Crossing the land border between Costa Rica and Panama at Sixaola is neither hard nor complicated as such – as long as you know where you have to go. There are tons of tales of travellers to be found online who either forgot to collect entry stamps and got into trouble with the police after, or who underestimated the time it would take them to cross and got left stranded at a closed office in the evening.
The different stations are not marked very well and knowing where to go and in which order, along with a couple of other considerations, can save you hours in the border crossing process.
Here is the complete guide on how to cross the land border between Panama and Sixaola.
Unlike at the airport, the officials at the land crossing check for onward tickets very thoroughly. Make sure to bring one. It does not have to be printed – digital on a phone or tablet is fine.
In terms of logistics, try to cross the border early in the day. The Panama side closes around 19h; if you arrive late you might have to look for a hotel and complete the crossing the next morning. Oh, and by the way: Panama is an hour ahead of Costa Rica, so that makes it 18h Costa Rica time.
Additionally, I can only recommend going by shuttle instead of taking the public bus. Although a little more expensive, you will
- get picked up at your hotel directly
- have guides with you who make sure that you go to the right place
- watch your luggage while you do the paper work
- don’t have to worry about figuring out connecting busses to Almirante and boats if you’re going to Bocas Del Toro.
If you do want to brave the crossing on your own though, it’s entirely doable.
Follow these steps to sail through smoothly:
Step 1: Exit tax
On the Costa Rica side, you will have to pay a 7$ exit tax, plus 1$ for the paperwork. From the bus station, walk back towards the main road, but instead of turning right to where the ramp is, turn left and head for the little kiosk right in front of you.
Have your passport and money ready (needs to be in US dollars, as far as I know, you cannot pay in Colones).
When you get your receipt, check that your name and passport number appear correctly printed.
Step 2: Costa Rica Emigration
With the receipt, head up the ramp. The Costa Rican border office is directly on your right. There will likely be a long queue – it’s the same queue for entering and exiting.
Bring sunprotection, water and patience!
If an official comes out and says something like “Exit?” or “Salida?” or “A Panama?” that means he’s collecting passports for people leaving Costa Rica. Give him your passport and receipt! This will go significantly faster than waiting for the remaining entering people in front of you to be processed.
Make sure you have an exit stamp.
Step 3: Panama Customs
After you cross the bridge, it looks a little bit like there is no Panamanian offices at all and it’s easy to just walk past everything. Don’t!
Stick to the right and there will be a little white hut on your left, just after the bridge. This is the Panamanian customs office. If you haven’t filled out the customs form yet, you will be given one here.
Be prepared for the fact that they will go through your bags here. But even though they ask about fresh fruit and vegetables, they won’t have a problem with you bringing a couple for personal consumption. Just make sure to be honest and upfront.
Step 4: Panama Immigrations
This step is easy to miss because the immigrations office is so out of the way. But this step is crucial!
Road checkpoints are common in Panama and you do not want to get caught without an entry stamp; you might be held in police custody, have to pay a 1000$ fine or, failing to do that, even get banned from entering Panama for life!
This is how you find Immigrations: From the customs hut, continue onwards and take the wonky stairs down on your left. There will be a huge supermarket/duty free building in front of you to the right and a bigger street/square in front of you to the left. Continue past the supermarket and turn the corner behind it: you’ll be standing right in the immigrations area. Have your passport and onward ticket ready. Make sure you get an entry stamp.
And that’s it. From here you can look for a bus to Almirante, where you will find the boats going to Bocas, or take a taxi.