By Tony O.
Like Bruce, I chose the indirect route to get to Bocas del Toro. I started with a bus ride from San Jose to Cahuita, which was an easy 4-hour trip in a big comfortable bus, with a short stop in Limon. The next morning, I started my journey to the border.
The bus to Sixaola (the border town on Costa Rica's side) was one of the smaller, less comfortable buses. It was hot. And it made many, many stops to pick up passengers. So it was hot and crowded. Since I was traveling alone, I kept an eye out for other gringos, trying to find a border buddy. There were a few. When we got off at Sixaola, we were greeted by a "guide" that claimed us as "his group." We were all skeptical and tried to avoid him, but he followed us to the Costa Rican migration office... which had a huge line. So much for a quick crossing. Apparently there were two tour-buses full of people ahead of us, plus many Ticos coming back into the country, which tied up the small two-person office. Luckily, I have learned patience during my time here. No worries. I chatted with some other folks going to Bocas del Toro. The "group" consisted of two guys from Florida, a kid from Israel, and an older man from Germany. We inched our way forward.
And about two and a half hours later, it was my turn. I handed over my passport. The clerk started to stamp it, then hesitated. He double-checked the date. I began to worry: had I miscounted the days? Had I already overstayed my visa? No, he stamped it and handed it back. Shew. Then I had to make it to the other side, which required walking on a rickety old bridge over the Rio Sixaola into Guabito, the border town on Panama's side. As I stood in line for Panama migration, our "guide" reappeared, urging us to go to the tourist office first, to purchase a tourist card. The others hesitated, but this was mentioned in several things I read about entering Panama, so I went with it. He was right, I had to buy a tourist card for 5 bucks from the Panama Tourist Office, which is inconveniently placed after the migration office, rather than before. When I went back to migration, there was a huge line again. My "guide" assured me I wouldn't have to wait, and led me and the others to the front of the line, gave our passports to the clerks, and had them stamped. Our guide earned his tip with this move, since this meant I didn't have to present proof of onward voyage, which is normally required to enter the country. Afterwards, he took us down to a taxi (minivan) that would take us to Changuinola, where we could take a water taxi to Bocas del Toro.
Here we encountered a minor snag. The dock attendant at Changuinola told us the boat wasn't coming. So we had to take a taxi to Almirante, the next closest dock. Our taxi this time was a truck, making things a little more cramped for the 5 of us on this 45 minute trip. But we made it to the dock in time for the water taxi.
In Bocas, we were again greeted by another "guide" who offered to help us find accomidations. I didn't have a clue about finding a hotel in this town, and apparently neither did the others, so we all followed along. He showed us a hostel that was cheap and nice enough. The others went for it, but I wasn't up for sharing a dorm with several people. I wanted a little more comfort and security for the time I was forced to spend out of Costa Rica. He took me to a few other places, and I finally settled on Casa Amarillo, owned by his "American friend." It was $25/night for a big, super-clean room with air conditioning, a fridge, TV with HBO, and an in-room safe. The owner was a nice guy, too. He lived on the second floor of the house with his wife. This was his retirement project.
Bocas seemed like a cool town, but it was dead because of the low season. The constant rain put a damper on my sense of adventure, too, so I didn't explore the other islands. However, the beer was cheap and plentiful. There was a good selection of bars and restaurants. And the people seemed nice.
Returning to Costa Rica was fairly simple. There were no lines when I got to the border, so I passed through Panama's office with a quick stamp of my passport. The Costa Rican side asked for proof of onward voyage. Luckily, they accepted an itinerary I'd printed out from Delta, showing my flight scheduled to leave December 15th. Other than that, it was hassle-free.
This was my first border crossing, so I don't have a point of comparison. But I'd recommend this trip for others who need to take a little visa vacation. Even with the complications of going from bus to taxi to boat (and so on), I didn't have too many difficulties - and I speak very little Spanish.