Mission: Go by bus from San Jose (Costa Rica’s capital city) to Boquete, a charming mountain town in Panama’s Chiriqui province.
Difficulty: Easy Number of buses: 2
Although there are a few options available when making the cross-border trip from Costa Rica to Panama, I chose a company named Tracopa, which goes directly from San Jose to David, Panama’s second largest city. From the main bus terminal in David, I then took a local bus up to Boquete.
The first of two daily buses to David leaves the Tracopa station in downtown San Jose at 7:30am and is scheduled to arrive in David eight hours later [$15 USD one-way]. I said ‘scheduled to arrive’ because one should always expect the unexpected when traveling by bus through Central America and add a bit of a buffer to the scheduled arrival time.
The Tracopia bus was modern and comfortable but did not have a bathroom on board. Personally, I have mixed sentiments about bathrooms on buses since although they are convenient, on long trips the odour can sometimes become unbearably nauseating – depending on where you are seated.
When the bus left the station, there were about 10 passengers on board, but by the time we made our first pit stop, the bus was almost three-quarters full. Although Tracopa claims to offer a ‘direct’ service, the bus still stops sporadically to pick up passengers at a few points along the way. After about two hours on the road, we pulled over and made a quick five-minute stop at a roadside restaurant where passengers could use the bathroom and grab a snack. The bathrooms were fairly clean and no usage fee was charged, like at some bus-stops in Central America. The driver did not announce how long we would be stopping for and instead of doing a passenger count before leaving, he settled for honking his horn four times and took off.
Originally I had expected the bus to go through the centre of Costa Rica, but much to my surprise a significant part the trip was actually a scenic ride along the Pacific coast, passing popular beach towns like Quepos and Dominical. Somewhere around Dominical, we made our second stop – this time for 30 minutes (long enough to eat a full meal). The food was served on trays (cafeteria style) and was relatively expensive for the quality provided. I had a very salty plate of Cantonese fried rice, a fish fillet, and a refreshing glass of pineapple juice [$7 USD].
Back on the bus continuing towards the Panamanian border, I enjoyed the feature film, Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino. Okay, well I enjoyed the parts of the film that I could hear since depending on how fast the driver was going, the audio was totally muffled by the loud roaring of the engine.
An interesting border crossing
Arriving at the Border, we made a very uneventful first stop at the Costa Rican immigration. All passengers got off the bus and had their passports and declaration forms checked and stamped by an immigration official (1/2 hr stop). Surprisingly, no exit fee was charged by Costa Rican immigration.
A few minutes later – In the line up at the Panamanian immigration counter, a man dressed in civilian clothes (blue jeans and a red polo-shirt) checked our passports and charged us $1 USD for little stickers that he pasted in the passports. At the counter, an immigration officer asked me for my passport and onward ticket from Panama. I explained that I didn’t have a ticket since I was planning on booking a boat trip to Colombia – once I was in Panama. He was apparently unmoved by my story and in a remarkably official tone, he told me that I couldn’t enter Panama without a ticket to prove that I would be leaving. This was the first time in seven Central American border crossings that I was asked to show an onward ticket. Ironically, in the background one of the officers was having a late lunch, proudly sporting a blue baseball cap with the word MARIJUANA in large font and a big green leaf embroidered on its front. I was mildly annoyed by the fact that I now needed to buy a return ticket that I would never use, but genuinely amused by immigration’s strict dress code and support for alternative medicine.
Thick raindrops that sounded more like little nuts and bolts began to fall heavily on the zinc roof above. I sheltered for about 20 minutes while waiting for my bus driver to return to the bus and paid another $15 USD for a future-dated ticket back to San Jose. With a broad smile on his face, the same immigration officer stamped my passport and directed me to the nearby customs office to get my bags checked – The Marijuana officer continued devouring his meal.
Unlike the strict immigration clearance, the baggage search was brief and in-exhaustive.
About an hour later we pulled into David’s bustling bus station and headed directly towards a big pink and white school-bus that read Boquete on the front.
Buses to Boquete leave the main bus terminal in David every 25 minutes and cost $1.75 USD (one way). The bus I took was a old American school-bus with pink seats and blue trim. Rhythmic salsa and bachata filled the bus providing entertainment to passengers for the entire 45-minute journey up into the mountains.
Travel Tip: There is a one-hour time difference between Costa Rica and Panama, so remember to move your clock forward an hour once you cross the border. Check Tracopa’s bus schedule from San Jose to major cities in Panama.