For those of us who enjoy waiting in long lines in dingy places with excruciating heat, Peñas Blancas is everything we’ve been waiting for and more … waiting. For the rest of us, there are better ways to spend an afternoon than twiddling our thumbs in a sweat-soaked administrative limbo in border-town wasteland.
On my latest trip across the grueling border, in which I crossed from Costa Rica to Nicaragua, I discovered that you can’t cross the border in a rental car, but you can leave it, through a relatively painless procedure in an otherwise painful world of trámite (red tape).
Both National and Alamo rental car agencies have offices on both sides of the border, and Thrifty will send inspectors to pick up the car up from you at the border. Just make sure you arrange your car drop ahead of time, because Thrifty personnel have to drive in from Liberia, about two hours away, to meet you at the border. Better yet, tell them you plan to arrive at the border an hour before you actually plan to arrive.
If they don’t arrive on time, as happened to me, you’ll come to discover it’s not that big of a deal. You’re going to have to wait in the sluggish line at the border to get your passport stamped, anyway.
At Peñas Blancas, one must learn, waiting is inevitable. Plan to spend about two hours total at the border.
It’s a dirt-caked nothingness, decorated with sweaty lots of luggage-toting tourists, burning trash and billboards that discourage human trafficking. In today’s globalized world, Peñas Blancas is an exhausting reminder of how governments struggle to keep up with much more driven forces of technological innovation and competition.
Preferred over Nica and Tica favorites such as soccer, baseball and surfing, haggling is the sport of choice in Peñas Blancas, and many here are pros. Hustlers fronting as money exchangers and immigration officials can’t wait to see what they can get out of you.
So brace yourself.
With no dusty bars or assortment of greasy spoons, as you might expect in a border town, the best you can do on the Costa Rican side, many tourists find, is buy an orange for ¢100 and suck on it while you wait in line. Others go to the lone restaurant for a cold Pilsen in an attempt to wash away their border woes.
Once the rental car folks arrive, the inspection part is easy.Make sure you get some kind of signed confirmation of what inspectors observed upon your vehicle return inspection.
That’s not to say that rental car companies are out to get you, only that The Tico Times has received stacks of complaints from visitors to Costa Rica saying they have had problems in this regard. Your best bet is to document yourself whenever and however you can. It can’t hurt to even take photos of the car when you drop it off.
Once the inspection is over, walk or catch a shaded bike taxi to the Nicaraguan border, where you’ll also need to get your passport stamped (it’s like déjà vu, only more painful). You probably shouldn’t pay attention to the scruffy Nicaraguan kids offering you an expedited passport stamping in broken English. It’s safe to assume they don’t work for Nicaraguan Immigration.
While you wait, get a quesillo – a delightful Nicaraguan snack of tortilla, cheese and natilla (sour cream) – from a local vendor for a buck. Try not to think about the fact that your few moments alone with your quesillo will by far be the best part of crossing the border.
Once you’ve made it through the Nica side (phew!), if you haven’t arranged for another rental car on the other side, a good bet is to try to hop on the Ticabus or Transnica buses that run the route between San José and Managua. If you’re headed to San Juan del Sur, they can drop you off in Rivas, from where the beach is a $5 collective cab ride away; they also pass through Granada and end up in Managua.
If the trans-border buses have passed already, don’t worry, there are plenty of other ways, albeit sweaty ones, to get where you’re going.
If you’re headed to San Juan del Sur, you can catch a cab ($6) or bus (1) to Rivas and then catch the bus to San Juan. Or you can catch a cab straight to San Juan from the border (about $25). Try to get a collective taxi to keep the price down; there’s safety in numbers here.
If you’re headed to Granada, and the more comfortable trans-border buses have already passed through and you’re feeling adventurous, you can catch the Managua chicken bus ($3) and get off at Nandaime or Guanacaste El Enpalme and catch a cab into Granada.
The other option is to take a cab into the hot, gritty town of Rivas and catch the equally hot chicken bus to Granada ($1). A collective taxi to Granada from the border can also be a good option for as little as $10 a head.