We read a few posts online on things to watch out during the border crossing between Costa Rica and Panama, but it could have not been any easier. Here is how we did it.
The bus service that runs from Puerto Viejo to Sixaola leaves every hour and it takes approximately one hour to complete. The fare is CRC1,700 per person and the bus was very punctual.
The bus leaves you at a terminal which is right next to the main road and the bridge that leads to Panama. As we were approaching the immigration office we were asked by a lady to stop and pay the exit fee, which is required when leaving Costa Rica. The lady did not seem too official and she was pointing out at a kiosk to pay the exit fee which looked more like a clothing shop than anything official and immigration related. We proceeded to the immigration office just to get reassurance as to what was the process.
The officers sent back to our feet to the same clothes shop and right next to it there was a small booth with a guy collecting payments. That’s when we also saw the sign saying: PAY YOUR EXIT TEXES HERE. The fee totaled USD8 per person and receipts were issued to us.
We had to walk back to the immigration kiosk, which is located right prior to the bridge on the main road (these are very close to each other). The officers will check that exit fees were paid and they would stamp the receipts as well as your passports.
Off we were, we started walking the bridge on our way to Panama.
Immigration in Panama was very straightforward. Soon after the bridge you would see some containers probably related to transport companies. But the buildings right after are the actual immigration offices. There is a sign that will point it out, but also a bunch of people would come towards you taking you to the immigration office hoping you’d talk to them afterwards to arrange for your onward travel needs.
At immigration they will require to take finger prints and will ask how long is the planned stay in the country. I have read that they would normally also ask for proof of onward travel (i.e. when and how you’d be exiting the country), but I guess it really depends on which border is crossed and perhaps which officer you are dealing with?!
The “travel agents” will try to convince you to join their minivan and will try to say there is no bus leaving, or will try to tell you inflated prices for the bus in order for you to travel with them. It is up to you what is your preferred way to travel. Obviously the minibus is direct and relatively inexpensive. We were quoted USD5 per person, but we declined as we prefer to take the bus with the locals and to enjoy more of the local ways.
As we set off to wait for the bus (by the way the bus station is clearly marked on google maps, hence it is easy to find) another person approached us at USD4 per person for a direct connection. The temptation was there but we sticked to our chicken buses 🙂
The journey to Bocas del Toro required a change of bus in Changuinola. The first leg of the journey costed USD1 per person and it was fast enough (approximately 40 minutes) and the second part, from Changuinola to Almirante costed only USD1.45 and it took a bit longer as the bus goes uphill through forest areas. As predicted the bus costed half of what the taxis/minivan quoted, but obviously it was not as straightforward. Perhaps one need to look at budget and consider whether the USD2.5 dollars will affect too much and make a decision based on that…for us, even though time is a concern, we still prefer to travel with the public transport.
In our experiences usually minivan/shuttles’ fares compared to buses are far more expensive, like 4 time more expensive. In this case, the difference is relatively small and could be considered.
The bus dropped us at the main road at the junction where various taxi boat companies operate. The first booth is the one operated by a company called Valencia. There are more along the road and first impression tells me that TAXI 25, which is the last one of the stretch is the most reliable one, but we had no issue with Valencia and we got an open return ticket for USD10 each. Or you can get one way for USD6.
The boat ride only takes 20 minutes or so; expect beautiful scenery on the way, a seat on the boat where your face is almost at the same level of the water (if you stay at the back) and enjoy the beautiful place that is Bocas del Toro!