I got up bright and early, the day I left Costa Rica, and waited patiently by the front gate of Hostel Pagalu for my bus to get to Panama’s Bocas del Toro. A bus arrived, I got in, and a lone French lady was inside ready to make the trek too. She seemed friendly and had kind eyes, and we talked briefly about how Puerto Viejo had been wonderful and how neither of us had planned where we’d stay in Bocas, or indeed, any other place we’d visited.
Turns out I was in the wrong bus – the apologetic driver untied my backpack from the top of the bus and said mine would be on its way soon. I said goodbye to Sophie, laughing, and waited. It indeed turned up and I watched the glorious greens of Costa Rica pass me by while I made my way to the border. And what a border – a thin bridge, of rickety, broken wooden planks above a murky brown river about 10 metres below, on which I had to pass on foot with my backpack strapped on. It was a strangely romantic way to leave a country to enter a new one.
Bound for Bocas
On the other side, I got back on the bus and made my way to Almirante to board a boat to the Bocas islands, chatting to Andy, another traveller from the US who’d been on a similar loop through Central America too. I had wondered where Sophie was, as everyone else from her bus were on the boat but her. After taking the last room left in Hostel Hansi, I walked to the ATM to get money out and couldn’t. Panicking, I made my way back to the wifi in my room to resolve my money situation and bumped into Sophie. She hadn’t been able to access money either and, indeed, had come up short at the border and had to ask passing strangers for the $6 entry fee and then again at the boat. And it had been really tough for her to do so, being denied many times before someone begrudgingly lent her the money. She had the money but simply couldn’t access it – her bank had stopped her card when it noticed it was being used in Costa Rica. Terrifying: a solo woman traveller alone in a foreign country without any money and no place to stay. So I lent her money without a moments thought. Of course I did – and so should anyone else who had passed her that day, without question. Sweet Jesus. But it reminded me, again, that this trip, and life generally, has been full of little coincidences - my getting on the wrong bus in this instance – that turn out to have a purpose that I didn’t always understand at the time, but become clear over time.
By then, I’d met a local guy Dominic who was keen to show us around the town and so we went for drinks, ending up in the Bookstore, a bar that had walls lined with row upon row of second hand books, a ping pong table in the middle and selling $1 cervezas. What heaven. I slowly scanned all the books, looking for a particular book that didn’t appear – another coincidence perhaps - and discussed who the better author was, Hemingway or F Scott Fitzgerald, with the slightly drunk owner and his wife. He had a first edition Tender is the Night, which he let me hold briefly, adoringly, and then quickly took it away, exclaiming I wasn’t allowed to buy it. Ah well. He was good value – such a good laugh.
To the beach, to the bar
The next day, I bumped into Andy again and he, Sophie, Dominic and I became a little team, going for lunch at Dominic’s favourite restaurant, Cafe Olga, for a hearty plate of chicken, rice and beans for just $5. From there we took a water taxi set for Red Frog Beach, reaching a pier surrounded by mangroves, which led to a wooden path winding its way through the lush green and brown swamp to one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen. We swam, played cards, talked about our lives back home and loved life.
That night, back we went out again, to Aqualounge, the famed bar over the water with swings that went into the sea. It was pouring down outside – which didn’t stop Andy or Dominic from going on the swings – but not being very busy save for a few groups of very young, very drunk backpackers, we went back to the main island bound for Bar Hundido, a local hangout flooded with salsa music and dancehall and we danced till dawn.
We had a lovely breakfast the next day, our last day all together, at Coconut Hostel where Sophie was staying, with soft reggae music in the background and endless coffee and fruit and pancakes. Andy and I spent a lot of time there, eventhough we were staying at another hostel, and the lovely manager treated us like we were guests. As I had to leave for Panama City that evening, Sophie and I left by water taxi for the beautiful Playa Carenegro for my last swim in the Carribean sea for a while. We walked around the island to the perfect spot, a sleepy little cove, with clear waters and white sands, and two armed guards watching on. We lazed in the sunshine writing and, after Sophie left for another beach, I returned to the main island for some food with Andy before making my way to the overnight bus to Panama City.
I wasn’t looking forward to it, but the 10 hours went quickly – I was asleep for most of it – and at 4.30am the next day, myself and two lovely Dutch girls I’d met at the station headed straight for the Panamerica hostel, my new friends to bed, and me to the rooftop to see the sunrise over Panama City. It was beautiful, a slight stroke of gold spun through a dark sky and then expanding into oranges and yellows and then purples and blues and then it was completely light on my last day in Central America. I went to bed and when I awoke in my 10 bed dormroom, it was just me and Alessandro, a Peruvian of Inca descent, just 5 feet tall, with dreadlocks down to his lower back, huge black bands of tattoos around his right arm and a sweet friendly face. He was making wristbands to sell as he made his way up through to Mexico and didn’t speak English, but he understood I was on my way to Peru and was keen to show me which places to visit on my Lonely Planet map. Describing the Lord of Sipan’s tombs, he whipped out the latest ipad mini to show me pictures. I adored him and thought it was another sign that I’d love Peru and its people.
I left him to go explore the city, first stopping at a coffee shop at the bottom of the American Trade Hotel across the park from the hostel. It was such a beautiful hotel and the café felt a little like one you’d find in Paris: high ceilings, white tiles with green edging and wooden benches. It struck me how long it had been since I’d been in such opulence and how I enjoyed it. Not missed it, but enjoyed it. I continued on to the Panama Canal, and its adjoining museum: impressive and something I had to see, but not world-changing. I returned to meet up with Linda and Eva – the Dutch girls I met on the bus – and Jaanus, an Estonian sea captain, and Jo, a Brazillian young man who was about to start work at Microsoft, to go for some dinner and then cocktails on the rooftop terrace of Tantalo. It was the perfect way to end the chapter.
Leaving Central America
I flew out the next morning to Peru to meet my parents, my journey through Central America complete. And, as I have throughout my life, now being no exception, I saw this event to be a fixed mark, a symbol: leaving one continent, an old chapter, to get to the new – the new country, the new dawn, the new story. It was exciting and sad in equal measure.
In just two months, which had felt like much longer, I’d learnt so much. Travelling had made me question every part of my identity, how I related to other people, who I should keep close and who not, and how I approached life, bringing it all into sharp, unrelenting focus so that I had to - had to - face sometimes difficult truths, to turn them over in my head and respond to them. And while this adventure is bringing wonderful new experiences and people into my life, and new levels of understanding, it’s also meant letting go of things that I had once loved and valued, but no longer had a place in my life – at least not now - and I’d been holding onto them for whatever reason. Some of those were easily discarded, some incredibly, painfully difficult to lose. And it’s not finished, it continues. It continues.
I didn’t know what was in store for me next, outside of simply going to Peru, but I felt free and strong and ready for the new dawn. It continues.