The Border Less Crossed: Costa Rica to Nicaragua at Las Tablillas

Donna at Nicaraguan Border

 

When traveling to Nicaragua from Costa Rica, most expats are more familiar with and opt for the border crossing in Guanacaste at Penas Blancas, Costa Rica.  Who can blame them?  After all, the gorgeous San Juan Del Sur beach and Lago Nicaragua is just on the other side.

Penas Blancas is a much further drive for us, so we decided to try the border crossing at Las Tablillas, in the province of Alajuela.

After a lovely overnight stay at the Baldi Hot Springs Hotel and Resort, my husband Scott and I made our way by driving to the Costa Rican/Nicaraguan border located just north of Los Chiles, Costa Rica.

In my previous post (Part 1 of our border run story), I mentioned that many of our expat friends recommended that we take an inexpensive sight-seeing boat trip from Los Chiles, Costa Rica to San Carlos, Nicaragua to cross the border to renew our visas.

Scott tried to book us on this boat trip, but he was told that there were not enough people interested to conduct the boat ride by the time we needed it.  Our visas were due to expire in less than a week, so we decided that crossing the border on foot at Las Tablillas was our best option given our limited time.  We also did not want to leave our car unattended overnight in Costa Rica, and we wanted to return home on the same day.

The drive from La Fortuna to Los Chiles is very pleasant.  The road is a newly paved two-lane black top, so in other words, the ride is super smooth.  There is not a pothole in sight.  Also, you are surrounded by pineapple fields that stretch out to the horizon.

 

Pineapple Fields on the way to Los Chiles
Pineapple Fields on the way to Los Chiles

 

This border crossing just north of Los Chiles (at Las Tablillas) is relatively new – it opened in May 2015 after the completion of a new bridge over the San Juan River in Nicaragua.  Unfortunately for now, there is not much there besides the two processing sites – one on the Costa Rican side, one on the Nicaraguan side.

 

As a non-Spanish speaker you may feel intimidated or more lost than others, but there are some signs in English to help you achieve the basic requirements to exit or enter the country.

Be Aware of Possible Requirements for Exiting/Entering

In my recent research, I have noted that there are a few items that may be required in crossing the border, it just depends on the border and the customs official that day.  Please note that border officials from either country may or may not ask you for these things.  We lucked out and they did not ask us for any of these things at the Las Tablillas border crossing, but I think it is good to know just in case so you can be prepared:

  • Proof of onward travel – This may be something more likely asked for when crossing back into Costa Rica.  Immigration may ask you if you have a plane ticket out of the country.  Its been reported that a bus ticket out of the country can suffice, and they are very inexpensive.  I also know people either using airline reservations or actually purchasing tickets specifically for this proof at border crossings.  Lately it seems, Panama is requiring actual purchased tickets, so keep that in mind if you cross there.  Just make sure you buy refundable tickets, so you may return them as soon as they have served their purpose.
  • $500 cash in pocket or a credit card – Panama asks for this.  I have not heard that Nicaragua does, but it is good to be prepared.  Our impression from a border agent question was that Nicaragua just wants you to visit one of their towns and spend a little money, but no proof of this was required, only a friendly, ‘Si.”
  • Current Visa –  If it is expired, they may make you pay a fee and may also cut the amount of days you overstayed out of your next visa.  I’ve also heard this can be times 2 or 3 (1 day over, 2-3 days reduced from your new visa, leaving you with a 87-88 day visa).
  • Valid Passport – Make sure your passport is not going to expire in 6 months or less.  Costa Rica will not allow you into the country if your passport is this close to expiration.
  • Copies of your Passport – just in case they ask.

Leaving Costa Rica

 

Line at Costa Rican Border
Line at Costa Rican Border

 

We parked our car along the entrance to the vehicle inspection road for those driving into Nicaragua, which was directly across from a small, attended Costa Rican border facility guard station.  There were 3-4 other vehicles parked there so it seemed that our vehicle would be safe, at least during the day.

The facility on the Costa Rican side is new and is made out of nicely repurposed shipping containers.

When we first entered the covered outdoor processing area, we saw a small table where there are immigration forms.  We each picked up a form and filled it out to exit the country.

On the right hand side you will see a baggage inspection area.  They did not check my purse, which was the only bag we had, but I believe it was more for inspecting bags when entering Costa Rica.  There was a tourist bus full of Costa Ricans and Nicaraguans that had luggage, but I noticed that they did not check their bags when exiting.

Before getting into the Salida (Exit) line, we paid the $7 ($5 exit, $2 luggage inspection) exit fee* by credit card at the payment machine.  It looks like an ATM but it is for border payment purposes only.  There is no other option to pay for this fee at the border.  It is very convenient, but note that it will cost a little extra:

*This exit fee will be charged as a cash advance on your credit card.  You may want to check with your credit card company to see what they charge for cash advances.  If you would like to avoid extra charges from your credit card company due to it being a cash advance, you can pay this $7 exit fee in cash ahead of time at a Banco Credito (Bancredito) branch or “other designated payment collection point”.*

We got into line with our passports, exit forms and the exit payment receipts to present to the customs officer and get our passports stamped.

Once we got our passports stamped, we started walking towards the Nicaraguan border.  On the way there, we stopped and used the restrooms, which were new, clean and also made from a shipping container.

Before you officially cross into Nicaragua, the Costa Rican border police check your passport to make sure you have an exit stamp.

At the first checkpoint of the Nicaraguan border, a Nicaraguan border police checks your passport for the exit stamp as well.

Nicaragua Immigration Area

Once in Nicaragua, we went to a tent in front of the payment pagoda to fill out the Nicaraguan immigration form.

