Nicaragua is every bit as beautiful as its southern neighbor, Costa Rica. With volcanoes, Spanish colonial towns, Lake Managua, and a sizeable slice of both the Caribbean coast and the Pacific Ocean, Nicaragua was an unexpected highlight of my travels through Central America.
But with limited direct flights, getting to Nicaragua can seem like a hassle, at first glance. Don’t worry, with a little planning, it’s easy to cross the border from Costa Rica to Nicaragua. In this guide, I’ll explain how to do it including how to fly to Nicaragua, taking shuttles, direct buses, and cheaper public transport.
Route: San Jose (Costa Rica) to Managua (Nicaragua), Direct. 1hr flight time with Copa or Sansa. It costs around $200 one-way — flights most days but not every day.
Crossing the border between countries by land can feel scary if you’ve never done it. And maybe this isn’t the time you want to try it. If so, you can fly from San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica to Managua, the capital of Nicaragua. The flight is direct and takes 1 hour.
The main airlines flying the route are Sansa and Copa Airlines. I’ve flown Copa many times and would recommend them. Sansa has more flights but even between the two airlines, there aren’t flights every day, so plan your itinerary around flight availability.
Plane tickets cost around $200 one way. It’s not the cheapest option but if you’re on a short vacation and want to travel in a familiar way, flying is a good solution. I use Skyscanner to check flight times and prices. Here are my tips for booking cheap flights.
By Private Shuttle
The second easiest way is to book a shared private shuttle (minivan) that will take you from Costa Rica to Nicaragua. The route is typically from Liberia in Costa Rica to San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua. The beauty of the shuttles is they have a guide to help you cross the Nicaraguan border.
Caribe Shuttle runs daily and costs $47 per person. I’ve used Caribe many times and think they’re great. You can check availability and book online.
Nica Shuttle has shuttles that go from La Fortuna in Costa Rica to San Juan del Sur for $65. They also list a route for Liberia or San Jose to SJDS (no price shown). For all trips, you have to fill in a booking form and wait for a reply.
About Liberia (Costa Rica): Liberia has an international airport and is a jumping-off point for Nicaragua. If you’re on a short trip, there are better places to visit in Costa Rica and I wouldn’t bother spending a night here for tourism. However, since the shuttles leave early, around 9 a.m., you probably will need to spend the night in Liberia.
About San Juan del Sur: San Juan del Sur is a hotspot on Nicaragua’s Pacific coast and is the perfect introduction to the country. A cute, laid-back surf town, San Juan del Sur offers beaches, sunsets, parties, yoga and nature. Think of it as the Santa Teresa of Nicaragua.
By Pullman Coach from San Jose
You can book a comfortable Pullman coach to take you directly from San Jose (CR) to various locations in Nicaragua. They’re a cheaper alternative to shuttles. While there isn’t a guide as such to help you cross the border, the bus driver is there as well as a coach-load of other people to follow.
There are a few coach companies to choose from:
Tica Bus travels from San Jose in Costa Rica to Managua in Nicaragua. There are 4 buses a day including night buses and early morning buses. The trip takes 12 hours, including help crossing the border. Tickets cost $33. You can book online in English.
Central Line offers more routes from San Jose (CR) to Managua, Masaya, La Virgen (connect with a local bus for San Juan del Sur), Granada, and Rivas in Nicaragua. There is typically only 1 bus per day to each location and they are usually night buses. Prices are around $30 depending on your final destination. You can book online. The website is in Spanish but it’s pretty easy to work out. Tip: Start with the Comprar Boleto button which means buy ticket in Spanish.
Nica Expreso also travels from San Jose to Nicaragua, offering the most number of routes. However, I find their website hard for booking your bus ticket. I’d recommend sending them an email several days in advance.
Tip: if you’re traveling on a Pullman coach, wear warm layers for your bus journey. The a/c is usually set to freezing temperatures. Related: What To Pack For Costa Rica.
