Our big day crossing the border from Nicaragua to Costa Rica was upon us, and we were extremely apprehensive given all the concern from the expats the night before. We woke up at 7AM so we could immediately check on whether a car/driver would be waiting for us, as previously arranged through the hotel. We had sent an email to Eric, the receptionist who had been helping us out before we arrived in Nicaragua, but had not yet heard back, and he had unfortunately not been working on Saturday to be able to check with him personally. As luck would have it, after I bolted out of bed from my natural alarm clock in my brain right before 7AM and went downstairs to check who was working he desk, Eric was there (but helping a customer). Soon after Brendan woke up, we confirmed that the car and driver would be there at 8AM on the dot. We packed up our stuff, had a nice breakfast, and sure enough, we were back in business with a punctual business arrangement and on the road to crossing the border from Nicaragua to Costa Rica.
Our driver, Hector, picked us up in a tiny hatchback for $160, which we had arranged a few weeks in advance through the hotel. We paid him at the agreed to drop-off point. He did not speak any English, but the hotel translated the instructions of getting us as close to crossing the border from Nicaragua to Costa Rica as possible. We made great time going south from Leon – and we were able to bypass both Managua and Granada, which saved us a ton of time. The Nica and Tica bus options, which we had both investigated, would take 7-9 hours due to several stops in the major cities. However, we did not really have 9 hours. We were supposed to pick up our rental car in Liberia, Costa Rica around 2PM – meaning we wanted to make it in 7 hours. 7 hours allowed for absolutely no margin or room for error. There was a luxury bus option that we looked at through these companies, which had fewer stops and also served lunch, but the pick-up and drop-off points were unknown in advance.
Side note: we had called Economy Rental Car in Liberia, which we had booked through Expedia, a week in advance to change our pick-up time to 5PM. However, the central reservation service (an 800 number free from the US) said they were unable to make any changes, and to call the local office. He was extremely rude and seemed put off that we had booked through Expedia and was unwilling to make any notes in the file about a possible extension on the arrival time. And, he again said to call the local rental office, and gave me the local number (which incidentally is different than the number on Google Maps). So I did ultimately call.
The local rental office treated me very rudely as well, and told me that they could not make any changes and that it was impossible in their system, and that I should call Expedia. He also advised me that I should try “very hard” to cross the border on time and make if by 2PM, or else they couldn’t guarantee our car. Shit. He said something about a 1 hour grace period. And he also said something about a 24 hour hold period. But he intentionally was not clear. And he intentionally was being a massive dick. And, he basically yelled at me for calling when he had a customer in front of him at the desk and told me to call back in 15 minutes. He ended up, more or less, telling me to call the day of with an ETA to see if the car would be available.
So, my next chess move was to call Expedia. They were very polite and nice, but could not give me direct information on whether the car would be available at 5PM, which is when I wanted to change the reservation to. I was on hold for the better part of 30 minutes when the Expedia agent contacted Economy rental car and went down the same path I had just gone down, but with Expedia clout. It went nowhere, as expected, and the agent said that the car should still be available at 5PM. When I asked him if he could guarantee the car would be there at 5PM, he said that the rental car agency said to call the morning of to confirm and that it probably would be. Would be wasn’t good enough, so I asked to speak to a supervisor. The supervisor went through the situation again, put me on hold, and gathered information once more from the local rental agency. I can only assume that they told him the same thing, but somehow he translated that to me as a guarantee that the car would be there if we came later that 2PM. We walked away from this feeling “somewhat” confident that at least we would get reimbursed by Expedia if the car wasn’t available, but not terribly confident that the car would actually be there. So, we basically had a hope and prayer that after ALL of the travel, after crossing the border from Nicaragua to Costa Rica, and after getting to the rental car agency (which I still haven’t told you about), that the car would actually be there. Even if the car was available for us, we were 100% sure that we had burnt all possibly bridges with the local staff by being complete PITA nuisances that they would purposely pretend like it wasn’t available the day off. We figured elephants had long memories.
We had essentially resigned ourselves to NOT having a rental car and to spending the night at a random hotel in Liberia and trying again the following day…if we even were able to cross the border! Recall – the expats the night before explained that if we even made it across the border in one day, it would be a good day.
