This past week we made our second visa run since moving to Costa Rica. We have to make our way out of the country every 90 days, and this time we chose to drive to Panama and visit our friends in Volcán, whom we met on our 6-week trip last year. It was quite an adventurous week, including driving on a closed highway with fallen rocks, being stopped by dishonest police officers in Panamá for doing nothing wrong, getting a bargain at a luxurious hotel by the beach in Dominical, and more. Read on for details.
We’ve been asked a few times if we plan to become residents so we won’t have to go through this process every 90 days. The answer: probably not. The main reason is that if you’re a resident, you have to live in the country for a certain number of months each year in order to maintain residency. And while we love Costa Rica, we know that we’ll want to be moving on to other countries in the near future. So there’s little point in spending several thousand dollars and waiting several years to get residency status here, if we’re just planning on leaving. Now, on to the trip!
The Closed Highway
Our week began with a trip to a Registro Publico (Public Registry) office in Alajuela to get permission to take our car out of the country. This was a lot easier than last time for us, since we knew what to expect. It cost about $10, if I remember right, and required standing in two short lines. After that, we headed to Panama, on the new highway that should get us to the border in roughly 6 hours.
However, after passing by Atenas, we discovered that the highway had been closed. There was a barrier up to block the on-ramp and we couldn’t pass. I had read a week before that the highway had been closed due to some rocks that had fallen, but I figured it would have been cleaned up by now. I guess not.
As we were looking at the GPS trying to figure out what to do, a man shouted to us from a little cliff above and told us that if our car has 4-wheel drive, we should be able to drive on the freeway without any problem. I was a little hesitant because I didn’t want to get into any trouble crossing a barrier, but I also didn’t want to waste another hour backtracking and finding another route to Panama that would take us much longer to get there. (We’d for sure end up spending the night in Costa Rica somewhere instead). So, we decided to risk it and 4×4’d around the barrier to continue on the closed highway.
At first, all was great! We swerved around a few rocks, wondering why no one was cleaning them up, and then proceeded to drive at top speed with no other cars on the road! I have never seen the highway so empty! Eventually, we passed several more sets of rocks and places where the wall had collapsed. Workers with bulldozers were cleaning up the mess, and we drove right on by. No one seemed to even care we were there.
Eventually, as we approached the place where we needed to exit the freeway, we found that it was blocked off, and so was the nearest exit! There was no way around either barrier this time, even with 4-wheel drive. Then we spotted a traffic police truck on the other side of the road, and we began to worry. We saw one other truck driving on the other side of the road, who proceeded to take the exit (actually an onramp) just on the other side of the police truck. So we decided to try the same thing. We were relieved when he didn’t follow us, and we were able to get back on the highway – the part that wasn’t closed – to continue our journey. Being ignored by a policeman was the exact opposite experience that we had in Panama, which I’ll talk about later. (So I guess we paid for our crime one way or another.)
Crossing the Border
We were glad to arrive at the Panama border before dark, even after stopping for lunch at a nice buffet place near Jaco. But the border was an absolute madhouse! It seems like it’s intentionally made confusing so that you need to rely on unofficial people “helping” you around and taking you to various offices in order to receive a tip. There are no signs with directions telling you where to go for different things, so if it’s your first time through, you kind of need to trust them. But our “guide” kept asking to hold my passports and documents for me. No way, José (his name was actually Anthony) – I’ll hang onto these myself, thank you. After leading us through 5 or so different offices, in a seeming random order, we finally made it through the border.
On the way back to Costa Rica, however, we decided to ignore the unofficial people trying to help us, and found that we were able to make it through okay by just asking people behind the window where we were supposed to go next. This probably wouldn’t work too well if there were long lines, but there we no lines at all so we got through very quickly the second time.
Corrupt Police Officers
But just 5 minutes into our Panama journey, after being drained from long hours of driving and a crazy experience at the border, we passed by a little police booth without coming to a complete stop. Now, in Costa Rica, they have these all the time and they don’t care if you stop. I guess Panama is a bit different. We heard a whistle blown and had to backtrack. The officers took our passports and my license and looked at our other documents. And these aren’t your friendly officers in blue shirts, but gruff men in camo with heavy boots, bullet proof vest, and a belt full of weapons. After 10 minutes of intimidation, including a “threat” to call the traffic police over who could write us a $100 ticket (which is a lie – tickets are more like $20), he said he wouldn’t charge us anything, but if we wanted to pay them a little something, maybe $20 or so, for not causing us more trouble, it would be welcome. In other words, they wanted a bribe. I whipped out $15 or so (about all I had) and we were off.
This post is getting long, so I’m going to just share our final police experience in Panama, and save the rest of the trip (all much more positive) for another post. On the way back to the border (in almost the same place we were stopped before, but on the other side of the road), I was observing the speed limit very closely – 60km/hr – and Jen knew it, too. But at that moment I was flagged down again by a policeman – this time a traffic cop. I pulled over, yada yada, and he said I was going 83km/hr. No way. I argued with him about it and said that I know I was going 60. I’m pretty sure he just pulled us over because we looked like gringos and he thought he could get some easy money. (We hear this happens a lot in Panama). But I fought him on it, and maybe because he realized I wasn’t the easy target he thought I’d be, he let me go without writing me a ticket, nor did he get any bribe money (I only had $8 anyway). Yay for assertiveness!
I have lived in Costa Rica for 6 months and have never been pulled over. But in the 7 weeks I’ve spent in Panama this year and last, I’ve been pulled over 3 times! Needless to say, we were very relieved to finally be back in Costa Rica, where the traffic cops seem a little less corrupt (or maybe just less aggressive), and sometimes even friendly.