Border Run

As part of our new adventure, I got to do what the local ex-pats here call a “border run” this last Sunday. This post will probably be more interesting to ex-pats in Costa Rica but if you want to see what it takes to live here, read on.

Generally in Costa Rica you can stay 90 days as a tourist and then you have to exit the country and return. Most of the ex-pats do this. Deb and I applied for a “rentista visa” (which I described a few posts back) and that means that we don’t have to exit and return every 90 days.

However, we now have a car and that adds some complications. For us to be able to drive here with a foreign driver’s license, we need to exit and return every 90 days, just like the other ex-pats.

I had planned to detail the whole process, but as I was looking for photos of the various forms, I found Gord and Elisha’s wonderful blog post (In Nica Now). They documented the entire process from the Nicaraguan ex-pat view and had lots of good photographs. Instead of recreating their detail here, I’ll focus on some perspectives on the people and process from a first-timer.

In Playa Potrero, we are pretty close to the border of Costa Rica and Nicaragua, so most folks choose to do a border run to Nicaragua at Penas Blancas (“white plains”) 153K (95 miles) away. It takes about 3 hours to get there. I had originally planned to drive up to the border crossing alone since Deb was already flying back to Seattle for work and would get her new entry stamp that way. I wasn’t looking forward to driving poor Moose all the way there and back and really didn’t want to burn all that gas. As I pinged a few friends to see if they also wanted to go, I learned from my friend Dusty that Tamarindo Transfers and Tours has a crazy good deal on border runs: $35 round trip in an air conditioned bus.

Moose gets a whopping 12 miles per gallon so that would take about 16 gallons of gas. At ~$5.50/gallon that’s $88. Moose also doesn’t have air conditioning or a busload full of adventure.

10 folks started in the bus in Tamarindo at 7am and they picked me up in Huacas, which was mid-way between Tamarindo and where I live. The bus was full to the brim. We dropped 3 folks off at Liberia Airport on the way to Nicaragua. That’s where we had expected to pay this mysterious exit tax for Costa Rica. They put it in place a month or so ago, but they had no way to collect money for it at the border. The blogosphere, locals, expats, and travel agencies all had different opinions about whether it was being collected at all and where to actually pay it (not at the border). Our driver dropped the rest of us at Liberia Airport and gave each of us (back) our prepaid $10 for the tax. He suggested we go inside the airport to pay.

Inside, you can indeed pay an exit tax, but only the one when you leave Costa Rica by air. We drove around a bit to find what look to be the immigration police station, but it was closed on Sunday. We then took our chances and just drove to the border. Luck was with us and no one asked us to pay the tax. Afterward, I heard from several folks that they stopped trying to collect it after all the confusion at the border.

On the way up, folks were trading stories about how many days they were given to stay. The usual is 90 days. A few ex-pats that had been here awhile got 60 days. Evidently, it seems to depend on the border agent and maybe the moon, stars, time of the week, etc. One particular woman was very grumpy about the last time she went up and only got 60 days. She seemed to have a lot in general to complain about and it extended to Costa Rica, the US, Canada, her employer and several other things.

Normally on these runs, they simply go up, you cross into Nicaragua and then come right back. This particular woman was certain that the reason she only got 60 days was because last time she turned right around and so she refused to come back in anything less than two hours. Therefore, the entire bus had to spend two hours in Nicaragua.

Getting through the exit point in Costa Rica was pretty easy. It only took 20 minutes or so. Likewise, getting entry into Nicaragua was easy. It only took about 30 minutes. This is where I learned several tips for the next time.

Tip 1: Bring about $20 in $1 (USD) bills.
Things at the crossing and in Nicaragua are very cheap in general, including the fees. There are a lot of fees that cost $1-2 and change is a bit hard to come by. As an aside, Debbie read on the internet that you need to enter Nicaragua with at least $500 cash in USD. They only work with US dollars at the border and generally in Nicaragua. Well, at least she had the US dollar part right J I didn’t need $500 in $20’s. I did need $1 bills desperately.

I paid $1 when I first entered Nicaragua for an Alcadia Municipal “Contribucion Especial” (special contribution) ticket. Then $12 to get the entry stamp. On the way out, you have to pay the “Contribucion Especial” again.

With two hours before we left, we didn’t have time to catch a cab to Rivas (30 minutes away) or San Juan del Sur (45 minutes away), so Dusty and I just found a local restaurant – a shack really – and had a $1 beer. It was Toña, the Nicaraguan national beer. I had a good chance to watch a lot of the activity around the border and saw some fascinating things (more later).

