There are several reasons why you might be planning to cross the border between Costa Rica and Panama. Many people do this just to explore another part of Central America, while others need to leave the country they are living in (i.e., Costa Rica or Panama) to renew their tourist visa. In our three-and-a-half years in Costa Rica, we have crossed back and forth many times for both reasons, mostly at Paso Canoas. In this post, we will tell you what to expect and give you some details to help make the process as smooth as possible.
The Paso Canoas border is located in the southwestern-most part of Costa Rica at the end of Route 2 (the Inter-Americana Highway). The closest major town on the Costa Rica side is Ciudad Neily, a small city with some shops, banks, and restaurants. Also not far away are the towns of Golfito and Pavones, which draw some tourists. On the Panama side, the highway is named Route 1 (the Pan-Americana Highway), and the closest major city is David, about 45 minutes away. David is Panama’s third largest city and is known for good shopping and an active expat community.
The Paso Canoas border can be intimidating if you have never been. Chaos is one way you could describe it. Especially on the Costa Rica side, there are often tractor-trailer trucks lined up and lots of vehicles parked haphazardly everywhere. The area is usually extremely busy, with lots of people waiting around and others trying to sell you things. It is very noisy as well, with tractor-trailer brakes sounding, music blaring, and the occasional random firework, making you jump. Signage for government buildings is also poor, making it hard to know where to go. But once you get to know this border, it isn’t all that bad. And if you have some shopping to do, it is actually a great spot to find good deals.
Overview of Shopping
Whenever we go, we do a lot of shopping in the duty free stores. Compared to Costa Rica’s normal retail prices, which are high for Central America, things like groceries, liquor and beer/wine, clothes, and even car parts and supplies are a lot less expensive. As an example, a nice bottle of wine that would cost $20 in Costa Rica is usually $10 or less at the border. A 5 liter bottle of Pennzoil motor oil that costs roughly $40 in Costa Rica can be found for $20.
The stores at the border can be accessed without actually crossing the border, and we know of many people who go just for the shopping. As far as we have been told, unless you purchase large quantities of goods at these duty free shops (over $500 worth), there is no need to declare them when you reenter.
We cover the shopping options in more detail at the end of this post.
As for getting around, here’s a map that we made to help you get your bearings. There are only three buildings that you will need to visit (marked in red).
The Border Process
Since we live in Costa Rica, these directions will be from that perspective. If you are from Panama, the reverse should be similar and most things will apply.
If you have driven yourself to the border and are staying only for the day, it is best to park the car in a secure lot and do the process on foot. As you arrive at the border from the Costa Rica side, look for a sign that says “Parqueo Canoas” set back between the restaurants on the right (roughly across the street from the Banco de Costa Rica). Sometimes the view is blocked by a row of tractor-trailer trucks so look carefully. We have safely parked here many times for about 700 colones per hour.
What You’ll Need
Note: The requirements sometimes change. We’ll try to update this post if they do, but as of December 2016, this is what is required.
- Valid passport (that will not expire within 6 months)
- Proof of onward travel (plane ticket). Occasionally, you also might be asked for a bus ticket from Panama to San Jose, Costa Rica (details below).
- $500 cash or bank statements or a credit card to show proof of sufficient funds (3 months’ worth)
- $8 to pay Costa Rica’s exit tax. Payable in Costa Rican colones as well.
- $1 to pay for a paper stamp to enter Panama
- Pen to fill out Costa Rica’s required form
Exiting Costa Rica and Entering Panama
The first thing you’ll need to do is get your exit stamp from Costa Rica. Here’s how to do that:
1. Pay departure tax
Costa Rica has a tax (impuesto) that must be paid before you can exit the country by land. Anyone crossing by foot, car, or bus has to pay it. While you can pay this at certain banks in Costa Rica ahead of time, the easiest way is right at the border. Formerly sold from a random van, there is now a storage-container office directly across the highway from the Costa Rica Migration office. The tax is $7 but you will be charged $8 because the company selling it gets a $1 commission. They will need your passport and will give you a receipt to present to Migration when you check out of Costa Rica.
