Bus Top Steve WEB IMG_3363

Matapalo Samara Bus Stop

Steve sitting depressed with Mocha the hostel dog . . .

If you’re following our southward progress on Facebook this may be old information. We finally bid a sad farewell to Matapalo Samara, Costa Rica (and Casa Brian) on Monday. Mocha, our loyal hostel dog, walked us up to the bus stop, and even waited the 30-minutes it took for our bus to arrive. During our stay of 2+ months we really came to like our furry companion, and her independent (beach dog) attitude. As mentioned in previous posts, and on Facebook, Casa Brian turned out to be a great respite from our travels, which began over 3-years ago with our arrival in Mexico (the Yucatan Peninsula to be exact).

Mocha IMG_1457

Mocha the Hostel Dog

Well, our bus did arrive, and we said our goodbyes to Mocha—who promptly headed back to the hostel, throwing a final look over her shoulder at the two strange gringos she had finally accepted and befriended. Onward to San Jose, and points beyond, rode los hermanos. We arrived in San Jose 5-hours later (at a cost of $9 USD), and received a heavy dose of culture shock—San Jose is a large city of over 1-million people. It is big, busy and boisterous. It is LOUD. We both wanted to climb back on the bus for the return trip to Matapalo, but didn’t.

Samara IMG_1274_tonemapped

Casa Brian Hostel

Matapalo Samara

We stayed two nights in San Jose, giving us ample time to book passage (by bus) to Panama, which included yet another border crossing. The first stop would be in David (Dah-veed), Panama’s second largest city  with a population of only 125,000 people (small when compared to San Jose). It proved to be a much longer trip than I had anticipated at 9-hours, but only cost us $18 USD. If you’re traveling on a budget in Latin America, then traveling by bus is your best option by far—they come in every variety imaginable, and they go EVERYWHERE.

Samara IMG_3324

Playa Samara

Adios to Paradise

Our bus to Panama was with Tracopa; it was large (but had no onboard bathroom or air-conditioning), the seats were fairly well-cushioned, but had very little legroom (they were cramped). However, the bus did stop about every 2-hours for passengers to stretch their legs and use the bathroom, and all stops were clean and had plenty of food available. When we were moving, the lack of air-conditioning was somewhat alleviated with open windows and forward motion, but it remained pretty humid within the confines of the bus (when we were stopped it was just plain HOT). Most of the 9-hours was spent traversing Costa Rica, and the border crossing with Panama came at the very end of the trip.



Sunset on Playa Samara

The sun setting the Costa Rican portion of our adventure . . .

Border crossings (and we’ve experienced a ton of them) are all unique, and usually challenging for various reasons. Crossing into Panama was no different. We disembarked from our bus and headed to immigration (the window marked Salida, or Exit). There we paid our $7 USD exit fee from Costa Rica, and walked across the border into Panama. Once again we entered the immigration building, but this time queued in front of the Entrada, or Entrance, window. We had barely begun the process of entering Panama, when the immigration official noticed that Costa Rica had not stamped our passports with its exit stamp. We traipsed back over to the Costa Rica side (ugh!), queued (once again) at the Salida  window, and got our passports stamped after presenting our receipt showing proof that we had already paid our $7 USD exit fee. Then we traipsed back to the Panama side, queued (once again) at the Entrada window, and began the process of entering Panama.

It is very noisy at the border with all of the buses, diesel trucks and automobiles in close proximity. You have to talk to the officials through thick glass, with small openings to allow for voice communication. Both Joel and I are a little hard of hearing, and our Spanish still sucks. So all communication was accomplished with loud shouting on our part, and what seemed like whispers on their part. Difficult, but not impossible. Better hearing and/or better Spanish would have made the process much easier—I think. We had to show proof of our financial integrity (did we have access to at least $500 USD?) by presenting a current bank statement), and proof that we had pre-booked our travel arrangements out of Panama. This was accomplished by booking a flight online, printing the confirmation, and then NOT confirming the flight (we will re-book when we are finally ready to leave).

If all of this sounds a bit cumbersome, try entering or exiting the USA sometime (even as an American citizen). At least down here, unlike the United States, the officials (for the most part) are friendly and helpful. Immigration in the United States has a terrible reputation amongst foreign travelers, and I can bear witness to the fact that it’s even painful for citizens. So, completing the entry requirements, we got our passports stamped with Panama’s entry stamp. WELCOME TO PANAMA! Well, not quite yet. Back to the bus, where our packs had been unloaded, to pickup our luggage for inspection (in yet another building). More forms to fill out, and a quick cursory look in our packs, and we lugged our packs back to the bus. Now, WELCOME TO PANAMA! Climbing back onboard we were finally off once again. Now we were really hot, sweaty and tired, but David is only an hour away.

The countryside is low, flat and agricultural. David is not a tourist mecca, but rather a crossroads to Panama’s tourist meccas. We planned on staying two nights, which was a fortunate decision as you will come to see. David is a sprawling, horizontal small city, as opposed to San Jose which is a claustrophobic and vertical mega-city. David is much preferred. Unlike most border crossings, we didn’t see any money changers this time. We each had about $400 in Costa Rican colones we needed to get changed into $USD (Panama’s currency—yep, back to greenbacks after 3-years). We hit up an ATM at the bus terminal, and withdrew enough dollars to see us through a day or two. We grabbed a taxi and asked the driver about exchanging our colones for dollars. We were informed that no one in David could do that (in fact nowhere in Panama could it be done). Nowhere except (you guessed it) at the frontera—the border (where we had seen no money changers). Too tired to deal with it at the moment, we headed off to our hostel, The Purple House (David’s first hostel).

Great little place, complete with a dog named: Cutesy. Dropping off our stuff, we got directions to the nearest eateries that served beer. Like I mentioned before, David is NOT a tourist mecca. We ended up in a bar & restaurant for locals: 3 beers at .80 cents each, fried chicken at $2 USD and french fries at $1 USD ($5.40 USD total). Back to the hostel for a quick shower, some internet and bed. The next day would be money changing day (or not).

Morning arrived with a small free breakfast of: oatmeal (yuck), banana and coffee. I haven’t had oatmeal since Marine Corps bootcamp, and it still gags me. But, hey, it’s FREE. After breakfast we caught a local bus back to the border for $2 USD, it was air-conditioned, crowded and only took an hour. We found our money changers quickly (where had they been the previous day—who knows?), exchanged our $400 in colones for about $355 USD, and re-boarded the bus back to David. So, for $4 USD and 2-hours of our time, money problem solved. Back to the hostel to rest our weary bones, a nice dinner (and more beer) later in the afternoon, and then to bed.

The following morning we repeated breakfast (more oatmeal, double yuck), grabbed a taxi for the bus terminal, and boarded the bus for Boquete (an old USA yellow school bus) for the 1-hour ride up into the highlands ($3 USD). David is very hot and very humid. Boquete is at a higher elevation, and therefore much cooler, an appreciated change of climate. This is our first night here, and we’re booked for at least six more nights. Once we get the lay of the land we’ll decide how long we want to stay. Boquete is small, maybe 5,000 people spread out over a few miles, and seems to be very quiet and tranquil. More like Matapalo Samara, but without the beach. Anyway, that’s about it for now. More to come later I’m sure.


Stephen F. Dennstedt

Photographer, Writer and World Traveler

Reporting from Boquete, Panama . . .


2 responses to “Panama

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