Panama – The Final Frontera
This was it, our most southerly border to cross before we would turn around and begin our return leg of a journey we did not want to end. We certainly didn’t want it to end as abruptly as it was beginning to transpire at the immigration counter at Paso Canoas, Panama.
Firstly a little background. We had walked across all borders, from our very first crossing at the world’s busiest land border at Tijuana, Mexico to this point. Along the way we had our fair share of border woes with “careless” entries stamped/re-stamped/written/rewritten by officials – mostly Honduras. We learnt very quickly to check everything before moving on too far from any border we crossed.
Any research we had done indicated El Salvador, Costa Rica and Belize as the champions of tricky border crossings with plenty of woebegone traveller’s tales of rejection as documented proof. Thus far we had found El Salvador to be one of the friendliest, hassle-free borders yet encountered on our travels. We had visited Panama back in 2010, but we had flown in on a return ticket so naturally all went smoothly at immigration.
Crossing by foot now saw Panama easily claim the title of “blind-sided backpacker’s border”. I approached the counter first, the only thing the guard requested was proof of a return flight to my country of origin, i.e. the States! We went back and forth a bit on how we had just come from Costa Rica, but no, a bus ticket returning to Costa Rica would not suffice. He appeared to think it’s no bother to just go on-line and book a flight right then and there, even pointing to a conveniently located internet café just outside. No proof of exit flight means no entering Panama. He dismissively pointed to the posted list of “required criteria” taped to the booth window. I was bloody floored, hadn’t seen this one coming.
Disorder at the Border
A stark realization was beginning to dawn on us as we suddenly noticed many fellow travellers sitting cross-legged on the floor, tapping furiously away on their lap-tops. Now, firstly we are not “wired” like most folk and even though we could have trotted across to the local internet café to book a flight, we’ll be damned if we were going to pay for a flight we had no intention of taking just to buy a few days in Panama. This was not part of our $15 each per day budget. There was only one thing left to do….beg.
For round two we approached the counter together, this time trying a different officer but we were met with the same surly, exasperated response. Undeterred, we demanded to speak to the supervisor; all or nothing, eh? They left us waiting a really long time. I reckon they thought we’d either give up and leave, or concede to booking that flight. Once the supervisor sauntered over, we argued our side pointing out how ridiculous it seemed we needed flights back to the States when we had just left Costa Rica. We also showed him our passports with all of the stamps documenting our law-abiding entries and exits of all neighbouring countries en route to Panama. Just when it seemed we were at an impasse, money came to the rescue.
No, there was no bribery involved. In a last-ditch effort I dug in my wallet and found a withdrawal receipt from an ATM in Managua, showing my balance, which was no king’s ransom but apparently enough to tip the scales in our favour. As he stood there sternly warning us “For the last time, you need proof of a flight”, he simultaneously waved us over to one of his associates and ordered him to stamp us into Panama for 15 days. We were stunned, we couldn’t believe we’d just convinced/worn down an immigration supervisor!
Advice from Others
In the ensuing time since our wee foray into Panama we’ve read quite a few travel blogs, many recounting similar Panama – Costa Rica border crossing crises. Our experience is from January 2014, for more up to date details check out this incredibly helpful post with comments/tips relating to crossing between Costa Rica and Panama.