A picture of the border crossing from Costa Rica to Panama

The Best Ways to Travel from Puerto Viejo to Bocas del Toro

If you’re planning a trip through Central America through bus and boat, like I did, you’re probably looking at ways to cross the Costa Rica Panama border. 

When I was travelling in Central America in January and February 2024, I took the bus and boat from Puerto Viejo de Talamanca (Costa Rica) to Isla Colon in Boca del Toro (Panama) and I’m going to let you know the best way to do it! Isla Colon is the biggest and most popular Bocas town, but if you want to stay on a different island, no worries! It’s really easy to take a short water taxi from Isla Colon to many of the other Islands in the Bocas del Toro archipelago. 

I took this option as an alternative to travelling on the overnight bus straight from San Jose to Panama City. Of course, you need quite a bit of extra time to do this, not only to make the additional trips from San Jose to Puerto Viejo and then from Bocas del Toro to Panama City, but you also will want time to enjoy the islands, too!

Taking the public bus over the border from Costa Rica to Panama is definitely more of an adventure, but taking the Bocas del Toro shuttle service really makes crossing the border hassle-free. 

When it comes down to it, both options are quite safe and there are pros and cons to each. I’ll run through how you can take the public bus as well as how to book a reasonably priced shuttle, but first, let’s get prepared to get wet!

Contents:

– Waterproofing Belongings

– Travelling by Public Bus

– Travelling by Private Shuttle

– Crossing the Border

– The Boat & Arriving in Bocas del Toro

Waterproofing Belongings for the Water Taxi

Before we got on the boat from Almirante to Isla Colon, I had no idea how precariously wet a boat ride could be. Looking back, it would have been a really good idea to waterproof my belongings. Little did I know, this was indeed foreshadowing the incredibly wet-and-bumpy ride I’d take across the Caribbean Sea from Panama to Colombia just a few days later… (full story coming soon). 

Even if you don’t end up getting wet, here’s a guide to waterproofing belongings BEFORE you get into the boat (once you on there it’s too little, too late, my friend!)

If you have anything easily damagable by water like a computer bag, make sure it’s well wrapped and keep it on you. Don’t let them take it away and stow it with the larger luggage – it’s more at risk of getting wet, and also at risk of getting trampled on. If you don’t have a large bag, I’d recommend asking them if you can just carry it with you. Watching our bags being thrown on and off and between boats gave us all a bit of anxiety.

Keep anything remotely valuable in your personal bag and make sure it’s well secured. (You don’t want a situation like I had where my bag strap broke getting into a boat and my laptop nearly landed in the sea…). 

The Hard Way: Public Bus

Taking the public bus from Puerto Viejo de Talamanca to Almirante (where you get on the boat) is the cheapest option, but it’s not the quickest. You will have to take the public bus from the bus terminal in Puerto Viejo, and ask them for the bus to Sixaola (the border town) or “la frontera” (Spanish for “the border”). The bus ($4-5) takes around an hour and a half and will drop you off close to the portion of the border where you officially exit Costa Rica, pay your exit tax and walk over to enter Panama (more on the border crossing below!). 

You then need to take two more busses to reach the water taxi terminal that takes you to Bocas del Toro: Firstly, a 20 minute bus from Sixola to Changuinola ($2), then a 1 hour bus from Changuinola to Almirante ($3). Of course, if you hang around for any length of time at the border, someone will likely approach you and help you find where you need to go. There are also private shuttles that will take you straight to Almirante, but in that case you may as well just take the shuttle from Puerto Viejo 😉 

Note: there used to be lanchas from Changuinola to Bocas del Toro, but they no longer run.

When you arrive in Almirante there are several options for taking a lancha (small speed boat) over to Isla Colon. There is the option of taking lanchas directly to other islands, but they are less frequent. It’s also really easy and cheap to take a lancha from Isla Colon to many of the other islands. To go from Isla Colon to Isla Solarte, for example, it takes five minutes and costs $1 per person. The main companies offering lanchas to Isla Colon are Bocas Marine Tours and Taxi 25, and it currently costs $6.

