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The Costa Rica-Panama border gets a bad reputation with backpackers but I’ve crossed it twice and it’s really not that bad once you figure out where you’re going. There are shuttle companies that run from Puerto Viejo to Bocas Del Toro but it is easy enough to do on your own if you want to save a few bucks.
Getting to the border
The town where you cross the border from Costa Rica is “Sixaola”. If you are already in Puerto Viejo this is just an hour bus ride away. You can get the local bus as it runs every hour on the half hour starting at 5:30AM and ending 10:30PM. You can buy tickets across the street 10 minutes before departure or just on the bus. 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).
Costa Rica Immigration
The bus will drop you off in the small town of Sixaola and from there you walk a couple minutes up the road to an stand where you pay the departure tax. If you get confused there are lots of locals around to point you in the right direction. I’m not even sure if I’d call it an immigration stand because honestly this looks like a juice shack. You have to pay a $7 departure tax there which is actually $8 there because they charge you $1 for ‘administration’ (I think you can pay it somewhere in advance, but honestly for $1 it’s just not worth the hassle). Make sure you get a receipt. Afterwards, you walk up a small dirt gravel hill to another immigration building which looks more official.
There you will get your exit stamp out of Costa Rica. It would be really easy to just walk past this so make sure you get your exit stamp before proceeding. Once you have your exit stamp you walk across the bridge that crosses the river and are officially in Panama.
After crossing the bridge, you have to get stamped into Panama at their immigration booth which again isn’t clearly marked at all and you could easily just walk into the country (which 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 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, but my friend I was travelling with at the time only had a boat ticket to Colombia and they gave him a hard time about it, but eventually let him through. I heard they had gotten even stricter with this so I was a bit worried this time around as I only had my same boat ticket to Colombia. 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. I really don’t know, either way I’d prepare to have some form of proof that you plan to leave Panama. If you have nothing you can always buy a refundable plane ticket the same day and then cancel it within 24 hours, I know lots of people that have done this.
Going to Bocas Del Toro
After that you are free to go into the country and there will be mini busses there looking for people going to 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. To the point that this time around they had so much weight on the roofrack it broke off and some surfers boards broke. Ouch! Either way, I didn’t see another option for getting out of there. I wasn’t even going to Bocas, but Almirante is also where you catch a bus to David (Boquete).
The bus will drop you off where you get the boats to Bocas Del Toro which costs is $6 (I believe they stop running at sunset). Bocas is an awesome town and if I wasn’t on a timeline to get my boat to Colombia I’d probably go back. You can read more about my experience in Bocas Del Toro here.
Going to Boquete
From the bus terminal in Almirante (a few minutes up the road from where you catch the boats to Bocas) 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).