(QTRAVEL) The other morning I woke up suddenly and while still half asleep, I randomly thought, “How long ago did we cross the border and get our passports stamped?”

Then I remembered it was the end of May, so I got up, looked at our passports and counted 90 days out – our visas were going to expire in about 10 days! I turned to my husband and told him It was time to renew our visas again.

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The stamp

The life of an expat is never boring. There is always adventure on the horizon, whether it comes to us or whether we pursue it. Until you are a resident and get your cedula (residency card), you have to leave the country to renew your visa every 90 days. We are in the middle of the residency application process and boy am I looking forward to the day where we don’t have to make border runs.

Border runs are a pain, but it’s more economical than flying out of the country. For this renewal we decided to go to Nicaragua again, but this time the border at Peñas Blancas to visit San Juan del Sur and the surrounding area.

Despite having gone through the process at the Las Tablillas border (click HERE to read about it), there were new challenges and lessons for us at the Peñas Blancas border. It’s a different animal.

The Peñas Blancas Border

Peñas Blancas is a much more popular border to Nicaragua mostly as a result of being located along the Pan American Highway, but also because it was the only established border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua until the opening of the Las Tablillas border in May 2015.  There is a lot more hustle, bustle and chaos here.  The hours for this border is Monday–Saturday from 6 a.m.–10 p.m.  On Sundays it closes at 8pm.

Driving to the border you will see a tent city occupied by Haitian, African, Cuban and Asian migrants waiting for Nicaragua to allow them to pass through north to the United States (which they claim they are not going to permit).  As a sheltered North American, I can say it was a surreal sight to see, as there are quite a few migrants there.  Some of the migrants may approach you for some money and you’ll see some of them talking to the border police, but otherwise they mind their own business.

There is also always a long line of eighteen wheelers waiting to get through the border.  Pass them to get to the Costa Rican customs building, the Dirección General de Migración y Extranjería (the immigration service).

here are several ways to cross the border into Nicaragua:  by car, foot, or bus.  We drove to the border, parked and then walked across.

I would have preferred to drive through the border and have our own car in Nicaragua, but in order to do that you need to get the proper paper work from the National Registry of Costa Rican government, but we didn’t have enough time to get that done.

We have friends who have taken the bus and have also crossed on a bus with a tour – these are other options if you don’t want to drive or don’t have a car and you’d rather not be completely on your own.

Be Aware of Possible Requirements for Exiting/Entering

I mentioned this in my Las Tablillas Border post, but I thought I’d restate it again here.  In my recent research, I have noted that there are a few items that may be required in crossing the border, it just depends on the border and the customs official that day.  Please note that officials from either country may or may not ask you for these things.

  • Proof of onward travel – This may be something more likely asked for when crossing back into Costa Rica.  Immigration may ask you if you have a plane ticket out of the country.  Its been reported that a bus ticket out of the country can suffice, and they are very inexpensive.  I also know people either using airline reservations or actually purchasing tickets specifically for this proof at border crossings.  Lately it seems, Panama is requiring actual purchased tickets, so keep that in mind if you cross there.  Just make sure you buy refundable tickets, so you may return them as soon as they have served their purpose.
  • $500 cash in pocket or a credit card – Panama asks for this.  I have not heard that Nicaragua does, but it is good to be prepared.  Hint – they want you to spend some money while you are visiting.
  • Current Visa –  If it is expired, Costa Rica may make you pay a fee and may also cut the amount of days you overstayed out of your next visa.  I’ve also heard this can be times 2 or 3 (1 day over, 2-3 days reduced from your new visa, leaving you with a 87-88 day visa).
  • Valid Passport – Make sure your passport is not going to expire in 6 months or less.  Costa Rica will not allow you into the country if your passport is this close to expiration.
  • Copies of your Passport – just in case they ask.

Exiting Costa Rica

Almost immediately upon arrival you will most likely be greeted by a Tico or two outside of the customs building who will offer to help you (for a negotiated fee) with the exit process and to watch your vehicle if you need to leave it parked on the Costa Rican side of the border.

These guys basically make a living off of “helping” gringos get through the border.  They can be seen as helping or harassing – I saw them as a little of both, but ultimately I made peace with it by realizing that we are helping the economy (so to speak) by helping this guy pay his rent or put food on the table for his family.

These guys are aggressive (but friendly), especially if you are a gringo.  They speak a decent amount of English, so communication really isn’t an issue.  I’m sure that everything would have been fine if we did not accept their help (we had crossed the border on our own at the Las Tablillas border), but as expats we have found a middle ground of not being completely taken advantage of while at the same time maintaining a friendly rapport with the people of our host nation.  It’s a delicate balance at times.

Costa Rican Customs at Peñas Blancas, outside of the exit office (east side of building)
Costa Rican Customs at Peñas Blancas, outside of the exit office (east side of building)

The process of getting your passport stamped is relatively easy, but schedule in a little time for some delays (such as the exit fee payment machine not working, long lines, getting and filling out the form, etc.).  The Exit Office is on the east side of the building (as you are facing Nicaragua, it is on the right).

