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This is a complete guide to crossing the border between Panama and Costa Rica by land. I’ve included info on the three most common routes, the required documents you need, as well as how much everything costs!
After exploring Panama for just over a week, I was excited to be heading north to Costa Rica. Although Bailey and I loved our time enjoying all the best things to do on Bocas del Toro, we were ready to venture into a country we had heard so much about before our travels.
To get to Costa Rica though, we needed to cross the Panama/Costa Rica border. Being on a budget meant we would do so without a private shuttle that would cost us much more than taking local buses. Although this is common, we were surprised to find out that the whole ordeal wasn’t as straightforward or easy as we first thought… and we weren’t alone.
As it turns out the border can be a little challenging without the right documentation. So in this blog, we’ll explain everything you need to know about the Panama/Costa Rica border crossing with updated info and tips to make the journey much easier than ours! But first, you need to choose the route you’ll be taking…
Choosing your Route from Panama to Costa Rica
The first step on your journey across the Panama/Costa Rica border is to choose the route you’ll need to take. Depending on where you are, you’ll need to take one of the three main border crossing routes mentioned below. All of these routes work in the opposite direction too!
Route 1 (Bocas del Toro to Puerto Viejo)
The first route, and arguably to the most common, is from Bocas del Toro to Puerto Viejo or vice versa. On this route, you’ll cross at the Sixaola-Guabito border. This is a really easy route to travel and crossing won’t be hard or time-consuming.
Route 2 (Panama City to San Jose)
The second route is the west coast route. This is the best way to go if you’re coming from Panama City and going directly to San Jose. On this journey, you’ll cross at the Paso Canoas border. This is the largest border crossing and a heavily trafficked route.
Route 3 (Panama City to Puerto Viejo)
The third route is a mix of both of the above. This is for people coming from Panama City or other destinations in Panama on the west coast and going to Puerto Viejo.
What You Need to Cross the Border between Panama and Costa Rica
Proof of onward travel
You need to have proof of onward travel to enter both Panama and Costa Rica.
By law, proof of onward travel can be any of the following:
- A pre-purchased bus ticket out of the country
- A pre-purchased flight out of the country
- Proof of passage on a cruise ship (this includes the boat to the San Blas Islands ending in Colombia)
I have heard of border agents giving people grief on this but with a little persistence, you’ll be able to pass through with one of these documents.
*Hot tip: If you don’t have proof you can book a fake flight ticket with Fake Flight Tickets. This is what we did, and we use this trick all the time on our travels!
Although unlikely, you can be asked to prove you have enough money to travel to Panama. It is required you have a recent bank statement (6 months old) showing you have access to at least $500 USD. It is rare to be asked, but you should be prepared to show this document just in case.
This is not the case for entering Costa Rica though.
Yellow Fever vaccine
Once again, this is rare but if you have come from South America and have been to Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Venezuela, or Brazil you may be asked to provide proof of your Yellow Fever vaccine. If asked, you will not be able to enter without it.
Route 1 – Bocas del Toro to Puerto Viejo
Step 1. Get from Bocas del Toro to Almirante
From Bocas del Toro, various water taxis go straight to the mainland town of Almirante and cost $6 USD per person. They leave from several terminals on Isla Colon along the front streets in Bocas Town.
Important: If you have already bought a return ticket when you first came to Bocas, you must go back to the exact location you were dropped off as another company won’t honor the return ticket.
The water taxi takes around 30 minutes to reach Almirante. From here you can either take a $1 USD shuttle to the bus station or take a shuttle directly from here to the border with Costa Rica.
Step 2: Almirante to the Border
Depending on your budget, there are two options to get from Almirante to the Costa Rica border. Here are the two options:
Local bus ($4 USD) – The cheapest way to get to the border is by local bus. To do so, you’ll need to either walk to the Almirante bus station or take a $1 USD cab. From the bus station, you can get a local bus for $2 USD to the town of Changuinola. From here, you’ll need to take another bus for $1 USD to the border. Just ask around for the bus to Guabito or La Frontera.
