Friday, July 5, 2013

San Jose To Bocas Del Toro: Not All Who Cross The Costa Rica-Panama Border Are Equal

My Argentinian friend was visiting me in Costa Rica.  I took a few days off of work to travel with her to Bocas Del Toro, Panama.  With our limited time, Bocas looked like the best option for visiting a beach outside of Costa Rica.  My last visit there had been fucked by a credit card issue which had left me broke for 3 days and stuck in a hostel.  I was determined not to screw up this time, but disaster is a good friend of mine.

We arrived at the Caribe Station 45 minutes before the bus departed in order to buy a ticket to Sixaola, at the Costa Rica-Panama border.  Magic rumors exist that you can reserve advance tickets in your name for Costa Rican buses.  Perhaps this only applies to nationals.  Every time I call the bus companies they tell me "this is impossible."  My Costa Rica friends have told me that even though I speak Spanish, my gringo accent (and name) gives me away as a foreigner, and the buses won't reserve the tickets.  My Argentinian friend, with her obviously Argentinian accent, seemed to have the same problem.

It was lucky we arrived when we did.  By astounding coincidence, I ran into my Spanish friend, at the station, and he was on the same bus as us.  We became an odd team of three: a Spaniard, an Argentinian and an American.  This atypical tourist team would prove how conditional Latin border police can be with different nationalities.

San Jose to Sixoala is 6 hours by direct bus with one 20 minute stop.  It was a 6am bus, so we spent most of the trip sleeping.  Or rather we slept until we left the main highway at Limon.  After that the bus bounced up and down a dusty, rocky trail which followed the coastline to the border.  It was too humid, dusty and scenic to continue sleeping.

Another border town.  Ugh.  Walking from Sixoala's bus station to the border station requires forging a path through a puddle filled parking lot.  Once you clear the parking lot, there's a large ramp with stairs on the side leading up to an old railroad bridge crossing the River Sixaola.  The crossing isn't crowded, just don't step between the wooden boards.  It's a long fall into the river.

According to my Spanish friend, Sixaola is a better place to cross the Costa Rica-Panama border than Paso Canoas in the south.  He had to endure a nearly two hour wait there and mass bureaucratic confusion.  The border station at Sixoala had no more than a dozen people waiting in line.  The three of us got through customs and were taking pictures on the crumbling bridge in under 20 minutes.

Once we entered Panama, things got weird.

The border office is open from 8am until 5pm.  There's no need to worry about the hours, however; the line isn't very long.  In fact when we got there we didn't really see a line.  People were milling about in the hot sun in loose clusters outside of a long, low building with two offices: one for migration and one for customs.  The offices are at the top of a long ramp that goes down to the village of Guabito.  A few policeman halfheartedly kept the clusters in a semi-organized state of minor confusion.  It wasn't necessary.  The heat and humidity was too intense for people to do anything other than suffer quietly.

The three of us joined the masses to wait our turn.  On rare occasions people would step out of one of the two office doors in the building.  The police would indicate to whoever was closest to the door that they could enter.  I noticed one of the doors had more tourists (read: white people) gathered outside of it.  The "policemen" near this door had uniforms, but did not carry identification.  I smell Mafia.

Panama has a specific requirement for tourists entering the country, which I will hereafter refer to as a "scam."   When tourists enter Panama, they need to present proof that they are leaving the country again. This is theoretically to prevent foreigners from entering the country and then staying permanently.  In reality, this is a load of bullshit.  Panama border police know that most tourists are passing through briefly to visit spots like Bocas del Toro, Boquete, San Blas Islands, etc and returning to Costa Rica.  They don't have a specific return date so they only buy a one-way ticket.  Here is how the scam typically plays out.

Tourists enter the first office.  They present their passport and visa (if necessary.)  The migration official then asks:

"Are you returning to Costa Rica?"

"Well, yes, of course."

"Do you have proof.?"

