Getting to Bocas del Toro, Panama from San José, Costa Rica can be exhausting and complicated, but it can also be simple and quick, largely depending on how you decide to get there. Just across the Panama-Costa Rican border and less than 131 miles away (as the crow flies), Bocas del Toro appears to be an easy hop from Costa Rica’s capital city.
But if you choose to travel by land, you’ll be traveling on a few buses, a taxi, a ferry and taking a short walk – not to mention you’ll be spending at least an hour navigating the intricacies of the border. Costa Rica’s Nature Air is the only commercial airline offering direct flights to the island region from San José. And if you want an intermediate option (not as expensive as a plane, but not as adventurous as a public bus), there is at least one company offering ground transportation packages.
What follows is a list of the three ways to get to Bocas. We have intentionally left car rentals as an option off the list as car rental companies do not allow cars to be taken across the border. For a fee, some offer the possibility of renting a car in Costa Rica, leaving it at the border and picking up a different car on the other side.
Please note: It’s best to call ahead for schedules and rates as both are subject to change.
The Most Comfortable Way
Less than an hour flight from Tobias Bolaños Airport in Pavas, San José, Bocas del Toro is an easy vacation spot when tackled by air. The local Costa Rican airline Nature Air (Tel: 2299-6000 (Costa Rica) and 800-235-9272 (United States or Canada); www.natureair.com) offers one way tickets, ranging from $88 to $200. Flights leave San José at 6:30 a.m. arriving at 8 a.m. (Panama time). The return trip leaves Bocas del Toro at 9 a.m., arriving in San José at 9 a.m. (Costa Rican time). The plane arrives at the main Colon Island in Bocas del Toro and most hotels are a short walk or a $1 taxi ride, away.
The Easiest Way
There are private tour companies offering non-stop ground transportation between San José and Bocas del Toro; one of which is Costa Rica Just For You (Tel: 866-598-3956 (United States and Canada) or 2273-8000 (Costa Rica)), which charges $51 to take tourists from San José to Bocas in an air-conditioned shuttle. The shuttle leaves San José and will pick you up from your hotel.
The Cheapest Option
By far, the least expensive way to get from San José to Bocas del Toro is by public bus. In general, the buses are clean, on time, safe and frequented by tourists. There are two main bus companies offering transportation between the two destinations:
Mepe (Tel: 2257-8129 or 2758-1572): From the Caribe station, take the bus heading to Sixaola at 6 a.m. This bus takes six hours and stops in Cahuita and Puerto Viejo. The fare is around $11. If you take any later buses, you risk not making all the required connections and might find yourself in an undesirable place to stay the night.
Transportes Bocatoreños (Tel: 2758-8511 (Panama) or 2227-9523 or 2259-1325 (Costa Rica)): The station for Bocatoreños is just north of the Coca Cola Bus Terminal in downtown San José in front of the Hotel Cocori. Buses leave at 10 a.m. and arrive at the border around 3 p.m.
Once at the border, you’ll have to get an exit stamp from Costa Rica and an entrance stamp from Panama. If you don’t already have a ticket showing that you are leaving Panama in six months, you must purchase one on a road side shack down the stairs and to your immediate right once you cross the bridge. If you look lost, there are plenty of people who speak English milling about the border and will usually point you in the right direction. There is also a $3 visa fee on the Panama side.
At the Panama side of the border, look for the vans lined up at the foot of the stairs. For $10, these will take you the hour-long trip to Almirante, where you catch the ferry to Bocas del Toro. There’s also the option of taking a local bus for around a $1, but this is a sweatier, more complicated alternative with no guarantee of getting you to the ferry before service shuts down for the evening.
There are two ferries in Almirante to take you the rest of the way to Bocas del Toro. Each has boats leaving every half hour (or whenever they fill up) and costs between $4 and $5.
Bocas del Toro to San José by bus
On the return trip, be sure to leave Bocas del Toro before 1 p.m. You’ll need at least an hour and a half to make it to the border and enough time to process the paperwork in order to catch the last bus to San José at 3 p.m.
The bus from Changuinola, Panama to San José leaves at 10 a.m. from the terminal in Changuinola.
To catch one of the MEPE buses from Sixaola, descend the stairs to your right after you cross the border and walk one block into the town of Sixaola.