Traveling southwards along the Pan-American Highway is a bit unpredictable at times. We have never been sure of when we would be in certain cities or what delays may impact us. Border crossings, visa limits and vehicle permits do set some boundaries on our timelines. With some careful mathematical calculations, we knew we could arrange to be in Costa Rica in May and June of this year. So, we were ready to plan a visit from my sister (Jessica) and brother-in-law (Richard), so exciting!!!
She is a school teacher and could only travel after the school year ended (late May in Arizona) so things fell into place for a visit at the end of May and in to June.
The next step in planning their visit was to figure out how to add two more people to our overlanding lifestyle. Sleeping four adults and a dog in our camper seemed like a genuine challenge. Staying in domestic lodging such as hostels or hotels would get expensive quickly. And the two of them seriously wanted to experience the overland lifestyle and we wanted to share this with them. They had dreams of camping on the beach, exploring the back roads and learning more about the country. So, we started looking at our options to make that possible.
The first option we found became the final choice for us. We found the rental company named Nomad America located in San Jose, Costa Rica. They are a small, privately owned rental agency located near the airport. They rent a variety of roof-top-tent units mounted on 4×4’s with complete camping set-ups
We spent some time reviewing their website and looking at their Facebook page. Click here and Nomad America website will open in a new window . Our communication with them began through their website. And quickly we discovered that they were amazing; responsive, full of suggestions and patient with our questions about renting a rig like this. But after they learned that we were trying to combine some Costa Rica visitors with some long-term travelers, we really struck up a relationship and reached a great deal. The dates were confirmed and we were ready for family to arrive!
Jessica and Richard were set to arrive at the San Jose Airport in the evening, so we taped up a funny sign so they could spot us in the crowd. . It worked. They found us and we led them to their awesome Nomad America rig parked in the parking garage. (BTW it was Richards birthday so he wore the birthday tiara!) The rig looked perfect to them and made them very excited to begin this exploration of Costa Rica. Because it was late and everyone was tired Nomad America provided transportation to the hotel for the first night and then picked them up in the morning to bring them to the rental yard. In the rental yard, we hung out with an awesome pack of dogs. And then Jessica and Richard learned about the rig they had rented. The introduction reviewed the vehicle basics and how to operate this particular model. They covered all safety equipment and operating tips. Then the Nomad America staff demonstrated how to use the roof top tent. This tent is sturdy, strong and water proof. It has vented windows with bug screens and a ladder to get up into the tent. The set up was surprisingly simple and the Nomad America staff was very clear and concise in their demonstration.
After the roof top tent set up was done, they reviewed the camping gear and related items. The rig comes with nearly everything you could need. Some equipment is standard but there is also a long list of optional gear to be considered. Once Jessica and Richard had selected their equipment and packed the rig, we were ready to go camping in this cool Nomad America unit.
The first target was the beach, so we drove to Jaco and set up on a free, beach-front parking spot.
But our campsite was not without activity. We had cars on both sides of us throughout the night, people making loud noises, playing loud music and totally unaware of our presence. The next morning, we awoke to some “working girls” leaning on the Nomad America rig and chatting. It was quite annoying and we were ready to move to a quieter location! Our next campsite was at Playa Las Ventanas. This beautiful beach has unique geologic features of ocean caves to explore. Our campsite was in the coconut palms and huge trees. It was here Jessica and Richard heard the first howler monkeys of the trip.
The next morning we had the beautiful oceanfront almost to ourselves. We took the opportunity to have coffee, walk the beach, look at birds and taking it slow. This made for the perfect first day of relaxing day on the trip. Once we folded up and hit the road we were ready to enjoy a meal. What better way to enjoy than to meet up with other overlanders! We met Kid and Gypsy (click here to see their Instagram account) at a delicious restaurant we found on iOverlander, Ballena Bistro.
After lunch, we continued down the highway and stopped at one of the few archeological sites in Costa Rica. Finca 6 is a unique place with a collection of stone spheres on display. The original purpose and creation of these spheres is somewhat unclear. Adding to the confusion of this site is that many of these spheres had been moved from their original locations. The spheres are of various sizes, and may have originally been placed to align with astrology signs, astronomy signs, wealth, status, power or religiosity. There are other similar sites around Costa Rica.
Finca 6 was interesting, but it was also hot, humid and very buggy. So after viewing a bunch of rock balls, we continued our journey towards the border.
