Costa Rican – Panama Border Crossing
Panamanian Immigration Control Point
18:05 hours local time
24th February 2014
Since I left Guatemala I’ve had one thing on my mind: the Darien Gap. After nearly two weeks of snaking through the pulsing delights of Central America’s chaotic capitals I still didn’t know how I was going to negotiate that last section, which would take me out of this funnelling isthmus into the South American continent.
There is no official road. The Pan American stops at Yaviza on the Chucunaque River in Panama; forty odd kilometres from the Colombian border. Travellers have died at the hands of irate ‘narcos’ while trying to trek through the jungles of this biodiversity hotspot. Or they simply got lost. So as I approached the Panama border, with all these questions swirling in my mind, I wasn’t anticipating my plans being thwarted so soon.
We spilled out of the icy confines of our San Jose bus into the thick humid night air. Buses of all sizes and shapes were embarking and disembarking their passengers. People stood beside road side food stalls. Some spoke on mobile phones hired from entrepreneurial kids by the minute. Others wiped their brows of sweat and grime. I lined up in the dimly lit border control area and started reading the mishmash of notices stuck to the window separating us from the Panamanian immigration officials. One caught my eye and sent fear and loathing throughout my sleep deprived body — Conditions of Entry: Proof of onward ticket to country of residence and possession of US$500. I had neither. The beaded sweat on my brow began to trickle.
He communicated with me in clipped monotonic Spanish and having heard my story the smartly dressed official looked at me tiredly and with disdain.
“Not good enough! Stand to one side,” he growled.
With his narrowing eyes he waved the next in line to come forward. I stood my ground, slightly embarrassed as I saw other backpackers happily displaying proof of their onward tickets and ample cash produced from inside their sodden money belts.
The sweat was now coursing down my spine.
I didn’t want to buy a ticket back to Australia that I wasn’t going to use. And I thought that my credit card would have sufficed. I was fixated on travelling overland to South America. And I was going to make this border official understand my single-mindedness. I asked again, pleaded with the guy. He stared past me and nonchalantly changed his demand to proof of purchase of air ticket from Panama to Colombia and promptly turned away. I was desperate. Contingency plans loomed large.
After an hour of border processing my bus was reloaded and the driver was hassling me. He had no obligation to wait.
I returned to the counter yet again and tried a different official. Same response. He told me to rush off and buy that ticket to Colombia. I insisted again that I would be travelling overland through Panama to Colombia and that there was no way of buying these sorts of trips in advance. I was running by the seat of my pants. I had no where else to go.
I turned to the bus driver.
“I gotta go fella. Sorry!”, he quipped shrugging his shoulders and raising his eyebrows.
I huddled with him in conference. I begged him to hold on. And I went back to the window.
The melee of passengers had died and the officials were engaged in light conversation inside their brightly lit office. I looked sideways at my fellow passengers looking out the bus windows at me with a mixture of bemusement and concern. My sweat soaked shirt clung to my back. I waved nervously to attract the attention of one of the officials. I explained my situation for the umpteenth time. All of a sudden he dropped the ticket demand entirely. Looking down he rubbed his forehead and in gruff tones demanded now to see the US$500 cash. I only had $140. He asked for a credit card. My eyes beamed with renewed confidence. I waved it like a lunatic in the air. But now he was demanding to see how much money I had in the bank.
I begged again for my driver to wait and I ran to the Internet cafe dodging trucks and motorbikes, dogs and puddles. In a panic I logged on. Asked the half asleep girl to print the screen dump. And with bank balance in hand rushed back to the border control.
He slowly reviewed the screen dump print out. Scratched it to see if it was real. And with elation swelling in my bones he signalled for me to stand before the camera, took my photo and stamped my passport. The driver was already taking the backpack off my shoulders.
Elated I boarded to a slow eruption of applause. With euphoria descending upon me I sat and reviewed the crumpled bank statement once again. My name appeared nowhere on it! Not to worry. The Darien Gap was once again within my sights.