For many expats who either can't afford or can't commit to establishing formal residency here in Panama, a relatively painless alternative has always been available. Referred to as border hopping or border runs, the activity involves going to the "frontera" of Panama with Costa Rica and following a simple process. Costa Rican expats follow the same process, only in reverse, and on any given day, even friendships and networking sometimes happens amongst the multiple participants from either or both sides. In general, border authorities respond benignly to these procedures, provided the individuals presenting appear respectable, reasonably affluent and harmless.
Essentially what happens is a person whose visa is about to expire [from either country] signs out of the country they are living in, signs into the other country at the border, spends a few hours shopping and having lunch in the neighboring country, then wraps up the excursion, signs out of the neighboring country and then re-enters the country they live in with a new visa that usually lasts 3-6 months.
Apparently, the rules changed about 2-3 months ago. Word has it there's a new immigration chief at the border, and an official mandate was issued requiring that people in the above situation spend at least 24 hours out of their respective country before re-entering. Additionally, new documents to prove economic stability are being demanded before border personnel will grant re-entry. A friend from the USA, after spending the night in a one-star hotel [the best hotel in Paso Canoas], was required to provide a return airline ticket to the USA, show she had $500 cash on her person, show a credit card and statement indicating available balance on the card, and provide a copy of her personal bank statement before being allowed back into Panama.
Because of these changes, I decided a few days ago to investigate the accommodations in Paso Canoas. The most expensive lodging I found was Cabinas Romy, located in the center of town on the Costa Rican side. The rate for one person in a room with one queen bed, low season, is $28. This includes wifi and air conditioning, but there is no hot water. The rooms are clean but very basic. On the day I went, the hotel personnel were barely accommodating.
Cabinas Romy, above, is where my friend stayed. She reports an unfortunate incident with the evening receptionist. She left for dinner, and when she returned her room key broke off in the lock as she was attempting to open the door. The receptionist initially refused to help her, stating he was alone in the office. She asked what he suggested be done, as she had no intention of remaining outside all night. He harshly blamed her for "incorrectly unlocking the door", and told her she'd have to pay for calling in a locksmith. She asked to speak with the hotel owner or manager. Her request was denied. At that point she snapped photos of the lock & key with her cell phone, and threatened to go to the police. The receptionist reluctantly relented, obtained tools, removed the key, allowed her access to her room, and gave her a replacement key.
Right next door to the Cabinas Romy, is a smaller location called Cabinas Hilda. Rooms there run about $12 for one person. When I was investigating, I was unable to see the interior of a room because they were all occupied, but I did snap this outside photo. The facility didn't seem much different from the Cabinas Romy at less than half the price. The receptionist was pleasant.
Also next door to Cabinas Romy, on the opposite side, is a small hotel and restaurant called the Interamericano. I was told rooms there also run about
$ 12 for one person. I didn't explore the rooms, but did eat in the restaurant and enjoyed a great meal and cerveza for about $8.
Just outside of town, about a 5 minute drive into Costa Rica, is a hotel called Los Higuerones, which comes well-recommended by other bloggers. I called to inquire about low season rates, and was told the rate was $36 for one person. I didn't go to explore. It isn't easily accessible to shopping and restaurants, and requires driving or a taxi to get there. My friend didn't want to travel outside the town, so she also deferred on this recommendation.
To summarize, the times they are a changin' at the frontera, and many expats will have to either adapt to the changes or commit to legitimizing their residency. Guess this sort of thing happens when too many people get wind of a good thing, and business minds smell a way to make a profit.