Crossing into Panama via Sixaola

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.

Whatever your destination in Panama, come armed with dollars. Panama uses U.S. currency, but refers to the dollar as the balboa. (It does mint its own coins, all the same size as their U.S. counterparts.) No one anywhere will accept or exchange your Costa Rican colones.

Costa Rican rental vehicles may not leave the country, so crossing into Panama as a tourist is an option only via public transportation. The public bus route from San José to Cahuita and Puerto Viejo de Talamanca terminates here at the border approximately six hours after leaving the capital. Taxis in Puerto Viejo de Talamanca charge about $75 for the jaunt to the border, a much quicker and reasonable option if you can split the fare among a group. Disembark and head for the Costa Rican immigration office (2754–2044) down a flight of stairs from the west end of a former railroad bridge. Officials place an exit stamp in your passport, after which you walk across the bridge and present your passport to Panamanian immigration (507/759–7019). The bridge looks rickety but is safe for walking as long as you keep to the planks on the right or left sides. (A larger, more modern bridge nearby is open to private vehicles only.) U.S. visitors must also purchase a $5 tourist card for entry into the country. Although some local residents here make the crossing without going through border formalities, you cannot. Make sure you exit and enter Costa Rica and Panama properly in either direction.

The border crossings are open daily 7 am to 5 pm (8 am to 6 pm Panamanian time). Set your watch one hour ahead when you enter Panama.

Taxis wait on the Panamanian side to transport you to the small city of Changuinola, the first community of any size inside the country, from which there are bus and air connections for travel farther into Panama. Taxis can also take you to Almirante, where you'll find boat launches to Bocas del Toro.

A few tour operators in 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.

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