Despite having our expediente numbers, saying our paperwork for residency has been submitted and is awaiting final approval, we still have to leave the country every ninety days to renew our visas solely to keep our US drivers licenses valid here, and therefore our car insurance.
September 16 was our magic deadline which was rapidly approaching. We had hoped to go earlier but medical appointments kept interfering. Finally, yesterday we packed up and drove to Panama. There is much confusion and misinformation about how much time one needs to spend outside Costa Rica. It seemed the most accurate information was that if one wanted to return with more than five hundred dollars worth of goods that a three day leave was required. Otherwise, one could cross the border and return shortly thereafter.
We had the necessary legal paperwork to give us permission to take car out of the country, to Panama specifically. Four hours later we arrived at the smallest of the three border crossings. It was five kilometers down a gravel road which ended with a few buildings for migration, a police station, and then the stores and restaurants. The exact border was unclear to us as was where to start the process. Bill recognized a small blue cabin from a blog about this border crossing so we waited while some motorcyclists were being processed. I didn’t even notice the word ADUANA until much later.
Soon they passed a form to their friends and were told to give the information about their bikes. Glancing at the top I saw the word Panama so asked if the agent inside was the customs for Costa Rica or Panama. Oh, wrong place to start. The clearly labelled building with MIGRATION had a Panama flag on top so that wasn’t right. We decided to ask the Costa Rican police, who seemed to have nothing to do, and were directed to a building two driveways back down the road. Ah, there’s the sign hiding in the tree branches!
The kind Costa Rican migration officer, who thankfully spoke English well enough, said that before we would exit us we should ask the Panama officer if we needed a plane ticket to the States in order to be granted permission to enter. We explained we have our expediente numbers and owned a car in Costa Rica so there’s no question would overstay our welcome in another country. He said we would give us another ninety day visa once we returned to Costa Rica, which is not always the case. They can decide to give only a few days.
So, off we went to Panama migration. Meanwhile we talked about taking our car or not. If we didn’t need to stay for three days then we could just leave the car, walk across the border, and come back. The tall Panamanian migration officer was busy helping other people. He didn’t seem nearly as friendly as our CR guy. He was focused and working quickly. The great thing was we were told he would be on a lunch break for another half hour, but there he was working away. About fifteen minutes later it was our turn. Bill explained the Costa Rican migration officer needed to know if we needed tickets out of Panama before he could exit us, and that we are in the process of getting residency in CR. He checked our passports, asked if we wanted to go by car or foot, asked if we had five hundred dollars or a credit car but was aghast when I showed him my wad of cash we knew we might need, and said we did not need airline tickets. Yes! We skipped back to our migration officer who processed us quickly.
Back at the Panama migration the tall gentleman let us in, started yelling at his colleague which turned out to be a vent about his wife, gave him our passports, smiled at us, and left. Uh, oh. A different officer could mean different requirements. He wanted to know if we had airline tickets out of Panama. Bill told him twice the other guy said we didn’t need them. This younger man seemed torn between what we was supposed to do and what the other guy said. Again, we had to show financial solvency, and he didn’t want to touch my money either. I would have shown a credit card but some people have also needed to show a bank statement to prove the credit line. We bank electronically so didn’t have anything on paper. Bill showed him our expediente paperwork, but who knows if he knew what it was. He asked for a copy of our passport which we gave him. He was going to let us cross the border on foot, but we had to stay for three hours. He stamped our passports and wrote on the copies the time of exit so we were afraid the three hours would have to be met.
We returned to our immigration guy to verify he would still be there in three hours, and that we could leave our car there and walk into Panama. We still weren’t sure where that was! The gravel road is Costa Rica but the tarred road is Panama. There are no crossing agents on any of the intersections, and car and bags were never checked. Anyone could go back and forth freely! Amazing!
Here is a one minute video of this remote border crossing…
We walked down the dirt road, stepped over into Panama, and found the Main Street that was out of sight was lined with shops and a school. I had seen pictures of a narrow bridge on blogs and wanted to see it. We never did find it. I kept being shocked at how loose the whole border crossing actually is, unless one needs a passport stamped or has their own transportation to be processed. Unbelievable. While I was checking some merchandise our first Panamanian migration officer was coming back from his lunch break so Bill asked him if indeed we had to stay for three hours….yes.
Being hungry we headed back to the gravel road, which meant we were back in Costa Rica unofficially, and had a lunch of fried chicken, rice, beans, and salad. There was nothing else to do for two hours so we unofficially went back to Panama to walk the Main Street again.
It is typical to see machetes in stores here….can’t imagine this in the States.
Bored, we headed back to Costa Rica and sat in the car while rain quietly came down.
About thirty minutes early we headed back to migration. Our tall agent was on the phone and after a bit the other guy came out. He said we needed another copy of our passports…..no one said we needed two copies. Off we went to a store that sells furniture but also has a office supply section where we were able to get copies for a twenty cents a page. Back at migration the tall guy glanced at the computer on the other desk and said we had twenty minutes to wait. If the idea was that we would spend money they were mistaken. We just stood on the front porch and waited. About ten minutes later the other guy said we could go in. The tall guy left but his colleague finished processing us to leave. BTW GCE former colleagues, this tall guy must be Mark Hairston’s brother…he looked like him, had similar mannerisms, and ran hot and cold depending on who he was talking too….amazing.
The Costa Rican agent was true to his word and gave us another ninety day visa. As it was 3:15 we drove the four hours back home. Four hours to drive there, four hours there, and four hours back…..but can legally drive here for another ninety days.