This will be my last post about our trip to Costa Rica. Although most of the trip went well, it ended not so favorably and put a damper on any future trips. It has been 5 days since we returned to our home in Pedasí. As you can see from the title of this blog, things probably did not go well at the end. The last day of our trip did not happen in Costa Rica, but Panama, but unfortunately has affected my desire to go back to Costa Rica anytime soon. I have always tried to be honest when it comes to writing about my experiences on this blog, trying not to sugar-coat everything or hide the uncomfortable truth. So I will not keep you in suspense any longer.
Once returning to the hotel from our city tour, we rested in our room comfortably until it was time to check-in and board the Tica Bus. Headed for Panama through the night, I slept most of the way and woke up surprised that we had arrived at the border at 5am. Everyone on the bus lined up at the Costa Rica exit window. But the office did not open until about 7am or so. While lined up, we then were told we all had to move out to the street because they were spraying for mosquitos. So much spray that when the Costa Rica migration office did open, the employees were all wearing masks. I certainly did not feel comfortable standing around there. At least this time, we did not have to have our luggage inspected on the Costa Rica side.
After having our passports exit-stamped, we walked over to the Panama migration window and handed over our passports and permanent residence card. No problem with that. Then we had to get all our belongings out of the bus for inspection and line up to again enter a locked room. Unfortunately another bus going out of Panama was there before us. Apparently a family was moving to Costa Rica and used a bus as a moving van. The driver and one other man were unloading all the household belongings including a refrigerator out of the bus and into the inspection room. This took over an hour of hauling everything in and then hauling everything out again. Okay, that wasn’t too bad.
Then it was our turn. If you recall, the main reason for the trip was to pick up materials (Panama guides of animals, birds, trees, fish, etc.) that are manufactured by our new friends we stayed with in Tambor. Mikkel is the Panama distributor of these guides. We have brought the guides back from the states, where they are made, before with little hassle. This time Mikkel wanted to meet the company owner in person who lives in Costa Rica most of the year. He had brought 1100 guides to Costa Rica for Mikkel to pick up. His wife than dropped of the 3 boxes of guides to our hotel in San Jose. We in turn placed them in our suitcases for easier travel. People had previously told us both good and horror stories about this border crossing, Paso Canoas, but not having too much problem going across to Costa Rica, we didn’t think it we would have any trouble this time.
Well, when the inspector open the first suitcase and saw all the guides, she stopped everything, questioned what they were for, and asked for a receipt. We had claimed them on the travel form as to what Mikkel had paid for them which was under the $2000 limit allowed to import, but only had a list with market value which did not match what we had paid. So the inspector went over to another, apparently her supervisor, who refused to let us continue on. Nothing we said would change his mind. From my point of view, he saw the only 2 gringos that were on the bus probably had money and decided he wanted a piece of the action. Because Mikkel couldn’t speak much Spanish, the supervisor (who I heard speak English very well to others later, but acted like he did not understand a word from Mikkel) finally directed Mikkel to another person “the helper” who could speak English and negotiate with migration and the customs officer. But this meant Mikkel first had to pay him $100, then leave me with the luggage in the inspection room. I basically felt as if I was being held hostage, not knowing what was happening outside with Mikkel. In the meantime, the Tica bus left.
So there I sat, at least I finally got a chair after I asked, for about 5 hours. I had had no breakfast or lunch not offered anything to drink or eat even when the inspectors were taking coffee breaks or eating lunch together in front of me. I could not leave to go to the bathroom even. The inspectors went on with their business; busloads of passengers and individuals continually hauled in their belongings to be thoroughly inspected. During a break while all the staff was talking, they were surprised when they realized I understood what was being said. Yes, I was livid, upset, on the verge of tears, and felt abandoned, not knowing when Mikkel would return. Eventually he did return, only to tell me that he needed to go to a bank with “the helper”to get out some more money to the customs broker to let us go. So I sat and waited some more. When Mikkel did again return, he told me he had paid about $225 to the customs broker to let us go with our one suitcase full of personal belongings. But we would have to leave the other 2 small carry-ons with the guides. Mikkel would then have to come back within 2 weeks and pay $1200 more and then they will release those suitcases. Obviously we did not have that amount on us; neither could we withdraw that amount from the ATM which was above the daily limit. Where he came up with this figure is beyond me.
So now we were ready to go, but now the supervisor still would not let us. He was still be hard-nosed and wanted us to pay everything now in spite what the customs officer had agreed upon, basically saying he did not want to be held responsible for storing the bags. The “helper” continued to argue with him. Finally he gave in, but not until the others counted every guide to make sure it matched with the list. So 4 people started counting and stacking each guide with one making her own list with description. 1100 guides were counted, just as we claimed. Then copies were made, but that had to be done in another office. More waiting. I was finally released to use the bathroom. Once the inspector came back with the copies and showed them to her supervisor, another kindly helped Mikkel lock up the suitcases. Then the supervisor insisted that our bag with personal belongings be inspected again before we could go (as if I smuggled something in while sitting there in the same room all this time). Finally we could go, leaving behind the main reason we went to Costa Rica in the first place. And when Mikkel returns to the border, he not only has to get paperwork from the customs broker there, he then has to go back to Banco Nacional in David to pay the $1200 before returning to the border to retrieve his guides. Hopefully they will still be there.
Now, how do we get home? It is now about 4pm. Well one good thing came our way; there sitting down the road from the crossing was a bus going to Panama City. It could drop us off in Divisa instead of Santiago where we were originally going to get off at from the Tica Bus. Divisa is where one would exit the PanAmerica Intercontinental Highway to go to the Azuero peninsula. We had made previous arrangements with our friend Tim, Mikkel’s business partner to pick us up in Santiago at 12 noon, but we had called him a few times that day to keep him informed of what was happening at the border. So on our last call we told him we were free and asked if he could pick us up at about 8pm in Divisa. The bus was old and the AC was on MAX the whole way, but I was just glad to get out of Paso Canoas.
Reflections of this trip: Although Costa Rica is lush and green with beautiful beaches, Panama, too, is that at least during the wet season. We met a lot of good friendly people, but we have done the same in Panama. Am I glad we went? Honestly, it is hard to separate my unfavorable experiences at the border with those good experiences at least for right now-too soon. Even before we went through this last disaster at the border, Mikkel and I know we will not take the Tica Bus again; it is basically too long of a ride. But we would have never known this unless we experienced it first hand. Sounded like a fun way to travel. If we do go to Costa Rica, we would fly into San Jose, avoiding crossing at Paso Canoas. Mikkel and I were very interested in visiting many of the museums we were introduced to on our tour. Mikkel plans to ship any future orders of the guides from the U.S. to Panama and have a customs broker handle the shipment when it arrives. Due to my experience, I refuse to bring them back from a trip in the U.S. as I did before. I know we did not have any problems, but I don’t want to chance it. I did find that more Costa Ricans spoke English than Panamanians, not that I expect them to. I was always trying to speak in Spanish, and they would many times answer in English. As I mentioned before, Costa Rica is very expensive, probably 2 to 3 times more than Panama for many things. And sales tax is 13%; Panama is 7%. We did have some good times though and saw some beautiful places. Therefore, I will try to concentrate on the good and chalk off the bad to another one-time adventure.