First Trip to Panama - Part I - David

Balboa the coin in Panama
Panamanian Coins - One Balboa = One U$D
We'd vowed to go somewhere, anywhere, during Sean's two and a half month summer vacation. Finally, we settled on Panama because 1) it's close, 2) nearly all our friends and acquaintances had been there and more or less gave it a thumbs up.
Cerveza Balboa
Cerveza Balboa (Photo credit: Erik Cleves Kristensen)

Much more briefly, I pondered flying down, but when I checked (and re-checked) the air fares from San José to Panama City, I was aghast. $500 each, round-trip!

Holy monopolistic airlines, Batman! I could fly to the States for less than that. The bus was out of the question because we were time limited and wanted to haul home a lot of loot besides. Each passport can bring back $500 of stuff duty-free every six months and prices there are about 25-40% cheaper.

Even though it's only about a 3 hour drive to the border from our house, taking a car is not exactly a no-brainer, either. Besides your regular car title, you have to visit Registro to get an additional, special title that is good in another country. If your car is in a corporation, as ours is, then you also need a Personeria Juridica, which makes the link between the corporation and you personally, plus, unique to Panamá, you need a notarized statement that the corporation (your corporation) gives you permission to take the car out of the country. Typically, I shun lawyers and accountants for tasks dealing with this kind of paperwork, but this time I paid our abogado 80 bucks to get it done. A few days later, we were on our way.

My initial over-enthusiasm to visit the Panama Canal had to be put aside given our time constraints, so we decided to make a circuit through Volcán, David, and Boquete, crossing at Río Sereno and coming back through Paso Canoas. The former is an out-of-the-way, sleepy border crossing, whereas the latter handles the bulk of the international traffic. Río Sereno turned out to be a little too sleepy as the Panamanian border guard had decided to call it a short day and left no word on when he would return. We'd missed him by just half an hour.

The only practical option was to take the back road down to Paso Canoas, about another hour and a half drive. It was dark by the time we got there. Passenger buses blocked our way and the lines were long. The Costa Rican officials were friendly and helpful, the Panamanian officials glum and plodding. Between passport control and customs, we made two stops on the C.R. side and five on the Panama side of the border. In total, it took about two hours to pass and about twenty or thirty bucks in fees. Next time, we take the bus!

We headed for David to spend the night. The highway was wide, well-lit, as we'd been told. However, much to my surprise and chagrin, we found that the signage in Panama is even worse than in Costa Rica! Not only were the signs fewer, they were mostly smaller and enigmatic. We totally missed the 24" x 24" sign directing us to the David urban center, driving past large car dealerships and malls, thinking we were entering the city. In five minutes we were swallowed up by darkness again.

It was nearly midnight before we found our way back, picked out a hotel, almost at random, and crawled into bed. The hotel was more than adequate, clean and plush, though the rooms are small. For $55, though, it was all we needed. 

Rising late the next day, in part because entering Panama from C.R. is a one hour time change, we went to an adjoining café for breakfast. Here's where we got our second surprise. "Dos cafes, negro, por favor", I asked, and in return received two cups of Nescafé. Yes, they do grow coffee in Panama, yes you can actually find brewed coffee there, but instant is the norm, just like in México. I was no longer taking for granted the good brews back home.

The rest of the morning, we toured the local area on foot, shopping for fabrics and new shoes for Sean. Prices were obviously cheaper than in Costa Rica, though they don't include their 7% sales tax in the price as Costa Rica does for their 13% tax. By noon, we were worn out by the heat and decided to head to Boquete. The two-lane highway between the two burgs is being widened to four-lanes, so there were a few detours, but the drive up into the mountains was no more than 40 minutes. 

End, Part I.


  1. Should have been a little patient in Rio Sereno. You could have avoided the heat of David and enjoyed the Panamanian Alps.

    1. As it was, we arrived very late in David. Anyway, we came back through Rio Sereno on the way back and visited the "alps" along the way. See Parts 2 and 3.

  2. wow you had quite an advenure

  3. One of the common reasons why people visit a certain place is because it is highly recommended by their close friends or relatives. They also want to experience stuff that their pals consider really interesting. Of course, it feels great if you can relate to their stories, right? Also, you can share your own adventures afterwards!


Thanks so much for your comment! - Casey