38. Border Crossing #1- The El Salvadorian Adventure Part 1

Friday 8/27 – If you’re like me, when you hear stories about or see movies where some rich people fly to another country for dinner and then fly back home you think it’s unrealistic or a waste of money. I mean, really, who does that? I would have never thought in all my life that we would be the type of people that would ever do something like that! Well, today we are flying to El Salvador for dinner and a one night stay, then turning around and coming back to Costa Rica.

WHAT?! Why on earth would we do that? We aren’t rich, we didn’t win a trip, we don’t know anyone in El Salvador, so what’s with dinner in another country then come home? And really... why, if you were going to go on a quick trip like this, would you pick El Salvador!?

Well, it all goes back to the residency requirements for foreigners moving to Costa Rica. For tourists and people whose residency process is not far enough along yet, in order to remain legal in Costa Rica you must leave the country every 90 days to renew your tourist visa. Basically, you need to cross the border and then turn around and come back in order to get a new entry stamp in your passport. Once your residency application is in and you are far enough along in the process you technically don’t have to do this any more—UNLESS you want to keep driving. Yes, another reason you have to do a border run every 90 days is to remain a legal driver here. This means that every 90 days for at least 2 but maybe up to 3 years you have to cross the border out of Costa Rica (it doesn’t matter where you go or how long you leave for) and come back to get a new passport stamp. What a pain, right!?

Well, pre-COVID things were much easier. Here in Uvita, we are only about a 2 hour drive to the Panama border. It used to be very easy to drive down to Panama, go across the border, do some shopping (we hear it’s less expensive there), grab some lunch, cross back in to Costa Rica, then drive 2 hours home. That doesn’t sound so hard. But, just like so many other things, COVID screwed that up. For about a year all land-border crossings were closed. No one could go in or out of Costa Rica via a land border crossing. Also, for people that were in Costa Rica prior to COVID, there were extensions granted so they would not have to leave and come back for a period of time. In about April 2021 the land borders opened again but Panama got real strict on enforcing some old rules that they hadn’t been enforcing for years, thus making a Panama border run a little bit more complicated. Now, instead of crossing, staying for an hour, and coming back, Panama is requiring at least a 1 night stay, and depending on who your border crossing agent is (if you get unlucky) and your vaccination status, they might require you to stay 3 nights. On our Facebook groups there has been a lot of talk about all of this and the troubles that people are having, so we decided not to risk trying the Panama crossing, at least not for this first border run.

We researched for quite some time on what options we had available and what the least expensive one would be. People who live farther North in Costa Rica do land border crossings to Nicaragua. There are even services that you can hire that will drive you from your home, to Nicaragua, help you through the process, and then drive you back home all in the same day. That is what we originally had planned to do. It would be a VERY long day since it is about a 7 hour trip one-way, but if someone else was driving we could just relax. Another option that people in our groups were using was flying to Cancun, staying a couple of nights and flying back. There were no “turn and burn” flights to Cancun and a few nights in a hotel plus food would probably end up costing more in the long run.

After a lot of research and looking at other options, Ramie found a really good deal on flights to El Salvador, and they even had flights leaving CR late enough on Friday afternoon that we could drive to the airport that morning and coming back early enough on Saturday that we could drive back to Uvita that afternoon. That would be perfect! We would only have to find a dog-sitter for one night and we’d be back home before we knew it. No one on our groups had ever done a border run to El Salvador before, so we were going to try it out and report back on how the process was. Everyone was interested to see how it all went.

The drive from Uvita to San Jose (the airport) is about 3.5 hours on a good day. Down here, though, you just never know when you will run into bad traffic, bad weather, an accident that closes the highway, or any other road blocks (pun not intended), so we wanted to make sure we had plenty of cushion on the time to get to the airport. We dropped Breeze off with Loren and Nancy who were so kind to volunteer to take care of her for us at 7 am and got on the highway going North. The drive went smoothly, and while there was some traffic, we didn’t have anything that caused major backups. We were making very good time on the way up so we ended up stopping at the same cafeteria style restaurant that we had stopped at when we went up to San Jose for our attorney and finger printing appointment back in June. The drive in the city this time seemed much easier than it had any other time we were driving there and we were prepared for all of those tolls along the highway. It’s a long drive, but it seems to get easier every time we do it. We also learned that parking at the airport is so easy, for $35 a day you get front row parking that is less than 100 yards away from the front door of the airport. We got there with plenty of time to spare, and since we already had our electronic boarding passes and no luggage to check we walked straight to the security checkpoint without having to stop at the airline counter. There was almost no line through security and it only took us a few minutes to get through that whole ordeal. This really is nothing like flying in the US or any other trip we’ve ever been on. Since we were there so early, we browsed through the shops in the airport and eventually found a place to sit and hang out. San Jose is a pretty small airport, so there isn’t a whole lot to do when you have a few hours to spare, but we passed the time on our phones and people-watching.

