Costa Rica / Nicaragua border crossing, twice in 2 days!

I had drunkenly purchased some sardines and burger buns (a full loaf of bread was too expensive for one meal!) so we could have breakfast. They were surprisingly very tasty. There were some leftovers (due to huge portion size) and I fed them to the owners grateful cat.

We hit the road around 7am, driving north towards the border with Nicaragua. At 10am I had to stop for coffee. A sleeping passenger on a long journey is a recipe for disaster. We grabbed our drinks and sat by the road, I think we were at the start of a bicycle race though, because everybody else had full lycra and helmets on, as if about to start the Tour De Costa Rica.

We spotted some similar parrots to those that had given us such a great show the previous day, and took the opportunity to grab some photos.

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We jumped back into the car, and it wasn’t long before I was the only awake one again. I enjoyed the drive though, taking in some interesting sights like a prison with 10 foot walls, pretty low in comparison to most prisons I would say. The radio in the car didn’t work, but the air con and windows did, so I was happy.

Gem woke up as we approached Liberia, which is a relatively large town/city for Costa Rican standards. I knew we had to stop here at the national bank to pay our exit fees before we could reach Nicaragua. We spotted a ‘National Costa Rica Bank’ and pulled in. It didn’t open til 12, and it was 11am. We sat down and grabbed some pancakes for lunch before a quick browse of nearby shops. After the hour that seemed like 3, I was first in line when the bank opened. I approached the teller, only to be told we had the wrong bank, and it was 2 kilometres down the road where we needed to go. Brilliant. Not sure whether to laugh or cry, we corrected our route and eventually found the right bank. The exit fee was minimal, less than 10USD each. We got our slips and began the Northward drive to Penas Blancas, the most popular place to cross between NIC and CR.

It was around here that I noticed the potholes in the road, and many of them deep enough to severely damage your vehicle. We arrived tired and ready to get out of the car, which we had been in for around 7 hours. There were no huge car parking signs anywhere, so we got right up to the border before I realised that parking would be an issue.

I chucked it into an ‘Enterprise Rent-A-Car’ parking spot, and went to grab all our stuff. Gemma wasn’t impressed, and thought we may get clamped or towed, so made me go inside and ask. I obliged (begrudgingly) and was of course told that I could not park there. I still think if we had just left it there we would have been okay. I didn’t mind too much though, because where we eventually parked was brilliant. There is a tiny row of shops (including, annoyingly, a place to pay your exit fee!) near the border, and a small path for cars to drive along near the rentals etc. I wound my window down when on this path and asked a man that was sweeping up where I could leave my car, seeing as we would be back in just one day. He smiled and said ‘Just leave it there.’ So we did.

I pulled the not-so-sturdy handbrake up and jumped out, locked it up and walked away. Gemma was not too pleased, but for all we knew he could have been the land owner! Plus, I had heard the border crossings here can be time consuming, so I wanted to get cracking.

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We scurried off before anyone else tried to charge us for parking and walked straight past the empty looking building in the road, grabbed an exit form from a local, and across the border to Nicaragua. We realised halfway across no mans land that we needed an exit stamp in our passports, so we headed back. I blame fatigue! We could have gotten away without paying our exit tax because the guard didn’t even look at it, just saw 2 yellow slips and was happy (but I don’t recommend running the risk!). He stamped our passport and we left, again.

We showed the stamp to the guards on the Nicaraguan side, who said we may have to go back. The stamp was too light and fuzzy, apparently. They gave us a choice, either go back and get it stamped properly, or go through and run the risk of queuing for a long time before being told we need to go back by customs officials. We chose to give it a crack. We walked through and were immediately offered ‘help’ by several Nicaraguans.

As an astute traveller, I waved them off and said ‘No, gracias’ and I led Gemma through the crowds towards what looked like an exit. We were 100 yards in when one local said ‘Hey man, the passport office is this way!’ I felt a tad stupid, but followed him with my tail between my legs nonetheless. We approached the office and I was about to give my passport to an official looking guy who demanded it, when a lady behind the first desk shouted me over, ‘This way, quickly!’ she said. If it were busier and she had had a queue, then I would have given my passport to this chap and probably been extorted in some way. Lucky.

