Welcome to (Rainy) Panama: Costa Rica to Panama Border Crossing
Central American border crossings are known to be difficult. The rules seem to be applied at will and it always takes much longer than it should. No crossing goes exactly as it did for the last motorcyclist you spoke to.
Recently many of our fellow motorcycle adventurers who we’ve met along the way have had border problems. Alex had to go back to Mexico from Guatemala to renew his CA-4 visa, Oliver had to pay a fine for not having renewed his CA-4 visa, a guy who we haven’t yet met called Blake has to wait in Nicaragua for 90 days because Costa Rica won’t let him back in until then, Tanya had to rush out of Nicaragua because they didn’t recognise the extension to her CA-4 visa that she had acquired in Honduras, and Nicaragua wouldn’t let Erik in because he had less that 6 months validity left on his passport.
We’ve been lucky. We have always tried to give ourselves a whole day to cross each border (we made an exception and went in and out of Honduras in one day, as we were in a hurry). Therefore it is no surprise that we finally had a difficult crossing. From Costa Rica to Panama was it.
Every crossing involves the same steps. First you have to leave the first country. Get an exit stamp on your passport and cancel the Temporary Vehicle Import Permit for the bikes. Exiting the country is usually time consuming but straight forward, and leaving Costa Rica was no different.
Long line for the exit stamp – grab a form from the front of the line and fill it out while you wait. The guys in the aduana (customs) office were nice, but you had to fill out a form in duplicate for each bike. Guess they haven’t heard of carbon paper or photocopiers.
Then we were free to ride across the bridge into Panama. In fact we could have just ridden into Panama and never got our passports stamped or bike papers. There was no one checking anything. We didn’t find the immigration and customs offices right away. They are up at the end of the pedestrian bridge. Once you’ve crossed the vehicle bridge, just park somewhere and climb up the steps to get there.
It was pouring with rain when we arrived at about 1pm. (We lost an hour crossing the border, Panama is on EST)
Getting our passports stamped was pretty straightforward. The immigration guy was giving an American guy in front of me a very hard time though. Officially you need to be able to prove how you are leaving the country before Panama will let you in. American guy had to go buy a bus ticket out of the country before they would stamp him in. I was all prepared to explain that we were on motorcycles and that was our “ticket” out of the country, but he didn’t ask me. He wouldn’t stamp Phil’s passport until he actually saw Phil, so I had to go get him from where he was guarding the bikes.
This is when the trouble started. I went to the aduana window, a few meters along the same building, and a bored young man was extremely unhelpful in telling me what he needed to import our bikes. In the end he just pointed to a printed paper taped in the window, which talked about what documents they needed to see. I tried to give him those documents (the standard passport, bike title and driver’s license) but then he said we needed to buy insurance and casually waved off to the right when I asked where to buy it.
I found Phil in some sort of police room, luckily laughing and joking with them rather than having any sort of trouble. He introduced me as his sister, resulting in one of the guys insisting he wanted to be Phil’s “cuÃ±ado” – he wanted to become Phil’s brother-in-law. This is a word that has been used more and more frequently as we move further South. I still don’t really know if it’s at all derogatory, I am choosing to take it as a compliment. My new suitor pointed out a shack a few hundred meters away, but said they were closed for lunch and should be open at 2pm, about 30 minutes later.
There’s nothing we could do but wait. We found a small restaurant that didn’t have most of what was on their menu, Phil ordered a casado, which didn’t look very appetizing, so I went to one of the many shops and bought a chocolate bar and a bag of chips. Healthy lunch 101. There were a lot of shops, even a mall, right there on the border. I can only guess that it is a lot cheaper to buy things in Panama and so many Costa Ricans cross the border to shop.
I also bought a Panamanian SIM card for my phone, so I could call Steve, another motorcyclist who we’d met in Teslin, Yukon almost a year ago. He was riding a KLR650 with Panama plates, and he was on his way down from Prudhoe Bay, while we were on our way up. We’d arranged to meet him in Bocas del Toro, and so I needed to let him know of our delay.
After learning that Panamanian phone companies charge about $3 for 30 seconds of data, I turned the data off on my iPhone and bought another $5 of credit so I could call Steve. He was on the water taxi over to the island and gave us instructions for parking our bikes at the fire hall in Almirante.
It was about 2pm by now so I went over to the insurance hut, but the door was still locked. It was raining – I sat on the step under the awning to wait.