Steps to getting your passport stamped for exit:

  • Pay the $7 exit fee.
    • Costa Rica requires you to pay a fee of $7 to exit the country.  The easiest way to do this is to pay it with your debit or credit card at the payment machine (it looks like an ATM machine) right there in the lobby area of where the lines are.  Do this before getting in line to get your passport stamped.
    • Please note that when you use the payment machine, you will get charged fees from your bank for a cash advance.  You can check with your bank about how they handle such cash advances (the last time we did this our bank charged us a $10 fee!).
    • When we were there the payment machine was out of order.  We tried over and over again and it would not scan our passports.  Luckily, we had our handy Tico helper who took us to another building next to the customs building, to the east.  There was a window with an older gentleman sitting inside.  We paid him $7 cash each and got our receipts.
    • There are some small buildings on the west (restroom) side of the customs building with big bright signs in English that did the same thing but the lines were longer.
  • Fill out the exit form.
    • At the Las Tablillas border there were plenty of forms out on a table, but here there were none readily available.  I’m not sure why the forms were not out, but I suspect it to discourage the “helpers” from trying to sell them to you or using them to hook you into their service by “helping” you fill them out.
    • Get the exit form from official at the window (politely asking at the front of the line) if there are not any out in the lobby area; whatever you do, do not pay to get it from someone.
    • I highly recommend that you bring your own pen (or two) to expedite the process.
  • Present your passport, filled out exit form, and the exit fee receipt to customs official at the window to get an exit stamp.

When we were there the lines were not long at all.  On the other (west) side of the building there are restrooms if you need them.

After getting your passport stamped, head towards the Nicaraguan border on the Pan American Highway. Show your passport here to the Costa Rican border police before moving on.
After getting your passport stamped, head towards the Nicaraguan border on the Pan American Highway. Show your passport here to the Costa Rican border police before moving on.

After we got our passports stamped for exit, we needed to make sure our car would be secure while we were in Nicaragua.  Our helper said he would watch our car for $20USD a day – which I thought was pretty steep.  Since the blogs I follow and other sources mentioned that they only paid $3-$10USD a day for parking.

I wonder who they encountered, where they parked, and if this was the new pricing  . . .  well, this guy “helped” us this whole time up to now and we were in a rush to get to our scheduled taxi in time in Nicaragua, so we agreed.

Nicaraguan Customs and Immigration

We grabbed our backpacks for our overnight stay in Nicaragua, locked up our vehicle and walked to the border.  As you leave you will have to show your stamped passport to Costa Rican border police.

Nicaragua Customs Building at Peñas Blancas border – enter on the left where sign above the door is.
Nicaragua Customs Building at Peñas Blancas border – enter on the left where sign above the door is.

There is a long straight road to Nicaraguan border;  it’s the continuation of the Pan American Highway.  Walk on that road towards Nicaragua.  You will continue to see the eighteen wheelers lined up.  There will be some money exchangers in camping chairs along the way to exchange your money if you like to Nicaraguan Córdobas.  The exchange rate here is not so great, but at least the option is there if you need it.  Remember that Nicaragua also takes US Dollars for payment.  We paid by US Dollars during our stay and could have used our credit card if needed.

Vendors across from Nicaraguan Customs Building
Vendors across from Nicaraguan Customs Building

After walking for about 5 minutes, you will see a lot of vendors and new Nicaraguan immigration building (blue and white) to the left.  Enter the building on the left side (there will be a sign over the door) and proceed with the entry process into Nicaragua:

  • Pay the municipality fee of $1USD to enter at a booth to the right as you enter into the building.
    • A woman will be there to take your payment and give you a receipt.  Bring small bills in USD, because most likely she will not have any change for you!
  • Fill out a Nicaraguan Entry Form.
  • Give your passport, municipality payment receipt to the official who will stamp your passport  with a Entry Visa, and pay your $12USD entry fee in cash (again, it’s best to have the exact amount).
    • The official will ask you where you are going.  The visa will usually be for 90 days.
  • There is a bag inspection area after you pay your entry fee and get your visa stamped for Nicaragua.

If you have a helper,  he will meet you on the other side to make sure you get to the door/gate where you officially enter Nicaragua.  At this gate there are Nicaraguan border police that will check your passport before you are allowed into the country.  For future reference, right next to that gate on the Nicaraguan side there is a bank ATM where you can get some cash if you need it.

It took us about an hour and a half to complete this process from start to finish.

Our taxi was waiting at the entrance to drive us into San Juan Del Sur then to Hotel Costa Dulce (Click HERE to read about that trip!).

Returning to Costa Rica

The return to Costa Rica is pretty much the same thing, just in reverse.

