Access Denied: Getting Rejected at the Panama Border

I had one of the craziest days of my life trying to cross the border into Panama from Costa Rica. Seriously, you can’t make this stuff up.


To understand the story, I’m going to supply you with some information: to cross the border from Nicaragua a few weeks ago, I had to have proof that I had a plane ticket going back to the United States. While crossing this border, I was with my sister, who was traveling with me for a few weeks. I told the guy at Immigration that I was on the same flight as my sister (which was a total lie), and he just stamped my passport and let me pass.

So, the day of the border crossing into Panama, I woke up early and went to a solid vegan breakfast with my new friend, Matty. I had to say good bye to my precious vegan restaurant (if you are ever in Puerto Viejo, go to Como en mi Casa)! I celebrated with a very thick vegan pancake, covered in jam and fruit.


After breakfast, we headed to the border. Matty had made a friend who had a rental car, and wanted to see the border, so he gave us a ride there. He dropped us off, and we saw the famous bridge that goes across the river from Costa Rica into Panama.


We paid the departure tax ($4), and got our stamps from Costa Rica immigration. We walked the bridge into Panama, paid the entrance tax ($6 per person), and then headed to immigration. This is where the story goes south.

Matty went to the immigration officer first. They asked to see her plane ticket back home. She was able to pull it up on her iPad, so she showed the ticket to the officer, got her stamp, and was free to go. I, on the other hand, do not have a flight back home, because I am not going home. I went up to the officer and explained my situation. I told him that I am traveling the world, with no return date to the United States. I told him that I am traveling by bus, so I don’t have a plane ticket. He listened, and then told me that I cannot get into Panama without a plane ticket home. He didn’t care that I was going to Colombia in less than two weeks; he cared about when I was going back to the United States. This was a problem.


What does one do in this situation?

I bought a plane ticket home.

I use Chase Sapphire Preferred (my FAVORITE credit card for travel hacking and in general – they give excellent rewards), and I know that I can buy a plane ticket and then get it refunded by calling them within 24 hours. So, I bought a ticket home for $343.72 at an internet cafe (after paying $4 to use the internet) and showed it to immigration. They verified the ticket, stamped my passport, and waived me along.



Things seemed to get easier after this. We got on a bus that would take us to the boat we needed to get on. We got on the boat with only a few problems (we did a money exchange with the taxi driver – LOL). The boat took us to Bocas del Toro, our final destination. Yay! Everything worked out.

UNTIL IT DIDN’T. We decided that we wanted to stay on this little island that had a really rad looking hostel. We got a water taxi for $1.50 each to take us to this island. We walked in and fell in love with the hostel (seriously, check this out – it has a trampoline to jump into the water!). We had to wait a few minutes to talk to the receptionist. When she arrived, we inquired about a room for the night. She gave us the look (you know, sympathy mixed with a bit of ridicule) and told us that there were no rooms for the night. She said there was one other hostel on the island, but she was pretty sure it was full.

At this point I was exhausted. It was 5 pm, we hadn’t eaten since breakfast, and I just wanted to set my bag down and take a shower. Matty said that she would run down to the other hostel, and I could chill out at Aqua Lounge and wait for her. I felt so relieved when she said that. I slid into a booth at the hostel bar, connected to wifi, and drank my water.

Matty came back about 15 minutes later and told me that the hostel had two beds left and we could stay there. Yes! We grabbed our bags and walked 5 minutes down the sand to the only other hostel on the island. The hostel was on the beach; it had wifi, an adorable restaurant, hammocks, and lounge chairs. It was perfect! We threw our bags in the room and got in our swimsuits. We locked the room and ran out to the beach, into the clear blue Caribbean waters. It was paradise.

UNTIL IT WASN’T. After a very refreshing dip in the ocean, after we talked at length about how great everything turned out and how lucky we were, we went back to the room. We noticed we had roommates now, and someone had moved one of the pillows from my bed to theirs. I didn’t mind, but I said something to Matty about it and we looked over at the stolen pillow. AND THEN WE SAW IT.

