Nicaragua is the largest country in Central America by area and the least densely populated. Nicaraguans (or "Nicas" as they are often called) like to refer to their country as the "país de lagos y volcanes"; the country of lakes and volcanoes. And those are indeed striking features as Nicaragua contains the largest freshwater body in Central America, Lake Nicaragua or Cocibolca. Inside Lake Nicaragua the famed Volcano Concepcion on Ometepe rises to about a mile in altitude, but other volcanoes such as Momotombo or Mombacho are also impressive.
|Capital Region |
Nicaragua's most populous region, centered on the capital, Managua also including the 'pueblos blancos' and Masaya.
|Caribbean Nicaragua |
Here travel is mostly done by boat and the rich mixture of Nicaraguan, Caribbean, Miskito and Garifuna cultures makes this region seem like another country.
|Northern Highlands |
Visit cigar factories tour a canyon or see how coffee is grown in a region filled with remnants of the revolution.
|Northern Pacific Coast |
At the collision point between two tectonic plates, this region has some of the highest volcanic activity on Earth and is also home to two national icons: rum Flor de Caña and poet Rubén Darío.
|Rio San Juan Region |
An almost forgotten part of the country with its hidden treasures like the car free Solentiname Islands or El Castillo, and gateway to the pristine rainforest of the Indio Maiz reserve.
|Southern Pacific Coast |
A narrow stretch of land bordered by the Pacific Ocean and Lago Nicaragua. Surf remote spots along the coast, party in San Juan del Sur or ride a motorbike around iconic Isla de Ometepe.
- 1 Managua - capital leveled by a 1972 earthquake and decried as bland, slowly coming into its own again
- 2 León - colonial city, famous for students, leftist politics and its large cathedral
- 3 Granada - charming colonial beauty, favorite with tourists and expats
- 4 Masaya - pre-colonial city with a famous artisan market and easy access to the Pueblos Blancos
- 5 Estelí - enjoy the many murals and the surrounding nature reserves
- 6 Matagalpa - sip coffee where it is grown in this "Northern Pearl" with eternal spring
- 7 Jinotega - coffee city in the mountainous north, with a cathedral and beautiful Lago Apanás.
- 8 Bluefields - the biggest city on the Caribbean Coast and a major travel hub
- 9 San Carlos - gateway to the Rio San Juan region
- 10 San Juan del Sur - surfer town, party mecca and an anchoring point for large cruise ships
- 1 Isla de Ometepe - spectacular island with two big volcanoes
- 2 Laguna de Apoyo - crater lake and nature reserve with dark sand beaches
- 3 Pueblos Blancos - a cluster of indigenous towns with different artisan specialties
- 4 Volcan Masaya - drive or climb up this smoke emitting volcano in Nicaraguas oldest national park
- 5 Volcan Cosigüina - responsible for the worlds third largest volcano eruption during historic times
- 6 Somoto Canyon - beautiful and serine canyon
- 7 Big and Little Corn Islands - Caribbean islands with diving, relaxing and fishing with no cars on the little one
- 8 Pearl Lagoon - chilled out Caribbean town on a beautiful lagoon with the same name
- 9 El Castillo - old Spanish fortress on the Rio San Juan and a good entry point for the nearby jungle
- 10 Solentiname Islands - a group of islands in Lake Nicaragua famous for their naive painting and balsa figurines
|Currency||Nicaraguan córdoba (NIO)|
|Population||6.2 million (2017)|
|Electricity||120 volt / 60 hertz (NEMA 1-15, NEMA 5-15)|
|Emergencies||118 (police), 128 (emergency medical services), 115 (fire department), 120 (fire department)|
|edit on Wikidata|
Nicaraguans like to call their country "país de lagos y volcanes" - Land of lakes and volcanoes and this certainly an apt description of the overall layout, particularly of the Western half of the country.