"(Blank stare) ...What?  I'm going to Bocas del Toro for a few days then returning to Costa Rica."

"You need proof.  You can buy a return bus ticket to Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica outside the office."

"If I punch the police, you can grab his gun..."
Conveniently enough, there is a small stand at the bottom of the ramp that sells bus tickets back to Costa Rica.  When I say "tickets," I actually mean "one kind of ticket."  The ticket goes from Guabito to Hone Creek, Costa Rica (I believe) which is a completely useless village located 30 minutes by foot from Puerto Viejo.  It cost twenty-two dollars, but of course this price is subject to change.

Our traveling group had different contingency plans to avoid this scam:

1. The Spaniard had saved his purchased return ticket from his previous trip to Panama through Paso Canoas.

2. The Argentinian had her flight schedule which showed she was leaving Panama in order to get her flight out of San Jose, Costa Rica en route to Argentina the following week.

3. I had my Costa Rican Social Security card to prove I was a working employee who had to leave Panama in order to return to my job in Costa Rica. (Most Costa Rica nationals aren't asked to present proof of leaving Panama since the border police assumes they will be returning.)

These preparations don't mean anything.  Our entering the country was totally dependent on the whims of the border police.  Latin American border police hold power like the Wizard of OZ.  If the guy hadn't got laid last night, he could be grumpy and very well tell us all to fuck off and buy brand-new return tickets.

After some time sweating in the line/cluster, we were allowed to enter the first office to see if the Almighty Migration would let us enter Panama.  The Spaniard presented his Spanish passport to the serious official.  He looked at it for second then broke into a big smile:

"We have a champion here!"

Spain had just won soccer's EuroCup 2012 the day before.  The official called some of his coworkers over and they all began congratulating  for "his" victory.  His 3 month old return ticket was accepted and his passport was stamped, no questions asked.

This ridiculous ceremony had already happened with the police on the Costa Rican side.  He rolled his eyes.  He is a leftist who prefers to spend his time camping in the woods miles away from television and civilization.  To put it simply, he is a Spaniard who doesn't give a shit about soccer.  Regardless, shouts of, "We have a champion here!" would become a tired, running joke for him the duration of our trip.

Oddly enough, I am an American who was ready to chat about Andres Iniesta incredible contributions to the game.  I even visited one of the stadiums during my visit to Lviv, Ukraine the previous summer.  This doesn't mean shit to the border patrol; to them I am just another gringo on vacation.  I presented them with my passport and Costa Rica Social Security card, explaining that I am a resident, not a tourist.  They asked me where I worked, how long I had been in Costa Rica, where I was going and so on, por favor.  Somehow it worked...this time.

Now Argentina presented her passport and flight schedule papers.  The official didn't look satisfied:

"We need proof you are leaving Panama."

"Of course I'm leaving Panama.  My flight leaves San Jose, Costa Rica for Buenos Aires, Argentina.  How else can I take a flight from San Jose if I don't leave Panama??"

That sounds logical.  But international borders operate in a mysterious world where logic changes every 30 seconds.  Possibly the official felt like following protocol that particular day.  Possibly every third person had to be turned down that day.  Possibly he didn't like Argentinians.

She attempted to argue some more.  Our Spanish EuroCup "champion," tried to help her.  I kept my mouth shut.  None of it mattered.  The official sent us down the ramp to the small bus ticket stand.  She again tried to argue with the ticket vendor to no avail.  Chema and I offered to pay for part of the ticket if she would just buy it.  She was furious.  The fact that I had been through this before was the only thing keeping me from losing it too.

We returned to the migration line/cluster with a purchased bus ticket.  The contentious migration official stamped her this time.  We moved to customs, which was fairly easy except for the excessive checking of my guitar case for invisible drugs.  You are given useless yellow stamps in your passport which are supposed to cover local Guabito providence taxes.  There doesn't seem to be any order to how many you receive.  All that's certain is that you have to pay for each one, so the less the better.

