Having made the decision to head to Nicaragua I studiously read about the border crossing process before bed that night. It did not fill me with hope.
All posts seemed to suggest that it was an incredibly stressful and arduous process, filled with people trying to trick you, and rob you and generally a terrible experience. For us, whilst it was definitely haphazard, it wasn’t half as bad as described online. So I thought I’d write this post as a little encouragement for anyone hoping to make the land border crossing at Penas Blancas from Costa Rica to Nicaragua.
We left Monteverde on the 6am bus. We’d been told by our hostel that we’d need to get off the bus at the Pan American highway, get on the next local bus to a town called Liberia in the north, then switch to another local bus to the border (Penas Blancas). We’d then need to disembark, cross the border by foot, and then find a taxi on the other side going to San Juan Del Sur (our first destination in Nicaragua).
The night before we left we both slept dreadfully. Other than great weather when we zipwired, it rained continuously whilst we were in Monteverde. We had a thin tin roof so whether it was the howling wind and rain, or a prospect of a 5am wake up for the bus, neither of us got to sleep until about 2am. We the slogged up the hill to the bus station in the pouring rain and were shocked at the number of people (mainly tourists) waiting for the bus, we bought a ticket in the ticket office and it was numbered seating…we were just in time to get a couple of the last seats at the back of the bus. There were some people standing the whole way!
The perk of the bus being full of tourists was that it didn’t stop every 5 minutes to let someone on/off as it had done on the nightmare journey up to Monteverde. This meant that we made it to the Pan American highway by 7.30am (so only 1.5hrs to go 40km!) 😉
We were incredibly lucky, because as we got off the bus there was a Central Line company bus stopped on the highway, about to pull off, with a sign in the front ‘San Jose – Managua’. Dermot and I ran over and accosted the ‘bus assistant’ and established that this would take us the whole way across the border and drop us off at La Virgen where we could get a taxi to San Juan Del Sur, ideal!! Once we got on the bus we realised just how well we’d done as there were a couple of Germans who we’d met in Manuel Antonio who had got the 4am bus from Monteverde to connect to the international bus, whereas we’d woken up an hour and a half later and connected with the bus by luck!
The bus whizzed along the highway and made it to the border at Penas Blancas by 10am. We’d been given various forms on the bus: one to exit Costa Rica, one to enter Nicaragua, one for the bus driver with medical details (Ebola checks) and one for Nicaraguan customs (my pen is probably the most useful thing I brought travelling…)
One of the most frustrating things I’ve encountered is the lack of ‘fairness’ in pricing. I.e I’m happy to pay $20 for a taxi if it’s on a meter and that is what it should cost. I’m not happy to pay $3 for a 30 minute journey in a city one day and then $5 for a 10 minute journey the same place the next! So when the bus assistant finally approached us for payment, we asked “how much?”, he paused, and then wandered off down the bus. He returned and pointed at two Swedish girls…”they paid $35 each, so, $30 each for you??”
I would love to think he found Dermot and I more attractive than the 2 Swedish ladies and hence the discount. But really, why was it a question?!? I will pay whatever it costs but you are the bus conductor why are you asking me? We were very tempted to just say “no, $2 each” 😂 but I think he had some logic behind the pricing structure….the girls had pre-booked their tickets through a hostel in Monteverde and so would have been charged some sort of commission.
Everyone got off at the border and went into the Costa Rican exit office to have passports stamped, but the bus assistant then appeared and told us we had to go and pay the Costa Rican exit tax before we could leave. So we trudged outside, wandered in the general direction of the hut that we’d been pointed towards, only to find that there are multiple ‘exit tax’ establishments. We went into the one closest to the border fence that looked most official, and that no one was trying to usher us into (always a good sign) we had to handover our passports and pay $8 – although the receipt we were given said $7.
No-one then asked to see the exit tax receipt, so we got our passports stamped back at the Costa Rican exit office, hopped back on the bus, and drove the 1km or so across the border. If you are doing it by local buses and therefore crossing by foot there are plenty of people with cycle rickshaws who can help you take your stuff across.
There are also tonnes of people outside the fences offering currency exchange. But we figured since we could pay for the taxi from the border to San Juan in dollars, and could then get cash there we didn’t need to risk the extortionate exchange rates!
Once we got to the Nicaraguan entry point we had to give our passports to the bus driver along with our entry tax ($14pp) and off he trotted.
It was slightly disconcerting to say the least, stuck in between 2 borders without our passports. However I think good practice is to follow the lead of the locals, and they all seemed to be happily handing them over.
Whilst the driver was getting our passports stamped in bulk we were ushered off the bus again, the hold was opened and it was gestured that we should take our bags across to ‘security’. We were still clutching one form: the Nicaraguan customs form, so we wandered over to the most chaotic point of the crossing, a series of long tables with bags dumped on, around and underneath. We had no idea what we were supposed to do here, but just stood, waving our forms until finally someone in a semi-official looking polo shirt wandered over, asked a couple of people to open their bags (Dermot apparently looked suspicious, I was okay!) before taking some, not all of the forms, and then we seemed to be allowed back to the bus. There was absolutely no systematic process to it at all, but I was just keen to get moving.
I wondered how they could stamp our passports for entry without having seen us, but this was answered by the border guard who came to the bus and handed us our passports as we boarded, checking we matched the photos, and like that, we were in Nicaragua! It was about 20 minutes to get to La Virgen, and we then managed to find a taxi to taxi us to San Juan Del Sur.
The total journey from Monteverde to San Juan took just over 6 hours, not bad at all, and though we were slightly bewildered at times I would definitely recommend taking an international bus over a series of local buses as then all (well, most..) of the border admin is sorted for you!
So there we were, midday in San Juan Del Sur and ready for some surfing…