Temperature is most influenced by altitude. On the Pacific side there is a pronounced dry (November-April, known locally as "verano") and rainy season (known locally as "invierno") but the further east you got the longer the rainy season becomes and the rainier the dry season gets. Torrential downpours in the rainy season (May–October) can catch you by surprise and soak you within minutes, even in the Pacific lowlands, so be prepared if you're traveling during the rainy season. In the Northern Highlands cloud forests dominate and thus cold, foggy weather is no rare occurrence. Temperatures might drop to the tens Celsius in the early morning hours on high altitudes but snow is unheard of. The Caribbean coast is overall much wetter with rain a common occurrence even in the "dry" season. The last devastating hurricane to hit Nicaragua was Mitch in 1998 and the country is generally not in the main pathway of hurricanes, but you should still heed warnings and absolutely evacuate at the very least to the Pacific side if there is any chance of a hurricane hitting the place you're in. Hurricane Otto, which hit the country and neighboring Costa Rica in November 2016 left no dead and less destruction than feared, and showed that Nicaragua is now better prepared for natural disasters than in the past.
Nicaragua has an area of 130,373 km2. The most noteworthy features of Nicaragua's geography are visible at a glance: Lake Nicaragua in the southwest with a mostly low lying plain west of it that experiences dry seasons and has historically been the densest populated and most agriculturally used part of the country. In the north high mountains gave rise to coffee and tobacco farming and this is where the country is at its coldest and also where most historical guerrillas be they Sandinista or Contra found their hideouts. From northwest to southeast a spine of mostly active volcanoes stretches through the country - including Lake Nicaragua - with the volcano Cosigüina at the heart of the eponymous peninsula marking the northwestern-most end of this volcanic chain and the Solentiname islands the southeastern-most feature of volcanic origin in the country. The east of the country is dominated by tropical rainforest and has historically been sparsely populated. In the south the Rio San Juan meanders through a mostly low lying plain with rainforest to either side while in the north the Bosawas rainforest begins in the foothills of the northern highlands and stretches almost all the way to the coast. The highest altitudes in the country are found in the north with the highest mountain - Cerro Mogoton (2,107 m; 6,912 feet) - sitting at the border with Honduras. The longest river of the country and all of Central America is the Río Coco or Wanki which forms the border between Honduras and Nicaragua for most of its length. Similarly the Rio San Juan forms the border with Costa Rica, though due to a 19th-century treaty the river belongs entirely to Nicaragua. The Rio San Juan is often considered a national symbol by Nicaraguans, not unlike the German fascination with the Rhine in the 19th century, but due to its historical inaccessibility (before a new road was constructed the trip from Managua would take 12 hours by bus) few Nicaraguans know the river first-hand.
Nicaragua's capital and largest city is Managua. Somewhere between a quarter and a third of the Nicaraguan population lives in or around the capital and it is thus the largest city and metro-area in mainland Central America behind Guatemala City.
Although Columbus (known in Spanish as Cristobal Colón) made landfall in northeastern Nicaragua on one of his voyages, it was the western half of the country that first drew Spanish attention. The Conquistadors wreaked havoc on most indigenous civilizations through war, assimilation, enslavement, disease and deportation however traces of indigenous cultures are still very visible in many aspects of modern Nicaragua. Nicaragua became a Spanish colony and cities such as Granada (one of the first European cities in the Americas that lasted) or its rival León were founded for administrative purposes among others.
Nicaragua declared independence from Spain in 1821 becoming part of the short-lived first Mexican empire for two years before joining the (also short-lived) United Provinces of Central America; by 1838 upon the breakdown of this attempt at Central American Unity, the country became fully independent. The Caribbean Coast came under British control and remained a protectorate administered by the local Miskitos on behalf of the British until liberal general and President José Santos Zelaya conquered the area, which was subsequently named (and is still known to some Western Nicaraguans as) "Zelaya department". However, British, Miskito and general indigenous influence is still very visible on the Caribbean coast and Creole English is still spoken in places like Bluefields or Corn Island.
William WalkerCosta Rica before they were defeated at the battle of Santa Rosa. The battle of San Jacinto on September 14 is celebrated as part of the independence day (September 15) festivities in Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Defeated but still convinced of his status as the "gray-eyed man of destiny" (Walker about Walker) he wrote memoirs about his exploits in Nicaragua, and tried again to conquer Central America. He ended up in front of a Honduran firing squad in 1860, a year before the American Civil War broke out.
