Border Crossing 101: Paso Canoas, Costa Rica to Paso Canoas, Panama

Crossing international borders in Latin America is rarely easy or pleasant (why do they always smell like pee and desperation?). Things are even more complicated when you’re driving across borders in your own vehicle as part of an overland road trip. These border crossing 101 travel tips will help you travel from Paso Canoas, Costa Rica to Paso Canoas, Panama smoothly with or without a vehicle.

From: Paso Canoas, Costa Rica

To: Paso Canoas, Panama

Welcome to Panama Paso canoas Border crossing

Lay of the land: Exiting Costa Rica was a swift process that took less than 15 minutes and involved no exit fees. On the Panama side our first step was to buy insurance which is mandatory for anyone driving in Panama. Then we got our Panamanian visa which was given without forms or fees. Then we went upstairs and had our insurance papers stamped before returning downstairs to a glass-fronted booth marked “Tursimo” where we handed in our paperwork and were told to wait for 20 minutes. Nearly an hour later we got our completed paperwork back.

Elapsed time: 2 hours

Fees: US$15 for 30 days of mandatory driving insurance.

Number of days they gave us: Humans get 90-180 days. We were given 180 days at this border. Vehicles, on the other hand, get 30 days which can be extended in-country up to two times for a total of 90 days. You can extend your vehicle importation permit in Panama City or in Divisa, a tiny town at a crossroads on the Pan American Highway about midway between David and Panama City. We extended in both locations and highly recommend doing it at the Divisa office if you can. Staff at the Panama City office did not know what they were doing and made mistakes that then had to be fixed by the very, very knowledgeable and helpful staff in Divisa. Even they seemed annoyed by the ineptitude of the PC staff.

Beware of accidents sign Panama

Vehicle insurance requirements: You must buy local insurance before driving in Panama and it costs US$15 for 30 days. They sell insurance in one month blocks with no discount for purchasing multiple months at the same time.

Where to fill up: Diesel was cheaper in Panama than it was in Costa Rica when we crossed so we waited to fill up on the Panama side of the border where diesel was US$3.81 a gallon.

Need to know: Though there is a tourism information office at this border it was locked when we were there. A lot of the agents at this border spoke English. It’s good advice for any border crossing, but be sure to check the facts on your vehicle importation permit at this border. We didn’t realize until much later that the authorities at this border had mistakenly listed Eric’s nationality as Costa Rican and this error had to be fixed later. **If you will be shipping your vehicle onward from Panama to Colombia your paperwork has to be perfect and this border is known for making careless mistakes that if not noticed at the time have to be corrected later. Panama is always one hour ahead of Costa Rica so you’ll need to change your watch.

This next border crossing tip is EXTREMELY IMPORTANT FOR ANYONE DRIVING ACROSS: We were not aware until we arrived at the border that Costa Rica will renew a tourist visa if you spend 72 hours outside of the country (usually not enforced) but foreign vehicles are only allowed to be in Costa Rica for 90 days out of every 180. This means that once you use up or cancel your temporary vehicle importation permit you can’t get a new one for 90 days.

Luckily, Costa Rican officials can “suspend” your temporary importation permit which puts it on hold until you return to the country at which time the clock starts ticking again with whatever amount of time you had left on your original permit. That’s what we did with our Costa Rican truck paperwork when we left the country since we knew we’d be returning.

Panamerican Highway Panama

Duty free finds: We crossed near Christmas so the duty free shops were scenes of shopping chaos. We avoided them. If you do find bargains, remember that you’re allowed to bring US$200 worth of alcohol per person into Panama with you. However, alcohol is very cheap throughout Panama compared to prices in neighboring countries because taxes are lower (though there are nasty rumors that the Panamanian government may be increasing them soon).

When we were in Panama the country had the cheapest alcohol prices we’ve seen in any Latin American country from Mexico south and you could find things in Panama that were unavailable in other Latin American countries including our sorely missed bourbon (both Woodford Reserve and Maker’s Mark) at well-stocked and well-priced stores like Filipe Motta.

