Peñas Blacas is a relatively easy location to cross the border

Peñas Blancas on the Costa Rican side of the border is caught at an unusually quiet time with no lines. A.M. Costa Rica/Shahrazad Encinias Vela

Whatever the reason, a vacation to Granada, a visa renewal or job-related journey, the land border crossing at Peñas Blancas between Nicaragua and Costa Rica remains a popular and relatively painless choice for travelers looking to go back and forth between the two neighboring countries.

Although one can use a car and drive the crossing, another choice is to take one of the many bus lines that offer travel from San José to Managua. TicaBus, TransNica, and King Quality are three of the major firms providing bus service from Costa Rica to Nicaragua. Round-trip prices range from around $50 for standard accommodations to $90 or more for a seat on an executive bus that often provides food and can have a slightly faster time

In Costa Rica most of the stations are found in downtown San José. Passengers can get off at almost any point along the route, but the most popular destinations in Nicaragua are just a little after the border where one can catch another bus to San Juan del Sur, in Granada or the end of the line in Managua.

There is usually no price reduction for getting off before the end of the line.

Most of the major lines are very similar to long-distance passenger buses in the United States with comfortable seats, window curtains, foot rests and ample luggage storage. Typically, movies are shown during the bus trip, and air conditioning keeps the cabin cool. The bus amenities are known to malfunction, so travelers must pray that the failure is in the television instead of the air conditioner while traveling through the daytime heat heading toward the border.

Departure times vary for the different buses. The trip to Managua from San José lasts about 8 to 10 hours. The border crossing at Peñas Blancas is the biggest variable when it comes to travel time. But if all goes well, the process is simple. A stop made at a restaurant along the way is typical but delays travel time a bit.

The exact border crossing process may vary for each line but this is how it is done for TransNica passengers:

Upon arrival at the Costa Rican side of the border passengers leave the bus and wait in what can be a long line to receive a passport exit stamp. Then the traveler re-boards the bus, and the bus driver’s assistant collects passports along with a fee (about $13 to enter Nicaragua and $6 to leave). When the bus arrives at the Nicaraguan border, an immigration official reviews them and stamps the passports with entry stamps. Meanwhile, passengers step off the bus, and officials look over and sometimes inspect luggage.

Then passports are returned to the passengers, and the bus continues toward its destination. Travelers who are U.S. citizens as well as Costa Ricans receive 90 days on a tourist visa. There is no charge on the Costa Rican side to enter or leave by land.

The process is done in reverse for re-entering Costa Rica. The passports are collected in bulk on the Nicaraguan side along with the fee while the passengers mingle. While on the Costa Rican side travelers must wait in line and present their passports in person. Also officers at a Fuerza Pública checkpoint a little past the border stop and review all the passports of the passengers who just entered the country.

Also important is to find the proper times and locations to catch the return bus from Nicaragua to Costa Rica. The stations in Granada are not large like those in the capital cities, and the times can vary based on the traffic en route from the main stations. Passengers should arrive early and make sure to know where the bus will pick them up.

Perpetual tourists sometimes make the trip four times a year.

These are foreigners who live here but who have declined to seek residency. A big danger for them is to receive something less than a 90-day Costa Rican visa upon reentering the country. They also are supposed to show an air or bus ticket proving that they will be leaving the country at the expiration of their visa. Immigration officials have been tightening up access to the country, and one U.S. visitor received just a 13-day visa on a recent trip. Those who are making the border crossing for the first time frequently can get advice and help from expats who have made the crossing frequently. Each bus usually has a large number of perpetual tourists.

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