First, a little background on visa renewal requirements here in Paradise. If you’re a non-resident who wants to legally live in Costa Rica for a prolonged period of time, it is necessary to leave the country every 90 days in order to renew your tourist visa. There is much debate and conjecture regarding what the actual Immigration laws are regarding the “perpetual tourist” visa renewal requirements, but this is my understanding of it: Immigration only requires that you leave the country every 90 days and there is no minimum time that you must remain out of Costa Rica before you return. It is Customs that has the 72-hour requirement to stay out of the country, but that is only supposed to apply to folks who have bought over $500 USD worth of merchandise in duty-free…According to the laws that are currently on the books, unless you are bringing more than the allowable amount of merchandise back into Costa Rica with you per Customs, you can literally leave Costa Rica and return to it in the same day. In other words, you could cross the border at Panama or Nicaragua, exit the country, and then turn right back around and re-enter Costa Rica on the other side. I know ex-pats who have done this and for certain purposes it works. I am personally not a fan of this method and I’ll tell you why. The main issue is that all discretion lies with the Immigration officials. As such, the Immigration officers now most often seem to take a cautious approach. Rather than spending the time and resources to determine the amount and value of merchandise that each traveler is carrying back into the country, they are using their discretion to apply a sort of “blanket rule” that all tourists must remain out of Costa Rica for a full 72-hour period before returning. For those of us who are or will be working on obtaining residency here in Paradise, this is a “no-brainer” in my opinion. A few days before your 90-day visa expires, book a short and inexpensive jaunt to Nicaragua for a few days and make sure that you will be staying out of the country for the implied 72-hour time period. This will help make your renewal process smooth and stress-free. My wife and I have chosen Nicaragua for the last 3 visa renewals because it’s closer than Panama and can be a very enjoyable and inexpensive trip to a beautiful country if you go to the right places.
All 3 trips to Nica were via TicaBus-they are a clean and reliable bus company with comfortable seats. The first time we went to Granada and it was definitely worth checking out just for the history and architecture alone. We stayed at a nice B&B and took a relaxing tour around Lake Nicaragua in a local fisherman’s boat. It was enjoyable and I would certainly recommend going once, but after three days you have pretty much seen all that Granada has to offer. We would strongly suggest staying at Casa Silas if you do visit Granada. If you’re interested, here is a link to my Trip Advisor review for Casa Silas: http://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowUserReviews-g580113-d1392274-r95107323-Casa_Silas_B_B-Granada.html. Our 2nd time around the block we hit San Juan Del Sur (SJDS), which is right over the border (about 30 minutes) and we stayed in a nice place, but we made the mistake of trying to do it too inexpensively. My wife and I suffered from the heat in the heart of SJDS and didn’t find the variety or quality of food to be what we had hoped for. The immediate SJDS beachfront is nice but can be dirty at times, especially if there are a lot of boats in the bay bobbing around. As I understand it, there are fantastic surfing beaches in the area nearby (Playa Maderas, Playa Hermosa, Playa Yankee, etc.). It is certainly an option to stay in SJDS Centro and taxi or shuttle back and forth to these reknowned beaches for daytime fun. Anna & I needed a break in the action and an opportunity to recharge, and so we were determined to find a more relaxing and rejuvenating option for our 3rd visa renewal that was upcoming… that’s when we found Casa Del Soul…it looked fantastic based 0n what we were looking for: a clean & comfortable room, a kitchen to cook our own food in, high-speed WiFi, a refreshing pool, and a stunning vista to enjoy all day!!! We booked our reservation immediately and became giddy…
