Previously on WanderWheels …
Scott and Sarah decide to camp along a river where local families gathered to enjoy their favorite swimming holes. Locals noticed that the cyclists are “not from around these here parts.”
While our protagonists are preparing their dinner on the banks, the local town sends out their version of the Hulk/Lou Ferrigno to investigate. Despite having biceps the size of Scott’s bicycle touring quadriceps, the strongman’s demeanor does not match his intimidating size. Furthermore, he is an enthusiastic and proud Tica and upon hearing about Scott & Sarah’s trip, punctuates the conversation with exclamations of “Pura Vida!”¹ over their choice of dining venues, bicycle trip, and general hijinks. Afterwards, gathering storm clouds cause our protagonists to rethink their choice of camping spots and move to slightly higher ground.
No wacky adventures ensue, leading to poor ratings and threats of show cancellation. The writers of WanderWheels set to work on the next episode, promising coconuts, crazy bureaucracy, a new country and a waterski jump of a shark to boost ratings.
Part I, Hasta la vista, Costa Rica
Van Halen’s song “Panama“, which has nothing to do with the country, was blaring in the 8-track in my brain as we headed for the border (the victrola was broken). Before crossing we found a trove of low-hanging coconuts and gorged ourselves. In retrospect, we were lucky we did since we were stuck at the two borders for hours, and the coconut water and meat kept our blood sugar above the danger zone.
The perfect red-tape storm had occurred over the weekend. Costa Rica implemented a “new” (it was put into law about five years earlier but never implemented until Friday, April 5th, 2014) computer automated border crossing system that promptly crashed². Since it happened on a Friday, nothing would get fixed until Monday. The old manual system (cuneiform) was still available, however, you needed a receipt from the Banco de Costa Rica showing that you paid the 7 USD exit tax.
Unfortunately, BCR is not open on Saturday or Sunday. Finally, Costa Rica held national elections over the weekend, which meant that normal government functions were operating as if it was a snow day in a place that escaped the last Glacial Maximum. Hence, there were three days of people backed up at the border, waiting to leave Costa Rica when we arrived early Monday morning.
Furthermore, BCR had a single teller at the border which serviced both the locals doing their regular banking and servicing the people crossing the border, collecting and issuing receipts for the 7 USD exit tax.
The booths where the tax receipt was collected and passports stamped for country exit was manned by two people, (double the number at BCR window issuing exit receipts) yet there were lines backed up there also. I think the people in the passport windows were sloths, the cute, cuddly and slightly mossy animals that adorn the green ₡10,000 Costa Rican bill, dressed as humans.
The short version of the story is we waited over two hours in line to pay the exit tax (recall that there were about two and a half days of people waiting to cross) and get stamped out.
Contrast this to the airport exit tax experience. When we dropped of Sarah’s mom at the airport, the 29 USD exit tax could be paid at any one of fifteen dedicated tellers, with no waiting time. I would have gladly paid more than the 7 USD, as would others in line that verbally expressed this sentiment, to fund additional staff or enter an express line.
The whole situation was only the beginning of mind boggling idiocracy on this side of the border that extended to the next.
As a business case study, the whole situation was like a lobbed softball to a freshman class.
Part II, ¡Hola Panamá!
We were dreading the Panamanian entrance process. Other travelers and cyclists ahead of us had reported a crackdown on the requirements to enter Panama. Officially, potential entrants must show proof that they will exit the country in the form of a bus ticket or plane ticket out of the country. Alternatively, travelers must show proof of means to leave the country, in the form of 500 USD. We did not have onward plane, bus or boat tickets since we did not know if we would be flying or taking a boat to Colombia. We also were not carrying 500 USD per person.
Officials had caught on to the fact that individuals were pooling cash so multiple people could enter on the same $500. Rumors were that officials were marking bills, which they diligently counted before stamping passports.
With some trepidation we approached the official behind the bullet proof glass after waiting about an hour in line. He questioned our onward passage out of Panama. We indicated we were traveling on bicycles and pointed to the location of our bikes so he could see them. “You must have your vehicles inspected before proceeding.”
We explained that they were non-motorized. To which he indicated we must go to a different vehicle inspection office first, the one for cars and motorcycles.
Arriving at the vehicle inspection office, we got the “Stupid Gringo” look from the staff, even after we explained that one of their colleagues insisted we come to this office. We were told to go to a different building for baggage inspection.
We rolled the bikes into the baggage inspection office and up to the desk of the guy stamping forms. This led to the exclamation that roughly translates as, “WTF are those bikes doing in my office? Get them out of here.” To which we recounted the whole sad story. We were told to wait outside for our inspection.
Moments later, one of his minions appeared. I expected that, as Arlo Guthrie put it in his song “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree”, we would be “injected, inspected, detected, infected, neglected and selected” in addition to receiving a full body cavity search.
Instead, the genial official glanced at our bikes, thoroughly inspecting them with what must have been x-ray vision, collected our immigration forms, and were told we were free to return to the first office to get stamped into Panama.
After another wait, we were stamped into the country.
I still feel lucky. The combination of the two border encounter was still more humane than I’ve seen foreigners treated by the TSA and Immigration at airports in the USA.
We are often asked if our butts hurt from riding on our hard leather saddles. I think my new response will be “Only when riding across borders.”
Why no “Welcome to Panamá” picture? We were so excited to be done with the ordeal that we rode away from the border as fast as we could.
The frustrations of the border crossings faded when we discovered Panama had cheap food and bountifully stocked grocers. In Costa Rica, food in grocery stores was more expensive than in the USA and a fellow traveler compared it to prices in Europe, possibly rivaling those of Nordic countries.
We had our first apple in over six months (at a price of 0.25 and 0.50 USD each, whereas they’ve been 1+USD in Mexico and Central America) and beer (0.50 USD for a local lager to 0.75 USD more flavorful Guinness for a 355 ml/12 oz can) cheaper than the equivalent of soda, bottled water or milk.
It looks like we’ll be having fresh apples and cornflakes swimming in Guinness for breakfast while we’re in Panama.
¹Pura vida is a characteristic Costa Rican phrase. It literally means pure life, however, the real meaning is closer to “plenty of life”, “full of life”, “this is living!”, “going great”, or “real living”. The phrase can be used in many ways; for example, it can be used both as a greeting or a farewell, as an answer expressing that things are going well, or as a way of giving thanks.
²The implementation was most likely accompanied by the nine most terrifying words in the English language, “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.“