It was also roughly in this time (the 1850s) that Nicaragua became a major transit country for people wishing to get from the US East Coast to the West. American railroad and steamboat tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt invested in the Ruta del Tránsito, and travelers such as Mark Twain passed along it.
The US Marines invaded Nicaragua several times. The invasions were almost always justified with domestic strife between conservative and liberal factions, but the US also tried to install leaders on friendly terms with them and - more importantly - their banana business. One of the cities that witnessed an invasion was San Juan Del Sur. General Sandino, seeing the US as invaders, took the war to them. This occupation lasted roughly six years, until the Marines withdrew from the country in 1933. Sandino is credited with the withdrawal of the Marines, but the change in Washington (from Hoover to Roosevelt) and the great depression certainly did not increase the US's will to occupy the country indefinitely. Sandino's victory was, however, short-lived, as the US changed its tactic from direct occupation to supporting a regime favorable to their aims through more indirect means.
Somoza and the Sandinistas
The mid third of the 20th century was dominated by the rise and fall of the Somoza dynasty. Anastasio Somoza Garcia seized power as the head of the Guardia Nacional (National Guard), which remained the center of power for all the Somoza years, after murdering Sandino after a peace-dinner held in his honor in 1934. Educated in the US and trained by the US Army, he was adept at managing his relations with the United States. Somoza is one of a few Latin American strongmen to whom the semi-anecdotal quotation from U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt "our son of a bitch" is said to refer. After his own assassination at the hand of Rigoberto Lopez Perez, Somoza García was succeeded by his sons, Luis and Anastasio Jr ("Tachito") Somoza Debayle. While the Somozas did not hold the presidency at all times, it was clear to everybody who the real power was at any given time.
The Somozas came to power claiming to be liberals and much of their opposition in the early days came from the conservative camp and the political dynasty of the Chamorros. Somoza soon consolidated support from the business sector by either buying off or expropriating anybody who might threaten his family politically.
While the reign of the Somozas did coincide with a period of relative prosperity and a small urban upper class could live comfortably as long as they did not run afoul of the regime, the Somoza family embezzled very close to everything, amassing land holdings the size of El Salvador and stifling development in some sectors of the economy to benefit their own ventures. Somoza Garcia for example let the national railway rot because he was the middle man for all importation of Mercedes buses and the railway was unwelcome competition. The railway never recovered from that neglect and what remained after Somoza's fall and 11 years of civil war was literally sold for scraps in the 1990s.
Luis Somoza's reign is often described as relatively liberal and open-minded compared to the more dictatorial approach of his father and his brother, but when he died in office of a heart attack his brother took over completely, after he had already been head of the national guard and highly influential before. By 1978, opposition to governmental manipulation and corruption (the last straws might have been the blatant embezzlement of relief funds after the 1972 Managua earthquake and the murder of popular anti-Somoza journalist Pedro Joaquin Chamorro in 1978) had become commonplace and resulted in decisive anti-Somoza military campaign that managed to take Managua and topple Somoza on July 19, 1979, a date that is still celebrated every year by the Sandinistas.
The most notable anti-Somoza movement were the Sandinistas, named after the liberal general of the 1930s and fighter against the US marines, Augusto César Sandino. Due to the nature of the Sandinista government, with their social programs designed to benefit the poor majority, their support for rebels fighting against the military government in El Salvador, and their close alliance with Cuba, the right-wing US President Ronald Reagan considered them a threat, and at his administration's insistence, guerrilla forces (Contras) were organized, trained, and armed throughout most of the 1980s. Unwise policies by the Sandinistas (e.g. the literacy program was to be conducted only in Spanish) also led to a disaffection of the indigenous groups on the Caribbean coast, but a cease-fire of sorts was reached in the early 1980s, when the Sandinistas formed the RAAN and RAAS autonomous areas. To this day many indigenous leaders are wary of the Sandinistas in general and Daniel Ortega's government in particular, although there have been tactical alliances from time to time.