The sign on the door said they were closed for lunch from 12-1pm, but the policeman had warned me I’d have to wait until 2pm. In the end an umbrella carrying insurance lady came tottering up in her high heels at 2:45pm. I was not impressed.
She explained to me that there was “no light” which I soon figured out meant no electricity. In fact there was electricity at that point, and she started inputting my details into her computer, but about halfway through the electricity went out again. She had a generator, which she had to go out and find some guy to come start for her. It worked for about 3 minutes before it ran out of gas. I was about ready to cry. I just wanted insurance so we could get out of there.
It was about this time that Steve called to say the last water taxi left for Bocas at 6pm, and we were about an hour’s drive away from the coast. All of a sudden we had a deadline.
I asked the insurance lady if there was any other way to buy insurance without electricity, and she pulled out a pad of paper. She had paper forms we could fill out! Why she didn’t pull them out earlier I’ll never know.
She started filling in the first form and had made about 3 mistakes in the first 5 boxes. She started over, and I really wished my Spanish spelling skills were better. Eventually she let me fill out the form for Phil myself and that went a lot faster. Once again, the forms had to be filled out in duplicate, and she needed a copy of the title of our bikes – but her photocopier wasn’t working. Luckily I had copies already.
Fifteen dollars each and more than two hours after customs had sent me to buy insurance, I had two slightly damp insurance papers in my hot little hands.
I ran over to the customs office, sure that I had everything he needed now. Except now there was a line to wait in. Great. Finally got to the front, handed over the documents, with a copy of each, plus the insurance papers. He needed a copy of the insurance papers too. You’ll remember the insurance lady’s photocopier wouldn’t work without electricity…
I went back to my future husband in the police office, and he asked around, and found out that a shop hidden up some stairs across the road had a photocopier. Exasperated, I headed over there, and luckily they had a working generator, and could make my copies.
Back to the customs office for the third time, and finally he accepted my documents and started very slowly typing into his computer. Eventually about 15 minutes later he printed out a document which he stamped about five times. He then stamped my passport and wrote the document number in it. He then handed me the document to check. First thing I noticed?
He had spelt my name wrong.
I checked everything else, and then handed it back to him with my name clearly written properly and asked him to fix it. Did he just amend my name and re-print the document? No. He started all over again.
Another 15 minutes later, I am desperately trying to stay calm and keep smiling. He hands me another document to check, and this time it’s correct and I sign it. Except it’s got a new document number, so my passport is now wrong. I asked him to fix it, thinking he would put another stamp in with the new number. By the time I realised he was using white-out in my passport, it was too late.
Now it was time for him to start the whole process again for Phil’s passport. I watched him slowly type for a while, and when he was nearly finished I went to go get Phil so he could sign his documents. I sent Phil to the window, and took up his position guarding the bikes and fending off a couple of kids begging for money.
My heart sunk further and further the longer Phil took. If all was going well, he should have only been gone long enough to check and sign the documents. He’d been gone too long.
Apparently when Phil arrived at the customs office, the guy in the window was doing an arts and crafts project with his import document. He had the scissors out and was cutting something out, which he then taped onto Phil’s official document. It was the expected export location. We don’t know what exactly he’d screwed up, but somehow he thought covering it with paper and tape was an acceptable solution.
It was 4:30pm. We had an hour and a half to get the water taxi in Almirante. As it wasn’t key information, Phil just signed the paper.
We left the border with white-out in my passport, and sticky tape on Phil’s official import document. This after being warned that our documents must be perfect for when we are shipping our bikes to Colombia. Only time will tell whether we’ll get away with this one.
Our troubles were not yet over unfortunately. We were to learn that Panama does not do road signs. Within 2 minutes we didn’t know which road to take. The GPS was taking us down a road in a terrible state of repair, so we turned around, Steve had told us the road we needed to take was good. We took what we thought was the only other road. About 10km down the road I suggested we ask some people at a bus stop, because we really didn’t know if this was the right road. It wasn’t.
The men at the bus stop told us to turn around and follow the bus. The bus was driving VERY slowly. We soon decided to pass and just ask more people as we went along.
We ended up back at the border and eventually figured out the road we needed, one that required a u-turn just after we left the border, and of course was not signed. Finally on the right road, we made a beeline for Almirante, hoping not to miss the boat.