Because we’re living in Costa Rica on tourist visas, we need to leave the country every 90 days in order to renew our visas. There are so many different rumors about what the actual laws are concerning these visa runs, and no one seems to know the answer for sure. (Well, many think they know the answer, but there are a lot of contradictory opinions).
Even the officials at the border disagree on whether you need to be out of the country for 72 hours, or whether you can pay $100 instead of leaving the country, or whether you have to go to a different country each time you leave. We decided to play it safe and try for the 72 hour exit, since we wanted to see what Nicaragua was like anyway.
We chose to visit San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, a Pacific beach town on the south end of Nicaragua, about 45 minutes from the Costa Rican border. We ran into several hang-ups and red tape that changed our plans a little, but it all turned out okay. Here is our experience crossing the border.
Driving a Car Out of Costa Rica Requires Paperwork
We’ve decided that we like having a car, since it allows us to stop when we want and explore different areas more easily. However, we learned the day before we left, that in order to take a car out of Costa Rica, you actually need to get permission from the Registro Publico (Public Registry). So we went to an office in Alajeula (about 40 minutes from Grecia), waited in line, paid about $12 and got some stamps put on a piece of paper giving us permission to take the car out of the country.
However, since we just bought the car last week, our name was not yet on the public record for the car. It still looked like it was owned by the previous owner. And we found that we didn’t have any “official” looking documentation proving that we actually owned the car – kind of scary. We were told this could cause us some problems at the border. I tried to call and e-mail the previous owner’s lawyer to find out how I could get something more official proving that I bought the car, but she never returned my calls.
We kept checking the public registry website to see if my name had hit the records, but as of the morning we left, it hadn’t. Here is the website to check the registry. You just need the plate number of your car:
Despite the possible issues, we decided to drive to Nicaragua anyway, instead of taking a bus. It would be both cheaper and faster, and there was still a chance we would be able to take it across. It was about a 4 hour drive to the border, and while the officials were mostly friendly, we were told that unless the car is registered in my name, we won’t be able to cross. I had my iPhone with me and checked the public registry on-line one last time, and lo and behold, my name was on the registry! That should do it, I thought! This proves I own the car. They will let us through.
However, the papers we got stamped previously still had the name of the former owner on them. So, in order to cross the border, we would have to drive one hour back to the town of Liberia, go to the public registry office there, and get some new papers stamped with the new registry record (with my name on them). Unfortunately, it was already 4:30pm, and the office closes at 5:00. This would require us to stay a night in Liberia, which we didn’t want to do, since we wanted to be back in Grecia Friday night, just over 72 hours away.
Walking to Nicaragua
We decided to park the car at the border and walk across, taking a taxi to our hotel. There is an Alamo car rental office 150 meters from the border where we paid $10/day to park our car. We tried to walk across, but then realized that we needed our passports stamped before we could cross, so we went to yet another office, where someone gave us paperwork to fill out, and then wanted a tip. A tip for giving me paperwork? That seems a bit odd, especially considering that tipping is not customary in Costa Rica. I gave him a few cents which got some laughs (at us, not with us). Oh well.
There was then another man who offered to help us get a taxi, and also walked us through to yet another office on the Nicaragua side of the border where we needed to pay $7 for each passport to get it checked. I’m not sure what this was about, as they were already stamped, and the stamp was free. Once we got in the taxi, we were told there would be another $1 fee for each adult, but we were never asked to pay it. Very strange.
The guy who helped us through all of that wanted a tip, too. I didn’t have anything less than a $5, and he’d helped us for about 20 minutes and answered lots of our questions, found us a taxi, and also promised to be here to help us on our return (which didn’t happen), so I gave it to him. He looked down at it as if he was disappointed, and walked away sulking. Okay, that kind of ingratitude makes me not want to tip at all. I’m not sure what he’s used to getting, but that wasn’t a small tip considering what these people make per hour. Not a great impression on Nicaragua so far…
Our passports were checked probably 4-5 times throughout the border crossing process, and the whole thing took about 90 minutes. There wasn’t much of a line, fortunately, because it was near the end of the day. If we had all our paperwork in order, we probably could have made it through in 30 minutes. On our way back, the lines were a little longer, but we knew what to do at this point, so got through it in under 30 minutes, and without any people “helping” us for a tip.
Steps for Crossing the Border to Nicaragua
It’s a bit crazy doing this for the first time because there are no signs telling you where to go first, or what you need to do depending on your circumstances. So here is a summary of the steps for crossing the border from Costa Rica to Nicaragua (in the northwest):
- If you’re driving your car across, get a stamp at the Costa Rica Public Registry giving you permission to take the car out of the country. (You must go into the office to get the stamps). Make sure your car registration is in your name before you try to do this. Or if it’s in a corporation, make sure you have the documentation stating you own the corporation.
- When you get to the border, stop at the big office and get your passports stamped. If you don’t get paperwork from the guys outside who want tips, you’ll probably need to grab it at the front desk and find a place to fill it out. But bring your own pen, as there was only one in the entire office, so I couldn’t start filling out the forms until I was first in line.
- Walk or drive through the border. Show the officer your passports and documentation. Hopefully they’ll let you through, and not make you go back somewhere for more documentation.
- If you need to park your car at the border, there’s an Alamo where you can park for $10/day (it didn’t look that secure, but our car was fine).
- Wait in line at another building and pay $7-8/per passport to have someone check your passport. If you’re driving, you may have to park and wait in line at each of these buildings. Or maybe they do it for you in your car. I’m not sure.
- If taking a taxi, you need to walk another 5 minutes or so past all the big trucks and then turn left. There will be a bunch of broken down looking cars. These are taxis. Most don’t have seat belts. Expect to pay $20-25 to get to San Juan del Sur. (Some may try to charge you $30.)
- Enjoy the drive to San Juan del Sur. You pass part of the giant lake Nicaragua with the two volcanoes coming out. Quite a beautiful view at sunset.