The first desk is a simple form (you’ll know your passport number off by heart by this point) and a 1USD charge for entering the region of Rivas, I think. The second and biggest desk is a few more dollars per person, for entry into the country, but the queues are long. The locals don’t seem to understand the rules of queuing though. I know that us Brits wrote the book, and not everybody is the same, but surely a basic ‘I was here first’ rule is worldwide, no?

We eventually got to the front by teaming up with an Australian couple who were just as frustrated. We formed a semi circle human barrier and edged our way through the now fair queue. The locals had the cheek to look at us funny! We got to the desk and a sad realisation came over us. They only take US dollars. Yep, you may be crossing from Costa Rica to Nicaragua, neither country owned by the USA, nor share a border with the USA, but they only accept USD. Confused and slightly angry, I ran to the nearest money exchanger and got promptly ripped off for 20 dollars. I didn’t mind too much, we were in.

We shared a taxi with the Aussie’s, and exchanged travel stories with them. The drive took us past a beautiful huge lake, which is important for local water according to the driver. We dropped them in San Juan Del Sur, and although our hotels address said San Juan Del Sur, it was actually another 45 minutes in the car. Great. We paid the driver extra, and sat back for more travel on this already travel filled day. The first 20 minutes were fine, normal roads and actually very nice scenery. However, we took a turn onto a road that looked at first like a dirt road, but actually turned out to be more rocks than dirt. It was the bumpiest road I have ever been on, and we both had to hold on to our seats. 25 minutes of this is not what we wanted, but I had planned the next hotel as a bit of a surprise, so hopefully Gemma would be happy when we did arrive!

One of many shacks with a family living in it
One of many shacks with a family living in it
Dangerous road!
Dangerous road!

We pulled off the road and into the ‘Parque Maritimo El Coco’, which looked totally off the beaten path, surrounded by rainforest and pretty amazing, but not what I was expecting. Anyhow, we checked in and were shown to our room. On the walk down to our room I saw why I had booked this place, just 100 metres from reception, through the rainforest, is Playa El Coco (beach) and our apartment was plonked right on it. Not only that, we were the only ones there! The apartment was lovely and the bed was laid out nicely for us, but we couldn’t get over the view and the whole feel of the area. It was literally the perfect getaway.

Perfect!
Perfect!

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Right on the beach
Right on the beach

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Cloudy but hot
Cloudy but hot

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Posh bed/towel setup
Posh bed/towel setup

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We hit the beach, only to find it gets better. There are a ton of crabs scuttling around everywhere, a tell-tale sign of less human activity (they’d be scared away if too many people use the beach). There was a football pitch on the beach, and we found the only other inhabitant too, the barman! The hotels pool was clear and warm, overlooking the sea. They had table tennis, football and a fresh seafood menu. I totally forgot how much I paid for this place, but it is definitely worth it!

Tiny crab
Tiny crab
Bigger crab
Bigger crab

We hit the pool first, then played table tennis, then ate, then hit the sea, then played football and finally relaxed into a few drinks before walking back to our apartment to watch the sunset. A quality night.

Amazing footy pitch
Amazing footy pitch

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Sunset
Sunset

We both slept extremely well, and woke up to the sound of waves lapping up against the sand. We walked down the beach to the bar where breakfast is served, dodging little crabs as we went. Pancakes with fruit, lovely. After a chilled couple of hours we knew we had to hit the road, as we had a fair bit of travel yet again.

We got a quote off the hotel for a taxi, and it was twice the quote from yesterdays taxi driver, so we rang him to come and get us. He arrived 45 minutes late, but as our only option out of there I wasn’t going to make an enemy of him. We asked him to stop at a cash point, so after a brief stop to pay the man we went to the border.

There was a huge queue on the Nicaraguan side, with officially dressed ladies offering to fill peoples forms in for them for the bargain price of 25USD. I declined as I knew all the forms were free once you were inside, some people weren’t so lucky. In fact, most white people in the queue had been done over. A lucrative business.

