Ahorita – Costa Rica & Panama

Well, just one more day here in Central America. In my last 24 hours, before I board a flight from Panama City to San Jose, Costa Rica, then transfer to my flight home to Canada, I think I may relax and go to the pool (there aren’t any beaches nearby).

When I left Granada, Nicaragua, my bus took longer than usual to reach the border town of Peñas Blancas. While there, we waited for the bus attendant to get all our passports stamped, which means he leaves for awhile with your most valuable document. I felt strange handing it over and waiting for it to be returned to me (it becomes almost like an appendage during travel).

On the Costa Rican side the line-up to enter the country was ridiculously long. When I approached I read that I must prove to officials that I have an on-ward ticket out of Costa Rica, so I gave them my flight number out of San Jose on Jan. 12. It worked. They gave me the entrance visa at no charge, which is a relief considering I payed $16 U.S. to enter and exit Nicaragua.

Once we entered Costa Rica, along the Interamericana on the way to San Jose, I had a strange feeling. About an hour outside of Liberia, the bus broke down and we were all stuck at a gas station while the driver and mechanic fixed the problem. Two hours later (we were already an hour behind schedule) we left. Not even 20 minutes on the highway and I could hear the gears grinding when the driver changed them. It sounded terrible.

Again, the driver pulled over and everyone got out, watching him play with the gears. This time I just waited in the bus reading my book (Blink by Malcolm Gladwell). I admit I was worried and  it’s not a great read. I just wanted to get to San Jose. Finally, back on the road and what was supposed to take 8 hours, ended up being a 12-and-a-half-hour ride from hell. Never again.

Right away, I wasn’t a big fan of San Jose, Costa Rica. As I walked to the hostel from the bus station, which should have taken 30 minutes, without factoring in people following me, so I had to make random detours to shake them off my tail. It’s just a small city with nothing to offer travelers by way of culture, or anything else for that matter. Yes, I know it’s harsh to say, but the truth hurts sometimes.

A day in San Jose was enough for me, so I decided to leave for Panama City, even though my flight back to Montreal leaves from Juan Santamaria airport six days later. I knew I had to return anyway, but hopefully just to catch my flight home and not to spend another night (even worse to say!). I caught the Panama Express bus after walking around the city for many hours trying to find one that wasn’t sold out, which has happened to me every time I go to Tica Bus throughout Central America.

The overnight express bus to Panama City was relatively comfortable. I was sitting beside an old woman who moved in her seat frequently, which woke me up many times. The bus reached the border town of Canoas, where I recieved an exit stamp, walked to the Panamanian side and had my bags thoroughly ransacked by immigration before I was allowed to enter. The official also asked to see an on-ward ticket, so I cited my flight number again. Remember, the one out of San Jose on Jan. 12?

It worked. He let me in with this information, even though it’s not a flight out of Panama. I knew I’d have to make alternative arrangements out of Panama City once I arrived because all the buses were booked for the next week. Back on the bus, in the middle of the night I was awoken by the bus driver saying something to all the passengers in Spanish. I didn’t know what was happening because I was pulled out of a deep sleep.

I looked out the window and saw many trucks lined up, stuck in traffic. Everyone was told to get off the bus. Mind you this is at midnight in the middle of nowhere. So, everyone filed out the door. In front of the bus was a semi truck, overturned, laying across the width of highway. My genius bus driver tried to go around and got stuck in sand, so a truck driver had to pull it out as all the passengers stood around snapping photos.

Finally, the bus was free and everyone got back on-board and I immediately fell back asleep. At 5am, the bus pulled into Panama City and I got up, strapped on the backpack and plotted my course of action. I waited for awhile, trying to see if any buses were available to take me back to San Jose in a few days. Still nothing. All booked.

I caught a local bus to 5 de Mayo plaza downtown and took an early morning stroll down Avenida Balboa, along the coast. It was breathtaking, so I felt no need to rush to the hostel and walked around with my backpack, killing time. I continued to walk and three hours later found the hostel ‘Panama by Luis‘ in Coco del Mar.

It’s a nice, cozy place in a great neighbourhood. I dropped off my backpack, showered because I was sweating like a slave from the long walk, and left for the Panama canal. When I got to the Miraflores locks entrance, I got off the bus, walked down the road for 10 minutes, being greeted a few times from security, and found the building with a great view of the canal.

It was $8 U.S. to enter, their currency is called the ‘Balboa’ but it’s actually the U.S. dollar. I payed and entered. First thing I did was go to the theatre and watch a short film about the canal’s history, then I walked through the museum and learned about the people who constructed the canal. At the end, I walked out on to the top floor of the building, where everyone was gathered to watch a huge cargo ship making it’s way into the locks.

I watched, fascinated at how this majestic, man-made engineering marvel was able to hold these massive ships. As it entered the locks, a man on the microphone told everyone that the ship actually saves millions of dollars by entering the Panama canal because it saves on travel time around the cone of South America. The ship entered and everybody applauded, so the workers on the ship waved, looking like rock stars.

The other areas of note I visited in Panama City in the last four days here is Casco Viejo, a Havana-esque part with Panameños relaxing, enjoying the day. Also, Panama Viejo is a great place to take a stroll and check out the ruins from a few centuries ago, when Panama wasn’t a mini-Miami.

In all, a great city. A place I look forward to visiting again in the future. Tomorrow morning I’ve got a flight booked on Air Panama to San Jose, Costa Rica and from there another leg of my journey has ended. Until next time!

Hasta luego.

Adam Bemma is a journalist, humanitarian, and media consultant based in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

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