Ellen and I are absolute zombies after a marathon bus ride from Mastatal to Panama City. I wrote this post while sitting in the Gran Terminal bus station in Panama City, as we were trying to decide what to do next. Actually, we weren’t really trying to decide anything, as we were stuck waiting for the shops to open. My Costa Rican SIM card doesn’t roam in Panama, and the local phone companies don’t open until 10am because it’s Sunday. We know the boats to Colombia leave from San Blas, but we don’t know where that is, exactly. The information desk at the bus terminal told us no buses go there, and we seemed to be the only tourists at the bus station, so we weren’t sure where to go from there. With no stores open, no tourist information, and no internet on my phone, we resigned ourselves to waiting. Ellen was more sleepwalking than fully awake, and I was barely functioning any better.
This is one of those times I’m especially glad Ellen and I are travelling together. Another companion might be frustrated or angry at the lack of information, blaming me for not researching the trip better or just buying a guidebook like logical travellers do. But Ellen? Eh. She’s along for the ride as much as I am.

Admittedly, we haven’t researched this leg of the journey much at all. We’re mostly going on rumour at this point. The bus website I accessed from Costa Rica told us the crossroads of the bus station in San Jose and the name of the bus carrier that runs buses to David, our planned destination in Panama, every afternoon at 1pm, but no booking information was available online in English or Spanish. When we got to the bus depot, we were told there was no bus to Panama from there and that the buses to Panama were almost certainly booked up through New Year’s Day. We were put in a taxi to a different terminal a few kilometers away.

There we found a bus run by a different company, leaving in 30 minutes, arriving in Panama City, a different destination than we’d planned, for which we needed to have reservations to get a seat. Luckily, there were two seats left, so Ellen and I bought tickets and made it onto the bus with seconds to spare. Once on the bus, my phone’s internet lost service, and we had no opportunity to research what to do on arrival in Panama City. We were going in blind.
The bus journey was uneventful. It was the overnight bus, so Ellen and I figured it was good we’d barely slept the night before, as it might help us nap on the bus. The first few hours of the trip were dominated by low-grade Hollywood movies dubbed into Spanish, that were impossible to ignore as the speaker was right above our heads. On the bright side, it allowed us to practice Spanish comprehension as the predictable storylines were easy to follow.

The bus stopped every three hours for the entire 16-hour journey, and there was little rest to be had for most of the trip. We arrived at the border earlier than Ellen and I expected, and had to walk from the Costa Rican exit booth through a bafflingly large duty free zone to the Panama entrance booth outside which our bus was waiting. The market sold typical brand name crap at the duty free, plus a few traditional local snacks to help while away the hour in line for a visa. I was approached several times by taxi drivers as I walked through the market, which led me to wonder where anybody would be going in a taxi when they legally can’t enter either country without stopping at immigration first.

We made it!

We made it!

After the bus passengers had all been approved for visas, we were marched as a group into a customs inspection room where cursory glances were passed over our open checked bags. For some reason, our carry-on bags were never inspected. Ellen and I were grateful to have the chance to get sweaters and blankets from our bags, as we’d been uncomfortably cold on the air-conditioned bus. A notable exception was our feet, which swelled up from the heat of the bus floor. After entering Panama, we were woken up again for a passport and visa check along the highway, and again for a midnight rest stop before arriving in Panama City at 4am.

I had been worried about arriving in an unknown city before dawn. I expected the bus to drop us off at a dark and crowded station with touts trying to put us into taxis to who-knows-where. I was pleasantly surprised to find Panama City’s Gran Terminal to be more like Vancouver’s YVR airport – arrivals on the top floor, departures below, taxis outside but arriving passengers left to their own devices, unmolested, inside the building. These observations we mainly made later – upon finding the arrival area fairly quiet, we put our bags down, sat on a bench, and Ellen promptly fell asleep while I watched our stuff.

Repairing my shoes with duct tape while waiting at the bus station in Panama City

Repairing my shoes with duct tape while waiting at the bus station in Panama City

Now it’s about noon, 31 hours after leaving Mastatal, and we have made it to a hostel in Panama City. Unfortunately, it’s booked solid, but the receptionist is looking into other options for us either here or closer to the boats to Colombia. We have no idea where we’re going or when, but we’re grateful to be sitting down on the hostel balcony with our bags at our feet rather than carrying them on our backs. We may not post for up to a week, or we may be online regularly in the next few days. I guess it’ll be a surprise!

Advertisements