By Public Bus to Peñas Blancas (Costa Rican border)
Public bus is the cheapest way to travel between Costa Rica and Nicaragua. It’s also the slowest. There are many routes within Costa Rica, but ultimately you need to make your way to Peñas Blancas, the main border crossing in Costa Rica. Here are the distances from some of the most popular destinations in Costa Rica. These distances relate to distance by car (bus routes may not go directly). Links in the table are to my travel guides for those destinations.
|To Peñas Blancas
|Approx Bus Time
|5 – 6 hrs
direct or via Liberia
|5 – 6 hrs
direct or via Liberia
|5 – 6 hrs
several changes before Liberia
(Puerto Viejo Hostels)
via San Jose
via San Jose
|9 – 10
hours via Puntarenas & Liberia
|9 – 10 hours
several changes before Liberia
Except for one route from San Jose, there are no direct buses to Peñas Blancas. Most bus go to Liberia and you have to travel on from there. In some cases, you have to connect 3 to 4 buses before getting to the border. My bus timings are very approximate because they assume you line up every single bus on the route. This rarely happens so expect to add a couple more hours to your journey. I’ve got some tips for taking the bus at the end of this post.
The best place for checking bus routes, and schedules and connecting bus companies is Rome2Rio.
Map of the route
I’ve put the key locations including airports, cities, and towns in both Costa Rica and Nicaragua on my Google Maps page.
Want cheap data as you travel? Get an e-Sim with Airalo.
Nicaragua Entry Requirements
- You must have at least 6 months’ validity left on your passport before you enter. I had problems with my passport validity after Brexit (huff!).
- Visitors from nearly 100 countries don’t need a tourist visa for Nicaragua. You’re given an exemption and can stay for up to 90 days.
- You might be asked to show proof of onward travel. While this isn’t as strictly enforced as it is in Panama (crossing from Puerto Viejo to Bocas del Toro), it’s worth considering buying a ticket via Best Onward Ticket – they buy a refundable ticket in your name and charge you a small fee for doing so).
- You cannot take e-cigarettes into Nicaragua.
- You may need to show a Yellow Fever Certificate if you’ve recently been in a Yellow Fever country e.g. parts of South America. Find out more: Yellow Fever Certificate rules for Nicaragua.
How to cross the border
If you’ve never crossed a land border before, it generally involves paying fees and getting passport stamps. Border areas are arranged so you complete the process in the right order, going from one building to the next. For the Costa Rica to Nicaragua border crossing, here’s your step-by-step guide to the process.
Step 1: Pay your Costa Rica Departure Tax: You have to pay an exit tax to leave Costa Rica. The official land border fee is $8, paid in cash (USD). As with many Latin American countries, there are often ‘unofficial’ charges, so don’t be surprised if the fee charged is $10. Chalk it up to ‘tourist tax’. There is a small shack where you pay. It’s well sign-posted with ‘departure tax’. You can also pay online in advance at Banco BRC. You’ll need Google Translate (the site’s in Spanish) and a printer to print your payment receipt.
Step 2: Get an exit stamp for Costa Rica: When you arrive in Costa Rica (by air or land), you will have received an entry stamp in your passport. To correctly exit a country, you need to get a corresponding exit stamp. This is easy to do at Peñas Blancas – after you have paid your exit fee, head to the covered building with official windows. Present your passport for your stamp.
Step 3: Walk across the border: I love this bit – you’re technically in no-man’s land, having been stamped out of one country but not yet admitted to another. In reality, you walk from one queue at the Costa Rica immigration building to another queue at the Nicaraguan immigration office. Follow the signposts and crowd! You have to have your luggage scanned.
Step 4: Pay the Nicaragua entry fee: There is a $10 official fee for entering Nicaragua. You must pay this in cash in USD. There is an ATM (on the Costa Rican side but I wouldn’t rely on it). As with Costa Rica, you might find a few additional fees at a dollar or so each. Have small bills available.
Step 5: Get an entry stamp for Nicaragua: Once you’ve paid your entry fee, the same person who took your payment will give you an entry stamp. From there, you leave the building and are officially in Nicaragua!
And, of course, do this in reverse if you’re traveling in the opposite direction from Nicaragua to Costa Rica.
Tips for crossing the border
- Frontera is the Spanish word for border.
- The border closes at 10 p.m. (8 p.m. on Sundays). Start your trip as early as possible so you get there before it closes.
- Have cash in USD for your exit and entry fees.
- Also, have some USD for onward travel. The local currency in Costa Rica is Colon. In Nicaragua the currency is Cordoba. Costa Rica and Nicaragua will not accept each other’s local currency, but both accept US dollars.
- The are lots of hustlers at the border. If you accept help (with bags or directions), be prepared to pay a few dollars for it.
- Don’t pay any fees to anyone who isn’t an official immigration officer. It’s a scam. Be polite when you refuse and you’ll be fine. The hustlers are chancers trying to make a quick buck, not violent criminals.
