If I look around for a second and don’t watch where I place my feet, my right foot shoots through the shelf underneath me and remains stuck in the rotten wood. I look down. Ten meters below yawns the water. With difficulty I pull my foot back from the rotten wood. Carefully I take three, four steps; this time sharply observant. Then I step on a new board, which gets airborn as the person in front of me gets off it. Again I find my balance. On my left are old, rusty train tracks. Left of those is another pile of rotting scaffolding planks. If those are better to walk on?
Welcome to Panama. Or welcome … By the looks of this boarder-crossing Costa Rica – Panama these two countries are not too happy to ‘exchange’ tourists. This old railway bridge is actually the border between the two countries if you want to go from Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica to Bocas del Toro in Panama. A clunky piece of junk, full of old, half rotten scaffolding planks. And I have to say: I like it.
But I have it relatively easy: a large backpack on my back a little on my belly. That’s it. Around me are girls frantically lashing their suitcases on wheels. It doesn’t matter how hard they try, the wheels still get stuck in the holes between the shelves anyway. It’s a good excuse for a few handy boys from Costa Rica to offer their service. For a few dollars they carry your luggage across.
The strange border fits perfectly in our day. At eight o’clock sharp we were in front of our hostel to be picked up and at eight sharp ‘our’ pick-up arrived. “Boca del Toro?”, he asked, just to be sure. We nodded and boarded the mini-bus. Around the corner he picked up two more backpackers, telephoned for a few minutes, turned around and announced cheerfully: “I did not have to pick you up.” With question marks in our eyes we gazed at at him. Why did he came to our hostel then? “I’ll take you back. No worries. Your shuttle will be their in a few minutes. “Before we could ask anything, he was on the phone again. Two minutes later he turned around again: “Don’t worry, I’ll take you to the border. Your guy will be waiting there for you.”
An hour later, he parks the shuttle for a few small houses and shops. “This is it,” he says cheerfully. “Here you have to pay an exit tax.” I take a good look at the shops, but I don’t see see anything that looks like an office. Before I can ask, he out of the car, and starts unloading our backpacks. In my best Spanish I ask again where to pay. He points to an all-in-one shop, which is half hidden behind all the shirts hanging in front of it. .
I work my way through the shirts and see a note on the wall: Exit tax $ 7. I pay my fee and walk over towards the bridge. Shortly before I can go on, I see another office. This time it actually looks like a real customs office, complete with a row hopelessly waiting people in front of it. One ‘window’ is open, for the more than hundred people who cross over to Panama everyday. The ultimate control is over before it begins. A few stamps and I can start my journey across the bridge.
On the other side of the bridge is another office waiting for me. This time I have to pay three dollars for a sticker in my passport. Just when I think this should be it, I’m referred to the next office. The sticker was only the tax to be allowed in Panama. Now customs is waiting. Another formality. Another stamp, but then I’m really, really in Panama.