Day 21-26/180: The Camping Experience – Living Life in Costa Rica

My week in Panama went by in a haze. If I didn’t already feel like I had stepped into another world then I sure felt like it now. Remember how I was talking about the poor state of the houses in Costa Rica a few diary entries ago? Well, compared to Panama, Costa Rica was luxurious. This immediately became painfully clear when we switched shuttle companies at the border and downgraded from a fancy, airconditioned minivan (with WIFI, ffs) to an old, rusty bus (more like a big car) that was supposed to take us through the Panamanian mountains.

Once again, I had to supress my nausea as we were rattling through a bumpy jungle road that took so many U-turns I lost count. Luckily, Puerto Viejo had made me toughen up quite a bit (don’t laugh at me, fam). I was prepared this time. I was ready to endure whatever challenge was coming my way. There were plenty.

This would probably be a good time to tell you that I was about to spend a week in a tent on a little island called Isla Colón, which is one of the hundreds of islands of the Bocas del Toro province. Adventurous, right? You have to give me that.

The reason we went to Panama – only to return to Costa Rica a week later – was because you can stay a maximum of 90 days in Costa Rica without a visa, so if you want to stay longer you have to do a border crossing at some point during your trip (we will do this again when we visit Nicaragua in January). As Puerto Viejo is very close to the border with Panama, we took the opportunity to explore Bocas del Toro, which seemed to be a popular destination.

Okay, back to the story… We were dropped off at a small dock, where a boat was waiting for us. We hopped on, put on our swimming vests and headed for the island at a dazzling speed (okay, I might be exaggerating just a little). Boats were clearly the main mode of transportation in Bocas; they operated like regular taxis and only cost a few dollars. I’d also seen a lot of colourful houses so far, all with the Caribbean sea as their front yard. As you can imagine, I was getting more and more excited while I was on our taxi boat, happily taking pictures of everything in my sight.

However, when we arrived, I was confused. I’d expected to set foot on a tropical island, which was what I’d seen on countless of pictures when googling ‘Bocas del Toro’. Well, trust me, they’re deceiving! I wasn’t welcomed by white-sand beaches and coconut trees, but by surprisingly fancy tourist residences and a very urbanised town centre. Tour companies and taxi drivers were waiting for you and ready to take your money.

I quickly learned the following: Bocas del Toro is a highly popular tourist destination (for some reason I didn’t know this), which means that everything is expensive even though the local inhabitants are poor. It’s also a party island and their main attraction is called ‘Filthy Fridays’, which is basically a party at sea, crowded by young people in Coachella outfits. Lastly, lots of rich foreigners have bought properties on the islands and built very fancy houses/hotels on them, which also explains the even fancier sailboats that can be found all around the bay area.

The discrepancy between rich and poor on this island made me uncomfortable. When we were trying to find our Airbnb, we got terribly lost and somehow ended up in what can only be described as a slum. What was most shocking to me though, was that in the midst of these tiny shacks, surrounded by rubbish and lots of stray dogs and chickens, you’d suddenly bump into a random upscale house with an extremely neat and well-kept garden. I’m not saying all of the tourism is bad, maybe it can improve the conditions of the locals eventually, who knows. Nevertheless, the whole sight just felt off to me and I kept wondering what the people in the shacks think about their fancy neighbours.

People had been raving about Bocas del Toro and how amazing it is, but I can’t say I really adored the vibe there. We did get up to some cool activities and it was definitely our most social week up until now. Our tent was located in a place called El Colectivo de Saigon, a little hippie Airbnb community where lots of people were either working or chilling (usually smoking weed) during the day. We also met some fun people and shared a couple of beers and stories, a reality that seems very far away after living so secluded for a month!

Anyway, if you want to know more about my camping experience, keep an eye out for my next blog post! I can already tell you this: when backpacking (and especially when camping), all vanity and worries about outer appearances disappear really quickly. While I used to spend an hour in front of the mirror before I left my apartment in Antwerp and then stressed myself out about not having filled in my eyebrows properly, I was just happy to wear semi-clean clothes now (doing laundry has never been so exciting) or to take a cold shower and wash my hair properly. It’s interesting how the most basic things at home have suddenly become a luxury.

Alright, that’s it for now. If you’ve made it this far, thank you so much for reading! Let me know if you’ve ever been to Bocas del Toro or tell me about your camping experiences in the comments 🙂

Want to keep up with my adventures in Costa Rica? Read My First Diary Entry or My Next One!

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