When you enter Panama as a tourist, you are normally given a 180 day tourist visa. That means you can stay in the country for 6 months, then you have to leave - at least for a short time. While you are in Panama, you can drive with your foreign (in our case, U.S.) driver's license for only 90 days. This creates a problem: you can only drive [legally] for half of your 6 month stay. Thus, the need arises to do what many expats refer to as a "border run."
To keep your driving privileges active, you need to leave and re-enter the country on or before the 90th day of your stay. We talked to our next-door-neighbors, Guy and Tracy, about this and it turned out they needed to renew their pasports just one day before we did. We decided to double-date for our border run. This worked out very well because they had already done it several times and this was our first time. They would "show us the ropes." Guy told us they had a hotel where they normally stay and he made a reservation for both of us.
We drove to the border on a Monday morning, in Guy and Tracy's car. It only takes about an hour or so to reach the Costa Rica border from where we live. At the Panama/Costa Rica border is a little town called Paso Canoas. Part of the town is in Costa Rica and part is in Panama. There are places where you can literally cross the street and be in a different country. It's a dirty, crowded, hectic little town, with traffic going every which way. About the only reason you would go there is to make a border crossing or do some cross-border shopping.
We approached the border crossing and turned down a street only about 100 feet before the Panama Border Office. We made our way through the narrow street and drove about another mile of two outside of town. That's where our hotel, Hotel la Morenita, was located. It seems every expat we talked to about making a border run recommended this hotel. It's a nice little place that is inexpensive, has basic rooms (with satellite TV, WiFi, AC, and hot showers), and is very clean. The couple who run it are friendly and likeable and the service is great. It fits the bill for a place to spend the night and they get a lot of "border run" customers.
We arrived about lunch time, checked in, and went downstairs to get some lunch. We asked to see a menu and the housekeeper/cook/waitress started telling us what she could fix (based, presumably, on what they had in the kitchen). I ordered grilled chicken and the rest of our bunch ordered burgers. We made ourselves comfortable in the dining room, which was out on the patio.
After lunch, we drove back into town and parked in a small dirt lot a few blocks from the border. We walked to the Panama border office and "checked out" of Panama. Then we walked a few hundred yards to the Costa Rica border office and "checked into" Costa Rica. Tina and I were a little apprehensive, since we've had issues with almost every border crossing we've done. Thankfully, this time was a piece of cake - and no lines.
This is the strange part: once we were processed into Costa Rica, we turned around and walked back across the border into Panama. There are lots of people walking back and forth and no one checks pedestrians. We got in the car and drove back to the hotel, which is in Panama.
We hung out the rest of the afternoon and had dinner at the hotel that evening. We met another family who were also from Boquete. They were doing a border run as well. They were British and had 3 young boys. The boys sounded like characters out of a Charles Dickens novel and we had a great time asking them questions and listening to their delightful accent. We also spent time observing the pets they have at the hotel, which included 2 monkeys, 2 lovebirds, and another blue-headed bird (don't know what it is). The monkeys were non-stop entertainment. I don't like seeing them in a cage but they were awfully cute - and mischievous.
The next morning we met downstairs for breakfast. The owner of the hotel (owner) fixed us his secret recipe omelets, along with fresh fruit and fried bread (very tasty with some jam on it). About 10am we drove back into town, parked the car in the same place, and walked back to the Costa Rica border office. We had to pay $7 each for CR's "departure tax," then we walked back to the Panama border office and checked back into Panama - thus renewing our 6-month tourist visa, along with our 90-day driving privileges. Once again, this border crossing went incredibly smoothly. None of the border agents asked us for any documentation other than our passports. We had other documentation that they can legally ask for ready to go but it wasn't needed. That was a first.
We took the short drive back to the hotel to shower and pack. We decided to shower after doing the border crossing. It is very hot in Paso Canoas and there was very little breeze. We worked up a sweat just walking from country to country. We freshened up, checked out and paid our bills. Our tab, which included a one night stay, 6 meals (lunch, dinner, and breakfast for two) and a couple of extra bottled waters, was $96. We drove back to Boquete, stopping in David for a late lunch.
Now we're all set for another 90 days. We'll be doing this again in July...
Posted by Mark