We have a habit of crossing the border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua at Peñas Blancas/Sapoa. It can be a little confusing and overwhelming, so we came up with a step-by-step detailed guide to help travelers cross the border for their first time, in both directions. You don’t have to remember every step along the way, but at least you’ll know what to expect when the dude takes your passport and stuffs it in a bag with 50 others!
We’ve only taken the bus, but I included a few notes for crossing in a car too. Expect it to be a little tricker getting all the papers you need though!
It’s a fairly safe border, so don’t even worry. Be careful, but not paranoid. Here we go!
Costa Rica to Nicaragua – Crossing the Border
Before leaving the Costa Rica bus terminal, everyone must pay a $8 Costa Rican road tax. This is new, and is supposedly used to maintain the roads to the Nicaraguan border.
Along the way, the bus attendant collects everybody’s passports so he can fill out the immigration papers for each person. I know, we didn’t like it either!! I guess the border agents don’t trust the locals to know how to fill out a form properly… He returns them in a few hours with the paperwork mostly filled out, except for a few things like your destination and signature. They also hand out a health paper that asks if you’ve been sick or had a fever in the past week.
Read more here for tips on filling out the immigration papers.
Car note: If there’s a long line of semi trucks waiting at the border, the bus always passes them in the oncoming lane. They have to wait for their customs paperwork to get cleared once they arrive at the border, so they’re usually just parked in a line on the road.
First stop at the border is the immigration office on the Costa Rican side to get an exit stamp. Everyone must have the road tax receipt. There are good bathrooms for free just past the office, but bring your own TP. Be sure to take your valuables with you from the bus.
Scout out your bus again. It should be waiting just past the office.
The bus attendant collects everyone’s passports again, another $14 fee from foreigners, and the health paper. Locals only have to pay $1 – who made up that rule? They’ll take US dollars, Colónes, and Córdobas.
You’ll get your passport back after customs, in an hour or so. We were even more nervous about him taking our passport this time! When we first crossed I made a stink about it but the bus attendant said that’s just the way it was and I had to give it to him. Grumble, grumble… It’s just one more thing to keep you on your toes!
Next stop is at the Nicaraguan immigration and customs area. There’s no building to go in here, only some big rain shelters. Take all your bags with you, especially all your food. Put them on the long tables for the customs people to check. We always try to get at the end of the line so they’re tired by the time they get to us and don’t even look in our bags. Always have someone stay with your bags.
You can exchange money and buy phone chips, plátano chips, snacks, and drinks here. Be sure the exchange rate is legit and you get legit bills. The bathrooms are a few minute walk away, and everyone there will point you in the right direction if you say baño.
During this process, some dude with a respirator and a funny protective suit will start up a lawnmower-sounding bazooka-looking gun and fumigate the inside of the bus. They say it’s a pesticide for killing the mosquitos on the bus so they aren’t imported into Nicaragua.
I don’t like that. I looked at the machine and it has directions to only fumigate a bus for 4 seconds. 4 seconds? That’s powerful stuff! I usually spray one spider with Raid for more than 4 seconds! My mind always flashes back to what the holocaust must have been like. Needless to say, I’m not the first guy on the bus after that!
Now the waiting begins… It takes forever, but eventually you’ll hear your name pronounced in broken Spanglish. The guy usually waits until the end to mispronounce the foreigners’ names! They should give you a 90 day visa without any problems.
Nicaragua technically requires an onward travel ticket in order to enter the country, but they rarely enforce it. We have never been asked for a ticket at this border crossing, but always have one since we’re usually returning to Costa Rica.
Car note: There are a few turns to find your way to Nicaragua. As the bus leaves the border, it drives through another fumigation area that sprays the outside with pesticide. Be sure you have your windows rolled up!
Nicaragua to Costa Rica – Crossing the Border
The bus attendant on this side just handed out the Nicaragua immigration paper for us to fill out ourselves. Then, he collected them, along with our passports and a $4 “processing fee” per person, similar to the other side of the border.
Car note: Near the border, there’s usually a long line of semi trucks waiting for their customs papers to clear. Sometimes a half mile of them! The bus always passes them in the oncoming traffic lane.
Car note: There was some gate that was closed on the incoming traffic side, so the bus just went around it on the left, oncoming lane.
Car note: On your way in, turn left just before the tall blue rain shelter.
First border stop is at the Nicaragua immigration area. Hop off the bus with your valuables and wait for the bus people to get a Nicaragua exit stamp on everyone’s passport.
There is food and drinks for sale, and the bathrooms are a few minute walk away. Just snap your fingers if you need someone to exchange money for you.
The bus attendant will pass back the passports and everyone rides the bus just 2 minutes to the Costa Rica side. He will pass out the Costa Rican immigration and customs forms on the way, so try to fill those out quickly!
Next border stop is at the Costa Rica immigration office. Get off with all your baggage and go through the Costa Rica entrance immigration office. Ask the officer for a 90 day visa, even if you aren’t planning on being in Costa Rica that long. If your plans change or you end up in the hospital, the last thing you want to worry about is your visa.
They always ask for our “onward travel” ticket to leave the country (Costa Rica) within 90 days. If you don’t have an “onward travel” ticket to leave Costa Rica, you can buy one from Ticabus, TransNica, or others right outside the immigration office. It shouldn’t cost more than $30.
The next door is Costa Rica customs where they scan your baggage. You only need one customs form per family. There’s usually not much excitement here.
The bathrooms are on the other side of the building – do a u-turn when you exit customs. Clean and free but BYO-TP. Board the bus & wait for everyone else to finish.
Car note: The bus had one more stop at a little booth with a gate. The driver gave a paper to the attendant and we were on our way.
Ask driver or the attendant to let you off the bus early if you don’t want to go all the way into San Jose.
No more excitement for awhile – time to go back to sleep on the bus :)
Car note: There were 2 police checkpoints along the road before Liberia – little buildings on the side of the road with police. The bus driver took care of everything, but it looked like a simple hi-and-bye check.
A Few Things to Remember
- Take a mental note of a few people on your bus so you can follow them through the lines and back to your bus. Also, remember a few numbers from a sticker on your bus or from its license plate.
- Always be looking at or touching your bags. Everyone we’ve seen here is nice, but sometimes they just have sticky fingers…
- It’s a good idea to change a little bit of money ($20-$50) at the border so you can buy things when you arrive on the bus, but you don’t need to exchange everything. It’s very out in the open, so keep your Benjamin’s hidden! Ask around for a good exchange rate, and be sure to check the bills you get.
- It’s stressful when everyone selling something comes and asks if you want to buy a Coke or change money at the same time! Don’t let them get in your head. Just look them in the eye and say No, gracias, and they’ll leave you alone.
Good luck on your adventure to cross the border with Costa Rica and Nicaragua! Relax and follow the crowds. It’s easy!
Leave a comment below if you’ve been through the Costa Rica – Nicaragua border recently!
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