When we first made arrangements for a home exchange vacation in Nicaragua, we developed a vague idea of jumping in the car, cruising for a few short hours up the Pacific coast, crossing into Nicaragua and lolling poolside shortly thereafter. Ha! Such naiveté, after quite a bit of time accrued in Central America, is nothing but shameful.
We were saved from any simpleminded actions by friends, who shared their border crossing experiences with us. Alerted by their tales, I hit the internet and unearthed website pages and blog posts right & left, all dedicated to explaining the inexplicable: how to drive your personal, unencumbered and duly registered family jalopy from Costa Rica into Nicaragua, and back again. The last part seemed kind of critical.
Two major points emerged after researching the issue online. Firstly, the preparations for driving into Nicaragua in your own car are a pain in the neck, especially, if your car is registered through a corporation, as is most common here in Costa Rica. You have to ask your lawyer to request two copies of your personería jurídica from the registrar in San José, confirming that you are, who you say you are and that you indeed own your car. Then you have to go to a government transportation office one town over, hand in one of the jurídicas and buy a form confirming that you’re fully paid up for the mandatory, yearly car registration and insurance and that there are no outstanding tickets lodged against you. Of course, every document has to be stamped and copied a couple of times. There may be additional paperwork needed, but at that point, I pretty much gave up reading. Secondly, it is quite expensive to take your car across. On the CR side, you have considerable charges to assemble the necessary paperwork, while the Nicaraguans take their pound of flesh in crossing fees, delousing fees and additional insurance.
However, the truly troublesome segments of my educational reading were the many indecipherable descriptions of the crossing process itself. I’ve crossed many a border, experiencing variations of officialdom running the gamut from a lazy wave of a bored drive-through window officer in pre 9/11 Canada to the gut-churning hostility of dead-eyed DDR soldiers. Once, we even had to walk a gauntlet of very heavily armed military personnel, dragging our four-year-old at an accelerated trot across the Tunis airport to catch the last plane out, before food riots paralyzed the city. In our present case, the border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua is not dangerous. Far from it. It is only highly confusing.
One must not forget that the border between these two countries lowers a boom straight across Highway #1, otherwise known as La Panamericana. This is the main ground arterial connecting all Central American countries with Mexico and points North, as well as with the countries to our South. Many goods on CR shelves were packaged or manufactured in Mexico and brought down by truck. Thus an incredibly high volume of border traffic is processed at the Peñas Blancas crossing on a day to day basis. During the day, that is, as the border closes at night. And during these hours, dozens and dozens of commercial trucks, large tour buses and their hundreds of passengers, local commercial traffic, pedestrians, and personal vehicles must be cleared in both directions in an unending stream. On certain dates, for example roughly a week before Christmas, the majority of the Nica workers in CR take a bus home to spend time with their families and renew their work visas. I couldn’t even picture the border chaos at such a time! Even on relatively calm days, Peñas Blancas doesn’t appear like any immigration facility we may know from international airports. Rather it resembles a sprawling, humongous truck stop minus the pumps. There is a certain flea market atmosphere with clusters of shops here and there, sodas (tiny restaurants), a pulpería or two (convenient stores) & souvenir stalls. There are ambulatory food vendors, sunglass hawkers, and shamans selling herbal ointments. And through this noisy fiesta coruscating in the tropical heat, La Panamericana winds her way from Costa Rica into Nicaragua. One has to witness it, to appreciate the scene.
After considering our options, vacillating from ‘how difficult can it be?’ to ‘what, if they confiscate the car?’, we decided to take a bus to Nicaragua. After some additional investigative internet activity, aided by a friend, who forwarded a crucial link, we picked the executive bus by ‘TransNica‘ as our chariot of choice. This bus is a climate controlled, WiFi-ed wonder, which even has a john reputed to be working. And two hours into the trip, they stop for lunch (included). Super, let someone else do the driving. I’ve taken buses in CR and enjoy it quite a bit.
If it were only that simple! San José, the starting point of the bus route, is in the opposite direction to our destination, which adds several hours of travel and transfer time. And at the border, it can take a couple of hours for a bus and its passengers to be processed. Also, one has to purchase a full ticket from San José to Managua, but we were aiming for a small resort town practically next door to the border. After further consultation with our prospective host, Randy, in San Juan del Sur, we changed plans again. Oh, the fickle!
Randy recommended the services of a guide, thanks to whom the whole dreaded border crossing affair was a piece of cake. Under the expert tutelage of Macuá Tours, we were whisked across the border in record speed and then safely delivered at our vacation destination in time to enjoy a whole afternoon watching the tide roll in. In this combination approach, we drove ourselves, but only to the border, then we walked across, after which we were driven to our final destination. We left Atenas at 5:30 AM and arrived in San Juan del Sur at the ‘Casa del Soul‘ B&B shortly after 12 noon.
We took Hwy 27 toward Puntarenas, where we picked up Hwy 1 toward Caña, Bagaces, Liberia & La Cruz. We stopped our journey about 2 Km short of the border. Here we entrusted our car to Sr. Norman Ubeda, an associate of Macuá Tours on the Costa Rican side. Norman and his dad raise cattle, drive a taxi, ferry tourists to & from the Liberia airport and conduct tours in the greater Liberia area.
Norman parked our car off the street in a covered carport alongside his family home, before he drove us to the border in his shiny red cab.
