Don’t forget your passport, and whatever you do, don’t bring colones. If you can remember those two things, you’ll probably do just fine at the Costa Rica-Nicaragua border crossing at Peñas Blancas, in northern Guanacaste.
A sense of humor helps, too – especially when dealing with the hordes of money changers sporting scruffy facial hair, fervent looks and wads of Nicaraguan córdobas and dollars at every possible juncture.
But the truth is, crossing the border doesn’t have to be a nightmare.
“It’s not as bad as everyone makes it out to be,” said Jeffrey Van Fleet, Tico Times contributor and Fodor’s guidebook writer for Costa Rica and Nicaragua.
Van Fleet, a veteran of dozens of border crossings, adds that a good command of Spanish is a plus, especially on the Nicaraguan side of the border, where you’re unlikely to find much help in translation.
For those who haven’t attempted a border crossing in the past couple of years, there are some changes, according to Heidi Bonilla of the Costa Rican Immigration Authority.
The lines, Bonilla said, should be shorter and move faster, thanks in part to an increase in the number of officials at Peñas Blancas over the past two years.
“We try to make it so passengers traveling by bus don’t even have to unload. An agent collects their passports, does it all together, then brings them back,” she said.
This, she said, reduces congestion and the agony of waiting for what seems like hours in line.
She also noted that tractor-trailer trucks, which once formed epic traffic jams that could stretch for miles on bad days on the Costa Rican side of the border, have been better controlled since the implementation of a new system called Customs Information Control Technology (TICA) last December.
While this new addition doesn’t directly affect tourist and resident crossings in buses or private vehicles, it has helped reduce overall congestion, Bonilla said.
She did recommend against border crossings at congested periods, particularly around Easter week and the Christmas holiday, when a large number of Nicaraguans living in Costa Rica return home, swamping the modest Peñas Blancas facility.
For North Americans, all that’s required for entry into Nicaragua is a valid U.S. passport. Costa Ricans, however, need a visa to enter Nicaragua, which can be obtained at the Nicaraguan Embassy in San José (222-2373).
Getting back into the country – at least for foreign citizens, Bonilla explained, is almost as easy, except for one critical point: Costa Rica has an “onward ticket” requirement, meaning it asks all nonresident foreigners to show proof of paid transportation out of the country, whether by air or bus.
Bonilla advised all travelers to Nicaragua to either purchase such a ticket ahead of time and bring proof with them, or do so at the border in the form of a bus ticket, if necessary.
Bringing Your Car
Bernardo Ovares, advisor with the Customs Administration, explained that things get somewhat more complicated when you leave the country in your own vehicle.
“A vehicle with a Costa Rican license plate must be in the possession of an individual, not a corporation,” he said.
He also stated that any vehicle leaving the country is required to have an exit permit from the National Vehicle Registry in San José (224-8111, www.registronacional.go.cr) or any of its regional offices, including Liberia (666-8096).
According to Wilson Mata, of the registry’s Department of Information, Costa Rican citizens or permanent residents should bring their cédula, circulation card and all vehicle information, and expect to pay ¢317 ($0.60) for the permit. A vehicle, he said, should also be clear of any infractions or pending accident claims. Mata added that the process takes two days, so applicants should plan accordingly, well before their trip to Nicaragua.
A company vehicle requires the exit permit and further documentation, including an official statement from the business authorizing the crossing.
Vehicles sporting foreign plates – provided they have not been inside the country for more than 90 days – follow the same procedures as a tourist. Bring your passport, and your car is assumed to be your onward ticket.
Cars that have been in the country more than 90 days must be registered with the National Vehicle Registry, and thus would follow the same requirements as a Costa Rican vehicle.
It’s a matter of tending to the details, Van Fleet says. This includes remembering or convert your córdobas or colones to dollars before you cross, because, as he points out, neither country accepts the other’s currency, but the “almighty” dollar works everywhere.
Banks can be found on both sides of the border, and a handy automatic teller machine on the Nicaraguan side allows you to withdraw córdobas or dollars – though it’s finicky, like all such machines, so don’t count on it.
It’s advisable to have small denominations of dollars or córdobas with you upon arrival, for border crossing fees on both sides. And if all this sounds too complicated, Van Fleet adds, you can always fly.