2. Get stamped out of Costa Rica
Once you’ve paid the exit tax, head across the street to the Costa Rica Migration office. It’s one of the first buildings on the left as you come into the border area. It’s a blue and white concrete structure with an overhang for buses and a big open area for people to form a line. You will be looking for the salida (exit) window (see cover photo, above).
If there is a big line at the window (common), first you will have to cut to the front to get the required form to fill out. Try one of the closed windows or the entrada (entry) window first, if they are not busy. Don’t worry, everyone does this.
Tip: If you ask for two papers for each person in your group, you won’t have to do this again on the way back into Costa Rica.
Fill out one form for each person and get back in line. The form asks for basic information like your name, passport number, destination, etc. Once it is your turn at the window, give them the paper along with your passport and the tax receipt. Usually the agent doesn’t ask too many questions when you are leaving Costa Rica and just stamps your passport with the exit stamp.
3. Get stamped into Panama
Once you have your exit stamp, walk south along the road to the Panama Migration office. This building is a little hard to find because it is behind other offices in a big concrete building with the road on each side. Walk to the farthest set of windows/offices. Here, you will find an outdoor waiting area with a bunch of service windows (much like Costa Rica but more updated).
Note: It is a bit of a walk between the Costa Rica and Panama offices (about 5-10 minutes) along uneven terrain so plan on wearing comfortable shoes. There aren’t any sidewalks and you have to cross traffic. If you have young kids, you will probably want to carry them.
Pay $1 to Get Stamp
Before getting in line, look for someone sitting in the corner (usually it is the same lady). She sells the required paper stamp to exit Panama, which is $1. It is best to use US dollars if you have them. She will put this in your passport for you.
Wait in Line to Speak to Migration Official
Next, wait in the entrada (entry) line for your turn. There isn’t a form to fill out for Panama, but the agent likely will ask where you’re traveling to and for how long. Sometimes they will ask for your occupation. All of this will be in Spanish, though some of them do speak some English. They will probably also require proof of $500 (usually can be satisfied by showing 3 months’ of bank statements or a valid credit card if you don’t want to carry cash). We have never been asked to show $500 cash, but others have.
The last requirement is to show proof of onward travel out of Panama within 180 days. This requirement has changed over the years and even differs by border. Bus tickets out of the country sometimes work, but lately Panama has been requiring a plane ticket back to your home country (country that issued your passport).
Since our plane tickets are usually departing from SJO Airport in Costa Rica, we also have been asked (sometimes, but not always) to show a bus ticket from Paso Canoas back to San Jose. Even when we told them we had a car, we were still required to show this. If you are asked, you will have to walk back to the Tracopa bus company’s ticket office near the Banco de Costa Rica on the Costa Rica side to purchase one (even if you don’t intend to use it). The cost is around $15 per ticket.
Have Photo and Fingerprints Taken and Get Entry Stamp
Once the agent is satisfied, they will then stamp your passport and take a picture of you with a small computer camera. As of our last visit in December 2016, Panama also now has an electronic fingerprint machine. The agent will direct you to place your thumbs and fingers on a digital pad to record your prints into their computer system.
Now you’re ready to travel into Panama. Standard visas are for 180 days. There are no border walls or other checkpoints in the immediate area so you are free to explore the entire border zone and its shops if you are planning to stay for only a few hours.
Important: Another trend lately is for the Panama Migration agent to tell you how many hours you must stay in Panama before exiting again. If they do this, they may write the time on your entry stamp. We have been told five hours twice and three hours on our most recent crossing in December 2016. Also keep in mind that Panama time is one hour ahead of Costa Rica.
Exiting Panama and Entering Costa Rica
If you’re returning to Costa Rica after your visit to Panama, you’ll go through the process in reverse.
1. Get stamped out of Panama
Go to the same Migration windows as before, but use the salida (exit) line. You do not need to pay or do anything other than present your passport. This is usually a very straightforward process, but they might check to see if you have stayed in the country for the required number of hours.
2. Get stamped into Costa Rica
Go back to the Costa Rica Migration office. They will have you fill out the same form you did before, so if you got extra ones on your way in, you won’t need to cut the line again to get one. You do not need to pay the tax this time. Costa Rica requires proof of onward travel out of the country through a plane ticket back to your home country within 90 days. We have almost always been asked for this ticket (same one we use for entering Panama). Standard visas are 90 days, but the exact amount is up to the discretion of the Migration official.
