Border Crossing from Costa Rica to Nicaragua – a nation as famous for it’s contributions to art, literature, poetry, and diverse cultural traditions as it is infamous for it’s periods of political turmoil and oppressive dictatorships that spurred the revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. Although older generations still bare psychological scars from the violent unrest of decades past, for younger generations the troubles of a bygone era are confined to the history books and tales told by elders. As memories of turbulent times fade from the collective consciousness Nicaraguans have witnessed the many celebrated aspects of the countries culture flourish. Nowadays Nicaragua is a representative democratic republic. It’s new-found political stability, steadily growing economy, and diverse range of attractions have come together to create a destination that tops the itinerary of any traveler working their way through Central America. Whether it be the alluring colonial city of Granada, the twin volcanoes that dominate the Ometepe island skyline, the vibrant party town of San Juan Del Sur, or the uncrowded, perfect, pumping surf of Popoyo, you can guarantee that irregardless of preference there’s something on the Nicaraguan menu that will blow your mind. But first you gotta get there, and to do that requires passing through the border town of Penas Blancas – an experience that you won’t forget.
The Nomad America guide to getting yourself and your car across the Nicaraguan border.
As a long time Costa Rica and Nicaragua surfer and visitor this is not my first time crossing the border. However, this is set to be my first experience crossing in a rental car. I, like so many others, previously thought this was impossible. A simple Google search of the terms “crossing Costa Rica Nicaragua border in rental car” will very likely tell you the same thing; that no rental company in Costa Rica will allow their vehicles across the border. However, fear not because help is at hand. Nomad America is the only rental company in Costa Rica with the necessary vehicle insurance to allow road trippers to drive throughout pretty much the whole of Central America – from Panama to Mexico. And the 4×4 I just picked up from them is ready to go. Full tank of fuel, AC blasting, full camping and adventure gear ready to go and border documents in place!
After driving through Liberia I eventually emerge on a well maintained, often winding, but otherwise unremarkable single lane highway. Driving through meadows and endless acres of grazing land it’s easy to forget that this road leading to the border town of Penas Blancas is actually part of the longest single highway on the planet. From the southern tip of Argentina all the way to Alaska (With a short impassable stretch between Colombia and Panama – The Darien Gap) the 30,000 km Pan-American highway, which was completed in 1937, is now considered the gateway between North and South America.
Nearing Penas Blancas, or La Frontera as it’s known to locals, the driving experience, which has so far been a tranquil and unhurried affair changes rapidly. The endless procession of 18 wheeler, long distance trucks waiting for the border crossing stretches for miles (Don’t worry – there is no line for personal vehicles), and acts as a stark reminder that you are approaching one of the most well trodden land borders in the Americas, maybe the world. Although the human traffic here incorporates a multitude of nationalities the overwhelming majority of commuters are Nicaraguans returning to and from Costa Rica and a few “overlanders” – adventurers traveling from Alaska to Argentina or viceversa. Although the borderline extends 310 km east to west from the Pacific to the Caribbean the town of Penas Blancas is the only official entry point between the two countries, thus making it a non-negotiable stopping point for any overland traveler through Central America. This includes the drivers of the trucks you’ll pass, all of which can expect a thorough vehicle search by authorities looking for contraband (narcotics) processed in South America and destined for the US market. Additionally, at the time of writing the town of Penas Blancas has unwittingly become home to hundreds of Cuban, African and Haitian migrants living in the squalid conditions of what can only be described as a refugee camp. Many of them began their journey through the Americas after landing on the eastern shores of Brazil. Although they have already made it this far only time will tell whether they will be admitted by Nicaragua to continue their journey to the US.
Finally I arrive at the beginning of the 500 meters of no-mans-land incorporating the various official checkpoints from north to south. At this point the following information should be noted: Up until mid-2015 the border’s reputation as a melting pot for touts, hawkers, pickpockets, and many other enterprising individuals offering to ‘help’ bewildered travelers was justified. As part of the Nicaraguan governments campaign to paint their nation as a more tourist friendly destination they decided to clean up their act – starting with the border. Tales of harassment, or shakedowns by M16 wielding border patrol officers are now a thing of the past. That said, anyone researching their planned border crossing on the internet should disregard anything written before these sweeping changes were implemented. Nowadays, the journey north is a much friendlier, smoother, more welcoming experience. The following information outlines the individual steps towards getting yourself and your vehicle safely across the border and into Nicaragua.
1: When a large car park comes into view on the left you know you’ve arrived. Find somewhere to park and prepare to be approached by money changers. Although dollars work well in Nicaragua you may have trouble exchanging Costa Rican colones once you cross the border. Do the maths on the going exchange rate and stock up on Nicaraguan currency. If what you’re being offered doesn’t sound like a good deal there’s banks at the border and along the route offering currency exchange. The nearest banks after the border will be in Rivas and San Juan del Sur.
2: The right side of the road (Coming from Costa Rica) is home to offices where you can pay your exit tax. Show them your passport and pay $8 to receive your receipt. These “offices” are in a seemingly normal looking house right before the border.
3: With your passport, exit card, and exit tax receipt in hand walk on towards the Costa Rican immigration office and receive your outgoing stamp. Cross the road to the Customs office and get your vehicle stamped out of Costa Rica. Walk back to your vehicle and drive North along the only road. During this short drive you may be stopped by the Nicaraguan border patrol. Best case scenario – show your passport and drive on. Worst case scenario – extensive vehicle and luggage search (highly unlikely).
4: Drive your vehicle through the fumigation station. Fumigation cost is around $6.
5: Stop at the Nicaraguan ADUANAS office. The vehicle crossing fee is $17 plus the required $5 national insurance police (mandatory). Foreign drivers must register with INTUR and have their passport verified. You’ll need your insurance document, passport photocopy (one for each designated driver), drivers license, and copy of car ownership title (in this case Nomad America). All required papers are provided by Nomad America.
6: Head towards the newly constructed Nicaraguan immigration building. With $13 to cover the entry tax in hand join the queue (travel on weekdays to avoid long lines). When your number is called show your passport with Costa Rican exit stamp. Walk through the checkpoint and leave the building via the opposite entrance. Welcome to Nicaragua.
7: Return to your vehicle, get in, take a deep breath and prepare for the open road alongside Lake Nicaragua and its stunning volcanoes….Bon Voyage!!