You cannot cross into Nicaragua or Panamá with a rental car; you can only do so with your own vehicle. If it has Costa Rican plates, you’ll need a special permit from the Registro Nacional (tel. 506/2202-0800). It’s good for 15 days and must be obtained in person from the main office in Curridabat, San José. There’s also a Registro Nacional in Liberia. Visa requirements are always in flux, so check in advance with the Nicaraguan or Panamanian embassy.
Crossing the Border into Nicaragua
Citizens of Canada, the United States, and most European and Central and South American nations do not need visas to enter Nicaragua. A tourist visa is issued at the border ($10 Mon.-Fri., $11 Sat.-Sun., good for three months). You can cross into Nicaragua for 72 hours and renew your 30- or 90-day Costa Rican visa if you want to return to Costa Rica to stay longer. A 72-hour transit visa for Nicaragua costs $1.
Peñas Blancas: Most people arriving from Nicaragua do so at Peñas Blancas, in northwest Costa Rica. This is a border post, not a town. The Costa Rican and Nicaraguan posts are contiguous. The border (Costa Rican Immigration, tel. 506/2677-0064) is open 6am-8pm daily. There are no signs telling you how to negotiate the complicated procedures; hence touts will rush up to you offering assistance when you arrive at Peñas Blancas. First you must get an exit form, which you complete and return with your passport. Then walk 600 meters (0.4 miles) to the border, where your passport will be validated (it must have at least six months remaining before it expires). Southbound, you may be required to pay an exit fee ($2) leaving Nicaragua, plus a $1 stamp; the Costa Rica tourist card is free. If you’re asked for proof of an onward ticket when entering Costa Rica, you can buy a bus ticket—valid for 12 months—back to Nicaragua at the bus station at Peñas Blancas. If you’re driving south, your car will be fumigated upon entering Costa Rica ($4). Northbound, on the Nicaraguan side, go to the immigration building, where you’ll pay $10 for a 30-day tourist visa, plus a $1 municipal stamp, and if you’re driving, plus $25 for your car. Then complete a customs declaration sheet, present it with your passport, and proceed to the customs inspection, in the next building along. Then take your papers to the gate for final inspection. The wait in line can be several hours. Count on at least an hour for the formalities, and be sure to have all the required documents in order or you may as well get back on the bus to San José.
Cross-border buses ($1) depart from here every hour for Rivas, a small town about 40 kilometers (25 miles) north of the border. Colectivo (shared) taxis also run regularly between the border and Rivas, the nearest Nicaraguan town with accommodations. Buses fill fast—get there early. The bus terminal contains the Oficina de Migración (immigration office, tel. 506/2679-9025), a bank, a restaurant, and the Costa Rican Tourism Institute (ICT, tel. 506/2677-0138). Change money before crossing into Nicaragua; you get a better exchange rate on the Costa Rican side. Transportes Deldú (tel. 506/2256-9072) buses depart San José for La Cruz and Peñas Blancas (6 hours, $8) from Calle 20, Avenidas 1 and 3, hourly 3am-7pm daily. Local buses depart Liberia for Peñas Blancas via La Cruz every 45 minutes 5:30am-6:30pm daily.
Los Chiles: In 2010 plans were confirmed for a border crossing to be established at Tablillas, seven kilometers (4.5 miles) north of Los Chiles, where there’s an Oficina de Migración (immigration office, by the wharf, tel. 506/2471-1233, 8am-6pm daily). The Nicaraguans are building a bridge over the Río San Juan, expected to be completed in 2014. Until it opens, foreigners can cross into Nicaragua by a colectivo (shared water taxi) that departs Los Chiles for San Carlos de Nicaragua ($10 pp) at 11am (it departs when full, which often isn’t until 1:30pm) and 2:30pm daily.
