Crossing The Costa Rica-Panama Border

Aug 31, 2014

I would like to preface this with two separate items:

1)   We crossed on the Pacific side from Costa Rica into Panama at the Paso Canoas Border Crossing

2)   This was by far, the most frustrating border crossing we’ve had yet, far beating our Mexico exit


With that said, here is our experience of traveling from Costa Rica into Panama along with some helpful tips to hopefully make your crossing a little bit smoother.

Catching the Tracopa bus in Uvita, Costa Rica, which originated in San Jose, it took us all the way to David, Panama. We’ve found it to be very convenient to take busses/shuttles that take you all the way through the border as it alleviates the need to find onward transport to your next destination, although it is certainly not the only way. The bus was quite full, but we lucked out and managed to find seats pretty quickly along the way. The trip from Uvita to the border took about two hours and was quite comfortable. No A/C, but the seats recline and the large windows are all open. 

Upon our arrival at the border is when the confusion, skepticism, and overall frustration began. First, we were ushered by a very unofficial-looking woman to a parked van next to the migration office to pay the exit tax. No matter where you are, this is exceptionally sketchy. We met an American ex-pat who lives in Panama who informed us that the tax he paid was $8pp. So we decided to skip the van and get straight in line to have our passports stamped and to see about this exit tax. Arriving at the window we handed over our passports, which were promptly handed back to us, as we did not have a receipt for the exit tax. The official informed us that it was $7pp and that we could pay at the Postal Office around the corner. Postal Office there was not. Teague walked down the road a ways to see what he could find but came back empty handed. By this time, everyone from our bus had moved on to enter Costa Rica; time was not on our side and we were not interested in A) missing our bus or B) paying an exorbitant amount of money to exit the country. Matt and Elissa had less trouble as they had some small American bills to pay with. Teague and I on the other hand only had Costa Rican colones.  The two women running the van (not in any sort of official attire) kept insisting that we pay upwards of five thousand colones per person, which is equivalent to almost $10 USD pp. Not happening ladies! Teague was able to talk them down to nine thousand colones for both of us, stating that we just didn’t have that much money with us. After finally receiving our receipts, we went back to get our passports stamped, which was as easy as anywhere else.

Next we had to trek all the way to the Costa Rican Immigration office. It wasn’t impossible to find, but it certainly wasn’t marked with flashing neon signs either. There is a lot going on between the two offices, including run-down storefronts, tiendas, sodas and a ton of traffic and side streets. From the Costa Rican office, you have to just keep going straight through the commotion and you’ll find the open air Panamanian building.

Luckily our bus provided us with Immigration/Customs forms so that we were ready when we got to the window. Not. So. Fast. Once we arrived at the window, we were required to show a credit card and proof of funds on said credit card with a minimum of $500 USD. What kind of proof, you may ask? Well a bank statement of course!

[Insert long, are you *#&$& joking, pause]

Bank statements. Let us all sit and think for a moment and count the number of people we know who carry bank statements with them while backpacking around the world (or ever?). Do you have your number yet? Because I do. I can count it on zero hands and zero feet. That’s because it’s a big, whopping ZERO! But alas! They had just the solution for us. Just go right around the corner and you will find plenty of wi-fi! Oh good! Just what I was hoping to do; stand on a busy street corner of a border crossing waving my several-hundred-dollar phone in the air, like I just don’t care, trying to catch a signal so that I may prove to the Panamanian government that I do in fact have the money to enjoy their fair country. At this point in the process, we like to call this: Ridiculous. After giving up on the wi-fi, Elissa begrudgingly turned on her roaming, which likely cost her all of the $500 she was trying to prove she and Matt had, and Teague ventured off into the crowds in search of an ATM to print out our account balance.

While all of this was happening, our bags were removed from the underbelly of the bus and were sitting casually on the sidewalk practically unattended. Being the only one not doing anything I hustled over to babysit all of our possessions.

“Take it over there.” They said, pointing about 20 feet away. I looked down at the roughly 80 lbs. of luggage and tried to figure out how this was going to happen. Luckily with all of my vast lifting of heavy things experience, I was able to complete this hefty task. My three amigos all returned at the same time, Matt and Elissa having successfully made it into Costa Rica with only a quick pass through customs standing in the way, and Teague and I still at the mercy of the border officials. Fortunately and unfortunately for us, ING runs a very tight and secure ship when it comes to the information they reveal on printed receipts for their customers. Teague printed two receipts, which revealed that we had barely $500 between our checking and savings accounts. Not anywhere close to the truth, but it’s all we had to work with. With time running out yet again, we reached the windows again, showing our credit card and account balances. This was apparently good enough for the official and then she required us to present our proof of onward travel, specifically in the form of an airline ticket, out of Panama. Luckily for us, we had this part of the equation all figured out and ready to go.

With the bus all but speeding the hell out of there as we left the window, we were hustled to the bus having skipped any sort of customs check and tossed our bags back under the bus – no, don’t worry about going back to re-read that; we had to do literally nothing with our bags between the time that they removed them and when we put them back on – and hopped on to the now 90% empty bus. We have no idea where the rest of our bus mates went, but that’s neither here nor there and it provided us all with an even more comfortable journey.

About five minutes into the ride, we were boarded by an armed and armored official, who checked our passports and carry-on bags. After that it was smooth sailing on to David, Panama.

Luckily, Panama so far has been completely worth the frustration of entering! What started as a projected short stay has now turned into a minimum of two weeks!

So what can you take from this experience to make your own border crossing a bit more smooth?

Read 5 Ways To Have A Smooth Border Crossing Into Panama

Roam on!




Written by Jen Hays
Jen is a marketer with a passion for the digital world and an insatiable desire to travel and explore all that the physical world has to offer; marrying the two to share her experiences with and inspire all who join her along the way.

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