A Complete Guide to the Bus from Nicaragua to Costa Rica

Last month my lovely travel companion and long time friend, Ellie, and I, took the Transnica international coach from Rivas, Nicaragua, to San Jose, Costa Rica. Here is everything you need to know about the route including pick-up and drop off points, stops along the way, how to cross the border and how to change your money.

We took the Transnica bus, but this line is also serviced at similar bus stops at a similar time by Tica Bus (we watched that one go past).

I’d say that, of all the options we explored, this is the most convenient way to cross the land border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Although our ride didn’t officially come with border assistance, everyone on our bus was in the same queue, which was reassuring. 

Useful Information for the Bus Route from Nicaragua to Costa Rica

This bus makes several stops in Nicaragua before it reaches Rivas, including in Managua and Granada. However, Rivas is the last stop on this route before it reaches Costa Rica, so if you’re coming from any of the southern beach towns (like San Juan del Sur or Popoyo), you’ll first need to take the bus from there up to Rivas and make a connection onto this Transnica route.

This bus crosses the border from Nicaragua to Costa Rica in the border town of Penas Blancas.

You will need proof of accommodation and proof of onward travel to enter Costa Rica (if you get a nice immigration officer they might not ask you for it, but make sure you have it to hand anyway!)

There is a small exit tax from Nicaragua of 4 USD, but there is no entry fee to Costa Rica (you will need to pay an exit fee, if you exit by land, but if you exit by plane this tax will be included in the price of your ticket).

The bus doesn’t make any other stops in Costa Rica – it heads straight to San Jose and terminates there.

Anyway, now we’ve covered the essentials, let’s get down to it…

A Step-by-Step Guide to Buying Your Ticket

If you’re already in Rivas or any of the other pick-up destinations, you can buy your ticket at the ticket office. If it’s not too much trouble, I’d recommend doing this. I always recommend booking in person, because you have someone to physically go to if you need help. Ellie and I booked our bus whilst on Ometepe Island, so we didn’t have this luxury.

The main thing to know when you’re booking online is that, no matter where you get on the bus, you have to select and pay for the whole line. So, the only option available is the “Nicaragua to San Jose” line at 9am. When you select your date and click continue, it specifies Managua to San Jose, but don’t worry! Later in the process, before you pay, you can specify that you want to board at another destination (this is important, otherwise they may not stop to pick you up). This does not update the time on your ticket.

So, our ticket technically said that our bus was at 9am, but we knew from reading online that this meant 9am in Managua. A quick search on Google Maps lets you know that it takes two hours to get from Managua to Rivas, so we estimated that we needed to be there at 11am. (I know this sounds a bit nuts, but you quickly get used to these things after a few Central American buses).

A panoramic view of the city of Leon, Nicaragua

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Where You Get Picked Up in Rivas

The main problem by far that you’ll encounter on this bus route is Where Is The Effing Bus Stop in Rivas? Don’t worry, I got you. If you’ve googled this in a hurry, here are the google maps locations to the bus stops in Rivas:

If you booked in person, they’ll pick you up where you bought your ticket (around here)

If you booked online, they’ll pick you up here

(Don’t ask me why they are different cause I can’t tell ya.) 

We came straight from Isla Ometepe, which if you don’t know is a magical island in Lake Nicaragua that you should put at the top of your bucket list if you’re heading to Central America. We stepped off the ferry (which had temporarily broken down half way across the lake, but that’s another story) and hopped into a taxi. The taxi driver, of course trying to be helpful, took us to the Transnica ‘bus station’ on the Panamerican Highway (more like a small shop front), which is where you’d imagine the Transnica goes from. Well, you’d be wrong. 

Due to the unpredictable nature of travelling Ellie and I had set off unreasonably early, meaning we had 2 hours to kill before we’d estimated the bus would pick us up. We asked the helpful men at the Transnica office where and when we’d take the bus, and they helpfully confirmed “here, at 11am”, so we hobbled down off the road with our backpacks and sat down for our 100th helping of rice, beans and eggs for breakfast. 

At around 10.30am we walked back, and spoke to somebody different at the Transnica bus station. They told us we were in the wrong place. (Wait, what?)

We asked him three times if he was sure, and he even phoned “the guy who sells the tickets” to confirm. He said yes, walk ten minutes that way and find the bus stop across the road from the Maxi Palí. When I questioned him one final time, he told me that if you buy your tickets here in the office, they pick you up here in the office. If you buy your tickets online, they pick you up from the bus stop down the road. 

This kicked off an hour of bus-waiting-panic for Ellie and I who re-convinced ourselves about every ten minutes that we were in the wrong place. (Important, because Ellie had a flight to catch from San Jose early the next morning).

Nevertheless we made it down the road, and stopped across the road from the Maxi Palí. I had been expecting a real bus station, to be honest, but what we found was a small, nondescript wooden bus shelter with literally zero information on it. Luckily there was a guy in a Tica Bus uniform. I asked him if this was also where the Transnica bus would pass, and he said yes, so we sat down. But something just seemed off. Why would this tiny wooden bench be serving long, international bus lines?

Eventually more people turned up at the bus stop, and we asked each one what they were waiting for. There was one other woman waiting for our bus, as well as another woman who was not getting on our bus but seemed to know for certain that it would come. She told us it usually arrives around 12 noon.