Overall border rating: Easy and relatively snappy, even during the busy holiday period.

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Central America’s Most Infamous Jungle – Darién, Panama

Mention the Darién Jungle or the Darién Gap or just plain Darién and images of impenetrable greenery filled with hostile critters and even more hostile interlopers (drug runners, guerrillas and others) spring to mind. Like most places, however, there’s more to Central America’s most infamous jungle, which straddles the border between Panama and Colombia, as we learned when we traveled there for four days of hiking in the Darién Jungle.

Giant trees Darien jungle Panama

Things grow big in the remote, road less Darién Jungle.

Plenty to see here

Just because the Darién Jungle is remote, largely inaccessible and little-visited doesn’t mean there’s nothing to see there. In fact, that remoteness and inaccessibility means that the Darién Jungle is a haven for flora and fauna. The Panamanian portion is a lush rainforest with peaks up to 6,000 feet (1,830 meters) high and most of it is protected as the Darién National Park, the largest national park in Central America.

Flowers of Darien, Panama

Though green dominates the palette in the Darién, other colors assert themselves too.

On the Colombian side, the Darién changes into a 50-mile-wide marsh which is even more impenetrable than the jungle on the Panama side. Much of the marsh is protected as part of the Los Katíos National Park.  The two adjoining parks received UNESCO World Heritage Site status and the area is home to more than 450 species of birds and over 500 types of fish. The Darién is also a place where the communities, cultures and customs of the indigenous Kuna and Embera-Wounaan people are preserved.

Exploring the Darién Jungle with Don Michel

Frenchman Michel Puech has found so much to see and explore in the Darién that he’s spent more than 30 years in the Darién. In that time he’s developed a knowledge of the place and a bond with the people that allows him to take travelers deeper in to the Darién. Locals even call him “Don” Michel as an honorific so we were excited to explore the trails and waterways of the Darién with him and his company Panama Exotic Adventures.

Michel Peuch Panama Exotic Adventures, Panama

French tour company operator Michel Puech has spent 30 years in the Darién and earned the honorific “Don” from the locals.

But first, we had to get out of Panama City and reach Darién Province near the end of the road in Yaviza. Unlike the rest of the country, this paved road had a lot of serious checkpoints along it where everyone had to show proper documents and special permits to be in the Darién (Michel arranged our permits). Officials don’t want people entering the area willy-nilly because of the dangers which range from some of the world’s deadliest snakes to some of the world’s deadliest bad guys (guerrillas, drug traffickers, etc).

Goodbye roads, hello waterways and trails

Sabana River Boca de Lara Darien Panama

We give a local Wounaan woman a lift on the Sabana River through the Darién Jungle.

We reached the town of Santa Fe and left the road behind. From there the only way through the Darién was by floating on the waterways or hiking on the trails that criss-cross the vast area. We got into a wooden canoe with an engine and took it to the village of Boca de Lara where the Sabana and the Lara rivers meet.

Old growth trees - Darien Jungle Panama

The few inhabitants of the Darién Jungle have small-scale farm plots for subsistence farming but revere and protect old growth trees like this one.

Boca de Lara is a Wounaan village that was settled by the historically nomadic Wounaan in 1973 after the Panamanian government said any that place with 100 people or more would get a school. Despite the settlement, many Wounaan still go off into the jungle for periods of time.

Boca de Lara Wounaan village Darien, Panama

The Wounaan village of Boca de Lara in the Darién Jungle.

In recent years Michel has assisted Boca de Lara in many ways, including building his three room Dosi Lodge here along with the villagers using their traditional architectural style. The employees are Wounaan and lodge guests are customers for their handicrafts too.

Wounaan basket weaving Darien, Panama

Wounaan women work on their intricate, traditional weaving in the village of Boca de Lara in the Darién Jungle.

After eating lunch at Dosi Lodge we saw some of the handicrafts made by Wounaan women who traditionally go topless, including elaborate basket weaving using local reeds and natural dyes.