After lengthy negotiations a peace accord was reached in 1987, and a peace treaty was drafted by Costa Rican president Oscar Arias Sanchez who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. To the surprise of many, Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, widow of Pedro Joaquin Chamorro of the UNO (Union Nacional Opositora) coalition beat Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas. Contributing factors in Ortega's defeat may well have been the turning international tides, the public's weariness of military service and the bad economic situation (mostly caused by the war).
After the Contra War
Ortega and the Sandinistas lost the 1996 and the 2001 elections to liberals Arnoldo Alemán and Enrique Bolaños respectively. During the 1990s the country's economic policies changed direction, aiming to transform Nicaragua to a market economy through privatization and other aspects of the neoliberal economic program. However, the Sandinistas, still led by Daniel Ortega, returned to power in elections in 2006 when the liberals split the vote. Ortega won with 38% of the vote in the first round after a constitutional amendment eliminated the second round. He won again in 2011 with allegations of vote fraud stemming from his party's sudden increase to 62% of the vote, a number the party hadn't even come close to in all prior peacetime elections. The main right-wing newspaper La Prensa still grumbles about the constitutionality of Ortega's reelection as more than two terms and two continuous terms had been prohibited by the constitution until a controversial supreme court decision ruled that provision of the constitution unconstitutional. In the November 2016 elections Ortega was reelected with his wife, Rosario Murillo now elected vice president amid allegations of fraud and a partial boycott by the weak and fractured opposition.
Unlike the Marxist atheist radical Ortega portrayed himself as in the 1980s, Ortega has significantly changed his public image. He had reconciled with the Catholic Church and erstwhile anti-Sandinista Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, who now even appears on Sandinista campaign billboards. As part of the reconciliation Ortega now enjoys support from some that had taken up arms against him in the 1980s. Many former comrades - including his erstwhile Vice President Sergio Ramirez - denounce him as a sellout, dictatorial and corrupt. Ortega has also become much more business-friendly, paying lip-service to a "mixed economy" with private and government-owned enterprises side by side, while allowing rather free rein to private business, which has been credited with solid growth figures barring the years after the 2008 recession. Ortega's wife, Rosario Murillo, is very much a public figure and current Sandinista PR is significantly influenced by her. Ubiquitous Sandinista propaganda designed by her include billboards with the faces of Sandinista leaders and a yearly slogan or "arboles de la vida"; stylized metal trees that can be seen all over Managua. Political passions can run high and as an outsider it is best if you listen politely but don't volunteer your opinion unless asked.
Nicaragua has suffered from natural disasters in the past. Downtown Managua was all but leveled in 1972 by an earthquake, which killed more than 10,000 people. In 1998, Nicaragua was hit hard by Hurricane Mitch. Nicaragua remains the second poorest country in the western hemisphere after Haiti. Rapid growth in sectors such as tourism, and a better crime and security situation than its northern neighbors give reason to hope for a better future.
The Nicaragua Canal
Since the Spanish were able to make out the general geography of the country, there have been proposals to build a canal to link Atlantic and Pacific. Besides several routes through Panama, Nicaragua seemed an obvious choice, as the Rio San Juan already connects lake Nicaragua to the Caribbean and the lake's western shore is only about 20 kilometers from the Pacific at the narrowest point. However, from a 21st-century standpoint, the Rio San Juan is hardly navigable (the rapids close to El Castillo cannot be passed by anything much bigger than a lancha), and the average depth of lake Nicaragua is less than 15 meters, much less than the displacement of many modern container-ships. However the dream has always remained in the national consciousness. It was somewhat of a perennial issue in national politics until the early 2010s when President Ortega signed a contract (later approved by the Sandinista-dominated national assembly) with a Chinese company to build the canal. Construction began in December 2014 (though the actual extent of the works undertaken is not entirely clear to the public). The contract includes an airport, two deep water seaports and a major tourist facility on the Pacific side. The project is very controversial domestically and abroad, so expect a lot of media coverage on the issue in years to come.
