Panama overland travel guide
Panama’s the end of the road, literally. It’s easy enough to travel between Costa Rica and Panama by road (though the main border is the stuff of nightmares), but things aren’t so straightforward for reaching Colombia:
How to travel to and from Panama overland
Panama is a long, narrow country, bordering Costa Rica at its western end and Colombia (and South America) to the east. There are three road crossings with Costa Rica, but none with Colombia due to the Darien Gap – you have to go by boat.
Entry requirements for Panama
Before getting into the overland route options, it’s important to stress that you have to have your paperwork in order for Panama. Back when I visited, we had return bus tickets booked to Costa Rica, and flights booked back to Europe from there – but I have no recollection of being required to show any proof of the return flight, nor any proof of funds; I think the bus ticket alone was sufficient. These days however, Panama requires proof of both a flight home and sufficient funds, and you should be prepared to show evidence of having at least 500 dollars available e.g. a bank statement printout or screenshot, though apparently simply showing a credit card often works. More problematic is the onward travel requirement, which seems to be getting ever stricter. Unfortunately it appears that since 2015, the requirement has been to show both a bus or plane ticket out of Panama and also an air ticket back to your home country. This latter requirement is rather problematic if you’re doing a long-term overland trip, and this is exacerbated by the fact that proof of having booked a boat trip to Colombia is apparently no good as proof of onward travel – you need to show a bus or plane ticket leaving Panama.
What this means is that if you have a flight home booked from Costa Rica (or elsewhere in Central America), you’ll just need to pre-book a bus ticket (or flight) from Panama to Costa Rica (or elsewhere in Central America), so not too big a problem.
However, if you have a flight booked home from somewhere in South America, then you’re going to need to show that and also a flight from Panama to South America. This is obviously tricky if you’re intending to take a boat to Colombia; you’ll basically have to fake a plane ticket (if you can) e.g. get a travel agent to print a dummy itinerary for you, or actually book a refundable ticket, get the proof, and then cancel it (double check it is refundable before paying!). A pretty major pain in the ass.
And if you don’t actually have a flight booked to your home country (or country of official residence), then again you’re going to have to book one, fake one, or book one and then cancel and refund it if you don’t actually want one; this could obviously be a pretty expensive ticket, so again double (and triple) check to make sure you can get a full refund.
This entry requirement is pretty unfriendly to long-term overlanding, but you should be able to get around it with a little preparation. Anyone who’s crossed into Panama recently (from Costa Rica or Colombia), it would be good to hear how you dealt with this and if there are any updates you can share, please leave a comment or send me a message!
The Darien Gap, and boats between Colombia and Panama
The narrow piece of land forming the border between Panama and Colombia (and therefore the continents of North and South America) is the great missing link of overland travel in the Americas. The Pan American Highway, by which you could otherwise drive from Alaska to Patagonia, fizzles out between the towns of Yaviza (Panama) and Turbo (Colombia); this is the infamous Darien Gap. It’s a hundred miles of heavy jungle and swamps, home to guerrillas and bandits, and attempting to walk or (river) boat across it is a very serious undertaking indeed.
That isn’t to say it can’t be done – for example, British adventurer Karl Bushby crossed the Darien Gap as part of his Goliath Expedition. But before you get it into your head that that means you can do it too, consider the fact that Bushby also walked the entire distance from Pataganoia to Alaska, crossed the frozen Bering Strait, has been walking for over a decade, and is today walking through Siberia, with the intention of eventually walking home to England all the way from the southern tip of the Americas. Simply put, if you were that hardcore you wouldn’t be reading this, you’d be out there already… I may fancy myself as a fairly committed overland traveller, but people like Bushby are on another level completely and I know I’m not going to be crossing the Darien Gap!
Also consider that for every successful crossing you may read about, you can read about another where they got kidnapped (like these journalists) or ended up dead (like this backpacker). So, again, if you’re not a conflict journalist, hardcore ex-military adventurer, or legit jungle explorer, crossing the Darien Gap is out. For overland backpacking, this leaves the sea routes.
There are basically two options – sailing boat trips between Cartagena and Panama’s San Blas islands taking four or five days and crossing the open sea, or a series of speedboat hops along the coast.
The sailing trips look and sound incredible – a couple of my friends have done it, and both said it was an amazing experience. I’ve never done it myself (not yet, anyway!), so can’t speak from experience; but if you get yourself to Panama City or Cartagena, you can arrange these trips through the hostels and guesthouses there. There’s a fair amount of information online about this, for example this hostel website is a good place to start.
The other option is a boat between the Colombian town of Capurgana (or its neighbour Sapzurro) and the Panamanian town of Puerto Obaldia. These are beach towns located a short distance along the coast from each other, just either side of the border, and these boats run daily. Capurgana is connected to Turbo by regular boats, and Turbo has buses to the rest of Colombia. The problem with this route is that there are no regular scheduled boats between Puerto Obaldia and the rest of Panama; the route works, but you may have to be prepared to be stuck in Puerto Obaldia for some time (as in, days) until there are enough passengers waiting to make it worth a boat owner’s while to take you, or for a boat to happen to come in that you can hop on for the return trip.
(If you’re going this way, if you stay in Sapzurro you can actually walk the short distance to La Miel on the other side of the ridge. La Miel is in Panama, so if you do this then you’ve crossed to Panama on foot; however, the guards at the border post apparently don’t stamp you in or out and from La Miel you have to go back to Sapzurro, so this is more of an interesting little day hike you can do from Sapzurro rather than an overland travel route to Panama. It definitely doesn’t count as crossing the Darien Gap!)
