Pretty much every expat in Panama is familiar with the concept of a Border Run. When you enter Panama you do not need a visa, you just come in with your passport and then when they stamp it, that is your tourist visa. Your tourist visa is good for 6 months. After 6 months you need to leave the country and come back in to ‘reset the clock’. Sounds pretty simple, except that if you want to drive while you’re here, you have to leave every 3 months because you can only drive with your US license for 90 days. Ugh! And you’d think that maybe they won’t catch you if you go over your 3 month limit but it’s really not a good idea. There are routine police stops ALL THE TIME where they check the date on your passport if you appear to be a visitor. It’s just not cool to risk it. Unfortunately, you can’t get a Panamanian driver’s licenses unless you are a resident, which has requirements that we’re not quite ready to meet. Pretty sure the Costa Rican border towns lobbied for these rules. Ha!
We are just about at our three month mark (yes! already!) so we decided to do it the “easy” way and just go into Costa Rica and come back into Panama the next day. That’s how most expats do it. So on Monday we left for David (pronounced “dah-VEED”), which is the nearest big city to the Costa Rican border. We are familiar with David from the time we lived in nearby Boquete. It took about 5 hours to get here from Pedasi and parts of the road were just horrible. You had to really watch the road to avoid tire-swallowing potholes. And people pass like crazy here, even on corners, double lines, etc. It is as much your responsibility not to get hit by them as it is their responsibility not to hit you. It was not a relaxing ride and the gluten-induced migraine that I woke up with on Monday did not help.
We arrived in David on Monday afternoon then left for the border Tuesday afternoon after doing a little shopping and dropping the car off at Honda for some servicing. We decided to take a cab ($40) to be a little more comfortable than the bus. Not sure how much the bus cost but with the 4 of us, cabs are more economical than for others (read: Daniel really didn’t want to take the bus). The rule of thumb is that you have to stay in Costa Rica at least 24 hours, or overnight (of course, as with everything else, it depends on who you talk to, but why take the chance?) We tried to pack light since there a fair amount of hoofing it from gate to gate and in the heat…etc. I did not win the packing light game. Clearly I need to learn how to reduce my beauty regimen.
We asked the front desk at our David hotel for a very comfortable cab for the 30 minute drive. The cab arrives and it looks like it is a rolling parts bin for a real car. We get in and clearly they did not care one whit about our comfort. It sounded like the left rear tire was about to fall off at any moment, it was very rickety and there were exactly 2 seat belts in the back. The cabbie insisted that his was the only cab in town with ANY seat belts in the back. Which of course, was a crock. But he didn’t want to lose this $40 fair to the border, which we later found out, on the way back, should have only been $30. Anyway, off we go in the barely air conditioned parts bin on wheels.
The cab dropped us off at the Zona Libre which is the duty free shopping area at the border. We really aren’t sure if it’s in Panama or Costa Rica. There’s very little way to distinguish when you’ve actually crossed over. I was picturing something like the US/Mexico border or the border between AZ and CA: you are funneled through a process, checked, passport stamped, sent on your way, etc. No, not here. Not at all. It’s a big, chaotic street with lots of shopping (like a mix between a flea market and an outdoor shopping mall) and if you look really hard and ask a few people, you can find the border offices for each country where they give you all the stamps you need. You could easily pass between the two countries with no passport at all. But you’ll be up a creek if you don’t have the right stamps in your passport if you’re ever stopped.
We found the exit stamp lady for Panama and that was not too difficult of a process. Then we asked someone where the inbound Costa Rica office was and they told us to walk about 200 meters through what seemed like a combination of parking lot/street and living chaos. There was no rhyme or reason to where cars were parked or driving. It was hot, my bag was heavy, the kids were fighting, I had a migraine and Daniel was trying to keep me from laying in the street in a fetal position, refusing to move one more step. You can see where this is going. We found another official looking building that had two lines labeled: “Exit to Costa Rica” and “Arrive to Costa Rica”. Aren’t those both the same thing, especially if you might still be in Panama?? I was very confused. I need to learn not to take signs so literally. Reading it in Spanish cleared it up so we got in the shorter line to get our entrance stamp. We had to fill out a little form, answer some questions through a tiny crack in the window with lots of noise (read: difficult to understand!) and then were done with the entrance into Costa Rica part. Typing this out it sounds simple but honestly, it was chaos. I hated every minute of it. I was confused, stressed, annoyed, my head was pounding and I would have given my left arm just to be back in our comfy concrete bunker in Pedasi. For the record, Daniel doesn’t think it was THAT bad, but I wasn’t in the right frame of mind, from the start.
