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Central America is the perfect place for overland travel. I’ve crossed through most of the countries here by land with ease and the Costa Rica Panama border crossing is no exception. It does get a bad reputation with backpackers but I’ve crossed it twice with no problems.
The easiest way to get across is book a tourist shuttle that will take you from Puerto Viejo Costa Rica to Bocas Del Toro Panama, but if you want to save some money it is possible to do on your own. Here are the steps to cross the Costa Rica Panama border by foot.
This post was originally written in 2018 so it’s possible steps or prices may have changed since then. If you’ve crossed the border from Costa Rica to Panama recently and noticed a change from what I’ve written below, please do leave a comment below so I can update it.
How to get from Costa Rica to Panama
Step 1: Bus From Puerto Viejo to The Costa Rica Panama Border
SIxaola is about 90 minutes away from Puerto Viejo by local bus. The bus runs every hour on the half hour starting at 6:30AM and ending 10:30PM (on Sunday the busses depart every two hours). You don’t need to buy tickets in advance. You can buy tickets from the ticket office in Puerto Viejo 10 minutes before departure or just pay on the bus. The cost of the bus ticket is 1,600 Colones (approx. $3 USD)
If you are in San Jose you can get a bus from the Mepe Bus Terminal to Sixaola, but it can take up to 8 hours depending on traffic (you can buy these tickets 24 hours in advance). I took the bus from San Jose to the Costa Rica Panama border in 2016 via a transfer in Limon and it took me about six hours in total.
Step 2: Pay Costa Rica Exit Fee
The bus will drop you off in the small town of Sixaola and from there you walk a couple minutes up the road to a stand where you pay the departure tax. If you get confused there are lots of locals around to point you in the right direction.
There are several stands where you can pay the departure tax before the actual Costa Rican immigration office. Although you can pay it in the actual office, they they only accept cards and the machine is notorious for not working. Therefore, it’s usually easier to just pay it in cash beforehand at one of these stands. They charge you the $7 + a $1 administration feee. Make sure you get a receipt.
Step 3: Exit Costa Rica
After you pay the exit fee, walk up a small dirt gravel hill to the immigration building.
Once in the building, they should give you a departure form to complete. Fill this out and then give it to the immigration officer along with your exit tax receipt and passport to get your exit stamp. Then you can leave the Costa Rica border side!
It’s surprisingly easy easy to just walk past the immigration building so make sure you get your exit stamp before proceeding to Panama!
Step 4: Border Crossing Costa Rica to Panama
Once you have your Costa Rica exit stamp, you walk across the bridge that will bring you to Panama. I love borders and this bridge was such a unique one! It’s a great place to take photos.
Step 5: Get Stamped into Panama
After crossing the bridge, you have to get stamped into Panama at the immigration stand which isn’t clearly marked at all. It seems although you could easily just walk into the country, but that would later cause massive problems when trying to leave. The immigration office is next to the duty free store which is more obviously signed. Side note: duty free store has great prices on rum.
I’ve heard a lot of people say that Panama immigration was very difficult and that they want to see a flight out of Panama to your home country in order to get through.
When I crossed in 2016 I had no problem because I had a flight home from Costa Rica a week later. My friend I was travelling with only had a boat ticket to Colombia and they gave him a hard time about it, but eventually let him through.
When I crossed in 2018 I heard they had gotten even stricter with this, so I was a bit worried as my only proof of onwards travel was my by boat ticket to Colombia via the San Blas Islands. However, the border officer did not ask me for anything. He just stamped me in and said welcome to Panama. I’ve been having incredibly good luck at the borders so perhaps this was it, maybe he didn’t give a shit that day, or maybe they’ve stopped caring as much.
To be safe, I would be prepared to show proof of onward travel, and it will be much easier if you have it printer rather than just on your phone. If you don’t have onward travel you can always buy a refundable plane ticket the same day and then cancel it within the 24 hour period, I know lots of people who have done this.
Onward Travel in Panama
Once you’ve made it into Panama, you can catch a bus onwards to where you want to visit.
Bocas Del Toro
Bocas Del Toro is a beautiful island in Panama that makes a perfect first stop in the country as it’s not far from the border.
Immediately after crossing the border you will see mini busses headed for Almirante, which is where you get the boat to Bocas Del Toro.
The cost of these mini busses is $10 USD which I think is a bit of a scam because they CRAM them full of backpackers and it’s only an hour drive. The last time I took this mini-bus they had so much weight on the roof rack that it broke off and some surfers boards broke. Ouch!
The bus will drop you off where you get the boats to Bocas Del Toro which costs around $6 (the boats stop running around sunset).
Catch the same mini-bus to Almirante. Once you arrive there, walk a few minutes up the road to a bigger bus station. Just ask the mini-bus driver if you aren’t sure where it is. From there you can get a bus to David which Costs $8.50 and takes 4 hours.
I was told they leave every 20 minutes (again, they will wait to fill up). The drive from there to David is very beautiful. You will get dropped off at the bus terminal in David and from there you can catch a bus to Boquete which leave every 25 minutes (the last one leaves at 9:45PM). Boquete is a beautiful place to visit with amazing waterfall hikes.
While it’s possible to travel to Panama City in the same day, I don’t recommend this as it will make for a very long journey. I took the bus from David to Panama city after leaving Boquete and it took about eight hours, so this would take you at least 12 from the Panama Costa Rica border.
Alternative Costa Rica Panama Border Crossings
The border crossing I’ve talked about in this post is on the Caribbean Coast of Costa Rica. If you’re on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica and want to cross over, it may be easiest to go via the Paso Canoas border which is in southwestern Costa Rica. I haven’t done this crossing personally, but here is a post which provides more information about it. There is also the Rio Sereno border, which is the mountains of Southern Costa Rica.
I hope this post could help you if you’re planning to cross the Costa Rica Panama border. If you’ve done so recently, please let me know how it went in the comments below!