Trying to plan in advance was impossible. It was very difficult to find information online without being onsite in person at the bus stations. In fact, our Nica-American friend Brett even inquired for us and he was even told conflicting information from different sources. Some sources online looked super dodgy. We got several quotes from tour companies and transport providers for prices and for schedules and they ranged anywhere from $45 to $350 from Leon to crossing the border from Nicaragua to Costa Rica, and anywhere from 6 hours to 12 hours. Most options did not drop off in Liberia, and instead went to San Jose – with options to negotiate a drop-off in Liberia in country. Also, other options did not pick-up in Leon and instead forced a pick-up in Granada or San Juan del Sur. Nobody was clear about exactly what type of service we would be getting, from where, and to where, and within what time-frame on their websites. Our final advice to you if you are trying a similar thing – arrange it through the hotels on both sides. You will soon see why we say this.
Back to the plot.
The plan was:
- Hire driver/car from Leon for crossing the border from Nicaragua to Costa Rica. We can tell you this plan executed successfully within the allotted timeframe, 4.5 hours according to Google maps. This included a very necessary bathroom break in Rivas for me which coincided with a Tip Top fried chicken fast food visit. Without this break it would have been 4 hours, getting to the border at 1215PM. On the way, we got to see:
- Ometepe, the majestic volcano inside Lake Nicaragua, the only lake in the world with freshwater sharks.
- The southern part of Nicaragua was supremely beautiful. The roads were good. There was beautiful farmland. There was no traffic (bypassing Managua and Granada), so the drive for crossing the border from Nicaragua to Costa Rica was easy peasy.
- And, there were these fascinating inventions called Auto Hotels, which were essentially garages you could rent by the hour for having sex in with your spouse or significant other (or whatever).
- Bountiful fast food and fried chicken restaurants that make you feel like you are back in the USA.
It was a delightful breeze, and way easier than anyone led us to believe.
- Cross border by foot. This part also was easy.
- Step 1: Exit cab, and walk straight (the only obvious direction) until you see a “Salida de Nicaragua” sign on a building. 50 meters on a not very paved dirt road, but still doable with rolling style luggage.
- Step 2: Go in to the building with the “Salida” (“Exit” sign). This is the first time we messed up. I walked in to the building, and a lady yelled at me and pointed that I needed to go around. We decided to listen to her an ended up going around, walking about 150 meters to another official through a paved gauntlet beyond the building, only to get told that we needed to go back and get an exit stamp. Oh. So we back to step 1. This cost us only 15 minutes.
- Step 3: Inside the “Salida” building, buy an exit visa for $1. Then wait in a line for 15 minutes to get your passport stamped officially and get a receipt. At the front of the line, expect to pay $2/per person to get your passport stamped and to get this receipt. We are to this day confused why there are separate steps for 2 and 3.
- Step 4: Walk the paved gauntlet of 150 meters to an official who will look at your passport for an exit visa, and then wave you through to the next step. People will ask you if you need a taxi. If you don’t want to walk this distance, get a taxi. If you don’t mind walking, refuse. People are not particularly aggressive and did not pursue you if you declined. Once at the official, show him your passport and the piece of paper(s) and the stamp from Step 3, and make a little joke that you’re back again if you went to step 3 before Step 2. He will smile and wave you onwards.
- Step 5: Walk another 50 meters and get in line to get a Costa Rica entry visa after officially crossing the border from Nicaragua to Costa Rica. This step took us 60 minutes. We got there around 1230PM and there was a line that queued up 30 meters from the entry building beyond the bus ticket stands (you’ll know what I’m talking about when you’re there). We think that it took a while because it was lunchtime and there weren’t very many agents working. Around 1PM the line picked up significantly. There are very nice restrooms available while you are waiting in line, so save your bathroom break for the Costa Rican side. While in line, you will notice how much nicer the Costa Rican side of the border is. There are tall, dense trees. The air smells a little cleaner. There are nice bathrooms. Santiago, our Leon guide, even mentioned that the howler monkeys are congregated only on the Costa Rican side. However, this was probably an overstatement because we saw no howler monkeys on either side of the border.
- Step 6: After the free entry in to Costa Rica after the hour line, scan your luggage through the Xray machines and proceed to the pickup area on the Costa Rica side. Breathe a sigh of relief because you have made it!
