From Smuggling Rum Across the Panamanian Border to a Luxury Nature Retreat

When we turned up for a nature photography tour, we had no idea that rather than taking shots of toucans and tree frogs, we’d actually be smuggling rum across the Panamanian border. The tour, which was organised by a nature retreat in Puerto Viejo, wasn’t what we expected to say the least.

“Do you think they’re not coming?”

I said to Luke with a sigh and a shrug. We had our backpacks on, our hiking boots tightly laced and my hefty camera strapped across my shoulder, we were ready to head into Cahuita National Park for some trekking and wildlife spotting – as the tour brief had outlined. Except, our guide didn’t turn up. Being terribly British when it comes to punctuality, we had politely turned up twenty minutes early and fifty minutes later were still standing there. As we stood up, ready to call it a day, a local guy in a beat-up van skidded to a stop.

While Luke engaged in conversation with this less than friendly looking guy through the van window, I stood back on the pavement eyeing the situation suspiciously. “Let’s go,” said Luke and with a scoop of his arm we were in the back of the van. The man, Fernando, was the guide we had been expecting, apparently late and grouchy because he’d got a flat tyre on the way.

In back of van rum smuggling - Charlie on Travel

“Where are we headed to?”

As we snaked along the mountain roads, Fernando told us we were going to do a waterfall hike and later take a canoe ride along the river that divides Costa Rica and Panama. Not entirely sure what we were meant to be expecting, but wrongly assuming he knew better than us, we nodded.

When we got out the van, Fernando spotted a sloth in a cecropia tree. We gazed up in awe. “You want take a photo?” asked Fernando, “I’ll make him move.” Alarmed, I immediately said it was fine, not to worry, I’ve got some sloth photos from previous encounters. Ignoring our protests, Fernando shook the tree until the sloth robotically turned his head around. Exasperated, we explained we didn’t want him to disturb the wildlife to produce photo opportunities, natural photos were fine. From here, the waterfall was nothing more than a 15-minute skirmish.

River walking tour rum smuggling - Charlie on Travel

“This doesn’t look much like a canoe ride…”

After being stuffed back in the van and back-tracking along the windy roads, we ended up at what I can only compare to the Costa Rican version of a British booze run, where Brits cross the English channel to Calais to stock up on cheap wine. Five cars were parked only the river bank with their boots gaping wide open. Several large cases of beer were being pulled out the trunk of one of them by some policemen while two Costa Rican men dawdled around, irritated at having their newly purchased beer confiscated.

Fernando hopped out of the van and into the bushes to converse with two other guys. On the other side of the river was a big hut with a sign reading “DUTY FREE.” When the police moved off, Fernando pointed at it and grinned at us. A small motorboat chugged to the river bank and a bunch of Costa Rican men jumped aboard, Fernando coaxed us into the boat for our “canoe ride along the river.” After less than two minutes, we reached the other side.

“Panama!” Fernando exclaimed, hands in the air. Luke and I raised our eyebrows at each other, aware that crossing the border in this way probably wasn’t legal, especially not for two foreigners who weren’t carrying their passports. We dawdled behind as he led us into the duty free, where he then asked us for the $100 tour money so he could buy a cheap bottle of rum.

Wrapping his bottle of rum in plastic bags and tucking it under his shirt like a baby, we headed back across the river. Not to be spoilsports, we adventurously bought a bottle of $2 red wine. This was probably a mistake. He proceeded to hide his rum under the back seat of the van, let another guy with two crates of alcohol hitch a ride with us, and announced that this was the grand end to our nature photography tour.

Panama river rum smuggling crossing - Charlie on Travel


Decidedly not wanting to report back to our boss that we didn’t have any incredible nature photos, nor that our tour was really a glorified and expensive rum smuggling expedition, I emailed the manager of the nature reserve.

Turns out that Fernando was a random local who they didn’t really know all that well. As we weren’t actually staying in their lodge and they had just come under new management a few months ago, they thought they’d try their hand at organising a tour remotely. They were, naturally, horrified to hear about what had really happened – and that’s how we ended up staying in a luxury nature retreat high up in the jungle-covered mountains of Puerto Viejo.

The retreat was an off-the-grid nature immersion with vegetarian-only meals, sunrise and sunset yoga sessions and a double bed big enough for three. The grounds had a couple of short nature hikes where Luke and I came across howler monkeys, toucans, parakeets and red frogs. We got our nature photos in the end!

Charlie Marchant

Charlie is a long-term traveller from the UK who writes about simple ways to travel sustainably, including how to become a house sitter and slow traveller, eating local and vegetarian, and making responsible travel choices.

15 thoughts to “From Smuggling Rum Across the Panamanian Border to a Luxury Nature Retreat”

  1. Wow, what a scary ride, I bet you didn’t know what to do for the best. It sounds like you handled it all really well, but I think you live and learn and actually had a lucky escape. Glad to hear that you got to see some wildlife and photo’s in the end. I was on the edge of my seat just reading this!

    1. Thanks, Franca! I was so unsure about sharing it too, and Luke was unsure that I should because the eco-retreat did give us a really lovely stay in the end (and we wouldn’t want to give them bad press over an honest mistake). But equally, stories are to be shared.

  2. How cool is that! This are the most scariest, sometimes yet funniest moments…when you don’t know what to come! We totally love this post and it was right to publish it. We’re in Puerto Viejo again in about two weeks. Hopefully we won’t be a “victim” of such an adventure ;) Greetings from Tascha & Patrick
    Patascha recently posted…Water-Kefir: a Mexican miracle cureMy Profile

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