From keyraconlinn.com – Yesterday, I made my first border run. After doing much research and questioning other expats in Facebook groups, I decided first that I’d do the crossing into Nicaragua (rather than Panama) and then decided I would do the crossing at Las Tabillas (new land crossing) near Los Chiles rather than in Penas Blanca.
I later learned that the boat from Los Chiles now only leaves once a day and it returns from San Carlos at 9 am, so basically you’re ‘encouraged’ the spend the night. I’m sure it’s possible to take the boat one way and return via Las Tabillas, but maybe more of a hassle.
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I made the trip with another expat, Karol Graczyk, an awesome gent from Poland who is a wonderful landlord/host to people from around the world via his rentals in Grecia. You can check out his website for info. He’s made this run multiple times; I was grateful to go with someone experienced at it. We paid the exit fee in cash in Los Chiles in case the machine at the border wasn’t working (though at no point did anyone ask us for proof of it). It was later suggested to me that this is because our info goes into a broad system wherever it’s paid from so they only ask if it doesn’t show up when the passport is scanned.
We parked the car inside the fenced yard near the entrance to the immigration area and paid a small fee to the woman who owned the house. Most people just park on the road next to the building. As you can see, there are border police right there so the cars are quite safe. The police write down your passport info both when you leave and when you return.
The process through Las Tabillas was quite direct and quick. You have to fill out a customs form, which you can find on a table at the entrance–I suggest bringing a pen. I wasn’t questioned at all upon exiting. Unlike at Penas Blanca (from what I’ve read) there was no $1 here and $2 there; there was no further payment on the Costa Rican side. On the Nicaraguan side, there are again police recording you passport info and a customs form to fill out, but here, if you wanted to, you could have one of the two people sitting at the table fill it in for you.
We paid $12 (though the receipt says $10) as an entrance fee. Here there are two guys behind the counter of a round little building, which Karol said used to be for health inspections–1 line was for those entering and 1 for those exiting. We were asked how long we intended to stay and when we said we were returning the same day, the agent reminded us that we had to be gone 3 hours.
I exchanged $10 US from a woman after getting our stamp; the exchange rate was practically the same as what the bank was offering 10 ft away, so why not? It was enough for me as I didn’t plan on buying anything nor splurging on a fancy lunch.
Once through the border there are shuttle vans waiting to take you to San Carlos. They cost 60 cordobas and take maybe 40 minutes. I was glad I had my hat, but regretted my jeans at that point. It was incredibly hot in a thick air kind of way; even though we were by water, the San Juan Rio and Rio Frio, there was no wind. The tiny bus/van terminal is directly across from their large market. There was no point of looking in there since I wasn’t about to buy any produce (prohibited from crossing borders). The city itself is quite small with a few larger restaurants near the waterfront.
We took a short walk down the main road; there wasn’t much to see–I didn’t even find a postcard! Above is the dock area where the boats from Los Chiles come in. The immigration building is directly at the end of the wharf. Karol confirmed, from his personal experience, what I read elsewhere about that process–you’re processed in the order you come off the boat and if you were first on, you’re last off; in other words, you could have a long wait.
We ate at a little soda where I got quite a reasonable meal including a refreshment for 90 cordobas. By the time we were done it was about time to turn around and go back. With the travel time on the shuttle, we were gone the required 3 hours. As I described, both entrance and exit were at the same open counter, so it would be kind of hard to turn around and come back through after 30 minutes. The guy at the exit recognized us from earlier and had us approach together.
The exit fee was 40 cordobas, which is under $2, and there was no re-entry fee into Costa Rica; we just followed the same process in reverse. I wasn’t asked for proof that I was exiting again in 90 days, though I had printed a flight ticket just in case, and we weren’t asked to prove income, as I read is required for Panama. It was a rather lighthearted experience overall.
The drive there and back is on a single lane, curvy road up and over mountains, so can take a while, particularly when you get stuck behind one of the many trucks carrying either oranges from Nicargua (which apparently are most frequent in February and March) or sugar cane/pineapples from that area on the Costa Rican side. We got stuck behind many, and there was construction on the road near Muelles (where the giant iguanas are) so it was longer returning than it was going in the morning.
I left home in Heredia at 6 am to meet Karol in Grecia by 7 am and arrived back home in Heredia by 7:30 pm. It was a long day, BUT now I have another 90 days to remain warm, out of Canadian winter, exploring this beautiful country with my amazing partner…
ps. He (my partner) is so sweet that I had flowers waiting for me in the car when he picked me up in the evening to welcome me back.