On trips like the one we are doing now border crossings are a big part so we thought we would throw in an extra post specifically on this subject.
When we first looked at doing this trip the Omicron variant of Covid-19 was well and truly on the rise. Some countries around the World were re-establishing restrictions, while others were keeping restrictions in place that had been planned to be removed.
We were looking for somewhere interesting and warm to escape the European winter and Costa Rica had been our initial thought with travel still allowed for vaccinated travellers. However, as beautiful as Costa Rica is, we were concerned a country the size of Switzerland might not hold us for over three months so Mexico was added to the trip. Then a couple of weeks before we left we had the idea of adding Guatemala and Belize as they bordered Mexico and, with some Covid testing, travel there looked possible.
So with a few ups and downs we ticked off the planned countries and found ourselves in Manuel Antonio. We still had a few things to do that we had planned in Costa Rica but we weren’t that far from the border with Panama, so we decided to continue South to another Country.
A land border crossing, especially these days, takes a bit of planning and preparation. How do you physically get there? What documentation do you need? Are visas required? What vaccination level and testing do they require for Covid-19. Do I need proof of exit travel? What taxes do I need to pay? The list goes on.
From Manuel Antonio our crossing would be at Paso Canoas, which is reportedly the most chaotic border crossing in Central America. Since it is not on the regular tourist trail direct buses and shuttles are not available so we were going to have to do this the hard way.
We did some pre-planning by visiting the bus station in Quepos to try and buy a ticket to the border. Our first issue was finding a ticket outlet as they rarely look as you expect and are often not obvious. We have bought bus tickets in cafes, in the back of souvenir shops, in grocery stores and other unusual places.
Eventually, we located a ticket outlet which was a woman sitting behind a window protected by iron bars and no signage. She was very helpful and said there was a bus once a day to the border which passed by the hospital 10 miles out of town at about 10.15 in the morning. “Excellent”, we said. “Two tickets for tomorrow please”. She printed them off and we even had assigned seats so we left happy with our progress. All we had to do was to make our way to the hospital by 10.15am.
In the morning we left our accommodation at 8.30am and had no sooner walked to the road when a bus appeared. We flagged it down, it stopped, it was going our way, and it was relatively empty. “Maybe the hand of good fortune is with us today”, said Steve.
We arrived at the bus station in Quepos and searched for a bus towards the hospital. It was now a man in the heavily protected kiosk (who was not quite as helpful as the woman) and he directed us towards a green bus. We found the driver laying down across the front two passenger seats. He informed us the bus didn’t go to the hospital and he didn’t know where the bus went from. In fact, he didn’t care and he had bigger problems like squeezing in another nap!
After 45 minutes we eventually found a bus heading our way. It seemed to take in every street in the area but eventually we saw the hospital and jumped off. We still had plenty of time so we grabbed a coffee in a soda near the bus stop and sat on our bags pleased in the knowledge we had arrived for our main bus with time to spare …… oh did we have time to spare!
10.15am came and went. As did 10.30 and 10.45! We were starting to get a little worried that maybe the bus had been early or that it didn’t exist. Then a woman turned up who wanted to be chatty and spoke a little English so together with our little Spanish we sort of deduced the bus actually came at 11am.
11am came and went with no bus and the clock ticked on. It was getting very hot by now, a few inquisitive iguanas strolled by, and the clock ticked on. “We are going to have to start looking at plan B”, said Steve. “I didn’t think we had a plan B”, said Sarah. “We don’t”, said Steve!
Then, at 11.30am, a big pink bus came around the corner with ‘Paso Canoas’ on the front. We jumped up frantically waving it down and it pulled to a stop. The driver got off, checked our tickets, put our bags in the luggage compartment, and we boarded a completely full bus with the exception of our two assigned seats. The system worked albeit not to schedule. We also noticed that we appeared to be the only non Central Americans onboard. We were certainly heading off the regular tourist route.