Wounaan woman - Boca de Lara, darien Panama

A Wounaan woman with traditional tattoos in the village of Boca de Lara in the Darién Jungle.

Boca de Lara Wounaan woman, Darien Panama

Wounaan women in the Darién Jungle traditionally go topless.

Hiking in the Darién Jungle

Later in the afternoon a Wounaan guide lead us on our first hike in the Darién Jungle. Commercial logging is a growing threat to the Darién but as we left the clearings around Boca de Lara village the jungle immediately closed in around us. The Wounaan have cleared some small-scale, subsistence farms in the Darién they’re tiny and spaced far apart with ample jungle left in between. The massive old-growth trees are obviously revered and left standing wherever possible, even in areas where the undergrowth has been cleared for a farm plot.

Boca de Lara Wounaan village, Darien, Panama

The Wounaan village of Boca de Lara as seen from a hilltop in the Darién Jungle.

After a brief hike we reached a ridge above the village near the spot where Spanish conquistador and explorer (back in the days when those two things went hand in hand) Vasco Núñez de Balboa saw the Pacific for the first time in 1500s. Balboa is considered to be the first European to lay eyes on the Pacific.

The French later stood near this same area and were inspired to consider the Darién as the first spot for their Panama Canal project because the natural waterways in the area seemed to make an easy route from ocean to ocean. The mountains they later discovered changed their minds and the French shifted focus to the Panama Canal‘s current site (thought they failed to complete it, leaving that task to the US).

Michel told us that this area was also used by the US to install a radar station after the attacks on Pearl Harbor the CIA later put in an airstrip to monitor drug trafficking through the Darién.

Filo del Tallo Lodge Meteti, Darien Panama Exotic Adventures

Buildings of the Filo de Tallo Lodge were built-in a traditional round style with thatch roofs and split bamboo walls. The carved wooden figure on top is traditional as well and it’s considered good luck when it topples off.

Our first day of hiking in the Darién Jungle behind us, we headed to Michel’s Filo del Tallo Lodge which is named after the massive reserve it adjoins. The place has been designed to work well in nature using traditional Wounaan building techniques including round shapes, thatch roofs and split bamboo walls that help keep interiors cool and carved wooden idols on top (it’s considered good luck when the carving topples over).

Poison Arrow dart Frof - Darien, Panama

This pair of poison dart frogs lived in our shower at Filo de Tallo Lodge in the Darién Jungle.

Parrots Filo de Tallo Lodge - Darien, Panama

These parrots live at Filo de Tallo Lodge and they like to be gently scratched.

Interiors at Filo de Tallo Lodge are well-appointed with good beds, mosquito nets and full service bathrooms including gorgeous carved wood sinks.Bonus: we had a pair of poison dart frogs in our shower. Furnished private patios are the perfect place for nature watching and we saw hummingbirds, parrots, toucans right from our patio.

The Darién’s complicated capital

The next day, shortly after day break, we were got back in a boat at Puerto Quimba for a trip up the Rio Iglesia through mangroves to the Gulf of San Miguel.

Mangroves on Rio Iglesia Darien Panama

Floating through the mangroves along sections of the Rio Iglesia, one of the waterways through the Darién Jungle.

Along the way we stopped on some surprisingly sandy beaches and bought some fish fresh off the fishing boat for dinner. We also visited remains of two Spanish-built forts which have been utterly re-taken by the jungle before stopping in La Palma, the Darién’s complicated capital.

Fishermen Gulf of San Miguel, Darien Panama

Fresh fish off this boat was turned into dinner in the Darién Jungle.

Ruined Spanish fort Darien jungle Panama

The Spanish built forts in the Darién Jungle, but the vegetation has long since reclaimed them.

With 4,300 inhabitants, La Palma is the most populous town in the region but that doesn’t mean it has more than one street which boasts a hospital, a police station plus a few hotels, bars and restaurants. Oh, and an airstrip. Michel said that In the bad old days when Manuel Noriega was still in power, planes from Colombia landed here three times a week  packed full of cash which Noriega then laundered in his banks.

