At 2:00 am on Wednesday, I bordered a charter bus with the other Sol students to head to Boquete, Panama.
Now, you maybe wondering. Why exactly Boquete? Why go to Panama for three days?
Well, in Costa Rica myself and the other Sol students are on tourist visas and not student visas. After 90 days, the tourist visas expire. Because our program surpasses the time frame of the tourist visa, Sol takes all of the students to Panama for a couple of days so we can receive a new tourist visa. Up until a few years ago, Sol took students to Nicaragua because the Costa Rica-Nicaragua border was much closer to Heredia. However, Nicaragua is currently in the midst of a civil war with a level 4 travel warning. As a result, Sol taking students to Panama is pretty recent.
I had really low expectations traveling to Panama and I have to say they were easily surpassed!
Around mid to late morning, our bus arrived at the Costa Rica-Panama border. Everyone had to disembark the bus and line up to receive their exit stamps. The border buildings were a real eye-opener for me. I kept thinking back to my time in Switzerland with my host sister Estelle and when we had drove to France to ski for the day (click here to read about that adventure). The ease of which people, goods, and services moved across borders in Europe is easy as a result of the European Union. Central America, however, is a whole different ball game.
In true Central American fashion, everything is beautiful chaos. There are street vendors trying to sell you fresh coconut juice while waiting in line. Random store fronts are along the road advertising that you can make copies there for a small fee. Bags are being unloaded from buses and searched by hand in a gated section of the complex. There is a lot going on in one place.
While waiting in line to receive my stamp, I could not stop thinking about the thousands of people who had made up the migrant caravan which dominated headlines last fall in the United States. I think what sparked this thought of mine happened to be a huge group of individuals who the Costa Rican officials had pulled aside on the opposite side of the baggage search area. From my spot in line, I could only see officials spouting off directions. Costa Rica by Central and South American standards is viewed as very advanced. With Nicaragua in the midst of a civil war and other countries in the region having stability issues with their economy or government, Costa Rica is viewed as a desirable country.
Our whole group luckily got through fairly quickly despite the line being long. A week prior, we had to turn in our exit tax money ($20 USD) along with other documentation. Since our program directors had processed some of the paperwork already, we only really needed our exit stamp from the Costa Rican border officials.
Everyone hopped onto the bus again. Before moving, we all made sure our passport stamps had the correct date on them. Then, our bus driver drove everyone to the Panama border control. There, everyone took all of their items off the bus.
I was surprised to find in this “free area” of sorts a bustling town with restaurants, stores, and taxis galore. Once again, beautiful chaos.
We each got our passport stamps and put our bags through a scanner. Then, the whole group bordered the bus. We were officially admitted to Panama! Our bus had to stop for a second time and a gentleman from the Panamanian military got on to check our passports once again. After he disembarked, we set off for a nearby gas station/rest stop. There, I was flabbergasted to see signs for a liter of gas for less than $1 USD (U.S. dollars are the official currency of Panama).
After our rest stop, we continued driving on ward until reaching the quaint town of Boquete. At the tourist information area, everyone took pictures with the sign, grabbed a snack at the cafe, and shopped for souvenirs.
Our bus then continued to our hotel, which was located outside of the city of Boquete. We were greeted with some beautiful views.
Once getting settled in, myself and some other students decided to take a couple of taxis into town to explore and grab some dinner. Split among 4 people, our cab ride only cost a $1 USD a person.
In town, we wandered in and out of souvenir shops and little markets. At a little market, myself and some of the other students talked a while with a gentleman named Fabio in Spanish. NOTHING is better than having someone tell you your Spanish is great and accent fabulous. Talk about a confidence booster! He explained that he makes everything in his shop by hand, so of course, I purchased a little Panamanian moccasin key chain from him to use as my ornament.
Then, we made our way to a local eatery for some dinner. We had asked the lovely employees at our hotel where we could find authentic food and also our cab driver. All three people recommended the restaurant we went to called El Sabrosón.
The restaurant was cafeteria-style. Basically, you selected your meat and then your sides. None of us knew the translations for anything on the board, so we all selected everything at random. Because the restaurant is cafeteria-style, some items were out for the day. I asked for a couple of different things and they didn’t have them. However, I ended up with a great meal of salad, rice, a beef and potato mixture, beans, candied plantains, and tres leches cake (separate of my main course). For everything you see (which is a LOT of food), I spend $5.50 USD. ALWAYS eat where the locals eat because the food is cheap and delicious! You also have the opportunity to mingle with locals or people watch, which is fun in my opinion. I loved sitting at the picnic tables with friends and chatting.
Once we had full bellies, we decided we were ready to head back to the hotel. Two people went in search of WiFi to contact the cab driver. Since there were 6 of us, we figured we needed to get two cabs. Much to our surprise, however, our cap driver said “hop on in!” So, 6 girls and a cab driver headed down the winding roads to our hotel jamming to some Spanish music.
A wonderful first day in Panama!
Leave a positive impression,