The bus seats were very comfortable, however, there was no aircon and it was 35 degrees outside and opening windows just dragged in hot air. But we were thankful we were heading South, we stuck a film on our phone, plugged the earphones in and settled down for the three hour trip.
Forty minutes later we stopped! The bus had already been on the move for four hours before we got on and so the rest of the passengers were due a comfort break. To be fair we were ready ourselves as we had not wanted to leave the bus stop in case it showed up and we missed it.
Thirty minutes later we were on the move again, watching Ben Aflick do his thing on the small screen. We passed through several small towns which looked pretty disheveled, dropping off and picking up passengers as we went. We noticed that some people didn’t get on they just handed the driver boxes which were then picked up by people at bus stops further along the route. It all looked a little suspicious to our eye but probably just the way things work here.
Eventually the bus came to a stop and everyone stood up. We followed them off and saw we had most definitely arrived at the border. We could see a big building in the distance painted like the Panamanian flag, so we loaded up our bags and headed in that direction.
It is entirely possible to walk straight along the road from Paso Canoas (Costa Rica) to Frontera (Panama) without speaking to any official or getting any stamps in your passport or showing any proof of vaccination. You could continue on and explore Panama to your hearts content … until …… you are either stopped by Police or you come to leave the country whereupon you are hit with a $1000 fine.
The thing is, it is quite easy to enter Panama by accident. Paso Canoas is a little chaotic with trucks and buses everywhere and everyone wants to “help” you or sell you something or both. Added to this the sky was turning ominously black, so it was quite natural for us to hurry on through.
We found the entrance to the Panama immigration, which was locked. Then a truck driver pointed to another door marked ‘salida’ (Exit) which was open. Steve walked in and immediately turned around and walked out saying, “What are we doing? We haven’t been stamped out of Costa Rica yet?”.
Back we went through the chaos of vehicles, people and stalls, past where the bus had dropped us off, and then further along the road. We found, sandwiched between a couple of bars, a small hut where we had to pay an $8 exit tax! This somehow became $9? We are getting used to the occasional dollar being added onto official business in Central America. Arguing it though gets you nowhere, only to the back of the queue. We have been advised by several people to just accept it. There is a definite feeling of some sort of corruption at every level. It is the way this part of the world works.
With our receipt for $8 …. not £9 we walked across the dusty road to another building where an immigration official examined our passports and asked us some questions in Spanish. We just shrugged our shoulders, while he looked at us a little frustrated, then looked at his half eaten sandwich, looked back at us, back at the sandwich and stamped our passports!
Off we trudged back to Panama, just as the clouds split open and then rain started to fall. We went back in through the ‘out’ door and were directed to the end booth where the most miserable man in Panama was sitting. His job was to verify our vaccination status. I could write several paragraphs on this happy chappy, but suffice to say, he wouldn’t accept digital proof, photos of our certificate or photocopies. No he wanted the original!! Thankfully, Sarah was as organised as ever producing the certificate from her bag of tricks. Mr Miserable, took it and kept it and waved his hand towards another booth. At this booth we were met with what was apparently an immigration officer, no uniform in sight, just jeans and a cardigan. But with very few questions we exited the building into an absolute downpour with stamped passports.
Steve saw what looked like a bus station across the road, so we headed in that direction. Steve tried to squeeze between a parked car and a fence but unfortunately knocked an umbrella which was covering a cool box where a guy was selling drinks. The umbrella collapsed on Steve and the cool box, knocking it over and its entire contents spilled out and started rolling down the street through the river of rain water. The guy was going mad, we were trying to calm him down and catch the bottles and cans. We also had the workers from the bus station trying to take our bags and get them onto their bus to secure the fare. It was total chaos.
After a stressful five minutes we found ourselves, soaking wet through, sitting at the back of a bus next to our bags heading towards David, our final destination.
One hour later with the rain stopped and the sun back out, we pulled into the busy bus station. We walked the final kilometre through the town to our hotel. We checked in and jumped straight in the shower. Another day’s travel completed. We would be off again in the morning on what we hoped would be a slightly less arduous day!