(Note: After beginning this post, I noticed that it was getting super-long. I’ve divided it into two, and will post shortly another on my experiences in Panama and returning to Costa Rica.)
U.S. citizens are not required to apply for a visa when visiting Costa Rica; instead, tourists are automatically granted a 90 visa upon entering the country. If, however, you want to stay for longer than 90 days, you must renew your visa by exiting the country for 72 hours and re-entering (at which time you get a new visa for another 90 days). I will be in classes at the time that my original visa from June will expire, so I left the country during the time between my programs to get a new visa.
The capital of Costa Rica, San Jose, is centrally located in the ‘Central Valley’ (more or less surrounded by volcanoes and mountains, check out map at http://www.duke.edu/~gar6/Costa-Rica-Map-large.jpg), and is the hub for buses traveling throughout the country. Since both Nicaragua and Panama are both about 6 hours by bus from San Jose, it would be just as easy/difficult to travel to either to leave Costa Rica. I chose to go to Panama because when I was studying the frogs at La Selva, I read many papers about the research of O. pumilio (my study-frog) that has been conducted in Panama, specifically at STRI. The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) has four biological stations in Panama, one of which is located on an island off the northeast coast of the county. The group of islands is known as Bocas del Toro, and STRI has a station on the main island. At the station, there are many morphs of O. pumilio, not just the red and blue morph that is found at La Selva. There have been many studies on these morphs, including the natural history, hybridization, and mate selection among the morphs. I hoped to visit the station and get the chance to see other morphs of O. pumilio.
So, after my research at La Selva was done, I and the other students returned to San Jose and began to go our separate ways. Some went home to the States immediately after research, others were to travel throughout Costa Rica and Central America, and I headed to Panama. This is where the saga begins….
The morning that I was to catch the bus to Panama, I woke at 4:30 to catch the 5:00 local bus to the larger bus station where I got in line to get a ticket for the Panama bus. When it was my turn, I went to the window, and asked for a ticket to Sixaola (the Costa Rican border town). Turns out, the last ticket was sold to the guy in front of me in line! Fortunately (or unfortunately?) they also sell a certain number of tickets “a pie”, meaning that you don’t get a seat, but you are able to be “on foot” for the duration of the 6 hour trip. Standing for 6 hours after getting up at 4:30 sounded like such a great option (combined with the fact that I needed to leave the country to renew my visa) that I bought the “a pie” ticket. I’m just now wondering if “a pie” is slightly cheaper than “in a seat”, or if I paid just as much as if I had had a seat…?
The next item on the agenda for the morning was to empty my bladder before departing on a 6 hour journey on a bus with no bathroom. This was my first encounter with paying to use the facilities. Yes, I’m still not really sure how this works, either; I only know that I paid something like 20 cents for a lady to hand me some TP and let me into the bathroom (in the Martz stations in NEPA, I know that tokens are required to open the bathroom, but you don’t have to pay for them, just ask for them at the desk). In any case, the fee was paid and the bladder was taken care of. This may be an example of Costa Rica squeezing every last drop out of the tourists that they can – money-wise, I mean.
HERE I WOULD LIKE TO APOLOGIZE FOR LACK OF PHOTOS IN THIS POST (not for the last paragraph, perhaps, but in general; I am a visual learner, so I like to have lots of photos and things to keep my attention. However, I was not going to go around taking pictures of the bus station, buses, and TP-lady, so I have a severe lack of pictures for this post in general. I will try harder in the future to take more pictures of mundane Costa Rican sites for your viewing pleasure.)
