Crossing from Costa Rica to Panama has limited choices, but can be easy

Posted December 11, 2013


QUEPOS, Costa Rica — Day 87 in the quaint coastal Pacific town of Quepos, Costa Rica: my stay had reached late October, which is debatably one of the worst times of year to be on the Pacific Coast. An endless grey mist had begun to swallow forests and towns whole after days of unrelenting rain.

I bunkered down for bed around 10 p.m. as the pattering of raindrops on the tin roof lured me into sleep. Just after entering the syrupy darkness of R.E.M., I awoke in a cold sweat.

PANIC.  My 90-day traveler’s visa was going to expire in three days.

I quickly reached for my tattered travel guides and let the soft yellow glow of my book light guide me towards my next step. I had no choice but to begin my trek to the border the following day.

There are two main land entry points to Panama via the Costa Rican border: Paso Canoas and Guabito. The most popular option is the former: not only because staff waives all formality, but Guabito / Sixaola is also the gateway to Panama’s beautiful Caribbean island chain, Bocas del Toro.

Because of my overwhelming desire to evade the torrential downpours of the Pacific Coast, a trip to Guabito quickly became less of a dreaded requirement and more of a much-needed escape from the dreary surroundings.

With only some essential toiletries and three changes of clothes, I rallied Mason Anderson and Evann Martin, two backpacking friends I met in Quepos a few weeks prior. We hopped on the next bus to San Jose and attempted to figure out how one legally walks across a country’s border.

We chose to take a bus to Cahuita and stay the night before departing to the border, but it is possible to catch a bus directly to Sixaola from the capitol. It will stop in Puerto Limon (a slightly dangerous shipping port city known for its Caribbean carnivals), and Cahuita and Puerto Veijo (two small Caribbean surfing villages known for cheap hostels and reggae). The trip is eight hours and the ticket cost is about $6, but this varies along with the times of departure.

Each resource we consulted gave us completely different methods for going about the process, leaving us feeling something between utter terror and complete bewilderment. While one mentioned the Guabito border being “dangerous” and “not recommended for tourists,” another insisted the procedure was a “breeze.”

We pressed forward.

After a night in San Jose and another in the reggae-fueled Caribbean town of Cahuita and our final five-hour bus trip through dense rain forest on winding dirt roads peppered with potholes, we were dropped in the dusty town of Guabito. Americans have a tendency to throw around the phrase  “middle of nowhere” in their descriptions of any location more than 15 minutes from a Starbucks or with cell phone service being less than optimal.

Stumbling out of the bus in varying degrees of a hung-over stupor, the three of us realized it had been more than two hours since we had driven through any sort of town. “Town” being a loose term for the single road village dubbed as “Puerto Viejo”. We were in the middle of nowhere.

With Costa Rica’s notoriously bad roads and sudden changes in weather, plan your departure time accordingly. On our travel day, we encountered a road blockage that delayed our trip about an hour. While the immigration and customs offices are supposed to be open from 8 .a.m until 5 p.m., at a border as relaxed as Sixaola/Guabito, the offices may close early if they are not busy.

Luckily, if your trip is taking longer than expected, a decent room can be found in Cahuita or Puerto Veijo, which have buses that leave throughout the day.

Costa Rica border crossing.

Costa Rica border crossing.

Guabito was bleak and dirty: a small muddy bus stop and immigration office in the middle of the rainforest. Its sole purpose did not extend beyond moving travelers to Sixaola.

We slowly approached a dirty blue building that couldn’t have been more than 300 square feet. I then noticed a hand-painted wooden sign with “Inmigración” in faded black letters.

Men wearing grey polos (which were probably navy blue when they were first purchased) paced the line giving bits of advice to travelers.

We quickly found that the best way to get through the process was to just follow the small line of locals past each step of the immigration windows. The entire process took about 30 minutes.

Upon arriving at Sixaola’s immigration, learn from our mistakes and follow the steps below to cross the border easily:

  1. You will first have your passport stamped at Costa Rican immigration. The building is small, with only one official at a window taking passports. This official should be wearing a badge, however he/she will probably not be in uniform. After the agent checks your passport to make sure you haven’t overstayed the 90 days, you will be given an exit stamp. Here you are also advised to purchase a bus ticket for your exit from Panama if you have not done so already. This documentation is required upon entry to Panama. Even if you do not plan on using the ticket, this is simply a formality to prove you will leave Panama.
  2. Time to enter Panama via the old railroad bridge: brace yourself. There are dozens of YouTube videos dedicated to the three-minute crossing of this bridge. It could be the post-apocalyptic-looking scene of dense rainforest encroaching on a huge, rusted, metal structure, or the exhilaration of documenting what could be one’s last moments alive as they tread over creaky, shaky boards that draw tourists to make such videos. When my friends attempted to ask officials if anyone had ever fallen through the bridge while crossing, they received an inconclusive response followed by a nervous laugh. So, cross at your own risk.
  3. After surviving the bridge, Panamanian immigration is on your left. First you must fill out a traditional entry form, stating you are not carrying weapons, agriculture, drugs, and so forth. Officials hand these forms out in front of the building.
  4.  After handing in your entry form and bus ticket (the one mentioned above) inside the immigration office, your passport will be stamped.
  5. In a second room, you will be required to pay a $3 “tourist entry fee.” The sticker is small and hand-cut, but serves as a receipt nonetheless.
  6. Once you have your sticker, you have officially crossed into Panama! Leaving the immigration office, follow a steep set of stairs down to the bus stop below. Here you can catch a bus to all major Panamanian cities, including the capitol of Bocas del Toro, Bocas Town, which is only about an hour away.
  7. Don’t forget to set your watch an hour ahead. This border also serves as a border between time zones.

If you are not going to re-enter Costa Rica, it is best to either use your remaining colones or exchange them for dollars, Panama’s currency. Most Panamanian businesses, especially those off the beaten path, will not accept Costa Rican currency.

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