Costa Rica to Panama

After another couple of days at the hostel, we were beginning to feel more stir crazy than restful. Nevertheless, we decided to stay one more night (Thanksgiving). We escaped the thick city air by finding a butterfly botanical garden in the middle of San Jose. We walked among butterflies dashing about, wove between bamboo stalks, and admired the local flora. The honeycomb beehive flower was one of my favorites, it looked super sticky. It was really nice to be surrounded by some green again.

We explored town and found a neat dining complex that reminded me of a food truck park in the US. We grabbed some chicken sandwiches and gave cheers to being thankful to our trip together with some glasses of Rose wine. That evening, we cooked up stirfry in the hostel kitchen for our Thanksgiving feast.

After a quick breakfast and shower the next morning, we set off for the mountains eager to leave the city behind. As the tall buildings disappeared behind us, we realized we were in a valley and that we would have to climb up and over the surrounding mountains. The roads were incredibly thin, so much that it felt like there was no way two cars could pass. This was especially scary when a large container truck was coming down one of these roads as Savannah’s nose was pointed towards the sky trekking up! I almost needed to put down my window to tuck in my side mirror, afraid that if I scooched any more towards the outside of the road we would fall into the ditch. The truck and Savannah were able to slide past each other with barely an inch to spare. The roads continued to wind up through a much less wealthy area of the capital, small houses made of sheet metal closely lined the edge. Eventually we broke the crest of the valley and onto the top of the ridge. For the next hour or so, we drove the prettiest road we had driven thus far in our trip.

We drove Highway 2 South from San Jose, through Cartago, and up into the mountains that determine whether the watershed from rain ends up in the Pacific Ocean or the Atlantic Ocean. Apparently, from the highest peaks you can see both oceans! The road climbed up into the clouds and the outside temperature dropped to the high 40’s (F) as we neared 10,000 feet. It was really remarkable to get so high in what we thought was a flat, tropical country. We rode the ridge above the clouds, then eventually dropped down into the valley of San Isidro de El General. From there the roads became unmarked and thin again as we left the main highway and drove upwards and West to the base of Cerro Chirripo. We found a paved lot beside a soccer field to park Savannah for the night and planned to be at the National Park headquarters for Cerro Chirripo bright and early in the morning. San Gerardo, where we parked, will be one of my favorite towns we’ve visited so far on our trip!

As it got dark around 6 PM, the fog rolled in and cooled the air. We welcomed it. We spent the evening playing what I grew up calling “Spit” but apparently it’s Klondike? Basically, competitive solitaire with 2 decks of cards, except we don’t play it competitively. Somehow it always ends up being a collaborative effort until both decks of cards finish up the round. 🙂

The headquarters were empty the next morning except for a park ranger. After a lot of research in the days before, we realized it would be really difficult to get an overnight permit. The online reservation system would respond with a prompt that told us online reservations were only available for next year between February and April, after we selected our ideal November dates. We explained this to the ranger and he said that the prompt meant it was full and that no more visitors, even day hikers, could enter the national park. We were pretty bummed since we were stoked to climb an odd looking tower up in the park, then even more defeated when we realized we wouldn’t even be able to enter the park at all. He told us the park limited visitors to 20 people per day. We had read that the basecamp hut could hold 60 people, so this must be a covid measure. Tent camping is also completely prohibited in the park. Once we confirmed that we really could not enter the park, even as day hikers, he did tell us that the park boundary didn’t start until 4 km down the trail. We could hike the 4 km, then turn left into Cloudridge Reserve to see a waterfall and hike back. Our spirits were dampened but now not totally crushed, we’d be able to hike at least a bit in the forest after all.

We left Savannah at the soccer field and walked up the steep, gravel road for 1.6 km to the start of the trailhead. We passed a really cute, curious calf that made me sad I like burgers as his tongue engulfed my hand. We had worried the road would be too steep and loose for Savannah, and as we huffed up we were happy she sat out this adventure.

Soon we reached the trailhead and began the switchbacks up the ridge. It was awesome to see the clouds masking parts of the mountains and the vibrant green plants – this is what I imagined Costa Rica would look like. Granted, these four kilometers of the hike were not even half way to the basecamp hut. Cerro Chirripo is definitely known for what lies beyond the beginning of the trail to the actual national park. But we made the best of it and enjoyed the scenery. We ran across quite a few guides coming down the mountain with horses and could see why there may need to be a cap for how many people hike the trail. With all the rain and humidity, the trail stays muddy and is therefore rutted out by footprints and hoofprints.