 

Nicaraguan Border Processing Area
Nicaraguan Border Processing Area

 

At the pagoda, there are 3 lines – Entry, Exit and Payment, but they’re not marked very well.  We stood in the Entry line for about 15 minutes before it was our turn.  We gave the immigration officer our forms and passports and he asked us how long we were planning to visit Nicaragua.  In our broken Spanish we tried to tell him, we wanted to visit San Carlos, which seemed acceptable.  He stamped our passports and handed them to the payment officer.  We paid him $12 each to enter Nicaragua (yes, they accepted dollars).

In this area there is a little convenience hut/pulperia if you want to hang out and get a soda or a pack of chicklet gum.  There are restrooms there in a bigger building next to the pagoda, although I did not check them out.

As you cross the second checkpoint officially over into Nicaragua, another border police officer will check your passport to see if you have an entry stamp.

Entering, Hanging Out In, and Leaving Nicaragua

 

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There is next to nothing at the Nicaraguan border except a roughly made food stand and a friendly woman cooking over an open fire.  She is happy to serve you rice, beans, a tortilla and a side of meat with a drink.  The whole experience was quite modest, but I was happy because I had an Orange Fanta with my meal.  It was very inexpensive – 2 meals and 2 drinks cost a total of $6.50 USD.  Scott gave her an extra $2 as a tip which made her happy.

There is also a small building with a Nicaraguan bank and some of their people are in the street in hats and vests at the border to help you exchange dollars or colones into cordobas, get a mini-bus to San Carlos, and answer questions.  We didn’t exchange any money and my presumption was this was more for Nicas returning home because it seemed dollars and colones were accepted, at least there at the border.

We thought about taking a minibus to San Carlos, a charming little town on the southeast end of Lago Nicaragua, but decided against it since it was an hour ride one way (two-hour round-trip) and this border closes at 4 pm.  We did not want to risk getting stuck in Nicaragua without travel plans or a place to stay.  It was quite surreal watching suitcases getting strapped to the top and people piling in the minibuses – it was like a scene out of a movie, minus the caged chickens.

We waited for 2.5 to 3 hours – ate lunch, chatted here and there with people, texted my sisters in the states (I have a Movistar SIM card so my cellphone worked fine), etc. – and then headed back about 2:45pm.  The same officials at the pagoda processed our exit . . . we were asked where did we go in Nicaragua and we just said San Carlos, since we were supposed to leave the area.  The border patrol officer that checked our passports said that he thought we did not really leave the area, and it was ok this time, but next time, we needed to go further into Nicaragua.

We gave them our filled out Nicaraguan exit forms, payed the exit fee ($2) and got exit stamps in our passports.

As we left Nicaragua, the border officers checked our passports for stamps on both the Nicaraguan and Costa Rican side.

Re-entering Costa Rica

After crossing back into Costa Rica, we walked to Customs, filled out another immigration form, went through line, and got our passports stamped with a new visa stamp for 90 days.  It was pretty easy.  We were not asked for proof of onward travel or how long we were planning to stay in Costa Rica, although we were prepared to show our bus tickets (these bus tickets, good for a year, were purchased for us by a friend before we moved to Costa Rica so we could show onward travel then, but no one has ever asked us).

What to Bring/Wear

Dress for the elements – it will most likely be warm and possibly rainy.

  • Credit card – to pay Costa Rica exit fee.
  • Colones, Dollars or Cordobas  – to pay for Nicaragua entry and exit fee.
  • Zip off pants – shorts are better since it is so hot there, but I like the option of covering my legs if necessary (bugs, elements, sun).
  • Flip flops – I wore flip flops but brought running shoes just in case.  The area is well paved, and it was hot, so the flip flops were perfect – I didn’t have to worry about my feet getting dirty and I was glad my feet were nice and cool.
  • Hat –  to block the sun.  The only shade is in the convenience hut and the little food stand.
  • Sunscreen.
  • Bug spray – it wasn’t too buggy, but you never know.  Better safe than sorry.
  • Wet wipes – they came in handy at the food stand after eating our lunch.
  • PEN  – to fill out forms.  It’s less stressful than borrowing one or searching one out.

Benefits of this Border

  • Not crowded – yet.  Less likely to be harassed or bothered.
  • Since it is not crowded it is more pleasant and relaxed.  The border officials are friendly and professional, everything runs pretty efficiently.
  • Less than one day turn around (for now).  You are likely to get away with staying across the border for the reported minimum of ~3 hours (mostly because the Nicas want you to visit and spend some money there).

Disadvantages

As a new and less used border, there is not much in the immediate area.  If you are going to try to hang out around the border, you might want to have something to help you kill time – a book to read, etc.  Due to the one hour drive to get to San Carlos, you need to arrive at the station reasonably early if you want to get in a visit, which we will do the next time we visit this border to make it more interesting.

What is the Minimum Time Required to be out of Costa Rica?

According to a recent article in the Tico Times, that depends on what kind of passport you have.  For U.S. travelers, there is officially no minimum time that you need to be out of the country to be allowed for reentry into Costa Rica.  There have been rumors spread here and there about the minimum time, and the much talked about 3 day rule has to do with having the $500 tax exemption on bringing goods into Costa Rica, not with immigration.  So, if you are not bringing any goods with you, you need not worry about the time you were across the border.  You just need to hope that your customs officer is in a good mood and sees no problem with you crossing back in the same day (the decision to let you back in and how long of a visa you will be granted is solely at his or her discretion, so smile and be friendly!).


In conclusion, it cost us a total of $42USD in fees and half a day’s time to cross this border and renew our visas.  Border runs will always continue to be an adventure.  With the proper preparation and a good attitude, it is not as hard as it might be.  My husband and I are in the process of applying for residency, so hopefully we will not have to do too many more border runs in the very near future.  In the meantime, we are enjoying La Pura Vida.

Thank you Costa Rica!

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