There is also a ferry, but it leaves just once per day from Almirante at 7am, so there’s no way to arrive in time for that from Puerto Viejo unless you want to spend the night in Almirante!

Whilst taking the public bus and ferry is the cheapest way to make the journey (although, granted, there’s not much in it), it does take more time and more confusion. 

Total cost of taking the public bus from Puerto Viejo to Bocas del Toro: $15 (plus border taxes)

The Easy Way: Private Transfer

Cost of taking a private transfer from Puerto Viejo to Bocas del Toro: $20 (plus border taxes)

Taking a private transfer was my preferred way of doing this border crossing and boat ride, and that seemed to be the general consensus for just about everyone we met on this route. In Puerto Viejo you’ll find that a lot of different shops and cafes advertise the same shared shuttle service for $20 one-way. When you take into account that they’ll drive you several hours to Almirante, help you across a border, then put you on a boat without fuss, that seems like a pretty reasonable price to pay (although you’ll find out how true the “without fuss” part was later in this article and even more in my next article covering my trip from Isla Colon to Panama City…! 

The different shops around Puerto Viejo are all selling the same shared shuttle service which is run by Caribe Shuttle. You can also book it online via BusBud and other similar websites but, as usual, I always prefer booking transport in person wherever possible! These shops also offer a return transfer for $40, and if you’re planning on heading back to Costa Rica I would recommend paying for the return ticket (as long as you’re not going to lose it!). 

I was travelling with two friends who were both heading back to Costa Rica after our stint in Bocas del Toro. The guy who sold us our transfer one-way told us that they could probably buy their return ticket cheaper on the island, but this was not the case – when we arrived, tickets back to Puerto Viejo from the reservation offices in Bocas were more expensive – $35! So, now with my wise high sight in your inbox, trust me and buy a round trip if you’re planning on going back to Costa Rica. 

If you want to head straight back to San Jose, there are also options to buy your ticket directly from Bocas del Toro to San Jose! 

You can choose to leave from Puerto Viejo to Bocas del Toro at either 8am and 10am. We chose the earlier departure time to hopefully beat the queues at the border, and it seemed to work. We didn’t wait too long at either side of the border. 

You are told to be ready and waiting outside your hostel at 8am, and that your shuttle bus will pick you up anywhere between 8am and 8.45. Ours showed up at 7.55am and shouted at us for not being ready…! He then proceeded to spend an hour driving up and down the same, long road that runs through Puerto Viejo, picking up the other passengers in as random an order as possible. Eventually we got on our way and drove the half hour to the Costa Rica Panama border in Sixaola. 

I’ll talk more about crossing the border later! 

Our shuttle bus was like every other in Central America: a large people carrier with our suitcases strapped to the top, not overly comfortable but not uncomfy, either. 

After we’d crossed the border there were various van shuttles waiting for us, and we didn’t necessarily get in with the same people as we’d been in the first bus with. Additionally, our bags were taken in a separate vehicle, which I wasn’t overly thrilled by!

We got stopped at a police checkpoint a few miles down the road and there was some confusion about how many people they had without any luggage (at some point you do start to think: wait, am I being trafficked?).

Eventually we made it to Almirante and, whilst we thought we’d been sold a ferry, we were actually piled into lanchas (small speed boats) and whisked out into the open water…

Crossing the Border from Costa Rica to Panama:

The border crossing from Costa Rica to Panama was not complicated, but it was time consuming. The immigration process out of Costa Rica and into Panama is not complicated as long as you have the required documentation, but you do come across a few queues. 

The crossing was essentially a four-step process, and I was glad that we had the guidance of our driver to help us along the way because it wasn’t necessarily self-explanatory.

