Boquette, Panama – Sunday, February 5

We crossed the border into Panama yesterday at the Rio Sereno crossing.  We had originally planned on crossing at Paso Canos – a very busy crossing and in the lowlands (hot).  One of the guys who works at the place we camped at near San Vito told us about the chill border crossing in Rio Sereno.  It was chill, but all of the bureaucratic lassitude was in full force.

We thought we had prepared well for the crossing.  We had a map of the town showing where the government buildings were and the the process involved.

Getting “stamped out” of Costa Rica was relatively painless.  The first stop was in a hardware store to pay our exit tax of $5/pp.

The map we had was helpful because none of the buildings were labelled. (The situation is the same at every border.) Two stops on the Costa Rica side and we were ready to enter Panama.  Not so fast, hombre…

Our first stop was immigration.  An extremely bored clerk said we had to go to customs first.  Where’s customs we asked.  The bored clerk’s colleague actually got out of his chair, walked outside and pointed to an azul building.

The clerk in customs, who was to become our nemesis, told us we had to go to immigration first – where we had just come from.  Go there and come back.  And, oh by the way, buy the mandatory auto insurance on your way back to immigration.

The seguro (insurance) office was around the corner.  How convenient! After the agent programmed the next lunar landing into her computer we had a 30-day insurance policy for $15.  What does it cover?  We have no idea.

With our policy in hand we returned to the immigration office.  The bored clerk took no notice of the policy and proceeded to do the paperwork.  So what was the point of sending us to customs?  So we were “stamped in” to Panama and sent to customs.

The reason we had to stop at the customs office was to get a temporary import permit for our truck.  We had to show our passports, vehicle title and the insurance policy.  In a relatively short amount of time the clerk, a middle-aged no nonsense type of fellow, produced a form for us to sign.  This is where the fun started.

A bit of background is required.  The customs form contains our truck’s VIN (Vehicle Identification Number).  If the number is incorrect, we will not be allowed to ship our truck to Colombia.  Numerous travellers have reported the nightmare involved – which includes bribes – in getting the VIN corrected in Panama City.

When the customs clerk presented the form I checked the VIN closely.  One character was wrong.  When I pointed out the mistake to the clerk looked at me like I was crazy.  In actuality he didn’t make a mistake.  He copied the VIN from the insurance policy.  Why not use the title?  Who knows.  How do we get the problem fixed.  Go back to the insurance office.

The insurance agent tells us the “sistema” won’t allow her to alter the policy.  We finally get her to call the customs office to try to persuade the clerk to change the customs form.  She hangs us and tells us the customs clerk will fix the problem – after lunch.

At that point lunch – and a cold beer – sounded ideal.  A supermercado a short distance down the dusty unpaved street sells a cafeteria-style lunch.  When I get the bill for two plates it comes to $7.  I ask the woman behind the counter if that’s for two. Si.  Add 2 soft drinks and the bill is $7.80.  A day before in Costa Rica the same lunch would have approached $20.

When we returned to the customs office the clerk is in no mood to correct the form.  He tells us that as long as another number on the form matches the one he wrote in our passports there’s no problem.  Finally, after about  half an hour of pleading he relents and creates a new form with the correct VIN! Why all the drama?  I suspect he was waiting for an “inducement.”  When he realized one wasn’t coming (we were willing to pay but couldn’t come up with a way to offer it) he gave up and fixed the form.

The last stop was dropping off a copy of the customs form at the policia.  Simple.  But they wanted copies of our passports – which we ran out of.  So back to the hardware store.  No copies there, but go next door.  Next door was closed.  The kid from the hardware store then tells us we can get copies made at the insurance office, a different office than the one we visited earlier in the ordeal.  The agent made the copies for us and refused payment!  Back to the policia we drop off the copies and we’re done!   Nearly 3 hours for a process that could have been completed in less than 2.

We spent our first night in Panama in Volcan in an empty lot behind the post office.  Earlier in the day we bought a SIM card for Chris’ iPhone.  That took 2 attempts.  We found an “optica” shop to fix Chris’ prescription glasses – needed a new screw – and bought a pair of reading glasses to replace a broken pair.

(There’s something weird about optica shops in Latin America.  We see them everywhere, but what we don’t see are people wearing glasses.)

The wind picked up overnight.  At some point during the night we noticed a thumping noise coming from the roof in the general area of our vent fan. The next morning (today) I got up on the roof and discovered one the four cotter pins that secures the vent housing to the roof had vanished. How does a cotter pin work itself loose? Duct tape to the rescue until we can get a new pin.

That chore done we headed to Lagunas de Volcan, a nearby national park that features a pair of lakes that are at the highest elevation of any lake in Panama.  We never made it to the lakes because the road became so rough we had to abandon the attempt.

Plan B was an archaeological museum. We drove through farm country on a windy road with dazzling views of fog-shrouded Volcan Baru.

The “museum” turned out to be a small storage room with artifacts arranged willy nilly.  The owner of the property where the artifacts were found assigned a date to them much earlier than the archaeologists who found them did.  On a tour of the property she pointed out a dracena that was good for absorbing all of the radiation in the home produced by electronic devices.  It was then that I tuned her out.

After a delicious lunch we pushed on to Boquette which is on the opposite side of the volcano.  There is no direct route from Vocan to Boquette.  The route is U-shaped and about 100 kms long.

To bring you up to date from the last post –

We moved from our tranquilo spot in Playa Dominical to Uvita – another beach town on CR’s southern Pacific coast.  On the drive to Uvita I discovered one of the tires was losing pressure.  Had that fixed and the oil changed at a garage for less than what we’ve tipped in a good San Francisco restaurant.

Then things got strange – really strange.  We ate our first meal in Uvita in a small hotel’s restaurant.  I ordered the fish.  Nothing seemed amiss with it.  A few hours later something was definitely amiss.  From this vantage point I think I had a mild case of food poisoning.  The strange thing is I developed a case of the hiccups that lasted for over 2 days.  I read everything I could about hiccups.  One of the supposed cures – and there are hundreds – is chocolate.  As luck would have it, we had a can of 100% cocoa powder.  I put a teaspoon of it in my mouth and promptly spit most of it out.  Who knew cocoa powder could be so nasty?   But my hiccups were gone and haven’t come back.

After Uvita we drove to Puerto Jimenez on the Osa Peninsula.  Pto. Jimenez is the jumping off point for exploring Corcovado National Park, one of the last untouched wilderness areas in tropical America. We didn’t visit Corcovado but birded on the edge of the park with a guide. Highlight was finding Baird’s Trogon and an owl.

From Pto. Jimenez backtracked to the mainland to Golfito – which translated from Spanish means sauna bath with a heat lamp.  We spent most of our day and half in an air conditioned hotel room at the Banana Bay Marina.  Golfito’s claim to fame is sport fishing for rich gringos, and a duty free area that sells everything from perfume to refrigerators.

Fed up with Golfito’s humidity we headed for the hills.  Our destination was San Vito at 4,000′. We camped at a hotel that doesn’t charge anything but requests campers buy a meal in the restaurant.  The hotel was within walking distance of the Wilson Botanical Garden, one of 3 research centers that belong to the Organization for Tropical Studies.  The garden was nothing special but the birding was first-rate.

The number of photos below will be relatively light compared to the length of this post.  I had to move most of the images to an external drive to recover disk space.  The images below are those that I’ve posted to Facebook.

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