Written by: Sara
There are 2 options to get from Granada to San José. You can (1) take a shuttle with Easy Ride (shuttles usually have A/C and might have movies playing as well), or (2) do it the budget traveler's way (more complicated, but can save you US$37 - US$67 per person). You'll find that there are other bus companies in Nicaragua, but they don't leave from Granada -- they all leave from Managua.
(1) Shuttle with Easy Ride (2 options): US$52 - $82
(2) Budget Traveler's Way (explained in detail below): US$15 ($12 + $3 to cross the border)
If you decide to go the budget traveler's way, you'll need to take "chicken buses" to the border of Nicaragua and Costa Rica (chicken buses are old U.S. school buses that have been painted fun colors... they call them chicken buses because sometimes you will see people traveling on them with chickens and other animals), and then you continue from the border to San José on a regular bus.
Here is how you do it:
Step 1: Find the chicken bus in Granada to take you to Rivas
It wasn't easy to find the buses that will take you from Granada to Rivas. We walked around the day before to find them, and I'm glad we did it without our backpacks on. We ended up asking someone at a nearby hostel who pointed us in the right direction. Once we got to the bus station, I could tell that there were buses at the same station that took you to other cities. However, I've also read that there are other bus stations in Granada with buses to other cities. I wanted to make sure we got to the correct one.
See Exhibit A below with a map that will help you locate the bus station for buses to Rivas. You'll need to walk through the municipal market to get there, so be prepared to get your feet wet and muddy if it has rained recently.
Step 2: Travel from Granada to Rivas on a chicken bus (2 hours)
There are about 8 buses that leave every day from Granada to Rivas. That being said, I've seen a couple of blogs that say they don't all run every day. I highly suggest finding the bus station the day before and asking someone what the bus schedule is for the next day. They may not know the exact times though (when we asked, we were told different times), so I also suggest arriving for one of the earlier buses if possible.
Our driver (who seemed to know what he was talking about at least) told us that the buses run from Granada to Rivas at the following times: 5:45 AM, 6:30 AM, 8:00 AM, 9:30 AM, 11:30 AM, 12:30 PM, 1:30 PM, and 3:10 PM.
Our bus left at 8:02 AM, so be on time for the one you want! I do suspect that they may wait a little bit though if the bus isn't full yet. The bus ride wasn't too bad. It was a little hot, but since we were traveling in the morning, it wasn't too bad.
The cost is C$32 (about 1 US dollar) per person (there was a sign posted in the bus with the price) + they charged us C$32 per big backpack since they each took up an entire seat (this seems like a normal practice as I've heard this from other travelers). This can be avoided if your bags fit in the overhead area. Partially through the ride, someone tried to make us put our bags in the aisle, but Colin said no since we'd already paid for seats for them (haha).
We arrived 2 hours later at the bus station in Rivas at 10:00 AM.
Step 3: Find the chicken bus in Rivas to take you to Peñas Blancas (the border)
This isn't hard at all since the bus from Granada takes you right to the bus station in Rivas with the buses to Peñas Blancas. You will get a bunch of people coming up to you yelling "frontera!" which means border. They all want you on their bus, but keep asking around. You'll find people telling you that the soonest bus leaving is theirs in an hour, but then you'll find one leaving in 2 minutes. You'll also get people telling you that you can take a shuttle (for about US$10), but I suggest continuing on with the chicken buses since it's only 30 - 45 minutes to the border from Rivas.
Step 4: Travel from Rivas to the border at Peñas Blancas on a chicken bus
Like I said before, this ride is pretty short. We left around 10:05 AM and arrived at the border about 10:35 AM. On this chicken bus, I was able to fit my bags in the racks above out seats, and Colin sat with his bag in his lap. For whatever reason (probably because we are white), the man collecting money on the bus tried to charge us C$75 per person. However, I'd seen the woman in front of us hand him about C$20, so we refused to pay him that much. In the end, we paid C$25 per person.
Step 5: Exit Nicaragua
After the chicken bus drops you off, you'll enter the immigration office to exit Nicaragua. There is a booth on the left where you pay a US$1 (or C$30) exit tax (see Exhibit C below for a picture of the receipt they give you). Then, you walk to one of the 4 desks and pay an additional US$2 to get an exit stamp in your passport. The US$2 for the exit stamp apparently cannot be paid in Nicaraguan córdobas. We had USD to pay with, but I am unsure of the legitimate rules on this. There are people to exchange money with, so if you don't have USD, I believe you can get it with them.
Step 6 / 7: Get a "normal" bus to travel from Peñas Blancas to San José
This can either be done before or after you enter Costa Rica (see below). We did this as step 6.
There are a few buses that are at the border already with other passengers. These are the "normal" buses like Tica or NicaExpress. They are air conditioned and have movies playing for the ride (although sometimes all in Spanish). They each cost US$10 (you can also pay in Nicaraguan córdobas or Costa Rican colónes).
Notes on this: there are already passengers on these buses, and you will only get the seats that no one else wanted. Our seats happened to be together (which is not always the case), but they were at the very back where you not only feel every bump, but it also smells like shit for the entire ride because it's right next to the bathroom.
We also exchanged all of our leftover Nicaraguan córdobas at this point for Costa Rican colónes.
Step 6 / 7: Enter Costa Rica
This can either be done before or after you get a "normal" bus from Peñas Blancas to San José (see above). We did this as step 7.
Someone somewhere will hand you 2 forms to fill out for immigration and customs into Costa Rica. Our bus driver handed them to us, but you can also get them somewhere inside the office. You stand in line to get your passport stamped for entry to Costa Rica (which was free, but there is a departure tax that you will have to pay). Important note: Sometimes, the immigration officer will ask you for proof of onward travel out of Costa Rica. We had plane tickets to Colombia, and we showed them the confirmation on our phone. After immigration is customs: you put your bags through a scanner and enter into Costa Rica!
If you choose to do so, you can walk over the border into Costa Rica instead of taking a bus across. I'm not sure the benefits of doing this since we didn't do it, but if you don't find a bus on the Nicaraguan side, do not fear! There are several booths on the Costa Rican side that will help you get a bus to where you are going.
Steps 5 through 7 took almost 2 hours. I don't think this is normal, but be prepared that it can take this long (or possibly longer I'd guess). We left the border at 12:20 PM (remember we arrived at 10:35 AM).
Step 8: Arrive in San José
There was traffic on our way; plus, our bus stopped at the airport on our way to the city center. We arrived at the bus stop in the city center around 7:00 PM. It was a long day with nearly 13 hours of travel, but I think that usually it does not take this long. You never know though with traffic! I will point out that the chicken buses did not add time to our journey. I believe that if we had taken a bus from Granada to San José, it would have taken the same amount of time since what added the most time was border crossing and traffic.
Exhibit A: Map to find the chicken bus in Granada that will take you to Rivas
Colin's head is the location where you find the bus station for buses to Rivas. Picture on the left is zoomed out, and picture on the right is pretty zoomed in.
Exhibit B: Pictures of chicken buses
Exhibit C: Receipt you'll get for the $1 you pay to exit Nicaragua
Sara & Colin
We are figuring out our travel as we go along, and we'd love to help you out with yours! Here are some tips, tricks, and how-to guides.