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
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 given: 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.
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 when you suspended. That’s what we did with our Costa Rican truck paperwork when we left the country since we knew we’d be returning.
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.
Here’s more about travel in Costa Rica
Here’s more about travel in Panama
We have crossed the border multiple times, the last one being in June of 2014, and there is now a $20 exit fee for Costa Rica. Just thought you might like this info.
thanks for this update, Janine! You mean US$20? Wow….
Sounds like a different experience with your ride versus traveling by bus, or taxi. Neat round up.
We’ve not done a land crossing so far in Central America. Just an air deal between CR and El Salvador. Pretty easy because it was in the airport and we were just traveling through so different animal all together.
The Thai crossings are always interesting on the other side of the world, especially with the new rules in place. Some agents would allow – or most of them – unlimited crossings if you crossed every 15 days. We met people who did land runs for over 19 months!
That all changed this past year after the coup. Big crackdown, and now everything has to be on the up and up. Curious to see and hear what it’s like now to do a crossing.
I imagine diesel would cost a bit more in CR as the cost of living is a bit higher than any place in Central America. We love it there, and look forward to going back.
CA trip soon, but we’re gearing more toward the northern half of the region.
Thanks guys, tweeting soon.
I just came into Panama from Costa Rica last night by bus, and we have also done a number of border crossings before. There is an exit fee from Costa Rica – $7 if the office is open. We were on a Tica Bus and they charged us $8 each to take care of this when we boarded in San Jose. Another gal who hopped on along the way paid at the border, $8 again but it was after hours and someone outside was taking care of this. Once we paid by credit card in a machine, $7 each which was fine until I checked my credit care statement and realized we had been charged $10 each for the opportunity to use that machine. Sheesh.
Maybe it’s different when you have a car? I know without a car there are rules about proof of solvency and tickets out of Panama, etc. Last night I had our airline tickets and bank statements, and they also wanted to see a credit card which was something new.
I wrote a blog post in the past which shows the rules posted at the windows, in case this is useful for anyone else. https://blog.thepanamaadventure.com/2013/11/17/crossing-the-panama-costa-rica-border/
Hi Kris – thanks for sharing your experience and this very helpful information!
I will be spending plenty of time in Central America this winter, so this advice is timely. Cheers guys!