Getting from Costa Rica to Panama: the complete guide

By lee webstick on Jan 10, 2019

The jungle lushness, endless beaches and idyllic islands continue as you transit from Costa Rica to Panamá, or vice versa. While there are similarities between the countries they both have unique elements.

In this guide, we'll take a look at:

  • 1. Crossing the border from Costa Rica to Panamá
  • 2. Tips for Crossing the Paso Canoas border from Costa Rica to Panama
  • 3. FAQs 
  • 4. Where to stay in Panamá:

A huge drawcard to Panamá is the archipelago of islands on the Caribbean side, Bocas Del Toro. Inland there are more volcanoes and national parks to explore before heading to more beaches on the Pacific side or to the “big smoke” of Panamá City, a city of old and new.

Transiting through Panamá and Costa Rica is easy as both countries have reliable and smooth bus services. There are two main borders to get between the countries, and here’s how it’s done.e.

Crossing the border from Costa Rica to Panamá

Your last stop in Costa Rica will determine which border to use. The Pasos Canoas border is best if traveling from the Pacific Coast side of Costa Rica. This includes Tamarindo, Jaco, Monteverde, La Fortuna, and Manuel Antonio to name a few of the most popular tourist towns.

The other border, Sixaola, is on the Caribbean side and is best used if your last destination in Costa Rica is Puerto Viejo or Limon and if you want to travel to Bocas Del Toro in Panamá.

Traveling from Puerto Viejo (Costa Rica) to Bocas Del Toro (Panama) through Sixaola border

The last main town in Costa Rica before the Sixaola border is Puerto Viejo, a quaint Caribbean town where the jungle meets the Caribbean Sea.

By bus

From Puerto Viejo catch a bus to Sixaola, they come every hour and it takes 1.5 hours to reach the border town.

It’s important to note that the border closes at 5:30 PM and Panamá is one hour ahead of Costa Rica. Once at the border complete the exit out of Costa Rica (exit fee 8 USD in 2019) and entry into Panama. Make sure you have proof of onward travel out of Panama as often tourists are asked for these details.

Moving from the border to Bocas Del Toro

Once in Panama, the fastest, easiest and recommended way to get to Bocas Del Toro is by Colectivo. There are plenty of people asking for your business and the van will drop you to Almirante where the boats heading to Bocas del Toro depart.

The other option is to take a few buses, the first one from Sixaola to Changuinola and then change to the bus heading to David and ask to be dropped in Almirante. From there either walk or catch a taxi to the boat terminal, where you can catch the 30-minute water-taxi to Bocas Town.

Traveling from Pacific coastal towns of Jaco and Manuel Antonio to Panama through Paso Canoas border

Moving from Manuel Antonio to Panama City (Paso Canoas Border)

Via bus

There are no direct bus services from Manuel Antonio to Panama City. However, moving between these 2 locations is still very possible through several bus transfers between the major towns along this route.

Tracopa (Transportes Costarricenses Panameños) Bus Company is the major bus operator for this journey and what most people consider. This service provider is known for its comfortable buses and reportedly safe travels.

At the beachside village of Manuel Antonio, Tracopa bus terminal is located right on route 618, near the entrance to the Manuel Antonio National Park, and next to Parada terminal buses (see location on
Google Maps below).

From Manuel Antonio terminal, the Tracopa bus heads towards Quepos town to pick up more passengers (12 mins drive). It also makes frequent stops between these 2 terminuses to pick up passengers at designated spots, so you don’t have to backtrack to Manuel or head to Quepos. Note that you’ll need to have purchased a ticket beforehand.

The bus ticket from Manuel Antonio to Panama City ranges from 14,708 colones to 29,415 colones (~ 26 USD – ~ 52 USD). The buses leave as early as 04:05 AM to 6 PM every 30 minutes. The journey to Panama City takes around 14 hours, including 2 hours, 18 minutes of bus transfers.

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Via plane

If you’d rather avoid the bus from Costa Rica to Panama, the next viable option is to take a flight from Quepos to Panama City via San Jose. The trip takes 5-7 hours, and the airfare tickets cost 56567-231926 colones (~ 100 USD – ~ 410 USD).

From Manuel Antonio, you can take a bus or grab a taxi to Quepos. Both of these charges 500 colones (~ 1 USD). However, it’s essential to establish the fare before getting into the cab to avoid misunderstanding. From Quepos, La Managua Airport is around 5 kilometers away and can be accessed by taxi.

Moving from Jaco to Panama City (Paso Canoas border)

By bus

For travelers around the beautiful and energetic town of Jaco, your best bet would be to take a bus to Quepos and then take a Tracopa towards Costa Rica Panama border.

