As a citizen of the European Union, living in the Schengen area, I am surely lucky. We’ve done away with borders and crossing from Spain into France into Germany into Denmark you might even miss where one country ends and the next starts – unless you happen to be looking out the window the exact second the blue EU sign announces that, whoops, you’re in Italy now.
Border crossings for me these days involve a little booth at an international airport, where a serious looking border official will have a critical look at my passport picture and wonder why 16h-transatlantic-flight-me, with the red eyes, dark rings underneath them, dissheveled hair and greasy plane skin, does not look like freshly showered and prepared for the photographer passport-photo-me. The passport gets scanned, as do my fingerprints, I’ll get a stamp and off I go. New country: Entered.
Now, as you might imagine, if crossing from Costa Rica into Panama were as easy, I wouldn’t be writing a story about it.
It was much too early in the morning and the sun had just cleared the horizon and was shining through the coconut palms lining the beach in front of me. The hammocks and beach chairs empty, all the other guests still asleep.
I was mentally saying goodbye to Puerto Viejo, the beautiful little village on the Carribean side of Costa Rica. For the last time I was enjoying my Gallo Pinto with scrambled eggs. Gallo Pinto, the national breakfast of Costa Rican champions: rice with beans, sometimes a few pieces of veggies, and spices – delicious.
I had barely finished my plate when the shuttle was pulling up in front of the hostel – 15 minutes early. What happend to Island Time?!
But, always prepared, like the good scout I never was, I had already checked out and my bags ready to go. I thanked the bartender for breakfast and dragged my luggage to the road.
The reason for the unusual timing soon became apparent. The shuttle was collecting individuals from all around the area and overall it took us almost an hour to get everyone aboard and actually leave Puerto Viejo.
The Costa Rican border crossing into Panama on the Atlantic side is in a town called Sixaola, only about a 45 minute drive from Puerto Viejo. Getting there was the easy part.
We pulled into a side street and the driver stopped.
“Alright, we’re getting out here” our border guide told us and opened the minibus door in the back. “Just go over there” he said and waved vaguely behind the bus.
I couldn’t figure out what he meant. Go where? The other tourists didn’t seem to have understood either and simply accumulated around the bus. I started walking in the general direction the guide had pointed, trying to look for something that looked official.
“We have to go where?” I asked.
“Go to the kiosk” he said.
“The little shop?”
“Yes, you pay the exit tax there.”
Oh, okay. That made sense in a way. I knew that Costa Rica had an “exit tax”, I had just assumed that you pay it directly at the border.
So we all started lining up in front of the little shop window, surrounded by chips packages, SIM card ads, and miscellaneous knicknacks; passports and 7$ at the ready.
I was first in line and handed a twenty (my only US money) to the lady behind the window. She took it but before she could take my passport, the guide came running and snatched it away.
“All passports to me please” he shouted at our group while simultaneously handing out customs forms for Panama.
None of us was sure how that would make this process faster, but our guide insisted. The woman in the shop was still waiting for my passport.
Eventually, the guide came back and dropped a stack of around 20 passports in front of her.
She had to go through each passport, type off names and passport numbers and print a tax receipt for each. That would take a while.
So I started filling out the customs form. Or tried to.
“What did you put as country of origin?” I asked the girl next to me. Her name field read Natalie, also from Germany.
“Costa Rica of course” she answered.
“But then what is ‘’Last country visited’?”
“Oh. Maybe origin would be your home country then?”
I pointed to another field. “I don’t think so, it says country of birth here and country of residence over here.”
“Oh. Hm. This does not make sense.”
“And what is destination country, is that not Panama?”
“Maybe that’s your home country then? Or the next country after?”
We heard our guide yell from the back: “Put ‘Costa Rica’ everywhere!”
Aha – apparently we were not the first to ask these questions.
So twenty people tried to figure out all the right data to put on this form, in the awkward way that you write when you’re standing and have nothing to write against.
Natalie corrected “Germany” to “Costa Rica”.
“No!” The guide came running and shouted at her. “No changes!” He took the form away from her and gave her a new one.
She looked slightly annoyed. Then she sighed and started filling the form out again.
Eventually, the woman in the shop was done with the receipts and waved for us to come and pay to pick up the passports. I was hoping that she hadn’t conveniently forgotten that I had already given her a twenty, an experience I had made a number of times in South America. But to be fair: This has never been an issue in Costa Rica, and it wasn’t an issue now. She gave me my change and dug through the passports until she found mine.
“Okay, come with me” the guide was already standing at the ready, leading me back to the bus to pick up my luggage.
“You go up the ramp and to the office” he said. He would be staying behind on the Costa Rican side and a new bus and new guide would help us in Panama.
“The ramp” was a narrow street that led onto an even narrower bridge. In the midday sun, no speck of shade in sight, around 100 people stood queuing in front of a tiny hut right before the bridge.
Unlike the others, we got to park our bags with another guide and didn’t have to drag them around with us.
For a very long time the queue didn’t move.
Random conversations sparked up, with Natalie and the woman in front, mainly revolving around when we would get out of here. Sunscreen, sunglasses, hats, even scarfs and long shirts where brought out to protect against the sun.
