Recife, Pernambuco, Brazil

Border Crossing: Costa Rica / Panama

August 7th, 2013 | Posted by Brianna in Border Crossings | Costa Rica | Dogs | Panama

We cross borders by land in a CR-V with US passports and our two dogs. We do not carry drugs or weapons or disallowed fruit (usually). These articles are not a definitive guide to crossing borders nor should they be used as a sole source of information. They are our experiences.

When, Where, and Which Direction: August 3, 2013 – Costa Rica > Panama at Paso Canoas

What We Needed:

  1. Passports (and 2 copies of driver’s passport),
  2. Costa Rican Auto Import Permit,
  3. Vehicle Title (and 2 copies),
  4. A credit card or $200 cash, and
  5. Various dog papers (see below for details).

The Process: The Pan American highway runs directly through the Paso Canoas crossing, which is also home to a couple of malls, a plethora of small shops, and an abundance of Costa Rican residents who flock to the border for Panamanian prices, which are markedly lower than those in their own country. For processing on the Costa Rican side of the border, stop at the blue building on the left side of the road just upon entering the madness. The parking spaces are slanted towards Panamanian traffic,  but we were able to park there with a u-turn. From the parking spaces, migración is around the left side of the building at a series of windows. Visitors exiting Costa Rica must complete an exit form and hand it over with their passport which will be stamped and returned. The customs office can be found by continuing around the left side of the migración windows, or from the parking spots by going behind the migración windows on the right side; it is directly next to the bathrooms (clean and $.40 USD per use!) and clearly labeled “Aduana”. Inside, hand the attendant at the computer the Costa Rican temporary auto import permit and the driver’s passport. She may ask if you are coming back to the country in the next 90 days before quickly processing the cancellation. No fees should be paid to exit Costa Rica.

Next, drive a short distance to the Panamanian side of the border. Once inside the melee, it’s easy for confusion to arise as to which of the many diverging roads are the right one. We found Life Remotely’s photos to be very helpful in recognizing where we needed to go. Essentially keep going straight, even when the road looks like it might be curving to the right (you will be able to see the “dirty white covered building” ahead at this point). Drive along the right side of this building and park under the awning. To the left of the road is a center console-type structure with staircase wrapped around it, and offices on either side of it like book ends with space for travelers to walk between. The migración office is in the book end closest to Panama. To enter Panama, visitors need to purchase a sticker from the municipality to be placed in the passport for $1 from a person standing near the line and then show their stickered passport to the person at the window along with “financial solvency”. For this, the agent at the window asked to see $200 cash, but accepted a quick look at our credit card in its place. He then took an up close photo of our faces and stamped us in.

Purchasing insurance is the first step towards importing a vehicle. There is more than one place at the border at which to do this, but the easiest is across the street from the migración office, to the right of your vehicle (see Life Remotely’s photos; we went to a much less convenient place). Hand over a copy of the driver’s passport, a copy of the vehicle title, and $15 USD in exchange for insurance. You should get one original and one copy. Take that copy back across the street and go up the stairs to the office above the migración windows for a notary-esque stamp on the insurance. Then go back downstairs to the offices on the opposite side (the book end closest to Costa Rica) where the stamped insurance copy, a copy of the driver’s passport, and a copy of the vehicle title should be handed over to a person at a window marked both “Aduana” and “Captura y Manifesto”. After much typing, you will receive a temporary auto import permit with a stamp that needs initialing. Look for a gentleman with a clipboard walking through the vehicles. He will peruse the car, possibly asking you to open a bag or show something that’s covered, sign off on your permit, and then send you on your merry way.

We aren’t sure about the appropriate way to import dogs into Panama. See below for our less than official experience. Once you’re set though, drive ahead through the fumigation station (possibly showing paperwork and paying a fee) and onto the open road where you will be stopped just one more time by a police checkpoint for document review.

