Editor’s note: Since we posted this entry, Panama has begun enforcing its immigration and visa laws more tightly. Officially, it’s no longer feasible to do a “quick” border crossing in order to renew your visa. Rio Sereno and San Vito are still worth a visit, though!
With three months under our belts as Panamanian expats (where the heck did the time go??) we’ve passed a new milestone – our first border run. Everyone who enters Panama gets a tourist visa good for 180 days. But driving is the catch for people like us who are here for the long haul and don’t yet have a permanent residency visa. Although we have another 90 days to play tourist, we’re only allowed to drive with our California drivers’ licenses for the first 90. Soooo – to remain legal drivers in Panama, we had to cross the border into Costa Rica, spend the night, and then come back in with new stamps on our passports and the clock re-set. Bada bing, we’re good to go for three more months!
For folks living in Western Panama like us, the best option is to take an easy drive to the Costa Rican frontier either at Pasa Canoas or Rio Sereno. Since driving a car across the border is a huge can of worms if you’re not a permanent resident, you need to leave your car on the Panama side and then arrange to cross the border and spend at least one night in Costa Rica.
As first-timers we opted to go to Rio Sereno, about a two-hour drive from Boquete. Por que, you ask? Well, although Pasa Canoas is slightly closer, it’s not an attractive or fun place by any means. Plus, we’d been told that the drive to Rio Sereno is spectacular (it is) and across the border is the cute and scenic town of San Vito, settled by Italian immigrants. So we decided to make a nice weekend trip of it.
After our first trip to Rio Sereno we have the immigration process wired, but it did take a bit of knocking around to figure it out. First of all, nothing is marked and the actual demarcation between Panama and Costa Rica is pretty fuzzy. Friends had told us to leave our car near the police station, which is actually the COSTA RICAN police station at the top of the hill (your clue here is the Costa Rican flag; it’s the only CR designation). After we finally found it, we were told to park in the secure lot right across the street, which gave us peace of mind that our car would be OK while we were on our adventure. So here we were, walking around on Costa Rican soil before we’d even checked out of Panama (did I say the border’s fuzzy?). After a bit more knocking about, we found the Panama immigration office, just up the road from the police station.
Checking out of Panama is easy – all you need is your passport plus a photocopy of the picture page (note – you can’t have too many copies of your passport – seems like people are constantly asking for them). Once we were done, we walked back past the police station to the Costa Rican immigration office, which is completely unmarked. In fact, the first building we were directed to was closed and padlocked, but that turned out to be the aduana (customs) building. The actual immigration office is set back a bit and is basically just an open-air pole barn. Once we found it, checking into Costa Rica was also a piece of cake.
Now officially checked into Costa Rica, we hopped a bus for the half-hour-plus ride to San Vito (about $3.50, total, for both of us) and found a taxi to take us up to our lodging for the weekend, Casa Botania. Owned by a handsome and gracious young couple (Kathleen is Belgian and her husband Pepe is a Tico), Casa Botania is a little slice of paradise in the highlands of Eastern Costa Rica. We had a charming little bungalow with a breathtaking view for around $70 a night, which included a fabulous breakfast (including Kathleen’s fantastic home-made bread – yum!). We can’t recommend Casa Botania highly enough. Here’s the website.
On our first night we walked up the road (about a half-mile) and had an excellent dinner at another lovely resort, Cascata del Bosco, owned by a friendly U.S. expat named George who kindly drove us back to Casa Botania after our meal. The next day we walked about a mile up the road to the world-renowned Wilson Botanical Gardens and spent the morning exploring the trails and the fantastic collections of native flora, including one of the the world’s largest collections of palm varieties.
After lunch at the best-known Italian restaurant in San Vito, Lilliana (really, nothing special), we spent the afternoon exploring the town – which, as it turns out, is a pretty typical Costa Rican town about twice the size of Boquete, and with not many traces of its Italian heritage. Lots and lots of veterinarians (it is a rural, agricultural area) and pastry shops. Ticos must love their animales y dulces!
That night, Kathleen and Pepe prepared a fantastic gourmet dinner for us and the other seven guests. It was such a pleasure to chat with our fellow travelers, including a family of five from the Netherlands, a couple from Puerto Rico who were visiting their daughter (a research botanist at the Wilson Gardens), and a wonderful Costa Rican couple from San Jose who gave us plenty of practice with our fledgling Spanish.
Yesterday we made the trek back across the border into Panama. Since we missed the hourly bus, we opted to take a cab all the way from San Vito to the border, about $25. And here’s where things got a little interesting. As we approached the Costa Rican immigration office, an older gringo gentleman there asked us if we spoke any Spanish. Now, let me explain that our Spanish at this point is about as poquito as it can get – but something’s better than nothing, and he spoke not a word. This is how I found myself in the crazy position of being a Spanish translator, barely knowing how to say buenas tardes myself!
It seems our gringo friend had driven his car all the way down from the U.S. and is now living near Cerro Punta, Panama. Dude, learn some Spanish, K? Anyhow, he was traveling into Costa Rica and wanted to take his car across the border. The immigration officer was getting frustrated trying to explain that the customs office was closed, and he would need to take his car all the way down to the other border crossing, Paso Canoas, to get it across into Costa Rica. The problem is that Mr. Gringo had already checked out of Panama.
ANYHOO . . . it got sorted, somehow, even with my lame Spanish. And by the time Señor Cranky Pants the immigration officer got to us, he was in a bit of a snit. He gave us some bad news – that the computer in the Panama immigration office was down and they wouldn’t be able to check us in. So . . . at this loosey goosey border, even before checking out of Costa Rica, we were able to walk up the hill to the Panamanian office and see what could be done – past the parking lot where our car was taunting us to just hop in and drive home! (It did cross our minds, but we would have been in a world of hurt if we’d been caught driving in Panama without official entry.)
The Panamanian immigration officer (Señor Baby Face – he could not have been more than 20) informed us that the computer was indeed down and it would be mañana. “Posible hoy??” we asked. We must have seemed a little desperate, because Señor Baby Face finally stamped us in and wrote “sin sistema” (without system) next to the stamp. Like Señor Cranky Pants, he must have been ready to get rid of us, because he did not ask us for ANY of the things we were told we’d need to get back into Panama – including a plane ticket out or other proof that our stay would be temporary, as well as proof of financial resources.
At last, the moment had arrived when we could toss our bags in our car and drive home to Boquete. Now that living in Panama is our reality and no longer a distant dream, it feels completely right. The drive back through the wonderfully lush highlands filled with coffee, banana, and dairy fincas, the earthy perfume of the air, and the dramatic and ever-changing skies are beyond captivating. It’s good to be home!