Costa RicaCosta Rica

Border Hopping

san juan del sur, nicaraguaRelocating to another country is a monumental decision for anyone. Before making the plunge, many choose to visit Costa Rica on a tourist visa -- sometimes for months or even years -- before determining exactly where to settle down. Depending on their nationality, foreigners are obligated to leave the country every 30 or 90 days for a minimum of 72 hours in order to renew their visas. These mini-vacations are often referred to as "visa runs" and are the perfect excuse for a romp in another country.

I occasionally spend my compulsory mini-vacations visiting the United States or Panama, but I usually jump on a northbound bus and zip to the beach town of San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, just a few hours from Liberia.

bus to penas blancas

First time treks to the Costa Rica-Nicaragua frontier at Penas Blancas can be either totally uneventful or completely chaotic. Going through customs and maneuvering past people trying to help you cross the border (for a fee) is often an exciting cultural experience.

For simplicity's sake, I always suggest that first-time travelers to the Nicaragua border take a direct bus service that includes completing passengers' paperwork. It's a bit more expensive, but the process is infinitely easier. Private bus companies offer such services for $40 round trip from San Jose or Liberia, while the public bus costs about $8 round trip.

passport

When you get to Penas Blancas, expect to wait between fifteen minutes and two hours for your Costa Rican exit stamp. Then it's a five-minute walk to Nicaragua's customs area, where you'll need to fill out a short form, pay a $8 entrance fee and obtain an arrival stamp. Panhandlers will try to convince you to purchase this form for a small fee. It is free at the customs booth, so don't pay them any attention.

Note that on both sides of the border, money changers loiter about the waiting lines offering to convert dollars to Nicagauan cordobas or Costa Rican colones. Their exchange rates are usually on par with those at banks; however, make sure you do the math before accepting their calculations. Or, just wait to change denominations in an official bank.

passport stamps

Thrifty shoppers will want to browse the duty-free stores at the border, where liquor, candy and electronics can be purchased at bargain prices. I have seen Flor de Cana Rum (aged seven years) priced as low as $15 for a 2.5 quart bottle, and 4GB SD camera memory cards for $35. Before you leave with your goods, be sure to ask if your purchase meets the limit allowed to take across the border. If the maximum is four bottles for a certain type of liquor and you buy five, you may have to give one away when you go through customs -- or guzzle it very, very quickly (not recommended).

one hour from the border

Due to high rates of petty crime in its urban areas, Nicaragua is considered somewhat dangerous. From my own experiences, I have found the country to be incredibly warm and friendly, and very safe to explore as a female traveler. As a precaution, the first thing I do (particularly when traveling alone) is to make some friends -- not only does this make the trip more fun, but there is safety in numbers.

The only 100% safe and legal way to permanently live in the beautiful country of Costa Rica is to apply for residency. Other methods of obtaining resident status include giving birth in Costa Rica (men, don't try this at home), as well as falling in love and marrying a Costa Rican. And don't forget to live happily ever after.

Border Hopping in Pictures