Crossing from Costa Rica into Nicaragua 🇳🇮

Central America, Costa Rica, Nicaragua

Having spent five wonderful (but expensive) nights in Costa Rica, we were ready to cross into our next country. Having read a lot of horror stories about the Nicaraguan border, we were nervous but excited for the trip.

We had pre-booked a shuttle through CaribeShuttle.com to pick us up at our hostel in Santa Elena, Monteverde at 6am and take us to Liberia. This shuttle runs only once a day, and at US$35 per person, was the most expensive form of transport for us (bar other flights) but it was by far the best way to travel in this instance.

It was just us and another couple on the shuttle to Liberia, so it was nice and quiet, but the road to the highway was pretty rough. It went from perfectly smooth tarmac to bumpy stones every thousand metres or so, which really didn’t make for a smooth ride! After about an hour along this road (with some pretty stunning views if you aren’t fast asleep – see above) and half an hour on the highway, we arrived at the Santa Rosa Plaza, where the bus was terminating (likely following a short coffee stop just outside of Liberia). I thought it might be more of a bus station, but was literally a car park for a shopping centre!

Don’t fall for the taxi and shuttle drivers offering to take you from Liberia to Peñas Blancas or beyond. It is a five minute walk from the shuttle Park to the bus station and buses leave regularly (and transport beyond the border is easy and cheap too!)

As we reached the bus station, we saw a Peñas Blancas (the border) bus sitting ready to leave. We were able to get our luggage on and paid around US$4 each for us and the luggage (and receiving some change in colónes) before two other travellers joined, and the bus left!


The fun really begun at the border. We had heard so many nightmare stories about how people were queueing for up to five hours around Christmas, and we were worried the same would happen today on New Year’s Eve. An international bus had arrived moments before we arrived, so we were keen to be speedy and miss these passengers!

The first thing to do at the border is to pay your exit tax. When you arrive, there will be people calling for this and leading you to a shady looking building about 500 yards away. There we paid our exit taxes (around US$8 each). The next thing to do is to go to the border office. This is found to the right of the border, and there you get your passports stamped for exit. We then started walking through the border, which is a long, unpaved road between the two countries. We passed border security who made sure we had paid and had our passports stamped. Arriving at the Nicaraguan side, we then had to pay US$1 each at the door (we had used all of our small notes for the bus) and around ~US$12 each entrance fee (you can pay in US dollars if you don’t already have Nicaraguan Córdoba – “NIO”) at the desk where our passports were stamped for entry. We did this whole process in the wrong order at first, so it took a lot longer to retrace our footsteps than it should have!


Top Tips:

  • Make sure you have lots of small US dollar notes for border taxes and exit/entrance
  • Take public transport where you can – it’s quick and cheap – the only place we couldn’t find it available was getting out of Monteverde to the nearest city, Liberia
  • Pay your exit tax as soon as you get to Peñas Blancas, and then start your walk through the border – ask somebody if you are unsure

We changed US$25 into NIO with somebody sat outside the office who had an official badge (we bartered to get a better rate!) and then as we were walking away, saw a chicken bus heading to Rivas about to leave. We jumped onto the bus and clutching our bags in the overhead shelf, we stood for the 45 minute journey to Rivas. This cost us 20NIO each.

Unsure where we were getting off, I kept an eye on the map, aware we had to get to San Jorge ferry terminal to catch our boat to Ometepe. The bus guard also knew this and shouted us off and helped us down with our bags.

Two different type of boats service the island; a boat costing 35NIO and a bigger ferry costing 50NIO. If you are prone to seasickness, the ferry is a much smoother ride. Ferries run less frequently though. The Ometepe website also advises that only the ferries run on a Sunday – this wasn’t the case for us, but that may have been because it was holiday season – we weren’t quite sure!

It was 11:40am and a 15 minute drive away, meaning the midday ferry we hoped to be on would be tight. We haggled with a taxi driver (difficult when he knows the ferry was leaving in 20 minutes) and he drove us to the ferry terminal for US$10 (we should have been able to get this for about US$5). We arrived with time to spare, but one of the ticket windows informed us it was too late. Somebody from another window came and told us the next smaller boat (not the ferry) was at 12:30pm and we could buy tickets from him. We bought our tickets for 35NIO, along with another couple who were also travelling to the island for ‘Año Nuevo’, and managed to get a taxi sorted for the journey on to our hotels from the arriving port for US$10 per person.

The boat was choppy, and took around 75 minutes, but we were rewarded with excellent views of the Isla Ometepe, and the two volcanos. Our pre-booked taxi driver was waiting for us on the other side, and we spent around 45 minutes driving around the island before our drop off at our ecolodge Totoco at around 2:30pm. The alternative would be to take Ometepe’s public bus. This wasn’t running over the holidays, but would be cheaper (and slower of course!)

