Their border patrol also stole a small portion of our sanity.
We decided to go to Panama after our plans got…shifted. We had planned on getting to Panama anyway so when things didn’t work out as expected, we just shrugged our shoulders and pointed our passports southward.
Costa Rica didn’t want us (more on that later….) and so we found ourselves, two days into our journey south, pulling up to their border with Panama. We walked up to the window and got our exit stamps from Costa Rica. No problem. The border agent even smiled at us and wished us a nice trip onward. That was nice.
We stopped for a bathroom break and wondered where our bus was. It seemed to have disappeared but we saw others from our bus still milling about so we weren’t too worried. Eventually we realized that we should probably be walking towards the Panama border to get stamped in. So, we walked. We saw fireworks above the roofs of the buildings and joked that Panama must be welcoming us.
No. No, they were not.
We got in line and a lady promptly grabbed our passports, stuck a sticker in each and demanded a dollar each. Wait… what? Oh, yeah… I think I read something about this. Ok, fine. $2 poorer but we notice that the line is moving very fast. A girl from our bus came running up to us and asked if we were carrying $500 cash. Uh… no. No we are not. And why exactly would we tell you if we were? She explains that, although she has crossed this border twice a month for almost a year to visit her boyfriend, they are refusing to let her in because she does not have $500 cash. Whoa.
Everything we read says that if we can present a credit card, it will be all the proof we need of “financial solvency”. Apparently, this may not be the case.
We get to the window and present our passports, credit card, and our proof of exit from Panama, return tickets to Costa Rica in January. The border agent asks if we are nationals of Costa Rica. Um… no. “United States citizens”, I say hesitantly. He slides our return tickets back to us and tells us “no bueno”. We need tickets back to the US, and no he does not care that we are long term travelers and have proof that we will, in fact, be moving on. Panama now requires a return ticket to a person’s country of citizenship, no matter what. Wait…what?!
Luckily, we just so happened to have purchased tickets online today for a trip to the states this spring. Too bad the confirmations are in my email and not in my hand.
On a whim, I ask the agent if our credit card is at least good enough proof of the necessary $500 per person rule. He looks at the card, smiles, and says “nope, it’s not” in perfect, unaccented English.
And this, friends, is when we were asked to show $500 cash, each, to be allowed into Panama.
Fantastic. Is there an internet cafe around here? The agent points in a non-committal way and moves on to the next person in line who, I am sure, will also be frantically figuring out how to weasel into Panama in about .5 seconds. We take off in the direction the agent pointed, searching for a way to print our flight itinerary and bank statement because there is no way in hell we are withdrawing $500 from that sketchy looking ATM in the shadows. No way.
And this, friends, is how we entered a country without a visa stamp.
As we illegally run around Panama looking for an internet cafe, I am struck by how easy it is to do just that. No one cares that we don’t have a visa stamp. In fact, when I ask police officer in broken Spanish where we might find a place to print what we need and why, he sympathetically points out where we need to go and yells after us that they might be closed. He couldn’t care less that we are in Panama already after being turned away by immigration.
First internet cafe, closed. Second internet cafe, closed. Third internet cafe, closed- this one in Costa Rica. Two illegal entires without visas.
By now we are desperate and I plead in the best Spanish I can muster with the girl counting money in the dark to let us in for 5 minutes to print our documents. For the love of God, it’s only 9pm! How is there not one single internet cafe open in this very lively border town busting at the seems with vendors and traffic?? The girl counting money finally empathizes and lets us in. She prints our pages, accepts our generous tip, and locks the door behind us as we bolt back to the border hoping our bus has not left us.
We didn’t need to worry. It seems every single person who has attempted to cross tonight has been denied. Bus drivers are exasperated, passengers (especially the gringos) are furious, old ladies are shaking canes in the air, and men are frantically calling family in Panama asking what they should do. We get back in line and watch a woman angrily count out $500 cash which she has obviously just withdrawn. There is consensus amongst everyone in line that this is a dangerous demand from the border patrol. Every thief in town surely knows that the majority of people in line at the border are carrying $500 US cash. Many are woman traveling alone. And those women are now very, very angry.
Our turn again. We hand over our passports, flight itinerary to the US, and a print out bank statement. Thankfully, this agent is happy enough with our “proofs”. We get a stamp and a wave. Finally.
After a quick bag check we head back to the bus and join the rest of the simultaneously annoyed and relieved passengers inside. I take a look back and realize that there are hundreds of people standing around confused bus drivers, all trying to figure out what the heck they are going to do. I feel some relief. And then we head to our seats.
And this, friends, is when we realized that Panama had stolen our peanut butter.
When we got off the bus to get our stamps out of Costa Rica, we were told we could leave non-valuables on the bus. Clearly peanut butter is, in fact, valuable so it really is our own fault for leaving it and a bag of chips on our seat. But still. After three hours of border control nonsense we were more than a little sad to see that our very delicious emergency snack food had been swiped. We were even more sad when we realized that other people’s much less delicious snacks had been left, undisturbed, on their seats.
Panama, I would love it if you could give back the bit of sanity you took from us but in lieu of that, we will accept a replacement peanut butter. We will be passing back through in a few weeks time (because apparently we are insane) and you can make amends then. Gracias.