It was a Trust the Process kind of situation, but sure enough the bus arrived and pulled over to collect us at the most non-bus bus stop I have ever seen. This spot is now marked on Google Maps as the “Parada de Bus Central Line“, but at the time there was nothing there. 

What is the Bus Like from Nicaragua to Costa Rica?

This was the first time throughout all of our Central American bus travels that we’d gotten on a proper coach with comfortable material and reclining seats. But, really, the best part was the suspension, which we’d not felt in a vehicle in quite some time.

The bus was quiet and felt safe, and the people around us seemed nice and were helpful to their fellow travellers.

How Many Stops Do You Make?

On this one, I’m not sure. I think the bus was supposed to make more, but because we got stuck in bad traffic from a crash up ahead, I think we skipped a stop to save on time.

1 – We made one quick stop between Rivas and the Nicaraguan border to use the bathroom. At this stop we were literally hounded as we got off the bus by people trying to sell us things and by people trying to exchange our money to Costa Rican Colones. We’d also caught up with the Tica Bus that services the same route, so the small rest stop was chaos with two buses full of people. 

2 – Of course, we also stopped to cross the border from Nicaragua to Costa Rica at Peñas Blancas, which took a total of around 2 hours. There is somewhere to use the bathroom at the border, but not much else.

3 – Somewhere in the middle of nowhere in Guanacaste we stopped at a service station that sold snacks, hot food, and had a bathroom. Ellie and I decided against hot food and stocked up on snacks here. This was around 8pm, the time we were supposed to arrive in San José, but it was in fact another three hours before we reached our final destination. If your bus is running on time, I’m not sure what time you’ll make this stop!

What Was it Like Crossing the Costa Rica Nicaragua Border at Peñas Blancas?

For us, crossing the border went very smoothly, the only problem was the incredibly long queue. 

Before we got off the bus at Peñas Blancas, our passports and 4$ fees were collected by the bus driver, taken to the Nicaraguan immigration office, and returned to us with exit stamps. We then drove a short way down the road and piled off the bus at the entry point into Costa Rica. We took our hold luggage from underneath the bus and then queued up with several other busloads of travellers. The system was well-organised, they just seemed to have picked up a bit of a backlog. After waiting for around an hour, we were ushered into the immigration building where we showed all of the entry requirements for Costa Rica:

– Passport with 6 months validity

– Proof of accommodation

– Proof of exit from Costa Rica

With no intention of overstaying my visa, I showed the border official a ticket for a short bus ride from Cahuita (Costa Rica) to Changuinola (Panama) that I cancelled later that day. I saw one guy who didn’t have his proof of exit, but they let him step to one side and make a reservation (and didn’t make him go to the back of the queue!). They also scanned all of our bags and belongings, but it didn’t seem like anyone was paying much attention to what was in them.

At the border, we noted how easy it could have been to make this crossing using public transport and Nicaragua’s chicken buses. There were people being dropped off all the time by all manner of bus companies, private shuttles, chicken buses and taxis. As you crossed the border, you were inundated with options for your onward journey including chicken buses and private shuttles offering their services to various destinations in Costa Rica, mostly in the north including various locations in Guanacaste, San Carlos and La Fortuna. 

Ellie and I were amongst the first to get back on the bus, but don’t worry – the bus driver did a full head count before we set off again!

Changing Currency on the Border

Something else to think about when you get on this bus is changing your cash from Cordobas (Nicaraguan currency) to Colones (Costa Rican currency). Everywhere we stopped, including both rest stops and the border, people were coming around with handfuls of money offering to change your cash. I said in my article about currencies in Central America that these guys can be useful for getting a little change in your pocket, but don’t use them for large amounts of cash! They have to make a living, after all, so their exchange rate won’t be the best. It’s also worth noting that almost everywhere in Costa Rica will accept card, free of charge, and US Dollars, too. So it may not be essential to get your hands on Costa Rican colones right away.

Accessibility at the Peñas Blancas Border

It was hot at the border, and we had to stand up for a long time whilst we were waiting in the queue. We may have been unlucky with the time of day (and time of year) that we made this crossing, but it’s still worth noting that if you struggle with long periods without rest, you may need water, snacks, and have to sit on the ground. The way that the line is arranged may be a bit difficult to access with a buggy or wheelchair, but it seemed that they were helpful to people with disabilities and children.

There are a small number of steps as you come in and out of the immigration building (I’m talking 3-5 steps, not a whole flight!).

If you have any more specific questions about this bus route, let me know in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer you!

Where You Get Dropped Off in San Jose

There are several bus stations all within a certain area in the north-west of San Jose. This is not a safe area to be in, especially at night time. You should wait inside the bus terminal (that will likely still be busy with people from your bus, or waiting for the night bus), and either order an Uber or take a taxi. Remember that Uber is technically illegal in Costa Rica (but everyone uses it anyway), so drivers like you to sit in the front seat so they look less like a taxi driver.

Our Uber turned up in a small beat-up Chevrolet with one light out and no seatbelts. Usually Ubers in Costa Rica are nicer than this, but you take what you get and the Uber driver’s charm more than made up for his lack of headlights. (Mostly). He drove us to our hostel in Costa Rica, where Ellie and I spent our last night together eating pizza by the pool. Early the next morning Ellie left to go back to the UK. I was planning to head straight south to Panama (I already spent some time in Costa Rica a few years ago), but the universe had other plans for me and I got stuck in San Jose for over a week… but more on that later 😉

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