One of the challenges of expat life is that you’re constantly running up against the unintended consequences of your actions.
Last November, after eight months of relying on public transportation in Panama, we broke down and bought a car. Yes, day-to-day life was perfectly fine using cabs and buses, but we weren’t seeing much of the country. After all, that was one of the reasons we were here!
I knew that as non-residents we couldn’t get Panama drivers licenses. I also knew that we could legally drive here with our US licenses for 90 days after entering the country with tourist visas.
But I didn’t connect the dots. . .
There are plenty of expats who’ve lived here for years as permanent tourists. Every 180 days you have to leave the country, and when you come back in you can stay for another 180 days.
Having visited the US in October we were planning on a border run in April.
Then we had lunch with another expat couple. They were leaving for a quick trip to Costa Rica the following week, so we got talking about visas and what we had to do to stay legal.
They told us they do the border run every three months, so they can drive legally here.
I started investigating and discovered that there’s been a recent crackdown on illegal drivers. If you get stopped and they determine you don’t have a legal license, there’s a $500 fine.
Then an insurance broker shared the news that, if your license has expired and you’re in an accident, the insurance won’t cover you.
At this point, we’d been in the country about two weeks beyond our 90-day mark, so we decided we’d better make a run for it.
We planned to take two days, because the border closes on the Costa Rican side at 4 PM and at 5 PM on the Panama side. . .
If you’ve traveled at all around Panama, you know there’s a checkpoint at the border of Chiriqui Province on the Pan-American Highway. We couldn’t risk driving through the checkpoint, so we decided to travel by bus.
To go from Las Tablas to the Costa Rican border you have to change buses. A lot. It’s one of those “can’t get there from here” situations.
Here’s how it unfolded.
7:00 AM my husband took our dogs over to the vet, who would board them for us.
10:00 AM we boarded a bus from Las Tablas to Chitre.
11:30 AM we boarded a bus from Chitre to Santiago.
Both these buses were Coasters. Let me tell you, Coasters look sleek and modern, but they are the most uncomfortable rides you can imagine. The seats are not shaped to accommodate any human posterior of any size, and the shocks and springs are bad or nonexistent.
The farther back you sit on the bus, the worse the shocks are. We were near or in the back each time. From Santiago to David (almost four hours) we were in the very back.
Once we got onto the Pan-American Highway, I thought my spine would self destruct. The road’s in bad shape — in some spots the driver moved onto the shoulder because it was better than the actual road — and it was extremely painful.
12:30 PM arrived in Santiago.
We couldn’t get onto the bus from Santiago to David as it was full. These big coaches have assigned seating, and unlike every other bus in Panama they don’t stop to pick up casual passengers.
1:30 PM bus from Santiago to David was also full.
1:40 PM we caught a cab from the Pan-American Highway to the spot in town where the little local bus to David picks up passengers.
2:30 PM we headed for David, sitting very uncomfortably in the back row of — you guessed it! — another Coaster bus.
7:30 PM we arrived in David and got a cab to the Hotel Iris. I never found a website for them, but their phone number is 507-775-2251 and both desk clerks I talked with spoke English. It was bare bones, but clean and they have WiFi. They’re located in the heart of David, on the Park. Rooms start at $25 a night for a single without air conditioning. A double with AC is only $35.
8:00 PM we walked six blocks to Tambu Country, a restaurant with an interesting and varied menu which the desk clerk recommended. It was a good choice. Again, no website that I could find, but they’re at Av. 3 de Noviembre (en Calle E Sur).
9:30 PM Back to the hotel.
We had been warned to avoid the border crossing first thing in the morning as it would be very busy with long lines, so we left the hotel around 9 AM and breakfasted at the Multi Cafe on the other side of the park.
10:00 AM we hailed a cab and went to the bus terminal.
10:30 AM we left for the Frontera, the border area. On a Coaster bus, naturally.
11:45 AM we arrived at the Frontera. We walked to the window where we filled out a form and stamped out of Panama.
Then we walked over to the Costa Rica entry point, filled out another form and stamped into Costa Rica.
After filling out a third form, we walked up to the exit window and stamped out of Costa Rica. It felt a bit strange, as the windows were right next to each other.
Then we headed back to the Panama entry point.
Panama wants to be sure that you have the means to leave the country. We were prepared for that — we thought — because we had photocopies of all our car ownership papers with us. Our friends had told us that would be fine.
Unfortunately, the immigration officials didn’t agree. They wanted us to show them bus tickets out of Panama and wouldn’t even look at our car papers unless we were actually bringing the car in from Costa Rica at that moment.
My husband was starting to get angry. “No necessito!” he shouted. On the theory that it wasn’t a good idea to antagonize someone who could prevent our return home, I dragged him away from the window.
A few minutes later we went back and tried a different agent at a different window. No joy. We had to buy bus tickets that we had no intention of ever using.
After wandering around looking vainly for the place to purchase the tickets, my husband called a friend for help. He was able to direct us to the out-of-the-way spot where we could obtain tickets.
The bus tickets are a bit of a racket. You can’t buy a ticket from the Frontera into Costa Rica, you have to buy a ticket from David, Panama to San Jose, Costa Rica, at a cost of $21 apiece. Because the bus crosses an international border, you submit your passport and they issue a ticket in your name, so you can’t resell it either.
Tickets are good for 90 days. We figure we’ll do our next border run around the 85-day mark and try to show those same tickets to the Panama officials. If it works it’ll save us $42.
After getting our bus tickets we went back to the Panama entry point. Lines were long again, so we waited. I shouldn’t complain, because to this point our waits had been minimal, but it was hot, I was drenched in sweat, and I was frustrated.
Fortunately we got our passports stamped with no difficulty this time.
We headed to the bus for David.
1:15 PM Got on the David (Coaster) bus.
2:00 PM Arrived at the terminal, and were fortunate to get seats on the 2:35 bus to Panama. Although we would be getting off in Divisa, about the halfway point, they charged us full price. It was worth it to us to have a comfortable ride.
The bus was a double decker — the first one I’ve ridden here. We were on the top level in the second row. After the bone shakers we’d been in to this point, it felt like riding on a cloud. We were only aware of the bad road surface because the driver swerved onto the shoulder from time to time.
6:00 PM Left the bus at Divisa. Walked around the corner and up the hill, where a small bus was waiting. It was going to Chitre so we hopped aboard.
This was a little minibus. From the outside they don’t look very comfortable but compared to the Coasters we’d been on, it was wonderful.
7:00 PM Arrived in Chitre.
7:30 PM Got onto a bus for Las Tablas. This was another comfortable minibus.
8:15 PM Left the bus and walked back to our house.
Once we got back to the house, my husband jumped into the car and drove over to the vet’s house to pick up the dogs. They were home a few minutes later.
The trip ended up costing more than we’d anticipated.
Buses Total: $72.85
Cabs Total: $3.25
Meals and snacks: $62.30
Costa Rica Bus Tickets: $42
We also spent $42 to board our three dogs for two days.
If you plan to drive here as a non-resident, make sure to include a visa run every three months into your budgeting and planning.
Our Next Visa Run
Next time, we’ll drive the car. We’ll either plan a side trip so it’s not just a border run, or we’ll start early enough in the morning that we can go and come back in one day.
If you have the time, turn it into a mini-vacation. Unlike us, you could actually go into Costa Rica to see some sights, or up to Bocas del Toro or some other spot in Panama.
Note: After this adventure, Panama changed its rules so you can no longer renew your visa by exiting and reentering the country on the same day.