|Looking to get away? Is the six months visa run coming up? Costa Rica is a choice destination. Taking the bus is an economical option, and with the right planning, it could become an easy solution. Costa Rica is full of friendly people, and wonderful places to explore. There are several choice areas to check out along the Pacific coast, located on the bus route departing from Panama. The cool mountain breeze offers travellers an escape from heat and humidity.
Making the Journey: Tips & Places to explore:
Getting there- Panama City to Uvita, Costa Rica
There are a number of routes to Costa Rica that can be chosen. The Tica bus, which runs an overnight trip to San Jose from Panama city, is among the most popular of these options. This bus leaves from the Allbrook Mall bus terminal at 11:00 p.m. Tickets can only be purchased in person, and not by phone or website. During the Panamanian holidays, seats are sold out quickly, so it’s best to buy a ticket ahead of time. Tickets are good for a year, and they are transferable. Once a ticket is bought, it’s possible to call ahead and reserve a seat on the bus.
The trip cost is a flat fee of $35.00. Take a sweater, because the air conditioning is on high. There are no pit-stops for breaks, but there is a washroom onboard. This bus makes a straight run to the border, and continues onward to San Jose. By request, the bus driver will stop anywhere along the bus route -- which makes its way along the southern end of the Pacific Coast. Uvita, a beautiful national park, and Domincal, a popular town for avid surfers, are both located on route.
Crossing the border
The bus stops at Frontara, a border town where the Panama customs office is located. A quick bag check is part of the procedure; travellers are taken to a room, where they may be asked to open their bags. After this, a line forms where each person is issued a stamp that grants them leave from Panama.
The next step is to walk across town (about 500 meters) to the Costa Rican customs office, where another stamp is issued which allows access into Costa Rica. The Tika bus waits on the Costa Rica side, and once the paperwork is completed, passengers are allowed onboard to continue the journey.
The exchange rate for USD to CRC is $1.00 USD for 508.600. However, US currency is accepted in most places with an exchange rate of 1.00 USD for 500.000 Colones.
Playa Uvita is a pristine two mile long sandy beach. Situated in the Marino Ballena National park, no hotels or developments mar the beach. Fishing and hunting is also not allowed. Accessible all year round, the admission charge is $6.00 USD. However, some alternative access points allow entrance without a fee.
This is a popular destination, especially during Semana Santa. Many tourists enjoy visiting this beach. One of the most breathtaking sites is the “whale tail” formation on the northern end of the beach. This is a mile long sandbar, which is accessible during low tide. The highlight of this visit is to watch ocean waves dramatically crash on both sides.
Another popular event is the Humpback whale migration. This occurs between the months of December and April. Whales migrate to warm waters off the coast, to mate, before turning north.
At night, the beach lights up as glowing plankton glimmers like fireflies in the sand and in the ocean: Nature’s light show displayed for surfers and swimmers alike.
Close to the beach, Toucan Hostel is one of the best reviewed hostels in the area. It is situated one-hundred meters from the main highway, (near the bus drop off point). A taxi ride to the beach costs $4.00 (2000 colones). This hostel also stands fifteen minutes away from a walk to a pretty waterfall.
A guest has the option to choose between dorm and private rooms, and as well, if guests want to rough it, hammocks and camping options are available, these choices range from $5.00 to $45.00 per night. A private room comes with air conditioning, and all guests enjoy fast Wi-Fi and free coffee.
The relaxed vibe makes everyone feel at home. Families are warmly received. For meals, guests can choose between an open air kitchen, a bar, or an Italian restaurant, which is open from 6-10 p.m. nightly.
There are several waterfalls to explore in the Uvita area. A 30 minute hike from the Toucan Hostel takes hikers to one where people can slide down the largest waterfall into a refreshing pool of water. A $1.00 charge grants anyone access to this fun place. There are also smaller falls and pools to explore in this area.
To hike there, turn right when leaving the hostel, and walk up towards the mountains, there is a restaurant bar at the end of the road. From there, it’s easy access to the waterfall.
Several buses leave Uvita. There is a 6:30 A.M. Bus to San Isedro, which is a small town and bus hub. (This bus passes through Dominical.) There is also a bus to San Jose leaving at 6:15 am. And if those buses are missed, there is an opportunity to catch an afternoon bus. Upon entrance to San Isedro, an individual can catch buses that drive to several different destinations.