Costs: There are no fees to exit Costa Rica. To enter Panama costs $1 USD per person and $15 USD per vehicle, which is entirely for insurance as there is no fee for the import permit itself. Fees for dogs are questionable, see below. We also paid $1 USD for fumigation on our way out, but did so through a man who handled our dog scam so we’re not sure about the details there. US dollars are used in Panama under prices listed as balboas. Do not be confused – they are just US dollars.

Dogs: Once again, a friendly local man (a “helper”) at the border hoping to make some money saw our dogs as his ticket to cash. Though we told him repeatedly that we didn’t need help, he walked with us through our entire process insisting that he would help us with our dogs afterwards. Admittedly, we didn’t know what we were supposed to do should an official tell us we needed a permit for them, but that was highly unlikely and in retrospect, no one, except those with something to gain, could care less that we were transporting pets. After all was said and done with our passport stamps and import permit above, our “helper” told me to bring our dogs’ papers with me and follow him. As usual, I had a health certificate, health certificate in Spanish, and vaccination certificate for each pup. We walked about 6 feet from the CR-Van to a uniformed official who read his lines to me dramatically, and in Spanish. It went something like… The office to import pets is only open Monday through Friday and there is nothing we can do to let you pass today. Really, I would get in trouble with my boss if I let you pass. I would need to talk to my coworkers to see if we can get your paperwork stamped. Honestly, you just needed to have crossed the border between Monday and Friday. My hands are tied and there is nothing I can do here. You could possibly go see a vet and complete a separate process, but that would cost you at least $130 dollars. I am shaking my head and thinking how crazy it is that you are trying to cross a border with pets on a Saturday. Gee, I just can’t even begin to think of what we might do here. *Stray dog runs by*

What I wanted to say was, “Fuck you and your little border friend who are taking advantage of us. You have no authority over me, and your ‘process’ is bullshit.”

What I said instead was, “Please tell me how much the permit costs. We will pay for it right now.”

Let me call my comrade and see what we can do. Tisk, tisk, this is a tough one.

A few minutes later our helper came back to me with our dogs’ paperwork, telling me that they had been processed and stamped by the official (they were not), and after taking every dollar of our remaining cash with him, $37 USD, we were free to go with nothing to show for our efforts (though pet papers were not asked for at the police checkpoint, and our “helper” then had to pay for our fumigation because we were broke).

Our Experience: Aside from the dog scam/bribe, this border was really pleasant and easy. We thought it was simple and intuitive and for the most part, run by efficient officials. That said, the dog thing really gets under my skin. Though we knew that we were being played, there was little we could do about it as refusing to play along is suddenly reason to get someone involved who actually could keep us from passing. After a border crossing that should have been lovely and quick, we left feeling preyed upon despite the fact that if asked, we would both quickly agree to paying $37 to avoid sitting at the border for an extra 3 hours of battling. There are some things we get used to. Silly fees is one of them. Poorly performed scams is not.

Vangabonds Border Crossing Number: 10

CR Migración

Looking towards Costa Rica Migración

CR Aduana

Costa Rica Aduana/Customs


Looking towards Panama

Looking towards Panama from Costa Rica Migración (on left)

Panama Side

Olmec engages in an intense staring contest with a man asking for change near the "center console-type structure" on the Panamanian side of the border.

Panama Migración

Panama Migración - This photo is taken of the "exit Panama" windows from the "enter Panama" line.

Panama Aduana

Apparently this is how I look while trying to communicate in Spanish about how much fake dog permits cost in a calm and collected manner... I swear I was not nearly as stressed out as it seems here. Had to share the photo though because the background is Panamanian customs.


Fumigation Upon Entering Panama

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2 Responses

  • Laurie Sunderland says:

    It’s infuriating when you have to dip into your pockets for the bribe money…. I learned to simply factor it in as part of doing business… no doubt you have too. Take it out of the pup’s treat money…. :-) (I have the same skirt you are wearing, Brianna, from a market in Perú!)

    • Brianna says:

      Isn’t it a great skirt?! I picked this one up in Oaxaca and just love it. I wear it on most travel days and often during outings as well because it is a modest length without being too hot, so it makes it into a lot of photos. Plus it twirls well!

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