You read that right… I’m typing this entire blog post while on a bus to Costa Rica.
We took a taxi from our home in Boquete, Panama to David (also in Panama). Then we got on a Tracopa bus around 9 am that’s taking us all the way to San José, Costa Rica. By the time it’s done, we’ll have been on this bus to Costa Rica for probably 8-9 hours.
You might think of this as a grueling day, but we’ve taken the bus to Costa Rica before and it wasn’t too bad. It’ll save us a ton of money when all is said and done.
Let me take you through this trip while we’re on the bus and I’ll let you know by the end whether it was worth it or not…
Wait, Jim – why are you leaving anyway?
We’ve been living in Boquete, Panama since August 2019 but it’s time to head back to the U.S.
I’m not going to go into “the why” since I recently wrote a post discussing exactly that in my post, The 2 Big Reasons We’re Moving Back From Panama… and What’s Next!
Regardless, our last day is here and it’s our time to go. Goodbye, Boquete – we’re going to miss you tremendously!!
If Panama’s on your radar as a possible place to retire to, check out Retire in Panama Tours. It’s a first-rate way to see different parts of the country, learn about the pros and the cons of living here, meet other ex-pats living here, and gain a lot of the right resources to make the transition easier (immigration attorneys, for example).
Oscar, Rod, and Megan are great people, too. They have the knowledge to guide you through Panama, answer your questions, and ensure that Panama’s the right place for you. Check out Retire in Panama Tours for more info!
But that doesn’t mean we need to head directly back to the U.S. right off the rip. We decided to make a stop for just shy of a couple of weeks first!
Where are you going?
The title might lead you to think it’s obvious since we’re taking a bus to Costa Rica. But Costa Rica is only an overnight stop for us… the real fun comes after this pit-stop!
Ajijic, Mexico (Lake Chapala)
Early tomorrow morning for us (or this past Saturday after this blog post is published), we’ll be heading to Juan Santamaría International Airport (SJO) in San José. From there, we fly to Guadalajara, Mexico (with a layover in Mexico City). About an hour’s drive later and we’ll arrive in Ajijic, Mexico.
Ajijic is a town in the Lake Chapala area, which is supposedly one of the biggest ex-pat spots in the world…
“Lake Chapala is Mexico’s largest lake, and the surrounding area is also home to the largest concentration of expats in the world. Located in west-central Mexico, about an hour south of Guadalajara, the Lake Chapala region sustains approximately 20,000 expats, most from the U.S. and Canada, and the vast majority are retired. That number roughly doubles during the cold Canadian winter months, when thousands more migrate to the area for about six months each year.”— International Living – Lake Chapala, Mexico
Different people I’ve talked to in Boquete that bring up the Lake Chapala area seem to have various opinions about it. Some love it and some, well, aren’t impressed.
However, the comparisons to Boquete intrigue me. And with this area being much closer and easier to get to from Ohio, taking a bus to Costa Rica and then flying to Mexico to check it out seems worth it.
I’m absolutely not saying that this will be our next spot to live one day, but it’s still fun to check out various new places in the world. And who knows, right?
Worst case, we hate it. Best case, we love it and put it on our list to come back to later on in life.
We’ll be staying at a small Airbnb for 8 nights in Ajijic and we’ll explore the area while there. Of course, I’ll report back with my thoughts on it – good and bad.
Then, that’s it, right? Head back to Ohio from there?
Not so much! If we’re going to put in the trouble of taking the bus to Costa Rica along with a couple of flights to Mexico, we might as well compound the fun!
Lisa sort of tricked me on this one.
She said, “Hey, if we take a cheap flight from Guadalajara to Cancún after our Ajijic visit, we can stay there for a few nights and then fly back to Ohio for free using our Southwest miles!”
She knows the sneaky things to say to a frugal guy like me to get me on the same page as her. 😉
So we dug into it and it sounded like a good plan. We found an all-inclusive deal through Costco for under $650 (including taxes) for all 3 of us for 3 nights at the Crown Paradise Club Cancun. Plus, we have a $50 resort credit, a $26 Costco gift card after the trip, and transportation to and from the airport.
Not bad, right?
Additionally, our flight from Guadalajara to Cancún totaled less than $250 for the 3 of us. And, like I said, then we’ll fly back to Ohio for free through Southwest after we’re done in Cancún.
As a side note, we continue to save thousands of dollars every year in travel through credit card rewards with no changes to our regular spending. This is something I highly recommend to anyone wanting to see the world for free or close to it. Just be sure to pay off your credit cards every month.
