DRIVING TIME: 5.32 hours
HWY: CA 2
This is a long drive over the mountains into the lowlands of Costa Rica. Leaving San Jose, head for Cartago, CA 2. Once in Cartago, go through the town, and the road will veer right. There are no signs, so you may have to stop and ask. After you leave the city, you will ascend into the mountains again. This is a demanding drive with twists, turns, and potholes.
Eventually, you will reach San Isidro in 3 to 4 hours. From San Isidro, you may visit Dominical on the coast or continue south toward Golfito and the Panamanian border. Leaving San Isidro, head for Palmar Norte and then continue to Paso Canoas or Golfito. Paso Canoas is the main border crossing between Panama and Costa Rica. Check with the consulate in San Jose for current visa requirements.
Hotel & Eats
There is a hotel that may seem out of place at first in a Costa Rican setting but offers an interesting take on accommodation. Before leaving Costa Rica, stay a few nights at Vista Castillo Hotel in Golfito. Its medieval castle facade is as inviting as its quality rooms with breathtaking ocean views. They also serve complimentary breakfast!
If you’re driving into Panama intending to travel to South America, there is an obstacle called the Darien Gap. This mass of tropical jungle prevents anyone from driving between Central and South America. There is a ferry boat from Colon, Panama, to Cartagena, Colombia. Travelers note that the Interamerican Hwy changes from CA 1 to CA 2 past Cartago to the border with Panama.
Crossing the Darien Gap
You don’t actually cross the Darien Gap—you go around it by boat. The crossing is made on a small cruise ship that takes about 17 hours. When you enter Panama from Costa Rica, make sure that your papers indicate that you will be leaving Panama from Colon and not the border post in which you have entered. Incorrect papers can cause grief. You can get vehicle insurance near the border.
If you visit the south and you are returning to northern Costa Rica, you may drive up the coast from Dominical or through the central route. From Dominical, you may continue north to Quepos and Jaco and then to San Jose. Check with the locals before you make the trip about the condition of the road.