- Step 7: Figure out how to get out of there. This is where it all fell apart for us. In advance of the trip, I found a shuttle company called Liberia Airport Shuttle that agreed (and confirmed 3 times) to pick us up on the Costa Rican side of the border, just past the X-ray machines, at 1:30PM. I even went so far as to confirm the day before, confirm the day of, and ensure that they knew we would be reaching the border at 12:30PM, whereby we asked them to suggest when we should meet them – to which the answer was 1:30PM. We were outside the x-ray machines at 1:33PM and they were not. We waited until 2PM, continuously circling the parking lot, the immigration exit area, the bus pickup area, and the taxi area to look for a sign or somebody that remotely looked like a tourist pickup person – yet we found no one for us. At 2PM, we started looking for a taxi. There are fewer taxis than you’d think. The trick is to just start asking around, anybody you can. After striking out a few times, I finally I approached a family getting in to an official looking “Tourism” shuttle and asked them if I could pay them to drop us off in Liberia. They declined, saying they were going to Papagayo. Luckily, a guy standing nearby overheard me and jumped in saying that he knew a guy who knew a guy that could take us to Liberia airport. We found our opening. We started with $70 (original fare to the Economy Rental Car location near Liberia Airport was $79), and he countered at $100. Brendan was already off looking for other alternatives, so I waited for him to circle back (I was waiting with the luggage by the buses), waived him over, and then we followed the “finder” to the fake taxi area round back where the negotiation continued. We landed on $80, with a $5 finder’s fee for the guy that set it up. That worked for us. We were in a cab by 2:20PM.
- Step 8: Get to the rental car company in Liberia. We wasted an hour because we were stood up by the Liberia Airport Shuttle company (Side note: avoid at all costs despite very good English and excellent pre-trip communication). But, our new driver Charlie made up the time by driving like a bat out of hell while answering the phone about 10 times and blasting reggaetón to get us there by 3:20PM, on a drive that was supposed to take 90 minutes. On the way, we even called the rental car company to let them know we would be there soon and to see if the car was still available – which they assured us it was because we had prepaid. Why could they have not just told us about the magical “prepay guarantee” a week before!?
At the rental car company, we quickly paid the $80 to Charlie and went inside. We dealt with a lovely lady at the counter who was so nice and kind, and said that she didn’t expect us so soon. It was all much to do about nothing. A nice SUV, a Hyundai Tucson, was available and was waiting for us because we had prepaid. Calling in advance was apparently unnecessary. The only hiccup was the insurance. Apparently the insurance we had bought through Expedia was not enough to cover us in country, so we had to buy the insurance through the rental car company. Brett has warned us about this insurance “scam” – the daily price looking low ($80 for our 4 days), but then a bolt-on daily insurance fee on the spot of $60/day. This is exactly what happened to us. Not sure if it was a scam or just bad advertising on the part of Expedia, but the lady calmly and comprehensively explained that Expedia did a very bad job of showing the mandatory insurance requirements in Costa Rica and that frequently people came in confused, having been sold separate insurance policies (that didn’t work) through Expedia. She expertly made it sounds like false advertising on the part of Expedia, and advised us to call Expedia later to get a refund for the insurance policy they sold us (which we did, and which we did ultimately receive a refund for).
We ended up buying a $280 comprehensive collision policy through the rental agency. We did not feel scammed per se, even though we might have been. The lady basically said we could choose between a $250 policy and $280 policy, and that there was no option to decline.
By 3:45PM we were out of there in our white SUV, but not before taking a video of all the pre-existing dents and issues with the car (just minor scratches). We were warned by many a TripAdvisor customer that another scam that Economy liked to do was to bill your credit card for damages to the car after you turned it in. We would again video the car’s condition at turn in on the other side for proof.
At this point we were home free.
It turned out to be a much easier day than expected and an even better night (which I’ll explain in the next blog, as well as our very easy final leg to our lodging in Nuevo Arenal). The lesson is that it is always possible to do what you need to do, and when you are willing to put in some leg work and pay for the convenience factor, you can accomplish what you need to. One of the four things we had planned for did not work out – but considering what we had been warned about from our expat friends, we thought we had done pretty well. It was a successful day, all in all.