in Immigration

Border Crossing: San Jose to Panama City

This scene could be emblematic of my trip. I’m standing outside the Tica bus station San Jose Costa Rica. A cool breeze whips up garbage from the streets. Behind me a yellow dog studies, then growls at the swirling offal. It’s late and I’ve been waiting for over an hour. The bus is rumored to be leaving at ten for the fifteen hour crawl to Panama City.

I’m surrounded by passengers, hungry dogs, beggars, thieves and an over-fed nun dressed in white. The nun stands motionless, impassive. But I glance down to make sure my gear is still with me. And when I look up a black wraith has appeared at my side. I’m startled. The creature mumbles something. It could be Spanish. It could be English. But it’s not his language, it’s his odor that tells me all I need to know.

Another San Jose bum menacing me with his filth. I step back and watch. He bends from somewhere beneath his dark overcoat and picks up scraps of a long dead sandwich that has somehow escaped the dogs notice. With a flourish he shovels the bread and ribbons of meat into a mouth hidden below a thick black beard. His bare feet, arms, and face are black; his hair wild, dirty. He seems to float about the sidewalk as if he were a dirty bubble caught in the wind.

If its money he’s after I’m tapped out. It’s my last day. I have tipped, dumped and been grifted of all my Colones. Estoy limpio – I am clean. My experiment; continue living in Panama by traveling briefly to Costa Rica, is about to wrap up. I have explored San Jose on foot for six days; eating in Tico restaurants, drinking in Gringo bars, flirting with Nica whores. I have had enough.

The Tica bus parked at the curb is new, air conditioned. When we finally board the driver navigates Costa Rica’s winding, rutted roads and feeble bridge crossings at safe, almost turtle-like speeds. To keep the passengers entertained an R-rated video is played. The movie begins with a drunken party, full-on sex scene, death and dismemberment of an asian hooker. Before I drift off to sleep I wonder how the fat nun is enjoying the ride.

It’s first light when we hit the border. I disembark and soak in the warmth of the Panamanian sun. The officials I encounter are helpful, friendly. They seem almost eager for me to re-enter the country. Any concerns I have quickly dissipate. Bags are only lightly searched. Passengers are not made to wait hours for a second inspection (as I am every time I enter Costa Rica). I pay my $5, get stamped, and am on my way. Easy. The difficult questions I anticipate (where are your return tickets? why are you carrying almost no money? is that a pound of weed in your luggage?) are never asked.

What can be learned from this trip? To fully enjoy San Jose you need to ignore the nightmare of its streets. Travel into Panama is much easier and faster than into Costa Rica. You can live in Panama almost indefinitely by getting your passport stamped every six months. The expenses (2 people) for this trip were about $360 double room 6 nights at The Hotel Dunn Inn, $100 2 round trip bus tickets, $200 food, drink. But you can make this trip much cheaper by leaving your girlfriend behind, staying sober, and living in hostels.

-Cojito @ Panama After Dark.

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Care to Comment?


  1. I know there's a quarantine for taking a dog from States to Panama… but is there quarantine for taking a dog from Costa Rica to Panama? Your experience appreciated.

  2. Cojito

    I love your writings, they show honesty, humor and candor. I want so much to leave this nasty cold, snow, and ice behind and move to a climate of warmth, beauty, and alcohol. A question please: As bad as Costa Rica has become, would "re-newing" your passport be easier going to Columbia or is that an even more dangerous option?

  3. grumpy – thanks. i've never tried going to Colombia, but i hear Cartagena's worth a visit. i might go there this year. you can fly there easily.

    i've heard there are boats running out of colon. i might take a train up to colon, then catch a boat to colombia, if i can find out where, and for how much.

    i wouldn't buy in costa rica, but for a visa run it's still safe enough. and if you take the bus it's cheap.

  4. by the way what is correct terminology here: visa run, 3 day border run, 72 hour visa run? I see all of these!

    we just got a group of call center employees from san jose yesterday, found bambu hostel in david panama on craigslist!