The drive from Manuel Antonio NP to the Panamanian border was pretty uneventful aside from being forced to drive the limit because of the torrential downfall. Visibility sucked and El-BP hydroplaned in several places, so in spots where the was a lot of water on the road I even drove below the limit. We passed a few resorts on the way, hundreds of signs advertising real estate (in English, presumably targeting ex-pats), and rows upon rows of palm plantations.
Upon reaching the frontera things looked good – despite being chaotic, not a single person ran towards our car to “help” us. We parked in place across the road from the Costa Rican border complex which held both immigration and customs. Not knowing which to attack first we went to customs. Got it wrong. A very polite lady who seemed to find my poor Spanish amusing told us to first go to immigration, just around the corner. We walk up to the booth and the dude in the booth tells us we first have to pay a departure tax. How? Fill out some exit forms, take them to the “bank” (15 feet away) and come back with receipts. Done and done, we come back and he stamps us out without any real issues. So far so good. Back to customs where there’s now a line-up and a soccer game on, making those in the line-up hoot and holler, and making the polite lady shoosh everyone. We wait for twenty minutes but when we get up to the desk it’s a thirty-second job and we’re done with Costa Rica. Easiest departure since San Ysidro.
Rolling toward the Panama side our hopes of sliding through without any bullshit quickly dissipated. There was a large building directly ahead of us that sort of looked like a border complex – traffic lanes to both sides of several buildings with a steel roof covering the whole situation – and trucks queued up in both directions. There was almost no space for any other traffic though, and in front of the complex was a clusterfuck of vehicles entering in five directions without any signals, lights or authority figure giving instructions. Most of the vehicles were heading to our right. Fuck it, we creep forward into the complex and as we do we see “Welcome to Panama”. I guess this is it.
Immediately our window is attacked by “helpers”. Yup, definitely a Central American border. I park the car in an extremely inconvenient place that blocks anyone else who may want to enter the country but there’s nowhere else to park. This time we try immigration first. The woman doesn’t speak any English and seems extremely put off by my honest attempt but miserable failure to comprehend and interact with her. Eventually we get the gist of what she’s saying – because we have a car, we need to go through customs first, but before we can go through customs we have to get insurance first. One of our helpers (who soon introduces himself as Jose) indicates that we should follow him to the insurance dealers.
Thirty feet away is a little booth where the desk is manned by a teenage girl talking on her cell phone. Behind the desk is a friend of hers rocking her crying baby. Jose is on the case, telling us to get out our passports and the car title ready before we’re even in the door, and as soon as we cross the threshold he’s got them in his hands and is shoving them into the reluctant face of the girl at the desk. She looks disdainfully at the prospect of work – there are no business hours posted but because of the Panama time change it’s now 4:50 p.m. – and finishes her phone call before doing a lick of anything. Sighing, she starts typing our details into the computer. Her computer has never heard of a Pontiac Wave, a major hold-up. “Es lo mismo que Chevrolet Aveo”. She points at the title where it says “Wave”. I know, but it’s the same thing. It doesn’t matter. Let’s go! Let’s go! Fifteen Panabucks (Panabucks = Ameribucks) and we’re on our way across the street to customs.
There’s a line-up at customs so Jose gives us a “be cool and act natural” look and motions for us to go up some stairs and around the whole line-up. Upstairs is a small office with a couple of customs officials he seems to know as he knocks on their window. He slides our insurance papers through, they stamp it and we’re on our way downstairs. Holy shit, this dude is slick.
A middle-aged American couple in hi-viz, tight-fitting spandex shirts (who’d cut ahead of us in Costa Rican customs, no less) had finished their paperwork but were stuck behind El-BP. The guy points and looks at me and starts yelling at me as soon as he’s out of the immigration line. What an asshole. I take my time walking over and eventually (and grudgingly) move our wheels, but I would’ve preferred to let him stew. He looked like he was about twelve seconds from stroking out, and had that happened I wouldn’t have to move my car.
