It is tourist visa stamp time for my wife and me. Our 90-day visa was expiring and we needed to make a border run.
Therefore, we had to leave Costa Rica and re-enter to renew our visa. That was the only way to keep our U.S. driver’s license and Costa Rican driver’s insurance in force. We couldn’t afford the time and expense to fly out to an airport in the States.
And other than the tourist visa stamp, we had no pressing reason to go there in the first place.
Costa Rica’s only bordering nations, Panama and Nicaragua, are the closest exit points. You can fly, take a bus, and take a tour bus, complete with lodging and meals. Or get yourself to the border and either walk across or take a water taxi at a number of border crossings.
A trip to Nicaragua is far less expensive in time and money. At the moment, it may also be much less risky than heading southeast to Panama. Some folks have experienced at the border upon attempting to return to Costa Rica. You can even make an inexpensive mini-vacation by going to Managua or Grenada.
We decided to head for San Carlos, Nicaragua, recommended by other expats going for their tourist visa stamp. Be aware that there is also a San Carlos in Costa Rica, also called Ciudad Quesada. To go to San Carlos in Nicaragua, you take a water taxi from Los Chiles, Costa Rica on the Rio Frio River.
The best way to go to Los Chiles from anywhere in the Central Valley is through the city of Naranjo. The drive from Naranjo normally takes about 3 ½ hours across some very good roads.
Allow enough time for the drive. Because there is only one water taxi a day. This water taxi that is supposed to leave Los Chiles at 12:30 PM. The seats are limited. You will need to accomplish several tasks after you’ve bought your ticket and before the water taxi leaves.
We wound up running into a fairly long traffic control delay for a repaving project. Fortunately, we still made it in about 3 ½ hours. It’s a very pretty drive and a completely different landscape from the one you’ll see in the Central Valley. Dropping down from 3,000 feet to nearly sea level, you’ll pass pastures and pineapple farms on the lightly traveled highway. As is normal, direction signage is minimal. Using GPS helped us to find our way.
It was our first visit to the sleepy little town of Los Chiles. We also had help from blog posting on a great new website, Que Pasa Grecia. The blog is complete with instructions, advice, and even photos about the couple’s Los Chiles-San Carlos experience.
There was a photo of every place we would need to find. We printed out the instruction blog, photos, and all and took it with us. Our blog printout wasn’t perfect as the exact “Los Chiles exit system” is “a bit fluid”. But once in Los Chiles, there is little signage to identify important buildings and locations. There are no instructions of any kind are posted anywhere. So, the photos and instructions helped us immensely.
We paid for our ride to Nicaragua first. Then we paid for and got our passport exit stamp at the poorly marked Costa Rican immigration building across the street from the ticket table. We decided not to attempt our return trip to the Central Valley on the same day. Next, we rented a room at one of the two adjacent tourist hotels in Los Chiles. Our hotel room was clean, air-conditioned. The price included breakfast and secure off-street parking.
Down the street near the Rio Frio river was a makeshift “official card table”. Here, we paid a small port exit tax. The taxi loading dock was about 100 feet from there. We waited at that spot along with the other passengers for our boat to start loading.
After watching the tourist boats and buses load and unload it got a bit boring. So, I also suggest you bring along a lunch and something to do or read.
On the day our friends took the taxi it left fifteen minutes ahead of schedule at 12:15. However, the taxi on our trip didn’t leave until 1:30. We were pretty hungry by the time we arrived at San Carlos and got through Nicaraguan immigration.
The trip along the river to San Carlos – Nicaragua, can offer views of wildlife as well as a number of primitive habitations where residents try to eke out a living. There is also an amusing “changing of the flags” ceremony from the Costa Rican flag to the Nicaraguan flag on the boat. This happens just before a stop at the actual border. Here, friendly Nicaraguan soldiers perform an inspection. Then they pass you along to continue your journey to the lake-based “port” of San Carlos.
In San Carlos
With our late departure and late arrival in San Carlos at around 2:40, we had no time to explore the town. We only had a few minutes to get ten dollars exchanged. They won’t exchange colones. Then, we were able to grab a very quick bite using our Nicaraguan notes before racing back to catch the only return taxi. The taxi started the loading process at 3:00. Plan to take dollars to Nicaragua. They work best for all of the official immigration processing, entry, and exit stamps and return water taxi ride.
Tourist Visa Stamp
When we returned to Los Chiles, we made our way back to Costa Rican immigration to get our tourist visa stamp. I showed the immigration agent my approved residency application. I was expecting to get a 90-day visa. But my agent, I think as a favor, left the “90 days” off of my stamp.
I weighed the idea of traveling within Costa Rica for an unlimited number of days with an open-ended visa. But I decided that we should have our “cedula de residencia” fairly soon. Only bad things were likely to happen with a visa not reflecting a specific number of valid days. I returned to the line, thanked him for trying to do me a favor, but requested he add the “90 days.”
With a confused look, he did so. Pura Vida.
The author of this blog, Ticonuevo, is a US expat who moved to Costa Rica and used the services of GoDutch Realty to purchase a property in Costa Rica. In his blogs, Ticonuevo describes his own experiences of taking the step of moving to Costa Rica and getting a new life started.
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