We’d heard that this was going to be a chaotic one. Not like the crossing between El Salvador and Honduras on the Panam, as in trying to get as much money out of you as possible, but as in plain and simple chaotic. And it was.
We had read through the description from panamnotes.com before arriving, and that was quite helpful. However, count on a few adjustments to the details when you cross on different days, talk to different people, etc. Anyway! Here is our description.
First, pass a long line of waiting/parked trucks. When the helpers come running, please ignore them. Keep driving to the first gate, and there drive through to the left. When we drove through there was a kid with an official looking card around his neck trying to flag us down, but I don’t stop for kids waiving to us. Definitely not at a border. There was another guy in some kind of uniform sitting in a chair, but he didn’t even blink when we drove through. We think this is where people pay a “municipality fee”, and maybe get a few of the immigration forms (probably for a fee..? (they should be free though!)). Well, we drove through, and even if some of the helpers told us we would never get through without that receipt, nobody asked for it.
When you are through the gate, keep driving straight for about 200 meters, and then turn left. In front of you there is a Budget office (pic above). Drive over there and park just to the left of the building. That is where the inspection will be a little later.
Before canceling the vehicle permit, you have to get your personal exit stamps. This is at Imigracion located in the corner of the parking lot to the left of the Budget office.
No Imigracion signs as we could see, but quite busy with tourists so it shouldn’t be too hard to spot (blue arrow). We went in without any forms, got in line, and we filled out the one necessary form when we got to the desk. It was three or four lines, but they do all do entry and exit so it doesn’t matter witch one you take. Easy.
Next step is to get the necessary signatures on your vehicle permit before it can be cancelled. You need the cancelation for the final gate out of Nicaragua. There are two people that need to sign the permit form (the permit you got when entering Nicaragua). These are to be found around where you parked the car (green arrow).
First is the guy from Aduana with a DGA logo on his blue shirt. He looks at the car, and sign the paper. Then you go to the police officer at the left end of the building. He wants to see your passport, possibly for all the travellers in the car. With the vehicle permit signed, you go over to the Aduana building, located in the opposite corner of the parking lot from the Migracion, on the “other” side of the Budget office. We drove there, and parked right in front of the building.
There are two windows at the center of the building, the one to the right says “Policia”, go the other one (next to it, 1 meter). The paperwork starts there, and finishes on the “policia” side. When you have the cancelation in your hands, drive out past the Aduana building, and turn left back when you are back on the “main road” to the final gate before the border. The guard looks at your papers and let you through.
Just across on the Costa Rican side, you go through fumigation on the right side of the road.
Stop at the little house on the side of the road and pay the fee. We have no idea what this fee really is supposed to be. Some we talk to paid 4 usd, some paid 6 usd, and we paid 5 usd. We've also talked with people just driving through without paying.
After the fumigation gate, turn left and go back up to the main road.
After a couple of hundred meters or so you arrive at the Aduana and Migracion (right side for those going in to Costa Rica). Park right outside the building on the left side of the road, under the roof. Again, do Migracion first to get the entry stamp in your passport. There are two doors on the building, one to the café/restaurant/toilets (to the right), and the other one to the Micracion, Insurance, and Copies. Migracion is the last office on the left.
On your way out, stop at the Insurance office and buy insurance (I did of course go over to Aduana first to see if this was absolutely necessary, and it was…). We paid 6736 colones (about 13 usd). Heard that you have to pay in local currency, but we did not ask about it since we had colones available. Then you need one copy of your insurance paper, one of your Costa Rican passport stamp, and if there are more than one driver, you need a copy of this persons passport and entry stamp as well. Copies cost 50 colones per piece.
The papers for the Costa Rican vehicle permit and the inspection is arranged just across the street from the Migracion building at the Aduana office. He needs the copies of the insurance, copy of the entry stamp, copy of your passport, and copy of your driver license (one of each). He gives you a form to fill out, and then he comes with you over to the vehicle for an “inspection” (meaning he opens a door or two and look in). The Aduana and inspection is free.
When you have done the inspection you drive on to another office to have the final vehicle permit printed. Take a right about 10 meters after the Migracion/Aduana offices. It looks like you are driving into a big truck parking, but there is a big Aduana building behind all the trucks on your left hand side. Follow the road/parking lot, and park outside the offices at the end of the building.
Entrance is around the corner to the right. Inside there is an Expedition Portal sticker to the right of the window where you get your permit. The permit is free.
With the vehicle permit in hand you are done. It looked like it was possible to keep driving past the building and get back on the road, but when we were there it was blocked by trucks. We drove the same way back and took a right when we were back on the “main road”. After a couple of hundred meters there is a final gate. Show your permit and you are through!
All this took us about 2 hours… Not too stressful, but a little chaotic. Good luck!