“I’m sorry!”

This is what I wanted to yell out to people as I paraded past them to the front of the line. Instead I kept my head down, avoided eye contact and tried to look as remorseful as possible. Admitting my guilt and feeling bad about it did little to help my situation as once at the front of the queue I was yelled at, shoved around and generally made to feel very uncomfortable and unsafe by being there. At any moment I expected a water bottle or apple core or half eaten sandwich to be thrown at the back of my head and I knew that the Policeman standing not 1 meter in front of me would do nothing to help – I was in this alone.

Immigration queue to get into Costa Rica

I can’t say I blame those people and I’m sure I would have reacted violently as well had I been the one standing in line in the hot sun for 4 hours while watching people push to the front of the queue and make me wait longer. It wasn’t that I did this intentionally either as when I agreed to skip the line I thought I was going to skip it completely and be sneakily let into the country not just move to the front of it and upset everyone by being in full view but lesson learned – the very hard way again!

“I’m sorry”, was also my silent prayer for everyone stuck at the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica for the remainder of the day as I returned to Tamarindo, ate dinner and went to bed wondering what happened to all those people in line. Did they get through? Were they still there camping out with the Cubans waiting for the Immigration office to open the next day? Did the Immigration office find more people and stay open to clear the line (Anyone who has been anywhere in Latin America will know the answer to that one)? So to everyone in line that day who had to wait longer because of me – I’m sorry.

While it was a crappy ending to the day it started normal enough. We were both about to outlive our 90 day tourist visa in Costa Rica and needed new stamps so booked onto a Border Run Tour. As the name suggests they pick you up, drive you to the Nicaraguan border where you are then expected to get yourself out of Costa Rica, into Nicaragua and back again so they can drive you back home. It was pleasant enough crossing the first few borders as there were other expats on the bus who had obviously done this before who we could just follow and not stress about where to go next and apart from having to pay out more money than expected it was a simple enough process.

All this drama came when we tried to get stamped back into Costa Rica and the line was several hundred people long stretching down the road back towards Nicaragua. In true Costa Rican style they only had two people working that day so obviously understaffed to deal with the incoming traffic causing lengthy delays. After half an hour standing in the hot midday sun our group of 15 jumped at the chance of skipping the several hour long wait. For just $10USD each a guy promised we would be processed quickly as he ‘knew a guy’ and we would be back on the bus home before we knew it.

With 14 other people beside you all saying yes and feeling yourself getting sunburnt it was an obvious choice until we got out of line and started walking. Then reality struck and I realised the full implications of what we were about to do especially as we were not led to the back of the building where I expected to see a door or a window with the guys cousin ready to just stamp us into the country. No, instead we were paraded to the front of the queue and left there while the guy walked back down the line to find more people to pay him $10 for the privilege of being abused and cursed at. No back windows, no cloak and dagger sneaking into Costa Rica and definitely no hiding the fact we were trying to skip the queue so it’s no wonder Ticos think all gringos are rich and don’t like us when we behave like this.

Immigration queue to get into Costa Rica

That’s us at the back of the line

I’ve never felt so bad about entering a country before and while I usually have immigration issues for one reason or another this was a new experience for me and one I don’t wish to repeat. People always say airports are easier and I have to agree. Every land border crossing always results in a story and it never gives the two countries involved in the crossing a good impression. I have walked away from every crossing thinking how inefficient and stupid a system it was though I hope one day I am proven wrong by this.

So for those to follow, this is how the actual border crossings between Costa Rica and Nicaragua went as of 17th January, 2016, however, I am led to believe this process changes regularly and without notice:

• Arrive at the Costa Rican Border. The guy on the bus will collect your passports and go into a small building to pay your exit tax which is included in the price of the ticket (otherwise it’s $7USD) and just look for the green and white building on your right.

Exit Tax building

Pay your exit tax here first

• You will then be driven about 50meters further down the road, told to stay together and released off the bus. Follow each other into the building on your left and wait in line until it’s your turn to be stamped out of Costa Rica.
• Once officially out of the country walk 500-600 meters further down the road towards Nicaragua.
• As you approach a non-descript hut on your right there will be a guy wanting to check your exit stamp in your passport.
• From here walk further into Nicaragua about 50 meters and there will be another non-descript hut which looks like a 2 sided shed. Go here and tell the girl what country you come from and she will give you a stamped bit of paper. Apparently this is to confirm you don’t have Ebola but it was all very casual and a waste of everyone’s time and resources.
• Cross the road and walk further into Nicaragua until you see a blue and white building. Enter to the left of the building and pay the girl sitting in the window immediately to your right $1USD for a reason I still have no clue about.

Nicaragua Immigration Building

Nicaragua Immigration. Enter on the left to get into the country. Exit on the right to get out of the country.

• Once you have paid this and have a ‘receipt’ if you could call it that, line up and wait until you’re called forward.
• Once at the front of the line they will want your passport and $12USD for the privilege of entering Nicaragua.
• Now you are stamped in and can proceed through to the back room where it’s a formality to scan your bags as no-one was actually looking at the screen.
• Exit through the back of the building.

We stayed here long enough for people to go across the road and buy duty free then return to meet back at the same building. Once together again we did the following to get from Nicaragua into Costa Rica –

• Paid another girl in a window $1USD for another bit of paper
• Entered the same building we had just exited and proceeded to get stamped out of Nicaragua without paying any exit taxes which was surprising.
• Walked the 100meters or so back towards Costa Rica and the nondescript hut where a guy again checked our passports to make sure we had been stamped out of the correct country.

Nicaragua / Costa Rica Border

The white roof is the nondescript hut where your passport will be checked. Just don’t stare at the guys with guns too long or they get suspicious.

• We then walked the 500 meters or so back towards Costa Rica and joined the end of the line to get stamped back into the country.

From the time we got off the bus to first start this process until we joined the back of the line to get back into Costa Rica took about 2 hours which wasn’t too bad considering. Even with paying the guy to get us through quicker we still stood in line for our Costa Rican stamps for 1.5 hours.

Once we had all received our stamps and were back on the bus the return trip to Tamarindo was uneventful with us arriving back around 4pm where I was immediately bitten by a spider – karma’s a bitch sometimes!

Do you have a nightmare border crossing story? Share it with me in the comments below.

Carry On,

Tips –

– The Border Run Tour was $45USD each. They pick you up from your house, drive you to Liberia for a quick comfort break before loading you all back on the bus and driving you to the border. Here you are given instructions to stay together and then released to tackle the wild frontier on your lonesome with the expectation you will return as quickly as possible so they can do the trip in reverse back to Tamarindo.

– If walking isn’t your thing or you have a lot of luggage there are guys with bikes who will taxi you across no mans land between the two borders.

– There were people trying to sell us ‘official papers’ as we tried to enter the building to get stamped out of Nicaragua. If we hadn’t been advised that this was bogus we would have paid as they look and sound very convincing about you needing the paperwork.

– Take extra money. We needed an extra $24USD each to get across both borders ($10USD was for the bribe to jump the line).

– If you find yourself faced with a similar line up to enter Costa Rica they were letting those with kids under 3, the elderly and those with disabilities skip the line but otherwise everyone had to stand there and wait (or pay to move ahead which I wouldn’t recommend).