There are about 6.1 million Nicaragüenses (often shortened to Nicas) in Nicaragua. The majority of the population is mestizo (roughly 70%) and white (roughly 17%). Nicaraguan culture is heavily influenced both by European and by Amerindian customs and traditions with some African elements on the Caribbean coast. Most Nicas are monolingual speakers of Spanish and roughly 90% understand it, but other languages are (in descending order of speakers) Miskito, Creole English, English, Chinese and Sumo. The biggest minorities all live on the Caribbean side of the country and include the Miskito (indigenous, formerly an ally of the British), the Garifuna (of indigenous and African ancestry) and the Rama people. Some of them speak indigenous languages or Caribbean Creole English. To this day conflicts arise from people of mestizo origin moving to the East of the country and appropriating land where indigenous or afrodescendent people had lived or violently expulsing them. Immigrant communities are usually minor in size but the German-Nicaraguan community was economically important in the coffee business until Somoza expropriated them as a "war measure" in World War II (which Nicaragua "fought" on the allied side). Other immigrant communities include Chinese-Nicaraguans and Afro-Nicaraguans. Sizeable expat communities have arisen in cities like Granada, however, immigration was always and still is dwarfed by emigration.
Because of economic and political reasons many Nicaraguans have left their country in the last decades - primarily to the US and Costa Rica. About 500,000 to one million Nicaraguans now live and work in Costa Rica, not all of them legally, which has caused tensions both on a personal and on a diplomatic level between the two countries. The Nicaraguan diaspora in the US consists of both political emigres not unlike the Cuban population of Miami and economic migrants. However, unlike its neighbors emigration to the US is neither as prevalent nor as culturally dominant a phenomenon as the presence of Latinos in the US might indicate.
Units of measurement
Although Nicaragua officially uses the metric system, some customary Spanish units as well as some American units are commonly used in everyday parlance and even by vendors and the like. A common unit of distance is the "vara" which is often given in approximations for distances when giving directions. Though the actual length of a vara is said to be a yard, it can in actual use range somewhere between half a meter and more than one meter. If asking for directions or distances try asking how long one would walk there unless it is a long distance as most Nicaraguans don't own cars and are thus not all that familiar with estimating large distances.
A common unit for volume is the American fluid ounce and beer is often sold in 12-oz bottles (354ml, sometimes "metricized" as 355ml). If you see 12 oz and a price quote (or "doce onzas") it usually refers to the beer bottle of that quantity. Gallons are also sometimes used for large amounts of water. For more on American units see Metric and Imperial equivalents.
Weight is preferably measured in (imperial) pounds, roughly equal to 450 grams (and not metricized as 500 grams). Other units are the large quintal and arroba that are used for the price of commodities like sugar and coffee as quoted in newspapers.
Citizens of the following countries/territories can enter Nicaragua without a visa: Andorra, Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, Austria, Bahamas, Bahrain, Barbados, Belgium, Belize, Brazil, Brunei, Bulgaria, Canada, Costa Rica, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, El Salvador, Estonia, Eswatini, Falkland Islands, Finland, France, Germany, Gibraltar, Greece, Guatemala, Holy See, Honduras, Hong Kong, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Kuwait, Latvia, Lithuania, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Macao, Madagascar, Malaysia, Malta, Marshall Islands, Mexico, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, North Macedonia, Norway, Paraguay, Panama, Poland, Portugal, Qatar, Saint Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, San Marino, Singapore, Slovakia, Solomon Islands, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha, Sweden, Slovenia, Switzerland, Taiwan, Turkey, Trinidad and Tobago, Tuvalu, United Kingdom, United States, Vanuatu, the Vatican City (Holy See) and Venezuela.
Visitors must obtain a Tourist Card for US$10 valid for 1 month to 3 months (depending on citizenship - Canada and USA are allowed 90 days) upon arrival, provided with a valid passport with at least six months to run. (Citizens of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras are exempt from the Tourist card requirement.)
There is also a US$32 departure tax which is included in airfares with major airlines (American Airlines, Copa Airlines and Avianca definitely). The tourist card is valid in the other CA-4 countries, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, although it sometimes requires a discussion with immigration officials that this accord is in effect, since they are quite compelled to sell more tourist cards.
