The Panama - Costa Rica 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 Guabito/Sixaola to reach Puerto Viejo and the east coast of Costa Rica.
#1 bus from david to changuinola
From David City, you can access two borders. The first at Paso Canoas (less than an hour away) is the largest in the country and is best if you want direct access to the south or west coast of Costa Rica - don't make the mistake of going here if your hostel reservation is in Puerto Viejo!
The second - in Guabito/Sixaola - is around four hours travel from David City.
An early morning start is recommended. Make your way to David's bus terminal where the mini-buses to Changuinola are located, leaving at least once every hour.
Though often quite tightly packed, these buses have air-con and will stop once en-route for some food.
If you have been enjoying the beaches in Bocas del Toro, then this bus will pick you up from Almirante, from where it takes 30 minutes to Changuinola ($1.25).
Time: 4-5 hours / Cost: $9.5 per person
#2 bus from changuinola to guabito/frontera
Just around the corner from the final stop, you'll find Changuinola bus station. Ask around for a bus to 'Guabito or La Frontera' and someone will point you to the clunky old school buses, which depart every half-hour or so.
Time: 30 minutes / Cost: $1 per person
#3 find the panama immigration office
Once in Guabito, the bus will drop you off in a vacant lot and your first port of call is the immigration office.
It's a little confusingly located: make your way up the stairs and then down the stairs on the other side and it's a little further ahead on your right.
Take care of business here, get your exit stamp then turn around back up the stairs, heading towards the bridge.
Time: 15 minutes / Cost: $0 per person
#4 pay your panama 'exit fee'
And this is the most annoying bit about this border. There is a little office immediately before you cross the bridge (note this is NOT the official Panama immigration office) where you have to pay an 'exit 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 (if it was official you'd just pay at the immigration office!)
However, given the office's location, it's difficult to bypass them and you're probably best to pay this charge to avoid quite a bit of aggro.
Time: 15 minutes / Cost: $3 per person
#5 cross the border
Get your camera out as this old railway bridge is probably one of the coolest border crossings you'll ever do!
#6 officially enter costa rica
Officially, you need to have proof of onward travel in order to enter the country, although this is not always strictly enforced. However, we definitely advise you to make arrangements and have some proof with you - why not read our guide on how to create a proof of onward travel document here.
An alternative - if you know you're only going to be in country for a 7-14 days - is to state the date you're leaving and ask for a visa up until that time. They may not grant this to everyone, but it is possible.
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 an arrival 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 to the immigration officer.
Time: 30 - 60 minutes (however, we waited 2 hours) / Cost: $0 per person
#7 onward travel to puerto viejo
Avoid any mini-bus or taxi touts as it's very easy to make your way independently to Puerto Viejo, it just takes a little more time. After you've got your passport stamped, go down the stairs on the right where you'll see some little shops - the bus station is just behind these.
Buses leave for Puerto Viejo at half past the hour, every hour (starting from 5.30 a.m.) On Sundays and Holidays, it is every two hours from 5.30 a.m.
The journey takes around 90 minutes and drops you off in the centre of Puerto Viejo.
Time: 90 minutes / Cost: $1,600 CRC ($3USD) per person
overview: costa rica to panama
1 - Bus from David to Changuinola (4-5 hours, $9.5)
2 - Bus from Changuinola to Guabito/La Frontera (30 minutes, $1)
3 - Exit Panama (30 minutes, $3)
4 - Cross the border (10 minutes)
4- Enter Costa Rica (30 minutes, $0)
5 - Bus from Costa Rica border (Guabito) to Puerto Viejo (90 minutes, $3)
Totals: minimum of 6.5 hours, $16.5 per person