How To Enjoy Your Visa Run

Wind field Nicaragau

Wind field, on Lake Nicaragua, with two volcanos.

I’ve been living on a tourist visa, first in Mexico, now in Nicaragua, for 15 years. Why? I hate dealing with bureaucracy, I’m lazy, and I like to travel.

I’ve made upwards of 50 visa runs during my ex-pat life. Some to exotic locales where I stayed in fancy hotels. Others, I have touched down in a major city in the middle of the night with only bus fare to reach my final destination.

As I build my new business, I am going the utilitarian route, which means walking through borders and staying in cheap hotels, but not so cheap I have to share a bathroom.

This weekend I went to Costa Rica. Sounds Exotic? Not so much. Still, a change of scenery did me good.

Some people do a visa run by coming and going in one day. But, I know someone whose passport was improperly stamped doing this, they were forced to get residency or leave. It cost her a fortune and much stress. So, I always leave the country for at least 24 hours.

Penas Blancas, Nicaragua

The scenic walk between Nicaragua and Costa Rica.

This is what it takes to do a 48-hour visa run, on land through the Nicaragua, Costa Rica borders.

FAQ: Do you have to speak Spanish? I suppose not, there’s usually a helpful bilingual traveler around. But it does make it a lot easier. The immigration officers on land borders in Central America seldom speak English.

The day before I left I  sent the required health form to enter Costa Rica. I presented the QR code sent to me by the Cost Rican government while crossing.

I also tried to send the entry form for Nicaragua but it was glitchy, it wouldn’t take numbers in numbers boxes, so I couldn’t send it. During this essential online preparation, I was having a particularly bad internet day.

I was stressed because visa runs can be stressful in general. When you have lived on a tourist visa for a long time, the immigration officers often harass you about it. I’ve never been denied a visa, but I’m aware that a visa is a gift, not a right.

So, I crossed my fingers that not having the entry form on file wouldn’t lead to an interrogation upon my return. The next morning I took our car with a driver to the border, an hour and a half from my home.

Dubious car wash poppers.

There have been big changes since I last crossed at Peñas Blancas. The Pan American  Highway that runs through both land borders now has two extra lanes on the Nicaraguan side.

There are no longer miles of semis waiting along the road, causing delays and dangerous passing practices. It also has a new immigration building, and a nicer bathroom, kinda, you still have to flush with a bucket…but it is fresher.

What’s lost are the people, the hawkers, and hustlers, the blue-eyed guy who sold us a bus ticket, or helped us get copies(when that was still a thing), and the hot as hell ramshackle market. From this traveler’s perspective, it’s lost its charm. I wished I’d taken a picture of the challenging, comical chaos it was.

I wasn’t able to buy a return ticket Costa Rica requires until I got to the C.R. side. It was a little disconcerting since I didn’t know if I’d be able to get one until I was standing in front of their immigration building. The ticket cost me 26$, but the value printed on it was 15$.

I wasn’t able to use it to get into Liberia, my destination. I hoped I might use it on the way back. I hopped on a public bus after buzzing through immigration.

My wise neighbor advised me to call for an appointment for the PCR test Nicaragua requires, and in a couple of hours, I’d been tested and had eaten some disappointing poppers in a car wash. Why did I eat in a car wash? There was a chair, a fan, shade, and food.

Divine timing had me waiting for my test on the same corner as my favorite thrift shop. I picked up a fab dress, two lovely pairs of pants, and a top for less than 20 dollars in less than 20 minutes.

eci dress

Said, fab dress. It feels like stretch silk.

My hotel wasn’t nearby so I took a cab, I’d walked a lot, it was at least 90 degrees. The cab was cool, clean, and cost 2$, for about a 10-minute ride.

I don’t not recommend the place I stayed, but there are better options, so we’ll skip it. The next day I had a decent included breakfast, with a fried hot dog served as breakfast sausage, and very good coffee, available at 6 AM. Win.

I walked downtown to the bus stops, tried to make use of my bus ticket, no go, and got back on a public bus for 2.80$. The windows were open and the one next to me had a grating rattle, I rolled up the 26$ dollar ticket and shoved it into the window rim to quiet it. Two hours of that rattle would have made me bonkers, 26 bucks well spent.

An hour and a half later, we stopped in front of immigration, I went in, looked around for customs forms, there were none so I got in line. When I got to the front the attendant asked for a custom form. She sent me off to the office, which was through the big trucks down the hill to a tiny kiosk painted green with childlike abandon.

Look wayyyyyy back to the small window in the green wall, over the Pan Am intersection between the semis, where the woman who seems to have no affiliation with the government waves and calls to you, walk down the steep gravel path at least 500 meters from the immigration line. You made it!

The woman in the window took a picture, I don’t even remember what of, and sent it back to immigration. I climbed the hill, thinking, I can’t imagine what this is going to be like when the rains come, and passed through Costa Rica’s border smooth as a bossa nova.

A five-minute walk and two armed checkpoints later, I was back at the Nicaraguan border ready with my dollar for the line ticket lady(yep, they charge a dollar to stand in line).

A handsome young man with a laissez-faire air barely asked me a question. He stamped my passport and sent me into another three months of life in Nicaragua. I thanked him sincerely. He looked at me like I was from another planet.

I walked toward the place my driver would meet me and was thrilled to see some of the cobbled businesses still intact along the roadside.

Today’s plato, Pollo con Papa, grilled on a brazier made of a tire rim.

. I bought an apple juice and basked in a wave of gratitude for life in all its grand possibilities.

Imagine this, an image I did not take out of respect. The most beautiful moment I saw during this trip.

A home made of corregated tin, and random boards, right off the highway on the land between the two countrys. Next to the house, a battered but full, blue, hard sided plastic swimming pool. Three children splashing, laughing, stop as I walk by, we wave.

 

Thank you for reading! I’d love to hear your border crossing tales!

Paz,

Abby

P.S, Mil Gracias, to you my friends who bought me coffee, for helping me keep images in my posts.