Crossing international borders in Latin American is rarely easy or pleasant (why do they always smell like pee and desperation?). Things are even more complicated when you’re driving across borders in your own vehicle as part of an overland road trip. These border crossing 101 travel tips will help you cross from Nicaragua to Peñas Blancas, Costa Rica smoothly with or without a vehicle.

From: Peñas Blancas, Nicaragua
To: Costa Rica
Date: December 21, 2011

Lay of the land: The differences between the poorest nation Central America (Nicaragua) and one of the most prosperous (Costa Rica) are stark at the border they share at Peñas Blancas. The Nica side, though pleasant and orderly, is dusty and peppered with sandal sellers, money changers and stray dogs. And don’t expect to find anything to eat. The Costa Rican side just got even nicer with the opening of a new air conditioned immigration hall. Though people entering Costa Rica in their own non-Costa Rican vehicles still have to run around between three different locations to handle customs formalities for their vehicles. The La Frontera Cafeteria on the Costa Rica side seems popular. There’s a BCR mobile ATM on the Costa Rica side as well and it does not charge a fee and will dispense dollars as well as Costa Rican colones. Big rigs can get backed up for miles on either side of this border. If you’re driving your own vehicle you are allowed to cut the line in front of them.  But drive carefully. This is a two lane road so passing the parked big rigs means driving against traffic in the wrong lane. Go slow and always be ready with an escape plan that allows you to merge back in with the parked big rigs if a bus or other vehicle needs to get through in the oncoming lane.

Yet another beat up border sign.

Elapsed time: It only takes around 15 minutes to cancel your visa, cancel your vehicle importation documents and exit Nicaragua unless you end up at the border with tour buses or try to cross near Christmas or Easter. Note: even though you’re leaving the country officials may still want to look inside your vehicle. It took us about an hour to clear the Costa Rican side of the border, mainly because of truck paperwork which requires visiting a few different offices.

Fees: There’s a US$1 per person fee to leave Nicaragua. On the Costa Rica side there’s no fee at all for people to enter. We paid nearly US$17 for 90 days of mandatory vehicle liability insurance for the truck. We also paid US$6 for vehicle fumigation, though when we crossed this border again most recently they seem to have stopped fumigating.

Number of days they gave us: Costa Rica issues a 90 day tourist visa. We were also given a 90 temporary importation permit for our truck. Both are free.

Vehicle insurance requirements: Costa Rica requires that all vehicles buy liability insurance (see fees, above).

Where to fill up: Gas (and everything else) is cheaper in Nicaragua. Note, the nearest gas station on the Nicaraguan side is in Rivas about 35 km before the border.

Need to know: Even though tourists visas can be renewed for an additional 90 days by simply leaving Costa Rica for 72 hours then returning, foreign vehicles are only allowed to be in Costa Rica for 90 days out of every 180. You can “suspend” your temporary vehicle importation when you drive out of the country. This means that whatever time was left on your importation when you left the country will be available to you when you drive back into Costa Rica. But if you want to get a new 90 temporary importation permit your vehicle has to be out of Costa Rica for at least 90 days.

Duty free finds: There are a handful of duty free shops on the Nicaraguan side of this border. Most offer the same price on Nicaragua’s Flor de Cana rum but you can buy Flor de Cana cheaper in supermarkets in Nicaragua. Stock up on that here since it’s MUCH more expensive in Costa Rica. We also found a bottle of Reserva de Familia super aged tequila in one of the duty free stores on the Nica side where they were selling it at very, very good price of US$89. There are no duty free shops on the Costa Rican side of this border.

Overall border rating: We’ve now crossed the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica at Peñas Blancas  four times (with more to come) and it’s always been relatively efficient and free of corruption or bribery.Even the money changers and kids offering to help you with your paperwork on the Nica side aren’t too persistent.

Welcome to Costa Rica!

New Costa Rica to Nicaragua border crossing (updated)

A new border crossing between Costa Rica and Nicaragua over the Rio San Juan which forms part of the border between the two countries is scheduled to be open in 2014. However, this is Central America and 2015 seems more likely especially since these two countries have ongoing border issues tainted by accusations of territorial expansionism. We wouldn’t have believed this crossing was even real if we hadn’t seen a well-under-way “Santa Fé Bridge” over the Rio San Juan when we visited the area. This $30 million Japanese-funded project began in 2012 and, when completed and opened, this new route will be a much more direct way of heading north or south, by-passing the coastal mountains of Costa Rica and the chaos of Managua, directly linking central Nicaragua with central Costa Rica. This should also alleviate much of the truck backup and craziness at the overburdened Peñas Blancas border, currently the only land border connecting these two countries. In preparation for the opening of this border crossing the notoriously slow and rough 60+ mile (100 km) section of road heading into San Carlos, Nicaragua from Managua, which used to take several hours, has been upgraded into one of the best roads in Central America with perfect pavement, multi-lanes and (for the moment) very little traffic.

Rio San Juan Bridge - Costa Rica Nicaragia border

Construction of the “Santa Fé Bridge”, a US$30 million dollar Japanese-funded project that will span the Rio San Juan and create a new, easier border crossing between Costa Rica and Nicaragua. This is what it looked like when we were in the area in December of 2012. Officials say this crossing could be open in 2014.

Here’s more about travel in Nicaragua

Here’s more about travel in Costa Rica