Crossing the border on your own from Nicaragua to Costa Rica is perfectly safe and much more structured than other border crossings in the region. Plus, it's a lot better for your travel budget compared to the tourist buses that are available from one country to the next. You are backpacking after all so it's good to take the more 'adventurous route' by doing it by yourself. And it feels good making your way into new terrain on foot and posing under the 'WELCOME TO COSTA RICA' sign!
In the following post, I'll cover everything on getting from A to B and what you need to know before the journey and what to expect. I'll then add how to get to Monteverde, the popular tourist spot in Costa Rica, once you've arrived in the country. (This is information I wish I had found out before my trip).
#1 USE ALL OF YOUR NICARAGUA CORDOBAS BEFORE YOU REACH THE BORDER
This is a tip to use while travelling to and from anywhere in Latin America. Use all of your local currency while you're in that country, because you won't be able to exchange it (not easily anyway) when you visit the next. Some travellers hold on to any spare notes and then exchange them later with fellow backpackers who are going the opposite route which is a good idea. If you are left with quite a lot of notes (like I was) don't change them at the border, you will be ripped off!
#2 ON ARRIVAL TO THE BORDER, YOU WILL HAVE TO PAY A $1 FEE TO ENTER THE 'BORDER ZONE' &
A $3 EXIT FEE ON DEPARTURE
This is why I always recommend to carry at least some US Dollars with you during your travels.
#3 YOU MUST HAVE EVIDENCE OF ONWARD TRAVEL IN ORDER TO ENTER COSTA RICA
We had a flight booked back to Mexico but I was unluckily blocked from my emails a couple days before we were going to Costa Rica. I explained we had flight tickets booked but without any evidence (I hadn't printed it out in time) they would not budge on letting us in. Time was tight and the lines were huge so we made the decision to buy open tickets from San Jose to Panama City ($40 one way) from one of the bus ticket stalls lined up outside Immigration.
#4 YOU DON'T HAVE TO PAY AN ENTRY FEE FOR COSTA RICA BUT EXPECT LARGE QUEUES AND YOUR BAGS WILL BE SCANNED AND PUT THROUGH SECURITY
GETTING TO THE BORDER: RIVAS - PENAS BLANCAS
First things first, whichever place you're coming from in Nicaragua, you have to make your way to Rivas. This is the main transfer hub and where you will have most likely passed through before. Leave as early as you can in the morning to start this whole process as it does take time and you need to give yourself a head start for the second half of the journey. Once you've arrived to the busy bus terminal in Rivas, you must find the bus going to Penas Blancas or ask for La Frontera (the border). This bus should only cost around C$30 (US$1) per person. While we were looking for the correct bus, taxi drivers would tell us there's no bus to the border for hours. We already knew not to listen to them but because there was no sign of the bus, we started to wander around. If you walk away from the actual terminal but still in the vicinity, you will start to come across more honest taxi drivers. We were pushed for time and starting to get concerned so agreed for a taxi to take us for US$10 (US$5 each). He seemed desperate and it seemed like a reasonable price especially when the journey took 45-60 minutes. We were dropped off basically on the doorstep and pointed in the right direction to the departure immigration office.
CROSSING THE BORDER
Upon entry to the departure office, you will be summoned to a desk and be told to pay a US$1 fee to enter the 'border zone'. Then you will go up to one of the official stands where the immigration officer will check your documents and then ask for the US$3 exit fee (to be paid in US dollars). A quick stamp and you'll be through!
As you walk on, behind the immigration officers, there will be people offering to change your Nicaragua Cordobas into Costa Rica Colones. I had C$720 left (US$25) and even though I didn't even know the exchange rate, I accepted whatever she offered me which ended up being about half what I should of got...
Next, walk straight outside and follow the road for about 200-300m. We had to stop to show armed officials our passports but they were very pleasant and couldn't express more their thoughts on how beautiful Costa Rica is and how Nicaragua isn't all that. Keep going straight after that and you will see the 'WELCOME TO COSTA RICA' sign. Get a photo with it if you wish then follow the road again until you see the Immigration Office to enter Costa Rica on your left and lots of bus ticket stalls on your right. While we were walking up the road, it was extremely busy with traffic (and wandering cows) so be careful.
Finally, join the huge line to be seen to and make sure you have your passport and a travel ticket to prove you are leaving Costa Rica when you say you are. It's air-conditioned and the staff are very professional so you are not waiting too long. I unfortunately had been blocked from my emails days before so had no evidence to show that I had a onward travel booked. They just point blank refused to let me in, no excuses. If there wasn't so much people waiting, I would of probably argued a bit more but decided to purchase an open ticket to Panama from outside. This worked fine and after a quick security check and scan of my bags, I was free to leave the air-con and enter the country.
ONWARD TRAVEL TO MONTEVERDE
The car-park just outside the Immigration Office is full of modern, clean buses waiting to pick up passengers. We asked how to
get to Monteverde and were directed onto a bus heading for San Jose. They explained we would have to get off at La Irma on the way, then catch a another bus to Monteverde (Santa Elena) from there. Seemed easy enough.
The bus cost us US$10 for La Irma (I think we were charged the same price as San Jose) and the driver said he would tell us where to get off. Two hours passed and then we were told it was our stop - I looked out the window and it was a shop, on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. I had expected it to be a town we would of had to change at but it was actually a junction. We were dropped off at 3.30pm and to make a long story short the last bus for Monteverde was at 3pm.
Oblivious to this fact (I expected buses to come and go because it was such a popular tourist town) we went inside the shop, bought some stuff then slowly made our way across the road to the bus stop. A taxi driver that was parked randomly kept telling us there was no bus. We thought he was just saying that to get us to take a ride from him. Some time passed then a woman who could speak better English got off a bus that stopped and the taxi driver asked her to explain to us. She said the buses to Monteverde were only at 10am and 3pm not multiple times like I thought. She also let us know we were waiting at the wrong bus stop, it was the one as you turn into the junction. The taxi took his shot there and then and said he would take us for US$60 -- no chance.