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

San Jose – Panama Border

MILES: 220

San Jose - Panama Border

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 on 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 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!

Learned Lessons

If you’re driving into Panama with the intention of traveling 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, and you go around it by boat. The crossing is made on a small cruise ship that takes about 17 hours. See the appendix for more info. 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. Insurance for your vehicle is available near the border.

Special Directions

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 on to San Jose. Check with the locals before you make the trip about the condition of the road. 

Exiting Costa Rica to Nicaraqua

No special permit is required if you haven’t overstayed the time allocated 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 of 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, this 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 the pacific coast of Mexico 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 ocean is flat, something is usually breaking on the other side of the country. Often enough, there is good surf pumping on both coasts.

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

Costa Rica/Traffic Tickets

There is a good chance that you will be stopped at some point by the police in Costa Rica. Ensure 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. 

You will be issued a ticket if you get pulled over for speeding or some other infraction. Before you depart the country, you must pay the fine at any Costa Rican bank. 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 them catching you is relatively high.

Shipping Your From or To Costa Rica

You have driven over 4000 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 shipping 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, which is located in the main shipping building at each port. Go to the Aduana and tell them that you want to ship your vehicle to the United States. 

The official will file all the necessary paperwork and arrange to have your vehicle placed in a shipping container. The official will also do the leg work and contact the shipping agency to book 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. When you return, you may pay for the shipment at the opposite end, but the Aduana fees must be paid in Costa Rica.

You also have the option of a non-container shipment. This means that your car is placed onto 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 basically the same. However, when you ship a vehicle to Costa Rica, you must get your car out of Customs, which is 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 paid 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, this 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 then return for your new entry stamp. If you didn’t get 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 worldwide are familiar with Costa Rica as a tourist destination. Ecologically sensitive, democratically stable, and 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.

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. You will most likely not make any money when you sell your vehicle. If 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 that registering a vehicle is more expensive than the actual value of the vehicle’s original purchase price.