After many lazy days in San Juan del Sur, our plans were to head to San Jose, Costa Rica to spend a few days visiting the capital and nearby volcanoes and rainforest. But best laid plans are iffy here in Central America. We were a bit lulled to complacency by the convenient entrance visas offered by Mexico, Belize, Honduras and Nicaragua. By just showing up at the border, we were granted tourist visas good for months without question. Not so for Costa Rica. Arriving at the Nicaraguan Costa Rican border around late morning, we were thrown off balance by the stern demands of the immigration officer. We were first in line to get our visa, with about thirty bus passengers behind us. The serious non smiling officer demanded sharply to see our outbound transportation tickets. Ha? What? You really mean that we need to show bus or flight tickets to Panama or other destinations. We've read where Costa Rica is a hot tourist destination, but we're not poor dope smoking hippie types ready to decamp for years. I'm balding with a sore back, and at 52 not the type to exploit Costa Rica's welcome by overstaying a visa. Regardless, not having
forwarding tickets entitled us to an immigration lecture. Ok I thought, just stamp our passports and let us in, will be moving on to Panama in a week or two. We wish. She wrote two days total and waived us on. I pleaded a week but was told to get out of line. A bit shocked, we regrouped, rationalized that Costa Rica didn't want our backpacking dollars and began planning our next moves. Six hours later we were in San Jose, buying bus tickets for Panama City departing at 11:00 P.M. Our two day visa being just enough time to enter and exit Costa Rica.
San Jose to Panama City is roughly fifteen hours, so we prepared with snacks, water and sweaters. Sweaters are a must, for most Central American busses run with the air con at frigid levels. Maybe a good thing in order to keep the driver from dozing. Anyway, we arrived at the Panamanian border at 4:30 A.M., inconvenient since the border didn't open until six. But directly across from the border station was of all things a Chinese restaurant. Happily they served coffee. Oddly though they must had revered Chairman Mao, honoring him with his
picture displayed for all to see. Travel is at times bewildering, stuck on the Costa Rican Panamanian border before sunup, sipping coffee at a Chinese restaurant under the gaze of a mass murderer.
Panama City was a comfortable stop offering modern amenities with mega malls, fast wifi and cozy restaurants. It also offered big city problems of crime, crooked cabbies and gridlock. One cabbie wanted $26 US for about a five kilometer ride, he got $5. Although not a victim of crime, all of the banks, some stores and restaurants had private guards standing vigilant with sawed off shotguns. While eating in a local restaurant, the gas man appeared, read the meter and presented the owner with the bill. Shadowing the gas man was another strapping guard with bullet proof vest and shotgun. Apparently the gas man had to be protected since bills are paid on the spot in cash.
Since this being Panama City, a visit to the canal is a requisite and worthy of its fame. The canal authority has a pleasant enough reception area, museum and viewing platform. We were impressed to see container ships transiting before us at the Miraflores locks. The Canal, besides
being an engineering marvel, evokes all kinds of history. Like the US insuring Panamanian independence at Colombia's territorial expense while obtaining rights to the Canal Zone for a hundred years. Or President Noriega running drugs which provoked a US invasion. Ultimately Noriega was cornered in the Vatican embassy, blasted out by rock and roll until surrendering. So a ditch dividing the Americas both North and South has produced a popular destination with skyscrapers, a colorful history as well as a last step towards South America.
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