Back to the story:
Since I was “a pie”, I and the other fortunate “a pie”-ers had to wait until all the “in seat”-ers had boarded the bus. This whole situation turned out to be dramatically in my favor. While I was standing next to the bus, there was a group of very conspicuous college-age, non-Ticos (“Tico” = Costa Rican citizen) boarding the bus in drips and drabs. A large group of US college students were traveling to Panama to complete a biology service project. Their leader had boarded the bus ahead of many of them, but held the tickets for all of them. As they tried to board in small groups every few minutes, the conductor stopped them and asked for their tickets, in Spanish. However, it appeared that my Spanish, though fairly horrible, was better than the students’ understanding of Spanish. I was therefore a bit of a spontaneous translator for the students, and helped many of them by explaining to the conductor in broken Spanish that they were with the group, etc. When I was finally allowed to board the bus, I stood next to a few of the students and learned about their program (6 hours is plenty of time to learn a lot about anyone!). Their leader was a Tica (“Tica” = female Costa Rican citizen) who coordinates a program for sea-turtle rescue in the northeast of Panama, near where I was going. (At some point during the bus ride, I sat on the floor and caught a few zzz’s. Sitting on the floor may sound disgusting, but after 2 months of living in the rain forest, sitting on a dry floor was a relief! Also at some point, the bus stopped for 15 minutes at a roadside restaurant, and we could get off and stretch our legs)
When we finally arrived at the border (only 5 1/2 hours later!), I made sure to stay close to my new acquaintances to take advantage of the fact that their leader had crossed the border multiple times and knew how the whole processed worked. She graciously took me under-wing for the process, and I am eternally grateful for her help! I learned the following from her:
How to Cross the Costa Rica/Panama border (as a parasite of another group) (the process is slightly different for someone traveling solo who actually knows what he or she is doing!):
1) Get off the bus in Sixaola, the Costa Rican border town. (If you don’t get off the bus, then you’re doomed to travel 6 hours back to San Jose, Sixaola is the last stop)
2) Walk to the Costa Rica border-control window and wait in line for an undetermined amount of time while people in front of you get their passports and IDs checked.
3) Get your passport checked.
4) Say good-bye to Costa Rica.
5) *possibly the most interesting part of the whole experience* Walk over the completely sketchy looking bridge to Panama.
6) Say hello to Panama.
7) Repeat steps 2 and 3, except in Panama (border town is Guabito). Catch: in order to be granted a visa, you must show proof that you are going to leave Panama at some point. Luckily, the nice leader put my name on the list with her other students that said I would be leaving Panama in two weeks (otherwise, I would have had to buy an $11 bus ticket that may or may not have been an actually bus ticket).
8 ) Set your watch one hour ahead (the border is a time-zone border also).
9) Get instructions from the group leader how to get to Bocas. Say good-bye to group.
10) Change colones (Costa Rican currency) to…..dollars! Panama uses U.S. dollars as currency, with U.S. coins and Panamanian coins similar sizes and shapes as US, though called balboas.
Now that you are properly versed in the exercise of crossing the Costa Rica/Panam border at Sixaola/Guabito (remember all the details for next time you’re in the area!), I’ll get back to the remainder of the journey of a half-asleep college student who speaks a limited amount of Spanish, but who is traveling through a Central American country where a limited number of people speak English….
The local buses in Panama are cheap (it seems to be a theme in Central American countries, where people utilize public transportation much more efficiently than people traditionally do in the US), so it cost me 80 cents to make it to the next town, Changinola. The local buses in Panama are also variable and interesting. The first bus I rode was what we would think of as a school bus in the US, except it was done-up as per the driver’s/owner’s imagination permitted (I sincerely apologize for lack of photo at this point, there are sometimes when I try not to look too touristy with camera and all, for sake of not being taken advantage of). So, it was painted, and had big speakers, and the other types of things that teen-age boys in the US do to their cars. And, because details matter, there was a proud Panama flag gracing the front dash of the bus.
After a half-hour ride, I arrived in Changinola, asked someone how to take the bus to Almirante, and found the next stop. This time the bus was a large van that departed only when filled with passengers. It cost 75 cents for another half-hour ride to Almirante, where the man sitting next to me was kind enough to wake me at the stop and point me in the direction of the next leg of the trip, the water-taxi.
Getting to Bocas requires a half-hour trip via water taxi from the mainland to the island. The taxi was $4 and the view was beautiful. After arriving on the island, I asked someone to point me in the direction of a hostel that friends had recommended, and I was on my way to my first night in Panama!