Is it possible to cross borders by car in Latin America?… This is a question I get asked a lot by current and prospective expats. My husband and I took up the challenge of finding out for ourselves.
Our border of choice? The Panama-Costa Rica border at Paso Canoas.
In short, the procedure is convoluted, but it’s better than the alternatives. Having your own car means you can bring whatever you want; no need to worry about airline bag restrictions or limited bus space.
It saves money on bus tickets and taxis. It also saves time: you’re free to make your own schedule rather than work around someone else’s. Want to make a pit stop or bathroom break? Go ahead.
Driving your own car allows for spontaneity, a key ingredient in any good adventure.
How To Go About This…
The first order of business when crossing the Panama-Costa Rica border is the paperwork. Be sure to have your car registration, last mandatory and yearly car inspection (revisado), last proof of license plates (placa), and your cédula or e-card at hand. Have at least four copies of each of these as well as your passport.
Next up is the exit stamp. Go to the government office in David (if you’re starting in Panama) called Dirección General de Ingresos (DGI). This is downtown in the building of the Ministerio de Economía y Finanzas. (If you own a business, this is the same building where you pay your sales taxes.)
Bring all the aforementioned paperwork with you. Tell them you need a stamp for salida tramito. You’ll need a DV number for your car. The attendant at DGI peruses the originals of your paperwork and issues you a DV number from the computer.
Drive to the aduanas (customs) area near the airport. Tell the agent there that you want to drive to Costa Rica and need clearance papers. After checking your registration and placa they’ll issue you a form entitled “Ingresos Varios,” which will cost you US$5.
You’ll then receive a Certificación De Pago Impuestos de Importación describing the car’s vehicle identification number, plate type, and model. You’ll know you have been issued the proper form if the last line reads “Certificación para salida del país,” which in English means “certification to exit the country.”
This is good for three months. You’re now ready to head for the border, but I strongly suggest that you make several copies of this paperwork first…
Our border crossing was at Paso Canoas. Upon arrival at the gate adjacent to the Panama exit border control, park your car and lock it. You’ll be accompanied to an office where you’ll be asked for three copies of your registration, placa, passport, and cédula.
This is followed by a 10- to 15-minute stop at the Panama side window for additional papers, which allow you to get out of Panama. This costs another US$5.
Remove your luggage from your car and take it to the x-ray area. Following this, take all pertinent paperwork towards the Costa Rica side to their migración. Here they’ll take photos and fingerprints, then stamp your passport.
After driving your car through the insecticide wash, you can park on the Costa Rica side and finish the last few things. Almost there…
Across from the migración window is the insurance office. It’s mandatory to purchase three months of insurance, which costs US$47. Even though you’re now on the Costa Rican side, they’ll accept U.S. funds. Make sure everyone who’ll be driving your car is on this list. This is very important.
You’re now on your way. As an added bonus, you won’t need proof of onward travel (as you would if you were flying or taking the bus) because you’re driving.
The return journey to Panama follows largely the same steps, only in reverse. There are two routes available for crossing the border between Costa Rica and Panama from the Costa Rican side: Paso Canoas or the Caribbean side.
This is more of an adventure, as you go from Sixaola, Costa Rica, to Changuinola, Panama, over a long, single-lane, two-way bridge… Not for the faint of heart, as this bridge carries huge trucks, pedestrians, bicycles, wheelchair-bound people, as well as normal-sized passenger cars.
Park the car just before the border. Again, an attendant will be there to help you. Go inside and pay the Costa Rica exit tax, which was US$18 cash for my husband and I last time.
Next stop is the migration lineup to get the passports stamped to leave Costa Rica. The lineup is sometimes long, but being pensionados (or retirees), we were escorted to the front.
In an adjacent office you’ll need to fill out a form to exit the country. Thankfully it’s in Spanish and English. Provide a copy of your registration, and you’ll be given a form signed by the authorities that allows you to take your car back to Costa Rica within the following three months if you want.
You’re on your way once more. Again, there’s the insecticide car wash… a stop at aduana building to get your passport stamped, photo, fingerprints, etc. Helpful hint: check your passports to make sure they were stamped with the correct date and time.
Crossing the border by car sounds tedious but it goes quickly. It’ll take about an hour and a half each way, assuming your paperwork is in order. As with every procedure in Latin America, you’ll need patience and a good sense of humor.