Our Fist Boarder Run - Costa Rica to Nicaragua

Mar 09, 2023

So, every three months Rachael and I must travel out of Costa Rica to another country and then come back to get a stamp in our passport. Tourist visa stuff. To be allowed back in the country we also have to present a ticket showing we are leaving again in 90 days.
Now when I say, ‘we have to leave,’ I guess we technically don’t. But if we want to drive a car then we do πŸ™„πŸ˜‚
Well if that confused you, you are not alone. This is one of those examples of bureaucracy that has baffled me from the word go! It is a good example of the kind of chaotic infrastructure within a country that can leave you spinning in circles as you try to understand it.

I’m sure someone will correct me if I’m wrong, but I think it can be simply explained something like this:

The immigration department (we are immigrants applying for residency) no longer talk to the transport department. They literally fell out, and so no longer communicate with each other.

Because of this, as applicants for residency, we will not be included in traffic laws until our residency is approved. I think πŸ€” And that could be a long time. Years maybe, while we wait for the various stages of our residency to go through. Everything bureaucratic takes a long time anywhere you live but here there is a very laid-back attitude to ‘everything.’ Creating a, ‘we’ll get round to it drecly - Cornish for directly, meaning sometime in the future or maybe I will maybe I won’t πŸ˜‚ - kind of system.

Now I do exaggerate the point a little, but this simple falling out of departments means we, even though every other department treats us as residents in application, are treated as holiday makers by the traffic laws. Therefore, to legally drive we have to have a boarder stamp in our passports within the last 90 days as we are, when driving on the roads at least, tourists, and tourists can only stay in Costa Rica for 90 days.

Pretty bonkers really. But there is an army of ex-pats, mainly from the US and Canada, that do the ‘border run’ every three months. As we are now.

There are many companies here that offer border run ‘packages.’ When we were in the North of Costa Rica, we chose to go on a package border run as it was our first time and had heard how complicated the whole process could be. I went first on my own. Didn’t want to leave the girls (our 3 daughters) alone obviously, and there was no need for them to go as they don’t drive and therefore do not need the passport stamp within 90 days.

I went first to test the waters and see how it worked really. So, six o'clock one Sunday morning in December I waited at the designated bus stop, clutching my fist full of $1 bills - I had been told you had to pay dollars at every stage and that’s there would be a lot of stages πŸ˜¬πŸ˜‚ I also had my passport and a bus ticket to show I was leaving Costa Rica again in 90 days. They won’t let you back in unless you have proof you are leaving even if you are applying for residency, but it only matters once you’re in Costa Rica, as I have already said, if you want to drive. 😡‍πŸ’«πŸ˜‚

As I waited at the designated petrol station, I had no idea what to expect. I had bought my package ticket on interweb for $50 and was not entirely sure transport was going to arrive at all. But shortly a lady pulled up on an electric golf cart, parked up next to me and got out.
‘Are you here for the border run?’ I ask nervously.
She is and I soon find out it is her 1st also. We quickly decide to go through it together and metaphorically speaking, hold each other’s hands.

So we are chatting away happily when we notice a second lady, about one-hundred meters down the road, waving and shouting at us. We wander down to find out that the bus we are waiting for will pick us up where she is. I’ve only been in Costa Rica for three months, but this change of pick-up location or incorrect pin drop is nothing unusual. A lot of things here, including time scales and locations, are more of an approximation as opposed to ‘exactness.’ It’s one of the things we love about living in Costa Rica. And also one of the things that can frustrate you tremendously, if you let it.

We quickly learn that this Canadian lady is an old hand at these border runs and that she has been doing them, every three months for the last fifteen years, on and off 😳

We have since learned that quite a lot of ex-pats have lived here for years and just pop over the boorder every three months so they can legally drive. It’s a way of life for them. For us too, for a couple of years at least.

There is a whole industry geared up to this end really. To just taking busloads of gringos across the border every Sunday. Sunday always seems to be the day. I guess there is some sort of understanding between these companies and the border control. I suppose it must be quieter or something. Didn’t seem quiet when we got there and that was for sure. πŸ˜‚

So, the bus turns up, on time. it is already warming up as the sun gets above the tree line. Very cheerful and helpful bus driver. Lovely man called Miguel. Could not have been friendlier or more helpful. But the whole service industry here is like that.