Occassionally, a rumble would shake the ground and not a minute later a massive truck would approach from the Panama side, filling up the entire width of the little bridge and causing the border queue to hectically shuffle to the side so as to not get run over.
Step by step we got a little closer.
The officials inside must have realized that the line outside was getting a bit out of hand. An officer came outside and collected passports for people leaving Costa Rica. Apparently there was only one queue for both, entering and leaving, and the leaving formalities would be much simpler and take much less time than the entering ones.
So 15 minutes later, me and my queue friends were ready to cross the border.
We grabbed our bags and stepped onto the bridge.
People were walking back and forth, locals as well as tourists. There was no fence or barrier, no gate or boom to prevent anyone from going anywhere. Not even officials stationed outside – or if there were supposed to be any, they might have been hiding inside from the heat.
In theory, we could have just walked straight past everything.
The bridge crossed a roughly 20m wide but shallow river. Locals were bathing in the sandy parts, the kids splashing around in the water.
And just like that we were in Panama.
And once again, there was nothing official looking to be seen, just a big supermarket and a ton of taxis and busses.
“In there, in there” someone (our new guide?) pointed to the hut on the left. It was even smaller than the border post on the other side that we had just left behind.
A woman stood in front of the door collecting the customs forms. Every other person, it seemed, she denied.
“No changes!” she said, pointing at squiggly lines and corrections. The two surfer bros in front of us were given blank forms and sent away to start over.
“Hah!” Natalie exclaimed next to me. “Good thing he made me change it back there.”
We were allowed in and directed to open our bags.
For the first time ever, a customs officer went through my backpack in excruciating detail.
“Do you have fresh fruit or vegetables?” she asked.
I tried to think, the brain cloud that you get when dealing with police, even when you’ve done nothing wrong, blocking my memory.
“Just nuts” I said, not really being able to recall.
She unpacked half the things, thoroughly feeling through the rest. She checked side and front pockets. She checked my day pack and pulled out my food bag, containing a couple of apples.
Ah crap, forgot about those. I already saw myself paying half my travel budget in fines for failure to declare.
She turned them over twice and put them back.
“You can go.”
Phew. Not quite sure why the apples didn’t count as fresh fruit and not waiting around for them to change their mind, I shouldered my backpacks and left.
The path carried on down the hill, the little village on the left, our new shuttle on the right.
I had made it!
I dropped my bag and looked around.
“Go to duty free” my new guide said, pointing down the stairs and the big supermarket complex across the square, its “Duty Free!” letters overshadowing all.
“No thanks” I replied. I’m not really the duty free shopper.
“Go to duty free, get stamp” he repeated.
Stamp? Oh. I just realized I hadn’t actually gotten an entry stamp. In fact, I hadn’t been through immigrations at all – only through customs.
I looked over to the duty free shop. There was no indication of an immigration bureau, so I guessed that it worked like the kiosk in Sixaola?
I waited for Natalie to catch up and we headed down the stairs and crossed the street, careful not to get run over by one of the many taxis leaving and entering the square.
As we approached the duty free, I finally saw a tiny sign behind it: “Immigrations”. We passed it and turned the corner – and were standing in the middle of the open-air immigrations office.
Unlike on the Costa Rican side, there was no one queuing at all and three booths were open: two for immigration and one for emigration.
The officer on the other side didn’t say anything at all, just took my passport and pointed to the fingerprint scanner.
“Ticket?” he asked and my pulse shot up again.
In most Central American countries you have to show proof of onward travel – and not just to another Central American country, but actually leaving the greater area.
And since I am on this yearlong, unplanned journey I don’t have such a thing as a return ticket.
There are internet services however, that book you a real flight ticket, confirmation, flight number and all, and keep it valid for a couple of weeks before they cancel it. This gives you a two week window from time of booking until the border crossing, where anyone checking your flights will get proper confirmation in any system.
I had used such a service. Now we would see, if the 19 Euros were worth it.
I pulled up the ticket confirmation on my mail app and handed over my phone. The officer scrolled through the document and handed it back without a comment. He stamped the passport.
“Welcome to Panama.”
I had made it, for real this time.
Back at the shuttle I met up with Natalie again.
“I just got a mail from a friend, who did this crossing on a public bus last night” she said.
“Oh yeah, how did that go?”
“It took them over 10 hours – she left before noon and didn’t even make it to the hostel in Bocas until after midnight. She said that the Panama border office was closed by the time they got through the Costa Rican side and they had to find and convince someone to let them through anyway.”
“They were lucky that they managed to do that at all.” I said. “Although I guess they could have just walked through – no one here checks anything anyway.”
She waved her phone. “True, but just google stories about people missing the Panama entry stamp – you can get a hefty fine for that or even get banned from the country for life. There are tons of stories like that because, funnily, people miss the immigration point.”
I nodded. Not surprising, with the intense lack of signage.
We bought a soda to celebrate and agreed that paying a few dollars extra for a guided shuttle, being told where to go and what to do, had been worth every penny.