Once accidentally, and one time on purpose. And to tell the truth, the time I came in accidentally was a whole lot easier to do!
When I went the first time, my wife and family were with me. In fact, my wife was driving. She’d taken the wheel while I searched for acacia trees that might have spiders (unsuccessfully, I might add), when my kids decided that they were hungry. There was a sign for a McDonald’s at a place called “City Mall” in Paso Canoas, which a quick check of Google Maps told me was right on the Costa Rican border.
No problem, I figured, as long as we didn’t actually cross the border, since we didn’t bring my children’s passports. There was one checkpoint before we got to the border, where a Panamanian national police officer checked out driver’s licenses and made some joke about vampires in Pennsylvania (confusing it with Transylvania–a joke I’ve heard way too many times down here). He then waved us through.
Paso Canoas turned out to be an incredibly hectic border town, where people drove even crazier than usual along narrow, crowded streets and everything was sold in either dollars (used in Panama) or colones (the money of Costa Rica). We went to City Mall and ate at McDonald’s (something I wouldn’t normally do, but at least the food quality would be predictable), then my wife decided that she wanted to get the heck out of there. She wanted to avoid traffic, so she turned around what appeared to be the border crossing and headed for the nearest clear road.
About two minutes later, we passed a sign for the Universidad Latina de Costa Rica, or Latin University of Costa Rica, which sent up the first red flag. Surely we hadn’t crossed the border, had we? Next I saw a sign for Imperial, which I’ve heard is a popular Costa Rican beer.
We also passed a supermarket chain called Supermercado Hidalgo, and I took a picture because Hidalgo happens to be my wife’s maiden name, even though I’d never heard of those supermarkets in Panama before.
My wife then checked the license plates in the parking lots and realized that they all were Costa Rica. Somehow, we’d crossed the border for sure. I whipped out my phone and checked Google Maps, and it appeared that the street we were on was the border between Panama and Costa Rica.
Ever the adventurer, I talked my wife into making a right hand turn, which took us completely into Costa Rica. Nobody seemed to notice, either; there was no border control. From what I understand, both Panama and Costa Rica have similar levels of economic development (similar to the United States and Canada), so there is no real pressure on either country to deal with the immigration issues that the U.S. has with Mexico or Panama has on the Colombian border. That means that most of the border region is incredibly relaxed; there are no walls or fences to keep people from crossing.
We made it back into Panama by retracing our steps to Paso Canoas, and again, not a single person stopped our car–except for the friendly checkpoint in Panama where nobody said anything about vampires.
When I tried to make it to Costa Rica from Panama on bus, however, it was an entirely different situation. My journey (this time) started in Panama City at 11:30 PM (nighttime), because the only “tourist class” bus (which is cheaper than the “executive class” option) leaves at that time each evening. The idea is that all of the passengers sleep for the 8 hour trip to the Costa Rican border (Paso Canoas again), but the bus seats were definitely not built for a six-foot, two-inch person like me. Metal from the seat in front of me pressed into my knees, and I didn’t have any comfortable way to position my body, even though (thankfully) I had two seats to myself. Clearly, it was going to be a long night.
I did manage to get a few hours’ sleep, although is was still a long, achy ride to the border. I figured the passage would be as simple as the last time around, but boy was I wrong.
When the bus stopped at the building i photographed earlier, everyone had to get off. We needed to report to the Panamanian authorities why we were leaving the country, announce our names when they called attendance from the bus list, and then stand in line to have all of our bags checked. They even brought a dog through (a cute Laborador retreiver) to sniff all of our bags. We also had our pictures taken (I’m really not sure why). It took about an hour to get through everything, and when it was done, I thought we’d get back on the bus.
But I was wrong. Instead of getting back onto the bus, we had to walk a couple of hundred feet over the Costa Rican border. There we had to go through another round of answering questions and filling out forms, and then had to have our bags checked A SECOND TIME. This seems to me a great case of two countries that could just work things out a little better. Why not have a joint commission to check everyone’s bags once? I had no contact with my luggage from the time it was checked in Panama to the time it was checked in Costa Rica, so there was really no need to wait in line again. Of course, where politics are concerned (particularly international politics), sometimes things just don’t make sense.