Central America border crossings can be fraught with difficulty with reports of extortion, long waits, bag checks and more. To get from El Salvador to Nicaragua is particularly annoying as a sliver of Honduras dissects the two countries. If you do not wish to visit Honduras, the journey requires two border crossings through a country you do not wish to visit. You need to pass from El Salvador into Honduras and then from Honduras into Nicaragua. As tempting as those stamps are, the prospect of up to 12 hours at the border is a big disincentive. We were therefore super excited to discover a boat that travels from La Union in El Salvador across the Gulf of Fonseca to Potosi in Nicaragua. In this post we will explain everything you need to know about travelling from El Salvador to Nicaragua by boat including immigration requirements, timings and other useful tips.
Boats between El Salvador and Nicaragua
You have two options for travelling between El Salvador and Nicaragua.
You can book a private transfer across the gulf with Salvadorean tours which works out great value if you are travelling in a group.
- $285 for 1 person
- $310 for 2 people ($155 each)
- $354 for 3 ($118 each)
- $352 for 4 ($88.25 each)
- $385 for 5 ($77 each)
- And $426 for 6 ($71).
If you can find a group of people to travel with this could be a good option as you have far greater flexibility on dates. This price is only for the crossing and does not include transfers between San Salvador and the port or between Potosi and Leon.
Shared boat transfer
The shared boat transfer that you can book with Gecko Explorer costs $65 a head for the boat transfer. You can also add a:
- Transfer from San Salvador and other locations in El Salvador (El Tunco, La Libertad, Cuco Beach, Zonte beach and La Union) for an extra $15 a head
- A transfer from Potosi to Leon and other destinations (El Tunco, Jiquiliilo, Aponsentillo, Potosi and Chinandega) for an extra $15 a head
This is a great option as staff guide you through the process which removes some of the stress of the border crossing. It is also a reasonable price for smaller groups and saves you a lot of hassle. Of course, this is even more important if you are short on time. Note that this option is only available on Tuesdays and Fridays so you need to plan ahead.
This is the option we booked so the remainder of the post is specific to that trip.
Timings of the journey
The journey timings can vary hugely depending on who has booked tickets and from what destination (see above). For instance, on our transfer from San Salvador we picked people up in El Tunco, Cuco beach and La Libertad. The journey took around 5.5 hours and timings are far from accurate. For instance, our pick up at 2.30 arrived at 3am and the couple who booked from Cuco had waited 90 minutes for the bus to arrive.
The boat crossing takes around 2 hours. Then the bus from Potosi to Leon and other destinations takes between 2-5 hours depending on the number of stops.
I recommend that you allow significant leeway around the rough time estimates if you have onward travel plans or time specific plans.
Shared boat facilities
Previously ferries were running between the two ports but at the time of writing (August 2023) the only boats I could find were a private boat or the shared boat we booked with Gecko Explorer. This is a simple boat with no onboard facilities so if you get seasick come prepared.
It is a stunning journey during which you will pass tiny villages hugging the shores of emerald, forest clad islands. Each has just a spattering of houses and fishing boats unload their wares on the docks as you pass. It is a delightful ride with far reaching views of volcanoes and stunning islets. Thankfully we did not come across any pirates!
Note, that the boat disembarks directly to the beach so if you do not have flip flops staff will carry you from the boat. I kid you not! I was carted through the water like a newlywed carrying his bride over the threshold. Meanwhile Jason enjoyed a piggy back from the same chap.
El Salvador exit procedure
On our arrival at the migration office in El Salvador, the bus staff collected everyone’s passports and disappeared into the immigration building. We went on the hunt for water refills and thank god we did. A short while later they returned with our passports. I could see no evidence of a stamp in there so who knows what they were doing.
El Salvador border facilities
Contrary to what I expected, there was little around the migration office targeted at tourists. We stocked up on water from a little restaurant but there are no dedicated port facilities where you can buy snacks or drinks. Basically you need to come prepared for this trip as there are no guarantees you will be able to stock up.
There are toilets to the back of the migration office but no facilities on the dock of either La Union or Potosi. Use them while you can! The facilities in Potosi are rudimentary at best!
Nicaraguan entry border at Potosi
The fun really begins when you arrive in Nicaragua. Before I get into that however, here is what you need to enter Nicaragua.
