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Monday, June 28, 2010

Riding the Mountain of Death

The mountains above Boquete in the dawn

We got up this morning before dawn at around 5.40 and proceeded to have a couple of packet drinks and finally pack up, preparatory to trying to make it from Boquete to San Jose Costa Rica direct. Pancho had assured us that if we did this we would be in time to get a seat on the direct bus.

When we took our bags across the road in the half dark we were told the next bus for David would leave at 6.40, so we sat in the half dark for 25 minutes, but when the bus took off very slowly touting for extra rides as it left town, it broke down of the periphery so the driver had to call up a replacement and we all had to trudge in crutches off the bus again onto the wet roadside and then into the other bus.

The David Terminal

When we arrived at the terminal in David there seemed to be no bus company offices at all let alone one for Trecopa, but after asking people we found a tiny office with a queue and after standing there for about 20 minutes managed to get a ticket (well actually a hand scrawled note with tow seat numbers and $30 written on it as a receipt). If Panama City looks like Miami fell off the US, David is like a jungle transplant of Fresno - an endless collection of nondescript malls dropped in the jungle with no real centre or rationale.

The Panamanian Pan American near the border

The bus was functional enough and for the first time I was given the front seat for disabled people which made the journey pretty comfortable, but there was no air conditioning so we had to ride with the windows wide open to stay cool and there was no toilet which became a huge problem because they only stopped once for lunch and got stuck in a huge traffic snarl going at a snail's pace 50 kms from San Jose.

The smaller Costa Rican version

About 40 kms out from David we hit the border and had to stand for ages to get stamped out of Panama. They hauled all our luggage off the bus and then promptly put it back in again. Then the bus drivers made us walk be in crutches a couple of hundred meters across the badly maintained no man's land to Costa Rica immigration.

Mist-covered coastal hills

Given our experience of Panama and onward tickets, and knowing CR had similar rules we were unsure even if we would get let in. Our hearts sank when we saw pasted in front of the immigration booth a statement saying you had to have and onward or return tickets and sufficient funds, but in the event she stamped our passport with no questions. Whew!

Then they had this weird customs check when they put us all in an enclosure with our luggage with a string of concrete examination tables and a very sexy woman came and inspected the bus and then let us through with no inspection at all even though Christine declared foodstuffs.

The road turns inward up a river valley (see map)

On the Costa Rica side the Pan American reduces from a four lane motor way to a two lane road which winds through the coastal jungle, before turning up a river valley and climbing to a higher inland plain that runs from Buenos Aires to San Isidro.

The plain from Buenos Aires to San Isidro

From there the road wound relentlessly up the side of the mountain of death Cerro de la Muerte - so called because many travelers on foot using the road used to die in the fog and clod trying to traverse the pass on foot (it is also a dangerous part of the Pan American) rising into thick fog, and eventually a kind of snow fog at the summit.

The initial climb away above the surrounding country

It was very difficult to take photos through the rain spattered bus windows, but after the summit I managed to get a few shots out of the open window with freezing fingers, including a square on shot of the 11,000 foot high mountain itself.

The road climbs into the fog

Cerro de la Muerte caught in a gap in the clouds

Eventually we arrived at San Jose at 4.30 CR time (one hour back form Panama) eight hours in all.

Some of the slightly tacky buildings in San Jose are reminiscent of Chile

We took a taxi to Gaudys Backpackers, a good quality place for a rice ($35 double with bathroom) in a safe neighbourhood of town with a supermercado nearby.
The modern style exterior and kitchen of Gaudys Backpackers.

Today we plan to continue on to la Fortuna below Volcan Arenal.

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