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 Sixaola, Costa Rica to Guabito, Panama on the Pacific coast smoothly with or without a vehicle.
From: Sixaola, Costa Rica
To: Guabito, Panama
Lay of the land: Private vehicles are allowed to pass the line of parked and double parked commercial vehicles lining the road leading up to the border. Before you reach the bridge (you’ll be relieved to know that the dilapidated, one-lane death trap we had to cross has since been replaced with a shiny new bridge), park your car and go to the Costa Rican immigration booth on the right hand side immediately before the bridge. Fill out the form and hand it in with your passport for a quick and easy exit stamp. Enter the aduana (customs) office immediately to the right of immigration to either cancel (if you are not returning to Costa Rica or have used up all your days) or suspend (if you are returning to Costa Rica) your Costa Rican temporary vehicle importation permit.
Once the easy and efficient Costa Rica formalities are taken care of cross over the bridge.
On the Panamanian side of the bridge you pass through an automated fumigation sprayer. The next set of windows is immigration where you hand off your passport and get your entry visa. Then travel two doors down to get your entry stamp. Between these spots is the aduana (customs) office where you handle the temporary vehicle importation paperwork. However, before they will do anything they will direct you to the one and only insurance office where you need to purchase the mandatory liability insurance. Once we’d purchased our insurance, the vehicle importation permit process was fast and easy and after a customs agent took a cursory glance at the contents of our truck we were on our way.
Our video, below, gives you a sense of what it was like to drive our truck across the rickety old bridge between Costa Rica and Panama before the new bridge was opened. Hold on.
Elapsed time: Just over two hours but if we hadn’t had to wait for the lone insurance saleslady to get back from her lunch break this would have been our fastest and easiest Central American crossing by far.
Fees: There’s a US$3 stamp per person entering Panama, no fee for temporary importation of the truck, a US$1 fee to fumigate the truck entering Panama and it was US$15 per month for vehicle liability insurance. That’s a grand total of US$22 for both of us and our truck.
Number of days given: Humans get 90-180 days. 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 stop 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. This can be only done at this border at a small desk upstairs in the entrance to a department store (ask your immigration agent where it is). They sell insurance in one month blocks with no discount for purchasing multiple months at the same time.
Where to fill up: Diesel was about 40 cents cheaper per gallon 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$3.92 a gallon.
Need to know: 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 Costa Rican temporary vehicle importation permit (TIP) 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 on whatever amount of time you had left on your original permit when you suspended it.
Duty free finds: The smattering of duty-free stores include a down-trodden department store and a couple of liquor stores that had limited selection but decent prices. You’re allowed to bring US$200 worth of alcohol per person into Panama with you.
Overall border rating: Excellent. This crossing point was smoothly run, hassle-free and relatively quiet–almost no commercial traffic and only a smattering of other foreigners.
Here’s more about travel in Costa Rica
Here’s more about travel in Panama