Costa Rica's sleepy border post at Sixaola fronts Guabito, Panama's equally quiet border crossing, 44 km (26 miles) south of the turnoff to Puerto Viejo de Talamanca. Both are merely collections of banana-plantation stilt houses and a few stores and bars; neither has any lodging or dining options, but this is a much more low-key crossing into Panama than the busy border post at Paso Canoas on the Pan-American Highway near the Pacific coast. If you've come this far, you're likely headed to Bocas del Toro, the real attraction in the northwestern part of Panama. This archipelago of 68 islands continues the Afro-Caribbean and indigenous themes seen on Costa Rica's Atlantic coast, and has opportunities for diving, snorkeling, swimming, and wildlife viewing. The larger islands are home to a growing selection of hotels and restaurants—everything from funky to fabulous. "Bocas" has acquired a cult following among long-term foreign visitors to Costa Rica, who find it a convenient place to travel when their permitted three-month status as a tourist has expired, since a quick 72-hour jaunt out of the country gets you another 90 days in Costa Rica.
A few tour operators in Cahuita and Puerto Viejo de Talamanca can set you up with shuttle transportation to Bocas del Toro. They also offer day tours to the islands, but travel time and border formalities eat up a huge chunk of that day. Bocas is a fun destination in its own right and worth spending a couple of nights. You can forego land travel completely if you like. Nature Air flies daily from San José to Bocas del Toro, about a 60-minute flight.
For more information about Bocas del Toro and Panama than we can supply here, pick up a copy of Fodor’s In Focus Panama.