Travel between Costa Rica and Panama overland
The main Costa Rica / Panama border is at Paso Canoas on the Pan American Highway, and it is a complete and total bastard. I’ve crossed a lot of land borders in the course of my travels and there are two in particular that have stood out as the shittiest (by far) of the lot, the Paso Canoas border being one of them. The other is Poipet / Aranyaprathet on the border between Thailand and Cambodia… the Poipet crossing is worse for scams, child beggars (put to work by the scum of the Earth), and general squalor… but Paso Canoas is far and away, by country miles, the worst border I’ve crossed in terms of the actual procedure involved. It’s also a shithole too – I’ll never forget the pitiful sight of a dog clinging on to the last moments of its wretched life in the garbage-strewn gutter of the shitty street running through the border town, and that’s the kind of scenery you’ll be treated to while you go through hours of official tedium. Border towns can be mighty strange places, and this particular one is a transit point for Mexican-cartel-bound drugs as well as being a transit point for other contraband being smuggled to Costa Rica from Panama’s Free Trade Zone. It was bad going from Costa Rica to Panama, and even worse going back to Costa Rica; all passengers have to get off the bus with all their bags, to be thoroughly searched by hand. This obviously takes some time, and is done in a small room by a handful of border guards; just to get to that point you’ll be waiting for an hour or two. After re-packing all your stuff and proceeding to the next room, you wait for all your fellow passengers to come through and then the bags are checked again by sniffer dogs. After that, you go through to a holding area outside where the guards have all your passports in a pile and call you up one by one to be questioned and scrutinised; and only after that can you finally get back on the bus and be on your way. The whole thing took about three hours when we did it, and this seems to be about par. It’s a demeaning, infuriating, and mind-numbingly tedious process; if all borders were like that, I would not be so keen on overland travel (in fact I would hate it).
There are a couple of alternatives to this dreadful border crossing though – one at Rio Sereno in the highlands (further inland from Paso Canoas), and one at Sixaola on the Caribbean coast. The Sixaola crossing sounds an awful lot better than Paso Canoas, so that’s good news to those travelling along the Caribbean coast – were I ever to be travelling from Costa Rica to Panama again, I would go this way and visit the Bocas del Toro islands.
The Rio Sereno crossing sounds like the easiest of the lot – being located in a small mountain town it sees few travellers and, crucially, no freight. Unfortunately, all direct buses between Costa Rica and David / Panama City go through the Pan American border from hell so you’ll only cross at Rio Sereno if you’re travelling through the highlands by chicken bus (local bus), or if you have your own wheels (users of the motorbike touring forums all rave about this crossing, due to both the scenery and the ease). But to be honest, that is a very good reason to take your time and travel through the highlands!
It’s also necessary to show proof of onward travel when entering Costa Rica; fortunately, Costa Rica is a lot more reasonable about this and a simple bus ticket should suffice e.g. if you book the Tica Bus from Panama to San Jose, at the same time you can buy an open-dated ticket with them from San Jose to Nicaragua and have it ready to show the Costa Rican border guards.
Travel within Panama
There’s a train line running alongside the Panama Canal to carry freight across the isthmus, as the biggest modern ships can’t fit through the canal. These ships have to unload their cargo at one end, where it’s loaded on to the train, and then a sister ship picks it all up on the other side – this is the reason that a wider canal is planned across the isthmus in Nicaragua (though it looks like it may never happen, and as the route goes through Lake Nicaragua there are major environmental concerns if it does. Despite being a bit of a geek for such things, I’m hoping this one doesn’t go ahead). Anyway, you can ride this train line as a passenger, with one morning train running to Colon and another coming back in the afternoon; we didn’t have time to do this, but it looks like a cool way to see the canal.
Apart from that, overland travel is by road. Frequent buses run between Panama City and Colon, and Western Panama has a good road and bus network. It’s a different story east of Panama City though, with the Pan American being the only major road and ending at the Darien Gap.
Things to do in Panama (City)
The Panama Canal. The best part to visit near Panama City is the Miraflores Locks, where you can watch the enormous cruise ships and container ships from close quarters as they start or finish their transits of the canal. Even if you’re not an engineering geek, it’s pretty mind-boggling to see and think about all those cargo containers on all those ships full of all that stuff, going to and from all those places, and that this morning they were in the Caribbean and this evening they’ll be in the Pacific.
Check out Casco Viejo, the old town; the beautiful churches and colonial facades make a nice contrast to the modern skyscrapers of the downtown area.
Hit the casino. Gambling is legal in Panama and there are a number of casinos; I’m not much of a gambler, and the only casinos I’ve been to were in Vegas and Panama. I found those in Vegas to be tacky and depressing, but the one we went to in Panama was a bit more 007 and plenty of fun; I had a hot streak on roulette, trebled my modest starting stake, lost most of it again, and spent the remainder on rum cocktails. No winnings at the end of the night, but a free hangover for the next day.
Resources and Useful Links for Visiting Panama
Search for hotel deals in Panama
Flexible travel insurance from World Nomads, especially useful if you’re already overseas (this can be a crucial point, as I once found out the hard way in Bangkok). If you’re planning on doing some diving, check out their scuba cover
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