Monday, November 9, 2015

Days 37-40: Costa Rica to Panama and Playing with a Toucan and Butterflies!

I was initially disappointed in Costa Rica. In the northern part of the country, the lawns are heavily groomed; track houses are all the same design. Some homes were even built in such a way that they looked like you could be anywhere in the US. Even along the roads in front of farmland, the grass and brush on the roadside was well groomed. And, the orange school busses were still school bus orange for the most part.

We stopped for the first night in Guayusa, which looked more like it belonged in Latin America than anything we had seen so far. We found a hotel over a veterinarian supply store and went off in search of dinner. Just down the street was a little sidewalk restaurant with platos typicos. So, we had the typical fare for the area: Delicious chicken in some kind of cheesy salsa with a side of rice, beans, plantains, and salad. It came with the typical drink, which was pipa fria. I thought it was a delightful drink – very hearty and refreshing with a hint of apple. The lady at the restaurant said it grows on a bush and is just squeezed and chilled.  Bruce had a beer. When she asked him what kind he wanted, he had no clue, so she gave him the one brewed in Costa Rica – Imperial, which was quite good.
Off the next day, through more of the countryside that was just too well groomed for my taste. The oddest police check I’ve been in down here. He stopped us, and as I started digging out our passports, the officer waved them off. He then peered into the bed of the truck and the space in the back of the cab and asked me to open the glove box. After glancing at the glove box, he thanked us and waved us on. Not a clue what he was looking for, but he obviously didn’t find it with us.

Getting bored with driving through such well-groomed countryside (except the roads), and then we turned off the main road.  There was the Costa Rica I was looking for. Large green plants wherever you looked. Waterfalls springing out of nowhere. Ferns growing in whatever little crevise they could find. Babbling brooks over rocky stream beds. Absolutely breathtaking! Going up the mountain, the roads were treacherous and the views magnificent.

This is a video of coming up on a waterfall. There is a longer one showing the curvy roads and beautiful scenery no matter which way you looked, but it was too long. The blog wouldn't accept it.

Our destination was La Paz Waterfall Gardens. Definitely a tourist destination with groomed trails, intentional animal habitats, and hefty fees at $50 per person. Worth every penny.  Yes, it’s well groomed with paved, cleared paths, but they also have greenery placed in such a way that there are few spots without shade, and the grooming incorporates overgrown greenery and such. None of the animals are captured from the wild; they’re all rescues that can’t be released.

The butterfly and hummingbird gardens were simply awesome. 

The highlight to me had to be playing with the toucans! I’ve been trying to get pictures of these birds, and they always just fly away. These guys were quite comfortable with people and would just walk right up to you. They looked like little wind-up toys!! There was always one that would hop up on a keeper’s arm, knowing it would be transferred to a tourist’s arm and get a treat for sitting there a minute. Unlike the macaws, their little feet just tickle a little bit, and they don’t weigh a thing! They always look inquisitive! Did I mention how adorable they are??!!

All of the habitats are wonderful, and there is a trail (cleared and mostly even) that you can take to see the five waterfalls, all of which are beautiful.  It’s an easy trail – until you get to the end. Then, it’s all up flight after flight of stairs. I thought they would never end. When we got to the gift shop, we found something we’ve been unable to find since Tijuana – Stickers for the window!! We decided we’d wait until we get the window cleaned before we put it on, but we finally have a Central America sticker (or three) for the window!

After a wonderful day, it was back to the main road toward San Jose.  After a few twists and turns, we finally settled into a hotel. Turns out, it was right next to the casino. And, you’ll never guess what restaurant was attached to the casino… None other than Denny’s! We’re talking big time, here, folks! The menu is about the same. They even had Moons over MyHammys.  The big difference – they serve wine and beer in Costa Rica. And, they’re everywhere! In fact, everywhere we looked, there were US chain stores, restaurants, and hotels. Everything from the somewhat normal Walmart to Firestone to Best Western, and everything in between. McDonald’s has the best example of Spanglish I believe I’ve seen (and the Big Mac was the same)! So many US-based businesses that at least one business advertised that it was 100% Tico. There is some very beautiful architecture in San Jose, though.

I know it's blurry, but there were signs up about taking pictures, and I had already been told they were  no-no. (I've never been known for following the rules so much!) This is Bruce's fishing slot maching that he plays everywhere!

After spending the night on the Costa Rica side of the border, we headed to Panama. Lovely views out of our back patio!

When we got to Paso Canoas, we were surprised. There was nobody vying for our business to walk us through it! It was an easy exit, though. Park somewhere around this building. You can see the tail end of our truck, so we were parked on the other side of the road. When you go in, go behind the central portion and into the aduanas office. There is a little machine where you pay your exit fee ($7 per person) by credit card. It will give you a receipt. It balked on me and didn't want to let me leave, but finally, it spit out my receipt. While we were in there, we asked the guy about cancelling our temporary import permit. He gave me a form to fill out and told me to come back after our passports had been stamped. 

So, we went outside to the Salida de Costa Rica line, which wasn't very long. The guy at that window gave us a form to fill out and sent us away. After the form was completed, we got back in the line. The guy ran my passport and looked at it. Then he looked at the computer. Then he looked at my form and receipt. Then he looked at my passport. Then he looked at the computer. I don't have a clue what the issue was with me leaving Costa Rica. Luckily, some lady decided this would be a good time to try to skip line and started talking to the guy and shoving paper in the window. He gave her a dirty look, stamped both of our passports, and gave them back. I'm not sure how he ended up dealing with her, but I thought it would be a good idea to get gone before he changed his mind.