Getting into Nicaragua - especially for foreigners from rich western countries - used to be a breeze, but in the course of the April 2018 protests, the government seems intent on trying to weed out something or somebody among the entering tourist stream, even though it has thinned to a trickle. It appears that anti-government social media posts and/or any hint of you being a journalist could get you delayed at the border or denied entry altogether. In general, checks are more thorough than they were even 2014 and now include a retina scan to compare with your passport data. You'll also be asked your profession and travel plans.
You will most likely fly into Augusto C Sandino airport in Managua (MGA IATA). Flights from the U.S. arrive from Houston, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and Atlanta. Managua is served among others by American Airlines, United, Avianca, Delta, Spirit, Aeroméxico, and Nature Air (from SJO). In addition to domestic flights within Nicaragua la costeña also flies from Tegucigalpa to Managua.
If your intended destination in Nicaragua is in the Rio San Juan region or Southwestern Nicaragua, or if you find a flight that is more favorable to you in some other way, it may make sense to fly to Liberia LIR IATA or San José SJO IATA airport (which is in Alajuela) in Costa Rica instead. Costa Rica is not part of the CA4, and you will pass through immigration both at the airport and when entering Nicaragua. As San José is served from more destinations outside the United States, this might also make sense if you intend to avoid travel through the United States. If you or someone in your party is a Nicaraguan citizen, do remember to get a multiple entry visa for Costa Rica.
There is an entrance fee to enter the country of US$10, payable in either US dollars or córdobas (C$). Try to have exact change.
Tourist cards are valid for three months for US citizens, and for people from the EU and Canada. There are taxis right outside the airport; however, they are relatively expensive (US$25 for the 20 km trip to downtown Managua). Alternatively, you can walk out to the road and try to flag down a regular cab. Some taxi drivers may try to overcharge, particularly seeing a foreign face, and may start with US$20, but a price around US$5–10 or C$125 - 250 (Nicaraguan cordobas) is appropriate from the airport (depending on the number of people and amount of luggage). Knowledge of the Spanish language is very helpful when haggling with taxis. You can also arrange a shuttle pickup to take you to nearby cities like Granada, a popular option for tourists who do not want to spend a night in Managua. It is recommended to have your hotel or language school arrange a shuttle when possible.
Talks are underway to start international flights to the small airport on Ometepe, which opened in 2014; as of early 2017 however, nothing had come of it. So don't hold your breath.
There are, as of 2015, no regular scheduled international flights to any other airports in the country, although some might be able to accommodate general aviation.
Almost all rental car contracts do not allow you to take your car across the border. If you want to take your own car across the border, it can be done; however, it requires planning and a bit of bureaucracy, as the government tightly controls the used car market and doesn't want you to sell it without paying the proper fees and tariffs. See Carnet de Passage for crossing borders in cars
There are two border crossings to Costa Rica: Peñas Blancas west of Lake Nicaragua, and Los Chiles/San Carlos east of it. While the San Carlos crossing had long been boat only, the bridge opened in 2015 and it is now possible to cross the border by car on the Eastern side of Lake Nicaragua. Peñas Blancas has been the by far busier crossing but the opening of the bridge and the rising touristic profile of the Rio San Juan region might change that. Keep in mind that both border crossings are major bottlenecks for trade between Nicaragua and Costa Rica and there will be quite a few trucks waiting to cross. For the time being the boat route from San Carlos to Los Chiles remains open albeit with more limited departures than in the days of it being the only possible crossing.
There are three major border crossings to Honduras. Las Manos is on the shortest route to Tegucigalpa; the others ones are on the Panamerican Highway north of Leon.
There is a US$12 border crossing fee (usually payable in dollars, cordobas or the currency of the adjacent country). This fee is usually also collected even if you already have a CA-4 visa, though there is no new visa included. The "visa run" to get a new 90 days on your legal stay is thus only possible when going to Costa Rica and it's largely at the discretion of the border officials whether they grant you the twelfth 90-day visa in a row.
