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PLEASE NOTE: At the time of writing, US$1 = C$570 (Costa Rica Colon) and US$1=P$1 (Panama Balboa).
THE PANAMA ‘EXIT TICKET’:
To enter Panama, you must have an onwards ticket.
Information online differs. Some say that they will accept a return bus or shuttle ticket from / to Costa Rica as long as you can show that you have an onwards flight ticket out of Costa Rica. Others say that they do not accept land-based exit tickets and that you must have a flight ticket out of Panama.
PLEASE NOTE: An Exit Ticket is also required to enter Costa Rica. For Costa Rica, I purchased an American Airlines flight from San Jose to Miami (US$200) and I used their 24 Cancellation Policy to cancel and get a full refund. So, I did not have a valid flight out of Costa Rica anymore. For Panama, I needed to buy another ticket. I didn’t want to go through the American Airlines cancelled flight process again …
My original search showed me that I could buy a one-way ticket from Panama City to Cartegena in Colombia for US$68 with WINGO Airlines. Perfect … Cartegena was where I was planning to go next anyway! I went onto the WINGO.COM website and bought my ticket. With an extra 20Kg stowed luggage charge, the total cost was just under US$100.
I purchased mine for US$25 from the agent next to my favourite breakfast place: Cafe Gustitos. The Shuttles leave at 8:15am and Noon. I chose 8:15am. These Shuttles pick up from various places around town.
I hear that you can ‘Do It Yourself’ for half of that price by catching local transport.
PUERTO VIEJO TO SAXAOLA , THE BORDER:
I was ready and waiting outside of the travel agents before 8:15am. There were 2 other people waiting.
The Shuttle arrived late at 8:30am. The agent put the other 2 people on. I had to wait for the second Shuttle which arrived at 8:50am. It was an old Shuttle Bus – but good enough to get us the short distance to the border.
We were at the border by 9:40am.
SAXAOLA – THE BORDER:
First, we stopped at a kiosk / shop just before the border to pay our US$8 Costa Rica ‘Exit Tax’.
We were joined by our ‘Border Guide’ who is employed by the Shuttle Bus company to guide us through the border process. He collected our passports and handed them in to the lady at the kiosk. She goes through each passport, captures some details, and produces a paper receipt. For each, she calls out your name and you pay your money. I paid in Colones (C$5000).
Here, we queued again to get our exit stamps. This was all done by 10:15am.
A young English couple ahead of us were refused entry. They did not have an Exit Ticket. They frantically tried to get online to see what they could buy. The guy next to me didn’t have an Exit Ticket either. I suggested that he go and talk to the Shuttle Driver to see if he could help.
My Exit Ticket was thoroughly checked and all was fine. I did not need a hard copy. She was happy to work with my eTicket on my laptop screen and smartphone.
Once happy with my Exit Ticket, Immigration scanned my fingerprints and stamped my passport. You do not pay an ‘Entry Fee’ at the Panama border anymore (the old US$3 fee has been stopped).
Meanwhile, the single guy was using the driver’s smartphone to search for flights out of Panama City to Medellin, Colombia. They were looking at prices starting at over US$250. I still had data on my smartphone, so I got online too and started searching WINGO.COM to see if they had any more cheap flights to Colombia.
The young couple had given up searcjing and re-queued at a different Immigration window to re-try their luck. At this window, their Exit Ticket wasn’t asked for and they got stamped!
The single guy ran out of time. The bus driver said that he was leaving. The single guy was told to sort himself out and wait for the next Shuttle coming through at 2pm. He re-queued at the 2nd Immigration window to retry his luck. The Immigration Officer had ‘caught on’ to us … he asked to see an Exit Ticket. We had to leave the single guy behind and drove on.
Surprisingly, there were no Money Touts at the border. I did not see a bank nor an ATM.
We put our clocks forward 1 hour.
SAXAOLA TO BOCAS DEL TORO:
We got back on a different Shuttle to leave. Our ‘included Border Guide’ went around everyone asking for a tip …
The ride was a little bit choppy but nothing to worry about. After 30 minutes we arrived in Bocas Town on Isla Colon. It was, now, 2pm (Panama time).
The skies were clouded over and it was raining.
I had done my research in advance and I had already decided that I wanted to buy a +Movil SIMcard for Panama. Movistar and Digicell are +Movil’s main opposition. +Movil are said to have the widest coverage.
I walked out of the Boat Dock, turned left, and walked 30 meters down the road to a Supermarket. I purchased a SIMcard (US$3.55) and a US$15 Recharge Card. With the US$15 recharge, I had enough to buy a 1 month 2GB Data Plan for US$14.99. The cashier helped me with the process and I walked out of the Supermarket with working internet (and a 1L bottle of Bacardi Rum for US$12.50).
ISLA COLON TO ISLA BASTIMENTOS:
The fee is meant to be US$3 but I was charged US$5 … I will find out how to get it for US$3 later …
The boat took me directly to my hostel: Bubba’s.
BUBBA’s HOSTEL – ISLA BASTIMENTOS:
I pre-booked 4 nights at Bubba’s. I wanted to check out Isla Bastimentos and I needed time to decide whether or not I was going to rent something long term for 2-4 weeks.
I booked 4 nights at a ‘discounted’ price of US$124 (US$31 / night).
This price included a free Breakfast. It was 2 pancakes (no more!) and unlimited coffee.
It has a very small shared kitchen downstairs which people can use until 5pm. After 5pm it is used by the restaurant.
Water is switched off between 10pm and 8am – so, you can’t flush your toilet between those times.
I settled into my room and popped next door to the local Minimart. I purchased a 2.25L bottle of coke to go with my rum. It cost US$3.95!
This is an easy 5 hour trip. The main hassle is crossing the border and knowing where to go, what to do, and in which order to do it.
Bocas Del Toro is one of the top tourist destinations in Panama. As a result, it is relatively expensive. That is already plainly obvious.
My room at Bubba’s is poor value for money. I will tell you more about what I find in a later post.