So thanks to lots of detailed advice from friends, friends of friends, expat forums such as the Yahoo group, Americans in Panama, and the Facebook group, Tropical Cowboys and Cowgirls, I just did the mandatory exiting of Panama within 180 days to renew my visa.
I was warned that things can change quickly, and this proved to be so, though it all worked out well since I didn't stress out but just went along with the program, including lying to a Panamanian customs officer so I'd be allowed to reenter Panama.
The first change was at the Gran Terminal, the national bus terminal, located adjacent to Allbrook Mall, the largest in Central America. It's got a great food court, glitzy shops and puts most U.S. bus terminals to shame--even the Banos (bathrooms) are clean, though they do charge a quarter to enter.
My new friend Sonny Davis, told me the easiest way he discovered to do the crossing was to take a Frontera overnight express bus, which he told me leaves at 10:30pm and arrives at 5am.
The one catch is that you have to buy the ticket the day of your departure, so I spent 7 hours grazing the several food courts at Allbrook, people-watching (made more pleasant as about 8 beauty queens walked by at various times with sashes representing South Africa and other nations. They walked so fast, and had several people each with them, that I didn't get a good look at the sashes, but did get a very enjoyable good look at the girls themselves...they could have been anywhere from 17 to 21.
I was told when I got my ticket at 4pm that the express Frontera bus left at 11:15 and I should be there by 10:30. I thought of seeing one or two movies, but found out the only English language films at the Allbrook cinemas are not shown before 10pm, not even English subtitles before then.
Luckily, I got to the bus waiting room a bit before ten, as they suddenly switched busses and put us on a Tica bus, more modern and usually more expensive. If anyone showed up after 11, they were out of luck. Luckily the bus had a functioning bathroom as it did not make the stop in Santiago scheduled by Frontera.
We arrived at the border at about 6:20, perfect as the Panama customs windows don't open until 7am. I was told by everyone that I would have to fill out customs claims forms leaving and coming back into Panama, but that is no longer so, at least not today. But a new twist was that you had to go into a room and put your luggage (or backpack in my case) on a table to be searched before you could check out. The Costa Rican customs windows did require the claims paperwork but no search.
The only other potential hitch in a very smooth double crossing was on leaving Panama. The customs officer said that in order to go back into Panama, I needed a ticket showing I would be going back to the U.S. in the next 180 days. I did have a Tica ticket for January from Panama City to San Jose, Costa Rica, which everyone said would do the job.
This particular customs agent said that had changed. Here's where the lie came in, as I told him I had checked with Immigration in Panama City and they told me the bus ticket would all that was required. He bought it, though he also gave my new friend, Tony from Mexico, the same hard time, but relented when Tony told him that no one had told him that new rule before he arrived at the border. This almost immediate backtracking leads me to believe the custom agent may have been making it up as he went along.
I don't know if it was this one customs agent, or it was a one day rule, or an actual change in policy, but I definitely breathed a sigh of relief at not being stuck in Costa Rica. As it was, Tony and his lovely wife and I were finished with everything at about 8:15am. Sonny Davis had said I should then walk down to the bus stop and buy a ticket back to Panama for the 10:30am bus.
As we walked by an empty Frontera bus, however, the driver said he was leaving for Allbrook Mall at 8:30. Tony said we should go for it, though when we were the only three passengers as the bus pulled out, I did wonder if this was a ploy by a gang of bus bandits to kidnap expats and take them into the nearby mountains. More sighs of relief as several stops allowed more passengers to climb aboard. Back at Allbrook at 4:40, exactly 8 hours after the bus left the border, and I was home a half hour later. Going, the fare was $14.40 for the overnighter, coming back, $16.90 (though the ticket I bought for January was $41. one way on the more expensive Tica line).
I'll share this with my expat friends as it includes this new information which may or may not be true if they do the same round trip visa run.
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