Or: Getting From San Jose, Costa Rica to Bocas del Toro, Panama
Or: Exit Ticket Entry Requirements for Panama
From La Fortuna, there are frequent buses throughout the day to Ciudad Quesada (which can’t help make me think of a city of cheese), where one can than change for a bus to San Jose. There are several of these throughout the day. There are also a couple of direct buses: at 12:45 and 2:45 p.m. We caught the 12:45 direct bus from La Fortuna, figuring we’d still get in to San Jose at a decent time. Turns out the 4.5 hour journey was closer to 6, as when we hit the edge of the city we also hit traffic, and it took us over an hour to make our way in to the bus terminal. Here, we chose to take a taxi to our nearby hotel, as the bus station area is decidedly dodgy at good hour. Our desire to barter got the best of us and we turned down a fixed-price taxi who wouldn’t lower his price. We ended up in a metered one who, despite his estimate, ended up costing about twice as much. Ah, it happens.
We’d chosen to stay in the area with all of the bus terminals, chiefly for convenience sake. There is little else reason to stay here. We buzzed in to our gated hotel we’d booked online and were greeted by the exceptionally friendly lady running the place. The street below was noisy, dirty, and dodgy, but we felt reasonably secure in our second-floor room behind several locked doors. We ventured out as far as a couple of blocks in search of food, and after finding a cheap and tasty dinner accompanied by the presence of a friendly local who helped translate, we made it swiftly back home.
San Jose has a number of different bus terminals and stops, as they are operated on a company basis as opposed to a destination basis. Our destination was Bocas del Toro, Panama, and there are a couple of different ways to do this.
Getting from San Jose, Costa Rica to Bocas del Toro, Panama:
No buses travel the entire distance between San Jose and Bocas. (Mainly because it’s an island.) There is, however, one daily direct bus from San Jose to Changuinola, which as close as you are going to get on your first form of transport. This Bocatoreños bus leaves San Jose from outside of Hotel Cocori, just off of Calle 14, at 9 a.m. every day. There is no terminal and no office; you buy your tickets on the bus. When we did it, the bus was there at least half an hour before it left, so try to be there early as well to secure a seat. The fare is $14 for the roughly six hour trip. You can also take one of several early buses from the Caribe terminal that go to the border, and then catch further transport on from there.
At the Costa Rican-Panamanian border, you must stop at four different points before the crossing is complete. You disembark your bus before the first at re-board after the last. The first point is to pay the $8 (apparently $7 in the bank) departure tax from Costa Rica and obtain a receipt. Then you stop in to have your passport stamped out of Costa Rica (this is just before the bridge on your right). Then, in the strangest border crossing I’ve seen in a while, you travel by foot over a sketchy old railway bridge, which has more than a few significant gaps and spaces, over to the Panamanian side of the border crossing. There will likely be some local kids playing around on and jumping off of the bridge as you cross. On your left will be where you pay the $3 entry tax into Panama and receive a small sticker in your passport. Then, down the stairs on your left, across the street, and behind the duty-free shop you will find Panamanian immigration where you will be required to show an exit ticket out of the country. Panama is strict on this, and I haven not heard of anyone who managed to talk their way out of this one. As a huge number of people entering Panama do not actually have exit tickets, as they plan to travel by boat (to Colombia) or overland (to Costa Rica), this tends to cause some panicked backpackers.
Solutions to the Exit Ticket Requirement:
- Buy a bus ticket at the border. This is probably the most legitimate and easiest way to supply an exit ticket: just buy one. A bus ticket out of Panama will cost you between $10 and $15.
- Purchase a fully refundable Spirit Airlines flight. At the moment, the American airline Spirit will allow you to buy a ticket online and cancel it with a full refund, so long as the cancellation is done within 24 hours of purchase and the departure date is at least 7 days away. Spirit flies out of Panama to destinations such as Fort Lauderdale, often for less than $300. This is what we did, and we supplied our itinerary on a smart phone, as we hadn’t had a chance to print it, which was satisfactory.
- Create a fake airline ticket. This goes untested by yours truly, but apparently if you Google “fake airline ticket” a result will pop up that allows you to fill in the appropriate information and give yourself a departure flight from your chosen country. I know people who have done this and had no problems, but I am also unaware of what consequences may exist if they did want to check out your information and find that it is falsified.
- Use Copa Airlines “hold reservation” function. Along the same lines as the previous suggestion, but seemingly slightly more legitimate, is the function that Copa Airlines has to hold a reservation without paying for it. If you make as though to purchase a flight online, create an account, and click hold reservation, you will be given a confirmation page with your name and details on it. This page will state the requirement that you pay for your reservation to make it complete, but this could (a) potentially be missed by your friendly Panamanian border control guy or (b) be edited out with any word processor and then printed.
After you have successfully navigated your border crossing, you will be approached by a swarm of people offering you transport directly to Almirante, the town where water taxis to Bocas leave from. This is where you have to weigh your options. Initially, regardless of what you want to do, say no to these people, as they tend to start at the exorbitant price of $10 per person for the ride, and you should pay nowhere near this much.
Ignore what they are telling you about the fact that you will miss the last water taxi, that the last one leaves at 5, about the time difference, and about the driving distances. We were lucky enough to be completing this journey alongside an American expat who had been living in Bocas for six years, so we were comfortable that he, at least, knew what he was doing.
- Your initial travel plan would take you from San Jose, through the border, to the town of Changuinola. Here you would need to transfer to a new bus or to a taxi/shuttle/collective to take you the remainder of the way to Almirante. This taxi should not cost more than $5 per person, or potentially as low as $15 for the entire car.
- The last water taxi leaves for Bocas from Almirante at 6:00 p.m.
- There is a one-hour time difference between Costa Rica and Panama. If you have arrived at the border at 2:00 p.m. Costa Rican time, it is 3:00 p.m. Panamanian time. You still have plenty of time to catch your water taxi.
- It takes about 45 minutes to drive direct from the border to Almirante, and about an extra 20 or 30 minutes to go via Changuinola. (Not including any time you may spend waiting for a bus.)
The conclusion? Jump on if your bus was late and you are worried about making it to the islands. You don’t want to spend a night in any of these towns, really, on the mainland. It’s worth it for the extra $5 – $10.
Do not spend more than $5 per person if you want to get the collectivo from the border, unless you are really running late. Just wait it out, and the prices should drop lower and lower. Four of us ended up getting offered the ride for $3 a person, which I think is rare: I’m pretty sure they just needed to get back and thought they’d make a few bucks on the way.
The bus driver will more likely than not be on the “side” of the collective drivers. You have already paid the full fare to Changuinola so it matters little to him how you get there, and it appears they have a healthy working relationship with one another.
If you are on a shuttle or in a taxi, they will drop you directly at the wharf. We went over with Taxi 25 for $6 per person. You will arrive on Isla Colon, the main island of the Bocas del Toro archipelago. From here, you have the option to stay on the main island or travel out to one of the other islands in the archipelago. We opted to stay on Isla Colon, at the lovely Hostal Heike, for a few nights. Bienvenidos a Panama!
And finally, for the budget numbers of Costa Rica. You’ll hear up and down Central America that Costa Rica will rob you of your money, and this is quite likely to be true. There are just a lot of activities to do in the country, and the vast majority of them require you pay for them. Everything from park fees ($10 a pop, plus) to accommodation to camping is more expensive, but we managed to not blow out our budget too badly in Costa Rica.
Days in Costa Rica: 10
Total USD Spent: $452
Approximate Daily Average (USD): $45