Crossing the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica was probably the most stressful part of our entire trip. The buildings and signs do not look official at all so it is hard to tell whether anything is real. We’ve heard stories about tourists being ripped off by people telling hem they need to pay this or that fee or tax, and the people aren’t government officials. During the whole experience we really didn’t know what was what so we never felt comfortable.
We left La Isla de Ometepe on a Sunday afternoon ferry to San Jorge where we had to say our good-byes to Ryan, Alouette, Bruce, and Ian. Ryan and Alouette were headed up to Granada for a couple of days before flying home (to Canada and The Netherlands, respectively). Bruce and Ian were returning to Playa Popoyo where they are spending the rest of their summer vacation. Drew and I were on our way to Costa Rica to find some volcanic hot springs to relax in.
We arranged a taxi to drive us from San Jorge to Peñas Blancas, the border town on the Nicaragua side. It was about a 40 minute drive and we negotiated the cost down to $20. When we got to the border, the driver got us as close as he could and dropped us off. There were no signs or anything indicating where we were supposed to go. There was a long fence and some small houses scattered around but that was about it. We started walking along the fence, looking for the entrance but came to a dead-end. There was a woman near us so we asked her, in Spanish, “where is Costa Rica?” It seemed the clearest way to get our point across. She pointed back down the fence a ways and we saw an overhang where there was in fact a gate. Somehow we had walked right past it without even noticing.
We went back to the gate, showed our passports, and walked through. Now we were walking in a large open area where there were trucks and cars in line to go through. We started walking one way, probably looking quite lost, when a truck driver got our attention and waved us another way. We crossed the lines of cars and headed toward some buildings that were at least starting to look a little more official. As we were walking, a man in a TransNica polo shirt came up to us and asked us where were headed. When we told him, “Liberia, Costa Rica” he told us that we could take the TransNica bus there for $12 each. That sounded good to us so we told him we would do that and he pointed us in the direction of the Customs & Immigration building where we needed to go fill out some forms and pay a fee. We walked into the building and a woman, not in any uniform, said we need to pay her $1 each but wasn’t able to explain to us in English what it was for. Drew was skeptical and refused to pay so we proceeded up to the windows where the uniformed officials were working. The lady came up behind us and told him that we hadn’t paid the $1 and he said he couldn’t help us until we paid her. Still not sure it was official, we went ahead and paid her, showed him our passports, paid him some more, and we were on our way.
We then went and waited by the bus we were going to be taking to Liberia. We weren’t allowed to wait on the bus so we had to stand out front for awhile. A large group of people had gathered around and then a TransNica employee showed up with a pile of passports and began calling names. I realized that these people had already been on the bus, probably from Managua, and TransNica had taken care of the border-crossing logistics and now they were re-loading the bus. After all the names were called, we were allowed on the bus as well and found a pair of seats in an exit row, which just like on an airplane gave us some extra leg room. When everyone was on, we were on our way…for about 2 minutes. Then it was time to stop and get off the bus again, with all of our stuff, to go through the Costa Rica Customs & Immigration office. We had to go through a security checkpoint, just like at the airport, then go into the office to fill out another form and have our passports stamped. At the same time, Costa Rica was playing Greece in the World Cup and the game was on TV behind the counter so the workers were being especially slow at helping us as they kept turning around to watch the game. Finally we made it through and we were back on the bus.
The bus ride was surprisingly comfortable with free wi-fi and coffee service. In about an hour we arrived in Liberia and were dropped off on the side of the highway in front of a gas station, McDonalds, Burger King, and Papa Johns. The second I set my foot off the bus, the entire population around me burst out in cheers. As exciting as my arrival was, they were in fact cheering because Costa Rica had won the game against Greece. “Olé, Olé, Olé, Olé, Tico, Tico!” was being chanted all around, everyone was wearing red, white, and blue, and Costa Rican flags were being flown from every car and building in the street.