I talk more about how we’ve been able to do this in a few posts:
• Companion Flies Free With the Southwest Credit Card for a Year!
• Our Travel Perks Are Drying Up and That’s Big $$$!
• Free Nights – We’ve Had 5 at Hilton Hotels Recently
• Travel Rewards – 12 Free Flights Earned in 9 Months!
And you can find a list of my recommended credit cards anytime on my aptly-named Recommended Credit Cards page.
So at the end of this week, we’ll be enjoying some time in Cancún. While Ajijic is more like small-town living, Cancún will be more like a typical vacation. I have a feeling we’ll enjoy both places!
Ok, fine, but why take a bus to Costa Rica?
Right, right… why take a bus to Costa Rica when we’re just passing through?
Fair question and an easy one to answer… time versus money. We have the time and it’s saving us a heckuva lot of money this way.
In fact, when Lisa was digging into our trip she determined that we’d save over $1,000 by taking the bus to Costa Rica and flying to Mexico from there rather than just flying from Panama to Mexico.
Yeah, you heard that right – over $1,000!!!
Lisa is the one who suggested we take the bus to Costa Rica. Sounds like it would have been one of my crazy ideas, right?! We did this trip once before (except vice versa) and in that case, we saved even more money! I wrote more about that in Our Return Trip to Panama – How We Saved Thousands.
Since we don’t have a deadline to get back to the U.S., this makes a lot of sense for us. Not only is the adventure a little different but shouldn’t be that big of a deal.
Yes, it takes 8-9 hours to do, but we would have had a not-so-fun experience flying directly from Panama as well. First off, we would have had to fly an hour out of the way in the opposite direction to Panama City. That’s the hub here and almost everything goes through that airport.
Then we most likely would have had to stay the night there anyway just based on how flight schedules are. And, flying from Panama City to Guadalajara is a lot more time in the air than San José, Costa Rica to Guadalajara.
In this wonderful image I created, the red line represents the direction we’d take by flying and the blue line represents the path by bus and then flying. Mexico would be far past where the arrows point in the top left…
So, either way, it’s not wonderful unless you love the actual traveling when traveling. But to save over $1k, this works for me. And, of course, I’ve been writing this whole blog post while on the bus to Costa Rica so the time’s been well spent!
Oh, and in case you’re wondering, the tickets for this 8-9 hour bus ride to Costa Rica were only $18 each… a total of $54 for the three of us.
Truthfully, how is the bus to Costa Rica going?
You know me – I’m a straight shooter. I’ll tell you that this has not been as easy as when we took the bus from Costa Rica to Panama. If we had realized how much different it would have been, we probably would have just flown.
The biggest difference is that they don’t have the air conditioning turned on. We were spoiled doing this the last time and I’m not sure why they’re not running the A/C this time.
Opening the windows though is fine with me. The breeze is cool enough to feel comfortable.
The problem is that we’ve sat in the non-moving bus a couple of times already for twenty minutes or so each time… and it’s beyond hot. We all became a sweaty mess. But once we’re moving again, we’re fine.
Here are some plotline developments as this trip has progressed…
The bus was late
The first bit of fun is that the bus was supposed to leave at 8:30 am from David, Panama. Well, it didn’t even show up at the terminal until 8:30… we left at 9 am.
It is Panama though and promptness is not really appreciated here as much as we value it in the U.S. However, nobody even knew when (or if!) the bus was coming… and I’m referring to the guy there working at their terminal.
That got me concerned since it not showing up at all would have thrown a major wrench in our trip. But eventually, it all worked out, which I’m sure you could have figured out based on the post title.
The bus was almost empty
The bus to Costa Rica started off as essentially ours. The only others on it were a mother and daughter.
It was so nice for each of us to have rows all to ourselves. That lasted a solid couple of hours.
The border crossing was easy
Crossing the border wasn’t bad since the driver and another employee ensured that we were all heading to where we needed to go throughout the process. It can be very confusing here so that was extremely helpful.
Essentially, you get off the bus at the border and your suitcases are unloaded and given to you. You then take them through inspection, go back to the bus, and your suitcases are loaded back on.
Then you go through Panamanian immigration where you’ll get your passport stamped for exit (sorry, no pics of that one!).
Finally, you head over to the Costa Rican immigration where you’ll get your passport stamped for entry. I did need to show proof of where we were staying and also proof we would be leaving Costa Rica (our flight itinerary to Mexico).