Shopping at Paso Canoas
Like we mentioned above, whenever we visit the Paso Canoas border, we do quite a bit of shopping. To give you an idea of where things are, here are some descriptions and directions. Directions are based on looking at the Panama Migration building from the big intersection on the Costa Rica side.
City Mall – Very large, modern two-story department store that has a big selection of groceries, beauty products, homewares, small appliances, clothing and footwear (name brands too), electronics, tools, toys, baby items, and even a large section of furniture. We like to shop City Mall the best because it is the most organized and has great air conditioning! From the big intersection, follow the road (on the Costa Rica side) to the left for about 0.75 km and look for the big red building on the right with McDonald’s, shortly after Dollar Mall.
Jerusalem Mall – This is a more scattered, less organized version of City Mall. It has one main, more modern building, with several other, somewhat ramshackle, sections adjoining. Has most of the same things as City Mall, but everything is divided among the different buildings. There are several entrances. Vendors are set up outside the front of the buildings, making it hard to find where to go in. But if you go past the vendors, there is an interior sidewalk that goes by all the storefronts. To get to one of the biggest entrances, take the road to the left (Costa Rica side), walk about 0.5 km, and look for the large glass building with a sign for Jerusalem Duty Free.
Liquor Stores – There are several duty free liquor stores to the right of the big intersection. Follow the road and they will be on your left about 0.5 km up the road.
Car Parts and Accessories – Similar location to the liquor stores, there are several car part suppliers to the right of the big intersection. They sell everything from brake pads to tires, roof racks to rims. Motor oil can be found at one of the malls if you don’t want to make a separate stop. Follow the road to the right (on the Costa Rica side) and they will be on your left about 0.5 km up the road.
Other Shops – On both sides of the intersection, there are a lot of smaller stores filling up every imaginable space. You can find sunglasses, cell phone accessories, clothes, kitchen stuff, and there is even a Crocs store tucked in.
Warning: If you have to cross the border around Black Friday or the weeks leading up to Christmas, build in some extra time. When we visited in early December, there were lines of traffic everywhere and all the hotels were completely sold out with holiday shoppers staying overnight.
Where to Stay and Eat
If you’re looking for a place to stay on the Costa Rica side of Paso Canoas, there are many choices, but they are all very simple budget options. We have stayed at Cabinas Romy, a small motel with about 20 clean rooms. It is very close to the big intersection but fairly quiet at night. Some of the rooms have A/C and cable TV and some do not. Private, secure parking. $30-$50.
Another hotel we have tried is Hotel Los Higuerones. This is a larger hotel set outside of the noisy border area (but still within a short walk). It has the feel of a ranch with nice landscaping and open lawns. The two-story hotel has 39 simple rooms (not much nicer than Cabinas Romy) with different bed setups. Private parking, A/C, hot water, and cable TV. $40-60.
As for where to eat, we have mostly explored options on the Costa Rica side as the restaurants are much more rustic on the Panama side. Of the many small sodas (locally run restaurants serving typical food), our favorite is Inter-Americano Bar and Restaurant. This is right near Cabinas Romy, a short walk from the big intersection on the Costa Rica side. They have consistently good casados (traditional plates with rice, beans, salads, and choice of meat/fish), and the service is always decent. If you’re looking to fulfill a fast-food craving, there is also a McDonald’s at the City Mall or Subway and Burger King near the Jerusalem Mall.
The Paso Canoas border crossing can be quite intimidating if you have never been. Hopefully this post helps guide you through the process and makes it a little less overwhelming.
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Looking for more information to help you plan a border crossing? Check out these posts.
- Crossing the Rio Sereno Border Between Costa Rica and Panama – If you are intimidated by the hustle and bustle of Paso Canoas, check out this tranquil border crossing in the mountains nearby.
- Road Conditions of Specific Routes in Costa Rica – Our guide to the roads of Costa Rica. Plan out your route and know what to expect for your drive.
- Applying for Residency in Costa Rica Without a Lawyer – Tired of making trips to the border to renew your visa? Learn how we applied for residency ourselves and how you can too.