He filled out the two immigration forms required per person, one for the Costa Rican exit, the other for the Nicaraguan entry. Then he walked us to the proper window in the customs & immigration building, which we would never have identified as such without him. Just like everywhere else in our host country, this border facility avoids signage with a vengeance. There may even be a sign, but with the maelstrom of trucks, buses, pedestrians, cars and officials flowing in every direction, around and between shops, booths, guardhouses & buildings here and there and everywhere, all the while the money changers yelling and jumping up and down behind a chain link fence, which may be in this, or another country …. who knows.
After receiving our exit stamps, Norman drove us for another quarter mile along the Pan-American Highway to a manned barrier, which represents the end of the Costa Rican territory. Norman could go no further, but he pointed out our next guide to us, a fellow on the far side of a passport inspection booth for pedestrians. At the lowered boom you’re still in Costa Rica, but when you walk through the booth, where someone in casual attire gives your papers a cursory glance, you’ve entered Nicaraguan territory. So we grabbed our luggage, passports between teeth, and crossed into Nicaragua, where we were greeted by Sr. Edwin Ruíz Fuentes, el jefe at Macuá Tours.
Edwin took charge of us and the large bag and we followed him on our first hike on Nicaraguan soil. It was again somewhat confusing, because the immigration office, unmarked to foreign eyes, is up along the highway a bit, past some serious road construction, across several segments of asphalt slaps and ongoing check-point booth repair. Then you turn into a side street, cross a pretty little park and find immigration amongst some loitering vendors near an office complex. Here we handed in our passports, entry forms and the $12 per person entry fee. While our passports were being processed, Edwin went to a nearby booth and paid the $1 per person municipal tax. All payments must be made in US Dollars and you’re well advised to have it in small bills – making change isn’t always an option. On your way back out of Nicaragua, BTW, you need to be stamped & verified again and pay your exit fees in the same building, only now you enter it from the opposite end. This is true for the Costa Rican immigration as well. When you return home, you line up at windows at the opposite side of the immigration building. Yes, I know, it ain’t easy. Now that we had officially entered Nicaragua, we needed only one more passport check, before being released into the country proper. For this checkpoint, you first walk over to Hwy 1 again, then a smidgen further in the direction of Costa Rica before you hang a hard right. At a spot near some high fences, you’ll see a loose knot of people clustered around one or two officials, who are checking passports of people walking into Nicaragua, as well as of those wanting to leave the country. Somehow, these officers manage the task and remained courteous. Not two steps further on, Edwin’s driver Michael waited to take us to San Juan del Sur. Hallelujah! Following is a summary of the most important points of crossing into Nicaragua at Peñas Blancas and a couple of links. Carry a water bottle & an umbrella against the sun or rain, it could take a while. As a foreign national you need your passport, which must be valid for another 6 months. There is an agreement in place between US & Nica governments that waives the 6 months requirement, but how would you prove that to the immigration officer? The usual suspects from Western Nations don’t need visas, but check with your embassy, if you’re not a US or German citizen. To return into CR you need either a cédula or an onward/return ticket. An open bus ticket will do. If you decide to drive into Nicaragua, make absolutely sure you have your ducks in a row, before you hit the border. If only one little paper is missing, you have to double back to Liberia trying to get the needed form there – after you find the correct office. The jurídica for the border has to be an original and you have to provide at least one copy of everything else (cédula, passport stamp page & info page, car insurance policy, registration, etc). The Hoof-and-Mouth disease spraying of the car now costs $17, not one, as stated elsewhere. Other car-related specifics and cost can be found online or at your friendly neighborhood lawyer’s office. I’m happy to recommend Macuá Tours very highly. Edwin and Norman know the crossing intricacies inside out. Even more importantly, they are known and respected by the border officials of both countries, which is of enormous benefit to you, the foreigner. Their presence also makes the vendors, peddlers, and money changers vastly less aggressive. When we returned, Edwin guided us through the exit process and Norman picked us up right at the CR boom. He loaded our luggage in the beautifully frigid car and drove us to the immigration building. We just hopped out, got readmitted and jumped back in the car. Pura vida! Macuá Tours & Travel owner: Lic. Edwin Ruíz Fuentes +505 8402 3559 +505 8754 6656 firstname.lastname@example.org
crossing assistance Nica side, plus car & driver to our B&B in San Juan del Sur (roughly 45 Km or 40 min.) $60 each way
$16 per person assorted Nica immigration fees ($12 entry fee, $1 municipal fee for the town of Rivas, $2 exit fee and, inexplicably, another $1 municipal fee. No wonder the streets of the town of Rivas are so beautifully paved!)
about ¢2000 in Hwy 27 tolls
Sausage egg McMuffin breakfast in Liberia: priceless
If you happen to be youthfully resilient, your back’s in good working condition, you’re of a placid nature and love grit in your eyes, there are much less expensive ways to travel to Nicaragua. If you take a regular bus (no A/C, no WiFi, no WC) from San José to the border, walk across on your own and take another bus on the Nica side, it costs next to nothing. We’re a little dainty and consider our guided crossing as money well spent. In addition to speeding up the crossing process to about 30 minutes, Norman and Edwin also provided a great sense of security & safety for us elderly out-of-their-element tourists. If you read the US State Departments travel advice site for Nicaragua, you can’t praise that highly enough!