“It’s basically a forced vacation,” one expat friend remarked, aptly stating what these border runs are (or can be – it’s what you make of it).
She’s lived here in Costa Rica for five years (and has done plenty of border runs) and is a resident, so she does not have to cross the border to renew a visa anymore. Yes, we are incredibly envious (in Costa Rica non-residents must leave the country every 90 days and return to renew their visas).
I won’t sugar-coat it, border runs are a pain. But that being said, they also force you out of the box, make you leave your comfort zone, allow you to explore and to have new experiences.
Even so, border runs require some planning in advance to be less stressful and less expensive. They can be a blessing in disguise, but frankly it’s the way you choose to experience life in general that will affect whether these “forced vacations” are fun or not.
Unless you like waking up really early and rushing and/or you are very ambitious, a visit to Nicaragua or Panama from Costa Rica usually isn’t done in one day. For most expats it means at least an overnight stay somewhere, and these visits are actually quite enjoyable once you get away from the dusty, hot and chaotic border.
Our first border run this past May was at the Las Tablillas border into south central Nicaragua (click HERE to read all about it).
We stayed in La Fortuna the night before to soak in the hot springs and to break up our drive from Alajuela. We did not visit anywhere in Nicaragua that time, we just hung around the border for about 3 hours, crossed back into Costa Rica (got our passports stamped with a new 90 day visa) and headed home.
While I thoroughly enjoyed the hot springs, I was disappointed that we did not get a chance to explore Nicaragua and decided to do some research so that the next time we could at least stay for an overnight visit.
In the past I had no desire to visit Nicaragua, but our time in Costa Rica allowed us to get familiar with the Spanish language, the region’s culture and customs, so I felt much more comfortable with the idea of visiting. Now I’m curious about visiting other Latin American countries such as Guatemala, Cuba, Peru and Colombia, but that’s another topic to be discussed on another occasion.
For our second border run we decided to do something different, so we went through the Penas Blancas border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua and stayed overnight near the beach town of San Juan Del Sur on Nicaragua’s Pacific side.
It was a new country, a new adventure . . . I was excited, especially to get past the border.
Before we went, my husband Scott and I discussed if we wanted to drive our car across the border (turns out we didn’t have enough time to get the paperwork done) and where we wanted to stay.
We both did searches online and Scott found a cute little eco hotel on the beach called Costa Dulce that looked interesting and had everything we needed to enjoy an overnight stay (private beach access, healthy meals, surfing lessons, massages, beach views, etc).
Scott contacted the hotel’s manager Kit, who was a great help and answered all our questions quickly via email. We booked our bungalow a few days before, arrived to the Costa Rican side of the border around 11:30 am and were on the Nicaraguan side by 12:30 pm.
San Juan Del Sur
Kit arranged a taxi (the one way trip cost $60 USD) to pick us up on the Nicaraguan side of the border. Our driver was a nice Nicaraguan lady named Irma who took us into San Juan Del Sur first for lunch. The drive took about an hour from the border, and it was comfortable since we were in a 4WD SUV. We had a lovely meal at El Timon Restaurant with a big fat frozen margarita. The view from the restaurant was amazing. I knew I was going to like this trip.
After Scott got a little more cash (US dollars, which is accepted currency along with the Nicaraguan Cordoba) from a cajero automatico (ATM Machine), we headed to Hotel Costa Dulce. The drive took about another 30 to 45 minutes, with the last leg on a dirt road that was well graded, so it wasn’t so bad.
Hotel Costa Dulce
Hotel Costa Dulce is an off-the-beaten-path eco hotel and yoga retreat center, nestled uphill of private beach Playa Escameca, consisting of a beach house, individual bungalows, a bar and lounge, yoga platform/classroom and a common area for dining.
We were greeted by the manager Kit, a Canadian, and met the resident yoga teacher Alex, who is from the U.S. They were in the official uniform of Costa Dulce: surf shorts, yoga clothes and warm smiles.
Our bungalow was called “The Pelican,” which was located in decent proximity to the yoga platform and dining/common area. There was an outdoor shower out in front (for rinsing off sand and salt water) and the porch had a hammock, seating area and a grand bird’s eye view of the private beach. Each bungalow has an ocean view. The screened-in bungalow was simple, with a queen sized bed and a bathroom (with an INDOOR shower). Several fans in the room added more airflow to the breeze that already came up the hill from the ocean. No air conditioning was needed, and there were curtains in the screened windows for privacy if needed.
