Sunday, April 19, 2015

Visa Run: You Don’t Have to Go Home, But You Can’t Stay Here!

Bocas Town, Panama

When traveling for an extended period of time in a foreign country, it would behoove you to know when, by law, you must leave. Because, let’s be honest, no one wants to be on a country’s shit list. For Costa Rica, the maximum time spent in the country on a tourist visa is 90 days. Tom and I, having arrived on December 2nd, needed to skedaddle by March 2nd. Not a day later. 

But we intended to stay in Costa Rica until April. And there was no way in heck that I was headed home early to the East Coast with snow still on the ground. Not me, no way, sir. This was to be our ‘endless summer’ year and I took that notion very seriously. Naturally, this put us in a pickle. But as it turns out, an easily solvable one in the form of a Visa Run…a visa what now? 

We just needed to leave the country for 72 hours and then we could, once again, receive that magic 90-day Visa stamp that would get us through the second half of our trip. (Now don’t go quoting me on this. I speak only of our experience in Costa Rica and only as one-timers. I don’t wanna hear about you standing at the border of China and Thailand going, “But Maureen said I could!”)

Next up, where to go on this vacation from our vacation? Nicaragua was the front-runner for a while, but once I heard of Bocas del Toro, an archipelago in the Caribbean, the decision was set in stone. There was just something about heading to the crystal clear waters of the Caribbean that made me feel closer to home. So, to Panama we go! 

Photo Cred:

Being the law-abiding, danger dork that I am, I padded our departure date by one week and we set off on February 23rd. Given my aversion to 1970’s era prop planes (that still have ashtrays in the arm rests, I might add), we decided to take the “safer” route via ground transportation. 

And in the blink of an eye, we were there…uhm, wait. That’s not right. And in two incredibly long, sweaty, life-flashing-before-your-eyes days we were there. The first leg of the trip, which at this point was old-hat to us, was the bus ride/ferry combo meal from Santa Teresa to San Jose. We left at the crack of dawn on one of three buses headed to Cobano, a slightly bigger town, to catch the one and only bus making the trek to San Jose. Did you do the math there? Three buses full of people and luggage trying to get onto one bus. Logistics, not their strong suit. I surveyed the scene and discreetly nudged our way to the front-end of the mob. It paid off, too. Tom was THE last person on the bus to get a seat. And then they threw on a few more people to stand in the isle for the 5-hour trip just for funsies.

Consumerism at its finest

All in all, this leg was not too shabby. We made it to San Jose by noon, which gave us plenty of time to revel in the civilized comforts of the Courtyard Marriott and a surprisingly not creepy Walmart. Having just spent three months in a remote beach town, these babies were looking pretty good to us. (Oh yeah, and we went to Hooters for dinner. It was weird, the waitresses did an unenthusiastic group dance, and we regret the whole thing.) But I digress.

The plan was to stay overnight and catch a shuttle the next morning all the way to the Bocas del Toro province—about a 10-hour trip. We reserved the shuttle instead of taking the public bus because it was our first time crossing an international border by foot and they boasted that they would guide us through it all. A bit more expensive but in theory it sounded pretty good, right? 

Our route from Santa Teresa, Costa Rica to Bocas del Toro, Panama

Besides almost leaving a fellow passenger at a rest stop bathroom, six hours in, through countless miles of banana fields, it was going pretty well. Then we hit the border. Our driver promptly dumped our stuff and waved goodbye. Excuse me, señor, but where do you think you are going? After 30-seconds of mild panic on my part, we were met by our ‘boarder crosser’ and were told we would be picked up on the other side. Phew. 

Tom crossing into Panama at the Sixaola border
Up next, after some passport stamping and money exchanging, it was time to cross the bridge. You would think that an international border would have sound infrastructure because hundreds of people do this crossing daily and they may be held liable for anything that went wrong. Yeah, not so much. 

Instead, we joked nervously as we dodged gaping holes overlooking the crocodile infested Sixaola river. The bridge had to have been built back in the early days of the Panama Canal in 1913 and never updated. Furthermore, I would not have been surprised if it collapsed in on itself as we crossed. The sides were rusted into oblivion and instead of replacing the missing wooden planks they just hastily slapped larger pieces of plank overtop in random places. Even their ‘fixes’ needed fixing as many of the replacement planks had loose nails that allowed the boards to pop up with any weight on them. So with my backpack strapped on and ready to topple me over due to my overpacking talents, I gingerly tiptoed my way into Panama.

From there it should be a straight shot to the ferry. Should is the operative word. Only twenty minutes into the next leg we came upon a crowd of parked cars and chaos. Our driver, who spoke no English, signaled us to get out. (Let me just state that I by no means expected him to speak English. Just pointing out that our remedial Spanish skills really did not suffice when faced with an impromptu, road-blocking strike). Although severely confused, we followed him into the midst of the hubbub, still not knowing for sure what was going on. Had people been standing in a line with picket signs, chanting, it would have been clear. But alas, it really just looked like a party. They were having a barbecue in the middle of a two-lane bridge with umbrellas, music and food simmering on the grill. If we weren’t en route to a tropical island, I would have been tempted to join in. 

Once we shimmied our way through the fiesta to the other side, our driver sidled up to the door of a minibus. After striking some sort of a deal, possibly selling us into slavery, he signaled us to get in and then waved good-bye. Not again! Why do they keep doing this to us! Having learned to go with the flow, we handed our precious cargo to a random Panamanian who threw it on top of the bus and strapped it down with a single rope. Mmm, now that’s what I call safety. We then squeezed in like packed sardines, not sure where we were headed but happy to be moving again.

Almirante Water Taxi
It was clear within the first few minutes of this ride that this is how we were going to die. Yep, I was sure of it. The driver, who must have thought he was trying out for the Indy 500, gunned it up and down the sides of mountains at a speed I did not think possible for an over packed, rundown minibus. No curve or guardrail-less 1,000-foot drop stood in his way. He had a mission to get us to the port, dead or alive. 

Luckily for us, it was the latter. Turns out the shuttle driver actually paid him to drop us off right at the front door of the ferry office instead of a half-mile down the street with the rest of the riffraff. Score one for us! 

Aqua Lounge, Carenero Island
With our perils behind us, we jumped onto the taxi boat and headed the half hour to Bocas Town on the Isle de Colon. From then on out, it was four days filled with island hopping, 2 for 1 drinks, water trampolines and the American dollar. Paradise found.

Lessons learned. Number one, I would definitely take the prop plane next time. We risked our lives just as much on the road and would have been there about a day and a quarter faster had we flown. Number two, there was such extreme poverty along our route amongst the banana farms that what I thought was roughing it back in Santa Teresa was, in fact, luxe living comparatively. It also made me that much more grateful to check into our swank hotel in Bocas Town. Apparently I can’t end a post without circling back to how grateful I am. But it’s true. I’m grateful to travel, to see the world, and to never get back on that bus again.

Tom enjoying 2 for 1 Happy Hour at our hotel, Palma Royal in Bocas Town, Panama

Aqua Lounge, Carenero Island

Island Hopping

Tom, the Explorer

Enjoying the shade at Red Frog Beach, Bastimentos Island

No comments:

Post a Comment