A brief run-down of the actual travel process is in order. I go to Galaxy Travel in San Ramon to obtain our bus tickets. Roy speaks English and makes certain that everything is lined up correctly for our trip. You leave with bus tickets in hand and are ready to start packing. The bus route that you’re a part of is San Jose, Costa Rica to Managua, Nicaragua. Since we were heading to SJDS, our stop in Nicaragua was to be Rivas and then we catch a cab to take us the final few kilometers. It makes no difference where you get on or off along that route- you still pay the full fare. When we went this past June, each standard economy ticket cost us $52.00. Our TicaBus was leaving San Jose at 6am so we had to be to the San Ramon bus stop by 6:35am to be safe. It typically takes 45 minutes to an hour for the bus to get from SJ to San Ramon. Right around 11am we were pulling up to la fronterra at Penas Blancas. Everyone gets off the bus to go through Costa Rican Immigration and get a stamp showing that you left the country. You’ll be bombarded by money changers- if their exchange rate is fair it’s a good idea to get some cordobas here. Then back on the bus for a few minutes until you arrive at Customs and Immigration for entry into Nicaragua. The bus driver goes around and collects everyone’s passports and an entrance fee. Our fee was $7.00 each- we have always gone at the same time of day, but I have read that if you cross the Penas Blancas border after noon it costs $9.00 per person. The amount is higher if you are driving a vehicle over the border. At this time, everyone must get off the bus and take all of their luggage and belongings with them for a possible Customs check. You place all of your baggage, etc. on a long wooden table along with the rest of the passengers and wait for the Customs officer to come over, take your Customs declaration form, and possibly look through your bags. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. Once you have been cleared by Customs, you will now wait for the stack of passports to return. This is a great time to eat something and use the bathroom if you need to (3 cordobas to use public bathroom). There are many vendors at this spot due to the “captive audience”. Also, more money changers and some beggars circulate the crowd. There’s a duty-free shop a few steps away. Typical wait time here is about an hour, and you are usually through with the entire border crossing process in approximately two hours. We arrived at the border at 11am and were rumbling towards the Rivas stop by right around 1pm. By 1:30 we’re on foot in Rivas negotiating our cab fare. About $14 and 20 minutes later, we’re in El Timon and I’m enjoying an ice cold Tona while we wait for our host Randy to pick us up. A nice drive up the beach straddled hillside and we’re HOME at Casa Del Soul!!! Randy, his beautiful wife Brenda, and our new pal Chuchu (I call him chew-chew because he loved to playfully gnaw on me) the canine were all wonderful hosts and we felt completley at home.
For Anna & I, our stay literally couldn’t have been any better. I was able to catch up on important computer work that had been escaping me and swim laps in between to give myself a break. We cooked all of our own food on site but if we had the craving to head into town to grab a bite to eat, wanted some action, or felt the urge to hit the surfing beaches, it was all just a phone call away. Since my wife was 31 weeks pregnant when we took this trip, we chose to spend most of our time enjoying the stress-free comforts that Casa Del Soul had to offer.
The trip back to Costa Rica felt like it was upon us too quickly. We were scheduled to take the TicaBus that was leaving Managua at 7am, which meant that we needed to be back to Rivas by 8:30-8:45 to comfortably catch it. Another $14 cab and we were at the Rivas bus stop in plenty of time. You can definitely pay considerably less for cab fare if you travel “colectivo”, but we opted for the more comfortable and time efficient method. The process at la fronterra for going back into Costa Rica is basically the same except that we paid $6 to get in rather than the $7 to enter Nica. Sometimes Costa Rica will require that you show proof of future exit before letting you in- for example, a receipt showing that you paid for future bus travel or a print-out showing that you are scheduled to fly out of the country before your 90 day visa is up again. If the bus driver asks for this proof but you don’t have it on your person, the TicaBus representative will be glad to sell you a one-way fare to Nicaragua right then and there to facilitate your re-entry to Costa Rica. You can then later return this “ticket” or do what we did, which is hold on to it for the next visa renewal. The visa renewal process is not complicated and can be smooth and enjoyable if you approach it properly. We like to use it as a scheduled sort of mini-vacation and an opportunity to check out something new. Pura Vida!!!