BED BUGS. The hostel was infested with bed bugs. We took a picture of the bug and looked it up on google to confirm. Once we were totally positive that it was a bed bug, we packed our bags super quick and ran out of there. No one was at reception – by now it was 9 PM, and reception was closed. The guy at the hostel bar was helpful; we told him what happened and he refunded us. He admitted that they had a bedbug problem a few weeks before. These little bugs are so disgusting and basically taking over the world (according to google). After a lot of research, Matty and I found out how difficult it is to get rid of them. Eeewwwwww.

So. Now it was 9PM, it was dark, and we were on an island with no place to stay. We tried the expensive-looking hotel next door, but reception there was also closed. We found a stranger who owned a boat and got a water taxi back to the main island. We walked 10 minutes to the hostel that we were looking at on the main island before, then realized it was closed. We were starting to feel a bit defeated, and I was seriously considering sleeping on the beach at this point. Then we met an angel.

While we were standing in the middle of the road, close to tears, a local walked by and asked how we were doing. The people in Bocas del Toro are extremely nice and friendly, but not in a creepy way. We told the guy our story. He introduced himself as Reynaldo, and we told him our names. He said he knew of a hotel down the road that we could go to; he knew for sure there was a vacancy there. He led the way. He even carried Matty’s bag (she has an insanely large bag that she had been dragging around on a trolly type thing). We walked a bit more to this hotel, and when we got there, Reynaldo started yelling out for Dennis (because this hotel was closed also), and an American man named Dennis came sauntering out of the house. Matty explained our situation and asked him if we could stay there. He looked at us with no expression, and just said “No.” I thought for sure that he was joking. I waited for him to smile and say “oh, I’m just kidding, come on in.” It was silence for a few moments before I asked, “Really?”

“Yes, those bed bugs are a pain to get rid of, and I don’t want to deal with that,” says Dennis. He turned around and walked back into the house.

At this point, I completely gave up. I actually shed a few tears. I honestly believed that we were SOL and we would be sleeping in the park, like homeless people. But our angel Reynaldo perservered. He would not give up. He looked me in the eye and said, “Don’t worry, I know another place, and it’s right over there.” It was right down the street. I left Matty with the bags and headed over to check this place out. I held back the story about the bed bugs and inquired about a room for two. The owner of this little hotel was the cutest little lady who speaks only Spanish. She gave us a room with two beds, air conditioning, and our own private bathroom for $40/night.


We grabbed our bags, got the key and the wifi password, and collapsed into our beds. Finally we could sleep! We took showers and headed off to dreamland. The longest day ever was over. I slept great, except at one point I woke up from this little guy outside my window continuously screaming “HOLA! HOLA! HOLA!” I took a look in the morning and found the culprit.


He was so cute, I couldn’t be mad at him.


Though it was a hard day, I almost titled this post “the best worst day ever,” because a lot of good things did happen. We got so much help from strangers who expected nothing. We got a full refund from the hostel that had bed bugs. We were able to get a water taxi back to the main island when all hope seemed lost. We ran into Reynaldo, who helped us tremendously out of the goodness of his heart. We went to an adorable French restaurant and had a very nice dinner for $12 each. I was with Matty, who made everything more fun. All in all, though it was a hard day, we got through it together and nothing too bad happened.

When traveling, I try to remember that some days will be hard. Some days it’s a struggle just to find food, water, and shelter. Other days this life is truly blissful. Though some days are hard, I would never give up traveling because of the hardships. Having a hard day inspires growth and makes me so much more thankful for the good days I have. I feel so lucky to be here in Panama, in 85 degree weather, surrounded by beaches, palm trees, tropical fruit, and insanely cheap smoothies. I’m working on my Spanish (I WILL be fluent before I leave South America!) and I am making amazing connections with people around the world. I couldn’t be happier.

Thank you so much for reading this super long post – stay tuned to see what Matty and I get up to in Bocas del Toro! 🙂

P.S. I called my credit card company from the infested hostel and got my plane ticket refunded – Chase Sapphire is the best! I was able to call from my cell phone even though I don’t have a cell phone plan. I am currently working on a video about how to use your cell phone without a plan. I’ll let you know when it’s up!