PANAMA - PART 1 OF 3
My first ‘border run’ was certainly not without peril or adventure. At that time I was floating about on a tourist visa. This is the typical 90-day period granted to many upon entry to Costa Rica. Built into the life of an ESL teacher without work permits (I have one now, thankfully) is the raw fact that you need to exit the country every 90 days for no less than 72hrs in order to reenter and renew your tourist status. This is otherwise referred to as a ‘visa run’.
Having the choice of what was then the scary unknown country I’ve only heard bad things about on the news (Nicaragua) or the other place I’ve heard less bad things about on the news (Panama), my heading was set due south. I learned of a magical place called Bocas del Toro. An archipelago whose waters are blue, seafood is plentiful, and things are reasonably priced. A jewel set in paradise. As with any hidden treasure, one must pass a series of long and difficult tests along an arduous journey. Mine began as with any in Costa Rica worth taking – before dawn. I made my way to the Terminal del Caribe in San Jose in order to jump on the 6am bus heading to the border at Changuinola.
This was a 6hr trek that took me once again over the mountains, down the east coast, past Cahuita and endless banana plantations to a final stop in a shanty, hot little border town. Getting off the bus meant being accosted by a swarm of ‘assistants’ offering to carry your bags and help you get to Panama for a nominal fee. As this was my first trip I looked a man in the eye who seemed trustworthy and said that he can help, but I’ll carry my own bag, thank you. He walked with me down a gravel road surrounded by a wide variety of fellow tourists. These would soon become a familiar demographic of folks from elderly men, to dreadlocked hippies, to scared 21-year-old girls from something like Colorado taking their gap year and hoping to beef up their resume or earn some bragging rights when they get home to mom and dad.
The first lesson was that there are 2 time zones to consider. As Costa Rica doesn’t recognize daylight savings time, this meant that it was noon on one side, and 11am on the other. Well, the 2 people working immigration in Costa Rica take lunch at noon. The 2 people working immigration in Panama do the same – immediately after those in Costa Rica. So a 2hr wait in 95 degree humidity was on the table that day. Eventually I was sidestepped and waddled through each tedious little line, in and out of hot and cold boxes and windows, to where I was allowed to start walking across a 100-year-old bridge that spanned the river separating the two nations.
Surrounded by more people who had sacks of goods balanced on their heads, rugged farmers with rubber boots and machetes, children of all ages offering to do anything for “one dollar?”, I gazed through the beams of the rickety old bridge into the murky waters below. I finally met at the halfway point a brass placard adorning the words Panama – Costa Rica. I started singing the chorus of Van Halen’s Panama in my head and set foot in my second Latin American country. Little did I know that this would be my first of seven times to this part of the isthmus…