5 tips for crossing the border by bus


Slip off the shoes, whip out the plastic bag of 3.4-oz. toiletries, isolate the laptop in the bin, chug the last of the liquids, and pray to the TSA gods that it’s not your turn for a patdown.

You meet all sorts of colorful characters at the border (photo/ Katie Jackson)

As frequent fliers, we at GreenSpot Travel have the airport screening process down pat. Unfortunately, that routine is no preparation for a Central American border crossing. Recently we traveled by bus from Costa Rica to Nicaragua, and noticed many first-timers were similarly perplexed about the protocols of crossing the border at Peñas Blancas.

Yes, crossing an international border by land is an entirely different ballgame and can be intimidating for the uninitiated. However, if you have a general idea of what to expect, it’s much easier. Plus, traveling by bus is more economical and a great way to see the countryside.

Since thousands of people will be traveling between Nicaragua and Costa Rica this week for Semana Santa, I figured it’s a good time to share our border-crossing pointers with Nicaragua Dispatch readers who will be on the road this holiday weekend.

  1. Come prepared. Obviously you’ll need your passport, but also have a pen handy to fill out forms. Sharing is caring, but it’s more efficient if you bring your own.
  2. Know your number. At some point the bus driver will collect your passport, and sometimes he does this before you fill out your forms. Have a copy of your passport on hand and/or memorize your passport number. Otherwise you have to track the bus driver down and try to get it back from him. Yes, the bus driver WILL take your passport, but he will give it back!
  3. Cash is king. You’ll need to have cash to pay the entry fees. To enter into Nicaragua, we paid 8,000 colones (about $16) each, and the American couple sitting in front of us paid in USD. The bus driver should have plenty of change in both currencies as well as cordobas. The mysterious part is the amount you pay seems to vary according to the source. Try to have at least $20 or the equivalent in local currency easily accessible.
  4. There’s a reason it’s called hand luggage. Keep your hand luggage in your hands at all times. Even if you unload the bus and are told to leave your big bags below, always carry your hand luggage with you. Never leave it on the bus unattended.
  5. Be prepared to be bombarded. “Cambio, cambio?” men will yell as soon as you step off the bus. Although they’re offering to change money for you as you wait, they may be ripping you off if you don’t know the current exchange rate, or even what the currency looks like. Also, your first welcome is likely to come from the many vendors who approach you. They sell everything from snacks to sandals and cellphone cards. Others will straight up ask you for money, providing a toothless grin in return. As we understand, the men wearing navy blue vests are authorized to search your luggage, but they too can be aggressive and demand tips if they help you carry it.


Katie Jackson is a young traveler who traded farm life in Montana for fast-paced Manhattan. In February, she traded the concrete jungle of NYC for the wild jungles of Nicaragua, where she is exploring for GreenSpot Travel-a green travel company that believes in supporting local communities while providing customized vacations to Nicaragua and other Central America destinations.

  • http://www.elportonverde.com Mike @ Farmstay El Porton Verde

    Good tips Katie, thanks for sharing. Certainly traveling by bus is a better way to do “Green Travel” ehh?

    pingback w/comments here: http://www.elportonverde.com/2013/03/26/5-tips-for-crossing-the-border/

  • Adam Clarke

    Some additional tips from someone who has been through that border many times…..
    Check that your passport was actually stamped for your exit…. it avoids running back and joining a queue to get it done whilst your international bus is waiting to depart, with or without you….
    Be prepared to be stood in long lines in the sun on busy days…. it can be exhausting…
    Go early… generally speaking the earlier you go through the border (Penas Blancas opens at 6am), the less time it will take…
    Go the cheap way….. go there early by local buses, you can usually find an international air conditioned bus at the border who will take you the rest of the way. Transnica in particular have ticket sellers looking to fill any available seats on the bus…
    Have a return ticket….. on entering Costa Rica you will be asked for proof of an exit ticket out of the country…. good old Transnica have people at the border who will sell you one for around $25… but if you have a plane itinerary (real or fake!!) then have a copy with you to avoid having to busy this additional ticket…..
    Have a sense of humour… otherwise you may just go mad on the busy days!!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/indio.jones.O Indio Jones

    Bravo. How about by taxi my experienced travelers?

  • Erik Nelson

    If the lady paid $16 to enter Nicaragua, she was royally ripped off. The fee is no more than $12.
    To me, Peñas Blancas shows humanity near its worst.

  • http://www.foothillmobilevet.com David Turoff

    I just crossed that border last week in both directions in a rental car, and it was possibly the most extreme example of dysfunctionality in a human process that I have ever witnessed. There is a line of idling trucks about 2 miles long on the Costa Rican side, waiting to clear customs. According to the drivers, average time to clear = 2 days. In my case.it was greatly complicated by the fact that I was doing it in a rental car………….not something I would recommend for the uninitiated, but now that I know where everything is, I would do it again.

    Once I regained my sense of humor, I could appreciate it for the awesome and epic clusterf*** that it was. One thing to watch out for is people trying to sell you the forms you need to fill out: don’t pay for them; they are free at the windows (there are two forms in each direction).

    • http://www.katietalkstravel.com Katie Jackson

      Holy smokes Dave. That sounds brutal. But I agree with you that having a sense of humor about it helps tremendously. If I make up a bunch of “I survived crossing the border at Penas Blancas” shirts, I’ll send you one!