Peñas Blancas and the Costa Rica Border

A row of colorful buses waiting at the station in Rivas.

For the confident traveler, Nicaraguan buses leave the market in Rivas every 30–45 minutes.
Photo by StevesWorldOfPhotos licensed Creative Commons Attribution No-Derivatives.

Map of San Juan del Sur and the Southwest Coast, Nicaragua

San Juan del Sur and the Southwest Coast

Peñas Blancas is the official border crossing into Costa Rica. A major effort is underway, with financing from the United States, to make this border crossing a bottleneck and entrapment point for drug traffickers headed north. Many of the buildings you see in the compound are inspection points for the hundreds of tractor-trailers that cross the border every day. Needless to say, this is one place you don’t want to be caught smuggling furs. Sniffing dogs are common.

Border hassles can last anywhere from 1–10 hours! The longest waits happen at times when the hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguans living across the border are traveling to and from their country—this happens a week before and after Christmas, Easter, and any Nicaraguan election.

The best time of day to cross is during early evening; usually you can squeeze through in under an hour.


Crossing the Border

Hours and Fees

The border is open 6 a.m.–10 p.m. Monday–Saturday; on Sunday it closes at 8 p.m. There is a fee for exiting ($2–5) and entering ($10–13) Nicaragua.

Inside the customs and immigration compound, find a branch of Bancentro, which can help you change money if necessary. Its schedule is generally tied to that of the border post itself.

Paperwork

Just a passport and some cash is all that’s required of North American and European travelers, but don’t forget to get stamped on both sides of the border to avoid subsequent headaches! To enter Costa Rica, Nicaraguan citizens must have a Costa Rican visa from the consulate either in Rivas or Managua. Upon entering Nicaragua, most North American and European travelers are granted a 90-day visa, with the exception of Canadian and Japanese citizens, who for some reason are given only 30 days.

By law, folks entering Costa Rica must have a ticket to leave the country. They usually don’t check, as long as you’re dressed like you have money. If they do check, you lose your place in line and go to the table outside, where Transportes Deldu will sell you an open-ended ticket from San José to Peñas Blanca for $11.

Entering Nicaragua with Your Vehicle

If you are driving your own vehicle, the process to enter Nicaragua from Costa Rica is lengthy but usually not too difficult (rental vehicles cannot cross the border). You’ll present your title (Titulo de la Propiedad), as well as your driver’s license and passport, and will pay a $17 vehicle entry fee. Get proper stamps from Hacienda (Timbres de Hacienda), and a property certificate from Hacienda. Also make sure you have a current tag and Tico insurance; all of this can be taken care of in the town of Liberia, just to the south.

You will be given a temporary (30-day) permit to drive in Nicaragua that will cost $10—should you lose the permit, you will be fined $100. Travelers driving their own vehicles north from the border will be forced to pass through a dubious “sterilization process” on the Nica side, in which the exterior of the vehicle is sprayed with a mystery liquid to kill porcine and bovine diseases; it costs $1 and takes five minutes unless the line is long. Roll up the windows.

Getting to Peñas Blancas

International bus services like TicaBus are popular ways to get across the border easily and comfortably, the best service being the new TransNica Plus, since you travel with 30 instead of 55 passengers. In many cases, the bus has a helper who collects your passports and money and waits in line for you. The disadvantage is that the bus won’t pull away from the border post until every single traveler has had their papers processed, which can be time-consuming in some cases (waits up to four hours are not unheard of).

More confident travelers like to take a Nicaraguan bus to the border, walk across to Costa Rica, and take a Costa Rican bus to San José, which is often faster. Express buses from Managua to Peñas Blancas depart Mercado Huembes at 5 a.m., 8 a.m., 9:30 a.m., and 3:30 p.m. Buses and microbuses leave the market in Rivas every 30–45 minutes. On the Costa Rican side, the last bus leaves the border bound for San José at 10 p.m. (about a six-hour ride).


Continuing into Costa Rica

After crossing the border, you’ve got two choices: Buy a ticket to San José from the TransNica booth across from customs ($10 pp); the ride takes 6–8 hours, with departures daily at 5 a.m., 7 a.m., 9 a.m. direct, 10 a.m., 1 p.m. direct. Or, get a Liberia–Pulmitan bus to Liberia ($3 pp, two hours, last bus at 5:30 p.m., 506/2256-9522). From Liberia, 14 daily buses go to San José (3–5 hours); buses leave every 20 minutes to the Nicoya Peninsula and its beaches.

