body.  So, in a wretched state, I unzipped the tent door, dragged myself out into the light of day, and began to pack up my things and hit the road, hoping that once I got moving the day’s ride would relax my mind and invigorate my body.  But, as is the way with camping, there was just one unfortunate detail – everything was soaked.

Thanks to the torrential flooding of the night before, my tent was dripping with rainwater, and there was no way that I could repack it without filling my bags and other equipment with moisture.  The only option was to hang it up in the morning heat and hope that the sun would dry it quickly.  Since there weren’t any convenient places in the sunlight, I found myself instead throwing the huge sheets of synthetic material over tree branches and such and getting the rest of my equipment squared away.  However, after half an hour of waiting I could take no more of the steamy humidity and idleness (in my beleaguered state) and snatched down the limp tent down and began stuffing it back into its breathable sack.  I lashed it on top of my equipment in the hopes that it would dry in the day’s wind and heat and set off.

After arriving back at the paved main road I continued riding on Southward towards Panama and the journey before me began much as it had ended the previous day, but deeper into the jungle.  At first I skirted the coastline, lumbering up sizable hills looking over the crashing ocean waves and then slaloming back down into the overgrowth.  At one point I pulled off the main road for a break along a striking beach called Pinuela, covered with the smoothest of grey pebbles, and stood out beyond the tree-line staring off into the pale, hazy sky as I caught my breath.  But once I climbed back upon my bike and began riding again the road pulled away from coastline and drew slightly higher and further inland.  I passed through tropical groves, dense jungle, overgrown fields.  I could feel myself pushing farther and farther away from developed Costa Rica and ever nearer to the outskirts.

Dense JungleAt the point when the small toucan had zipped down before my eyes, I had already been riding for several hours, through steamy jungle heat, and had just recently beforehand found myself in yet another tropical downpour.  I had ridden intently, hoping to reach a small town not more than an hour or two from the Panama border to spend the night, when at mid-afternoon the skies had opened up and let loose.  For the first ten minutes I resigned myself to keep riding through the rains, as I was already soaked in my own sweat and the thick humidity and the terrain was only mildly hilly at this point.  But after feeling like pedaling underwater for just so long, I finally decided to pull-over and wait it out (which, as you may or may not know, in that part of the world is a game of Russian Roulette – you may wait fifteen minutes, and you may be there until dusk).  I sat under the little tin roof of a road-side bus stop in the middle of the isolated jungle, snacking on my leftover cheese from the evening before, and hoping that the sun would come out (and, not tomorrow) and show me ample reprieve so as to allow me passage to my destination.

Fortunately, I was feeling lucky that day, and less than a half an hour later I was back underway, spotting my toucan friend as a sign of good fortune, and carrying on in full force.  Shortly thereafter, there I was rolling into the dusty village of Rio Claro in Southern Costa Rica.  Wasting no time in finding the cheapest lodging in town, I haggled the price yet further down and then headed inside to finally peel off my sticky, drenched cycling clothes.  Showered and rejuvenated, I found myself ready for some grub and decided to explore the odd and rather bustling little pueblo.  After a light meal of casado (Costa Rica’s name for the typical Latin American dish: rice, beans, salad, and some variety of meat), I wandered until finding a bakery, to stock up on some carbs for the following day, and an internet cafe, to catch up on the correspondences that I had missed over the previous few days.  I also ran into a friendly French couple that I had met back when arriving in Uvita and we sat down to chat for some time before saying goodbye and me returning to my welcoming bed for some much needed sleep (after the torture that I had endured the night prior).

When I awoke in the morning I felt the teeming excitement of the Panamanian border within reach of my fingertips and wasted no time in loading up and heading out.  I was anxious to begin a new chapter and to mark the beginning of the final nation of Central America.  That short span of time before reaching the border rolled away rather uneventfully.  It was a gorgeous blue skied day with huge white, puffy clouds dotting the horizon.  The jungle had given way to thickly overgrown green fields and beautiful tropical hardwood forest and I hummed a little tune as I daydreamed about what the world would be like on the other side of the border.

Goodbye Panama!Upon arriving at the border, however, I was in for a little delay.  At first I wandered around the confusing border crossing searching for just where exactly I was to get my exit stamp from Costa Rica, but after finding some friendly assistance, I soon found myself in line.  Sadly, after waiting for about an hour and a half, watching yet another raging storm soak the shoddy little border town, and wondering just how much longer it would take, I inadvertently discovered that I was in the wrong line and that this was for stamps exiting Panama!  Argh!  Well, I finally made it to the right line, and guess what?  It was lunchtime.  So I found myself waiting for another forty-five minutes until the border control officials returned just to stamp my passport.  So the long and shart of it was that about three hours after arriving at the border crossing, I was finally out of Costa Rican and riding on into the low hills of Panama.

Curiously, and inconveniently, when I began riding again after my long break, my legs felt laden with iron and my energy completely drained.  I had turned dismally overcast and a light drizzle permeated my mood.  My speed had dropped to about eight miles per house and I was literally crawling along.  Although I never did discover an explanation for this change in my physical state, I did begin to panic that I would not reach the town of David that day, and knew that there was nowhere else to find lodging beforehand (and after the night of camping a few nights earlier, I had no desire for a repeat experience).  Then, as if by magic, after another hour and a half of this intimidatingly snail-like pace and uncertainty, as the color had begun to drain from the sky, my energy sprang back into me.  By now I was frustrated and ready to be at my destination and hence raced forward with a fervor.  The stark contrast to my state of being only moments earlier was astonishing, as I now seemed to fly forward completely unrestrained.

For the next two hours a hauled forward at breakneck speed, up long shallow hills, through flat, scrubby fields, and past endless kiosks of borojo salesmen.  Then finally, I had arrived.  The town of David wasn’t quite as I had imagined it, being that it was the second largest city in Panama.  It was a very low, rural city, with no building appearing to be over two stories, all clustered into small country-town blocks, and with a particularly indistinctive quality about it.  I didn’t care much to explore at this point, as my rush of adrenaline had finally begun to taper away, and I made for where the Purple House hostel had appeared to be on the map that I had consulted earlier that day.  After getting lost only once, I asked for directions and was soon back on track and arriving at the peculiar little purple house, which looked like it had once been an old office building.

I’m not sure exactly whether it was the insipid heat and humidity, the frequent and relentless downpours, the wretched night of camping, or some other element, but despite the beauty and variability of the last few days’ ride, I felt completely trampled and worn out.  I somehow mustered up the energy to stumble out into the streets and search for my dinner, followed by (a pint) of ice cream to sooth me, and then retired back to the somewhat cramped accommodations of the hostel dormitory.  Not having found much allure to the town of David, and somewhat put off my its oppressively sultry heat, I decided that the following morning I would make my way to the very nearby Boquete Highlands, where the air was said to be crisp and cool and the aroma of coffee practically hung in the air.  Of course, I was in no state to be riding the following day and finally soothed my anxiety by making the decision to catch the forty five minute shuttle up to Boquete for a day or two.  However, at that particular moment, I could never have known I would instantly fall in love with the quaint little highland town, consequently finding myself disappearing into it’s tranquil mountain mists and detaching myself from my journey’s rapid passage of time for a week of nourishment and reflection.


1 Response to “Seeking Refuge from Costa Rica’s Steamy Jungles in Panama’s Misty Highlands”

  1. December 5, 2008 at 3:27 pm

    Dude, I enjoy reading your stories. And I really like the look of your blog. I’ve just gotten started and am still learning about customizing the look.

    Keep up the interesting stories, they’re fun to read.


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