Last February, Andy and I traveled with some friends to Costa Rica. It was a lovely trip and left our mouths watering for more. Because I am the luckiest girl in the world, and because all of the stars and moons aligned, we were able to go back just a few weeks later. Truly blessed. Anyway, we decided to make this a road trip and to add Panama. Andy had read about crossing the border and it seemed easy enough - it always does.
So it was a sunny afternoon, about 90 degrees, when we arrived in our car at the border between Costa Rica and Panama. The city of Sixaola, if you can call it that, consists of a single road in with a turn around and the same road out. There is half a dozen store fronts that are broken down and don't look that appetizing to enter, even to buy a bottle of water. We notice several cars parked on the street with broken out windows and missing wheels, the thieves were watching closely and for the locals, everyone knows everyone. Leading up to this is a series of banana plantations that extend further than the eye can see. We decide to turn around and drive down one of the plantation roads to have lunch and get ourselves organized.
After having lunch, we nervously packed up what
we would be taking across the border and tried our best to minimize the appearance of what we were leaving in the car that would look appetizing to anyone peering in. We put as much as we could in the cooler, which we travel with when road tripping so that we can have lunch at any beautiful spot we see along the way. We covered bags and extra clothes with floor mats and that also helped to darken out the back half of the SUV. We drove back into Sixaola and scouted the area once again. I knew if we left our car on the street it would be one exciting insurance claim on the back end of the trip. Then we were spotted by a young guy, he pointed us in the direction of the parking lot that Andy had read about; secure and attended. We drove down a dirt path towards the river and parked our car in a makeshift lot, fenced in mostly behind a families home. We gave all of our excess food to the family running the lot, they were appreciative, and with nothing but a hand shake left for the week praying our car would be there and in tact upon return.
We then followed the young guy to a store front where he said we needed to pay a departure tax. It just didn't look right, nothing official about it, a darkened room with tables; it appeared to be a restaurant of some type. Off to one side is a window with a wonder of a person who didn't speak English sitting inside. We declined to pay the tax and worked our way up a series of steps to the immigration and customs office, where of course they sent us back down to the little shack to pay the tax. Lesson no. 467, in a seedy little city, not everyone is out to rip you off, some just want to get a tip.
Eventually we cleared customs and after walking through a car wash like sprayer of some nasty chemical that is supposed to kill any bugs that you may be bringing into Panama we walked across the border bridge. There was an old rusted out bridge high above the water that ran below. We walked across the 'new' one right next to it. It was a long bridge and some how about halfway across, sweating, with my back pack on and carrying an extra bag, I expected someone to yell 'stop' and for us to be turned around again. But we made it and there at the other side was a shiny yellow taxi waiting to take us to Bocus del Torro. Hurray! We didn't think much of the fact that we didn't have to check in anywhere. Along the drive in the taxi, we stopped at one security check point where the officer asked for our passports. All I could think about was the advice I had read, don't give anyone your passport for any reason in Panama because you may never see it again. But he handed it right back and we continued on.
After the taxi ride, then a boat ride, and then a long walk and another taxi ride that went into the ocean partially, we arrived at a hotel, we would stay for one night. But that is another story altogether. Lesson no. 468, don't travel on 'Easter' week, aka 'Hell' week to locals, without reservations. We rarely have reservations...
So, lets turn this trip around and tell the second half of the boarder crossing. A little more exciting...
We got off the boat and into the pre-arranged taxi heading to the border of Guabito, the opposite side of Sixaola. There is no city right at the border, pretty much nothing at all. But we were dropped by the taxi right in front of a very large aluminum building with a huge opening in front. This was the customs and immigration building. We hadn't even noticed it on the way in, funny how you can be so focused that you miss things along the way. Like have you ever wondered exactly how you got home, because you don't remember any of the driving experience, you were just checked out and your head was somewhere else completely. Anyway, I digress...
We walked into the building and handed the agent our passports through the window and he stamped mine and handed it back to me. As he went to stamp Andy's, he paused and said 'wait, where is your incoming stamp?' We never stopped to get one...uh, oh. He harshly asked for my passport back, should I have given it to him, not sure, but I did. He was older, maybe in his 60's sporting grey hair, may have skipped the shaving experience for a few days and he wore his uniform with arrogance and a smirk. 'We have a big problem, very serious'. 'When is your flight? I think you may miss it.' He reiterated many times 'big problem', making sure we were adequately scared of the inconvenience to him and the delay and fines it would mean to us.
He ushered us into a small room to the side of the teller windows we had been at previously. He started again with 'we have a big problem', 'very serious' and babbled for a few seconds when Andy chimed in 'how can we fix this problem?, like a professional negotiator in a hostage situation. 'Do you need a tip?' I was shocked this came out of his mouth, it was so straight forward.
We were instructed not to look at the camera when talking, he quickly told Andy about a black box in the bathroom where he could leave a 'tip'. Andy looked up and said, 'I need to use the restroom'. He was excused to the restroom. While Andy was fumbling around in the restroom, the agent told me his boss just walked in and that 'we did not have any conversations' and to 'keep your mouth shut'. He left the room. Andy returned, I whispered to him what had happened and he told me that there was not a black box anywhere in the bathroom that he could find - he even took the top off the water tank behind the toilet. We sat waiting. Waiting some more. Waiting some more. The agent came back into the room and said 'it is your lucky day, we will walk you across the border'. I was not sure if we were going to be paying someone off while we crossed the bridge or exactly what was going to happen. Lots of papers were being shuffled, documents being created and stamped; and discussions happening that we could not entirely hear or understand.
A new man entered the room, tall,slender, well groomed and the same arrogance in uniform, but no smirk. With just a nod of his shoulder we knew were were supposed to follow him. He held a folder with lots of papers; he was reviewing them and never made eye contact with us. We stared across the bridge. My mind started to wander long ago into a movie scene where guns were drawn and large sums of money were exchanging hands. I was crying dramatically, of course, reaching for the love of my life that was being taken away from me. Then the realization that we were headed for the immigration office at Sixaola settled in. I asked the tall slender man, 'does this mean we can never come back to Panama?' He said 'no, you can come', nothing more. He was a man with little to say to us as those were the only words we got from him. After some discussion with the Coasta Rica Immigration office, more stamps on papers and signatures flying, we were released. Now we were off to find our car - fingers crossed.
We were in luck, everything was fine. We thanked the family for keeping the car safe and sound. We got in and cranked the air conditioning, realized we had very little petrol left and headed back towards Manzanillo in our little SUV in search of gas. (We made it before running out - then we sat in a little breakfast shop ocean side reminiscing the days events that all took place before 10 am.)