For the third time in the eighteen months I’ve been in Panama, Tuesday night I took an overnight express bus to arrive at the border exit at Paso Canoas at 5:45. The windows didn’t open until 7am. My first hassle began then as you get a cursory luggage search before presenting your passport. I was first in line, but then wanted to check something and came back to find I was now 6th. Getting off the bus I had met a young fellow traveler from Chile, José, and then a lovely young woman from Austria, Sonia. I introduced them to each other. Since they were 2nd and 3rd in the search line, they gestured to me to come get in at the head of the line. I said there was no need as they let in about 10 people at a time, so I would still be in the first batch. A dumb decision as it turned out.
The guy just in front of me had a hard-shelled little suitcase that had a combination lock and would not open as he kept trying for at least ten minutes. There was just one agent searching, so I was forced to wait. It finally popped open, and I was next in line, when a sudden surge of about thirty members of some tour group rushed in and the agent started to search them. I went to the man in charge sitting at a desk. I complained, but he spoke not a word of English. Finally, as it looked like at least another thirty minute delay, an English speaking and efficient agent came in, heard my plight–that I had been first in line and my two amigos already were at exit window. He glanced at my backpack without opening it and waved me on through. (I have no idea why Panama does this search, as they don’t take your name or give you a receipt or stamp your luggage, and the customs agents don’t refer to it once they tell you to go get it done. One could easily bypass the search and just pretend to have had it done, walking back up to the window.)
I then officially left Panama and walked two blocks to the Costa Rican border facility where I attempted to get my passport stamped to enter that country, and then turnaround and go through the exit process and then walk back and get approved to re-enter Panama for 180 days. My tourist visa would then be automatically extended for another 180 days.
Each time I’ve done this, either Panama or Costa Rica has changed some of the rules. This time, the Costa Rican agent demanded I produce proof that I was leaving Costa Rica. She said I had to walk a couple of blocks to buy a bus ticket going from any point in CR to any point in Panama. I chose a bus going from San Jose (I’ve never been) to David, Panama. I would bet some of that $21 I paid for the bus ticket ends up in the pocket of the customs agent.
I immediate went to the exit window, but they now have a new $5 tax that has to be paid before they let you out. A small bank office a few feet from windows was closed, set to open at 9am. It was just after 7am, and this meant I had to wait almost two hours for the bank office to open so I could pay the tax. A young Costa Rican told me the bus tour company he works for can do the tax processing and give me a valid receipt to show at the window, so I walked with him another couple of blocks, paid the $5 plus $3 service fee, then went back and passed through the exit process. Several Panamanians went out of their way to help this hapless Gringo with a very small Spanish vocabulary. One man even left his place in line to walk with me to get the bus ticket.
It was sticky hot and I could have easily started shouting at the agent, but I stifled my temper. The agent at the Panama exit window was a whole different story. She gave me no grief about doing it all in an hour, just glanced at the Copa airline ticket I had printed out (they give you a confirmation number and then two days to finalize and pay for ticket), and when I took out twenty-five $20 bills folded, she quickly gestured for me to put it away without any count.
But I was still steaming from the hard time given me with the brand new rules by Costa Rican agent. And as I walked over to bus area (as has always happened before, a bus was loading and I was invited on without buying ticket (this may be a little moonlighting operation by the driver who told me the price would be $16.90) I was making promises to myself that I would never ever return to Pasos Canoas. It is nice to do it all in less than 24 hours, but the ever-changing rules are ridiculous. I played over all the unpleasant things that happened, and then something pretty amazing happened, providing me with a valuable lesson–and the whole point of this post.
I decided to widen my focus, and see if there were any silver lining, good things I might be overlooking. In other words, I did a mental/emotional turnaround. Instead of continuing to replay all the yucky things that had happened, I started counting the good things.
1. Having arrived at 5:45am, I was on bus back to Panama City before 9:30am without having to stay overnight in Pasos Canoas.
2. The great agent who kept me from being stuck in the little search room as I was leaving Panama.
3. Several Latin Americans who went out of their way to help me deal with the Costa Rican border agents.
4. The fact I didn’t have to show an airline ticket back to the U.S. from Costa Rica, which would have probably turned me around in a terrible way, forcing me back to Panama City without having accomplished my visa requirement.
5. The friendly agent at the Panama entrance window who made it all lighthearted, friendly, and almost fun.
6. Meeting José and Sonia. I have a feeling they are attracted to each other enough to spend at least a very pleasant weekend together in Costa Rica.
7. I am out only another $29, for the CR bus ticket and the $8 tax and fee. This is less than it would have cost to stay overnight, as I had to do in January.
So, seated on the bus headed back, my whole mood shifted to a very upbeat and triumphant one. There was great scenery on the way Eastward through Chiriqui Province, and I got some good photos out the bus window. And when we stopped at the Los Toucanes restaurant in Santiago, a large buffet place. I got one serving of boiled potatoes and one of a sweet and sour beef dish–both spicy delicious. And, finally, my iPhone charge lasted almost until the end of the trip.
Looking back thirty hours later now, I view the whole thing as a mostly positive set of experiences. But I still am determined to find an alternate route next January when I do it all again