In Costa Rica (and most countries down here) you can only stay on a tourist visa for 90 days.  To get any other kind of visa you have to have the money to qualify as a retiree, own a business in the country, or be legally related to a native.  I don’t qualify, and my mom’s friend Ivey hasn’t gotten the family visa yet, though his wife is Tica, so we both have to leave the country for a 3 day trip elsewhere.  Since his visa was up about a week after mine, we decided to go together to Panama, which is the closest border from where he lives.  To that end, I left the peninsula early

Me, taking a break in the rain forrested mountains after an early morning and a long day of driving.

last Thursday morning and I drove to Jimenez, on the other side of San Jose, where Ivey lives.  Friday morning, equally bright and early, his wife drove us to the bus station and we headed for the frontier.  It was a loooong day of traveling, let me tell you!  The bus from Jimenez to Límon was a “rapido” bus, which meant it didn’t stop every ten minutes to pick up and drop off, and we covered the 70kms in about two hours.  The land on the eastern side of the country is a lot different than on my side.  It’s flatter, more cultivated, more heavily populated, and more industrial.  It is much, much hotter, too.

In Límon, I really began to see discrimination at work in Costa Rica.  The population of the Límon province is much more African in origin than Spanish, with a heavy concentration of indigenous Indios as well, and the poverty of the area is shockingly stark because of the prejudice the governing groups have against the blacks and natives.  Límon is vastly more squalid, crowded, rundown, and impoverished than the parts of Costa Rica that I spend most of my time in.  It saddened but did not surprise me; I’d heard it was that way.  At home on the peninsula, it’s obvious that many of the locals live well.  There’s poverty, to be sure, but it’s interspersed with well built, well kept, rather nice houses, yards, farms, cars, etc.  In Límon, from almost the moment we crossed into the province ‘til we hit the border, there was no relief from the dilapidated buildings, ruined roads, and meager lifestyles evident to my eyes.  From what I understand, the crime in the city of Límon itself is far higher than anywhere in the country other than in the slums of San Jose.  Unrelenting poverty breeds crime, sadly; it’s true the world over.

Most of the blacks in eastern Costa Rica speak a sweet, almost familiar, Caribbean English.  It wasn’t until we were walking down the street surrounded by the people of Límon that I realized something funny.  I miss black people!  For the past seven years the vast majority of my students and quite a few of my work friends were all black, and I was so close to so many of my kids that suddenly being surrounded by English speaking black people made me feel just the tiniest bit like I was home.  So, in spite of the poverty, I liked Límon, and I really, really liked the city of Puerto Viejo, which we passed through later.  I’d originally thought I wanted live in Puerto Viejo and was looking for a house there before I found the house in Montezuma.  I may go visit it before this Costa Rican adventure is over.

After getting off the bus in Límon, we walked a few blocks to catch another bus and head south to Sixaola, which is the frontier town where we crossed into Panama.  That was NOT a fast bus.  Not at all.  It took what felt like forever, but was really about 3½ hours to get to the border, and was crowded from time to time, too.  The last half of the southerly drive was 40 miles of rough, on roads even worse than the ones out on the peninsula, bordered on both sides by mile after mile of plantain & banana plantation.  The only change in the landscape was the occasional encampment of shoddy, company built houses and stores, accompanied by an open-air packing plant full of busy workers getting the fruit ready to ship out.

When we finally made it to Sixaola- which is just another one of those encampments grown a little larger because of the border crossing it shares with Panama- I was worn down from the constant jarring of the bus.  The border crossing itself went smoothly, but only because I was with Ivey who’s done it dozens of times.  On the Costa Rican side I had to buy a bus ticket which I’ll never use, just to show proof that I have every intention of moving on (not sure why or how that works, but whatever), show my passport to the immigration guy, answer a few questions, get a stamp, and that was it.  We then crossed the decrepit ‘bridge’ into Panama.

The frontier between Costa Rica and Panama

Really, this thing is insane.  It’s an old train trestle about ¼ of a mile long over a muddy brown river.   There are boards along its outside edges as a walkway, but they aren’t well nailed down.  There are the expected gaps in the center of the trestle, too, so it’s a twisted ankle just waiting to happen.  Add the massive semis that cross over it every five minutes or so, and it becomes significantly more dangerous.  Luckily, the semis can’t go very fast and there are lots of other people crossing one way or the other; evidently no one has been hurt too often or they’d do something… I think.

Once on the Panamanian side, we had to go to customs, fill out a form, pay a $1 fee (they use American money, yay for the familiar!), have our bags checked, get a sticker, and move on.  The man checked Ivey’s duffle bag but not my backpack or yoga bag.  If it were me, I’d have checked the yoga bag- it’s fully long and wide enough to hold a rifle or something.  Still, no one ever thinks women would have illegal items and he sent us on our way.  To pass through immigration you have to show proof that you’re planning to leave the country again, so we went and bought a bus ticket which we’ll use when we leave.  Then we went to the immigration booth, right back next to the customs office, with our passports and bus tickets.  The woman there stamped our passports, asked a question or two about where we were going, and sent us on our way.  She was quite nice.  Actually, everyone was quite nice.  Very official, very stern, but quite nice.  No one was rude or difficult, but had I been alone I would have had no idea where to go or what to do as there aren’t signs.  I’d have been stuck using my broken Spanish to ask for help- yikes.

After that was all over, we walked a little way on, down a flight of steps to get us off the old train track that the official buildings are built on, and found a cab.  The driver was nice, and for $6 drove the two of us the 12 miles or so to our hotel in the city of Changuinola. He and Ivey chatted along the way, and I sat back reveling in the first air conditioning I’ve been in (other than the bank) since I got to Central America.

After 40 miles of bad road, two bus changes, a strange assortment of go-here and do-this to cross the border, and having been up since 5:30, I felt like it should be far later than the 1:15 the clock at the hotel said it was.  What a long trip!  But, I was in Panama and soon there would be the first food I’d had all day, a shower, and a few days to settle down before I’ve got to do it all again in reverse.