Before I tell the story, let me write a disclaimer. This is not advice, nor a reliable reporting of the laws. Do your own homework and learn for yourself what is required. This is only our experience, and our understanding of the requirements which may or may not be correct.
At this point, we are not residents of Panama. There is a process that one must go through and it takes some time. So, for now, our understanding is that our drivers licences are good for 90 days. Our visas are good for 180 days but it’s inconvenient if you cannot drive legally. We’ve been here almost three months already so it was time to cross the border, get our passports stamped, and come back into Panama with new stamps.
What a day it was! We had done some reading and heard about some other people’s experiences, but it did not prepare us well at all.
We (my husband, his 93 yr old mother, and I) headed out on the Pan American highway towards the border, 26 kilometers away. The road is excellent and the drive was very pleasant. We passed towns and villages, lots of produce vendors alongside the road, and some beautiful scenery. There really was nothing to tell us that we had arrived at the border except a lot of trucks lined up along side the road, and what looked like a rather chaotic town with tons of little shops, stores, food vendors, and traffic.
We thought we might be in the right spot so I was sent out on foot to check out the scene. I expected that there would be a barrier and you would have to be checked out to cross that barrier. But no, it was not like that at all. There was a big building with trucks lined up, but one could walk through or around it easily, and then there was more shopping on the other side, and lot of taxi’s and pedestrians. So, I kept walking, as confused as ever. I asked a policeman and he told me the way into Costa Rica was ahead, big building with a white roof. I couldn’t even see it from where I was, so I figure it was time to go back to the car, drive a bit more, and see if we could get closer to “the border” so Ma wouldn’t have to walk so far.
Little did I know I had walked right through the first point, the exit from Panama.
I returned to the car. We drove to the right, and to the left, both of which took us out of the area of activity, but didn’t get us any closer to the area farther ahead which I believe was our destination. We ended up back in front of the big building full of trucks. We were approached by a young guy who figured out immediately that we needed help, and told us he was just the person to do it. We knew he was going to want money, but we also knew we needed some guidance and direction so we were more than happy to accept the help!
He lead us down the street to the right where we found a place to park, and then walked with us back to the big building. He led us in to where there was a huge throng of people waiting for a turn at the one window that was checking people.
This photo was actually taken later after we were all finished, but this is where there had been a huge crowd of people waiting to be checked out of Panama. The standing area was full and the line stretched all down the sidewalk.
“Salida” means exit, so these are the windows you need for exciting Panama. One window said something about people with cars (you have to get permission to come through with a car) and the other didn’t, but everyone seems to be going to the one and only window that had someone working there, the “with car” window. Later, after we had been squashed in the crowd for a while, the second window opened and we were directed to go to the back of the line. I balked, not wanting to wait and wait and keep Ma standing in line all day, and I couldn’t understand what the man was telling me was the reason for leaving our position. Finally a wonderful guy from Columbia just put us in front of him in line, and we made our way to the window after maybe another 30 min wait. One group of people said they had been waiting for 3 hours, so needless to say they were becoming a bit unhappy. There was still quite a lot of pushing and trying to get in a better position, and people in line making sure they and their neighbors didn’t have others pushing their way into the line.
But, we made it! Each of us went up to the window when it was our turn. The official looked at the passport, looked at us, snapped our picture with a little camera, stamped the passport and that was it.
But, this was only step one of four. The next step was to get checked IN to Costa Rica. We were told this was 500 meters away. After standing in line so long we didn’t want Ma to walk through the crowds and over the uneven pavement, so we let our helper grab one of the waiting taxi’s.
There is kind of a between zone between the two check points. It’s full of taxis, cars, pedestrians, food vendors, shops, like a whole active city in there. It seems you could easily walk from Panama into Costa Rica without anyone giving you a second glace. But, we were intent on getting this process done, not wandering about.
The taxi took us to this building.
There was more waiting in line here but it was quiet, orderly, and the line moved steadily along until it was our turn. There was a customs paper that had to be filled out and presented with our passport. There were some waiting outside the windows so I managed to cut through a line and grab what we needed. When we arrived at the window we presented our passports, the customs forms, the passports were stamped and that was it. Our helper said something about needing bus tickets, but he was friends with the official so he would be sure we were all right. I’m not sure if there was any truth to this or he was just trying to prove to us how valuable he was. That certainly wasn’t necessary after all he had done to help us so far.
Now, we were officially checked OUT of Panama and IN to Costa Rica. Next, we had to reverse the process and get back into Panama.
Step 3 was filing out the same customs forms again (which I had to cut in line and ask for, since there were no more at the windows), getting in the other line in the same building, and waiting our turn. Again, when we got to the window our papers and passports were checked, our pictures were taken, and our passports where stamped and we were done. We got back in the taxi who had been waiting for us all this time, and were taken back to the first building on the Panama side.
An aside – wherever there are people who need something, there are people to provide it. If you didn’t bring a pen, there is a guy who will sell you one for $1. If you need a drink or a snack, there are people there with those too. If you need a bathroom though, from what I could tell you are pretty much out of luck. There were no visible bathrooms in either building so I imagine you would have to go find a nearby store or restaurant in the area.
Now were were directed back to the first building, but on the other side and in the area behind where we waited at first.
Our understanding is that there are requirements to get IN to Panama. They don’t want you stuck with no means to get out again, so you need a bus or plane ticket out, a car (with the paperwork to prove it), $500 cash, or a major credit card. When I flew in I was required to buy a return ticket. Cash, credit card, whatever, NO. Only a plane ticket would do. At the border here though, we had our car paperwork. They guy took a look at it, took our pictures, asked us where we were going, stamped our passports, and that was it. We were FINISHED! Whew! The whole process took us about 4 hours, not counting drive time back and forth, maybe 40 minutes each way.
The worst part of this whole experience was the confusion. We had no idea that there were four processes 1. leave Panama 2. enter Costa Rica 3. leave Costa Rica 4. enter Panama. We didn’t know where to go or exactly how these processes worked, or that we had to fill out customs forms for Costa Rica each way. We thought we had the requirements covered to reenter Panama, but what if we were lacking something and got stuck outside the country? It was a big relief when the process was done and we had our necessary stamps in our passports. We are also very grateful to the enterprising young man who helped us through the whole process. He did indeed want to be paid, but I was happy to do it because without him, it would have been so much harder, especially with Ma along. As it was we were all exhausted and very happy the process was done.
If any of you need to go through this process, I recommend you go with someone who has been there before and knows their way around. But, if not, maybe at least our story and pictures will help a bit. Since Ma doesn’t drive hopefully she will never have to go again. If I knew how difficult and tiring it is we wouldn’t have taken her this time, hoping her residency would be done before it was necessary. But, it is done and if we have to do it again in 3 months, I will definitely be calmer and more in the mood to take pictures. Then, I can write another post that is more detailed with more pictures. It is an interesting area to explore if you have more time and energy beyond just surviving!