I was apprehensive about crossing the border from Costa Rica to Nicaragua because it sounded confusing and chaotic from what I had read online and hearing stories of friends who had done it.
But it is relatively simple as long as you know a few things ahead of time.
- Have cash money ahead of time. It’s best to have it in US dollars because both Costa Rica and Nicaragua accept US dollars. And it is best to have small bills as you may not get change back.
- If you go on a Monday through Thursday it is least likely to be crowded.
- Do not pay anyone other than the officials listed below.
- If someone comes up to you and tells you that you have to pay them, you don’t. If someone offers to help you as a “volunteer” they are expecting a tip. If someone offers to help you with your luggage, they are expecting monetary compensation.
- Both on the Costa Rican side and the Nicaraguan side of the border, if anyone approaches you simply say “No, gracias.” (Unless they are a police officer.)
- You can not drive rental cars across the border.
- If you live in Costa Rica and own your car, you can, in theory, drive it across the border, but you have to have done all the necessary paperwork ahead of time, and you will possibly have to wait in a long line to cross.
- Before going to the border, check to see if you need a visa. If you are an American or Canadian passport holder, you do not need a visa.
Who needs this border crossing info?
Ex-Pats living in Costa Rica have to spend 3 days out of Costa Rica to renew their visa/passport status every 90 days. If you are living in Guanacaste, Nicaragua is the closest county to get to. Also, travelers have started flying into Liberia, Costa Rica and then driving up to Nicaragua. The beach town San Juan del Sur is only about 30 minutes north of the Costa Rican border and the picturesque colonial town of Grenada is only an hour and a half from the border.
From Costa Rica:
Drive to Peñas Blancas. (It is a little over an hour north of Liberia, Guanacaste, and from Liberia the road is newly paved the entire way.)
When you get close to the border, you will see a white building with blue trim in front of you before the road curves slightly to the right. The building is in a fenced in area, but you can drive in the fenced in area and park. The door you will need to go in is on the right side of the building towards the back. The door you enter is under a large metal awning.
Walk in, if the machine in the right corner of the room is working, you can pay your Costa Rican exit tax here. If it has a sign on it, it is not working, and you will need to go back outside the door you just came in and walk (or drive) back out of the fenced area, across the street to the green building on your left. There is a sign in front of the building that says “Pay your exit tax here.”
Pay $8 US at the window on the front of the green building. SAVE YOUR RECEIPT! To the right of the building there is another green building with an ATM if you need cash.
Then walk back across the street to the main Costa Rican border control building. You will need to give them your exit tax receipt and get your passport stamped at one of the windows.
After that you can walk towards border. You can flag down someone in a rickshaw bicycle to help you, if you have a lot of luggage and drive you to the border for around $5. Confirm the price before getting on and riding to the border. Or you can just walk.
If you drove car to border that you plan to leave overnight, you can get back in your car, drive towards the border and leave your car next to Alamo. Technically it is the office to the right of Alamo, but they share a fenced in area. It will be on your right before you get to the border. It may be hard to see as there may be a line of semi trucks obstructing your view. It costs $12 per day to leave your car here (as of 2018). You will probably be waved forward to pass the semi trucks, then someone will let you turn right to get into the parking area.
After you park and get a parking receipt, you will have to walk down the paved road towards the border. It is not far. You can technically still flag down a bicycle rickshaw, but they wlll only be able to take you to the CR side of the border which is only a few yards away.
There will be a white shed on the right side of the road with police in it. Show your passports to the Costa Rican police if they ask.
Then cross the street. As you are crossing the street there may be a Nicaraguan police officer that wants to see your passports.
Continue walking along past the colored tires on the road.
Continue walking until you see the blue and white Nicaraguan immigration building on your left.
The door you need to enter is on the left side of the building.
After you walk inside, immediately to your right. There will be a small glassed in booth. Pay $1 per person. Save your receipt. Then walk to the main booths, there are approximately 5 or 6 stalls. You will pay $12 per person here, and show your passports and get them stamped.
You will walk past this booth when you are done to walk out the back of the building (not back out the way you came in.)
In the next room you will have your luggage scanned. After you get your luggage scanned there might be another police office on the inside or outside of building that wants to see your passports again.
When you walk out of the immigration building door you will take a left and walk through a gate to a fenced in area with vendors on a paved-ish gravel road. There will be a white fence on your right. If you keep walking straight along the fence there will be taxis if you need a taxi.
If you continue walking down this road, the white fence will eventually become blue. You will come to a Dollar Rent-A-Car, then an Alamo Rental car.
I highly recommend making a car rental reservation ahead of time as it is a small parking lot and they do not have many cars. If you are having a taxi or shuttle pick you up from the border, I would recommend arranging that in advance as well.
Many people will walk up to you along the way and offer to help you or make up an excuse for you to pay them or say that they are volunteers (but they will want a tip). I recommend just saying “no gracias” to whatever they say and just keep walking.
It is safe to do the border crossing and I was with my family and felt safe the whole time. However, people will approach you, so if you are traveling with children you may want to prepare them for that.
No one I was with needed to use the bathroom during the border crossing, but if they had I would have done it on the Costa Rican side. The bathrooms were right behind the main customs building, and I believe the Nicaraguan side bathrooms charge a fee.
Unless you are a citizen of Costa Rica or have applied for residency, legally you can only stay in Costa Rica for 90 consecutive days. If you are going back into Costa Rica, immigration may ask for proof that you will be leaving Costa Rica again and not overstaying your welcome, so you will have had to have booked a flight ahead of time or have proof of how you plan to leave the country again.
There are Costa Rican shuttles that will take you to the Nicaraguan border and drop you off, and there are also shuttles that will drive you all the way to Grenada. Several companies offer this service and to go all the way to Grenada. It is about $80 per person, one way. If you are taking a shuttle, your shuttle driver should be able to guide you through the process.
You can also check out how to cross the border to return to Costa Rica.
Happy travels. Nicaragua is a beautiful country to explore.