Ever think about driving your car from Panama to Costa Rica? Seems like a pretty simple thing. Well, not so in Panama!
There are two locations where you can drive across the border to Costa Rica. The primary crossing point is outside of David at Paso Canoa. The other is north of there in a tiny village called Rio Sereno. Each spot has its challenge, but both are doable. I know because we have crossed at both locations.
The first and most important thing to know is that you can only cross with your own car. Rentals are not allowed. Also, you must have original documents showing that you, the one crossing the border, are the registered owner. If you use someone else’s car you need a notarized authorization to take the car out of the country. I emphasize original title (the big pink slip) because, the first time we attempted to cross with friends in their car, they had plenty of copies but no originals — and we were not allowed to cross. Not that the officials do anything with the original, but they want to see it.
You need originals for:
Registration (Registro Unico de Propiedad Vehicular)
Your last inspection certificate (Revisado)
Your most recent license plate receipt (Recibo de Placa)
You will need several copies of these documents as well as your passport and residency card. If your residency application is in process, you need a multi-entry stamp in your passport. When you get to David, even if you want to cross in the mountains in Rio Sereno, you must first go to Banco Nacional. This means you must be there during banking hours. There you tell them you want to pay for the stamp to cross the border. It will cost you 50 cents. For that 50 cents, they will give you a very official receipt that you take with you to the aduana (customs) office in David. (It is on the road to the airport very close to the entrance to the airport.) They will tell you that they only can process your request prior to 1:30 pm, because that is when the office staff goes home and they are not there on the weekends.
(This office is located at GPS setting coordinates N 08 24.443’ W082 25.835 and looks like an industrial building. It’s very unassuming and there are no signs — making it very easy to miss.)
Once there, you must present all your documents and leave a copy of all papers. They will issue you a certificate that is critical to show at the various authority windows you will visit at the border. You must make copies of that certificate, which can easily be done at the border (at a copy stand). Then you may proceed to the border, which is where you are almost guaranteed to be confused if you are trying to cross without the help of a guide. There are few signs suggesting which office to see and in what order, but it’s always a little mysterious.
If you are very fluent in Spanish and have two or three hours to spend, you can do this on your own. If you want to get across without the nightmare, hire a guide. There are men who will approach you and offer to get you through the process. Of course, they expect to be paid, and something like $20 works miracles. Only pay them at the end of the process when everything is in order. (He may ask you for a few dollars in change to give to various clerks along the way to get your paperwork done faster.)
One of the young and knowledgeable English-speaking men we met there is Hamilton. He is a very adept facilitator and his phone number is 6976-6391. We interviewed him as to his accessibility, and if you call him and arrange to meet him there he will get you through with minimal fanfare.
So, the main thing to remember is that multiple copies of all documents will be required. If you want to cross in Rio Sereno, the document issued at the aduana in David must be obtained first. If you have that (and your other documents, of course) it is a swift and simple process to cross there. It is just a longer way to get to Costa Rica.
Once in the little town you proceed to the immigration office. It is a well-guarded simple office at the border. They stamp your passport and take copies, too, and then send you a few hundred feet away to a little building where the car is processed. Then you get to drive across the street and get your passport stamped and car checked — and you have official entry into Costa Rica.
Don’t forget! Both crossing locations require you to stop and have your passport stamped and car inspected once inside Costa Rica. Also, Costa Rica insists you have the car insurance that they sell for about $35. Even if your Panamanian insurance agent assures you that you are covered in Costa Rica and won’t need to buy more insurance over there, our experience was that we absolutely had to purchase a policy or they wouldn’t allow the car to pass. It was valuable to have that document with us when the Costa Rican unmarked police car pulled us over to check to see if all was in order.
Also, be sure to have all the drivers named on the permit for bringing the car into Costa Rica. Again, please remember that there are virtually no signs telling you where to go and to whom to speak, but that is the beauty of the hired guides. The legitimate facilitator guides have ID cards that they should be wearing around their necks on lanyards.
Eventually, you will find yourself in Costa Rica. If you go through David, the road is paved and fine and signs are everywhere to direct you to your various roads and cities. If you cross in Rio Sereno, you must have a 4-wheel drive vehicle as the road is not paved and there are no signs suggesting where to turn to get to a paved road, and you should expect to get lost at least once. Ask for San Vito as you travel the gravel and once there, you will be ok with a good map, a little Spanish and a sense of adventure.