The border stop was looooong…
But then the driver said that we had about 45 minutes before we would be leaving (which ended up being an hour). When we did this in the other direction previously, the stop we had for lunch was around that same amount of time. However, it wasn’t even 10:30 am (9:30 am Costa Rica time). So we took a quick bathroom break and then just sat and waited. That was interesting.
We changed buses for some reason
Then right before we went to leave the border area, they had us change buses. We went from the pretty green one to the pretty pink one and I don’t really know if there was a reason why. That was weird.
Our time on an empty bus came to an end
After a couple of hours on the bus, we started stopping at different bus terminals and our time of having the bus to ourselves was quickly over. We had to go to our assigned seats (you buy specific seats on the bus when you purchase your ticket).
All good things must come to an end, right?
Faith and Lisa were sitting together in the row in front of me and luckily I never ended up with anyone in the seat beside me. Other than that, the bus stayed pretty full for the whole trip.
The actual lunch
We ended up stopping for the “real” lunchtime at around 2:00 pm (or 1:00 pm Costa Rica time). Like our last time doing this, it was just a small little cafeteria in the middle of nowhere.
We had already eaten the PB&J sandwiches we had packed so we weren’t very hungry.
But we bought a bowl of fruit (watermelon and pineapple) and some fried yucca just for a little something. Total cost… 1,200 colones. What the heck does that come out to be? About $1.83. We’ll take it!
We went through Siberia
Now you might think I mean this facetiously, but nay-nay – this bus to Costa Rica literally drove through a place called Siberia. How do I know that?
Because suddenly, it started getting colder and colder on the bus as we went through the mountains. The sun disappeared and we were driving through the fog… for probably a couple of hours.
At one point, I thought, “Where the heck are we? This ain’t the Costa Rica I picture in my mind!”
So I pulled up Google Maps and started chuckling that we were in an area that was justly named Siberia.
Many folks on the bus closed their windows as it got colder but some didn’t… and that was one heckuva cold breeze! It’s crazy to realize how we went from sweating our butts off (and we really were sweating!) to being in hoodies in the cold.
After a couple of hours though, that subsided and it warmed up to a comfortable temperature again. What kind of weather roller coaster did we sign up for?!
The bus to Costa Rica wrap-up and the next adventure
Eventually, and thankfully, we made it to the San José bus terminal at 6:41 pm. That’s Panama time – it was 5:41 pm on Costa Rica time. But overall, the trip took an exasperating 9 hours and 41 minutes… holy crap!
This was not anything like the trip we took in 2019 and Lisa and I both said that if we knew this would’ve been the case, we probably would have flown instead.
We were beaten up, tired, and ready for dinner and bed. However, we still had a half-hour drive to the Holiday Inn Express near the airport. There were taxis outside of the bus terminal but we didn’t have any Costa Rica cash. So we opted for an Uber so we could just pay with a credit card.
However, there were no cars available for an UberXL – we wanted this because it was the 3 of us plus 3 giant suitcases and 3 backpacks (we’re moving back, after all!). So we chanced it with a regular UberX. And even with that UberX, we waited for probably 20 minutes for a car. This was not pretty but it was all we had.
So I laughed in my head when this guy pulled up in a tiny Hyundai i10 with what was barely a trunk in the back. I didn’t get a photo of the car but you can see what it looks like on the Hyundai site here. Oh, my – this is not going to go well.
When he saw what we were hoping to pack into his car, he started to tell us that it wasn’t going to work. But this was all we had so I worked with him (read this as “begged him”) and told him we’d do laps, stuff suitcases in the backseat or whatever to make it happen… and that I’d give him a big tip.
I think he felt bad for us, but we made it work. We fit one suitcase in the trunk and stuffed our backpacks in, too. We stacked the other 2 suitcases in the backseat and Faith sat on Lisa’s lap next to them while I was in the passenger seat. It was tight but it worked.
He was a great guy, too, and I was more than happy at that point to give him an extra $10 in USD on top of the maximum 2,500 Costa Rican Colónes ($3.80 USD) the Uber app allowed. He was thrilled with that tip, too. The Uber ride, including both tips, totaled a mere $26 USD and was worth every penny.
And that was it. We checked in to the hotel, grabbed some Denny’s next door for a quick to-go dinner, showered, and went to bed. In a few short hours (we’ll be getting up at about 2:30 am) we have to check out and head to the airport.
With the bus to Costa Rica out of the way, tomorrow we fly to Mexico! I love these little adventures in life that we get to do. Not everything is picture-perfect and we definitely wouldn’t do this one again, but we sure gain some new experiences and a lot of memories along the way!
Plan well, take action, and live your best life!
Thanks for reading!!