How to Travel From San José to Bocas del Toro by Bus, Plane, and Car

Tourist relaxing on a overwater bungalow. Bocas Del Toro, Panama
Andrea Comi / Getty Images

Bocas del Toro is a province in the northwestern region of Panama best known for its offshore archipelago, which is made up of nine main islands and 52 cays. Only 200 miles (321 kilometers) away, San José, Costa Rica is actually much closer to Bocas del Toro than the capital of Panama City and if you plan on visiting Costa Rica before Panama on your trip through Central America, there are a couple ways to complete this leg of your trip.

Flying is the most convenient, fastest, and also the only direct way to get to Bocas del Toro from San José. However, for that same reason, it's also the most expensive option. You can save yourself a lot of money traveling via bus or car, but it's not a straightforward trip. You'll need to be prepared to transfer buses, cross a border, and buy a ferry ticket, which may not be the best option if you have a limited amount of time.

  Time Cost Best For
Bus + Ferry 6 hours from $27 Budget travel
Flight 50 minutes from $160 Quickest route
Car + Ferry 7 hours 200 miles (321 kilometers) An exciting road trip

What Is the Cheapest Way to Get From San José to Bocas del Toro?

At its cheapest, a bus journey from San José to Bocas del Toro could cost you as little as $17, but it's a long ride that requires many transfers and will take you at least six hours, depending on how long your transfers are. Plus, you will have to cross the border and ultimately take a ferry to arrive at your final destination. The bus is faster than driving because you don't have to take your own car, or a rental car, over the border. However, you'll still want to book as early a bus as you can, so you can be sure to get to the ferry before it closes for the day.

From San José, take the local Mepe bus from Caribe Station to the border town of Sixaola, where you'll be able to cross on foot. At the Panama side of the border, look for the vans lined up at the foot of the stairs. For $10, these will take you to Almirante, where you catch a ferry to take you the rest of the way to Bocas. Boats leave every half hour or whenever they fill up. There’s also the option of taking a local bus, but this is a sweatier, more complicated alternative with no guarantee of getting you to the ferry before service shuts down for the evening.

What Is the Fastest Way to Get From San José to Bocas del Toro?

The flight from San José to Bocas del Toro only takes about 50 minutes and most travelers prefer flying to save themselves the time and hassle. However, it typically costs more as there is only one private charter service that makes this trip. One way tickets with Skyway Costa Rica start at $160. These planes are very small and only have the capacity for 19 passengers, but it's the surest way to get to Bocas quickly.

How Long Does It Take to Drive?

At minimum, it's a six hour drive and a one hour ferry ride from San José to Bocas del Toro, not taking into account any detours or delays at the border. It's a trip best split up over a couple of days, especially because you'll be passing by many beaches along Costa Rica's east coast and also the country's famous Sloth Sanctuary near Manzanillo. If you're renting a car, bear in mind that some rental companies do not allow cars to be taken across the border. For a fee, some offer the possibility of renting a car in Costa Rica, leaving it at the border, and picking up a different car on the Panama side.

It's a lovely route as you travel east from San José via Route 32 to the city of Limón and down the coast along Route 241, which will eventually turn into the Route 36 that you can take all the way to the border town of Sixaola. After crossing the border into Panama (and picking up a new rental car if you need one), you'll be in a remote part of Panama and will need to navigate roads that go by names (Via San San y Guabito, Avenida Omar Torrijos, and Ruta Almirante El Empalme) and not numbers. Your destination is the town of Almirante, where you'll catch the ferry to Bocas del Toro.

When Is the Best Time to Visit Bocas del Toro?

The best time to visit Panama is during the dry season, which lasts from December to April. However, this is also the high season and resort rates do tend to be higher at this time of year. For better rates, try to travel during the spring and fall. September is a particularly exciting time to visit Bocas del Toro to attend the annual Feria del Mar, where you'll find music, carnival rides, and plenty of street food. The fair is held at Playa El Istmito.

Do I Need a Visa to Travel to Bocas del Toro?

American citizens do not need a visa to enter either Costa Rica or Panama as long as they are staying for less than 30 days. You’ll have to get an exit stamp from Costa Rica and an entrance stamp from Panama. You may have to pay a small tourist fee when you enter, but this typically costs less than $10. If you don’t already have a ticket showing that you are leaving Panama in six months, you must purchase one on a roadside shack down the stairs and to your immediate right once you cross the bridge. If you look lost, there are plenty of people who speak English milling about the border and will usually point you in the right direction.

What Time Is It in Bocas del Toro?

Panama is one time zone ahead of Costa Rica, so you will lose an hour as soon as you cross the border. While Costa Rica abides by Central Standard Time (CST), Panama is aligned with Eastern Standard Time (EST), however this does not mean that it is always the same time in Panama as it is on the east coast of the U.S. Neither Panama or Costa Rica acknowledges Daylight Saving Time. This means if you are traveling in this region between March and November, Costa Rica and Panama will be one hour behind EST and CST in the U.S.

Can I Use Public Transportation to Travel From the Airport?

The Bocas del Toro Isla Colón Airport (BOC) is a very small airport and Bocas Town's main strip of beachfront restaurants and hotels is a three minute drive away, or a less than ten minute walk. If you are staying at a resort on another island and will need to take a ferry, check with your hotel to see if they offer a transfer service from the airport. Occasionally, this is a complimentary service, but there's no need to worry if you're eon your own. There are plenty of extremely affordable boat taxis that can take you around the islands and bring you to your accommodation.

What Is There to Do in Bocas del Toro?

One of the most popular island destinations in Panama and a top spot for backpackers in Central America, Bocas del Toro is a scenic paradise that's pretty affordable once you get there. Of course, if you want to splurge and spend the night in an overwater villa, you can do that too. The area is really well-known for having fantastic diving and snorkeling spots and there are many dive shops where you can get certified. If you'd rather keep to the beach, Playa de las Estrellas on Isla Colon and Red Frog Beach on Isla Bastimentos, are not only considered some of the most beautiful beaches in Panama, but also some of the best in all of Central America.

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