Doing a Visa Run


In the vast amount of interviews I have conducted over the past three years for ESL teaching positions in Costa Rica, the topic of work visas and visa runs inevitably comes up. Since getting a work visa is expensive and difficult, and the options for residency are marrying a Costa Rican, having a baby with one, having a lot of money, or retiring, most English teachers, myself included, live and work here on a tourist visa, requiring us to leave the country every 90 days to renew it.

In four years of doing visa runs, I have never had a problem at the border. In fact, it’s possible to start a business on a tourist visa, which I have just done. The basic idea seems to be that if a foreigner is contributing positively to society, by doing specialized jobs (such as teaching English) or investing in something, there is no problem with the person staying.

I usually hop across the border to Panama or Nicaragua, and I occasionally visit my family in California. Now that I work at Instituto Estelar Bilinge  in Liberia, just an hour-and-a-half by bus from the border, I’ll mostly be going to Nicaragua to a cute little surf town called San Juan del Sur.

All in all, I don’t mind border runs because they give me an excuse to go to the beach and relax. No computer, no phone (my cell doesn’t work outside of Costa Rica), and nothing pressing—like painting my school or lesson planning—to do. This trip I plopped down on the beach as soon as I arrived and enjoyed watching families spend their Saturday together.

Children digging a hole in the sand in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

The only real hassle with visa runs is at the border where there are long lines with people constantly cutting to try to get ahead. It’s maddening sometimes—the sun, the waiting, the lies people tell to move up in the line (women claiming to be pregnant, for example), so I always bring a good book to distract me.

No matter how many times I go to Nicaragua, the poverty right there at the border shocks me. After all, Nicaragua is the second-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, second only to Haiti. This trip, I felt guilty for wishing I had new clothes when a frail old lady, wearing a soiled apron over a worn blouse and elastic-wasted skirt, served me breakfast she had just cooked over an open fire. I felt worse when I saw the bus driver wearing two different shoes, neither of which really fit, on his sockless feet.

I did, however, get comic relief from some of the English misprinted T-shirts I saw while standing in line at the border. Since the wearers of these shirts don’t speak English, it doesn’t matter to them what the shirts say. For example, there was a very large, bouncer-looking man wearing a shirt that said, “To Bead or Not to Bead.” A drunk man wore a tattered shirt that said, “Jesus, I am Your Daughter!”  Another guy walked by with a stained shirt that said, “My Mother was Pro-Choice: That’s Why I’m Here.” Hmmm, what?

 As usual, once on the Nicaraguan side of the border, the catcalls intensified (from what is common in Costa Rica), and taxi drivers told me that there were no buses running that day in order to persuade me to get into their cars. I knew they were lying, so I found the bus I needed and waited for it to leave, which took some time because the driver waited until it was mostly full and there weren’t many travelers that day.

Once in San Juan del Sur, about an hour from the border, I could finally relax and enjoy my mini-vacation. I treated myself to lunch in one of the restaurants right on the beach and alternated between reading my book and admiring the peaceful scene before me. I actually think that visa runs are healthy for workaholics like me: they force me to slow down every 90 days and smell the ocean breeze.

My view from the restaurant

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