Liberia Airport in Costa Rica, Tocumen Airport in Panama, and Philip S.W. Goldson Airport in Belize all now offer rapid Covid tests for passengers. Here’s a note of caution as to why you should still try to get your Covid test before your travel day, rather than on your travel day.
Daniel Odober Airport in Liberia, Costa Rica is the latest airport in Central America to offer Covid tests for departing pasengers.
The test center, operated by Laboratorios Echandi, opened last week and now offers rapid antigen tests (with results in less than an hour) for $65 and PCR tests (with results in 24 hours) for $99.
The United States accepts the antigen tests as a requisite for entry, while Canada does not. You’ll need a PCR test to enter Canada, plus go through a bunch of other stuff once you get back there. Both Canada and the United States require testing within 72 hours of travel.
The testing center is also open for anyone else in the area, regardless of whether they’re traveling or not. You can book an appointment with Laboratorios Echandi on their website.
Travelers can also access the online booking system through a system of QR codes positioned around Liberia Airport and various Guanacaste hotels. Local Cafe Britt stores (Brittshops) will also have QR codes you can scan to book an appointment.
For outbound travelers flying on the same day as their test, Laboratorios Echandi recommends they get to the airport four hours ahead of their flight.
“At Laboratorios Echandi we’re committed to supporting Costa Rica’s tourism recovery, offering greater accessibility and simplicity to tourists for their Covid-19 tests,” said Lab Echandi general manager Federico Echandi.
Liberia is the only airport offering testing in Costa Rica, but San Jose Airport (SJO) should also also follow at some point.
Liberia Airport is the latest airport in the region to offer a Covid testing service, but in reality Costa Rica is rather late to the game. Surprising in a country that relies so much on tourism.
Costa Rica was also late in offering rapid antigen tests in the first place, and only scrambled to implement them once the United States mandated a Covid test as part of its entry requirements in January. Before January, Costa Rica only offered PCR tests, cumbersome, time-consuming, and expensive.
Laboratorios Echandi was the first company in Costa Rica to offer rapid testing for tourists, which got the price down and made travel more convenient.
Two other Central American countries were on the rapid testing tip/airport testing tip earlier than Costa Rica.
When Belize reopened to tourism on October 1, they offered Covid testing for $50 for anyone arriving without having taken a test in advance.
Since the US began mandating a Covid test for returning travelers, Belize now also offers antigen tests for departing travelers at the airport through Belize Medical Associates for $75. It takes an hour and you should add this time onto the usual checking-in process.
Belizean domestic airline Maya Island Air is also offering rapid testing at the Dangriga, Placencia, and San Pedro airstrips. These tests come from the Caring Hands Clinic and cost $75 each. They’re a great idea for those taking domestic flights back to Belize City before going home.
The other airport in Central America with Covid-testing facilities is Tocumen International in Pamama City, Panama.
Central America’s busiest airport offered testing for incoming travelers arriving without test results when it reopened on October 12. Since then, like Belize, it’s expanded its testing services to cover outgoing passengers.
Whether you’re arriving or departing, the cost of the airport test in Panama is $50. Departing travelers should note it’s the rapid antigen test and thus not applicable for travel to Canada.
On the face of things, airport testing is a great idea. It makes life a lot easier for travelers, whether they’re arriving or departing.
We’d like to offer a word of caution, though, to travelers arriving in Panama and Belize, and departing those countries and Costa Rica:
What if you get a positive result from your airport antigen test?
That’s the million-and-one dollar question, right?
Recently, there was an interesting post on one of the Panama expat groups in Facebook by Mike Kelly from Laboratorio VidaTec.
“Whether you’re coming to or leaving Panama, be careful about the Covid antigen test at the airport,” said Kelly.
“The antigen test is showing to have a risk of false-positive. If this happens at the airport, you will have to spend the next 14 days in government hotel quarantine. You will not have the option to re take the test even if it was a false positive.”
If you’re leaving Panama, Belize, or Costa Rica and get a postitive Covid test result, you ain’t leaving. In Panama, instead of getting on your plane, you’ll be whisked off to a government facility for two weeks. No getting out of jail, no $200 for passing go.
For their part, Belize and Costa Rica won’t take you away, but you’ll have to find suitable accommodations to quarantine in.
You might think it’s fine to get tested just before leaving the country, but remember many people (most people?) never know they have Covid in the first place. Do you really want that unpleasant suprise at the last minute?
We’re with Mike Kelly. We strongly recommend getting your Covid test 48-72 hours before travel and NOT waiting until you’re at the airport.
That way, if your test comes up positive (false positive or real positive), you can get your ducks in a row and make plans for your quarantine rather than have the government do that for you.
“You can easily avoid [being quarentined by the government] by not doing the test at the airport,” continues Kelly.
“Do it before you come to Panama or in a private lab in or clinic in Panama before you fly out. If you do it at a private lab before going to the airport and you test positive then DO ANOTHER TEST IMMEDIATELY! If it was a false positive then you can use the second negative result to travel. If you actually do have Covid, then you can go quarantine where you want to, not at a gov hotel. The point is that you will have the option to do a second test.”
Note here that Kelly also talks about incoming passengers to Panama. The last thing you want to do is rely on their $50 entry test and find your first two weeks quarantined up somewhere.
We get how appealing and convenient airport testing is. And we’re all about ease and convenience.
Getting your test done a couple of days in advance is the best recommendation for any sort of travel. Far better and less stressful than waiting until the last minute. If you’re on vacation, many hotels now offer testing services themselves in Costa Rica, Panama, and Belize. It will cost more, but you’ll get a certain peace of mind on your travel day.
The fact that three major airports in Central America now offer easy access to a Covid test is no doubt a positive development. Part of rising to the challenge this pandemic has thrown at us.
But try to use these airport tests as a last resort and not something to hang your hat on. We don’t want your Central America trip to begin or end in a bad way.
James Dyde is the editor of www.centralamerica.com. He lives in Escazu, Costa Rica.