Getting through migration and customs should be the worst part, but no one is that lucky.  Once you finish border formalities and descend the ramp, millions of hungry, screaming vultures swoop down on you.  These pirate taxis offer you a million great deals to take their car or truck shuttle to Almirante, the port to Bocas del Toro, for a "very good price (usually $20)."  You can choose to hang around and bargain with them and most likely get ripped-off.  Or you can ignore them and walk 100 meters past the ramp to a parking lot where a colorful local bus drives by about every 20 minutes.  For about a dollar this bus takes you to Chiangianola, where another cheap bus continues on to Almirante.

After years of crossing international borders, I've learned how to fight off the border vultures.  Fighting off patroling border police is a different matter.  Their guns don't worry me (taxi drivers have guns too.)  What worries me is their ability to throw you in jail over a nonexistent law violation that will only be refuted when a real American lawyer shows up.  By then it's too late.  Big Juan Pablo has already made you his new gringo bitch.

Scenic Changiablahblahblah
I am sure Panama's border police work in tandom with the taxi vultures.  We had cleared a path through the crowd of annoying taxi drivers and were almost to the bus parking lot when we heard a distinct shout.  One of the police was closing in on us and asked us if we had our return tickets out of Panama.  Despite the stamp in my passport, I did not actually have a return ticket.  I didn't expect my luck with the Social Security card to continue.

Fortunately, our Spanish champion did the talking.  After more Spanish soccer "We-have-a-champion-here" bullshit, the police let us go.  We jumped on a psychedelically-painted bus to Changiablahblahblah and paid the dollar and some change fare.

Taking two buses to Almirante that total less than three dollars is not only cheaper, it's slower.  I consider that an advantage, because the road has plenty of scenery that requires time to soak it all in.  Highway "" winds through a mountainous region that opens onto deep green valleys and occasional soaring views of the Caribbean Sea.  While we took pictures of the scenery, several of the taxi shuttles roared by our dumpy bus at a breakneck speed.  I doubt the tourists inside had time to snap photos, much less breath.

Changianola, a little town with a big name, was a brief break during our slow trip to Almirante.  There's no reason to hang out here unless you have a particular interest in Chiquita Banana, which is headquartered here.  One of the original Banana Republics.

The bus from Guabito dropped us off on a dirt driveway in front of the town's concrete block central market.  After getting off the bus, we walked straight inside the market.  On the other side is a large platform where the buses to Almirante stop.  There are also plenty of taxi vultures ready to offer more "very good deals" to Almirante as well.  Ignore them, buy a greasy Panamanian empanada and wait for the next bus, which stops in front of the empanada vendor.

Greasy Panama Empanadas
The scenery improves during the second half of the voyage.  Our odd trio of a Spaniard, an Argentinian and an American attracted considerable attention from the Panamanian passengers.  We chatted with them ("We have a champion here!) and received some advice about the Almirante stop.  There is no official stop; just tell the bus driver "Almirante/Bocas" and he will let you off.  More taxi vultures will be waiting to offer you a ride to the dock where boats depart for Bocas Del Toro (notice a theme here?)  They are scheming assholes because the docks are no more than 500 meters from the highway.  Additionally there are boat vultures that will bargain with you for a private ferry to Bocas Town.  The dock at the end of the road (go figure) has fixed schedules and prices at around seven dollars.  It also has an additional boat that departs late at 6:30pm.

We got off the bus at the appropriate random dusty area.  There were no signs, but a lone road snaked away from the highway towards the water.  The walk was short and was only delayed by random guys trying to sell us good deals on private ferries to Bocas Town.  After shaking them off, we arrived at the dock with official prices and departures every half hour.

The ferry company asks for name, identification and nationality.  We wrote this information down on an old notebook then waited for the next boat.  After 20 wet minutes on a big speedboat, we awkwardly docked in Bocas Town.  There were no taxi vultures waiting for us, finally.
Taking The Ferry By The Banana Republic



No comments:

Post a Comment