Although slightly cheaper ($2 USD) this option is also harder. Instead, I would just take the direct shuttle from the Almirante ferry terminal.
Direct shuttle ($6 USD) – From the boat terminal in Almirante, there is a shuttle (air-conditioned mini-bus) that will take you for $6 USD all the way to the border! You will not have trouble finding this as everyone will be trying to sell it, just at a special price of $10 USD. But you after reading this, won’t pay more than $6 USD!
We chose to take the private shuttle as the price difference was so small and it was just much more convenient and comfortable! I would recommend this option especially if you don’t feel like spending your whole day in bus stations.
Step 3: Cross the border into Costa Rica
Now that you’ve made it to the border you’ll just have to cross into Costa Rica. First, find the Panama immigration office. Although a little tricky to find, taxi drivers and other locals can tell you where to go.
Once at the immigration office you’ll need to present your passport and pay a $4 USD “Panama exit fee” (entry fee if you’re coming the other way.) I am not sure what this is for as I didn’t pay when I flew into Panama, but there’s no way around paying it.
Next, keep walking to the Costa Rica office. Here you’ll need to provide proof of onward travel in Costa Rica. This is very important as they won’t let you in without it.
Step 4: Border to Puerto Viejo
Once you have crossed the border you can simply get a mini-van for $5 USD to Puerto Viejo or you can walk up the road, take your first right and there you will find the local bus station. From here, it’s $ 3USD to Puerto Veijo. It is also possible to get a local bus straight to San Jose from here.
Route 2 – Panama City to San Jose
Getting from Panama City to San Jose in Costa Rica is really easy. For this route, you can take a direct bus with Tica Bus for around $55 USD one way. The journey takes 17 hours and you’ll leave and arrive at the Tica Bus terminal in each city.
On the overnight bus, you’ll be served dinner as well as water and other drinks. The bus is actually very comfortable and you can expect to get some decent sleep.
On the journey the bus attendant will help you with the crossing and make sure you have everything you need to get through the border. At the border, expect a longer wait as this border crossing can take hours.
Tica Bus runs a few different times but my advice is to not pick the bus that arrives in San Jose at 2:30 am. At this time it’s hard to get a cab to your hotel and you cannot check-in unless you booked the previous night. Instead, get their bus that leaves at midnight and arrives at 4 pm.
On this route you can take local buses, however, factoring in an overnight stay somewhere on the journey, the overnight bus works out cheaper.
Route 3 – Panama City to Puerto Viejo
Step 1: Bus from Panama City to David
The first step to crossing the Panama/Costa Rica border and getting to Puerto Viejo is to get a bus from Panama City to the city of David. This journey takes around 7 – 8 hours during the day and costs around $15 USD. You can also take an express night bus that takes 6 hours and costs $19 USD. The buses leave from the Albrook station in Panama City, and during the day, they leave every hour.
As far as I know, you cannot book tickets in advance online. I do know you can book the night bus the morning prior at the station though. My recommendation would be to ask your hotel to call ahead and reserve a seat for you. Alternatively, just head to the station and catch a bus (they are frequent and often not full.)
Step 2: Bus from David to Changuinola
Next is to get yourself from David to Changuinola. This journey takes around 4 to 5 hours and costs $10 USD. When starting this final leg to the border I recommend leaving early in the morning to give yourself plenty of time to reach Puerto Viejo.
If you have arrived in David in the afternoon then consider spending the night so you don’t get stuck in Changuinola or at the border.
You can catch the bus from the David Bus Terminal.
Step 3: Bus from Changuinola to the border
The last step (that makes this journey unique to the first) is the short bus from Changuinola to the border. This journey takes less than 30 minutes and costs only $1 USD. You can get this bus from near where your other bus drops you off at the Changuinola bus station.
Step 4: Follow steps 3 and 4 on Route 1
Now that you’re at the border, follow the steps from route 1 onto Puerto Viejo!
Before you go…
As you can now see, the journey from Panama to Costa Rica is pretty straightforward once you have all of the info needed to get there.
The above info works in reverse too so if you’re heading from Costa Rice to Panama then this blog should help you also!
Thanks for reading!