The island of Ometepe is composed of two volcanoes, Concepción, which is still active, and the extinct Maderas. The small island has one main road which rings around the north volcano, Concepción, another road which rings around the southern volcano, Maderas, and a third road which links the two. The majority of the boat services run to Moyogalpa, which is on the north west of the island. There are some services that run to San José del Sur, which is to the south of the northern volcano. If you are staying south of the island, the San José ferry would save you some time once you are there, but the journey from Moyogalpa isn’t too long anyway!

Overall, a perfectly reasonable journey for what we thought could end up being a bit of a nightmare. We checked in for two evenings and brought in the new year! Read what we got up to in the next post!

La Fortuna & Monteverde, Costa Rica

Central America, Costa Rica

La Fortuna

We had arrived at the gateway of the Arenal Volcano National Park without concern, and were excited to explore the tropical rainforests and the clear waters of the Rio Fortuna. Our first exciting adventure was a night tour we had pre-booked with Arenal Natura Ecological Park which cost us US$44 per person (and US$9 round trip travel per person) – this was a really fun couple of hours with a small group (6 of us), and we saw different types of frogs, birds, insects, and the parks crocodiles. From talking to people later on in the trip however, it seemed like the nature walk in Monteverde was actually better, so if you are planning to visit there too, maybe plump for that instead.

All of the nature during the night walk at Arenal Natura Eco Park

The next day we went to the hanging bridges which cost US$26 per person (and US$11 round trip travel per person). This was a great walk through the forest, spotting wildlife and crossing the huge suspension bridges, which takes about an hour to walk through (you don’t need a guide!).

The Hanging Bridges

We then visited Rio Fortuna, which is a 200ft waterfall set some 200 steps down through the rock. We swam in the pools below, and climbed over the rocks to stand in awe of the waterfall. The swell and the current is so strong you can’t actually swim in the main pool, but you can feel the energy from standing at the shore alone. It cost US$15 per person to enter the area, which is reinvested into local conservation efforts, and we paid US$8 for a taxi each way (you can phone for a taxi when you are ready to leave at the parks information desk).

Rio Fortuna waterfall

Later that evening, we visited Baldi Hot Springs, a natural hot spring resort with 25 different mineral pools. The steep entrance price of US$45, which includes a buffet dinner too, was well worth it. A taxi here was US$6.

  • Remember your own towel – their deposit charge is expensive
  • Try not to bring too many valuables with you – the non-refundable fee for a locker is expensive
  • Link your card with a wristband when you enter, so you don’t have to keep paying as you go, which will be annoying when you’re in the pool bar and your bag is not nearby

We found in Costa Rica, more than anywhere, that USD was more widely used with tourist activities. For cheaper purchases, like snacks and taxi journeys we tended to pay in colónes, and if we paid in dollars, were given a huge array of Costa Rican coins. This is also the country we found the most expensive. It obviously has a much larger tourism scene than most other Central American countries, and maybe they are capitalising on this. Activities were also spread out with no public transport available, so plenty of taxis are required.

We liked our hostel, Arenal Backpackers Resort, and chose a fancy tent complete with wifi, electricity, and a fan! In hindsight though, I think we would prefer to spend the money on a dorm room, or even pay for a private room, as logistically the tent was a bit of a nightmare (and we came away with most of our clothes feeling and smelling damp after our first three days!)


Monteverde

The next morning we took the taxi-boat-taxi to Monteverde. We had prebooked this with Anywhere.com and paid US$25 per person, but our hostel offered this for US$20. It’s one of the most common things for people to do leaving La Fortuna, so don’t worry about booking ahead. You can definitely save money by arranging the day before you leave with multiple hostels and travel agencies in town. These run at 8am or 2pm.

We were collected at about 8:30am, and given a number on a post-it note. This, we were helpfully told by another tourist, was the bus number we needed on the other side of the water. From La Fortuna, the drive to the ferry port is about 20 minutes (in fact, it’s on the way to the Hanging Bridges Trail) and there, the shuttle empties onto a boat. Our boat seemed to be having a few speed issues, but we bumbled along, able to take in the tremendous views of the volcano.

We found our second bus on the other side, and found our driver. It was now apparent that the buses were divided by destination; we were staying in Santa Elena, a small town just next to the town of Monteverde (the area in general is called Monteverde because of the cloud forest, but most people stay in Santa Elena due to its close proximity).

It took about two hours (including an unnecessary stop at a restaurant) to get to Monteverde, and we were dropped off at our hostel, Casa Tranquilo. We had found this place in a Lonely Planet (“LP”) guide and were really pleased with it. Nice private rooms and bathrooms, with communal areas and a kitchen area too. We wandered into town once we had checked in, and decided to book a zip lining tour that afternoon. We paid US$45 per person, including travel, with the Original Canopy Tour.

