Panama – Day 1

The following is a true, if bizarre story of my adventure to la Frontera (the border).

My trip had two purposes:  to shop in Golfito and to get my passport stamped.  Let’s start with Golfito, which is a beautiful town on a peninsula in Puntarenas.  It also happens to be about 30 miles from Paso Canoas, where most folks cross into Panama.  Besides tourism, Golfito’s economy was based for years on their banana production.  Unfortunately, some years back, the bananas here and elsewhere were infested with a pathogen that destroyed the crops.  The Costa Rican government, in order to revive the economy, declared Golfito a duty-free zone.  We’re not just talking cheap liquor here; we’re talking major brand-name appliances, electronics, clothes, furniture, and more.  Many Ticos (Costa Ricans) come here when they’re getting married or moving into a new house; the prices are very very good.

I needed a refrigerator, since I’ve been living with a small one and it’s not adequate now that I cook all my own meals.  Golfito is about 200 miles from Escazu, where I live, and takes around five hours to get there. (Yes, the trip sounds long, but much of the ride takes place on roads with one lane in each direction, and heavy trucks, rain and construction really slow things down.)  Also, since one is not allowed to use the duty-free without being a traveler (as in airports), one needs to get a permission slip/roster the day before shopping.  This paper ensures that everyone who shops is in town for more than one day, it allows access, and it is a record of purchases.  To prevent people from buying quantities for resale, the government puts limits on how many of each item one can buy. (For refrigerators, it’s one every two years.)  Yes, really.  All is recorded and enforced by a series of people sitting behind windows or at picnic tables or standing by various doors.

As for Panama, I needed to get my passport stamped before 90 days since my last entry into Costa Rica; otherwise, my California driver’s license would not be legal here. Why, you ask?  Well, US citizens are allowed to stay in Costa Rica (and Panama and other countries) without a visa for up to 90 days.  After that, people are supposed to obtain a visa.  However, many of our compatriots beat the system by going to a neighboring country, getting their passports stamped, and returning the same day to restart the clock for another 90 days. In my case, I have applied for a residency visa as a pensioner, so I don’t need to get stamped in order to stay.  However, in order to continue to drive here, I need a passport that has been stamped within 90 days. (I can’t get a Costa Rican license until I have a visa.)  This left me with no choice but to leave the country and get restamped.

So, ever the practical guy, I decided to combine these two missions into one trip.  On Wednesday, Day 88 since my return in March, I drove down to Golfito, so I could get my access paper in order to shop the next day before crossing into Panama.  This was stressful because here different people have different interpretations of the laws, and every transaction requires numerous people (Stay tuned).  I didn’t know if I’d get a border guard who decided I needed to stay a few days; this was a problem because I had a dog-sitter for one night only.  But, I was determined to have an adventure, because it’s been a long time since my carefree youth when I actually enjoyed taking chances.

Wednesday morning, I went to the car rental to pick up my transportation.  Since few cars have navigation control, I had bought a plastic phone holder with a suction cup to attach my cellphone to the windshield where I could see it.  GPS, etc. is critical for traveling, because the only way to find a destination is with WAZE, an app which allows for traffic, accidents, etc.  Remember, Costa Rican places do not have addresses; they are identified as to the number of meters they are from the nearest landmark.  And there are only a few portions of the main roads which are limited access (on and off only via entrance and exit ramps).  It is not uncommon to be driving at a nice clip on what appears to be a normal highway when the bus in front of you stops to pick up passengers.  Or two lanes suddenly merge without warning.  When alternate routes are called for, which is pretty much always, WAZE is required.

I wanted to hit the road around ten, but the technology gods had other plans.  As I was leaving the rental place, my phone shut down, and it took two hours to restore it.  I later figured out that, when I slid my phone into the plastic holder on the windshield, the sidepieces holding the phone were perfectly placed to squeeze the phone’s side buttons and do a factory reset! Yep, everything got wiped.  Now, because it’s a phone I bought in the US, it’s a very complicated process to configure it to Claro, the Costa Rican cellphone provider.   At the first Claro store, someone got the phone working but not the Internet; the guy at the next store got Internet but I couldn’t download WAZE; and a techie at a generic phone store got everything working.

Finally, at noon, I was on my way.  The ride for the most part was quite beautiful.  It was weird to be traveling at high speeds one moment, then slower speeds the next, and then stopped due to construction and then driving fast again.  Let’s not forget the unexpected, if brief, wrath-of-god rainstorms and the spraying water from the huge trucks in front.  Also, just to mix things up, once in a while my phone would say “searching for network” and WAZE would stop in the middle of nowhere. So, it became a brain game to keep constant track of how many kilometers before the next turn, just in case I lost service.

Since it was getting so late, I tried to alter my route to go to the duty-free before going to the hotel.  That stumped the app and I lost WAZE, and it took my 30 minutes to get everything working again (all while driving through pouring rain).  I then called the hotel to ask for directions to duty-free. I told Nancy, who answered the phone, that I had a reservation.  Nancy spoke but apparently couldn’t read English and told me that I didn’t.  I repeated the name in every configuration and then was disconnected; I called back and asked Nancy to check who was expected that night.  She finally figured that Nick is short for Nicholas and that I did have a reservation and she could help me. She said to come first to the hotel which was less than a kilometer from the duty-free place.

After checking in, I went in search of duty-free.  Due to construction, access to both entrances was blocked.  There was no way to get there.  So, after being waved away by several workers, I boldly did a U-turn, drove around a barricade and, after a very bumpy ride, I found the area of the entrance.  After three failed attempts to find the ticket window, I begged a nice woman to show me.  She walked me over to where a bunch of people were milling around; they then redirected me and I found the window.  There I needed to show a passport, which I hadn’t brought with me; I finally convinced the young lady to accept my passport card (which is a new and unknown thing here).  I got my papers, went back to my hotel and had at least one very large drink.  I went to bed and passed out before I could worry about tomorrow.

To be continued…