Left Costa Rica in a blaze of Chicken bus glory.
We sold the truck, and hopped the 6am chicken bus out of Zancudo beach. Switched busses at some tiny town, and made tracks for the border.
The border was to present some interesting challenges. We were now without a truck that we’d imported into the country. However, Costa Rica is the only country that doesn’t put the truck on the passport. So, it’s possible that you could get stamped out without the immigration people knowing. But, we didn’t risk it, and just didn’t get stamped out of Costa Rica and jumped straight into Panama.
And by jumped straight in, I really mean jumped through a lot of hoops and took 1.5 hours.
First, you go to get checked out of CR. That's on the left, before the fumigation booth. Ignore the street urchins that are looking to "guide" you through the process, unless you're really that helpless. See the exit people, and then move to the Panama border. It's the big building that you can't miss about one minute from the CR building by foot. There's food everywhere if you're hungry. Depending on your destination, it could be five hours before you eat again.
To enter Panama you'll need a ticket that shows you're leaving the country in the future. This is either a ticket which shows you're flying out of Panama or another country in the future back to your home country, or a bus ticket from Panama back to Costa Rica. Basically, they want to know that you're not going to stay in Panama.
We arrived without having tickets to fly home, intending to buy them once we scouted Panama and decided on a game plan. That wasn't good enough for the border people. So we had to go buy a bus ticket back to Costa Rica, to "prove" we were leaving-though we'd never use it. Yes, this is total bullshit.
If you're in this boat, you've got two choices:
One: go back half way between the Panamanian offices and the CR offices, and there's the Trabacor Bus line on the same side of the road as the CR offices. You can get a ticket from David, Panama back to San Jose, CR for around $12.
Two: Print a fake e-ticket receipt and use that to show the immigration Nazis. Knowing this hassle, I would print a few of these before I left my home country.
Either way, show your ticket to the immigration person. They'll give you some sort of slip and you take that to the "Tourist Card" window, just around the corner back toward the CR side. $5 US for the card.
Take this card, and bring it back to the immigration window. They'll finally stamp you in.
If you think this is total BS, we've heard you can just slip a $10 in your passport from the beginning. It might work, but if you don't have the tourist card, who knows if that's a problem.
Now you're in. And something very important just changed. Now when people talk about “Panama”, they’re no longer talking about the country. They’re talking about the city.
Here’s how the conversation went for me when I bought us some bus tickets:
Va a Panama ? (Are you going to Panama)
Haha, si, por seguro! (hahah, of course I am!)
Now, here's the problem. The ticket office for these first class busses sells ticket for destinations between David and Panama City. So it reads, "David - Panama" on the sign. I read this as, "David, Panama" as the destination. So when I was asked if I was going to Panama I laughed! No kidding, of course I'm going to Panama! I just came from Costa Rica, what else would I do?
So, anyway, I messed up pretty good on that one and we ended up missing the whole west side of the country. It's about 9 hours from the border to the City. They stop after 4 hours for some lunch (30 minutes at a cafeteria-style place).
The city is big. The biggest in Central America to my knowledge. Certainly the most cosmopolitan, and the most skyscrapers. Banking districts. On the water. It's pretty interesting.
The chicken busses are great. They're some of the most vividly painted, next to Acapulco that we've seen. 25 cents anywhere on their route.
But we didn't find a hell of a lot to do in Panama. There's the Islas Perlas, the San Blas, and Bocas del Toro, but we couldn't get a flight to the first two, and didn't want to go to the latter because our friends told us it wasn't too great. In Bocas they had to take a boat to even get to the beach.
So, we did a few things, and got the heck out. Hit the casinos and Kyle won some money from the bandits. Went to the mall and saw a movie in English. Went to the Benidorm restaurant a lot.
There’s a three-island chain that’s all connected and there’s a yacht club down there. We went down and checked out the awesome boats and some duty-free shopping. There might be good hiking, too. I suggest going all the way to the harbor and eating at the bar.
Obviously, you can’t visit Panama and not see the canal. I’m a sucker for big historical exhibits, the canal has a very decent museum showing the history of the canal. There’s a movie that we didn’t watch. But in any case, you go outside, and watch a ship come through. Check you locals listings for show times.