Costa Rica is the only country I have been to where the people serving you - from bus drivers to restaurant owners, shop assistants or the security guard outside banks and restaurants who always welcome you with an umbrella in the rain. Beach hawkers, surf instructors, taxi drivers, even loitering drug dealers will smile and call you 'amigo' as they quickly try to list off their products in passing - are the most genuinely happy and sincerely friendly people I have met. Particularly in the service industry. I have not been to that many countries mind πŸ˜‚

So we all pile on the bus, head off for our one-and-a-half-hour drive to the boarder. Stopping in Liberia for refreshments and the loo.

To be honest I read most of the way there and back. Journeys like that are a treat of undisturbed reading. A joy in itself. I finished Bruce Lipton’s ‘The Biology of Belief.’ Well worth a read.

A few kilometers before the boarder we start passing line after line of lorries parked up either side of the road. A little further along and these parked lorries start becoming thicker. Along with this, a steady flow of people on foot. These people made up mostly of central and South Americans. I obviously have no way of knowing that but I was assured by an elderly US citizen who had also been doing this run every three months for a few years - that this was the larger part of the people outside.

It began to look like a thinly spread tin-shack-city. There were makeshift shelters, made of good old, corrugated iron (a world over resource), tarpaulin, bits of plastic and even some of the more ‘permanent structures’ had proper wooden supports, doors, windows and everything. All looking very hodgepodge and chaotic. Fires burning to cook or melt things on. Electrical wires running in and splitting into dwellings here and there. Obviously home to many people.

I remember as we drove past thinking, ‘people actually live here!’ I was new, very green and had not really got out in the world much. It was a stark contrast to the surfer’s paradise of Tamagringo (Tamarindo), where the cost of living, we have now discovered, is one of the highest in the country.

The financial disparity between a Costa Rican farmer and a tourist is quite pronounced and obvious, when it comes to contemporary measures of ‘standards’ of living and disposable incomes. But the disparity between these people lining the roads and your average working Costa Rican was equally so.

So, as I’m sure you can imagine, the lifestyle gap between us gringos staring out of our A/C bus at the reality of these people, and their lives was shameful. But if I’m completely honest with myself, at the time I simply felt comfortably removed and slightly afraid. Afraid of being different, having something that others don’t (money in my pocket) afraid I might be a target. But like I say, I was very green. I still am green. Just not quite so ‘very’ green as i was thenπŸ˜‚

I don’t think I’m much of a target really. I am cautious, I don’t wave my money or tech about, I’m mindful of who is looking and reasonably good at picking up on people’s intent. We drive an old car that’s seen better days.

Anyway, when we get to the border, our bus parks just this side and we are released to do our business, which, if anyone ever asks, is tourist πŸ˜‚

My new friend and I have made friends with a seasoned border run gentleman from the US. He’s very graciously volunteered to walk us through the various stages. He is also obviously in a lot of pain in his leg, so we offer our support where we can in mutuality for his help. He was quite proud and elderly, and very capable but as it turns out there was a lot of walking a head of us and his body knew this.

The ‘exit’ boarder control on the Costa Rican side was straight forward enough. A building about the size of a couple of large houses. We shuffled through with an ever-thinning group, as various people took off at their own pace.

One stamp on my passport down and we leave the building and head up a road that was a ‘no man’s land’ I guess. There were families and shelters along this road. not many, but some.  About a kilometer of walking between the Costa Rican side and the Nicaraguan side.
Walls here and there along the walk a few fences. Not many ‘official’ looking people in this zone.

I wonder now if some of these people are stuck in this ‘no man’s land’ as they left one country without the necessary documentation to get into the next and then not allowed back into the latter. I could easily perceive that happening. Just about surviving in this space between. Not causing any real problems and showing extreme initiative and adaptation to make the most out of every opportunity available. A world of its own. A fearful option.

But I was new. Green as green gets and very much listening to my companion’s advice. Both had spent more time in this part of the world. My golf cart friend had recently moved from Mexico, where she had spent the previous eight years after leaving California.

Both my companions warned me to steer clear and basically expect to be fleeced of money or worse, robbed and potentially murdered for my iPhone. I had no idea how true any of this was but at the time, even as I thought to be cautious, felt a bit stupid for the fear I had caught/taken onboard. I stuck close to my English speaking, experienced - if slightly paranoid - companions.

Halfway between boarders was a ‘lean to’ shelter at the side of the road that everybody was queuing our side of and slowly filtering past.

We took our place in the queue and shuffled forwards. This was to be our first point of contact with Nicaragua…I think! Or it could have been out last touch with Costa Rica. I have no idea and at the time did not think to ask.

I do know I paid $4 for a signed piece of paper. A receipt maybe? I knew we were to present it to somebody ahead.

once we all had our 'receipts' we carried on along our walk. Our elderly friend beginning to struggle quite a bit and was very uncomfortable. It was his leg and knee. An old injury that had steadily got worse over the years. He never once showed anything other than a calm, friendly exterior as he grimaced. But I could tell this large man was feeling quite vulnerable as well as the pain he was in. We took it in turns to let him hold our elbow as a support. He was a tall guy. Very proud, who kindly, but totally he refused my offer to support him by putting his arm around my shoulder. So on we shufled.

We eventually approached a quite large and impressive looking building. The Nicaraguan border. As we got nearer to the main door - a lot more people in a bottle neck through a wide path lined with lawns (very luxurious thing here). By now more waves of people crossing the border catching us up. I was glad we had left early. There were many nationalities going through that glorious building. A throng of two hundred plus people by now I guessed.
Families, young people off on their world tours, wanderers, migrant workers, and of course gringo boarder runners (not all gringo. There were a few obvious non gringos on our bus and a businessman from Panama who was enjoying the opportunity of practicing his very excellent English.) doing the same as me.

Our first ‘stop’ here was to show proof of PCR testing at a window in a small separate building next to the door. I showed my printed document with bar code for scanning. The lady looked at the paper and gestured for me to carry on. But not before I was another $5 down and another piece of paper up. She was a youngish lady, maybe Thirty? I remember she had dark hair, was wearing a white clinical coat and looked like her boyfriend had done one with her best mate the night before, or something. She looked really annoyed. It was early on a Sunday. I figured she was probably nursing a hangover.

We shuffled nearer the door into the main building and entry into Nicaragua. Outside the door I, and everyone else, had to show some dude, who in all honesty could have been anyone, my receipt I got ways back and give him $14. Many people, like me, had run out of single dollars and only had $10 bills and $5 bills left. This dude obviously had no change πŸ™„. We then got a further piece of paper that we took with us as we edged toward the door.

In through the door where we were met with a normal looking border control. Something we all might recognize. Perspex booths with officials in uniforms looking dead serious and checking passports, other documents and of course the all-important pieces of paper we had collected on our way in.

More queuing, shuffling and stamping of documents were had. And of course, parting with more dollars $ πŸ™„πŸ˜‚ Not much really, but it all mounts up. $5 here, another $14 tax there, a $1 for the guy at this door, two or three to the lady at the next. It’s quite funny really but only if you have the dollar πŸ’΅

I considered everybody I had seen ‘making a living’ outside and throughout our journey. Dollars were not so easily accessible for these people. The American dollar was the all speaking voice here. The ticket to anywhere. The passport to a new life.

When I consider the whole experience it came down to dollars. Passports, PCR tests, tickets, proof of residency, return tickets, paying the various stages at border controls, even done the cheapest way is going to cost a couple hundred dollars πŸ’Έ

It was clearer to see where the line was drawn between those who ‘can’ and those who ‘cannot.’ I think we all kind of know this anyway. But uncomfortable truths are easily pushed aside when not faced with them in our realities. I was not having to ‘face’ a reality of a financial roadblock to my ‘freedom’ of movement. But it was a reality I perceived quite clearly in many of the people outside and coming through also. The relative cost to some coming through was exponential compared to my ‘fist full of dollars.’

For the rest of my shuffle through I entered Nicaragua, got my stamp. Followed a flow of people to the ‘exit’ Nicaragua passport control. Another stamp (I should have opted for the fifty-two-page passport before leaving the UK πŸ™„), a few dollars lighter and made our way back out and across no man’s land to Costa Rica, again.

Our ‘wise,’ experienced and maybe slightly paranoid companion was having to stop regularly now to rest his leg, obviously struggling and in a lot of pain. He said he did not take pain killers and only found it really flared up on these boarder runs. I suspect the sedentary bus journey, long shuffle in the heat and high anxiety about being robbed was taking its toll. We were considering our options. 1. Walk back and just push through. Or 2. Sit here and maybe start a newlife.

But synchronicity and compassion collided as the Canadian lady we had seen at the start of our day and had long taken off, appeared on a golf cart, of sorts. She was catching a lift with a group of three others back across ‘no man’s land to ’Costa Rica. It was seriously heating up and I was quite relieved when they all budged up and made room for our struggling companion. 

Happy to see him take off, the two of us left stomped back the kilometre to the Costa Rican boarder. The heat of the day really kicking in by now. And it was still only ten o’clock in the morning. 

Proof of where we were staying, our passports with two new stamps and our evidence that we were leaving Costa Rica again in 90 days in hand, we quickly make it back to the boarder ‘building.’ no check points in 'no man's land' on our way back.

There are a few other businesses within the Costa Rican border control building. Including a small bank - all closed on Sundays of course - and an ATM.

My companion and I were relieved to be here again. Back at the country where our lives and families were. We were newbies, as green as a gringo can be after all. Well! Me anyway πŸ˜‚

There was no one about at this time. This place looked deserted. We started to panic a bit and circled the building looking for the way in to the Costa Rican passport control.

We seriously could not find it!!Found the bank alright! A few areas out of bounds and lots of fences. But circle we did. Before we knew it we were stood next to our bus in Costa Rica. Never once having been challenged as we did so. Most people now on board the bus and waiting for a few stragglers like us. And Miguel, our friendly driver, smoking a cigarette outside standing next to a small mountain of extinguished cigarette butts. We were laughing at how we’d just walked back into Costa Rica unchallenged and was about to get on the bus when I remembered we had not got the all-important dated stamp in our passports to allow us another 90 days legal driving.

Someone told us where the door to go through was. We left the bus and, technically, crossed the border again to go out of Costa Rica, to find the ‘door’ to get back in. πŸ˜‚ Oh how we laughed. πŸ˜‚ Totally unchallenged by anyone we could see. Security might well have been watching us from some camera operations room, laughing their heads off. But if they were they took no action.

We found the door. Wedged in a corner next to - you guessed it - the bank.

I thought it very telling about ‘things’ that the bank dwarfed the Costa Rican boarder entry point. Dollar/money is the dominant force. Obtusely displayed in a way accepted without thought here. But something true everywhere. Well! That’s what my brain did with it all anyway πŸ§ πŸ˜‚

We entered Costa Rica without having to part with any more dollars. Just supplying our addresses - a joke really, as addresses here are more what you might call an estimation of location - and tickets showing we are leaving again in 90 days. Mine was a bus ticket to Nicaragua I’d purchased for $22. I had no intention of using it. Just a technicality. A pointless piece of paper as a means of transport for me but an invaluable if dishonest declaration of my future intent. The passport control officer knew it. But he stamped my passport and let me in.

We were in. First cycle complete. No longer newbies. Kissed our stamps granting us legal right to drive for 90 more days, when we’d have to repeat the whole process again. And so, it begins πŸ™„πŸ˜‚

Now, jump forward a week, to when Rachael did her first border run. Same company, same day, same processes unfolding, and Rachael had a very different experience all together.
At this, point one week later, as Rachael ventured off on her ‘tod’ to do her own border run. - Why not together I hear you ask? So, one of us can stay back with our children and animals. We were new and cautious and were told it was not a process to drag kids through unless you had to. The walking, waiting, shuffling and stress was enough without watching for where they are and the eventual whining and moaning that would ensue.

Rachael too had buddied up with a small group from her bus and was working her way through.

When she came to present her PCR test the lady behind the window scanned it.
‘No’ Rachael was told.
Now remember there are hundreds of people milling around as well as in the queue. Everybody can see and hear what’s occurring quite clearly.
The lady at the PCR window told Rachael it was a forged test, and she would not except it. She said Rachael’s name did not match what was on her computer. The computer says ‘no!’ Ffs! Poor Rach! She showed all the proof she had, on her phone and the test. The lady just would not budge. Just kept saying Rachael had forged it.
Now Rachael, when feels to be in the right, unlike me, is not intimidated by authoritative figures, even if they are wearing firearms. She just stood her ground and also would not budge.

A bit of an impasse but, by the sounds of it, an escalating one. If I had been there I would have expected arm guards to appear any moment to take the crazy gringo lady with tattoos and dread locks away. It was best I was not there πŸ˜‚ So while this was going on the queue is piling up and, I’d imagine, frustrations were building in everyone.

This is where it starts to get a bit, what we have come to learn as, ‘typical’ around these parts. An official approaches Rachael and asks her to step aside. Rachael is also with her companions from the bus who, bless them, refuse to leave her side and go with her. Rach is taken a short distance away and told she can pay for another PCR test right now for the princely sum of $150.
By now Rach is ready to take any option just to get through this and back into Costa Rica - still trying to get into Nicaragua remember, no turning back now 😬 - she doesn’t have $150 cash to ‘pay’ for the test. The official says Rachael can walk back toward Costa Rica where there is an ATM. I know the one. This would shove their day back tremendously. By now more and more people are arriving to cross the border. Between them, Rach and her companions have just over $100 in cash left.

The ‘official,’ probably having clocked this, comes back in with an alternative option. ‘Pay’ $100 dollars and not have the test and get the piece of paper anyway.
Mmmm! So ‘pay’ $150 (including a the two kilometer round trip in the heat and possibly missing the bus back and have a test. Or pay $100 and carry on.
I’m sure you can imagine which option she went with.

So, carry on they did. Everything else unfolded much as my own experience and Rach arrived home with a tail to tell. But demonstrating quite clearly the power of money over everything. Not pretty really. But everyone is just trying to make a living. Surely, they have a right to a piece of the pie? i have mixed feelings about it all. 

So, 90 days later and our family have moved to the southern zone and away from Tamarindo.

I write this having just returned from our second border run. Together this time. Rach, our youngest and me that is.

Our eldest stayed at home to look after our animals, to draw, study and write. She also went counting frogs on a local river with a biodiversity friend. All in the company of our friends and neighbours.

Our middle daughter got the worse of it. Not! Her class at school got free entry into a little festival called Envision, just up the road in Uvita. Apparently, it’s quite a thing in the Americas. Bloody expensive is what it is. Although Maisie went with her school principal and teachers, who got them in for free. Don’t ask. They’re quite connected. Couldn’t see that happening in the UK to be honest. What an opportunity. She’s still sleeping as i write this. Her teachers and classmates were there for another night last night. They going to feel that on Monday. πŸ˜‚

We opted to fly to Guatemala this time. Stayed in a hotel near the airport and spent the day at the Zoo on Friday before coming home early Saturday morning. We had to drive the four hours to San Jose (capital of Costa Rica) to take my father-in-law back to the airport after a visit. So, we decided to make the jump to Guatemala then.

It worked out cheaper than doing the bus journey south on a package to Panama. If you go that way, there are more hoops to jump through. Not least of which you must stay at least two nights. Fair enough, you know! Everybody has the right to make some money out of our convenient skipping and hopping around.

Guatemala City, or at least the bit we saw was very pleasant. For a city. I mean, we were staying near the airport, lots of traffic noise, concrete tower blocks. I’m not keen on cities but what I saw was very nice. Lots of Green thorough fares, trees, and planting generally. It really makes a difference. It was reasonably clean, condom in the kids park aside and we felt safe…ish!

I mean I’m not sure I can feel comfortable where every business has armed guards carrying shotguns outside. The number of shotguns per square kilometer around where we were staying was quite staggering. I have not seen to many pump action shotguns other than in American movies, but to see them outside a kid’s ice cream cafe was a bit disconcerting. However, the guard was mega friendly, had a uniform, club, pistol, and a shotgun ready to go. But very friendly and chatty. I got a selfie with him.

I couldn’t work out what made me more uncomfortable about the whole shotgun thing. The shotguns presence? The fact they were needed at all. Or that I had not got one πŸ˜‚

The zoo was also one of the nicest I had ever visited. For a zoo.

I was surprised to see bears and wolves placed together. They did this with a lot of animals. Elephants and onyx. They seemed to be getting a lot from the presence of each species. The bears and wolves had me enthralled. They weren’t exactly grooming each other but they were sleeping within a few feet of each other and seemed very relaxed.
As you can tell, I was quite taken with this πŸ˜‚

So that was our second run. Stamp in our passports for another cycle of legal driving. A mini holiday really. Just like any other. Just shorter. A four-hour drive, a four-hour airport and flight transit to hotel. Two nights stay, then the same on the return. No PCR test required and our tickets in hand to show we were leaving again in 90, days when we will be returning to Guatemala. Next time we intend to go explore a bit more of the old town or Pacaya volcano.

A world apart from our first experience and that was for sure.

Jason Maxwell


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