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Updated: November 2018
There are many reasons to travel from Puerto Viejo to Bocas del Toro. My reason for going was a pure and simple visa run. I knew Costa Rica’s visa requirements and I needed to renew my 90-day visa. If I spent seventy-two hours in Panama, I could re-enter Costa Rica for another 90 days.
Getting to Bocas del Toro is not difficult. From Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica there are organized shuttles to take you over the border. Caribe Shuttle is one company that will take you to Bocas del Toro for about $43 Cdn. For some reason, I decided to strike out on my own. I wanted to see if I could do this solo. I wanted a challenge.
How to Independently Cross the Border:
Puerto Viejo to Bocas del Toro
#1 Puerto Viejo to Sixaola
Take the public bus from the Puerto Viejo bus station to Sixaola. The buses leave frequently for this 90-minute bus ride We stopped in BriBri for a few minutes. I was the only person on the bus from BriBri to Sixaola. Leave yourself plenty of time as the border closes at 5 pm.
Cost: CRC 1615.00 ($4.00 Canadian)
#2 Pay the Exit Tax
Once at Sixaola, a man called me to this little convenience store with a wicket. Interesting. The store sells food and exit visas. It is on the left as you are facing across the bridge. This is where you pay your exit tax for leaving Costa Rica. You will be issued a receipt.
Cost: CRC 4500 ($11.00 Canadian)
There was a long lineup of travellers that were all with shuttle groups. Many people approached and asked if I wanted to join a group or needed a ride, and offered me the “best price.” Remember I was determined to go solo. But if you want to take the bus this far and then join a group it wouldn’t be a problem.
#3 Costa Rican Immigration Office
Across from the little store are some steps. Climb them and you will find the Costa Rican immigration office. Fill out a form and line up. Get your passport stamped with the exit stamp.
#4 Walk the Bridge
Ignore all the people asking to help you and guaranteeing you the cheapest price because now you can walk across the Rio Sixaola bridge into Panama! Note the time difference: Panama is one hour ahead.
When you have crossed the Rio Sixaola bridge, veer left. Look for the Duty-Free Shop. Close by you will see two wickets (one for entry; one for exit) set back in the wall and probably a line up of people. You will have to show your passport and proof of onward travel from Panama. I had electronic proof – a screenshot of an airline ticket. They will ask you to take off your hat or hairband and then snap your photo.
Proof of onward travel…it is a tricky thing if you are not flying out of Panama, another Central American country, taking the bus back to Costa Rica or are not 100% sure of future travel plans. I know someone who was not prepared with onward travel plans and had to buy an airline ticket, right there at the border. Suddenly, a VISA machine appeared and she had no choice except to purchase a ticket. So, be prepared.
Talk to people in Puerto Viejo. I used a screenshot of an airline ticket that I had 48 hours to confirm my purchase before the payment went through. I obviously cancelled the payment once I was in Panama. To tell the truth I was a bit nervous about doing this.
#6 Pay the Panama Entry Fee
Cross under the overpass, on foot, to find the counter to pay your entry fee into Panama. It will be obvious as there will be a lineup. They accept both Costa Rican colones and U.S. dollars.
Cost: CRC 2000.00 ($5.00 Canadian)
#7 Look for a seat on a shuttle or take the public bus
By now it is necessary to be on the lookout for a driver to take you to your destination. Actually, they are already on the lookout for you. Often the shuttle buses will wait until they have a full load. So find a van waiting to fill up.
Everyone says to bargain with your driver for the best price. I was too excited to have made it over the border on my own to drive a hard bargain! The price included the drive to Almirante and the 20-minute boat ride to Isla Colon.
The destination is the port of Almirante – gateway to Bocas del Toro. From there you will take a water taxi to Bocas Town on Isla Colon.
Cost: $16 U.S. ($21 Canadian)
Apparently, you can also take a public bus to get to Almirante. I didn’t know about that at the time, wish I had.
Hop into your shuttle and away you go!
I LOVED crossing the border solo.
Speak Spanish? It will be even easier for you.
My cost: The bus trip to Sixaola and shuttle/ boat ride to Almirante/ Isla Colon: $25 Canadian
Organized trip cost: From Puerto Viejo to Bocas del Toro: $33 U.S ($43 Canadian) The border entry and exit fees are not included in the cost of the shuttle.
I saved about $18.00 Canadian and felt a great sense of pride! Plus, it was fun.
Once in Bocas Town, relax, have lunch and then take a water taxi to the island where you are staying.
On Isla Solarte I stayed at Bambuda Lodge, a hostel owned by Canadians. From there I explored other islands.
The Return Trip:
On the return trip, I decided to take an organized shuttle which was not such a smooth trip! It was organized through a hostel in Bocas Town. Thank goodness I met Andy from Chile because the two of us had to negotiate our way onto a shuttle.
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