To catch a bus to Quepos, just stand at any bus stop on the beachside of route 34. There are buses by Tracopa and Transportes Quepos Puntarenas that ply this route. They run from 6 AM to 7 PM, and the drive to Quepos takes around 2 hours. The price for a ticket is around 1300 colones (~ 2.3 USD as at 2019).

If you are in a hurry to get from Jaco to Quepos for your Costa Rica to Panama bus, you can easily take a taxi 48082-62224 colones (~ 85 USD – ~ 110 USD), Uber 28284 -31112 colones (~ 50 USD – ~ 55 USD), or rent a car 3394-5657 colones (~6 USD – ~ 10 USD).

By Plane

There’s no airport in Jaco. So, if you wish to fly to Panama City from Jaco, the nearest airports will be La Managua Airport in Quepos and the Juan Santamaria Airport in Alajuela.

From Juan Santamaria airport, the flight to Panama City takes about 1 hour, and ticket prices range from 127842 colones to 497793 colones (~ 226 USD- ~ 880 USD).

Tips for Crossing the Paso Canoas border from Costa Rica to Panama

The Paso Canoas is among the busiest Panama Costa Rica crossing borders due to commercial traffic. Needless to mention, going through can be very chaotic for first-timers.

It gets even worse, especially if you are detained at the immigration offices for lacking any of the necessary documents. Mind you, if you are detained for being underprepared, chances are that your bus will leave you behind with no refund.

So, let’s start with the most critical bit.


What do you need to go through the Paso Canoas border from Costa Rica?

  • Passport– it should be valid for at least 6 months from entry. Depending on the border agent that you’ll deal with, you may also be required to have 2 copies of the passport. It’s in your best interest to have these ready, even if you won’t be asked for them.
  • Costa Rica exit fee– 8 USD payable in Costa Rican Colones- 4,520.83 colones
  • Pen to fill out Costa Rica’s exit form
  • Proof of exit out of Panama (onward travel) – this could be a valid air or bus ticket to prove that you plan to leave Panama and return to your country of ownership.
  • Proof of sufficient funds (at least 500 USD for 3 months’ worth) – this can be in cash or a credit card that bears your name. You could also bring a bank statement or print one at any of the cash machines nearby.
    Panama Entry fee- payable in dollars or Balboas. This payment doesn’t seem too official, but you can still be held at the border until you part with 1 USD – 4 USD. In exchange, you get a small sticker that you attach on your passport.

The process of crossing the border

Your bus will drop you off a few minutes’ walk to the immigration office. Upon alighting the bus;

1. Pay your Costa Rica departure tax first

There is a machine inside the immigration office, but it does not work most of the time. There are a couple of offices directly opposite the immigration offices where you can pay manually. Look for any outlet written ‘Impuestos’ and pay 8 USD. You’ll be issued with a receipt after payment. Be sure not to lose it.

2. Get an exit stamp out of Costa Rica

After paying your departure tax, cross the highway, and head directly to the immigration office. It’s a huge structure painted blue and white and with concrete pillars. Look for a window with a blue placard written ‘Salida del Pais.’

Before queueing, cut to the front and ask the attendant to issue you with Costa Rica’s exit form. You’ll need to fill out this form as you slowly near the window.

The form asks for basic information, including your name, passport number, and destination.

Upon reaching the window, you’ll be required to present;

  • The filled exit form
  • Passport
  • Exit fee receipt

Upon verification, the agent will stamp an exit stamp on your passport, and you’ll be good to head to Panama’s Migration offices.

3. Get Panama Entrance Stamp

Once your passport has been stamped, you’ll need to make a 5-10 minutes walk to Panama Migration offices. Since this building can be a tad hard to locate, either follow other people coming from the Costa Rica Migration offices or ask. Most locals are always willing to help.

All in all, it’s a large, modern structure (much better than that of Costa Rica) with a slew of glass window counters.

Before joining any queue, you’ll need to pay 1 USD to a person seated outside the office entrance. This fee is for the necessary paper stamp that you need to enter Panama.

4. Speak to a migration official

After getting the paper stamp, join the entrada line and wait to speak to an agent. He/she will ask you a few questions, for instance, your destination and how long your visit is expected to last.

You’ll be required to show your proof of sufficient funds, which could be a 3-month bank statement, a credit card with your name, or 500 USD in cash.

Lastly, you may be required to show proof of onward travel, which could either be a bus ticket or air ticket out of Panama.

5. Get an entry stamp

The last step before you are allowed to get into Panama is having your fingerprints and photo taken. Your passport will then be stamped with an entry stamp.

How to get from San Jose, Costa Rica to Panama City, Panama

By bus

As it’s always the case when traveling around most touristic destinations, taking a bus from San Jose, Costa Rica to Panama City will make more sense for travelers who want to save.