WHAT??? You may be asking why we are headed to a border and where we are going. The answer to that is found in the original goals of the trip. In addition to spending some time with family, we had the goal of exploring the Panama Canal. One of the major reasons we chose to work with Nomad America is that they were able to assure us that their vehicles could easily cross the Panama/Costa Rica border to enable our goal to be fulfilled. They would do all the paperwork to make it possible to cross to Panama.
We arrived to the border town (total chaos) in the late afternoon and began hunting for a place to camp in our two rigs for the night. We wound around through the large trucks, passenger buses and pedestrians. After looking around a bit, the first spot we selected was right on the main road, near the fumigation station. This was workable, but it felt vulnerable, loud and potentially exposing us to more chemicals than we wanted to sniff all night long. So we drove around the side streets and found a hotel parking lot that we could camp in for the night. This campsite included the two rigs, a bread delivery truck and a lot of leftover construction mess. While this wasn’t beautiful or glamorous, we all got a hot shower and the space remained quiet through the night. This also gave us easy access to the main building we needed to access for the border crossing paperwork.
As with any border crossing, there is a bunch of paperwork and a whole lot of standing around, waiting for more paperwork. We had to process four humans, two vehicles and a dog. This amounted to about 3 hours of waiting and milling about. We paid a very sweet border helper to assist us ($20) and he was diligent about getting all the signatures and urging the officials to get things completed for us. The paperwork from Nomad America was accurate and helped make everything as simple as possible. And with patience, the border crossing was done and we were in Panama!
New flag on the camper. We now have covered all of North America!
After a long day at the border we had high hopes for a great night’s rest. We found an overnight spot in the far back corner of a gas station/truck stop. We met up with La Tortuga Overlanders in the parking area and had our truck stop dinner. But it wasn’t such a quiet night. The trucks were noisy and the air was stifling. We all slept a little, but not much. Thanks for the photo La Tortuga! (click here to see their Instagram site)
After a sleepless night we awoke, chugged some coffee and headed for Panama City. We were really excited to see the Panama Canal and explore it as fully as possible. Because we had a limited amount of time to spend in Panama City we decided to start with the popular Miraflores Locks and Museum. This was a great place to learn the basics about the different channels of the canal and how the locks work to move ships through. We also saw the movie which explains great detail about the process, the expense and the hardship of building the canal. Finally, we explored the museum to see artifacts, tools, photographs and a “captains-eye” view of navigating the Panama Canal. After the Miraflores Locks, we went geocaching where we found one and got a led to an artifact that related to one of the interesting facts about the Panama Canal. In the museum, we had learned that the French attempted to build the canal originally, but in the late 1800’s they ran into problems and lost thousands of lives and realized they couldn’t complete the project. So, in 1904 the USA assumed the project. What we found while geocaching was the French Cemetery. A grim reminder to the lives sacrificed to this engineering feat. We also took some time to stare at this little capybara family that was grazing through the parking lot.
Then we went to the ferry that crosses the Panama Canal and enjoyed the opportunity to put the vehicle on the ferry boat and motor across the channels! This angle gave us a great view of the waterway, and also the new bridge under construction on the Caribbean end of the canal.
From the other side of the Panama Canal we were able to drive back across one of the actual locks. We had to wait for a huge boat to pass and the lock to close. When closed the giant metal gates created a road wide enough for a lane of traffic!
Once we had crossed the Panama Canal on a boat and in our vehicle, we went to the visitor center at the Agua Clara Locks to look at the expansion project that was recently completed. This new wider, longer section of the Panama Canal can accommodate larger ships than ever before! The visitors center is new and the view is impressive. We were able to see and document the entire process of a large ship passing in front of us. It really was an exciting experience.
The full exploration of the Panama Canal Zone took us two days. So we had to find a place in the city that we could camp. After a bit of searching on the iOverlander app we located a parking lot near the marina that would become home for a few nights. One of the fun things that happened in Panama City was receiving a communication from the Nomad America office. They shared a photo that had been sent to them. We had been spotted while driving through Panama City!
This note from Nomad America was hilarious, and were glad that we were driving carefully through the crazy city traffic at this moment! (okay, we actually drove carefully all the time)
Also near Panama City we found time to drive to the Fort of San Lorenzo. This beautiful, old fort is perched on a hill overlooking the Caribbean Sea. The history of exploring and claiming this point on the isthmus dates back to the 1500’s with Colombus. The fort is long since abandoned and beginning to decay. But offered interesting structural examination and beautiful views!
