If you’re wondering how to get to Bocas del Toro, Panamá from the Caribbean side of Costa Rica then I’m here to tell you all about it!
Whether you’re coming from Puerto Viejo, Cahuita (as we did), Colón, or San José, you can take a public bus for just a few bucks. Our 10:00 AM bus from Cahuita was $3.20 per person and took about two hours.
It’s easy to know where you’re going once they drop you in Sixaola because there is a huge bridge crossing Rio Sixaola, which marks the Costa Rican-Panamanian border. Begin heading for the bridge.
On your right, just before the bridge, is a little building where a guy behind a window will ask you to fill out your exit form. He’ll stamp your passport to leave for free! Yey!
Onwards to the bridge!
The bridge itself is really cool. It’s a decommissioned railroad bridge. The wooden slats are a little wobbily and spaced far enough apart to clearly see the chocolate colored river below swirling away towards the sea. I recommend undoing your waist strap just in case….
Once you get to the other side, you’re greeted with this sign. Pass it, and that’s where the fun begins!
At the first window on your left (in the building pictured above) you’ll get stamped into Panama. You’ll need your passport and proof of onward travel.
VERY IMPORTANT: The Panamanians are much stricter about evidence of onward travel than, for example, the Costa Ricans. They consistently ask to see a bus or plane ticket out of the country. Be prepared to show proof, or be prepared to be forced to buy a return ticket to San José ($15 dollars).
The next room on the left is where you’ll have to pay your $3.00 entry fee. It really helps to have dollars (the US dollar is, effectively, Panama’s official currency) . If you still have colónes from Costa Rica like we did, be prepared to pay $4.00. I have no idea why this is. But I wasn’t about to get into an argument with a border official over a dollar.
Now here’s the part you really need to know. You’re officially in Guabito, Panamá. The road that leads away from the border has a steep hill on the left and right. To the right is the bus station.
It may not appear to be a bus station if there isn’t currently a bus waiting there. It will appear to be a run-down tienda. You will be hassled constantly by rude, pushy taxi cab drivers who will lie to your face and try every trick possible to get you into their cabs.
They’ll tell you the bus station doesn’t exist (you’re standing in it), that it’s cheaper to simply take a taxi than take two buses to get to Almirante (where you’ll leave to go to Bocas del Toro), etc. They’ll also tell you the bus isn’t coming today (it is!). They’ll want to charge you about $20-25 to take you to Almirante and God-knows how much to take you to Davíd.
The cheapest way to Bocas or other destinations in Panamá is to just wait for a bus to Changuinola, where you’ll then transfer to Almirante (for Bocas). Or at Changuinola you can transfer to other buses heading to southerly destinations like Davíd or Panama City. The buses come frequently. We only waited 15 minutes.
The bus ride to Changuinola only took 20 minutes or so. It costs $1 per person.
The bus will drop you at the Changuinola bus station, where you’ll catch a mini-bus that takes you to Almirante for $1.45. This ride takes about 40 minutes. You may need to ask someone at the bus station which mini-bus is headed to Almirante as it may not be immediately clear.
During this whole process you’ll be asked if you’re going to Bocas by men who will presumably try to convince you that they can get you there. Ignore all these people. You can get yourself there!
The man who takes your money on the mini-bus will let you off at the docks if you let him know you’re headed to Bocas del Toro. Walk just a couple hundred yards and you’ll see several companies making the 30-minute water-taxi ride to Bocas. Don’t pay more than $4.00 per person. Don’t expect them to leave on time either. The boats leave whenever they fill up with people. If you want to go on your schedule, then you can expect to pay more.
Whichever company you go with, make sure they have life-jackets on board. All of them that I’ve seen have them, but never get on a boat without making sure!
Your water taxi will then fly across the water! It’s fast and fun, and you might get a little wet! I might have looked like a dork, but I was the only person in the water taxi to wear my life-jacket.
Once you get to Bocas Town on Isla Colón, you have many places you can stay at all ranges of prices.
My recommendation is Hostel Hansi. Adam and I never pass up staying in an affordably-priced, German-run hotel! It’s super clean, the rooms all have nice wood paneling (some have balconies), TV and fan and nice clean bed. There’s also a well stocked kitchen you can use.
Cost? We’re paying $23/night for a private room with private bathroom. I think they have single rooms for $15 as well.
After a long, hot travel day with some serious hassling along the way, we were ready to reward ourselves with a great meal.
And lo! We discovered Natural Mystic. Located upstairs on the South end of the main street in a light green building and run by a friendly, garrulous, Turkish-Californian named Dave, it serves spicy, favorable, and delectable infusions.
We started with the Panamanian brew Balboa and a tequila with homemade lemonade.
A word on Panamian Beer. One of the first things we like to do when we get to a new country is figure out which local brew is the choicest. Let us do the research for you.
You’ll have 3 options here in Panama; here they are.
Balboa – The best.
Panamá – Almost the same as Balboa. Hard to tell the difference. I think I just prefer the Balboa label.
Atlas – Don’t bother. With a label that says “El Sabor de mi Gente” (The flavor of my people), I’m pretty sure it’s the liquid equivalent of Soylent Green… but watered down. Low alcohol content (in the %3 range) and barely any flavor plus a label that lists “adjucts” in its ingredients means you should stay far far way. Trust us, we found out the hard way.
Back to Natural Mystic: Adam raved about his hummus, and I savored every bite of my knock-your-socks-off Mystic Chicken. The menu also featured great vegan and vegetarian options in addition to melt-in-your-mouth fish entrees.
We’ve spent a really enjoyable week here in Bocas, and I can’t wait to tell you more about it! But that’s for another installment of our humble blog.
Salüd fellow drifters, dearly-missed family and friends, and Google-bots!
We’d love to hear your comments!