Some new friends were planning on making a Panama shopping trip at the Costa Rica-Panama border this week and they asked if we wanted to join them. We were unable to go on Tuesday as planned so they changed their plans and we all went on Wednesday instead. So many wonderful and nice people in Costa Rica!
Heading to Panama Border
There is a city in Costa Rica called Paso Canoas which is on the border of Panama-Costa Rica. This was our destination for Panama shopping! We live in San Buenaventura, which is 20km south of Uvita, so we headed south on the Costanera Highway (HWY 34) to Paso Canoas. San Buenaventura is approximately two hours from Paso Canoas (or 2 1/2 hours south of Uvita). It's a simple drive. Head south to Palmar Norte, take a right turn at the intersection of the Pan American Highway and Costanera Highway. Cross the Ri0 Terraba River over the iconic Palmar Norte bridge, like you're going to Palmar Sur and Sierpe. However, stay on Highway 2 (Pan American Highway). The drive is pretty flat and easy, aside from it's a two-lane road the whole way! There is a larger town Ciudad (city) Neilly which has a hospital, which is where some of the specialty doctors are located.
Golfito, Costa Rica
About 1/2 way to the border is a town call Golfito, which has duty free shopping. Well, up to $2,000 tax free per year. Plus, there are limitations on how much you can buy of certain items, such as 3 carton of cigarettes or 12 liters of alcohol every 6 months; or one washer every year; or one stove/oven every 2 years; etc. This is separate from the $500 tax free when entering via the airport.
You must get a shopping authorization cart (TAC), which is how they keep track of what you've purchased. Now you have to get this TAC, but can't use it for 24 hours. And once you use it, you can't use it again for 24 hours after pick up. So basically the first day you put everything on husband's card....then the next time you go back, you pick up the husband's card (which can't be used for 24 hours), so you buy everything on the spouse's card; and you keep switching like that...until you have to get a new card each year.
Golfito is known for cheaper prices on electronics and appliances. We didn't stop there today, as we didn't need anything and our ride wasn't going there. However, we'll write up another blog when we do visit!
As we get to the border, there's a big huge building in the middle of the road, which is the border for Panama.
We turned left on the road right before the building, the left side of the road is Costa Rica and the right is Panama, but it's just a normal road. When you go down the road a little ways and find a parking lot, you pay and they watch your car for you 500 colones/hr (~90 cents per hour). We only had one reusable bag here in Costa Rica with us, so that's all we took with us. However, you leave it in the car because if you take it into the store, then they take it and tag it and you can't get it back until after you check out and everything is already in bags?!?! So we left those in the car.
We walked into the building (which is on the Panama side--so we're in Panama, but we didn't have to check out of Costa Rica and check into Panama--you only have to do that if you need your 90 day visa) WHAT?!?!?! Well at least in this area of stores..more to come on that...
City Mall (in Panama)
First thing you see when you walk into the store is a McDonald's....oh it smelled so good!!!! We didn't eat there today, but we will in September when we go back for our visa!!!!!
So this store has everything--you name it...shoes, hair products, makeup, clothes, sunglasses, pharmacy, groceries, electronics, etc. etc. etc.
It's this huge two story building and apparently Panamanians LOVE U.S. brands. Everything is grouped by brand. So there's a Guess section; Tommy Hilfiger section, Nike, Speedo, Toms, Bahama Mama, etc...just everything. It's weird because all the women, men's and kids clothes are all in the same location, which is so weird.
And then the SHOES....thank goodness I don't need tennis shoes here, because I could have gone crazy. My brother would love this store as there were just walls and walls of all types of shoes and most cheaper than the U.S. Nike was a little less, but not like the other brands. For example TOMs are around $80 in the USA but only $35 here.
Groceries in Panama
And don't get me started on the groceries!!!! So many more choices and mostly cheaper than in Costa Rica. They even had cheese from the USA so I had to get some Gouda, Havarti, and Muenster. It's one thing I miss about living in Costa Rica is the availability and affordability of cheese. I miss my cheese and crackers. Ritz crackers were only .87 USD (this store shows prices in USD), so had to do some calculations to compare to the prices in Uvita which are priced in Costa Rica colones. After a while I gave up because they were all cheaper and I didn't want to think that much while Panama shopping! Plus, I'm used to converting colones into US dollars, not the other way around.
I was worried this would happen...we had nothing on our list but we ended up spending $71. In addition to the specialty cheeses and crackers, we bought some batteries (way cheaper). I also needed shredded cheese for tacos tonight and this way I didn't have to go to the store when we got back home.... and it was cheaper!!! LOL! I got some soft cat food as treats for the cats that we give them on Sundays as a treat; lunch meat was $3 cheaper per bag and we can freeze that. Okay not even going to lie, we both got 2 HUGE Hershey's chocolate bars---it's not something you can find in the stores in Uvita. I can't even remember what else we bought, but we had 3 sacks worth. Thankfully our friends had brought a cooler so we could put our cold stuff in there.
Stamp or no Stamp???
We lost our friends for a little while--we finally found them, they had already checked out and once you check out you can't get back in, so they had to go get the car and he ran in to find us--thankfully we were trying to stand in a central location and not move! After checking out, we went down the road (the opposite way) to a Soda for lunch.
I have never, in all my travels seen a border like this! There was a two lane road (that we were on) in Costa Rica. Then there was a strip of land that had stores, gas stations, grass on the other side of that was a two-lane road and that was Panama!! After lunch we stopped for gas. We pulled in from the Costa Rica side, and we had to make sure to pull out on the right side. Turns out if we would have gone out on the Panama side we would have driven down to the border crossing and we would have been in trouble because we didn't have our in/out stamps...scary!!! It was confusing, but intriguing, and I'm not sure what the planners were thinking when they designed it. Welcome to Central America.
After lunch, it was LIQUOR time!!! As I mentioned, in the middle island separating the Costa Rica and Panama roads are shops, and there were liquor stores. Every Panama shopping trip should include a visit to a liquor store. The prices are great! Cheap! The first place we went to, only took cash but doesn't ask for your passport (like they are supposed to)!! Bottle of Disaronna $12. Not as cheap as making it, but the stuff we made hasn't sat well with my stomach (more about making Disaronna in a future post) could be the cheapness of the vodka!!! LOL. (and no it's not about the quantity either!!!) They also had Moscato. Tt's Barefoot, which isn't the greatest, but it's the first Mascato I've found. Plus, it was only $4 a bottle. So we picked up a stash.
So we didn't actually passport stamp in and out in Costa Rica or Panama. You don't have to do that to just go Panama shopping, which is so weird. Unless you go on the wrong road and then you could be in trouble. Our friends showed us the building where we have to get our passports stamped, pay the immigration fee, then the building to actually check out of Costa Rica. Also, they showed us the building above with 'PANAMA' is where you go in/out for Panama....gosh, I hope we can do this ourselves next time in September!!!!
Once we made the last stop, we headed back north to home. There is a check point about 1/2 way where they stop you and look in your windows..if you have a lot of bottles in your car, they may ask to see your paperwork/receipts, but they just looked and waved us on through. We're told to go there after 4pm as they are closed!!! lol
We LOVED Panama shopping!!! We felt like we were kids in a candy store! We think it's better than Quepos, even if it is slightly longer drive. There are advantages like everything is in one location and it has more products and variety!