The trip by air to San Carlos from Managua (usually via Ometepe) is spectacular, with close up fly-bys of two volcanoes, the Islas Solentiname and the Laguna de Apoyo. La Costeña (www.lacostena.com.ni) operates compact, 12-seat planes on Thursday and Sunday flying from Managua to Ometepe, San Carlos and then San Juan de Nicaragua on the Caribbean coast before returning via the same route (depending on demand). The San Carlos airport is a 3km, US$1 cab ride from downtown San Carlos.
Collective riverboat services to Boca de Sábalos (US$2.85, two hours) and El Castillo (US$2.60, three hours) leave from the Portuaria San Carlos, half a block west of the mercado (market), at noon (Monday to Saturday) and at 2:30pm (Monday, Tuesday, Friday and Saturday). Express boats to Sábalos (US$3.90, 1½ hours) and El Castillo (US$4.50, two hours) leave at 6am, 8am 10:30am, 3:30pm and 4:30pm daily.
Boats to Islas Solentiname (US$10, 90 mins) leave from the public dock next to Migración at 3pm daily.
Colectivo boats to Papaturro (US$3.30, five hours), for access to the Centro Ecológico de Los Guatuzos, leave the Muelle Municipal at 9am on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. There are fast boats (US$4.75, three hours) that leave San Carlos on Saturdays at 10am.
Slow boats to San Juan de Nicaragua (US$10.50, nine to 12 hours) leave the Portuaria San Carlos at 6am on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. Fast boats on the same route (US$20, seven hours) leave San Carlos at 6am on Tuesday and Friday.
Buses leave from the bus terminal in San Carlos for the following destinations:
- Boca de Sábalos (US$2.20, two hours, 7am, 9am, 11am, 2pm, 4:30pm and 7pm) Buses also stop in La Esperanza.
- El Rama (US$4.75, seven hours, 9am)
- Juigalpa (US$3.50, four hours, 10am, 11:10am, 12:40pm and 1:30pm) Managua-bound buses (except overnight services) will also drop passengers in Juigalpa.
- Managua (US$4.75, six hours, 2am, 6:30am, 8am, noon, 2:30pm, 6pm, 9pm and 10:30pm)
- San Miguelito (US$1.60, two hours) Direct buses leave at 12:20pm and 1pm, but you can hop on any Managua- or Juigalpa-bound bus and get off at the San Miguelito turnoff. There are also more comfortable minibus services (US$2, two hours) that leave from the malecón at 10:30am and 5pm daily.
Minivans for the border crossing at Santa Fe (US$2, 30 minutes) depart when full from the terminal from 3am to 5:30pm.
Alternatively, Agua Trails (www.aguatrails.com) runs a daily shuttle service to La Fortuna in Costa Rica (US$55 per person).
Border Crossing: To Los Chiles, Costa Rica
The completion of the bridge over the Río San Juan at Santa Fe downstream from San Carlos sadly saw the traditional (and very scenic) river route into Costa Rica being superseded by the faster land option. This means that unless you have a private launch, you'll need to cross at Santa Fe.
The cheapest way to do this is to take a local minivan from the bus station in San Carlos across the bridge and to the border at San Pancho (US$2, 30 minutes). Vans run from 3am to around 5:30pm but the border is only open from 8am to 4pm, so there's no need to head out at dawn. Once stamped out of Nicaragua (for which you'll pay US$2), walk over to the Costa Rican immigration office and get your entry stamp before taking another bus to Los Chiles (US$1, 15 minutes) or Quesada (US$6, three hours) from where there are continuing services to San José. There is also one direct bus a day from Las Tablillas to San José at 3pm.
If you have a private launch, begin your trip at friendly San Carlos Migración, where you’ll have your passport stamped. When you arrive in Los Chiles, go to customs, opposite the dock, to have your bags searched, then another building about two blocks away to have your passport stamped.
At both border crossings you'll be required to pay US$12 to enter Nicaragua and US$2 upon departure. If you are leaving Costa Rica by road you will be required to pay US$7 exit fee by debit or credit card only – no cash.