Before we left Bocas del Toro, we decided to take a brief trip to Costa Rica. We’ve never been to Costa Rica and it’s quite close to Bocas. Also, we have been in Panama for over 4 months, and don’t want to rush through the rest before our 6 month visa expires. The plan was to spend 3 days and nights in a cute Costa Rican beach town, lazing about in a hotel, seeing some sights, and relaxing. It was supposed to be an easy Panama to Costa Rica visa run. Fun? Yes. Easy? Not a chance.
Costa Rica Visa Run Started Off Great!
The trip to Costa Rica from Bocas town on Isla Colon was easy, and faster than we expected. We took two water taxis and two buses, and had escorts who led us to check out of Panama, across the bridge, and checking in to Costa Rica. Clearing in was easy and we arrived at our hotel in Puerto Viejo early. We also didn’t realize we’d be in a different time zone, so we were even earlier! Panama – Eastern Time Zone; Costa Rica – Central.
We had heard many good things about Costa Rica. Pura Vida. And, despite a few big issues, we liked Costa Rica.
Fun Fact! Costa Rica was the last country in Central America I hadn’t visited. Although one night in El Salvador hardly counts.
Costa Rica Visa Run Problem: No Water
If you visit Puerto Viejo, or anywhere on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica this season, check with your hotel on the water status.
When we visited, in February 2022, they were having water shortages. No one warned us and I wish they had. After we arrived we learned that typically, the town shuts off the water at 3am and turns it back on at 12noon. Unfortunately when we were there it was even worse. The water went off on Thursday (we arrived Wednesday) and never came back on before we left at noon on Saturday.
Isn’t it ironic? Living on a boat we are always excited to stay in a hotel for the long, luxurious showers (and air conditioning), but we couldn’t wait to come back to the boat!
The lack of water extended far beyond our hotel, where we couldn’t shower after Thursday morning. The management of our hotel was excellent and did everything they could to keep us clean, including providing a water-cooler bottle for our room, to wash our hands and such. Our hotel credited us a night’s stay and offered to give us back another night if we wanted to leave early. I’ve stayed in bad hotels, and this wasn’t one. Also, we didn’t know if any hotel would have water so we stayed put.
The entire town of Puerto Viejo and beyond was affected. In fact, at dinner on our last night, Brian overheard the customers at an adjacent table wondering if the toilet flushed in the restaurant bathroom.
On our first morning in Costa Rica, we were wakened by truck backing up noises at 6:45am (7:45am Panama time, but still…..!!). Yes, they were digging up the “street” of our hotel! Fortunately, that just lasted one morning, but wasn’t welcome.
We visited Puerto Viejo for our Panama to Costa Rica visa run. It had been recommended by friends from the cruising community and beyond. Puerto Viejo is a cute Caribbean town with loads of expats and backpackers. We saw bigger crowds here than we have since we were in Antigua before the pandemic. And all of those people were staying in hotels without water!
People had told us there’s no trash in Costa Rica but unfortunately this wasn’t true from our experience in the small sampling of towns we visited. Regardless, we did find lots to like!
The entire region we explored around Puerto Viejo is bicycle friendly. In the town of Puerto Viejo, every street has a bike rental shop and for $7 a day, it’s affordable. The roads were relatively easy and most vehicles gave us room. A lot of tourists, locals, and expats get around on bicycle so we felt very safe. In fact, only a few times did cars drive too close and they were almost always police vans.
Cahuita National Park
We went to two starkly different places to see animals on our 3 day visa run to Costa Rica: The Jaguar Sanctuary and Cahuita National Park. The national park was much better for seeing wild animals in their natural habitat, but the sanctuary does great work, so both are worth a visit. If you had very little time and had to choose, go to the park.
about cahuita national park
Cahuita National Park is gorgeous. A land and sea park, it covers over 2,700 acres on land and over 55,000 of sea. We stuck mostly with the land part, as you can only go snorkeling on a tour and being boat dwellers it just didn’t seem worthwhile for us. We dunked in the ocean, couldn’t wash off in showers, because even the park had no water, and didn’t care because it was a magical beautiful place. You can’t even bring a snorkel and snorkel from the beach. The reefs are so protected that you must snorkel with a guide.
walking with the wildlife
The terrain of Cahuita is jungle and beach, and the walking trails are easy to follow, winding through habitats of all sorts of animals and birds. Monkeys climbed down from trees immediately next to us, and a raccoon walked right by us on the path! If you like the beach and wildlife, this park is for you!
getting to cahuita Park
We biked from our hotel in Puerto Viejo to the eastern entrance of the national park, about 15km on mostly flat paved road. Buses run regularly for about $1 each way per person. We left our bikes locked at the entrance, and walked the length of the park, 9km west to the town of Cahuita, a cute town less busy than Puerto Viejo, which we liked. After we’d eaten and searched for geocaches in Cahuita, we hopped the bus back to the other side of the park to bike back to our showerless hotel.