San Isedro to San Grardo
The ride to San Gerardo and Chirripo National Park starts in San Isedro. A bus can be caught from the Mercado south of the cathedral plaza. This is a blue and white school bus, with the words San Gerarado written across in orange letters. This bus leaves at 9:30 a.m., 2:00 p.m., and 6:45 p.m. expect this journey to last an hour and a half, as the bus makes its way along a picturesque winding road up the mountain.
The entrance to the national park is located one mile up the mountain. The bus stops off near the tienda (store) and the soccer field in San Gerardo. There are no taxies, and all hotels/hostels (except for Roca Dura), are located up the mountain along this one mile hike to the park entrance.
Each hiker needs to be granted a climbing permit to hike up the mountain. Only ten permits are issued per day. Passes can be reserved ahead of time, or one can be purchased on the spot. Daylight hours on the mountain are between 5:00 am and 5:30 pm, and the temperature varies between -4 to 16 degrees Celsius. Accommodations along the way are minimal, so a well prepared climb is recommended. Pack light but also pack well.
Mt. Chirrip is the highest point in Costa Rica at 12,536 feet above sea level. From the entrance, (a four mile hike from the main road) it’s an 11 mile hike up the well maintained paths. Two bunk houses are located on the path. One is located at the half-way point, the other one kilometer from the top of the peak. Expect a steep incline, on the way up to the top. Early risers can get up the mountain in one day, but most people will climb this mountain in two to three days.
Located 5,000 feet up the mountain, this hostel is a basic place to rest and enjoy the relaxed vibe of the area. Expect shared bathrooms and no air conditioning, which isn’t really necessary since the mountain air is crisp and cool. A cozy wood stove warms the place up at night and guests have access to a shared kitchen. Internet access is available but it’s basic, no Wi-Fi. Meal wise, it’s a good idea to come prepared, because options are limited, and the closest store is 1.5 kilometres back down the mountain. However, Jill and John, (friendly owners of Casa Mariposa) offer up local eggs, organic fruits and vegetables for sale.
The Hostel boasts both private as well as dorm rooms. Also there are jungle rooms which offer open air sleeping and are separate from the main dwelling. These options range from $15.00 to $45.00 per night. Behind the hostel there are paths along the river with swimming holes that can be enjoyed along the way. Also, there is a 15 minute walk to the Cloudbridge where the larger waterfalls are located.
Cloudbridge is a 600 acre private national reserve and research facility in the Chrripo area. A quick fifteen minute walk takes visitors to the park entrance. Better still, there is no entry fee. The trails in Cloudbridge are well maintained and easy to navigate. Several amazing waterfalls are located throughout the walking paths in the reserve area. Catarata Pacific is the largest of these falls. Invigorating pools provide great swimming areas, the water is cold though, so be prepared for a wakeup call.
Even more to do in San Gerardo
On the way to town, visitors pass by the Auga Termales—warm springs that pour into man-made pools. They are free to hotel guests, but available to other visitors at a small charge.
Los Cocoliso is a trout farm located 1 kilometer down the main road. Trout fishing is available, and when a fish is caught, one of the hands cooks it onsite.
El Jardines Secretos are gardens that specialize in orchid and cactus plants. Daily tours are available.
Enthusiasts, of local art, can visit Carmen, who has a studio in the valley of Chirripo: Arte Mia.
Yoga is offered on the mountain. A 90 minute class cost $5.00. These classes are offered on Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays.
Getting back to Panama
Buses leave from San Grardo at 5:15 a.m., 11:30 a.m., and 4:00 p.m. from the soccer field. This bus should take an hour and a half to get down the mountain. From San Isedro there are several buses that go to Ciudad Neily. From there, take a bus or a $10.00 taxi ride which takes passengers back to the Costa Rica and Panama border.
Crossing the border back into Panama
To get back into Panama, one must first get their passport stamped at Costa Rica. This is at the original building that processed incoming passports from Panama to Costa Rica. Once again, there is a small walk through the town to get to the office that will stamp passports and allow access back into Panama. In order to enter, travellers must show that they have a ticket that will take them out of the country upon entering. This can be any ticket: bus, plane, etc. While it’s not requested on site problems can occur if a traveller doesn’t have this on them. This dilemma can be easily solved however, by purchasing a bus ticket that is good for a year and only $35.00, which covers the return to the Costa Rica boarder.
Once on the other side, there are many buses that go into the town of David, or hop on the Tiki bus drives straight back to Panama city. Cost for a ticket is $16.00, payment is made right at the border.