Did I mention it was hot?
Anyway, after getting all our fancy in and out stamps we got a cab to get to our hotel. We went through a bit more chaos and pretty rough (literally and figuratively) streets before we got a minute or two off the main street and got to our lovely hotel. It looked more like a large Southern mansion with big trees and gardens all around it, all white with lots of rooms. No pool or breakfast but it had clean beds, A/C and a TV and it was away from the chaos so that was good.
We voluntarily re-entered the chaos to go to dinner and ended up at some chicken place that I was sure would give us all food poisoning but the people were very nice. I could not eat much due to the ever-present migraine but we took back some chicken and rice back to the hotel in case I was able to eat later. Daniel stole the fork so I’d have something to eat it with. I think that was the most memorable part of the trip for Haley. She made up an entire story involving us being fugitives and Daniel’s eventual stay in a Costa Rican prison. The girl needs to write stories.
We stopped at a chino (do they call the little grocery stores chinos in Costa Rica? I dunno) to get a few things for breakfast and then went back to the hotel. The girls watched Frozen in Spanish (they re-did the ‘Let It Go” song into Spanish, roughly translated to “Let me be me” I think). Daniel started having some serious allergy problems so he walked back into town. In my migraine-induced state I was sure it was the last I would ever see of him due to the looks of the street into town. (Again, Daniel says I’m exaggerating.) He got some kleenex and sinus meds and was back safe and sound in very short order. Crisis averted.
We had a decent sleep and braced ourselves for more border chaos this morning. The kids were lectured about not fighting and the importance of following directions and off we went. My migraine persisted. Talk about bad timing. We got in line in the Costa Rica exit line but after waiting about 20 minutes were told we needed to pay an exit tax at the other window. Think of this like the DMV but with no signs. There’s a definite order to how you need to do things but no one tells you that until you are at the wrong window. OK, paid the tax, back to the first window, stamp stamp, all done. Yay! Now on to Panama to do the entry process, which we heard was a challenge. You have to show some evidence that you will eventually leave the country (trick from other expats: book a reservation on Copa Airlines, print out the confirmation, don’t pay for it and it expires in 24 hours), and it seems to be common knowledge that you have to show $500 in cash per adult when you come into the country via land border. Really? We really want to be walking around the border, totally confused, with $1000 in cash? No. We only had $900 because of some unexpected last minute expenses and no ATMs anywhere. So Daniel just flashed the lady a stack of $100s, hoping she wouldn’t want to count it. Turns out, she didn’t even care about how much we had. I guess we don’t look like we’ll be stranded in Panama, with no resources…. I don’t know. After glancing at Daniel’s $100 bill fan, the lady took a few pictures of us and stamp, stamp we were done. They didn’t even ask for the airline ticket. Yay! We hear that’s rare but we’ll take it!
Back to the chaos of the shopping street where the cabs were honking and milling about. This time we could pick the cab we wanted so we selected one that appears to have been made during the current century, hopped in and in 30 minutes were back in David. Panama definitely feels like home after leaving it for 18 hours!! There is a definite difference in the poverty level between Panama and Costa Rica, at least at the border area. Daniel said the Costa Rica side looked like South Korea in the 80s. It was pretty bad.
We did not love the process but now that we know how it works I think I could stomach doing it again in 3 months, but maybe it will be just Daniel and I. The girls only have to leave the country every 6 months since they don’t drive. So on the 6-month mark maybe it will be a nice opportunity to travel a bit and see some neighboring countries as a family. There are actually some places in Costa Rica we want to visit so that might be the time.
It’s felt like a very busy 3 months: getting here, Boquete/language school, Pedasi, two houses, getting Phinny, the holidays. and now the border run. We seem to have a little more routine and tranquila days on the horizon. Just what the doctor ordered. I’m pretty sure you’re getting tired of all the pictures of us relaxing on the beach!