The bungalows are rustic, and guests are highly encouraged to limit their use of lights in the evening so as not to attract bugs. I am a light sleeper, and I didn’t think I would be able to fall asleep with the sound of the ocean in front of me, but surprisingly I was lulled to sleep by the waves in the background. I was temporarily concerned with not being able to lock the screen door, but there was no report of anything ever being stolen on their Trip Advisor reviews, and I thought – what the heck? Needless to say (but I’ll say it), nothing went missing. The Hotel offers to hold your valuables for you if you’d like since there are no safes in the rooms.
The meals were delicious and healthy! We had a vegetarian dinner and breakfast and ended our stay with fish tacos for lunch. They were the best fish tacos I have ever had, complete with avocado and arugula salad on top. I also think looking at the ocean as I was eating made the food taste even better!
The wifi worked off and on, with the strongest signal in the dining area. Half the time it was out, but we were fine with unplugging for a little bit. There was no reason to be stuck on a device when there was so much to see and do! The day we left, the electricity was out but no one realized it until someone tried to use the wifi. Fair warning – it seems that the electricity goes out in the general area (not just at this hotel) more frequently than most Westerners are used to.
During our short stay we took advantage of some of the activities and services that Costa Dulce had to offer. My husband took a couple of surf lessons for only $25 from a friendly Nicaraguan surfer. Despite the language barrier, Scott had a great time and worked hard to get up on the board (which he did!).
The beach is pristine and ideal for surfing. One thing I love about this place is that you do not need to put on water shoes unless you want to go walking on the rocks. Barefoot from the front door of my bungalow to the soft sandy beach was a plus in my opinion. It is a short walk down to the beach, but the stairs can be a challenge for some people, especially when ascending.
We both got an hour massage for only $20 each on the Yoga Deck . . . the longer I live here, the more outdoorsy the massages get! It must be because of the natural beauty and agreeable weather. No need for relaxing massage music when you have the actual ocean in the background, with the soothing sounds of the waves meeting the shore and the ocean breeze skimming across your skin.
The guests there consisted of a younger crowd, all there to surf, do some yoga, hang out at the beach and relax. We had interesting conversations with a small group of young men from Switzerland, a surfer and his girlfriend from Houston, Texas, who now live in San Juan Del Sur, and an adventurous teacher from Oregon traveling on her own. Hands down one of the most interesting people we met there was Tim Rusmisel, a kind-hearted and aware individual doing his part to conserve the sea turtle population with his non-profit organization.
Tim sleeps in a tent at the beach just down the hill from Hotel Costa Dulce. The tent is located next to the nests that he built for rescued sea turtle eggs that he patrols for on Playa Escameca. His non-profit organization is called Proyecto Huella.
One of the most interesting things that we participated in was a night patrol with Tim on the beach looking for sea turtles coming to lay their eggs. We met him around 8:00 pm. Equipped with a red flashlight and the soft (partially hand covered) light from our iPhone screens, we did one round with him. The moon was covered with clouds, but we could vividly see the stars as we walked on the dark beach. As we patrolled, he educated us about the turtles, their behavior and habits, and his efforts to increase their population. He told us about the poaching culture in Nicaragua and how he has formed a relationship with the poachers. Proyecto Huella rewards the poachers for bringing eggs to Tim instead of selling them.
Once he gets the eggs, he puts them in nests that he has made on the beach. Once the baby turtles hatch, he releases them to crawl into the sea. It was a very interesting lesson and we had a fun time despite not seeing any turtles that night. It is still on my bucket list to see turtles lay eggs on the beach and to see baby turtles crawl to the beach after hatching. Good thing I live in a country where this activity occurs on a regular basis!
Back to Costa Rica
I was amazed with how much we did in the short time we were there at Costa Dulce. We had fun unplugging and meeting new and interesting people living outside of the box. We had a great time and plan to visit again, but for a little longer stay because there is definitely so much more to see and do.
We had a different taxi to go back to the border. The driver Juan Carlos was a nice guy but he did not have as nice of a vehicle as Irma did (the ride was a little more bumpy in other words, but nothing we couldn’t handle).
We needed more cash for the border (we paid our hotel bill in cash to save some money), so he took us into San Juan Del Sur to use the cajero automatico (ATM) again. The electricity was out in the whole town, so we had to find an ATM at the border before crossing back to Costa Rica. We prayed that there would be electricity there and that the ATM would work – and it did.
Next week I’ll write about our actual border crossing experience. It’s not as nice of a story as this one, albeit still interesting, and maybe it will help someone who needs to make this border run in the future.
If you choose to stay in the Southern Pacific area of Nicaragua and love to be active and explore, I highly recommend Hotel Costa Dulce!
And if you just want to unplug and relax on a beach in a hammock, you can do that too.