UPDATE NOVEMBER 2015: A reader let us know that there have been some, quite frankly, ludicrous changes at Panama's land borders. In short, proof of onward departure may no longer be sufficient; some travellers are now being asked to show, in addition, proof of a return flight to the country from which their passport is issued. You can find more detail on this by scrolling down to the comments underneath this article.
This post remains relevant and accurate for the costs and transport options for crossing the border but, with regards to this new rule, we strongly advise you seek out advice from hostel owners and other travellers before attempting to cross the border. This post is viewed by hundreds of travellers every week, so please let us know about your experiences in the comments so we can help them and keep the post fully updated.
Lastly, you may wish to make use of our guide on how to create a fake proof of onward departure and flight itinerary, so you can prepare yourself for both eventualities.
The Costa Rica-Panama border crossing is relatively simple to do independently with a little bit of planning. You don't need a shuttle and you don't need a tour company!
Here's our guide on the transport, the fees and the onward travel options for crossing the border at Sixaola from Puerto Viejo to reach Bocas del Toro, Boquete or David City.
#1 bus from puerto viejo to the panama border
Buses depart from outside the small ticket office in Puerto Viejo. You don't need to buy a ticket days in advance, simply turn up around thirty minutes before departure to buy one (1,600 CRC).
The buses depart to Sixaola every hour at half past the hour, starting at 6.30 a.m. On Sundays and holidays, the buses depart every two hours, starting at 6.30 a.m.
Travel time is around 90 minutes.
#2 pay costa rica exit fee
The bus will drop you off a couple of minutes walk from the immigration office. In 2014, Costa Rica introduced an exit charge of $7USD, and you need to pay this before getting your exit stamp.
Although there is a payment machine in the small immigration office, this only accepts cards and often does not work. Therefore, your most convenient option is to visit one of the many places on the left hand side before the office where you can pay the exit fee of $7USD plus $1USD admin charge (also payable in local currency). Unlike other borders in Central America, there are no armies of money exchangers on either side of the border so these places will also change any left over colones into USD, although the rate is not great
You'll be issued with a receipt of payment.
#3 exit costa rica
Unfortunately, at this border crossing there is only one small immigration office where they process both incoming and outgoing tourists, with just two members of staff. Therefore, there are often quite lengthy queues.
Whilst waiting in line, you will usually be offered a departure form. Do take it - they don't expect a tip or payment (unlike other Central American countries) and this will save some time once you reach the head of the queue.
Present this form, along with your passport and exit payment receipt to the immigration officer.
#4 cross the costa rica - panama border
Get your camera out as this is definitely one of the coolest borders you'll ever cross! There are some big gaps along the bridge, so do watch your step.
#5 pay your 'entrance fee'
And this is the most annoying bit about this border. There is a little office immediately after you cross the bridge (note this is NOT the official Panama immigration office) where you have to pay an 'entrance fee' of $3USD per person, and all they give you is a shitty little sticker in your passport. The men and women who ask you may have some official-looking ID but, after a lot of research, we are almost 100% certain this is a bogus charge.
We initially refused to pay, and had lengthy arguments. They backed down and said it was a charge to enter the 'municipality', not the country, but that we would get arrested if we were found without the 'sticker' in our passport. The guys got quite threatening towards us (and pulled over a military guy who was probably getting his cut) and we eventually paid up, but through very gritted teeth.
In short, you're probably best to pay this charge to avoid quite a bit of aggro.
#6 officially enter panama
The actual place to get your passport stamped is down some stairs on the left-hand side after this office.
Panama is quite strict on entry requirements and most people will be asked to show proof of onward travel out of the country - so make sure to bring a print-out of this or copy on your mobile. Officially, tourists are required to show proof of $500USD funds or a credit card, but this is very rarely requested. Don't have proof of onward travel? Then read our guide on how to create it here.
The standard tourist visa for most countries entering Panama is 90 days.
#7 onward travel to changuinola / bocas del toro / david city
Avoid any mini-bus or taxi touts as it's very easy to make your way independently to your onward destination in Panama, it just takes a little more time. After you've got your passport stamped, go back up the stairs and then down the other side where you'll see some little shops - this is the bus station!
The only buses that come by here, pretty frequently, are old school buses direct to Changuinola costing $1 and taking 30 minutes. Ask the driver to drop you off by the buses for David or Almirante.
Transport from Changuinola - Almirante - Bocas del Toro: The mini-buses leaves once full and it takes around 30 minutes to reach Almirante ($1.25). From here, there are frequent boats to Isla Colon or Bocas, costing $6 and lasting thirty minutes. The last departure is at 6 p.m.
Buses from Changuinola - Boquete - David: The mini-buses leave once full and it takes at least four hours to reach David ($9.5). This is a really picturesque bus ride through winding mountains roads, so try not to sleep through it.
This bus is also the one to take if you want to get dropped in Boquete.
overview: costa rica to panama
1 - Bus from Puerto Viejo to Sixaola / La Frontera (90 minutes, 1,600 CRC)
2 - Exit Costa Rica (30 minutes, $7-8)
3 - Cross the border (10 minutes)
4- Enter Panama (30 minutes, $3)
5 - Bus from Panama border (Guabito) to Changuinola (30 minutes, $1)
6 - Bus from Changuinola to Bocas del Toro / David / Boquete (variable time and costs)
Totals: minimum of 3.5 hours, $14 per person