Liberia, the capital of Guanacaste, is also a good base for Santa Rosa National Park (where William Walker and company were resoundingly defeated) and Rincón de la Vieja National Park, with impressive volcanoes.

In fact, Guanacaste used to belong to Nicaragua and some say it still feels connected, or at least socially and physically independent of Costa Rica proper. Many locals still have family in Nicaragua, and this is the only department with its own flag.


Excerpted from the Fifth Edition of Moon Nicaragua.

Leave a Reply

7 Comments

  1. Phillip Whiting says:

    Very informative, thanks!

  2. jc says:

    Unfortunately we just got burned using this…showed up to Penas Blancas at 830pm, and there were no buses at all the rest of night, not even at 10pm…next bus wasn’t until 3 am!

    • Kimi Owens (admin) says:

      Hi jc,

      Oh no! Because times/schedules and hours of operation change so frequently (and locations can close even between the time of research and publication, let alone in a full year) we do always try and provide a phone number so that travelers can double-check the information listed. I’m sorry we weren’t able to do that in this case.

  3. william shaffer says:

    You have the best instructions of all the information I have found yet. God bless you.
    – William

  4. Eric Loucks says:

    Yes, thanks for providing accurate info. If I may add to it, my family bought TicaBus tickets to Managua at the main office in San José a couple weeks ahead of time in July 2014. This is not really the high season. Seats are reserved and fill up fast on the “tourist class” busses. About $27 each seat. You will need to give them a copy of your passport; we didn’t figure out how to do that online. Maybe possible, but feel better doing things in person in CR. Be sure to tell them if you are going to Granada, Nicaragua, if you are. Not all the Managua busses stop there. I’m not a big fan of San Jose, but finding the TicaBus office was an adventure due to lack of normal addresses and signage.

    Seating is pretty casual once you get on the bus. Our family was accommodated, despite our four entirely disparate seat assignments (due to being nearly full). AC is cold, so bring one extra layer of clothing.

    We actually boarded our TicaBus in Liberia after ditching our rental car. You would have to change rental cars at the border, anyway. We had to pay full fare, despite using only about half of the ride. You sit in a big café at Hotel El Bramadero on a main North-South road in Liberia and just wait. There is no signage or clear organization, as typical in Costa Rica. Bus arrival time is based on traffic conditions after leaving San José. On one recent Saturday, it came around 10~11am. This was the 6am San José departure time bus. This is an express bus. They don’t wait for you, nor is the ETA specific. So be there early and get some good breakfast at a table with roadside view. The border crossing is still pretty crazy, just fill out all your forms quick and follow all the instructions carefully. Ignore hawkers and unwelcomed help.

    FYI, while waiting in Liberia, we were approached by a money changer who would give 24 Córdobas for one $1US. The wholesale rate was about 26. I thought this was a terrible deal and refused, despite his integrity being vouched for by the wait staff. I later learned there is not much difference between the black market rate and the official rate. This is supposedly because many places in Nicaragua take US dollars at close to the official rate. But for your local tienda, it feels more respectful to give the local currency. You could get 25/$1 with some searching. As in most places, the best rate is obtained when you withdraw your daily maximum at a local bank ATM ($300 for my bank, leaving about $10 room for fees).

  5. Cally Houck says:

    Hello Amber….we’re going to be in Nicaragua in mid-October for a few days, then friends will take us from San Juan del Sur to the Costa Rica border crossings where we’ll proceed to cross as pedestrians. Are buses available to take us on to Liberia once we cross into Costa Rica. Will we be able to catch a Pulmitan de Liberia or Tica bus, and do we need to buy the tickets in advance? Lovely blog you have. Great information.

  6. Colin Floyd says:

    We are staying 2 months in CR but plan on visiting Granada & San Juan del Sur during our stay. Is there somewhere I could safely park our rental car for 4 or 5 days at Penas Blancas? Or will we have to drop off our rental in Liberia and use the bus?
    Thanks.