We waited for an age in the queue before they finally opened the floodgates and let us pour in, briefly glancing at our passports. Once inside, there was another queue, and in front of that, another queue. Each about 90 minutes long. Today was Nicaraguan Independence Day, and there was a big parade on where a torch is lit and some people run with it from Nicaragua to Costa Rica. The locals were up to their usual tricks of queue jumping, so I got Gemma to hold our place in the queue and I went snooping. It didn’t take long for me to find the ultimate queue, only 10 people deep, right next to the passport stamping office. I struck up conversation with a young chap in the queue, who was polite but warned me off jumping in.

A money exchange lady was sat behind him, and she ushered me over and said ‘If you stand here I will get you in.’ So I did. If you can’t beat them, join them, isn’t that the saying? There was a very serious looking policeman guarding this queue, and many people, including locals to be fair, got turned away when they tried a similar move to mine. I think I had the right lady on my side.

She had a sidekick, a teenage girl that offered to complete the forms for me so that I could zip straight through. I said I would pay 100 Nicaraguan Cordobas to fill in all my forms and go and grab my girlfriend from another queue. She was about to go with the description of ‘black hair, red backpack’ when I realised that Gemma would not move. My brain reacted quickly and I had to place trust in this young lady. I gave her Gemma’s passport and basically said, find her and bring her here!! It was a good ten minutes before she returned, so I was relieved when she did.

I had already gone through the gate to the stamping part. It is a $1 charge to leave Rivas and around $5 to leave Nicaragua. Gemma was rushed through the gate so fast that they didn’t charge her the Rivas $1. She arrived as I was at the window and we both got stamped. Good timing! We left the gated area and I paid the young girl, then exchanged some money with the lady, and gave them both a huge thank you!

Now way ahead of schedule, we scurried off to the Costa Rican side to try and ‘beat the traffic’. Getting stamped back in took around 10 minutes and was easy, a quick stamp, then a scan of your bags and you’re in. If anyone needs advice on crossing the border either way, please contact me and I will be more than happy to help. It’s not half as scary as you might think!

The car was exactly where I had left it, in the middle of the path, totally unharmed with nobody batting an eyelid. We jumped in and screeched off. We rounded a couple of corners and just as Gemma was punching in the address of our next hotel, we found ourselves in a huge queue. I overtook a few cars to see what the kerfuffle was and guess what, it was the police escort for those pesky runners with the torch!

We went at 10kms per hour for 30 minutes before pulling over to get something to eat, no point driving at that speed all the way! After our fill the roads were a bit better, but we noticed a lot of cyclists around. This got worse as we continued South, to the point of danger sometimes when overtaking. We knew it must be to do with that Independence Day parade, but it was nice to see all the locals happy and out of their houses in celebration.

We rounded corner after corner of cyclist-filled roads, with some waving, until we saw yet another huge queue. This time, the police at the front were stationary. This must be an accident. I heard 2 guys in separate cars shouting to each other just in front of us, it was in Spanish but I picked up that they were going to try and drive through some bushes and bypass the incident via the fields. They went for it, and I followed. People on foot and on bikes were everywhere, and we had to take it slow.

We finally reached the point next to where the accident occurred and there was a lot of police tape. We had a huge ditch to get through, with a 4 foot drop going in, and about 7 foot incline going out, pretty much vertical. The guys we were following were in all terrain vehicles and managed it by slowing edging into the ditch then slamming the accelerator once at the bottom. I had to wait my turn as there was no room between the trees at the top of the ditch on the other side for both us and pedestrians/cyclists. I found a gap and went for it, eyes half closed and quietly becoming religious for 10 seconds.

We made it through despite a small wheel spin, and the rest was relatively easy. Just drive through a plantation (corn or something?) and back onto the road, where the queue on the other side was ginormous. I’m starting to think somebody’s looking after us because we’ve had some good luck in the last 48 hours. Then again, some people say you make your own luck.

We found out later that the accident was a big tanker that had failed to check for oncoming traffic when overtaking and hit a pick up truck, killing 6 of the 7 inside. A sombre reminder how careful drivers need to be at all times. We approached Liberia once again, and turned right (West) towards Playa Del Coco. Yep, we had travelled all day to get from Playa El Coco to Playa Del Coco. 6 hours travel for a D. Wow.

Click here to see what happened next, on the best week of my life in Playa Del Coco

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