Crossing the border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua can be a confusing and cumbersome process. Here are some things you can do to prepare for crossing at Peñas Blancas, a crowded town in the northwest corner of Costa Rica.
1. Expect a long line. Don headphones, listen to classical music and bring plenty of reading material, or resort to taking long, slow breaths to help you through the frustrating wait. If on a bus, you might get lucky and catch a good flick to pass the time, though sitting through something like “Big Momma’s House 3” in Spanish might make you think karma is paying you back for a previous misdeed.
The Peñas Blancas border crossing is located on the Inter-American Highway, so all cargo making its way north into Nicaragua or south into Costa Rica is screened and checked. Large 18-wheel semitrailers line the street as they await inspection, making for log-jammed roads and a saturated crossing process.
Occasionally bus drivers try to circumnavigate the trucks only to reverse back into line when a vehicle heading the other direction impedes the path. The sensation of going in reverse when trying to move forward usually causes some unrest among passengers.
“You never really know what the situation will be like,” said Manuel Monge, a bus driver for the international bus line Tica Bus. “My fastest time crossing into Nicaragua was 24 minutes. My worst time was about seven hours.”
This week, the Immigration Office announced that Peñas Blancas will undergo a ₡450 million ($900,000) facelift during the next few months. The goal of the remodeling is to reduce time spent at the border, improve efficiency of baggage checks and increase the number of traffic lanes from two to four.
2. Expect an entrance fee. For foreigners, entrance into Nicaragua on a bus is $13, which includes a $10 tourism fee, a $2 immigration fee and a $1 charge by the municipality of Rivas in southern Nicaragua. Passengers from Central America pay $1 to cross the border.
Entrance into Costa Rica from Nicaragua is $3 for foreigners. Ticos pay $1.
The vehicle fee for drivers crossing into Nicaragua is $17. The Nicaraguan Tourism Institute (INTUR) requires that foreign drivers buy a $5 insurance policy, valid throughout the country. Foreign drivers must also briefly register with INTUR and have their passport and license plates verified. The remaining $12 pays tourism and immigration fees. Nicaraguan residents pay $2 for vehicles.
Foreign drivers entering Costa Rica from Nicaragua must pay $15 for an insurance policy from the National Insurance Institute (INS). No other fees are applied.
3. Bring your (updated) passport. The most important item at the border is your passport. Make sure it is updated. Ulysses Ruiz of INTUR, who works at the Peñas Blancas station, said that one of the biggest causes of frustration for people trying to cross the border into Nicaragua in a car is when they are denied access for having an expired or almost expired passport.
“If someone’s passport is going to expire within six months, they are not allowed to enter the country in a vehicle,” Ruiz said. “It’s important that everyone knows this and, if their passport is going to expire, that they have spoken with their embassy about having it renewed before trying to cross the border.”
According to Ruiz, people with passports nearing expiration are permitted to cross the border in an automobile if they show authenticated documentation from their embassy that verifies they have applied to renew their passport.
No such regulation exists for entrance into Costa Rica.
4. Expect confusion, noise and heat. Most people crossing the border for the first time have no idea what to expect nor what to do. The process, albeit clunky at times, is simple.
If crossing into Nicaragua, get out of your bus or car and wait in the usually sweltering sun while customs officials scan your passports. The wait is usually 20 to 25 minutes, while vendors hawk goods like quesillo, a traditional Nicaraguan dish, cheap sandals, and other items. Money changers are available to buy or sell currency; look for the group of people standing around with wads of cash.
When exchanging Costa Rican colones and Nicaraguan córdobas, make sure to know the exchange rate the day of your trip. Money changers at the border sometimes swap at exaggerated rates.
If traveling on a bus, after your passports are returned, get on the bus, weave through border checkpoints and then exit the bus again to have your passports stamped upon entrance into Nicaragua. At that time your bags will be taken off the bus, screened and returned to the holding area beneath the bus.
After these rituals have been completed, you can return to the bus and head into Nicaragua. The same process is used to enter Costa Rica.
Though the international bus lines Tica Bus, TransNica and King Quality are the most common companies used to cross the border, there are other options to arrive at your destination in Nicaragua.
For example, to avoid the higher prices of the international buses, which cost about $60 round-trip, some choose to take a national bus line to Peñas Blancas, which costs $9.
Walk through the customs and immigration process, and either catch a bus on the Nicaraguan side or pay for a taxi to the destination.
A taxi from Peñas Blancas to San Juan del Sur, the popular beach town in southwest Nicaragua usually costs $15-25, depending on the driver. Many say they prefer to take a taxi from the border to reduce travel time and ride more comfortably. Taxis in Nicaragua, which are considerably cheaper than in Costa Rica, also offer rides to Managua, Granada and Rivas.