We went back into the aduanas office and stood in line. When the guy who had given me the form was finished with the person he was working with, he told me to skip line and come on up. Apparently, if you've already been there once, you've done your time in line. I wasn't the only one that was told to skip the line. He helped me with the lines I didn't know how to fill, stamped me out, kept the entrance permit, and sent us to Panama. Easy peasy. Total cost $14.

Welcome to Panama. Traffice at the border is a mess, and there are no signs directing you. I got out of the truck to try to find out where to go and left Bruce sitting in the middle of an intersection. The lady selling fruit said he would be fine so long as he stayed in the truck until he got out of the intersection. I found a guy with a badge around his neck and asked him if the truck would be okay. He said yes in almost perfect English. Yay!! Then, I asked him where the insurance office was because Martin at Overland Sphere (where I read about border crossings before we do it) said you have to get insurance first. This gentleman took me over to the insurance desk, made sure I had the copies necessary, told the lady what I needed, and told me to wait there until he got back. Sounded like a plan to me! I had good conversations with people who were also waiting. One guy even handed me his Galaxy phone to put the blog address into! Watch out folks. Remember these Latin Americans will steal you blind. Just watch how they hand you their expensive smartphones! (Some more sarcasm for those who are just joining us!)  He got back just as my insurance was finished and introduced himself as Abner. I only have colons at this point, and insurance was just over 8,000 colones (trading around 528 to 1).

We stopped by a van that had three people in it. One was apparently a US citizen who was being denied admission to Panama because he didn't have proof of onward travel, and they were traveling in a car registered in Costa Rica to his Costa Rican friends. He asked if we would let this guy ride across the border with us because apparently, if you're in a vehicle that matches your nationality, that is enough proof of onward travel. I had to decline, explaining that I don't know enough about the paperwork and other requirements for Panama to know whether I was taking any risk of being arrested for human trafficking. I did, however, let them know that they could get proof of onward travel by booking a flight online at Copa Airlines. They would not have to provide any credit card or other information to book it, and the flight would be cancelled in 48 hours if they didn't pay for it. In the meantime, he will have a ticket and reservation number and can print out an itenerary to use as proof of onward travel. Apparently, that was all they needed. They started booking from a smartphone by the time we left, and soon thereafter, I didn't see the van any longer.

Then, he took me over to immigration with the copy of my cancelled import permit from Costa Rica. Guided me to an empty line where a lady appeared to be waiting just for me. She stamped a couple of papers he provided, my passport, and took my picture. I suggested we should get my husband's passport stamped, too. This gentleman told me we would do that when we finished immigration. Then, he took me and some papers he had gotten from the insurance lady and some extra copies she had made to the aduana for the temporary import permit for Costa Rica. I hung out there for a while talking to some truckers from Honduras (this time in Spanish). Abner checked on me periodically and brought me a book on tourism in Panama in English with a pull-out map. We all agreed that I probably got taken for a ride crossing the Nicaragua-Costa Rica border because it should not have cost as much as it did. I still haven't tallied up my receipts from that crossing. I'm kind of putting it off because I've had a feeling I got fleeced there, too, and don't want to know by how much yet. Can't do anything about it anyway now.

After the permit was finished, Abner had us lock the truck up and both of us go back to immigration. Bruce had to get his passport stamped and his picture taken, and I had to be there because of the truck being in my name. While we were there, Abner suggested getting the fumigation paid for ($1 USD). I reminded him I only had colons and needed to exchange money, so he went and got a money changer. The guy had no balboas (the official currency of Panama). They apparently don't use the balboa, though prices are written in balboas. The economy is apparently carefully controlled so that the balboa and dollar trade at 1:1 against each other, so while it's not officially dollarized, the dollar is the monetary unit used.

After paying for fumigation and clearing immigration, Abner brought a customs inspector over to look at the truck. He gave it a cursory glance and sent us on our way.

Abner was awesome! He never inflated any prices to make a buck and he never asked us for any money, though we knew he was trying to make a living here. We tipped him a $20. He seemed genuinely surprised at that. This picture was taken before we tipped him. He gave me permission to put his picture up so anybody crossing can find him. He's happy to help clearing Panama, in or out.

Back in the '80s, I had some friends who said Panama was like a little USA. We've travelled about 150 or so miles into it, and all but about 10 miles of that has been just like back home! Check out all the different shapes of orange - as far as the eye can see!


  1. What did you present as proof of onward travel here? Did they ask?

  2. They assume since we are traveling in a vehicle registered to our nationality that the vehicle itself was proof of onward travel. The guy on the US passport who was traveling in his friends' car that was registered in CR needed additional proof of onward travel, though.

  3. I drove down from the U.S. in October. I am currently in Nicaragua and will be heading south in my Jeep GC to CR and then Panama early in 2016. This information on border crossings is great, thanks for posting! I have one question for you: I would like to stay in Panama, driving around, for 3 months. In Nicaragua a car's import permit is only good for 1 month. So I have to travel to the border every 30 days, exit the country, then re-enter. PITA. So can you tell me how long the import permit for a car entering Panama is good for?