Step One: Pay the exit fee from Costa Rica. It’s not clear at all where to do this; we queued up in a small shop that we were directed to by our driver to pay the fee. It’s not clear who is making sure that we paid, but the woman did look at our passports, so she may have been recording it on a system. At the time I crossed (in February 2024) the cost was $8 dollars or 4,500 Colones. I did a quick calculation in my head and figured out it was cheaper for me to pay in Dollars, so that’s what I did. 

Step Two: Go to Costa Rica immigration and officially leave the country. For us this meant a 10 minute queue and a very quick visit to a booth to get our exit stamp. We didn’t have any documentation checked here.

You’ll then cross Rio Sixaola Bridge on foot and arrive officially into Panama. If you’re on a shuttle service, you’ll be carrying your own bags; you won’t have left anything in the van. (Of course you’ll also be carrying your own bags if you’re doing the crossing DIY!)

Step Three: Queue up at Panama immigration and officially enter Panama. As you exit the foot bridge you need to turn right and head 50m down the road to reach the immigration queues. This was where we needed to show the required documentation which includes:

  • Passport with 6 months validity
  • Proof of onward travel
  • Proof of accommodation in Panama

We were actually only asked to show our proof of accommodation; nobody asked for our proof of onward travel. 

Step Four: Queue up and pay the entry fee into Panama. At the time of writing this was 4$ Dollars, and you needed to pay it in cash (US Dollars is the official currency of Panama).

Once step four is complete, you’re free to find your onward transportation or hop back onto your shuttle bus. You’re officially in Panama!

The Boat & Arriving in Bocas del Toro:

Our experience in the water taxi terminal was true chaos. They were taking a lot of people a lot of places, and after waiting for a while (accompanied by a few much needed empanadas), they started calling out for people to come forward based on their destination. Despite the chaos we were able to find a boat that was heading to Isla Colon. We were separated and then reunited with our luggage so many times that I was incredibly grateful to have my personal bag that contained most of the things important to me (laptop, passport, cash, phone).

In these situations I try to remind myself that, as long as I have these four things, nothing too bad can happen. What happens if they get my clothes wet? They’ll dry. What happens if they lose my dance sneakers? I’ll dance barefoot… most things are not the end of the world, and the chances of something bad happening is pretty slim, anyway. 

Remember what I said earlier about waterproofing your bags? We got WET. Well, mostly it was my friend Nassim, because he was sat on the edge. But everyone got splashed a few times, and at times I struggled to keep my laptop out of the splash zone. (This was still nothing compared to my boat trip from Panama to Colombia, but I digress.) 

In total it was just a 20 minute boat ride to Isla Colon, the main island in Bocas del Toro.  This made our total travel time around 6 hours, which included pickup, two buses, the border crossing and the boat out to Isla Colon. In fact, we arrived too early to check into our hostel! 

I’ll make a full article on this later, but in the mean time, here are a few things you should check out whilst your staying on Isla Colon:

  • Go to starfish beach (pretty self explanatory) 
  • Grab a ticket to Filthy Friday (as you might expect from the name, this is only something you want to do if you’re up for a party!) 
  • Go snorkelling 
  • Go kayaking 
  • Take a trip to one of the other islands
  • Go to Red Frog Beach

2 thoughts on “The Best Ways to Travel from Puerto Viejo to Bocas del Toro”

  1. I’ve heard that you have to have proof of onward travel to get into costa rica and that they do check this on arrival, so how do you go about booking the shuttle to bocas when in puerto viejo? Its $35 online so just want to find a way around paying this when you say its $20 in the town? 🙂

    1. Hey Isobel!

      When I arrived in Costa Rica I didn’t know how long I would stay, so I booked a refundable bus ticket out of the country using BookAway, and then had it refunded after I decided I wasn’t going to use it. They did indeed check it when I entered, and they asked for proof of accommodation too, which I wasn’t expecting! Then I booked the shuttle in a shop in Puerto Viejo 🙂 Hope that helps!

      Isabella

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