Dining Out in Puerto Viejo
We ate well in the region around Puerto Viejo. From the locally grown coffee and chocolate to pizza and pasta to fusion food and a French bakery, the meals were delicious. Good thing we got exercise from biking and hiking!
Some of the places, like the Pizzeria Cahuita, had gorgeous settings on the beach, not to mention the best pizza we’d had in months!
Others were on the main road in town and bustling with backpackers.
We even found a French bakery, in Punta Cocles, just outside of town, with delicious pastries and baguettes. It’s not Martinique, but it was a good find.
And last but not least, our final dinner in Costa Rica was a good one at Stashu’s Fusion. Several people recommended it, plus Stash is formerly of Toronto, and we loved it and got to meet and chat with Stash himself.
You definitely won’t go hungry in Costa Rica. Prices are high, for most things except bike rentals, and restaurant meals were comparable to Canada and the U.S., but at least the food was good!
Other Things to Do
If you go to Puerto Viejo there are plenty of things to do. Like take surf lessons: the waves were big when we visited. Or do a chocolate or coffee tasting or tour. We’ve done so many of those, they blend together, so we just opted to buy some of each. The selection was overwhelming, especially for coffee!
We also did a lovely beach walk on our first night in town, on a very clearly marked trail, through mangroves and tidal pools, past hotels and bars. Lots of others were enjoying the very pretty hike at sunset.
Costa Rica Visa Run from Panama: Logistics
We used Caribe Shuttles for the roundtrip journey. To enter Costa Rica, we had to fill out some online forms in advance thanks to Covid. You get a QR code if you’re vaxxed, or get PCR tests and proof of Insurance if not.
To Costa Rica
From Bocas del Toro, you leave the dock on Isla Colon for a 45 minute water taxi to the mainland town of Almirante and hop on a shuttle bus to the Panama border which takes another 45 minutes. Once at the border, you present your passport and scan your fingerprints to check out of Panama, walk across the bridge, give your Covid QR code and then check in to Costa Rica with passports.
The reverse returning to Panama is similar but more complicated. Costa Rica charges an exit fee, and only takes cash. When we returned on the Saturday morning, one person manned the exit tax booth, and he was doing everything by hand, taking 3 minutes to process each person! Our Caribe agent soon realized the delay and collected everybody’s passports and gave them to him in the effort of speeding things up.
At the bridge to cross back from Costa Rica to Panama, we were instructed to leave our bags in one spot. This was so the border dog could sniff them, for drugs I guess. The dog sniffed each bag diligently and then we were allowed to cross the bridge to Panama.
Another extra step is Panama requires a plane ticket as proof that you won’t be staying in Panama forever. Yes, even if you arrived by boat and plan to leave by boat. Don’t bother mentioning it. Just pay $25 for a fake plane ticket online, or buy a real one and pay a cancellation fee. This was the first thing the Panama agent asked me for when I hit the border.
Our return trip was nowhere near as smooth because the Costa Rican system went down halfway through processing our busload. Nothing you can do to avoid that, and the Caribe shuttle staff did their best. It was a long day to get back to a shower. We left our dry hotel in Costa Rica at 12:30pm and got back to our boat around 6pm/5pm Central time. Domino would have gone mad waiting for her food, but fortunately we had some great friends looking after her so I could immediately shower!
Costa Rica Money
Costa Rica is a bit more expensive than Panama, and way more than Colombia. They accept either US$ and have their own money, which comes in bills of 1000 and translates to just over $1.50 US and approximately $2 CAN. For example, 20mil CR is $31.29 USD and $39.71 Canadian.
Don’t forget my top things to do in Bocas del Toro
Costa Rica Visa Run Conclusion
I admit I was disappointed by my first visit to Costa Rica. From all the hype, and there is a lot of hype, we’d expected some magical land of cleanliness and beauty. I know our bad timing with water outages colored my opinion, and would love to return under better circumstances. I know Costa Rica has lots of adventure activities so we’ll have to go back some day.
We enjoyed most of our time in Costa Rica, are happily back onboard Sava, and now have 6 months to explore Panama, more than we need. If you do want to take a visa run from Bocas del Toro, Panama, getting to the Caribbean side of Costa Rica is relatively fast and easy, barring border problems and water shortages. There’s a lot to see and do and enjoy!
Costa Rica is a big country and we only got a tiny taste, so if you have tips on other places to visit in the land of Pura Vida, please share in the comments.