Back down to immigration and I cut ahead of Murphy cause I’m getting afflicted by Contagious Asshole Disease. The same immigration official we dealt with earlier has astonishingly learnt how to speak English fluently between our previous visit and now, and she asks us for our proof of sufficient funds. Huh? “To enter Panama you require a bank statement proving you have at least five-hundred US dollars at your disposal.” Neither of us have any proof of that kind. She hums and haws and asks if it’s the first time we’ve been to Panama, and when we confirm that it is she lets us slide with a warning. Strangely she stamps my passport, allowing me to enter the country, but says she won’t stamp Murphy’s until we get another piece of paper from customs. We’re not sure if Jose was trying a sly semi-legal move that didn’t work or what, but he was ready to lead us back to customs. By this time there wasn’t really a line and we went up to the desk, where they took my passport and a customs form and we waited.
While we’re waiting Jose says we’ll also need to get fumigation done, pointing to a car wash-looking thing beyond the customs complex. He asks for one of our insurance copies and six dollars and heads over to the fumigation office to get it taken care of while we’re twiddling our thumbs in customs. He comes back two minutes later with a fumigation receipt.
Jose asks us what our plans are after Panama and we tell him Colombia and eventually Argentina. He asks if we have a boat lined up and we reply that we don’t unfortunately. He pulls out a piece of paper and tells us he has a friend in Puerto Mansanilla, Colon who has a boat. A Chinese guy named Humphrey who has taken foreigner’s cars to Colombia lots of times before and who operates dirt cheap, cheaper than anyone else. He writes down Humphrey’s contact info – fingers crossed this hookup works, we seriously need a boat fast and on the cheap.
After a wait a customs inspector comes over, he wants to look at the car. We stroll over to the car (well, we boogie, he saunters) and I throw the hatch open. He looks at our disorganized piles of shit covered in our wet, dirty clothes from the previous day and a half of rain that we’d left on top of everything to dry. “Ropas sucias” (dirty clothes), I say. He grimaces, not wanting to touch anything. He points to my uncovered duffel bag and asks what that is. “Mas ropas sucias” (more dirty clothes). He says fuck this, inspection’s over.
Murphy walks up to immigration for the third time to get on the road while I hand Jose an Andrew Jackson for his trouble. As he’s waiting he looks over at me and I start nodding my head and mouthing “Pa-Na-Ma!” a la Diamond David Lee Roth. Let’s go let’s go! We jump in the car, roll through fumigation (windows up this time) and blast the only album remaining on Murphy’s phone after his Spotify account was inadvertently cancelled the other day:
Almost instantly if feels like we aren’t in Central America anymore. The PanAm highway on the Panamanian side of the frontera is a divided four-lane highway – without potholes, pedestrians, cows or dogs. Unbelievable. We’re driving over 100 km/h and it’s actually safe to do so. The rain is still coming in pretty strong bursts though, so we do have to drive under the limit intermittently. The city of David is about an hour away according to Jose so we make our way there while exchanging jokes in poor taste, focused on the theme of spending a night inside of David.
This city is strange. There doesn’t seem to be any clear-cut strip of nightlife or bars. The downtown-ish area is full of casinos, but not glitzy ones like you’d see on the Vegas strip, more like ones you’d see out the back end of a Nevada border town like Mesquite. There are hotels on nearly every block – Why? For what? And where do people eat? We pick one that’s sort of in the middle of “everything” and get a $40 room that smells weird, somewhere between a cookie, vinegar and cleaning supplies. Hang up our still-soaked and by now slightly funktified clothes and hit the town to look for something to do.
We find one empty lounge, a weird restaurant without windows, a dead hotel bar, and a “sports grill” with six drunk twenty-something dudes. We settle on a fairly regular restaurant called Puerta del Sol where we try the local beer Atlas and eat pumpkin pie from the salad bar. Murphy accidentally eats a kalamari-filled pastry but he didn’t get sick from it – must’ve been counterfeit kalamari.
This city sucks so we call it an early one, don’t even bother hitting the casinos. Early to bed so we can get to Panama City and maybe even Colon tomorrow.