Two countries in 4 days is pretty ridiculous, even with the rapid pace at which we travel. But we had little choice, we had a flight to catch from Panama City, and we were still in Nicaragua.
As it turned out though, we enjoyed our time in the capitals of Costa Rica and Panama, short though it was.
It started with a long but straightforward bus trip from Rivas, 50km from the Costa Rica border, to San Jose. The border crossing was simple, and the bus ride unmemorable – usually a good thing.
It was strange seeing the change between the two countries though, Costa Rica’s relative wealth and more developed status evident in the buildings we could see from the bus. And also from the $12 we paid for 2 meals at a rest stop!
We had an unwelcome welcome when we arrived in San Jose 8 hours later. The taxi drivers wanted 6,000 colons (over £7) for the relatively short trip to our hostel. We haggled our driver down to 5,000 but in hindsight I wish we hadn’t.
This guy was angry. Seriously angry that we had dared to haggle with him. He tried his best to kill us all on that journey, driving like a complete prick – bear in mind we were well used to crazy Central American driving by this point, but this guy was suicidal.
Luckily we did survive and checked into our cool hostel which happened to be next door to the president’s house! As you may guess, it was a nice neighbourhood.
We had one full day to sightsee so we were out bright and early the next day and walked to apparently the biggest mall in Costa Rica to catch a bus – we must have gone to the wrong mall because it wasn’t big and was pretty grotty.
We did catch a bus but jumped off after a few kilometres as it was clearly the wrong bus. So we decided to walk. We went through some nice plazas/parks, and made our way through the downtown shopping area, which was a lot less swanky than I expected – it all felt like any other slightly shabby Central American city, only everything cost more.
Eventually we reached La Sabana park, the biggest in the city, so we spent some time catching some rays and bird watching.
We attempted to get the train back but it runs at something crazy like one train an hour so we were back to the bus, which again only got us half way. So we enjoyed a leisurely walk back, admiring buildings and street art (plus a piece of the Berlin Wall) as we went.
Both nights in San Jose we opted to cook dinner at our amazing hostel, thus saving valuable money. Though even at the supermarket groceries were expensive – pretty much identically priced to the UK.
And this is the reason we didn’t make more time for Costa Rica – by all accounts it has some incredible natural beauty, but it was just too expensive for us on this trip.
So after 2 nights we boarded the comfortable Tica Bus to Panama City.
After a long night and a tedious bureaucratic border crossing, we eventually arrived at the impressive Panama City bus terminal at a ridiculous 3.30am.
Knowing our hostel was probably locked up for the night, we waited it out for a few hours drinking coffee and eating food (no sleeping, I got told off by a security guard for having a nap) until the sun came up and we got a taxi to our hostel.
Still we had to wait several hours but when we had eventually checked in we went straight out to check out the old town of Panama City – Casco Viejo. We attempted to get a bus which only got us as far as downtown, which is a long way away from the swanky area where our hostel was, with skyscrapers all around.
It didn’t feel dangerous as such, but definitely reminded us that although it is generally a rich city, not everyone shares the wealth.
A short walk along the waterfront and we were roughly in the Casco Viejo area, but before we could make it in proper we came across some sort of festival. It seemed to be free so we got a wristband and wandered in.
It turned out to be really cool – there were craft stalls, street food, artists and DJ’s. It was like being at home, and sadly the prices weren’t far off either. We had some yummy paella though, and some free cocktails before we were on our way.
There isn’t loads to do in Casco Viejo apart from wander around and admire the colonial buildings, which were in various states of repair. The area was half a tourist attraction and half still a traditional residential area, though it looked like the tourist restaurants were slowly taking over.
After stopping for a beer in the main square, we made our way back to the waterfront as it was getting dark – here there were rows of restaurants and bars, this is where the locals were. However we were still stuffed so we hailed a taxi and headed back to the hostel.
The next day it was time to head for the main attraction – the Panama Canal. After having issues with buses – although we had a prepaid card there was nowhere open to top them up, and the bus we needed cost more than we had on the card – we decided to just get a taxi. It cost far more but we made it to the Miraflores locks (the best place to view the canal) very quickly.
The entrance fee was a rather steep $15 each but it’s a must see so we sucked it up. Once inside there is a really interesting museum about the canal, as well as an interesting 3D film about the history and future. Of course the main attraction are the locks themselves, and there is seating along with English commentary for those who want to watch the boats.
We only managed to see a few larger ships come through the locks, but it was a fascinating experience seeing the canal at work. The principle is exactly the same as the small canals in England, but on a much larger scale.
After a long wait, we caught the bus back to the city to save money, as there was a top up point at the locks.
We had just enough time to stop at a mall for lunch, and a quick bit of shopping before rushing back to the hostel to grab our bags for the airport.
Luckily we got a taxi quickly and arrived at the airport over an hour early…or so we thought. It was only when our flight started boarding really early that we realised that Panama is actually an hour ahead and we had been an hour behind all day – we’d actually arrived at the airport 20 minutes before our flight was supposed to leave!
Overall we enjoyed our time in Panama City far more – there is more to see, it’s friendlier, and it’s just a nicer place to be.
The Tica Bus from Rivas to San Jose cost us $29 US each and took 8 hours (9am-5pm). The Tica Bus from San Jose to Panama City took 15.5 (12pm – 3.30am) hours and cost $46 each. We’d recommend the Tica Bus, it was very comfortable though not as incredible as some people make out – it’s just a comfortable bus. You need to book tickets a good few days in advance if you can – the time we wanted from Rivas was sold out, even booking 2 days in advance.
Taxis in San Jose are expensive and rude (from our experience at least) but Panama City was the opposite – drivers were always friendly and helpful, and charged fair prices without needing to haggle.
Getting around San Jose by bus costs 250-350 colons (£0.30 – £0.43) per ride, the price is always displayed in the front window.
In Panama City public transport is equally cheap, but for most buses you require a pre paid card which is only $1 to buy but not always easy to refill. There is a subway line (the only one in Central America) which is very cheap and efficient, though not hugely useful. The stations are however the best place to top up your pre paid card.
Our taxi from the centre of Panama City to the Miraflores Locks cost $8 which isn’t too bad considering the distance but the bus was only $0.50 each!
Currency wise, Costa Rica uses the colon though you could probably get by with USD, and Panama only uses USD, but with some of it’s own coins, all the same size as US ones.
In Costa Rica we stayed at TripOn Open House. This hostel was awesome – it was all brand new, with super comfy bunks, personal electric sockets and lockers by the beds. The owner Delroy, from Jamaica, is such a cool guy and makes the hostel a very friendly place. The kitchen is very good, the breakfast is superb for a hostel, and the WiFi is fast. One of the best places we stayed on our travels. It cost us $10 per person per night for a bed.
In Panama City we stayed at Los Mostros hostel. In theory this should have been great, the hostel is in a 1950s mansion, so it’s a unique setting, and has a nice garden with a pool, but that’s all it had going for it. It was expensive (around $17 per bed per night) and the dorms were really bad – old uncomfortable bunks with no privacy nor power sockets. The bathrooms were a bit gross too. Just to top it off, the receptionist tried to charge us $30 for a taxi to the airport when we got one on the street easily for $15.