There are three border crossings between Panama and Costa Rica: at Paso Canoa  on the Pacific side of the isthmus, at Río Sereno  in the highlands, and at Sixaola-Guabito  on the Caribbean coast.
Paso Canoa, which is on the Interamericana, is by far the most traveled. The Sixaola-Guabito crossing is used mainly by those traveling to and from Bocas del Toro . The Río Sereno crossing is rarely used, and foreign travelers are not always allowed across.
The Interamericana comes to an end at the town of Yaviza  in eastern Panama, where the famous Darién Gap begins. There are no roads linking Panama with Colombia and the rest of South America.
There is a border crossing at Puerto Obaldía, at the very eastern tip of the Caribbean coast, but the civil war in Colombia sometimes makes crossing here too dangerous to attempt even when it’s actually open. Flying is the safest way to travel between Colombia and Panama.
Panama  is trying, not always successfully, to strike a balance between retaining control over its borders and encouraging tourists and potential investors to visit. This includes cracking down on foreign nationals who are living in Panama without changing their tourist status; they merely pop across the border for 72 hours, then come back.
On arrival at any border crossing, be prepared to present immigration officials with an onward ticket out of Panama and evidence of having US$500. Except at Paso Canoa these aren’t often asked for, but officials have the right to refuse entry to anyone without them. Arriving at the border looking clean and neatly dressed in long pants and good shoes (e.g., no sneakers, flip-flops, sandals, etc.) increases one’s chances of being waved through without incident.
Try to arrive at border crossings during regular business hours to avoid a lengthy wait at the border for immigrations and customs officials to show up. Borders are open every day.
The border crossing at the decaying town of Paso Canoa  (sometimes also know as Paso Canoas) is on the Interamericana and is the route taken by the great majority of visitors coming from or going to Costa Rica  by land. It’s about an hour by bus or car west of David , the provincial capital of Chiriquí province. It tends to be the strictest border crossing.
Going through formalities on both sides can be surprisingly quick or painfully slow, especially when a bus arrives. Count on an hour or two for the whole process and hope for the best. Panama time is always one hour ahead of Costa Rican time.
Caution: I’ve had credible reports that Panama-bound tourists without proof of onward travel are being solicited for US$10 bribes.
Panama immigration, customs, and an ATP government tourism office are housed in a new cement monolith at the border. The ATP office (tel. 727-6524, 7 a.m.–11 p.m. daily) has very little to offer tourists. Don’t expect much tourist information.
Those arriving by bus tend to encounter the most inconvenience. Passengers are generally expected to hand-carry their luggage across the border for inspection on either side. Also, processing a busload of visitors takes time, especially if the bus arrives early in the morning.
It’s impossible to get lost crossing over, but the offices aren’t well marked. Streetwise little boys may offer to help navigate for a small tip. This may be worthwhile if the procedures are baffling or if you just want to stop the other kids from bugging you. About US$0.25–0.50 should make your assistant happy.
Men wearing money pouches hang around the immigration office offering to buy or sell Costa Rican colones. If changing money on the streets of a grungy border town doesn’t sound like a smart thing to do, exchange money before arriving at the border. There are ATMs between the two borders that dispense both colones and dollars.
There are plenty of buses and taxis about 50 meters past immigration/customs.
This border crossing is used primarily by those traveling between Costa Rica  and Bocas del Toro . Sixaola  is the border town on the Costa Rican side; Guabito  is on the Panamanian side. The border itself runs down the middle of the Río Sixaola.
Travelers must cross over a short, rickety railroad bridge, either by foot or in a vehicle. Pedestrians should look out for traffic, missing handrails, and gaps in the planking.
Travelers usually find border formalities here quick and laid-back. The Panamanian border post is on an elevated railway trestle on the edge of the Río Sixaola. The immigration office (tel. 759-7019, 8 a.m.–noon and 12:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. daily) is right on the train tracks next to the bridge that crosses the river. Travelers can enter and leave Panama only when the office is open. Remember that Panama time is always one hour ahead of Costa Rican time.
