Gringos Guide To Driving Mexico, Central America & Costa Rica
San Jose - Panama Border
Costa Rica

San Jose – Panama Border

DRIVING TIME: 8 hours
KILOMETERS: 355
MILES: 220
HWY: CA 2

San Jose - Panama Border

It 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. It is a demanding drive with twists, turns, and potholes.

Eventually, you will reach San Isidro in 3-4 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 it offers an interesting take for 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!

Learned Lessons

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 cross the Darien Gap. You go around it by boat. The crossing is on a small cruise ship taking about 17 hours. See the appendix for more info. When you enter Panama from Costa Rica, make sure your papers indicate that you will be leaving Panama from Colon and not the border post you have entered. Incorrect documents can cause grief. Insurance for your vehicle is available near the border.

Special Directions

If you visit the south and return 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 on to San Jose. Check with the locals before you make the trip about the condition of the road. 

Exiting Costa Rica to Nicaraqua

You would not need a special permit if you did not stay longer than the time in your passport. If your time has expired, you will need an exit visa, which you can pay for at the border. Costa Rica & Nicaragua: Penas Blancas is the main border post between Costa Rica and Nicaragua. The border is open from 8 am until 8 pm daily. The Costa Rican and Nicaraguan border stations are 4km apart.

Exiting Costa Rica to Panama

There are three main border crossings between Costa Rica and Panama. The most frequented crossing is at Paso Canoas, open from 6 am until 9 pm. Officials may require an onward ticket and proof of sufficient funds. The closest city of any size is David, about one hour from the border. From David, Panama City is another 6-7 hours travel. On the Caribbean side, you may cross into Panama at Sixaola, open from 7 am until 7 pm. The last crossing point is at Rio Sereno, east of San Vito. It is a remote and rarely used route, and the border officials are known to be sticklers on regulations and formalities.

Surf Along The Way

Driving along Mexico’s Pacific coast, one will find never-ending stretches of an uninhabited beach full of epic surf. El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama all have popular, well-known breaks, and you should surf them while you make your way south.

With 755 miles of coastline on two oceans, Costa Rica has more breaks than you can shake a stick at. Having a coastline on two oceans is quite an advantage since when one sea is flat, there is usually something breaking on the other side of the country. Often enough, there is good surf pumping on both coasts.

And the comfortable water temperatures and beautiful scenery compliment the country’s surf. Many of its best breaks are in the northwest province of Guanacaste, but there are also some excellent spots in the Central Pacific and Southern Zones. And the few breaks that are available in the Caribbean province of Limon are certainly nothing to complain about.

Costa Rica/Traffic Tickets

There is a good chance that the police will stop you at some point in Costa Rica. Make sure that your paperwork is in order and your visa and car insurance are current. If not, you could lose your vehicle or vehicle plates to the police. 

If they pull you over for speeding or some other violation, you will get a ticket. You must pay the fine at any Costa Rican bank before you depart the country. If you choose not to pay, you may have problems leaving. Costa Rica is more advanced than the other Central American countries, and the chance of catching you is relatively high.

Shipping Your From or To Costa Rica

You have driven over 4,000 miles, and you don’t want to drive back. No problem, ship your car home! There are two main ports in Costa Rica. If you are sending your car to the Pacific side of the US or Canada, you must ship it out of Puerto Caldera. For shipments to the Atlantic coast, the port is Puerto Limon. First, you must find the Aduana office in the main shipping building at each port. Go to the Aduana, and tell them you would like to ship your vehicle to the United States. 

An official will file all the necessary paperwork and arrange to have your vehicle placed in a shipping container. An official will also do the leg work and contact the shipping agency for booking the container onto a ship. Once the paperwork is done, you must return to San Jose and sign the release forms at the shipping company’s office. You may pay for the shipment at the opposite end when you return, but you must pay the Aduana fees in Costa Rica.

You also have the option of a non-container shipment. It means that your car is on the deck of some ship and strapped down. The cost is cheaper, but the chances of damage and theft are much greater. The procedures for shipping a car to Costa Rica are similar. However, when you ship a vehicle to Costa Rica, you must get it out of Customs, a total nightmare. Check out the Tico Times for information about clearing Customs and hiring brokers to assist you with the legalities.

Consider the cost and formalities of shipping your vehicle. After paying shipping fees and purchasing your return ticket, you will have spent close to double the cost of driving back—the decision is yours!

Costa Rica/Long Term Travel

You may drive in Costa Rica for six months without any type of “in-country” registration. However, you must update your visa and car insurance accordingly. For most, It means departing the country after 90 days for 72 hours and then returning. It is much easier to leave the country by bus to Nicaragua or Panama for a few days and return your new entry stamp. If you didn’t get a chance to see San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua, take care of your extension at the border and spend a few days in San Juan.

By now, most people throughout the world are familiar with Costa Rica as a tourist destination. Ecologically sensitive, democratically stable, peaceful, Costa Rica enjoys the reputation as an almost ideal location to spend a few days, weeks, or months basking in a tropical paradise. Recently, Costa Rica has been “discovered” internationally as an attractive retirement destination as well.

Costa Rica/Selling Car

Good luck selling your car in Costa Rica! The laws on selling used vehicles seem to change daily in Costa Rica. Most likely, you won’t make any money when you sell it. If you do so, you need to place your vehicle into a Customs Storage Warehouse, find your buyer, and let your buyer handle the Customs duty, and purchase Costa Rican license plates.

The government adds a 30-50% sales tax that substantially decreases your profit, and there are additional fees for registering vehicles. There are stories about registering a car as being more expensive than the actual value of the vehicle’s original purchase price.