Second Visa Run and Corrupt Policemen Costa Rica / Panama

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.

Brandon is a location independent entrepreneur, musician, worldschooling father, and the principal author of this blog. He's all about reaching his potential and enjoying life to the fullest in each moment.


  1. Yes, those traffic incidents were quite frustrating, but hey, at least we didn’t get into too much trouble for anything (real or imagined). :) Also, those border crossings could really use a serious organization guru to help spruce up the process. We seemed to make it through everything just fine though, even if we did do a fair amount of grumbling throughout.

  2. Oh man… what a frustrating journey. I’m excited to see the pictures from your Panama excursion. I’m glad to hear it was much better than the drive there…

  3. When I come to visit, I don’t want to cross the border into Panama, ok? These run-ins with corrupt police are experiences I would like to avoid, thank you very much.

    Looking forward to hearing about your thrilling Panamanian adventures!

  4. What an adventure ( opposition in all things :< ) I'm so happy you are safely home without huge problems. Glad they were jut frustrating and time consuming.
    We're looking forward to all the FUN and god things you did and saw on your journey.

  5. Megan Hunter Says: June 30, 2010 at 8:51 am

    Wow, sounds like things are crazy in Panama! But at least you were able to get done what was required without too many problems. Hope all is well. We miss you guys!

  6. […]   ?Second Visa Run and Corrupt Policemen […]

  7. I lived in Costa Rica back in 2000-2001. Your experience crossing the border into Panama and having to utilize the services of a “guide” reminded me of my trip from CR into Panama at Sixaola on my way to Bocas del Toro. We had no clue what we were doing and since there was no signage, pretty much had no choice but to rely on “Carlos” who herded us through the various offices and into a truck onwards in exchange for kickbacks from someone, I assume, as he asked us for nothing. Good times!

    As for the traffic police in San Jose, my husband was stopped once for supposedly running a red light, which he very clearly had not. There was no use arguing, however, and a “small donation” took care of the misunderstanding. :) I miss CR!

  8. Howdy

    i own bambu hostel in david panama and we have lots of 72 hour visa border runners staying with us, we are close to the border of canoa pasoas and our prices are very reasonable and we have a pool perfect for hot david..

  9. Have never had any problems with police in Panama before, but have had to pay many a bribe to Costa Rican police. (I live in both countries dually)


  10. Yeah, I would say they CR cops are pretty much corrupt as well. I just returned from that sheet hole of a country and I got pulled over on the way to the airport. The cop wanted me to follow him to the bank and withdraw $1000 US dollars. I acted stupid and help strong to my last $100 bill. He took it and gave me my passport and DL back, but I thought for a few minutes I may have to kill this guy and get the hell out of this place fast. I’m back in the good ol’ USA now, and God help the Costa Ricans who have moved here. When I run across them in my daily adventures, there is going ot be hell to pay. Thye thought they were moving to the land of the free. I’ll show you free Tico Hotto.

  11. Hi everyone,

    Looking to take a look around Costa Rica as we enjoy the simple life and good food and fresh fruits and vegetables and we though that while we are in the USA that would be nice so any advise would be great as maybe we feel moving there to live a few months would also be nice for our son to improve his spanish,
    WE are portuguese so it isnt so much different and just wondering about schooling if any good and expensive and bbest place to settle !?
    Thanks a million…
    I also run an Algarve complex a condo with small beach house for holiday makers on a quiet fishing village by the sea and opposite a wonderful historical castle on the beach so nice too if anyone wishes to travel that far, Southern Portugal, next to Spain in Europe
    Get in touch please
    Alice xxxxx Happy New Year everyone

  12. […] pulled over by corrupt traffic cops asking for bribes in […]

  13. A friend and i are planning on going to Costa rica for a year in a few months. we are having trouble trying to figure out the crossing the boarder every 90days to “renew our visitors visas” so that we can continue stay. On entering the country initially we underastand that you have to have a exiting plane ticket showing we are leaving. how does this affect boarder hopping. do we need to show proof of a plane ticket saying we have a fligjt to leave in 90days. We are willing to reschedule our flight once affter the first 89days but aftyer that it gets costly. Can you boarder hop without a plane ticket saying you will be leaving in 90days??? ANY info you have for us will be most helpful

    • This was something we were concerned about, too, but fortunately, it’s never been an issue for us. You may be asked about a return ticket when you check in for your flight, but it will depend on the airline you’re flying in through. I’ve never been asked about a return ticket with Jet Blue. But I have been asked with Copa/Continental when flying from Guatemala to Costa Rica. However, we were given a quote for a return plane ticket on the spot, just in case, but we never had to use it or purchase it. If you want to be extra safe, buying a bus or plane ticket out of the country that you can show them, will do the job. We’ve never been asked about a return ticket at the (non-airport) border crossings, either. Hope this helps. Enjoy your trip!

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