We left the main trail at the 4th kilometer before the national park boundary and began the descent back down the steep mountain to the waterfalls. We agreed that we definitely took the most difficult route to see the falls since you don’t necessarily need to ascend, then descend part of the mountain to see them since the trail is a loop. We did come across a few other hikers though on the Cloudridge Reserve trail that may have found themselves in a similar pickle as us.

The waterfalls were stunning with white, frothy cascades falling over rock and plunging into turquoise blue water. We took some time to find the perfect spot but eventually, hidden off the trail, we found a little pool to skinny dip in the freezing water and rinse off. It was raining at this point, but the air was so warm that even though the water felt icy it was refreshing.

Back by the soccer field we indulged in some local pizza and watched exotic birds in the canopy of trees surrounding the outdoor seating area. Our legs felt the happy kind of tired after being worked and stretched for a bit. We ended up hiking around 7 miles, which we chalked up to a success given our change of plans.

As I mentioned in my last post, we’re planning on shipping Savannah to Colombia in mid December. What we didn’t realize, until the day after our hike (while we were catching up with life via wifi at a nearby coffee shop) is that this process needs to begin soon. Really soon. We had thought we may be hanging around in the mountains for a few days before crossing into Panama, but we frantically realized this would not be the case. We need to have Savannah inspected in Panama City by this Friday. An inspection is basically just verifying the motor number matches my registration and we’re not up to any shenanigans. Panama City was a long shot away from our cozy mountain camp so we bid farewell to the cool mountain air and descended back to the coast.

A little less than an hour from the Costa Rica – Panama border, we found a cheap hotel to freshen up and prepare for the crossing. Unfortunately though what seemed like a nice break from boondocking in the van was not so comfortable after all. The wifi didn’t work in our room which made research for the crossing difficult. Savannah was parked in an open lot and I had a hard time falling asleep hearing voices from people shouting on the street. At one point I looked out the window to see a man pounding a plastic bottle on the side of the road. What also didn’t help was the tickling and itching of some kind of bugs that would spring on us from the bed. Eventually around 3 AM, we gave up on the room, showered to get whatever bugs off of us, and crawled into Savannah for a few hours of sleep before morning.

The next morning, we stopped by a copy shop to make a bunch more copies of our passports, Savannah’s registration, covid vaccine cards, and title before making our way to the border. This crossing was a bit less stressful since there were designated parking areas when we went through the exit procedure in Costa Rica and the entrance process in Panama. To leave Costa Rica we first paid an exit tax of ~$8 USD each, then got our exit stamps in our passports, and finally canceled Savannah’s temporary import permit – this was all done in probably less than half an hour. We rolled another couple hundred meters down the road to enter Panama and parked before the fumigation station. The first step was buying Panama car insurance, which took some time to find in the busy side streets. Insurance was $25 USD and was fairly straightforward. We then went to immigration, filled out a health form (which we had already done online but the immigration agent wanted it in paper form), got our passports stamped, then went to customs for Savannah’s TIP. The TIP didn’t cost anything here and I think we’ll forever be confused about why it differs from country to country. We needed to be extra vigilant that everything on TIP was correct since this would also be important for the shipping process. We had caught an error with the VIN number during our Panama car insurance process so we got that fixed. The TIP had a mistake of having my nationality (as the vehicle owner) being Costa Rican. After circling back and getting that fixed as well, we paid the fumigation fee of $3 USD and rolled into Panama. This would be our last Central American border to cross and we feel like we finally got the hang of it!

We’re now halfway across Panama getting ready for the vehicle inspection tomorrow in Panama City. Once it’s done, we’ll have to go through the process of paying the shipment fee at a bank, driving to Colon, picking up the Bill of Lading from I don’t know where yet, getting Savannah passed through customs, and finally loaded into a container to be shipped. We aren’t sure yet how we ourselves will be getting across to Colombia, since we cannot ride on the cargo ship with Savannah. The cheapest (and most boring option) is to fly. But the other van couple we’re sharing the shipping container with prefers to sail – which would be awesome, but potentially costly. We’re working on researching sailing options now, fingers crossed!

Andre’s post here!

Updated map of campsites, here 🙂

3 thoughts on “Costa Rica to Panama

  1. Thought I sent a reply … but it looks here like it never when thru’ ?? Anyway, you two are definitely becoming seasoned travelers for sure. Love hearing what you’re doing and where you’re going – not to mention, love the pictures, too. I’m getting a little more apprehensive the closer you get to South America .. Enjoy, but be safe!

    Liked by 1 person

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