Onward travel in Nicaragua
From Peñas Blancas, you can catch public transport to your destination. Rivas is a popular interchange town / stop-off point.
|Road distance from Peñas Blancas
|Approx Bus Time
|San Juan Del Sur
|2hrs 30 via Rivas (or La Virgen)
|2 hrs 30 direct
|3 hrs 30 direct
Again, these bus times are approximate and depend on when buses depart. From the border, buses to Rivas, and Managua are the standard routes. To get to San Juan del Sur, try to avoid going on to Rivas and then back on yourself. Ask the driver to drop you at the side of the road in La Virgen where you can pick up the bus that goes to SJDS.
You can catch the bus at the border. Otherwise, there are taxi drivers available for shorter journeys.
Bad options: Rental Car, Uber, and Train
Rental Car: You can’t take a Costa Rica rental car outside Costa Rica. So, driving to Nicaragua from Costa Rica is not an option unless you arrange to park your car near Peñas Blancas and rent another car in Nicaragua after you cross the border.
Uber: You might want to supplement parts of your trip with a taxi. While there is Uber in Costa Rica, it’s more prevalent in big cities and tourist towns. Don’t rely on it if you’re stuck near a border. There is no Uber in Nicaragua.
Train: There are no trains in either Costa Rica or Nicaragua. Shame. I love a train!
Tips for taking the public bus
- Buses can depart early so get to the bus station or stop around 15 minutes in advance.
- Have sunscreen ready to access – many bus stops have no shade and your wait might be more than an hour.
- Pack dry snacks – I ended up buying some slimy chicken that looked uncooked from a street seller.
- You’ll also want to take liters of water (though keep in mind toilet opportunities are limited).
- The chicken buses can lack suspension – ladies, you might want to swap your bikini top for a sports bra.
- You typically have to pay cash for buses so have some local currency available.
- Bus stops and terminals aren’t always conveniently located. I had to walk 1.5km in the mid-day heat to make a connection in Puntarenas when I traveled from Santa Teresa. Wear sports shoes and socks!
- Download a copy of Lonely Planet’s Central America guide. The maps and bus route info are more reliable than what a 12-year-old Reddit or TripAdvisor thread.
Chicken buses vs Pullman coaches
Public transport in Costa Rica includes a choice of chicken buses and more comfortable Pullman coaches. The coaches tend to ply longer distance routes like San Jose to Liberia or even on to Managua. Chicken buses tend to cover shorter, more local routes. There isn’t one main bus company in Costa Rica – a different company runs each route so you will need to check locally.
What are Chicken buses? Chicken buses are found throughout Central America. They’re typically former USA school buses that have been brightly painted. You might even find disco lights and party music onboard. They’re one of the cheapest ways to get around and offer an exciting travel experience. However, comfort (and to some extent safety) are compromised. Buses can be crammed with seats in the aisle – I’ve sat on a bag of rice on the floor before. They also don’t have a/c and there are no seat belts. Related: From Semuc Champey to Flores: The Chicken Bus Route.
Why are they called chicken buses? More than once, my seat companion has been a chicken in a cage or a man holding a chicken. This is because the buses travel local routes where traditional farming and food sources hold strong – that man was taking his live chicken home for dinner. I also once stood for an hour with a man’s sheathed machete next to my leg. Again, he was a farmer and this was the local way of life. Think of it as a fascinating cultural experience.
Planning your route around Costa Rica
Travel by public transport can be frustrating in Costa Rica. Imagine the country like the spokes on a wheel – San Jose sits roughly in the middle and many of the tourist spots are spread out around the edge. Unfortunately, most public transport routes will take you in and out of San Jose, rather than traveling directly from one tourist location to another. The shuttles are great for making those direction connections but by public bus, you’ll find yourself going in and out of San Jose a lot. For that reason, I suggest planning your itinerary in advance if you are traveling on a budget.
In terms of getting to Nicaragua, I recommend working your way towards Liberia. From there, you’re close to the border and have the most frequent number of buses. The first time I traveled by public bus to San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua, I did it from Santa Teresa and it was one heck of a long day with missed connections, long wait times, and some desperate ‘let’s just take a taxi’ moments. Related: Your Ultimate Guide to Travel in Costa Rica | Guide to visiting Tortuguero National Park.
So, that’s my guide to crossing the border from Costa Rica to Nicaragua. Got any comments or questions, leave the below.