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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! Here is how you can make this journey too and safely cross the border from Costa Rica to Nicaragua!
Crossing any border by land can be daunting, especially in Central America. The Costa Rica to Nicaragua border is no different and can be confusing to say to least.
Penas Blancas is the name of the border near the Pacific Ocean that is used by travelers 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. Pretty crazy, huh?!
Luckily, we got through without a hitch and are now able to help others make the same journey we did.
Here is our step-by-step guide for getting from Costa Rica to Nicaragua (anywhere between San Jose, Costa Rica to San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua) by local transport including tips for crossing the actual border at Penas Blancas.
Step 1: Get to the Liberia Bus Terminal
From San Jose
There will be various direct buses to Liberia from San Jose every hour from 6 am to 8 pm. Expect to pay about $8 USD and the trip takes about 4.5 hours.
If you aren’t spending any time in Liberia and plan on heading straight to Penas Blancas, I would advise catching the earliest bus possible to make it to 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 4:20 am or 6:30 am. These buses are going to Puntarenas, however, you will only ride it until you reach 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 town (not the morning of though as the terminal is closed, so you must buy the tickets the day before.) The bus costs about $2.50 USD. The bus is fairly comfortable but can take up to two hours.
We took the 4:20 am 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 4 am in Monteverde or Santa Elena to get to the bus station. You must prearrange this ride the night before with your hotel or hostel.
Get off the bus 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 watching 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.
Related read: La Fortuna is another beautiful tourist destination in Costa Rica, and you can easily get to the border from there too!
Step 2: Go from Liberia to Penas Blancas
The bus station in Liberia that 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 at the Liberia bus station and it will be much safer then waiting until the border to change money.
Heading to Nicaragua? Be sure to check out our complete Nicaragua travel guide, which includes information on what things cost, where to go, and other logistical info for travel!
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…
Exit Costa Rica
When you arrive you must pay the exit fee for Costa Rica. Strangely enough, this isn’t done 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 finding this place as many people will be yelling to sell you this ticket. It seems like a super strange process but without this ticket, immigration will not stamp your exit from Costa Rica.
Walk to the Nicaragua Entrance Office
After getting your exit stamp from Costa Rica immigration there will be men offering to give you a ride on tuk-tuks to the entry immigration office to 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 road, follow the massive line of big trucks until you reach the Nicaragua immigration office.
At the Nicaragua 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 the way we entered.
…and don’t get scammed!
As we were walking toward the final gate where they check all of your paperwork one last time before letting you in the country, a 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 $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 the scanner and a man came up to us asking for our passports and where we were going and for how long…and then for $10 USD. He was dressed in a professional uniform and wore a badge. Not to mention, was inside the immigration building right next to all of the other officers.
I thought, ‘there is no way we need to pay more money’ so 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 pay 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 of 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 overpriced 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 arrive in a couple of minutes.
The bus costs $1 USD or 30 Cordobas. 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 a huge price for a taxi to San Juan del Sur (if that is where you are headed.) Bus drivers will often stop at an intersection on the side of the road and yell San Juan del Sur. This is not San Juan del Sur, and you are a good 20-minute drive away. If you get off here, you will be stranded on the side of the road and have no choice but to pay hefty taxi prices.
Step 5: Rivas to San Juan del Sur
The Rivas bus terminal looks like an overcrowded parking lot as well as a marketplace. It is crazy! Just watch your belongings and ask various people “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. If you aren’t going to San Juan del Sur, the Rivas bus station offers plenty of other chicken buses to most other amazing destinations in Nicaragua.
And that’s it! You will be in San Juan del Sur ready to surf in no time!
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 about $50 USD per person, although we did hear rumors of getting it for $35 USD (I assume this is if you book last minute on an already nearly full shuttle and have great negotiation skills – which I definitely don’t have.)
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!
Hopefully, this guide makes the idea of going from Costa Rica to Nicaragua less daunting! It sounds like a long process but all up only ended up taking us half of the day. And while the border was hectic, it wasn’t busy and we didn’t have to wait in any lines.
At the end of the day, taking local transport is always more of a challenge, but a lot more rewarding once you have arrived and saved tons of money!
Please comment if you have any questions or anything or add. Thanks!
And, if you’re traveling more in Nicaragua, check out all of our Nicaragua blogs including some of our favorites below: