Although a number of people opt for the Ticabus or Transnica bus options - which will take you from one country to the other and hold your hand over the border - the Nicaragua-Costa Rica border crossing is relatively simple to do on your own for a fraction of the price.
Here's our guide on the transport, the fees and the onward travel options for crossing the border at Penas Blancas from either side, whether you're heading north to Nicaragua, or south to Costa Rica.
exit nicaragua - enter costa rica
#1 all roads lead to rivas
Rivas bus station is somewhere every backpacker in Nicaragua will have to pass through at least a handful of times; it's also the place from which you need to start your border crossing.
Whether arriving from Managua, San Juan del Sur, Granada or Leon, you'll need to make your way here. We've been through this station so many times that we feel confident in forewarning you that the taxi-drivers here are extremely untrustworthy, so don't believe any of them if they say there is no bus to the border.
If you want some cheap Flor de Cana or other goodies, then there is a Pali supermarket 5 minutes walk away. FDC is 3-4 times more expensive in Costa Rica and so are a number of other items, so this is a good chance to stock up.
#2 rivas to penas blancas / la frontera
This bus leaves every 30 minutes or so and should cost between 20-25 cordobas/$1 per person. Ask for Penas Blancas or La Frontera.
#3 exit nicaragua
The bus will drop you off right next to the entrance. Ignore the guys offering you the departure forms (these are free at the proper office) and make your way through the gate for your first passport check.
Locate the departure office where upon entry you will have to pay a $1 fee at a small kiosk (this is not a departure tax, but is for entry into the border zone - although clearly a money-making levy, it is official.)
Once you've completed your departure form, present this, along with your passport to the immigration officer, where you will also need to pay a $2 exit fee. On one occasion, the border official refused to accept cordobas for this, but on another crossing there was no issue. If paying in cordobas, they'll probably stiff you over the exchange rate too.
#4 entering costa rica
Walk for 5-10 minutes (there are a couple of little passport checks en route) to the Costa Rica office, ignoring any tricycles that tell you it's too far to walk.
Officially, you need to have proof of onward travel in order to enter the country, although this is not always strictly enforced. On our first crossing, we were simply asked how long we planned to be in the country, but on the second had to show international bus tickets.
If you know when you plan to leave Costa Rica and how, then it makes sense to purchase tickets in advance so you have proof at the border.
In close proximity to the immigration office are a number of international bus companies, so should you be asked for proof that you do not have, then it is possible to buy an onward ticket at the border. The only snag with this is that you may waste $30 on a ticket you have no plan on using. So, instead, you might want to make use of our guide to creating a 'fake' proof of onward travel here.
A final alternative - if you know you're only going to be in country for a 7-14 days - is to state the date you're leaving and ask for a visa up until that time. They may not grant this to everyone, but it is possible.
#5 onward travel to san jose / monteverde
The only option is to take one of the buses in the car park outside the border - these are thankfully not too expensive and are a LUXURY if you've been travelling on Nicaragua's chicken buses for the past few weeks.
We made the mistake of trying to go straight from the border to Santa Elena (for Monteverde). This involved a 90 minute bus to Liberia ($3) and then a lot of confusion, with the guidebook and locals unable to provide answers. This meant an overnight stay in Canas and an early rise in the morning to catch two buses to Monteverde.
Attempting to get to Monteverde from Nicaragua in one day, without passing through San Jose, is possible - providing you have a very early start. If you can reach the La Irma or Sardinal junction by late afternoon, you may make the connection (more information and map here).
In hindsight, a less convoluted option would have been to catch a bus from the border to San Jose, spend the night there and catch the morning bus direct to Monteverde. This will take more time, but has more certainty and far fewer bus connections.
overview: nicaragua to costa rica
1 - Bus from Rivas to Penas Blancas / La Frontera (45 minutes, 25C/$1 per person)
2 - Exit Nicaragua (30 minutes, $3 per person)
3 - Cross the border (10 minutes)
4- Enter Costa Rica (30 minutes, no cost)
5 - Bus from Costa Rica border to Liberia / San Jose (90 minutes, $3 per person / 6 hours, $10 per person respectively)
Totals: Liberia - 3.5 hours, $7 per person
San Jose - 8 hours, $14 per person
exit costa rica - enter nicaragua
#1 all roads lead to penas blancas
The two most common options are to travel to Penas Blancas / La Frontera from San Jose (Transportes Deldu terminal, $10, 6 hours) or Liberia ($3, 90 minutes).
#2 exit costa rica
Unfortunately, Costa Rica has got a new exit charge. The cheapest way to pay this is at the bank before your journey ($7) or there are two options for payment at the border. There is a machine in the departure building for electronic payment, but this doesn't always work. If this is the case, you'll have to go outside the office to two nearby houses where you can pay an increased exit fee of $8.
#3 enter nicaragua
Around a 5-10 minute walk from the Costa Rica side - with a couple of passport check-points - you'll find the Nicaragua offices. Part of the CA4 group of countries (along with El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala) you will receive a 90-day visa which covers your stay in ALL FOUR of these countries (90 days for all, not each).
Annoyingly, Nicaragua is the only CA4 country which charges $12 for entry. You may also have to pay $1 to enter the Rivas area (this is a money-making charge on foreigners, but is nevertheless official).
#4 catch the bus to rivas
Get ready for the scrum. When you're out of the border zone, have a clear idea of where you want to go as there will be at least half-a-dozen guys ready to rip you off or put you on the wrong bus. You can reach almost any major destination in Nicaragua via Rivas bus station, so that's a safe bet and you'll have no reason to take a taxi. Buses to Rivas (always an old school bus) leave around every 30 minutes and should cost you no more than $1 (25 cordobas).
#5 onward travel from rivas to granada / managua / leon / san juan del sur
Now, we transited through Rivas station about 10 times and so feel like we've got a pretty good understanding of what goes on here. Wherever you are heading, there is going to be a taxi driver who will lie to you. They will usually come on the bus or catch you straight off it and insist that the last bus to your destination has just gone, or there isn't one for another four hours.
Take a breath, keep on saying 'no gracias' and take a seat in the little waiting area. There are regular buses to Managua (2 hours), Granada (90 minutes) and San Juan del Sur (1 hour). Less regular are the buses to Playa Gigante (direct at 1.30 p.m, but not on Sundays) and Popoyo/Las Salinas.
If it's Leon you're heading to, then you will have to take a bus to Granada or Managua and change there.
overview: costa rica to nicaragua
1 - Bus from Liberia / San Jose (90 minutes, $3 per person / 6 hours, $10 per person respectively)
2 - Exit Costa Rica (30 minutes, $7-8 per person)
3 - Cross the border (10 minutes)
4- Enter Nicaragua (30 minutes, $13 per person)
5 - Bus from border to Rivas ($1 per person, 45 minutes)
Totals: From San Jose - 8 hours, $32 per person
From Liberia - 3.5 hours, $25 per person