International buses are available between Managua and San Jose, Costa Rica (also stopping briefly in Rivas and Granada), San Salvador, El Salvador (stopping briefly in Leon), and Honduras. Some buses will continue to Panama City or Guatemala City. The buses are relatively modern (many have air conditioning), and make stops for fuel and food along the way. However, if you plan on taking this form of transportation, you should plan ahead: buses between the major cities can fill up days ahead of departure dates. See the following companies: Tica Bus and King Quality. Another option is to be picked up in the smaller cities along the route; ask for the local ticket office. There are also cheap (but terribly uncomfortable) "chicken buses" a few times a week between Managua and Guatemala City (US$20), that stop in major cities like Leon.
An alternative way to travel across the border is take a bus to/from a major city that drops you off at the border. You can then cross the border and board another bus. This is a common strategy for travelers, especially on the Costa Rican/Nicaraguan border. This method takes longer, but is much cheaper and can be done on a moment's notice.
When crossing the border from Choluteca, Honduras to Guasaule, Nicaragua, don't be intimidated by the men fighting over your luggage. They will want to take you by bicycle over the border to the bus stop on the other side. Often, if you ask for a price for the ride, they will insist it's for a "tip" or "propina". It's not until you reach the other side that they will try to pressure you into paying US$20 or more. Negotiate with them before you agree to a ride, and if they still pressure you at the end, just give them what you think is fair and walk away.
This border crossing is also your last chance to exchange your Lempiras for Cordobas, and it's best to know what the exchange rate is so that you can bargain for a fair rate.
Most buses coming from the south enter Nicaragua at Peñas Blancas. There are air conditioned, relatively modern buses from the same companies as for the connection to Honduras; alternatively, you could get on a local bus to the border, cross it on foot, and take a bus or taxi from there. Please remember that the border is the last point to get rid of your Colones, as almost nobody in Nicaragua proper accepts them; if they do, it is only with horrible exchange rates.
Since the bridge across the Rio San Juan opened there have been a few buses doing the Los Chiles (Costa Rica) - San Carlos (Nicaragua) crossing, but overall the hoped for tourism boom has not occurred and most buses are local. There are buses to Los Chiles both direct from San José (Costa Rica) and with a change at Ciudad Quesada (confusingly also known as "San Carlos" among Ticos) and from there you can change to a local bus across the border. As this can be a bit cumbersome, you're probably not going to use that route unless you wish to see the Rio San Juan Region.
Apart from cruises there are also the following options
With the opening of the new bridge across the Rio San Juan, the erstwhile boat route via the Rio Frio between Los Chiles (Costa Rica) and San Carlos (Nicaragua) no longer sees any scheduled service which is a shame since the trip is quite scenic and the Nicaraguan border guards at San Carlos' lake border used to be quite a bit more relaxed than those at land or air borders.
Reportedly a new regular passenger-ferry now connects La Union (El Salvador) with Corinto, Nicaragua.
There are no passenger rail lines between Nicaragua and its neighbors. In fact, you'd be hard pressed to find any train in Nicaragua, as the national railway was closed in 1994, and literally sold for scrap soon thereafter. (The situation isn't much better in other parts of Central America either for that matter.) Talks of ever starting a railway again - whether local or national, whether freight only or for passengers as well - are inconclusive and never get above newspaper articles or speculation by mid-level or retired politicians.
Bus is definitely the main mode of travel in Nicaragua, and a great way to get to know the country's geography, people and even some culture (music, snack food, dress, manners). Most of the buses are old decommissioned yellow US school buses (though often fantastically repainted and redecorated). Expect these buses to be packed full, and your luggage (if large) may be stored at the back or on the top of the bus (along with bicycles and other large items). You'd better be quick or you may be standing most of the trip or sitting on a bag of beans. On most routes you can purchase your ticket a day or so in advance which will guarantee you a (numbered) seat (look for the number on your ticket and above the windows respectively). Some have not replaced the original seats meant to carry 7-year-olds, so you may have sore knees by the end of the trip. People often sell snacks and drinks on the buses (or through the windows) before they depart or at quick stops. A typical fare may vary between US$1 or less for short (~30min) trips to US$3–4 for longer trips.