When it came time to board the plane, you could tell that it would definitely not be full! I guess there aren’t a whole lot of people heading from Costa Rica to El Salvador. Ramie and I had our row to ourselves and there were many other rows that weren’t full either. We flew Volaris Airlines, which is a Mexican owned regional airline that serves Central America. This is another one of those “no frills” airlines where everything is an add on and costs extra. That wasn’t a problem for us because we were only traveling with a backpack (one single backpack, not even one each). There was no in-flight snack or beverage service unless you ordered something special, but that was quite alright because our flight was only about an hour. The announcements were all made in Spanish, and only some of them were also made in English, but again that didn’t bother us at all. We’ve traveled enough to get the jist of what they were saying.

Since it was such a short flight, the plane also flew at a lower altitude than we are used to and it took only a very short time after takeoff to get to cruising altitude and for the seat belt sign to go off.

I believe this is Chinameca Volcano

The flight was smooth and before we knew it we were already descending to land. After we landed but before we got to the gate the flight attendant announced that everyone must stay in their seat until their row is released so everyone can deplane in an orderly fashion, and guess what… EVERYONE LISTENED!! This was the smoothest and probably quickest deplaning ever since there was no mad rush and people getting in the way of others. I think this is the way all flights should work!! 

El Salvador airport was small and easy to navigate. Since we didn’t have any luggage to wait for we were one of the first ones to make it to immigration, and I think we were actually the first ones to make it to the tourist or non-resident line of immigration. Here you have to go to the first line to pay a $12 each entry fee into the country (yes, they charge an entry fee here. Fun fact, Costa Rica charges an exit fee when you leave. Depending on the airline you use, sometimes it’s included in your flight ticket. Sun Country does not include it in your ticket so you have to pay at the airport when you leave). The guy we spoke to here asked for how long we were staying and when we told him 1 night he kind of laughed. He understood the reasoning behind it because El Salvador has the same rule about tourists leaving every 90 days, but he joked with us that next time we should stay a little longer and get to experience his country. 

After that, you go to the next line where you actually get the stamp in your passport. Here they didn’t ask us for how long we would be staying, they just automatically gave us the 90 days. Once we had our stamp, we were then directed to customs, where the person working at the gate, just looked at us and waved us through. We were free to head out into the country now. We had a driver pre-arranged to pick us up from the airport and bring us to the hotel. We were told he would be waiting for us in the parking lot with a sign with our name on it. When we got out past all of the taxi drivers and out to the parking lot we didn’t see anyone with a sign with our name. Fortunately, the hotel had given me the contact information of the driver. As I was scrolling through my emails on my phone looking for the information a couple of security guards and another taxi driver came up to us to ask if we needed help. We told them that we were looking for our taxi driver and getting ready to call him. I was having trouble figuring out how to dial the El Salvador number, so the other taxi driver called him, spoke to him in Spanish, and figured out that he was waiting for us in a different parking lot across the road. He gave us directions to get over there, and we were on our way. I love that people are so friendly and willing to help out! In the US I think it would be very rare to have people offer to help as much as people have offered to help us over the last few months here.

We got to the other parking lot, found our driver (who didn’t speak English) and were ready to head toward the hotel (about a 45-60 minute drive). This parking lot was the strangest thing. It is the actual airport parking lot where you have to pay to park and there are just a few small shops for snacks and things on the far end of the parking lot, but there were tons of people hanging out here. It’s like they were tailgating at the parking lot! They had coolers and lawn chairs and were all sitting around behind the vehicles with their suitcases and things like that ready to go. The parties ended up so spread out that parts of the parking lot were even difficult to drive through because of all of the people. This was one of the strangest things we have seen in all of our travels!

The drive from the airport to the city of San Salvador (where the hotel is) was very easy. Interestingly the international airport is about an hour outside of the city, this is because its the closest flat land thats large enough for an airport. It was literally uphill the entire way to the hotel.

