Border crossing: Costa Rica to Panama
We spent our last days in Costa Rica between Cahuita and Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean coast. Thankfully, Puerto Viejo is a short 1.5 hour bus ride to the Costa Rica-Panama border. While the bus ticket office and a few hostels in Puerto Viejo offer shuttle and bus service to Bocas del Toro and Panama City, you can easily make the trip yourself for half the cost. Here's how to get from Puerto Viejo to Panama City by bus on your own.
Head to the MEPE bus stop right along the beach in Puerto Viejo to buy your bus ticket to Sixaola. Buses leave every hour at the half hour (8:30, 9:30, 10:30, etc.) and cost ₡$1,690.00 ($3 USD). Because Panama is an hour ahead of Costa Rica, and because the Panama border closes at 4 pm their time (3 pm Costa Rica time), we left early to make sure we'd make it across without a problem. The bus will drop you off just before the border in Sixaola. Walk down the sloped street to the ticket office where you must pay your Costa Rica exit fee of $8 USD. The officer will give you a receipt. Continue towards the border and cross the street to Costa Rica immigration. Present your passport and your receipt showing that you've paid the exit fee, and they will stamp you out of Costa Rica.
Fortunately for safety, but unfortunately for a great photo op, the bridge between Costa Rica and Panama has been rebuilt. Long gone are the days of walking across a wooden bridge with missing planks with your fingers crossed that you and your backpack make it. Once you've crossed the bridge, go to the right. There is a little painted sign that says "Bienvenidos a Panama." Walk a few doors past the welcome sign to customs. So far, Panama has been the only country where we've had to fill out customs declaration forms. The officer didn't seem to know how to fill out the form, and it was a little confusing for us since we had nothing to declare. The conversation went something like this:
"What province are you staying in?"
"We're going to Panama City, what province is that in?"
[write "Boca" in the province field of the form]
"Ok so you're going to Panama province."
"But you just said Boca."
The officer stuffed the paper into a drawer and pointed us to immigration across the street. Panama immigration requires that along with your passport, you present a flight ticket out of Panama. We had heard ngithmares about the Panama border, that many people just give up and go back to Costa Rica. Unlike Costa Rica, which accepts bus tickets out of the country as proof of onward travel, Panama is by far the strictest country we've gone through. Unfortunately, after talking with other travelers and reading countless articles online, it's still not clear if the plane ticket needs to be to any other country or to your home country. It seems to depend on the immigration officer, who may also ask you to show proof of sufficient funds ($500 USD), either in cash or on a credit card statement. Since we had to go through Panama to get to Colombia, we made sure we were prepared and bought a ticket from Panama City to Houston that we canceled within 24 hours of purchase for a full refund. We also had a screenshot of our bank statement showing proof of sufficient funds. While we were never asked to show our bank information, we were asked for our plane tickets, and had no problem crossing because we were able to produce them.
There used to be a scam at the Panama border where people would charge you $3 USD to put a sticker in your passport, saying that you would have trouble traveling through and leaving Panama without it. We asked the immigration officials if we needed this sticker, and they told us no such thing was needed and that there is no entrance or exit fee for Panama. No one approached us about the sticker at the border, so we're assuming this scam has been broken up, but if you are asked to pay for the sticker, you do not need to pay and go tell immigration.
To get from the border to just about anywhere in Panama (Bocas, David, Boquete, Panama City, etc.), you'll need to take a 30 minute chicken bus to Changuinola for $1 USD (Panama uses the dollar). Taxi and shuttle drivers will swarm you with offers and will tell you there are no more buses to Changuinola, but they're lying. To catch the bus, walk up the stairs (the ones you came down to get from customs to immigration) and walk down the other side. There's a little blue shop — that's the bus stop. You'll likely see some Panamanians waiting there. The bus runs pretty frequently and has "Changuinola" painted across the front. Depending on where you are going in Panama, you'll either want to get dropped off in Changuinola at the bus station for Almirante (for travel onto Bocas) or David (for those going to Boquete, David, or Panama City).
Since our destination was Panama City, we told the driver to drop us off at the buses for David. Once at the bus station, we got onto a small bus to David and left within 15 minutes. The ride took about 5 hours and costs $9.70 USD per person. When we got off at the terminal in David, the driver pointed us to the ticket window for buses to Panama City.
Since we arrived in David around 7 pm, and because the express bus to Panama City takes about six hours, we opted to take the 11:30 pm bus instead of an earlier one so that we didn't show up in Panama City in the wee hours of the morning. With time to kill, and having only snacked on plantains chips and peanuts all day, we found a cheap eatery at the bus terminal that serves up heaping plates of fried rice, plantains, chicken, and other basic foods. We then waited until 11 pm to board the bus to Panama City.
It was a long journey, for sure, but the bus directly from Puerto Viejo to Panama City costs $70 USD per person and gets you in to Panama City at 4 am. So for half the price, and arriving two hours later, making the journey on our own was worth it.