I had to make a border run this week to Panama so that I could get another 90 day stamp to stay in Costa Rica. That’s how we do it: leave the country for a bit, and then come back. For me at this border, it was two hours. I know, crazy. Around here, people “know a guy” who will take you. We left at 6 am; it was a four hour ride. I was fortunate enough to have a whole van row to myself so I slept most of the time.
When we arrived at the edge of Costa Rica, I was told to “go to that van right there and pay the $7 exit tax.” Go to that van? This is the strangest thing ever. I paid $8. Then I was to go to “that window and get two white pieces of paper to fill out so you have one ready for re-entry.” Ok. Easy enough.
Next, he was to drop me off at the Panamanian border to get my entry stamp, and then I was to meet him at the mall. Wait, what does that mean? You’re not coming over with me? Where’s the mall? Where exactly is the border? All I see are a bunch of shops. I’ll wait until I get over to Panama for shopping though. It’s supposed to be much cheaper.
I walk for a few moments taking in the surroundings. Seriously, where’s the border? I see a bunch of cars in a line, that must be it. I’ll walk along these shops for now until I get there. Man, there’s a lot of shopping. Is this the right way? Doesn’t seem so. Oh here’s a lady; I’ll ask her. “La frontera?” I say. Blank stare. “La Frontera?” I change my pronunciation. Still nothing. But Duolingo said! The border? I didn’t use a complete sentence; that might have helped. Finally I say, “Panama.” Blank stare. “Panama,” in my sad face. Recognition. She pointed back the other way. So the border was actually in that weird area that looked like nothing, ok. Back I go.
Oh there’s the sign I missed, “Bienvenidos a Panama”. Actually my intuition told me so, but it sure didn’t look right. However, this must be the place. But where? All these windows. I end up having to call “the guy” for help. He came right away. I was not quite in the right area and I was grateful I was not alone. I get that I’m wanting to do all of this foreign traveling by myself. But it can still be a little daunting. I go to the window, do the thing. Then I start looking for where to actually cross the border. Do I just walk through that place with the cars and the stuff that looks like a wash tunnel at a carwash? What do I do? How do I get into Panama?? “You’re in it,” he says. What do you mean? “You are already in Panama. All these shops here are Panama side.” What?? No wonder the lady though I was crazy! So I can get a stamp, stay in Costa Rica, and get another one out.. Yes. Got it.
I’ve only walked across one border in my life and that was into Mexico from Texas at a time when no passport was needed. That was an awesome experience. This lacked a lot for me. The whole thing had me a little nerve racked. So “the guy” took me to the City Mall where we could do some shopping and have some air conditioning. When I arrived, I immediately felt like I was in a safe haven. Yay, a mall (that was really more of a Wal-Mart, with a McDonalds). This is familiar though. I know what to do here. I walked around for about 20 minutes. Then, I needed out of this mall. It felt inauthentic. I wanted Panama. Who are you, Panama? What are you offering? So I left, on my own. I had my bearings, so I felt much more comfortable. I walked the streets, looked at the shops. Nothing local really happening, but cheaper goods I am told. I stopped for food, and that was the true treat.
When it was time for our meet-up, I headed back to the border and followed the reverse proceedings. I stamped out of Panama and then back into Costa Rica. The girl at the window was on Face-time with her daughter, so she didn’t pay any attention to how long I had been “gone.”
Since technically, legally, I am supposed to leave for three days, there was only one more stop we needed to worry about: The checkpoint about 40 minutes in. If they checked my passport hard enough they could tell I didn’t leave the country for long enough. That far in, they probably wouldn’t make me turn around and leave. What they could do, however, was take all of the things we had just purchased at the border. Fruit and such from me along with a super cheap bottle of Frangelico from the super cheap liquor store. From “the guy,” all of his hotel supplies he picked up at the mall. Damn, that would suck.
Fortunately, as we approached, they waived us through. Whew. I again laid back down and took a much needed rest the whole way home. We were clear, and I was free. At least for another 90 days.