On the day we left, our hotel did not have electricity.  What is amusing is that we had our taxi driver, Juan Carlos, take us to San Juan Del Sur to get some cash from an ATM, only to find out that the whole town did not have electricity.  We needed just a little bit more cash for the border fees and for the road.

When we got to the border, Juan Carlos asked a Nicaraguan helper if there was an ATM.  This helper grabbed my backpack and we headed to the ATM, which was right outside the gate to enter the exit office. Thank goodness there was electricity there so we could actually do the transaction.  There was another helper who filled out the Nicaraguan exit forms for us (he was really trying to earn his pay) while my husband was getting the cash from the ATM.  It was kind of overwhelming.

Heading back to Costa Rica from Nicaragua
Heading back to Costa Rica from Nicaragua

At the Exit Office in Nicaragua, you will need to pay a $2USD exit fee.  Again, be sure to bring small bills as it is difficult for them to make change for larger bills.

You go through the same building, only on the other side.  After getting your exit stamp, you exit the building and head down the Pan American highway back to Costa Rica.

The entry office for Costa Rica is in the same building as the exit office, only on the other side (west side, same side as where the restrooms are located).  You will go through a line/maze created by big orange barricades..  The barricades are more confusing when there really isn’t a line, which is luckily what happened in our case.  I was thinking, “What’s going on in there?”  because at first it looks like something is being blocked off.  Anyways, go through the barricade line to the entry office, fill out an entry form and stand in line to get your passport stamped with a new 90 day visa.

The customs official did ask us for proof of onward travel.  Scott brought pictures of our residency application confirmation on his phone, but he was having an issue looking it up.  Facing a couple of friendly smiles, the official decided to let us in.  I guess it was taking too long.  As a back up, we did have airplane tickets to the states on our phone if we needed it.

The final step was a bag inspection, and we were on our way.  The return process from Nicaragua was also not long.  We did this on a Wednesday around 3:00 pm and not during a holiday, so it took only about an hour.

Our car sitter/helper found us quickly and we paid him.  All was safe and sound.  We got in our car and headed home (the drive was about 4 hours).

On the way home driving through the forest we checked out a place that sold home-made rustic furniture.  We also stopped and ate at a really good seafood restaurant recommended by our landlord located in Barranca, Puntarenas called El Pochote.  The seafood was fresh and delicious, and they make a really good margarita!

What really made it memorable they had Juice Newton “Playing With the Queen of Hearts” playing as we walked in, then the music switched over to Kenny Rogers – we heard both the record and a recorded live version of “Islands in the Stream” while dining there, in addition to the rest of his greatest hits.  I loved it!  Part of the fun of this expat life is constantly experiencing new things, and we try to take advantage of this as much as we can.

Costa Rica Immigration Building, returning from Nicaragua. Go to the right (west side) to get your Entry Stamp.
Costa Rica Immigration Building, returning from Nicaragua. Go to the right (west side) to get your Entry Stamp.

Conclusion

We had quite a different experience this time crossing this border and renewing our visas.

The first being we chose to stay overnight in Nicaragua this time.  Because of this choice, we had to pay someone to watch our vehicle which we had to leave parked in Costa Rica.

Second, the Peñas Blancas border is busier than Las Tablillas due to being the long-time only established border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua and also being on a major thoroughfare (Pan American Highway) and the best way to get to San Juan Del Sur from Costa Rica.

As a result there was a little pressure to accept the help of the Tico and Nicaraguan border helpers, which cost more money in tipping.  It is definitely a lucrative location for these guys because the amount of activity seems a bit overwhelming, at least the first time.  Again I recommend that you bring small bills in US Dollars so that you are able to tip easily and pay fees without worrying about not being able to make or get change.

Third, Costa Rican Customs did ask for proof of onward travel when we returned.  Even though the official let us through without seeing it, it was nice to know we were prepared to do this.

The cost of crossing this border will depend on the choices you make as a traveler.  It varies not only by method of crossing, but how and if you interact with the helpers, and how much you decide to tip them, etc.  Either way, it’s only a few dollars difference here and there.  Do what makes you feel comfortable and helps you best achieve your goal.

Due to our choices this time, crossing at this border, it did cost us a bit more, but overall it was pretty painless, and we had a great time in Nicaragua at the beach!  The amazing visit there to Hotel Costa Dulce made this trip well worth the effort.

Original article was published at Puradonna.com and reposted with permission.

About the author

Donna is an ordinary woman living an extraordinary life. In 2015 she moved from Austin, TX, to Costa Rica with her husband Scott and her dog Jake to see what else life had to offer besides the typical 9 to 5 grind – and she has not been disappointed. Having an eclectic professional background, from being an actor, serving in the USAF, and teaching Bikram Yoga for over a decade, she is now living the Pura Vida and blogs about her experiences on expat living and the simple life in Costa Rica on her website PuraDonna.com. She is also on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter as @puradonna.