Luckily, the major service providers for this route (Tica Bus and Expreso Panama) have very comfortable and air-conditioned buses. On this note, you may want to bring your socks, a sweater, and a fleece jacket to keep you warm as some of these buses can get very cold.

San Jose Tica Bus terminal is about 16.5 kilometers from San Jose Airport. There are lots of taxis that hang around the airport and will drop you at Tica Bus for 22 USD-27 USD for a 20-minute drive. The drivers do accept US currency.

Tica Bus Company has 2 buses that service the route between San Jose and Panama City. The first is an executive bus that leaves San Jose at 11 PM. Tickets cost 58 USD- 67 USD, and you’ll be served 2 ‘meals’ (McDonald’s Big Mac).

The second Tica bus (regular) leaves San Jose at noon and the ticket costs around 42 USD. These 2 buses are pretty much the same other than the ticket price difference and the departure times. The journey to Panama City takes about 17 hours, and the coaches make several stops at San Isidro, Paso Canoas, and Panama.

By Plane

If the 17-hour journey by bus feels daunting, taking a flight from San Jose Costa Rica to Panama City might be an ideal option.

To get to Juan San Jose Airport (SJO) from the city, you can take a TUASA bus. These buses run from 4:30 AM to 11:00 PM and charge around 2 USD.

Other options include taking a taxi, which will set you back 23 USD – 29 USD or Uber, which is much cheaper than a taxi at 13 USD- 15 USD.

Avianca and Copa Airlines have daily flights servicing San Jose and Panama City for 70 USD – 360 USD. Flights to Panama City start as early as 04:30 AM up to 5:38 PM. The trip takes the utmost 1 hour 26 minutes. Remember that Panama is 1 hour ahead of Costa Rica. So, don’t forget to add 1 hour to your estimated arrival time.

Selina offers private transportation to/from San Jose Airport and most of the cities and towns in Costa Rica. View all the places we’ll take you and our rates.

The cheapest way to cross Paso Canoas border between Costa Rica and Panama

Crossing most international borders is often a stressful and unpleasant ordeal, and Paso Canoas isn’t any different. However, it could be a little bit less strenuous with a few tips;

  • Crossing with a bus is much cheaper and easier than using a rental car. Actually, it’s implausible that Costa Rica agencies will allow you to drive a rented vehicle through to Panama. Ask your car rental agency before driving to the border, though.
  • Whether you are crossing the border via a bus or a rental car, bring several copies of all of your paperwork. It will eliminate the inconvenience of backtracking between offices and copy shops.
  • Always do thorough research on what is required of you when crossing the Panama Costa Rica border. Double-check to ensure that you have the right stamps stamped on your passport. We’ve heard several cases of tourists subjected to a fine of 1000 USD in Panama for missing the stamp or being banned from entering the country for life.

FAQs 

Can I take a direct bus from Costa Rica to Panama City?

Yes. Tica Bus Company has 2 buses that depart from San Jose Tica Bus Terminal. The ‘normal’ bus leaves at noon and arrives at Panama City at 6 AM the following morning. They also have an Executive coach that leaves at 11:55 PM and arrives at Panama City at 6:00 PM the next morning.

How long is a flight from San Jose, Costa Rica to Panama?

Flights from Costa Rica to Panama City take approximately 1 hour 20 minutes. Keep in mind that Panama is 1 hour ahead of Costa Rica. As such, you’ll need to factor in the extra hour that you’ll gain into your estimated arrival time.

Which is best, flying or taking a bus from Costa Rica to Panama City?

Flying takes well over an hour between the 2 destinations, but it’s pricier. On the other hand, it will take you a whopping 17 hours to move my bus, but it’s way cheaper than flying. So, bussing will make more sense for travelers on a budget.

Can I drive a rental car from Costa Rica to Panama through the Paso Canoas border?

Most rental companies won’t allow you to drive their cars across the border. However, some have arrangements that will enable you to drop the car on one side and have another one waiting for you on the other side. Be ready to pay handsomely for this convenience, though.

Which is the cheapest way to move from San Jose to Panama City?

The cheapest option would be to take the Tica Bus Company’s regular bus, which charges around 42 USD.

Where to stay in Panamá:

Explore and enjoy all that Panamá has to offer, from #islandlife in Bocas Del Toro, epic waves on the Pacific Coast and a diverse capital city of old traditions and architecture effectively pieced together with the modern world in Panamá City. Whether you’re a digital nomad, a curious backpacker or holiday-maker, Selina’s Panamá accommodation is sure to give you the atmosphere and facilities you’re seeking.

Connecting you to more Selinas…

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Selina Bocas del Toro, Red Frog

Embrace a life without borders! Work, stay, and explore at Selina Bocas del Toro, Red Frog!

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