Getting from Costa Rica to Nicaragua by land is not always so difficult depending on where you are coming from. We recently just made the journey from Monteverde to San Juan del Sur all by chicken buses. It was easy, but time consuming and involved 5 different buses.
Penas Blancas is the name of the border near the Pacific Ocean for crossings from Costa Rica to Nicaragua. Penas Blancas was one of the most expensive border crossings we have ever been to and we also nearly got scammed by someone INSIDE the immigration office. We have a few tips for conquering this border without paying too much.
Here is our guide for getting from Costa Rica to Nicaragua (anywhere between Monteverde to San Juan del Sur) by local transport including tips for crossing the actual border at Penas Blancas.
Should You Just Take an Organized Shuttle from Costa Rica to Nicaragua?
Shuttles can be arranged pretty much from anywhere to anywhere in Central America and won’t involve you having to change buses or do anything except jump off at the border to get your stamps. However, these shuttles usually come at a hefty price (especially when they include a border crossing.) From Monteverde to San Juan del Sur a shuttle is $50 USD per person, although we did hear rumors of getting it for $35 USD but I assume this is if you book last minute on an already nearly full shuttle and have great negotiation skills.
When deciding whether or not to take a shuttle possibly consider whether you would like to save the money ($50 vs. $11), if you have an entire day to waste on buses, and whether or not you are up to the adventure of local transport.
We always like to save a few dollars when we can and we were up for the challenge so chicken buses it was, the entire way from Costa Rica to Nicaragua (Monteverde to San Juan del Sur.)
Step 1) Get to the Liberia Bus Terminal
From San Jose
There will be various direct buses to Liberia every hour from 6am to 8pm. Expect to pay about $8 USD and trip takes about 4.5 hours. If you aren’t spending anytime in Liberia and plan on heading straight to Penas Blancas I would advise catching the earliest bus possible to make it the border at a decent hour. The border from Costa Rica to Nicaragua would not be the best place to find yourself after dark.
First, get yourself to Irma. From Monteverde there are two buses leaving every morning at either 4:20am or 6:30am. These buses are going to Puntarenas however you will only ride it until the highway or what the locals call “Irma.”
Bus tickets can be bought directly from the driver that morning but there is no guaranteed seat and you could find yourself standing for what was a 2 hour journey on a gravel road. You can buy tickets in advance from the bus terminal in Santa Elena (not the morning of though as the terminal is closed, so you must buy the tickets the day before.) The bus is about $2.50 USD.
We took the 4:20am bus as we heard the border gets very busy later on in the day and we hate waiting at border crossings. Please remember that you will not be able to just catch a taxi on the side of the road at 4am in Monteverde or Santa Elena, you must prearranged this ride the night before with your hotel or hostel.
The bus is fairly comfortable but can take up to two hours. Get off at the intersection of the main highway. The driver will announce “Irma” here. You will not be the only one getting off either. Follow all the locals to the bus shelter on the side of the highway.
Next get to Liberia. At the bus shelter on the side of the highway be alert and watch for a bus coming that has “Liberia” displayed on the front. When you see this bus get yourself ready to get on quick as sometimes the buses fill quickly. This bus ride will be about 1.5 hours and should drop you right at the bus station in Liberia. This ride costs about $3 USD.
Step 2) Go from Liberia to Penas Blancas
The bus station in Liberia you need to be at is located at Calle 12 and Avenida 7. From this bus station there is a bus leaving to Penas Blancas every hour. The bus is about 1.5 hours long costs about $2.5 USD. You can get a good exchange rate here at this bus station and it will be much safer than waiting until the border to change money.
Step 3) Cross the Border at Penas Blancas
When going from Costa Rica to Nicaragua the most commonly used border for tourists is called Penas Blancas. Penas Blancas is a bit of a hectic border to be honest. So here is how the whole process goes…
When you arrive you must pay the exit fee for Costa Rica. Strangely enough this isn’t don’t in the immigration office, you must go to what looks like a small shop around the corner of the immigration office and pay $8 USD to get the exit ticket. Don’t worry about find this place as many people will be yelling at you to take you as I am assuming they get a commission as there is a couple different places to buy the exit ticket. Super strange process but without this ticket immigration will not stamp your exit from Costa Rica.
After getting your exit stamp from Costa Rica immigration there will be men offering to give you a ride on tuk tuks to the entrance of Nicaragua. They want about $2 USD for the ride but it is only a 5 minute walk if you are up to it. Just walk along the rode, follow the massive line of big trucks until you reach the Nicaragua immigration office. Here at the entrance you pay a $1 USD fee before lining up to see an officer. The officer will charge you another $12 USD and then you are supposed to go behind them into a room to get your bag scanned.
We didn’t know this, we just turned away and walked straight back out of the office. As we were walking toward the final gate where they check all your paperwork one last time before letting you in the country and man came yelling after us telling us we didn’t get our bags scanned and we must go back! I thought “this is true, we didn’t get our bags scanned and this is a normal process at borders.” He said we must go back and put our bags through the scanner and pay the man $10 USD. I thought that it was crazy to have to pay again but went back into the building and into the scanning room.
Sure enough, we put our bags through and a man came up to us asking for our passports, where we were going and for how long, and then for $10 USD. He was dressed in the professional uniform and wore a badge and was inside the immigration building right next to all the other officers. I thought, “there is no way we need to pay more money!” I said to the man, “okay we will pay the cashier.” There was a man sitting in a booth at the back of the room with “Caja” which means cashier on it, I thought I would rather pay him than just hand this guy cash. After I said this the man quickly changed his mind and said “no, it’s okay let’s just go to the bus, come quickly.”
Turns out, the whole thing was a scam. Yes, you should get your bags scanned but never oay for it and they obviously don’t enforce the process at all. I’m not sure why all of the official immigration people allowed this man to clearly be scamming us inside the building right in front on their eyes, but it happened so just be aware. Only pay the fees I have mentioned and when in doubt ask to speak to another officer.
Besides that, the money exchangers are everywhere and people trying to sell way over priced bus tickets. Get in and get out! Get out of the immigration area right after you are done, pass through the gates and get on a big chicken bus to Rivas.
Step 4) Go from Penas Blancas to Rivas
The chicken bus should be waiting just outside of the immigration gates, and if it is not there it should be in a couple minutes. The bus costs $1 USD or 30 Cordoba’s. This is way cheaper than the other options which are $10 USD. The ride will take about one hour and finish at the main bus terminal in Rivas. Do not get off the bus before this or you will end up paying an exuberant price for a taxi to San Juan del Sur.
Step 5) Rivas to San Juan del Sur
The Rivas bus terminal looks like an overcrowded parking lot as well as market place. It is crazy! Just watch your belongings and tell all of the people shouting at you “bus” and “San Juan” and eventually someone will point you in the right direction. Taxi drivers may tell you that there is no bus, this is a lie. There is always a bus! Pay 40 Cordobas and it will take about an hour.
And that’s it! You will be in San Juan del Sur, ready for some surf and some drinks. Check out beginners guide to surfing in San Juan del Sur, or our visitors guide here.
Hopefully this guide makes the idea of going from Costa Rica to Nicaragua less daunting!
Please comment if you have any questions or anything or add. Thanks!