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

Welcome to 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 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

Is this a warning or a suggestion?

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.

Panamerican Highway Panama

The Pan-American Highway in 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.

Here’s more about travel in Costa Rica

Here’s more about travel in Panama