A Whale of a Visa Run

The gatekeepers of paradise won’t let you just hang out forever. Not if you’re una turista. Not even if you’re a good tourist who spends far too much money in the country’s supermarkets.

Every 90 days we must make a “visa run” or “border run,” leaving the country for 72 hours in order to renew our tourist visas. I wrote about this dilemma back during our planning stages, when we were deciding whether or not to attempt to get student visas to avoid the border runs.

At this moment, sitting in a swank, air conditioned hotel in Panama City, Panama, I’m happy we opted for the visa runs. I’m glad for a chance to experience another country and extend our adventure beyond the borders of Costa Rica.

No, we haven’t been gone 90 days yet, but we needed to make one visa run between the beginning of our trip and our flight home at Christmas, and travel was cheapest during September. So Friday we found ourselves making the 4.5 hour trek to San Jose for a quick overnight stay before an early flight to Panama.

Driving in Nosara is challenging because the dirt roads are full of potholes, ATVs and horses, and people drive like maniacs. Driving in San Jose is so much more stressful though – there aren’t the potholes, but instead of a handful of maniacs on the road, you’re competing for space with thousands of them. And they’re all ticked off.

Trying to find our hotel, we made two wrong turns that threw us completely off course. But finally, eons later, we pulled into El Rodeo Estancia Hotel. It was a pleasant surprise – an oasis in the middle of unkempt urban madness.

There were zero bugs in our room (how odd!) and Camille was freezing. It was 73 degrees, and she was covered in chill bumps and bundled in her rain jacket – the only long sleeved item we brought. I can safely say she has acclimatized to the equatorial temps of Nosara.


Our flight was easy and painless (our first time flying Avianca, the airline of Columbia, highly recommended), and soon we were in a taxi, careening between the skyscrapers of Panama City. After living in the jungle for 6 weeks it was a bit of a shock.

I was super excited – “bucket list” excited – about Day 1 of our Panamanian itinerary. I’ve always wanted to see whales out in the wild, and a bit of research revealed it’s the tail-end of humpback whale season here in Panama. The humpbacks of Antarctica come here to calve during the summer months, before heading back to their frigid home waters.

So we booked a full-day whale watching tour. It seemed a bit risky, to be honest. It was not inexpensive, and what if the weather was awful? It is the rainy season after all. What if we were all seasick? WHAT IF WE SAW NO WHALES? But if you always know the outcome, then it won’t be much of an adventure, right?

So Sunday morning, we were stuffed like sardines into a van of other hopeful whale watchers, headed for the waters just outside the Panama Canal. There were two ladies from Spain, two couples from the States, and us.

We piled into a fishing boat for the 35-mile trip to Isla Contadora, part of the Pearl Islands off the coast of Panama. First, we had to navigate around all the large ships waiting for their turn through the Panama Canal. It was exciting to see, but also gave me a pang of homesickness for watching the ships traverse the port of Savannah. Had these ships stopped in Savannah on their journeys, I wondered?



But soon my attention was diverted to the ocean, when our captain slowed the boat and our guide began to point excitedly at the sea. Sure enough, a mist of water shot skyward as a mama whale and calf surfaced to breathe, not far from us.


We circled them for a while, taking millions of pictures of the same sleek, black backs arching out of the water, amazed each time nature offered up this glimpse of the animals below.

Then we continued our trek toward the islands, constantly scanning the horizon for whales. Suddenly, the boat slowed to a stop and the captain began speaking animatedly in a Spanish too rapid for me to understand. I kept looking at the water for whatever had him so excited, but saw nothing. Then our guide translated: one of our motors quit working. “At least we have two!” she added, cheerily.

While the captain tinkered with the motor, we decided to go for a swim in the open sea. It was a little strange being  in the deep, deep water, but I felt calm and safe. I put on my goggles and snorkel – not that there was any wildlife to see at the surface. I just could NOT get over how blue and clear and bright the water was under the sunshine. I even took a picture of my feet with my waterproof camera – just amazed how clearly I could see them, as though with a flash on a blue background.



Back on board, we limped much more slowly toward Isla Contadora on our one motor. The leisurely pace and rolling waves lulled our girl to sleep. She has trouble taking naps even when she’s tired, anywhere but on a boat. This girl loves to sleep on a boat.


As the islands drew nearer we were treated to a display between two male whales. One thrilled us by slapping his tail fluke repeatedly on the water’s surface. The other waved to us with his pectoral fin. It was beautiful, and I had to resist the urge to take another dip in the deep sea with them.




Fortunately, the tour company had another boat on the island, and it came out to meet us so we could switch vessels. At lunchtime, we finally arrived on Isla Contadora for a 2-hour stop to eat, swim and lounge. There weren’t many options for food but we managed, and I could’ve stared at the crystalline waters all day. Maybe the waters of Costa Rica are this clear, but they’re so constantly churned by waves that you can’t see much more than white froth. But in this cove, the water was azure and placid. Camille and I snorkeled for a bit. I didn’t even realize I’d lost my sunglasses until I saw them lying on the sand – the water was that clear.






Then we were back on the boat, spotted a few more tail flukes and blowholes as we raced toward the Canal again, trying to beat the setting sun. We spent a little while tailing a shrimping trawler, which is a favorite dolphin hangout, and were not disappointed. A pod was following the boat and enjoyed riding our bow for a while.

shrimpers dolphinssurfacing

Even when we weren’t seeing wildlife, I just loved being on the water, soaking up all the vitamin D and feeling the sea spray on my face. It was a wonderful day, a check off the bucket list, and another great adventure. (Be sure to check out the video below to see some whales in action!)



4 thoughts on “A Whale of a Visa Run

  1. Thanks so much! I am Mary Gay Rogers from Kansas City, Missouri suburb of Overland Park, Kansas. I am Ben Rogers mother.

  2. I very much enjoy living vicariously through all your adventures. Thanks so much for sharing. Camille is one lucky and blessed little girl to be having such a wonderful experience…and to have awesome parents!

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