We checked out of Hotel Palo Alto in Boquete on Thursday morning (11/20), although we weren't catching the Tica Bus back to Costa Rica until Friday morning. Because we would need to catch the bus in David very early in the morning, we were going to spend Thursday night at a hotel in David.
We drove the car back to Thrifty Car Rental at the David airport, paid the ransom, and took a taxi to the same hotel where we spent our first night in Panama (reference post: Bus Trip to Panama). We were prepared to get the same, tiny kind of room we stayed in during our first visit. However, we were pleasantly surprised to find our accommodations this time were roomier and more comfortable.
Since we were going to be getting up at 4am, we had an early dinner in the hotel's restaurant and went to bed about 8:30pm. Just about the time we were dozing off (approx 8:45pm), we heard a very loud BOOM! A couple seconds later, another BOOM! Then another! They sounded close. Startled, we both sat up in bed. "Is Panama being attacked?," Tina asked. "If it is, they're in trouble. Panama doesn't have an army," I replied, now wide-awake. I got up and peeked out into the hallway, so see if anyone was panicking or evacuating the building. The noise was even louder out in the hallway, echoing through the concrete building.
After a few more BOOMs and some smaller pops and loud crackles, we realized it sounded like fireworks - major fireworks. Because we had asked for a room at the back of the hotel (away from the street noise), we didn't have a window that had a clear view of the outside. However, we could see through a plexiglass skylight outside our room that there was a big-time fireworks display going on, almost directly overhead. Mind you, we are in downtown David, not out in the countryside. We couldn't figure out where they could be launching such fireworks. We waited it out, waited for our heart rates to return to normal, then went back to sleep.
We never did figure out the reason for the fireworks. Neither Thursday nor Friday was a holiday. Nothing else we saw indicated any kind of special occasion. One thing we have been told many times by expats regarding Central America: Don't ask why.
We got up at 4am, got ready and checked out of the hotel. We caught a cab almost immediately as we exited the hotel and he drove us to the bus stop where the Tica Bus stops (if you flag it down) on its way from Panama City to San Jose, Costa Rica. You never know exactly when the bus will be coming through, since Panama City is about a 6-7 hour drive from David. One thing we did know: if we miss it, we'll be staying another day. We figured 5am was a safe time to be in place.
As we waited,. a few more people showed up - some for other buses and some for the Tica Bus. We all anxiously watched down the road, waiting to flag down the bus. It showed up at 6:55am. The driver loaded our luggage and we boarded. Unlike our bus trip coming to Panama, this bus was nearly full. Also, someone was sitting in one of our assigned seats and she claimed it was her assigned seat. The driver rearranged a couple of teenagers who had apparently spread out to get rows to themselves and we sat down in the vacated row.
Next stop: The Border. This would be the final test of the consequences of accidentally overstaying our visa in Costa Rica (reference post: Border Crossing: Costa Rica to Panama). When we left Costa Rica, the border agent told Tina that it was possible they wouldn't let us back in. There was also the possibility of a stiff fine or a shortened visa stay length, etc. As you might imagine, we were a little anxious.
The border crossing was a very busy place at about 8am. The bus sat for a while before anything happened, while other buses and trucks were getting processed. The good thing was, this time we knew what the process was and we weren't flying blind. It was also less confusing in the daylight, rather than at night.
We took ALL our bags this time and got in a pretty long line at the Panama side of the border - to get processed out of Panama. We weren't worried about this part. It went very smoothly.
We walked the couple hundred yards down to the Costa Rica border office. This is where the rubber stamp would meet the road, so to speak. Again, we waited in a long line, along with our other bus-mates. When it was our turn at the window, we put our passports on the counter at the same time. The agent took Tina's passport first. He opened it up, looked at it briefly, stamped it, and handed it back. One down, one to go.
The agent then took my passport and opened it up. He took the passport, got up, and disappeared for a few moments. Tina and I looked at each other. She promised to write me in prison. The agent returned, opened my passport, stamped it, and handed it back. We saw him write "90" in the passport stamp, indicating we were getting the maximum length stay for a tourist visa. He didn't ask for any other paperwork, which they can legally require.
I'm telling you, people, PRAYER WORKS!
The border crossing took a full 2 hours. Now we could finally relax - even though the couple in the seats in front of us had their seats fully reclined (and these seats really recline). The bus made a stop for lunch at the same roadside restaurant we hit for dinner on the trip down. Again, we knew the drill (and the menu) so we chowed down and were back on the road in 30 minutes.
The bus made one more stop, at a police checkpoint. The police boarded the bus, with a dog. The dog sniffed his way through the bus and the police did a passport check for all the passengers. They took a couple of guys off the bus to have a little chat with them - don't know what that was about. They did let them back on, and we were off to San Jose.
Once we reached the San Jose terminal, we took a taxi to the inter-city bus terminal, getting there just in time to hop on the bus to Atenas. It was rush hour and the traffic getting out of the city was slow. It took longer than usual and we were ready to be OFF of buses by the time we arrived in Atenas. We walked over to a pizza place, about a block away (luggage and all). We were hungry! After dinner, we caught a taxi back to our apartment - home, sweet home.
We were glad to be back and VERY glad to be legal again (valid visa).
Posted by Mark