“Border hops” or “visa runs” are an inevitable fact of life for the expat living in Costa Rica on a tourist visa. The rule is that as a “perpetual tourist” you must leave the country every 90 days for 72 hours. Some folks we know that have been living in Costa Rica for years as a perpetual tourist say they don’t leave for 72 hours exactly. In other words, they hop across to Nicaragua or Panama for a few hours then re-enter Costa Rica. I am not brave enough to try that yet, so for our first border hop, we went to San Juan del Sur (SJDS), Nicaragua for 4 nights.
Monteverde to SJDS
We chose the easy but expensive way to get to SJDS. We took the 4:30 am (!) public bus from Monteverde to Las Irmas. The restaurant there was closed when we arrived at 6:30 am, but the gas station was open. We were able to get snacks (packaged empanadas and muffins) and bottled water as well as take a bathroom break. Then we took the “Central Line” bus from Las Irmas to Penas Blancas (the border crossing) and in to Rivas, Nicaragua .
Travel Tip: The Central Line buses have a nice clean toilet but no toilet paper. Bring your own toilet paper or tissues. Bring hand gel too. Also, on the return trip we were told that we could only urinate in the toilets so try to do your other business before you get on the bus.
We purchased our bus tickets at the Vista al Golfo Hostel in Monteverde, which cost $70 per person round trip. Ouch! But for our first border hop I wanted to take the easy route.
Travel Tip: Take your passports when you go purchase your border hop bus tickets. The bus company needs them to expedite the border crossing process.
There is a “border assistant” on the Central Line bus that makes things pretty easy. He told use when/where to get off in the Costa Rica side to get our passports stamped, and he collected our money for the Costa Rica exit tax. Then he took all of our passports and got them stamped in the Nicaragua side. We still had to get off the bus in the Nicaragua side for customs to inspect and fumigate the bus, but it was not bad. The weather was nice and cool.
Travel Tip: As soon as you cross the Costa Rica border, there are people on the other side of the fence exchanging colones (Costa Rica currency), cordovas (Nica currency), and US dollars. Their exchange rate is terrible, but it is a convenient way to get cordovas quickly before you can get to a bank. Most places in Nicaragua will not take colones. Most places in Nicaragua will take USD. Most places in Costa Rica will not take cordovas. So don’t feel like you need to exchange a whole lot of money.
Once we got to Rivas, we took a cab to SJDS. The taxis are waiting at the bus stop. Ours charged us $20 USD to get to Rivas, but next time I plan to negotiate a better price.
We stayed at Casa Mamacitas in SJDS. It is a cute house I found for a great price through VRBO. The house is located about a 5-10 minute walk from the beach and the town where there are many dining options. The only bad thing is that the Pali grocery store is a good 1 mile or so out of town. Esperanza, the caretaker who lives next door, walked with me to the grocery store and then we took a cab back to the house. The grocery store is not well stocked but I managed to get enough food for 4 simple dinners and 3 breakfasts for less than $40 USD.
The house is in a typical Nicaraguan neighborhood. It is not for anyone looking for a luxury villa in a tourist area. There are kids, dogs, and chickens all over the place. The roosters will crow at 4 am! There is no internet or AC. This house is for someone looking for a nice place to stay at a decent price who wants to experience “real” Nicaragua. The house was nice and clean and we had plenty of privacy, and we definitely plan to come back for another border hop.
Our favorite place to eat was El Gato Negro. They have great sandwiches, coffee, and they also have a great bookstore! Chris and I bought several books each. We also ate at a couple of spots on the water front, Henry’s Iguana and Restaurante Vivian, which were both good and fair priced.
We essentially hung out on the beach all day. The beach was clean and not crowded at all. The surf was much more gentle than Costa Rican beaches we had been to in Manuel Antonio and Dominical so I felt comfortable with the kids playing on the beach by themselves.
Travel Tip: Theft is a big problem in Nicaragua. Just take a towel and sunscreen with you down to the beach. Leave the iPhones, cameras, etc in the hotel or wherever you are staying. We all shared one towel.
SJDS to Monteverde
On our last day in Nicaragua, we took a cab from SJDS to Rivas. Taxis are easy to find in SJDS.
Travel Tip: Taxis in both Rivas and SJDS were not like in Monteverde, where they know exactly where everything is. So make sure you have good directions wherever you are going because the taxi driver may need them.
We had lunch at a typical Nicaraguan restaurant in Rivas and then took the Central Line bus to Sardinal. About 10 minutes after we got to the bus stop at the Sardinal gas station, the public bus up to Monteverde drove up towards us. We hailed it and we were able to get to Monteverde that night. I had been worried that we would not make it!
Travel Tip: When re-entering Costa Rica, make sure you have documentation of your exit out of the country within 90 days. We were asked at the border to show proof that we were leaving within 90 days! We bought a fully refundable flight out of Costa Rica which we used when we first got here in June and we used it again for this border hop. We cancelled it and were fully refunded before the required date.
Overall, we had a successful first border hop. For our next one in October, we are planning on going to Bocas del Toro, Panama to get away from the peak of rainy season.