It’s difficult to believe that I am the only one crossing borders on foot, yet I can never find (accurate) information online that gives clear directions on how to do so. Maybe the people doing it just aren’t bloggers. Or maybe they are and feel that since they had to figure it out on their own, I should too. I don’t know what it is, but here goes another one: directions on how to get from Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica to Panama and how to get all the way to Panama City by bus.
On my last two days in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica I researched frantically, trying to figure out how Alex and I were going to get to our next destination: Panama City. I was nervous when even the attendant at the bus station had no idea how to get beyond the border. Luckily, I remembered Manuel, a friend from Blue Osa, was Panamanian, and I quickly messaged him for advice. Manuel didn’t live in Panama City but had friends who visited there often. He asked around a bit and came back with suggestions and a bus schedule. Meanwhile, a request I made on a trip advisor forum also alerted me that I had transportation advice awaiting me from other users. After reviewing all responses, I realized the advised schedules were still conflicting. A common occurrence it seems.
I went with Manuel’s advice because he’s a local, and then decided to go with a trip advisor user’s advice because the departure time was earlier. If she were wrong, then I could still make Manuel’s advised bus.
Ultimately, the journey began on a Saturday at 11:00 am from Puerto Viejo.
Bus from Puerto Viejo to Sixaola
This bus leaves every hour and takes about two hours to get to the border in Sixaola because it stops frequently. We chose to take the 11:00 am bus for two reasons:
1. The office closes at 4:00pm
2. Panama is one hour ahead of Costa Rica
Anticipating possible lines and crowding, we needed to give ourselves enough time for mistakes and still make it across before 4:00pm.
The bus to the border is about $3.00 per person. Once you get off the bus, walk along the line of street vendors toward the road and make an immediate left. There is a little booth hiding that you’ll need to stop by to pay your exit tax. They will give you a ticket once you pay.
Since we are crossing the border and not departing through the airport, the exit tax is only about $11.00 per person instead of $29.00.
Cross the Bridge
This is the most simple, scary, kinda-cute border crossing ever. After you pay your fee, you walk up the stairs and through an unnecessary yellow "box" to what seems like old train tracks along a bridge, lined with unstable planks across the platform. Large gaps and loose nails made my stomach churn as I attempted to balance myself, despite holding my backpack and personal bag unevenly. My toes squeezed the thong of my sandals and Alex’s taunting, untimely question of “Do you think there are crocodiles under us” made my ankles shake.
Locals crossed with ease, and I couldn’t tell if my fear softened or intensified when a young boy twenty years my junior scurried past carrying a school desk above his head. I cowered and moved along quickly.
At the end of the bridge is an office (the one that closes at 4pm) where you pay a small entry fee and get stamped. Outside of the building will be a staircase with taxis fighting each other for your business. Most tourists are heading to Bocas del Toro and shuttles try to stuff as many people as possible into each vehicle. I needed to get to Changuinola for the direct bus to Panama City so I needed a real taxi.
Don’t Forget Your Panama Sticker!
As we were about to head off in the taxi, the driver was kind enough to double-check that we received our stickers. What stickers?
Apparently, after the staircase, you are supposed to cross the road and walk through the lurking vultures called taxi drivers and walk towards appears to be a large mini mart sign overhead. Once closer to the sign you will realize that on your right is the customs office for Panama. Here, they will also request proof of onward travel. Without this sticker, you may have some trouble when it’s time to exit the country.
Taxi to Changuinola Bus Station
Real taxi drivers will take your negotiated price of $3 (max should be $5) to Changuinola. Tourist vultures will look you up and down; ask where you are from and rethink their asking price. Two men made a ballsy move by looking at me and then brightening their eyes at the sight of Alex’s blond hair and fair skin: “$7”. I responded with an eye roll and dismissal. I do NOT have time. For. That.
A taxi driver rolled in at that moment and kindly placed our bags in the back and accepted our $3 rate for the 30-minute ride. Along the way we were stopped by border patrol (I assume), who looked into the car and checked our passports. Quick and painless.
Changuinola Bus Station
We arrived at the station around 4:00pm and went to get our direct tickets to Panama City. According to the advice received, the bus would either come at 6:30pm or 8:00pm, so we were playing it safe. I approached the boleteria and request 2 tickets to Panama City.
There are no tickets for today.
I checked. I researched. I arrived early. How could there be no tickets?
Is it sold out? Or is there no bus? She wouldn’t elaborate.
There are no more.
I was furious. The only “bus” available was to go to David, and it was leaving at that moment. I ran outside and asked the ticket collector if it would connect to a Panama City bus and he confirmed it would. I also remembered that my friend Manuel was from David and he said there were many buses that left to Panama City. It might just be okay. If Manuel lives in David, then it must be okay.
The shuttle bus to David was about $9 per person and included an outdoor cafeteria-style bathroom stop (don’t forget toilet paper and soap). I took that opportunity to buy 50-cent empanadas and be grateful that I didn’t have to worry about currency exchange.
David to Albrook Terminal, Panama City
About four hours, two catnaps, and one scenic drive later, we arrived at the bus terminal in David. During the ride, I befriended a woman next to me who kindly reassured me that there were many buses leaving David for Panama City and that if I missed one, there would be another within an hour or two. I glanced back at Alex, wondering if he could smell my uncertainty, and watched his head wobble with his mouth open as he slept, innocently unaware of his surroundings. Here’s to getting there safely…
David’s bus station seemed like a long three blocks of boleterias and waiting areas. The woman next to me urgently tapped me and pointed to the first building.
That’s where you get your bus. But we are going to stop all the way over there so you must walk back. Don’t worry, almost there.
I was grateful for two things at that moment:
1. That I finally had the confidence to befriend someone and seek aid
2. That I was able to communicate in Spanish (all interactions during this experience were conducted in Spanish – no one encountered spoke English)
We descended from our shuttle bus and I put on my leader voice, directing Alex to follow me, as we had to walk a few blocks back. It was past eight o’clock and nightfall glowed with streetlights and beaming vehicles. The station was unexpectedly bustling and the prospect of boarding our last leg gave us renewed excitement.
According to the horario, the next bus was leaving in 30 minutes. We each paid $18 for our tickets and hurried to our bus lane. It was a seven-hour express bus ride and we arrived at Albrook Terminal at 3:30 am. My airbnb host wasn’t expecting us until 6 am so we sat in the waiting room for an hour to buy time. Eventually the drunken stench of the man sitting next to us was too unbearable to stay any longer and we got into a cab and negotiated the $5 cab ride to Casco Antiguo.