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On the Road: La Frontera and Beyond

It is time for me to leave Panama now. I am taking a chance on a remote border crossing into Costa Rica that locals say I can use — but that my guidebook says isn’t open to visitors. I choose to believe the locals.

I hop a bus that takes me out of the Guadeloupe mist and down into the rain. The town of Volcan is my transfer point to the road that will take me to the jungly border crossing of Rio Sereno. As usual, no one is really sure when the bus is supposed to come. Instead people eat ice cream and pastries from the bakery on the corner, or just mill around the intersection. There is no formal bus stop, per usual in Central America. I wait nearly two hours, eating chips, watching the human traffic pass by. I am the only gringo in the entire town.

When the clouds pass for a split second, I do my best to locate what I think is Volcan Baru. The clouds swarm in again, and the mighty mountain is covered so thickly that it might as well have disappeared.

When the bus finally arrives, it really isn’t a bus at all, but a minivan. So few people live in this mountainous part of Panama that a full-sized bus would be a waste of energy and money. I step inside to be met by a group of indigenous people. One young woman, probably about my age, is particularly striking, dressed in a magenta dress embroidered with blue, yellow and purple designs. A long black braid hangs down her neck, and in her arms sits her wide-eyed little girl.

The ride to Rio Sereno is not for the faint-hearted – especially this rain-slicked one. The road climbs and falls and twists, twists, twists. But the scenery is gorgeous – cloud forest that feels especially wild and eerie in the pounding tropical rain. Small rivers form on the side of the road. People get off near side roads, and a driver’s assistant helps them down and hands them the bags of rice they have stored in the back. Everyone gets soaked, and as we pull away, I watch them run down the road, headed toward jungle homes hidden in the foliage.

I stay on the bus until there is no one left but myself and two others. It’s the last stop. I try and ask the driver where the border is, and he just points straight ahead. It doesn’t look like we are anywhere near a border. A crumbly rock road splits in several directions and a row of shops selling everything imaginable stretches the opposite way. The rest is just jungle and banana fields.

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