Just got back from a Visa Run and wanted to update the experience for those who are facing this experience in the near future… for, as you know, things change quickly here in Costa Rica and the border experience is a fine example of this core ingredient of living in a 3rd World Country…
The experience of getting your Visa stamped for you next set of 90 days while waiting for your Residency application to be accepted can be as chaotic as this photo!
I take a Tracopa bus out of San Jose at 7:30 am. It stops for five minutes for a potty break after about an hour, then continues on the new highway to Uvita where there’s a stop for half an hour for lunch. Uvita is the half way point of the trip – at about 4 hours. The country is astoundingly beautiful, the bus ride comfortable and usually quiet, and the weather increasingly warm to incredibly humid and warm the closer to Panama you get. Just saying… you might need a sweatshirt to start out in the morning, but by the time you hit the Frontera you’ll need a very light weight t-shirt or sleeveless shirt. Probably it will be raining or threatening to rain when you reach the border, so an umbrella is never a bad idea to carry during the rainy season, April through November.
The bus will drop you off at the Costa Rica border office where you will check out of the country – so look for the Costa Rica Departure window. If you have baggage being stored under the bus, it will be unloaded down the street a couple of blocks adjacent to the Panama Entry area. If you have taken your luggage with you on the bus, be sure and take it with you when you get off the bus.
The Costa Rica border office will want your Visa and the piece of paper the driver gives you to fill out. Behind this office there are bathrooms which cost 200 colones (be sure and get toilet paper when you pay!). Once you’ve been stamped on the Costa Rica side, you have to walk down a couple of blocks to the Panama Entry office for additional stamps. The place you are looking for is beyond this rounded welcome edifice. In the next photo you’ll see a bank of windows and when you enter Panama you use the right hand side windows.
You’ll need your Visa again, plus an ATM statement from that morning before you left San Jose with your bank balance showing at least a $500 balance, PLUS proof of a flight out of Panama or Costa Rica to your home country. Make sure that your copy of the airline ticket has precise dates on it. I was lucky that the Panama agent accepted my copy because as it turned out the printed email didn’t have the year on it anywhere…
Once you’ve gotten through these lines, you’ll be asked to fill out another form and proceed into the room in the rounded edifice as pictured above in order for officials to go through your luggage, and perhaps have a dog come in and sniff all the bags for drugs. As all of these steps are completed, the Tracopa bus will be waiting outside to restore your baggage to the undercarriage of the bus. Upon leaving the Frontera/Border your bus might be borded by more police with another check of your Visa. It seems they are looking for someone in particular at these times as their attention to your face is particularly important in their pass through with all the passengers.
And, now for me, it was on to David, Panama – another hour south – to spend a couple of days at The Gran Hotel Nacional. My plan was to do some shopping as the prices there and at the border are infintesimal compared to Costa Rica. The hotel is beautiful, considered a 5-star there in David. It probably is one of two of the best hotels for amenities there. A huge pool that is hardly used, three restaurants, and elegant rooms. I was quite happy there and felt absolutely pampered.
The first of the restaurants is the Cafeteria where breakfast and lunch are served. Be advised that their coffee is much like cream soup… you’ll need the condensed milk and sugar! Their food is fantastic; but I must say that I enjoyed the lunch the most. Meats are prepared by a chef and the rest of the choices are great. Breakfast is pretty much predictable but nice – and included in the price (which was $95 for a standard room).
The second of the restaurants is Italian. I was most interested in eating meat on this trip because the meat in Costa Rica is not what I was used to in the states… so here in the Italian place I ordered a filet mignon. My meal was delivered with gravy made from the drippings of the steak, which was wonderful. I enjoyed it, but can’t say I was ecstatic. A pleasant enough meal. The third restaurant was BBQ and I ordered a t-bone steak which was cooked to my specifications and came with a baked potato and corn. Was delicious. But now let’s talk about the dessert… I ordered chocolate ice cream thinking that it would be like what I received in the Italian restaurant (fudge sauce and whipped cream)… but, lol, it was quite different. It turned out to be chocolate ice cream mixed with fresh pineapple chunks, topped with four soda crackers stuck in around the top and crunched up as a topping. Have to say I laughed out loud! Was surprised to discover that the combination wasn’t bad at all. The idea of soda crackers and chocolate ice cream was beyond me, I must say…
I want to mention that as we were arriving in David I asked a seat mate who lived there where the best place to shop was because there are a couple or three malls there. She pointed me to Conway, which is where I ended up shopping and I was incredibly blown away by the prices and happy to be shopping where the locals shopped. This was for clothing, so perhaps the other malls are better suited for small electronics.
On the return trip from David to San Jose it was already blisteringly hot upon departure at 8:30 am. The process at the Frontera was markedly different in that there was a preponderance of police and customs agents checking every darn thing… they checked the bus, they opened every bag and thoroughly unpacked every item that was still in it’s original container – like a blender of all things – and the dog came and we had to go into that room after getting our Visa stamped at the Panama side, and we had to have some type of ticket at the Costa Rica window that proved we had passage out of Costa Rica within 90 days. I used an open ended Tracopa bus ticket. Everyone got different days stamped. I was lucky to get a full 90 days as my paperwork indicated I lived in Costa Rica, but there were others who got only a few to a couple of days, so be sure to check the number of days given to you!
A couple more things to assure a smooth passage through both sides of the border – smile! be patient!! don’t lose your temper!!! And have some Spanish so you can understand what they are saying to you, or asking you… if you don’t have the language, go through the line with someone behind you that does that can help you out. Oh! And don’t travel on weekends – the lines in the heat can be terribly difficult in terms of holding your temper in check… lol…
I’m going to repeat this trip in January… anyone want to join me?