There is an abundance of canopy tour companies in Monteverde, each offering something slightly different. We found Extreme Adventures had mostly the same basic zip line tour, but also offered a superman type wire. The overall price was more, and you had less time, and covered less wires, so we decided to go with the Original Canopy Tour, who again were recommended in the LP.

We both really enjoyed this activity. We jumped off of Tarzan ropes and zip lined 16 different wires, the last two being the longest and the highest, an exhilarating 800m across and out of the forest, and also offering the best views of the continental divide between the Pacific and the Caribbean (see video below!)

There is a lot of choice when deciding where to eat in Santa Elena, and we went for the Treehouse, which is a restaurant built around a tree! Good Costa Rican food, and a fun atmosphere (but a bit of a tourist trap – the food was a little more expensive than other less exciting venues.)

The next day we booked on a coffee, chocolate & sugar plantation tour with El Trapiche, a family run farm. It was fascinating to see how each crop was grown, harvested, and prepared, ready for sale. We got to sample everything! Well worth the US$33 per person including transport.

The El Trapiche Coffee, Chocolate and Sugar tour

The bus to the Monteverde cloud forest itself runs every hour and a half from Santa Elena (or thereabouts – check with your hotel, as a couple of bus times have recently been cancelled, and you wouldn’t want to get caught out), so determined to not let the rain dampen our spirits, we jumped on the 1:30pm and paid just over US$1 each (we paid with US$2 and a few Costa Rican coins). This took about half an hour and we paid US$20 each to enter the park. Sensibly, the park guards make you sign in and tell them which form of transport you arrived on, so they know not to let the last bus leave without you! They gave us a map and told us the routes we should take with the time we had before the park closed. We were sheltered for the majority of the time from the rain as a lot of the walks were covered by the foliage, but a few of the paths were exposed and so were very muddy.

Monteverde Cloud Forest

That evening we ate at Taco Taco (the best tacos in Costa Rica) and spent the evening with hostel guests, who had become new friends. We did not get the early night we should probably have had considering we were rising early to cross our first border, and to reach our next destination; the beautiful twin-volcano island of Ometepe, situated in Nicaragua’s vast Lake Nicaragua. More on those next few days to come!

Costa Rica – San José, and onwards to La Fortuna

Central America, Costa Rica

Here it was. The trip we had been planning for over six months. Our respective families had digital and hard copies of our itinerary (we had spent the holidays split between two families – the perils of two mothers wanting to see their sons on Christmas Day!), and we had spent weeks collecting piles of toiletries and clothes we thought we might want or need whilst away and packed them all into our rucksacks. A last minute repack of Christmas stocking sun tan lotions and insect repellent and we were good to go! Boxing Day saw us take the direct flight from London Gatwick to San José, the capital of Costa Rica.

San José airport was fairly easy to navigate; the queue at immigration and customs was minimal, and our luggage was fairly quick to arrive. This was all very welcome after 11 and a half hours on a plane! We were hounded by taxi drivers as soon as we walked through arrivals, but they were pretty quick to leave us alone once we made it clear we were going local.

We found the bus stop on the main highway outside the airport, and waited for a San José bus (the majority that arrived were heading to Alejuela). We told the bus conductor at the stop we were heading there and he shouted to us when the right bus was there, and paid C$550 (around 70p/$1) each. It was full and we stood the whole way, but it was only about half an hour, and a lot cheaper than the $20 taxi drivers wanted!

We stayed at Hotel Novo, which we had worked out was right next to the bus drop off so that we didn’t have to walk much. The room was fairly basic and had no windows, but the city was dark, dirty and noisy, and so we weren’t missing out on much. We probably missed out on some potentially interesting sights to see in San José, but wanting to kick off our busy itinerary straight away we decided that a quick one night turnaround in the capital city was best.

We made sure that we visited the bus terminal that evening before our journey the next day (T7-10), conveniently located near to our hotel as well. We paid C$2495 (£3.20/$4.50) each for our 8:40am bus to La Fortuna (Arenal). The buses leave from the ground floor to the right of the station, but you have to buy your ticket from the ticket office on the second floor (we were able to buy our ticket the night before).

We arrived the next morning at about 7:50am and Matt asked where the queue was for the bus and the bus guard pointed to an empty lane, and then announced it to the crowded bus station. Scores of people then joined the queue behind us, and when it was time, Matt took the two rucksacks to the hold, and I took our day bags onto the bus to secure front seats. The bus took just over four hours, which was only a little over the scheduled time. The best thing about public buses, apart from the obvious cost benefits, is that they run non-stop, unlike the tourists shuttles or minibuses where stopping at services is common.