- $13 entry fee at the time of writing (in theory. See below)
- Three copies of your passport
- Entry form which you complete on arrival. Note, that the Nicaraguan website says you must complete a form 7 days beforehand. Despite completing this, we still needed to complete the paper form so save your time and skip the online form. It is a pain in the ass anyway!
Note, despite the general high level of education of the travellers we came across in Central America 4 of our party of 12 were either unaware of the need for passport copies or for the entry fee to be paid in cash in $US only. Do check the requirements for your nationality thoroughly before travelling to avoid stress on the day. UK citizens can find the latest information on the FCO website. Other nationalities should be able to access similiar resources on their respective websites.
Failure to comply with immigration requirements
Note, Nicaraguan immigration officials at Potosi were both notoriously unhelpful and unsympathetic to the plight of passengers arriving without the required money or paperwork.
One couple sent their passports unattended on a motor bike with a entrepreneurial local who took the passports to a local village to obtain photocopies for a small fee. The prospect of being separated from my passport would give me kittens! Nevertheless twenty minutes later the passports returned with copies in tow. Who knows if they used the passports for other means however – hello identity theft!
The couple who did not have sufficient dollars (by the way the currency of El Salvador has been USD for over twenty years so ignore any reference to pesos as these are no longer legal tender. There is a lot of outdated information online) ended up borrowing money from another couple but if you don’t find a charitable fellow passenger then you simply will not be permitted entry to Nicaragua (is it really worth the risk??). I am unsure what would happen but border officials seem unperturbed by your state, whether you are wilting in the sun, dying of thirst or desperate for a toilet break.
Nicaraguan entry procedures
We arrived off our boat at 11.15 in a party of 12 and took almost 3 hours to complete formalities. When you disembark, you place your bags on the dock and wait for immigration officials to conduct their checks.
Two officers searched individual bags THOROUGHLY. They went through everything including cameras, liquids, first aid kits and clothing. Thankfully we had our clothes packed in plastic bags so it was easy to unpack and repack. These were not cursory checks but instead were full laborious checks although the guard seemed to have lost some enthusiasm by the time they reached us. Another factor to consider is packing your clothes with protection in mind such as using bags like these ones that we use from amazon. Not only were they a godsend in this situation but they make packing and unpacking a backpack an absolute breeze.
Another strange restriction is that no professional photography equipment or drones can be brought into Nicaragua. Guards ate not sympathetic to offenders and although they may be willing to look the other way for a sum of money I cannot confirm this and suggest you do not risk it
Once the bag checks were complete we placed our bags into the back of a new shuttle bus that waits outside the immigration hall. This is far too grandiose a term to describe the immigration building which is really little more than a covered porch, a tiny office and a corrugated ceiling.
After the bag torture, you walk 100 yards to the ramshackle immigration building where bored looking officials take a break for lunch while we look on in dismay. When they eventually resume work they take the stack of passports they have taken off our group and start writing out slips of paper for entry and exit papers. Why they don’t do this before we arrive I do not know as you have to supply your passport details beforehand to the travel company.
Strangely, Jason and I got stiffed for $15 each despite everyone else paying $13. I tried to reason but to no avail so be prepared for an arbitrary amount on arrival. I repeat, you must pay in cash and they will only accept dollars!
Nicaraguan border facilities
There are no facilities on the dock. That includes snacks or drink stalls and toilets. Note, you should bring plenty of water. I am usually laden with water but even I ran out given the time we waited for formalities to play out.
Once your bags have been checked (not sure what happens if you are desperate for the loo and your bag has not been checked but if anyone knows please let us know in the comments.) and you head to immigration, there are some hideous toilets that have not seen a bathroom check in over a decade! Bring your own toilet paper and be prepared to squat! If you can also hold your nose at the same time even better!
Once you have paid your entry fee, obtained your stamp and the requisite piece of paper in your passport, you board the shuttle. This will drop you at your chosen digs at your ultimate destination. Prepare to be amazed by Nicaragua!
What to bring
- A hat in case you have a long wait in the sun
- Plenty of water (at least a few bottles each) for the same reason
- Toilet paper
- Hand sanitiser
- A sun hat
- Your camera
- But NO drones
Have your say
Although this journey had its stresses, it was a breeze compared to the stories we heard about Honduras. If you plan to travel between El Salvador and Nicaragua in either direction, this option is a fun option (mostly) that will save you a lot of time. Maybe you have done the land crossing and if so we would love to hear about your experience. Feel free to share in the comments.