After a delicious lunch of Papa Johns pizza, we walked down the main street of Liberia and witnessed a remarkable spontaneous parade of cars that appeared to go on for miles. We had planned to walk around to check out a couple of hotels in town but soon realized it was going to be difficult to get anywhere, not to mention it would be difficult to sleep with the party going on. We decided to head out to the Hilton Garden Inn by the Liberia airport for a little bit of US comfort before renting a car the next morning and heading inland to Volcan Arenal. More to come on that adventure in another post.
Five days later we were back at the Hilton Garden Inn for the Fourth of July to spend the night before trekking back to Nicaragua the following day. When we arrived in Liberia on the Fourth we went to McDonalds as it seemed a fitting place to celebrate the USA. After lunch we went into town to buy tickets for the TicaBus to Granada, Nicaragua for the next day. I felt like we were on Amazing Race as I was running around looking for this small hotel where I was to buy the tickets and we were on a time crunch because we had to return the rental car in less than 30 minutes. I finally found it and purchased two tickets for $27 each for the late afternoon bus. Unfortunately they didn’t have availability any earlier than that, as we had hoped to get into Granada with at least half a day to spare. We got the rental car back in time and enjoyed a relaxing evening by the pool.
The next day, we headed into town to wait for the TicaBus which would pick up in front of a hotel right next to the McDonalds. The hotel had a restaurant so we sat down and had lunch while we waited for the bus. Coincidentally, the Costa Rica vs. Netherlands game was going on at this time and unfortunately that game didn’t turn out so well for Costa Rica. When the bus finally came a little after 4:00 (we were originally told they would come at 3:30), we hopped on and made our way toward the back to find a pair of seats. It was looking like we would have to separate but then a man got up and, gesturing to a row of seats, was asking us something in Spanish. It seemed as if he was offering the seats so we thanked him and sat down. Another guy kept asking us something though and there was a lot of confusion before he walked away muttering, “gringos!” Finally a couple of girls from Texas told us that our tickets had seat numbers on them and they had been asking us whether those were our assigned seats. It was all so clear, now! I looked at our tickets and sure enough, we were in the correct seats! What a relief!
We were on our way north back to the Nicaraguan border, in the correct seats, though not quite as comfy as on the way down as we had much less room and no free wi-fi or coffee. At some point along the way, a TicaBus employee handed us the Customs & Immigration forms we would need to fill out and then collected the entrance fee for Nicaragua. From what we could tell, the fee is actually $10 but they charged us $14, probably as some sort of service fee. At this point we thought we were all set for a smooth border crossing, as TicaBus was supposed to take care of everything for us.
When we arrived to the border, we got out on the Costa Rica side and went up to the counter with our forms all filled out and ready to go. The man at the counter asked for our receipt and we said we had paid on the TicaBus. We went back and forth, clearly confused, before he finally just walked us back out to the TicaBus guy to help us out. The TicaBus employee explained that we needed to pay a $7 exit tax first and pointed us off in the opposite direction toward some old houses on the side of the road and said to go to the yellow one. We hustled over there and went inside where there was yet another very unofficial looking counter and a woman asked for our passports and $8 each. We said, “isn’t it $7?” and she said there was a $1 service fee. We were so sick of this, we just paid it and rushed back to the other building. We seemed to be the only ones who had to go pay this tax and everyone else was already lining back up to get on the bus. We got back to the first counter, showed our receipts, and got our passports stamped.
Now it was time to get back on the bus to make the 2 minute drive over to the Nicaraguan side. As we boarded the bus, the TicaBus employees collected one of the forms we filled out along with our passports. They would be taking care of having everyone’s passport checked on the Nicaragua side. Once there, we got off the bus again with all of our stuff and followed some other people up to where there was an extremely long table on which people were putting all of their bags. We followed suit and put our backpacks on the table where we stood next to them and waited. Apparently this is Nicaragua’s version of a security checkpoint. Someone came by, collecting one of the many forms we filled out, looked at our bags, and gave us the nod of approval to go back and stand by the door to the bus. We stood there for a very long time until finally the TicaBus personnel were back and began calling us by name, returning our passports to us as we boarded the bus. We were finally on our way to Granada. The drive was almost 2 hours and it was dark when we arrived, but we made it. We were exhausted and so happy to be off the bus, ready to experience our last few days in Nicaragua.