After completing our goal of exploring the Panama Canal, we were ready to work our way back across the country and cross the border back into Costa Rica. On the way out of Panama we made a couple of stops. The first stop was a beautiful, old church in Nata, Panama. This church is known for the unique and extensive wood carvings at each of the altars.
The church also has a painting on display which was hidden from view for many years. It depicts the father, the son and the holy ghost. But they all look like the accepted image of Christ which was considered “wrong” by the church. This painting is believed to be created in 1758! The church is located near an archeological site called El Cano. This location is considered to be the largest burial site in the country. However, much lore and history attributes this area with gold and extensive artifacts which may have been pillaged. To coincide with that story, we spotted this interesting cross in the church. It is completely covered in brightly painted, detailed pottery shards from the area. I doubt this is the proper way to preserve such important artifacts, but who can argue with a religious relic, right? We briefly toured the El Cano Archeological Site, which appears to be dominated by tall grass and huge, hungry mosquitoes and interesting insects.
The site is still under excavation, therefore there is not much to see yet. We observed a large hole and a couple of replica skeletons. When the Smithsonian is finished with their work, this could be known as one of the largest burial sites in Central America!
Our campsite for the night was a rodeo grounds with horse stables and an arena. The Nomad America roof top tent held up well through the rainy night. And the cooler mountain air was a welcome relief. After packing camp, we drove a short distance to an interesting river channel. The water has carved a gorge in the rocks, which we couldn’t resist jumping into for a refreshing swim!
Somewhere along the drive we stopped for lunch at an incredible bakery serving fresh, delicious cheeses, baked good and beverages. Having a yummy lunch in a parking lot is pretty typical for this type of travel!
This brought us near the end of our time in Panama. We covered a large part of the country. We fully explored the Panama Canal Zone and a few other significant sites. We learned more about the country, the people and the history than we had ever been aware of. The Panama route followed the dark lines on this map.
We were able to re-enter Costa Rica at a different border than we exited. This meant that we had the chance to explore the Caribbean side of the country. The Atlantic Ocean is warm here and so are the beaches and jungle zones. This is the area we were house sitting in (as described in our previous post). We returned to the Puerto Viejo region to enjoy some additional beach camping.
Two rigs in the palm tree covered shoreline. Camped on the edge of the Caribbean Sea of Costa Rica!
The Nomad America FJ with rooftop tent is set up and ready for a night of beachfront camping!
Nica crawled under the truck and dug herself a hole into the damp sand. It was hot at the beach, she was the only one that was comfortable! And after the heat, we decided it was time to go to the mountains of Costa Rica, so we left for Lake Arenal. There we found a beautiful, grassy lakeside area to park for the night.
Our overnight campsite was cozy and much cooler than the beachfront spots we had been in for the past nights.
The morning air was cool and crisp. We booked a trip on a boat to take us on a tour of the lake. We were even allowed to take teh dog on the boat ride. Although it was chilly, drizzly and even rainy for much of the boat ride, we saw many birds and even a caiman! The captain was great and we all really enjoyed touring Lake Arenal.
After the boat ride, we went to the park that features numerous hanging bridges. The hike was long and humid, but our guide helped us spot birds, spiders, snakes and monkeys as we walked.
While we were walking along the hanging bridges the clouds at Volcano Arenal cleared away and gave us a beautiful clear view. In the nearby town of La Fortuna we camped at a hot springs facility and enjoyed the hot pools in the evening, we had the park all to ourselves! The time was drawing near for Jessica and Richard to fly back to Arizona, so we turned our rigs toward the big city of San Jose. Before ending the trip, we parked at Hostel Finca Escalante. This beautiful, historic building is a warm and welcoming place to stay for travelers and overlanders.
While in the city of San Jose we visited the National Museum. This is an exceptional collection of pre-Colombian artifacts as well as a butterfly garden, art exhibits and several other well-curated collections.
After a few hours at the museum we returned the vehicle to Nomad America without any hassle, and they arranged for a free ride to the airport. Then we said goodbye to Jessica and Richard. The two-week tour of Costa Rica and Panama had come to an end. Many thanks to Nomad America for contributing to an amazing visit and adding great opportunities for exploration.