Getting from Costa Rica to Santa Catalina in Panama is not an easy task but this step by step guide will provide you with all the information you need.
My starting point was Jacó but the steps are almost the same from anywhere on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica.
Take the Tica Bus which runs from San José to Panama City and get off in Santiago. There are different places where you can get on and off. Jacó for example is the closest place if you are coming from Tamarindo. The bus leaves San José at noon and reaches Jacó about two hours later. Make sure to buy your ticket in advance.
Crossing the border between Costa Rica and Panama can be quite an adventure. First you have to buy a ticket to leave Costa Rica from someone in a minivan (7$) and get your stamp to leave the country. Next you need to walk across the border and get your stamp to enter Panama (1$). Make sure you have a ticket to show that you are leaving Panama again. This can be a flight ticket, flight reservation (which you might never confirm) or a bus ticket. If they check and you don’t have one, they will make you buy one! In addition, you need to have 500 USD in cash with you or be able to show the balance of your account from the same day. Most people don’t know about this but they asked my sister to show them the money and she was lucky enough to have it with her.
You have to get off the bus in Santiago. Let the driver know in advance and it shouldn’t be a problem. In our case, we reached Santiago at around midnight. And here is the problem: In 2015 there was one hostel in Santiago and we spent the night there. When I went back in 2016 this hostel wasn’t open anymore. There are several hotels in Santiago but they are expensive. This would have been the only choice when I last did the research. If this is not an option for you, then you will need to spend the night somewhere close to the border and do the rest of the trip the next day. David in Panama might be a possibility.
From Santiago you will have to take two more buses. The first one runs from Santiago to Soná and takes about an hour. This bus leaves the main terminal in Santiago every hour. Once in Soná, you can take the final bus to Santa Catalina (1.5h). This bus runs at 5.30 am, 8.40 am, 11.20 am, 1.35 pm, 2.40 pm, and 4.45 pm. The timetable might have changed. To be safe, try to get to Soná before 3 pm. Depending on where your hostel is located, you can ask the bus driver to go passed the town and drop you off. This is a good option if you are staying for example at Surfers Paradise.
I hope this 4-step guide for how to get from Costa Rica to Santa Catalina, Panama was helpful. Have a good trip!