Crossing Into Nicaragua
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You cannot cross into Nicaragua with a rental car. You can only do so with your own vehicle. If it has Costa Rican plates, you’ll need a special permit from the Registro Nacional (tel. 506/2202-0800). It’s good for 15 days and must be obtained in person from the main office in Curridabat, San José (there’s also a Registro Nacional in Liberia).
Visa requirements are always in flux, so check in advance with the Nicaraguan or Panamanian embassy.
Citizens of Canada, the United States, and most European and Central and South American nations do not need visas to enter Nicaragua. A tourist visa is issued at the border ($10 Mon.–Fri., $11 Sat.–Sun., good for three months).
You can cross into Nicaragua for 72 hours and renew your 30- or 90-day Costa Rican visa if you want to return to Costa Rica and stay longer. A 72-hour transit visa for Nicaragua costs $1.
Peñas Blancas: Most people arriving from Nicaragua do so at Peñas Blancas, in northwest Costa Rica. This is a border post, not a town. The Costa Rican and Nicaraguan posts are contiguous. The border (Costa Rican Immigration, tel. 506/2677-0064) is open 6 a.m.–8 p.m. daily. There are no signs telling you how to negotiate the complicated procedures; hence touts will rush up to you offering assistance when you arrive at Peñas Blancas. First you must get an exit form, which you complete and return with your passport. Then walk 600 meters to the border, where your passport will be validated (it must have at least six months remaining before it expires).
Southbound, you may be required to pay an exit fee ($2) leaving Nicaragua, plus $1 stamp (the Costa Rica tourist card is free). If you’re asked for proof of onward ticket when entering Costa Rica, you can buy a bus ticket—valid for 12 months—back to Nicaragua at the bus station at Peñas Blancas. If driving south, your car will be fumigated upon entering Costa Rica ($4).
Northbound, on the Nicaraguan side, go to the immigration building, where you’ll pay $10 for a 30-day tourist visa, plus $1 municipal stamp (plus $25 for your car, if driving). Then complete a customs declaration sheet, present it with your passport, and proceed to the customs inspection (next building along). Then take your papers to the gate for final inspection.
The wait in line can be several hours. Count on at least an hour for the formalities, and be sure to have all required documents in order or you may as well get back on the bus to San José.
Cross-border buses ($1) depart from here every hour for Rivas, a small town about 40 kilometers north of the border. Colectivo (shared) taxis also run regularly between the border and Rivas, the nearest Nicaraguan town with accommodations. Buses fill fast — get there early.
The bus terminal contains the Oficina de Migración (immigration office, tel. 506/2679-9025), a bank, restaurant, and Costa Rican Tourism Institute (ICT, tel. 506/2677-0138). Change money before crossing into Nicaragua (you get a better exchange rate on the Costa Rican side).
Transportes Deldú buses (tel. 506/2256-9072) depart San José for La Cruz and Peñas Blancas from Calle 20, Avenidas 1/3, hourly 3 A.M.–7 P.M. daily (six hours, $8). Local buses depart Liberia for Peñas Blancas via La Cruz every 45 minutes, 5:30 A.M.–6:30 P.M. daily.
Los Chiles: : In 2010, plans were confirmed for a border crossing to be established at Tablillas, seven kilometers north of Los Chiles, where there’s an immigration office (by the wharf, tel. 506/2471-1233, 8 A.M.–6 P.M. daily). Until it opens, foreigners can cross into Nicaragua by a colectivo (shared water-taxi) that departs Los Chiles for San Carlos de Nicaragua at 11 A.M. (it departs when full, which often isn’t until 1:30 P.M.) and 2:30 P.M. daily ($10 pp).
Northbound, Ticabus (Avenida 3, Calles 26/28, tel. 506/2248-9636 reservations, tel. 506/2223-8680 terminal, www.ticabus.com) has express service from San José to Nicaragua ($32) and El Salvador ($58) at 3 A.M.; and “regular” service for Nicaragua ($21), El Salvador ($53), and Guatemala ($74) at 6 A.M., 7:30 A.M., and 12 P.M. Transnica (Calle 22, Avenidas 3/5, tel. 506/2223-4242, www.transnica.com) has express service from San José to Nicaragua ($34) daily at noon, plus regular service ($23) at 4 A.M., 5 A.M., and 9 A.M.
Southbound, Ticabus (tel. 505/222-6094) buses depart Managua daily at 6 A.M., 7 A.M., and noon (regular); and Transnica Bus departs Managua daily at 5 A.M., 7 A.M., and 10 A.M. (regular), plus noon (express).
© Christopher P. Baker from Moon Costa Rica, 8th Edition