Tip 2: Bring several custom forms with you or get them all at once.
Evidently Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and perhaps all of Central America uses the same customs form. At least, it is labeled as a Central American customs form. Also, evidently, when you first get into Nicaragua, you have to go to a special place to get these forms (a different line to stand in). Fortunately, there are tens of people there handing these forms out for a small fee – $1 USD. I would recommend buying 4 because you need them to leave Costa Rica, enter Nicaragua, leave Nicaragua, and enter Costa Rica. There are no tables in the customs area with stacks of these so you need to find a source. We forgot when we were entering Costa Rica again. Fortunately, we were able to get one from the agent (who didn’t look particularly pleased – and you definitely do not want to displease them).

Tip 3: Pick a good “dealer.”
This is Dusty’s term and he hit it spot on. It is a bit like going to Las Vegas and looking for a good dealer for blackjack. Yu want someone who is not grumpy, not a hard-ass, and ideally has a good sense of humor. The same seems to hold true of border agents. You’ll have several lines to choose from, so pick well. Afterward, I heard a story about one border agent in particular that the ex-pats seem to recognize and who consistently does not give 90 days. I don’t have his picture, sorry.

Our first two agents leaving CR and entering Nicaragua were great. They were both women and very friendly. Leaving Nicaragua, we had a guy who was friendly, but then started to ask questions. We were really only out of Costa Rica for two hours after all. They like folks staying and spending some money. Dusty talked to him about his home town and we sailed through. Our final one was a young guy who seemed serious but was very efficient and friendly. We got 90 days. Of course, we were also friendly.

Tip 4: Bring patience and a sense of humor – or at least a good book.
Some of the lines are long. Your passport gets look at 7-8 times. It’s hot and dusty. Our final line back into Costa Rica was 2+ hours. The two hours we stayed before returning evidently put us in the window of when all the tour buses from Nicaragua were coming through (about 1pm). Ideally, you’d want to get through before all of that. If you are stuck in a long line though, being grumpy probably won’t help you out much in the end. Remember pura vida? This is a good place to channel it.

Between my wait in Nicaragua having a beer and this two hour line, I actually noticed something quite remarkable. There is an entire ecosystem and economy built up around this need for ex-pats in both countries to head to the border and renew their entry stamp. As with many rich human ecosystems, you can see signs of inefficiency, but then also enterprising ways to work within the system. You can see innovation and creativity, as well as boredom and “just do what everyone else does” mentality.

As I mentioned, there are many folks handing out customs form for a tip (eliminating the need for you to stand in a line to get them). There are folks whom you can tip and get to the front of the line. It looks like the people at the front, only locals from what I saw, are willing to sell their place in line and then start over. There are folks selling cold drinks and mobile phone cards.

And of course, there is a whole bank of booths selling bus tickets. When you enter Costa Rica, you need to have proof that you will be exiting the country within 90 days. This can be an airline ticket (and that seems to have some advantages). Most ex-pats, though, buy a bus ticket (every 90 days) that they never use but that shows that they have a ticket out of Costa Rica. So, conveniently, if you forget your proof of departure, or are just someone who likes to do things last minute, you can easily buy one at the border.

One could look at all of this and suggest that it could be more efficient, better, and easier. I hear lots of complaints about the exit taxes, etc. From my perspective, I’m rather impressed. It’s got to be a hard life living in Costa Rica and Nicaragua in general given the average daily salary and unemployment. Enterprising people seem to be making some extra $ in this ecosystem. I don’t mind paying someone a tip for a form. It’s only a dollar and that seems to go a very long way in Nicaragua. I love seeing creative thinking emerge in ecosystems like this.

At the end of our long lines, we hopped back on the bus for the ride home. Most folks got 90 days. Our friend who was a bit grumpy only got 60 days again. Perhaps she didn’t pick a “good dealer.” Perhaps, it was her passport full of entry/exit stamps from Costa Rica (and Nicaragua). Maybe it was the fact that she had a bus ticket vs. a plane ticket to show proof of exit. Maybe she got that “one” border agent. It could have indeed been the moon, the time of the week, or any one of a number of reasons. She certainly seemed to be the exception.

For my part, I think it may go back to how you come across to people. Grumpiness, entitlement, continuous complaining can’t make a good case for getting anything. Costa Rica is the land of “pura vida.” Perhaps, the border agents look for that and welcome it back into Costa Rica and reward those who show it. We are guests here after all. Maybe a 60 day stamp is a good “teaching moment” – a reminder both of pura vida and how we should try to embrace it. At least, it seems as plausible as any other theory I’ve heard 🙂

Pura vida!

9 thoughts on “Border Run

  1. So what about the kiddos, Andy? Were they with you or with Deb or are they exempt from this particular rule?

  2. Pingback: Deb goes to Nicaragua | Intentionally Off Path

  3. Pingback: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Border | Intentionally Off Path

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