There are no hotels, no appealing places to eat, and almost no services in Guabito. The nearest place with significant services is Changuinola , about a 20-minute drive away.
Those entering Panama without onward transportation should walk down from the railroad tracks to get a bus or taxi after clearing customs and immigration. Taxi drivers and unofficial “tour guides” sometimes try to over-charge new arrivals or take them to hotels that pay them a commission, so be cautious.
The little-used border crossing at Río Sereno  is a possible alternative to Paso Canoa for those coming from or going to the western highlands of Panama . However, it’s rarely used and is not always open to foreigners. There’s nothing much of interest for tourists there, and you’re likely to be the only foreigner in town.
It’s a far prettier spot than Paso Canoa, but it’s not really set up to deal well with foreign visitors, it’s out of the way for any destination but the area around Volcán, and the road leading east into Panama is dangerous. It’s a better idea all around to cross over at Paso Canoa.
The Panamanian immigration/customs office (tel. 722-8054, 7 a.m.–7 p.m. daily) in Río Sereno is on a hill above the town plaza. It’s near the radio tower and shares a building with the police station.
The nearest major junction for onward travel in Panama is at Volcán, 42 kilometers east of the border. The drive, on a beautiful but dangerous road, takes nearly two hours. The pickup-taxi ride costs about US$20, and you’ll be sharing the ride. Buses from Río Sereno run 5 a.m.–5 p.m. every 45 minutes to Volcán  and David .
There is one basic but okay place to stay for those unlucky enough to get stranded at the border: Posada Los Andes (next to the plaza, no phone, US$20 s/d).
The only marginally safe way to cross the Colombia-Panama border by land is to go through the grim border town of Puerto Obaldía, on the Caribbean coast. Because of the civil war in Colombia, even this border crossing is not always open or safe.
Even at the best of times, this route is only for the adventurous. I do not recommend it. Traveling by boat and bus through western Colombia can be dangerous, and the trip can take days. It’s the cheapest way to go, but the modest savings aren’t worth the effort and risk.
Aeroperlas is the only airline flying between Panama City  and Puerto Obaldía, and only Wednesday–Sunday. Flights fill up, so make reservations as far in advance as possible. The flight costs US$85 one-way and takes at least an hour, depending on stops.
From there, travelers must hire a launch to Capurganá, a beach resort on the Colombian side. The fare is US$10 per person, but there’s a minimum; single travelers may have to pay as much as US$30 if no one else is going.
The trip takes about an hour and is a bumpy ride, especially in the dry season. Expect to get wet. The boat does have life jackets, though.
A boat between Capurganá and Turbo takes about two hours and costs about US$20. Again, this tends to be a wet, wild ride. Turbo has bus connections with other parts of Colombia, notably Cartagena and Medellín. Warning: Turbo has historically been a hotbed of paramilitary activity. Be careful, and travel only in the daytime.
Travelers must seek out the immigration officials in Puerto Obaldía and Capurganá to get their exit/entry clearance. Expect also to be interviewed and possibly searched by border police. Exchange currency ahead of time, as it can be tough to do so near the border. Those entering Panama via this route must have proof of a yellow fever vaccination and an onward ticket out of Panama. Proof of a yellow fever vaccination is no longer officially required but is probably still a good idea, just in case the officials out here in the boonies haven’t yet gotten the memo.
Those flying from Puerto Obaldía to Panama City will probably have to go through a second grilling upon arrival at Albrook to make sure they’re not drug traffickers, Colombian fighters, or illegal aliens.
Getting through all this in a single day requires plane reservations, documents in perfect order, and luck, particularly with connections. It’s not unusual to get stuck on either side of the border for at least a night. Capurganá is a popular beach resort and has a wide range of accommodations. Puerto Obaldía, however, is a backwater, though rock-bottom rooms are available for about US$5.