Here the highways were 4 lanes, fairly straight, and speeds like we’d be used to in the US as opposed to the 2 lane, curvy, slow highways of Costa Rica. There were beautiful views through the valleys and mountains, much like we see in Costa Rica, and we had a nice ride. We actually were so busy enjoying the views we forgot to take pictures so below is all we have (Sorry)!

Once we got to the city we hit the middle of rush hour, not to mention it was Friday night and our driver mentioned everyone was getting off work and heading into town for a night out. It was pretty chaotic!  The lanes are marked but those are suggestions only. It may be a three lane road in the city but its six cars wide and the road only fits five. The city is what took the majority of the travel time. Things were very slow-going just like rush hour in any city, but the driver took some back roads (or at least that’s what it appeared) and we got to see a lot of the more residential parts of town. Here things were laid out more like we’re used to in the US as well, as far as stores with parking lots off the sides of the main roads and things like that. In San Jose and San Isidro there is the main highway going down the middle of town and all of the stores are off on service roads. Some have parking lots, some don’t. So, I’ll say that San Salvador looked more like the US than Costa Rica does.

After an hour we made it to our hotel. Between the taxi drivers limited English and our limited Spanish he had managed to ask us if we needed a ride back to the airport and wanted to schedule it with us. We told him that we did, and with the help of the check-in staff at the hotel we were able to schedule a ride back to the airport at 5:30 the next morning. We were leaving so early because they told us there would probably be rush hour in the morning as well.

The hotel (Crowne Plaza) was beautiful! Because it is currently low season there was a lot of construction going on, but the restaurant, bar, pool, and courtyard area were all very nice. They had an area that looks like they would hold wedding receptions and other fancy parties, and it was even set up for something there tonight. We went up to our room to drop off our backpack and found that the rooms were very nice and comfy as well. (Ramie was very excited for a SOFT bed since Tico beds are typically pretty hard). We then headed back downstairs for some dinner and a drink at the restaurant. There didn’t appear to be a lot of people staying here right now, and there were only a couple of other tables of people in the restaurant, so we took our time and enjoyed the evening. 

Hotel event center and view of the surrounding mountains from the restaurant


Around the time that it started getting dark out the people for the fancy party started showing up in their formal dresses and suits. We were very curious so we watched what was going on and tried to figure it out. We figured (and then asked our waitress to confirm) that it is a quinceañera party, which is a fancy party that Latina girls have when they turn 15. We weren’t being weird, and we were far enough away that they couldn’t see that we were watching them, but it was fun to watch! It almost looked like a mini-prom type party with all of the kids, but the family was there too all dressed up like for a wedding.

All the kids dressed up fancy for the big party!

We believe this was the Birthday Girl as she was the one being photographed

We heard that the bar was having happy hour, so eventually we left the restaurant and stopped there for a margarita and relaxed here for a little while before it was time to head up to our room to go to bed.  We would have to get up early again tomorrow morning.

Hotel Bar


To Be Continued...


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks Gary, I'm glad you are enjoying the posts!

  2. Your delivery was very accurate and concise so that all who have not been to Spanish speaking countries are able to understand just how complicated and intricate travel can be. In time and in order to remove all of the travel issues does this area have what is called a "permanante" which makes residency and citizenship easier to accomplish? Perhaps you do not wish to apply for duel citizenship but it may make things a lot easier.
    I remember in years past some of the names you have mentioned were associated with cartel issues and gang wars, is this a thing of the past or must you really watch what you say and do?
    Keep up the good work of instructing us gringos how the rest of the world works, stay safe, watch your "six" and most all all enjoy your travels, you are the envy of many. We head out for Mazatlan on Jan 5 for three months and are ready to leave our "winter wonderland" as mucho snow has dropped on our heads. Take care .

    Ken Paulson

    1. Thanks Ken! We are working on getting our residency in Costa Rica so that we don't have to make these border runs every 90 days, but it takes a while to get far enough along in the paperwork that we don't have to do them any longer.
      We don't worry too much about cartel or gang issues, we just stay in places that are considered safe and don't venture in to the shady parts of town, just like we wouldn't find ourselves in N. Mpls when we were back in MN ;)
      I bet you're super excited to head town to MX soon. You will be joining us in enjoying the sun and warm weather while watching all of our MN friends and family digging out of the snow. I really don't miss that at all! Although- I must say- it doesn't feel like Christmas is right around the corner when it is 80 degrees every day!


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