With our tourist visas coming up for renewal in April and hearing about how easy it is to cross into Costa Rica through the border crossing near Bocas del Toro, we just had to try it out but didn’t want to wait until the last minute in case there were any issues.
Issues we have faced at another border crossing were a minimum 3 day exit from Panama if entering the country on a tourist visa and showing proof of leaving Panama via a bus or airline ticket.
Even though we weren’t leaving the visa renewals for the last minute, the planning sure was! Being in a country that has great in-person cash deals, we decided to arrive at our destinations before paying for anything online.
We bought a couple one-way bus tickets in Albrook Mall from Panama City (on Tranceibosa) to Bocas del Toro a few days before the trip. They were one way just in case we had to stay in Costa Rica for three days.
Telling the cashier we wanted to be picked up in La Chorrera on the Monday night bus shaved off 45 minutes of back tracking alone. We arrived in Almirante at 5:20am to catch the water taxi to Isla Colón, the main island of Bocas del Toro.
We’ve had friends who lived in Bocas warning us of the wild night life there, but were pleasantly surprised to find the town blissfully snoozing their hangovers away as we had a quiet early morning breakfast on a deck overlooking the glass-like water. Of course, not being morning folk ourselves, we headed to our room for a nap (which was $5 less per night since we didn’t pay beforehand!).
After spending a few hours recuperating from the bus ride, we took a stroll around the town and even rented a couple bicycles for a dollar. Food doesn’t tend to be this cheap on the island, but you can still find beer for less during the nightly happy hours.
During our island exploring, we met a tour guide willing to refer us to another company for a good deal on our border crossing trip from Isla Colón to Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica ($100 in person versus $120 from the other company I had found online).
Wednesday morning we grumbled and stumbled our way to the water taxi at 8am for our ride back to Almirante (I needn’t remind you that we’re not morning people!). Once off the water taxi in Almirante and hopping into a 15 seat van for the 1½ hour ride to the border was uneventful although I was full of anticipation for the events that would unfold at the border. Was it going to be a busy border crossing? How many tour buses would be in front of us? Would we get there right as employees were heading to lunch?
We were at the Panamanian border no longer than 20 minutes before walking across the rickety bridge reserved for tractor trailers and pedestrians alike. Good thing there’s a new bridge in the works! Once traversing the bridge to Costa Rica, we had our stamps in less than 5 minutes.
Catching the second 15 seat van on the Costa Rican side, we were dropped off at the front steps of our B&B at 11am. Grabbing the most amazing burgers at Restaurante Tamara since moving to Central America before napping the rest of our day away was about all we did in Puerto Viejo. We were tired from 2 days of road trips but were able to grab a couple photos of the beautiful black sand beaches in the small town.
Spending a majority of our Wednesday snoozing away, we were pretty chipper while waiting for our van to pick us up 8am Thursday morning. Eagerly awaiting the border crossing, we didn’t know if we would face problems since we had only left Panama for less than 24 hours.
We still had our one way tickets from our April 2011 Paso Canoas border experience, which were good until April 2012. I kept them in my purse and would only show them if asked.
Upon both our passports being ink stamped, initialed, and finally, $3 sticker stamped, we were on our way without a hitch. We spent about 20 minutes total between the Costa Rican and Panamanian border offices. Yeah, we had to walk across that rickety bridge again. I hope that new bridge is completed before our next trip.
We headed back to the same place we stayed Tuesday night and brought 3 couples we met in the van with us. We spent our Thursday with one of the couples washing down beers and margaritas after eating shrimp sandwiches for lunch, playing beach volleyball, splashing around in the ocean, after finally throwing back a few more beers over a delicious Mediterranean dinner at Casbah.
Resolving that the four of us would leave for the interior in the morning, them to investigate Panama for their expat move and us to head back to Chorrera for karaoke at Paco’s, we trekked to the water taxi one last time at 7am Friday morning. Groggy yet again, we were told at the water taxi office that we had to buy tickets the day before in order to head towards David or Panama City. Calling a Panamanian friend, he told us to grab the water taxi to Almirante, there would be buses every 30 to 60 minutes driving through. As luck would have it, we both grabbed buses to our separate destinations within minutes of arriving at the bus station.
9 hours, 3 stops, and 2 movies later, we were back in Chorrera with visas stamped for another 6 months in the country. This trip was so easy we decided that we would head to Bocas and Puerto Viejo every three months, as long as we don’t have another international trip planned, so we can stay legal driving in Panama on our U.S. drivers licenses. We’ve noticed a lot of officers now have passport scanners with them and don’t think it’s worth the risk any longer to drive past the 90 days our licenses are valid in Panama.
Remember, you can stay in Panama for 6 months on a tourist visa, but you’re only allowed to legally drive for the first 3 months. Even if you find a way to get around with a copied passport stamp, if you happen upon an officer at a checkpoint with a passport scanner, you’ll be in far worse trouble.
Sadly, we didn’t have time to explore the islands off Bocas but will be happily heading there in the next month or two with our Panamanian friends