Northbound, Ticabus (Ave. 3, Calles 26/28, reservations tel. 506/2248-9636, terminal tel. 506/2223-8680) has express service from San José to Nicaragua ($32) and El Salvador ($58) at 3am daily; and regular service for Nicaragua ($21), El Salvador ($53), and Guatemala ($74) at 6am, 7:30am, and 12pm daily. Transnica (Calle 22, Aves. 3/5, tel. 506/2223-4242) has express service from San José to Nicaragua ($34) at noon daily, plus regular service ($23) at 4am, 5am, and 9am daily.
Southbound, Ticabus (tel. 505/222-6094) buses depart Managua at 6am, 7am, and noon daily (regular); and Transnica Bus departs Managua at 5am, 7am, and 10am daily (regular), plus noon daily (express).
Crossing the Border into Panamá
Citizens of Canada, the United States, and most European and Central and South American nations do not need visas to enter Panamá. A tourist visa ($5, good for 30 days) is issued at the border.
Paso Canoas: The main crossing point is on the Pan-American Highway. The border posts have been open 24 hours, but hours are subject to change (at press time, they were open 6am-10pm daily). If you don’t have a ticket out of the country, you can buy a Tracopa bus ticket in David to Paso Canoas and back. A bus terminal on the Panamanian side offers service to David, the nearest town (90 minutes), every hour or two until 7pm daily. Buses leave from David for Panamá City (7 hours; last bus 5pm daily). Panamanian border guards may require proof that you have a ticket out of the country; there have been reports of disreputable guards at Paso Canoas causing problems for tourists. It’s best to buy your return ticket in advance in Costa Rica.
First, get a Costa Rica exit visa from migración (tel. 506/2732-2150) by the Tracopa bus terminal 400 meters (0.25 miles) west of the border post, where you can buy your Panamá tourist card. No rental vehicles are permitted, and private cars are usually fumigated ($5). Still, it’s very easy to accidentally drive through this border post without realizing it. The post is crowded, confusing, and has no barriers. I’ve done it twice, and no one stopped me. Simply turn around and drive back.
Sixaola: This rather squalid village on the Caribbean coast sits on the north bank of the Río Sixaola. Its counterpart is Guabito, on the Panamanian side of the river. The two are linked by a bridge. The Costa Rican Customs and Immigration offices (tel. 506/2754-2044, 7am-5pm daily) are on the west end of the bridge. Time in Panamá is one hour later than in Costa Rica. The Panamanian office (tel. 507/759-7952), on the east end of the bridge, is open 8am-6pm daily.
Minibuses operate a regular schedule from Guabito to Changuinola (16 kilometers/10 miles) and Almirante (30 kilometers/19 miles). Taxis are available at all hours to Changuinola ($8), from where you can take a water taxi to Bocas del Toro ($5) or fly or catch a bus onward to the rest of Panamá.
Río Sereno: There’s another crossing between Costa Rica and Panamá, at the remote mountain border post of Río Sereno, east of San Vito, in the Pacific southwest. Costa Rican Immigration (tel. 506/2784-0130) and Panamanian Immigration (tel. 507/722-8054) are 50 meters (165 feet) apart and open 8am-5pm daily.
Southbound, Tracopa (tel. 506/2221-4214) express buses leave from Avenida 5, Calle 14, in San José for Paso Canoas at 4:30pm daily and for David in Panamá (8 hours, $9) at 7:30am and noon daily. It also has slower service to Paso Canoas at 5am, 1pm, and 6:30pm daily.
Northbound, Tracopa express buses depart David at 8:30am and noon daily. Ticabus (reservations tel. 506/2248-9636, terminal tel. 506/2223-8680) buses depart Avenida 4, Calles 9 and 11, in San José for Panamá City at 11pm (executive, $37) and noon (regular, $26) daily. Return buses (tel. 507/314-6385) depart Panamá City at 11am (executive) and 11pm (regular) daily. Transporte Mepe (tel. 506/2257-8129) buses depart the Gran Caribe terminal in San José for Sixaola and Changuinola (8 hours, $10) at 10am daily. Return buses depart Changuinola at 10am daily.
Excerpted from the Ninth Edition of Moon Costa Rica.