La Palma capital Darien Provence Gulf of San Miguel, Panama

La Palma may be the capital of Darién Province but it’s not connected to the outside world by road and can only be reached on the water.

THE street in La Palma Darien, Panama

Downtown La Palma.

Meeting the Embera of the Darién

After another night in Filo del Tallo Lodge lodge we drove a short distance to Puerto Limon where we got into another wooden canoe for a trip on Rio Chucunaque to a trail head for more time hiking in the Darién Jungle. This was the most impressively virgin and dense jungle we’d seen yet and we spent four hours enjoying the silence and size of everything around us.

Canoe Rio Chucunaque Darien, Panama

Our river guide on the Rio Chucunaque through the Darién Jungle.

Exhausted but exhilarated we then visited the village of Alto Playona and met members of the Embera indigenous group before heading back to Puerto Limon and the lodge via the Rio Chucunaque. Howler monkeys and other critters we could hear but couldn’t see serenaded our journey from the river bank.

Alto Playona Darien Panama Rio Chucunaque

The Embera village of Alto Playona on the banks of the Rio Chucunaque in the Darién Jungle.

Peccary jaw bones Embera village house Darien Panama

Peccary (wild pig) jaw bones in an Embera house in the Darién Jungle.

Our toughest (and most snake-filled) hike in the Darién

The following day brought our toughest hike in the Darién. Though it only took two hours, the uphill terrain and need for our guide to machete his way through thick jungle had us all working hard.

Boa Constrictor Darien Panama

Yep, that’s a boa constrictor overhead.

Cuipo trees, with their bulbous bellies, towered above us and strangler figs snaked their way up tree trunks. The thick vegetation made spotting animals difficult, though there was no mistaking a six foot (two meter) boa constrictor in the canopy over head. We also saw two small fer-de-lance, one of the deadliest snakes in the world, on the trail before bidding goodbye to the Darién.

Hiking Darien Jungle, Panama

We were delighted to see so many enormous trees while we were hiking in the Darién Jungle.

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Our Latest Work: An SATW Win, Colombia’s “Liquid Rainbow”, Best Bed in Bogota & Luxury on the Rails in Ecuador

You know what makes freelance travel journalists like us happy? New outlets for our latest work and we’ve got two to tell you about this month. But first, something that makes us even happier: We’re delighted to let you know that the Selling Pablo feature we did about Pablo Escobar tourism in Colombia just won an Honorable Mention in the Foreign Travel category of the prestigious Society of American Travel Writers 2014 Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Awards! We want to thank the awesome editors at the wonderful Roads & Kingdoms website for the chance to tell this story.

2014 Society of American Travel Writers (SATW) Foundation 30th Annual Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Award winner logo

And now, our latest work

Our very first piece for the BBC Travel website is all about a stunning natural wonder in Colombia that’s been off limits for years. See why Caño Cristales, aka the “Liquid Rainbow,” is like no other river in the world.

travel to Cano Cristales on BBCCano Cristales on BBC

We’re also thrilled to be contributing hotel reviews to Luxe Beat Magazine. Our first is all about the beautiful B.O.G. Hotel in Bogota, Colombia – inspired by the city’s amazing gold museum and home to the most luxurious showers in Colombia.

BOG-Hotel-1

Speaking of luxurious, we spent four days on the Tren Crucero in Ecuador with white glove service on board and culture-rich stops along the way from Quito in the Andes down to the Pacific. See for yourself in our piece for the Dallas Morning News.

Travel Tren Crucero Ecuador - Dallas Morning News

Our work for our latest corporate partner, Boiron (makers of all-natural health remedies including Oscillo and Arnicare) continues to roll out as well. Check out the video we made for Boiron from some of our favorite locations in Colombia and Ecuador. Bonus: we crash an Andean wedding…

 

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