Back-door border crossings: Costa Rica to Panama

Traveling between countries through the back door can be an adventure in itself. There is usually an interesting alternative to the primary border crossing(s) - even between smaller countries - that may be worth checking out. Taking the road-less-traveled route often gives access to local community life, adds an element of soft adventure, and rewards with vistas that regular tourists rarely see. And it often costs less, to boot!

For instance, taking the Sixaola/Guabito "back door" border crossing between Costa Rica and Panama, on the Caribbean coast, brings you by bus, on foot, by van and finally local water taxi to Panama's delightfully laid-back Bocas del Toro islands. The boat crossing is a memorable mini-adventure in itself, and the trek on foot over the border - across the rickety railway bridge - is one-of-a-kind!

View from the Almirante - Bocas del Toro water taxi in northern Panama.

Admittedly, such back-door border crossings usually represent the "go slow" alternative.  Doing so works best if you carve out a few days and slow the internal gears, welcoming the pace inherent to travel by regional and local bus, van or taxi - including water taxis or public ferries as needed. In all likelihood you'll find you were overdue to slow the pace anyway, and will arrive at your destination ready and able to be more fully present - and to fully appreciate all it has to offer.

This particular crossing involves a scenic bus ride down Costa Rica's southeast coast to Puerto Viejo de Limon. A sleepy backpacker vibe has replaced the end-of-the-road scene of decades past, with a range of accommodations now available from rustic to boutique chic. But PV's endless black-sand beaches remain as inviting and deserted as ever. Makes for a wonderful stopover on the way to Panama and countries south!

Take time to explore the miles of mostly-deserted black-sand beaches around Puerto Viejo.

For travel between towns throughout Central America, local buses provide a fun, colorful, and inexpensive option.  However, frequent stops, occasional overcrowding and iffy suspensions (among other factors) mean they are best reserved for shorter hops like the run from Puerto Viejo to the Panamanian border. 

Fortunately, there are usually more comfortable (and faster) ejecutivo/express bus options available between major transport hubs at a slightly higher price.  But don't miss out on a "chicken bus" experience or two to round things out!

For a colorful and memorable experience, give the local "chicken bus" a try for short hops.

Upon arrival at the border, prepare to trundle on foot across the old railway bridge over the Sixaola River.  They say the river is crocodile infested, but I didn't attempt to verify that. Yes, you can cross the bridge on foot or ... on foot.  Hey, there are locals standing by to help with your luggage if you'd like to walk across unencumbered, to really enjoy that view! 

The memorable railway bridge walk, crossing the Sixaola River and the Costa Rican border into Panama. 

Once you finally get there, the border crossing itself is simple and efficient compared to the major border crossing on the Pan American Highway. Then, just a few more steps and you are in ... Guabito. Not much of a town, but how many of your friends have been to Guabito?  Bienvenido a Panama!   

Ask around for the vans going to nearby Almirante, the hop-off point to the islands. Walk or grab a local cab to the rendezvous point, and settle in for a fun journey at close quarters with a van full of locals and fellow indie travelers. Don't worry, the van driver will help you find the water taxi "terminal" for Bocas del Toro.  

Like port towns, ferry terminals, and water-taxi stations worldwide, this one may put you on sensory overload - in that "is this all for real?" sort of way. Yes, it is very real:  an authentic slice of life that defines reality for a good portion of the world's population, day in and day out. Ask for help buying your ticket if you need it; there are always friendly locals somewhere nearby. Then hop on the boat, sit back, and simply absorb as a world of color, beauty, and warm-hearted people scrolls past.

Fellow travelers and loads of color at the Almirante water taxi station enroute to Bocas del Toro, Panama.

There's something special about this leg of the journey to coastal islands everywhere - whether in the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, or the Andaman Sea. The hum of the engines, sky and sea scrolling by, locals and travelers relaxing and mingling.  

Sure, if the weather kicks up, you'll feel it. And the boat could get crowded ... or it may be small enough you'll taste some salt spray before you get there. But generally those who have tried it (versus the more efficient but expensive air hop) agree that the rewards of taking the land and/or water route far outweigh these minor risks or inconveniences.  At least it's worth trying once in a while, for a memorable change of pace.

The transfer takes less than an hour. The islands come into view, growing from specks on the horizon to an immersive 360' panorama that engulfs you in a dizzying array of blues and greens.  Finally you round the point to your destination: Bocas Town in this case, the largest settlement in this spunky archipelago. Not Victoria or Funchal or Hong Kong by any means - but that's not why you came in the first place, is it?

First glimpse of Bocas Town, approaching Isla Colon - main island in the Bocas del Toro cluster - by water taxi from Almirante.

Leveraging the advantages of indie travel in the information age, you probably have selected the perfect digs to spend at least the first night or two. In Bocas Town they range - as they generally do these days - from hostel or simple family-run guesthouse to sleek boutique.  

If you arrived with no reservation in hand, no worries; just head for the nearest cyber-cafe and select from a delectable menu of choices, including up-to-the-minute listings of last-minute specials.  Unless you are there during some kind of annual festival or insist on an international chain hotel, you'll likely find "just the right place" waiting for you in Bocas Town and similar island hideaways worldwide.

Stroll to your chosen accommodations, check in, and hop into that hammock overlooking the water for a well-deserved siesta. You took the road less traveled, likely expending several days and lots of energy getting somewhere you could have flown to in an hour or two. Take a load off!

Sure, there are times when the air travel option makes sense for all kinds of reasons. But then - you think to yourself - there are also times like this. Times when taking the slow route through the back door is just the thing to do. You review the richly textured experiences of the last couple of days, warmed by the laughter of kids swimming off the neighboring dock and lulled to sleep by the lap-lap of the water ....

Your hammock - and a well-deserved siesta - awaits at the end of your back-door border crossing journey.  Congratulations!