Crossing the Costa Rica-Panama border was, by far, the worst border crossing experience I’ve had so far on The Happy Nomad Tour (well, in my life actually, but I think I’ve had good luck!).
The day started with me getting up at 4am to leave Casa del Indio. I took a taxi in Cartago, Costa Rica to the bus station to catch a bus to San Jose. At Casa del Indio they told me I shouldn’t pay more than 1000 Colones ($2) for the taxi ride to the bus station. When we arrived, what did the driver ask for? 4000 Colones ($8). I was shocked.
I am sure I’ve been ripped off in other situations, but none as drastic as this. Here was this guy, who seemed so nice and who I just explained how I was volunteering at an orphanage in his city, trying to charge me four times the real price.
But I stayed calm and just said no. Then said he was doing me a favor by lowering it to 3000. I kept disagreeing until I grabbed my bag and him 1000 Colones without looking back.
I arrived in San Jose at 5:30am. The bus left at 7:30am. When I called to make sure they ran the San Jose-David route on the weekend, the lady told me to arrive early because the tickets sell out fast. She was right. There are only 55 seats on the bus and mine was the 44th sold. Had I gotten there at 7am, the tickets may have been sold out.
I later found out that a competing company, Tica Bus, had no tickets available for the next five days. Wow!
Costa Rica – Panama Border
I read online that the border crossing takes about 1-3 hours. Everything went smoothly and quickly on the Costa Rican side. But then we got to the Panamanian side. It was cool at first. There was an indigenous street performer playing a quena. Below you can see a video of it.
But quickly I realized the line wasn’t moving at all and it stretched really, really far. Hmm. Ok, so it’s going to be a 3-hour day at the border I thought. I had an inkling I wouldn’t make it to Chichica that day, but the story gets worse.
While waiting in line, I talked a lot with the British guy behind me and the Austrian guy in front of me. It was nice and we held each others’ places for things like bathroom breaks, food/water runs, etc.
After about 3 hours of waiting I even followed signs to a nearby mall called “City Mall” as a resident of nowhere having been stamped out of Costa Rica but not admitted into Panama. The mall advertised free wifi and I wanted to search for hostels near the bus station in David just in case. Well, I can confirm holiday shopping is horrible everywhere and, as I sat on a display chair with my computer on my lap, there was no wifi!
So I walked back to the border, in the tropical downpour, unsuccessful. And no, the line hadn’t moved in the 30 minutes I was gone.
When I finally got to the immigration window, the guy asked for my ticket. I handed him my San Jose-David ticket. He spoke really quickly in Spanish, so I didn’t understand everything. But he pointed to a sign showing that all foreigners have to prove my exit from Panama.
He told me to go and buy a bus ticket back to San Jose from the bus driver. At $18, this seemed like an option I’d like to avoid. So I tried to reason with him. I told him that I have a reservation on a boat on December 10th. I had nothing printed out though and I really don’t think a printed email from a hostel in Panama City saying my reservation is good to go would satisfy him anyway.
I mean, really, how do you prove you have a reservation on a privately chartered boat? It’s a popular backpacker way of getting from Panama to Colombia since no roads link the two countries. So I really don’t know what I could have done differently.
Yes, I could have printed out the string of emails showing my confirmation for the boat on the 18th and then showing that I changed it to the 10th, but the immigration policeman didn’t speak English anyway.
So I had to pay $18 for the bus ticket. It’s open and good for the next three months. It has my name on it, but that doesn’t matter. I ended up giving it to my couchsurfing host in Panama City as a token of my appreciation for her hosting me. Sunk cost.
What is further frustrating is that I even checked the U.S. State Department’s website for Panama. No mention about needing to prove exit to enter the country, though they do specifically mention that requirement for Costa Rica. Thanks for staying on top of things, guys!
Plus, I had to stay in a hostel in David now that it was 7pm and the last bus from the David bus station to Tole left at 7pm. So in total, Panama’s lack of organization at immigration cost me $13 ($8 for the hostel room and $5 in taxis) and their backpacker-unfriendly rules cost me $18.
When I get to Asia there will be countries where I’ll have to pay much more for an entry visa (I think India’s costs $150, for example). I also plan to spend a lot longer than 6 days in India though.. The $31 was just an unneeded annoyance on top of a 4.5 hour wait.
More icing on the cake was this poster saying “Panama, it will never leave you.” More like Panama will never admit you!
So, yes, it was a frustrating day. Getting up at 4am, waiting 4.5 hours to cross a border, spending $31 unexpectedly, and not even making it to my destination.. There have been better days on The Happy Nomad Tour.
Apart from the personal annoyance, this inconvenience means I have less time to spend with the Ngäbe people in the mountains of Chichica. Since I’m leaving the 10th, the lost time ends up costing them the most since I couldn’t volunteer there for as much time.
So, “Welcome to Panama”, but I’m already looking forward to leaving and going to South America. First impressions are hard to change, and this wasn’t a good one.