Buses in Nicaragua are usually operated by a two-person crew. Besides the driver, on each bus there is usually a younger "assistant" manning the front door; he announces stops, collects fares, and helps passengers to board (often paying particular attention to pretty female passengers). There used to be prepaid cards for buses in Managua, but the equipment was retired in early October 2018.
Most cities in Nicaragua have one main bus terminal for long distance buses. Managua has numerous terminals, each serving a different region of the country depending upon its geographic placement in Managua. Mercado Israel Levites, in the western part of the city, serves cities on the Pacific Coast to the north, e.g. Leon, Chinandega and all points in between. Mercado Mayoreo on the eastern side of the city serves points east, north and southeast, like Matagalpa Rama or San Carlos, Rio San Juan. Mercado Huembes in the southern part of Managua serves points south, like Rivas/San Jorge and Peñas Blancas.
Another method of traveling cross country are minibuses ("microbuses" as they are called). These are essentially vans, holding up to 15 people (some may be larger, shuttle sized). Minibuses have regular routes between Managua and frequently travel to relatively nearby cities like Granada, Leon, Masaya, Jinotepe and Chinandega. Most of these leave from and return to the small roadside microbus terminal across the street from the Universidad Centoamericana (and thus the buses and terminal are known as "los microbuses de la UCA"). Microbuses run all day into the late afternoon/early evening depending on destination, with shorter hours on Sunday, and a definite rush hour during the week as they service nearby cities from which many people commute to Managua. The microbuses cost a little more than the school buses, but are faster, making fewer stops. As with the school buses, expect these to be packed, arguably with even less space as drivers often pack more people than the vehicle was designed to handle. On the other hand, most drivers (and driver's helpers) are friendly and helpful, and will help you store your baggage. They run to the main bus terminals in Leon and Chinandega, to the Parque Central and Mercado de Artesanias (and then leave from another park a couple blocks from there) in Masaya, and to/from a park 1 block from the Parque Central in Granada. There is more limited microbus service to other cities out of their respective bus terminals in Managua.
At the international airport there are two offices right to the right of the main terminal, these offices house the domestic airlines. These are great if you want to get to the Atlantic Coast. Prices change but it takes 1.5 hours to get to the Corn Islands as opposed to a full day overland. If you are trying to save time, then this is the best way to get to the Corn Islands or anywhere on the Atlantic Coast. Destinations include San Carlos, Big Corn Island, Bluefields two of the three towns in the "mining triangle" and new services to Ometepe and San Juan del Norte (Greytown). Planes book out quickly and the allowed baggage is very limited so check whether the saved time is worth the cost and the hassle. For more see their website.
It is common for your bags to be searched prior to any boat trip. Rules on what can be in your luggage vary, but on the San Carlos - Ometepe - Granada boat alcoholic beverages are often confiscated upon boarding and handed back to you when you disembark.
Boat is the only way to get to the Solentinames and still the most popular way to get to Isla de Ometepe. High winds and bad weather can cancel ferry trips. That might not be such a bad thing, though, since windy/bad weather can make the ferry trip unpleasant for those prone to seasickness, and many of the boats used to access Ometepe are old, smaller ferries and launches. The fastest route to Ometepe leaves from San Jorge (10 minutes from Rivas and often connecting on the same Managua-Rivas bus) and goes to Moyogalpa. There is a large modern ferry from San Jorge that makes daily trips to the new port of San Jose del Sur close to Moyogalpa. The ferry from Altagracia to San Carlos has been "suspended" for what appears to be indefinite times.
Boat is also a practicable way to get to Big Corn Island. Take a bus to Rama, which is the end of the road. This road is in a good condition and the ride shouldn't be too bumpy. There is a weekly ship with bunk beds to the Corn Islands, and small launches to Bluefields and El Bluff multiple times a day. Or you can get on a speedboat to Bluefields or El Bluff. Catch the boat to the Corn Islands from there, or take a flight out of Bluefields. The first boat from Rama to Bluefields usually leaves at the crack of dawn and makes for a life affirming wet ride. Also, a large cargo boat takes two days returning from the Corn Islands to Rama with an overnight in El Bluff to take on cargo. There is now also a road (but don't expect much) from Rama to Pearl Lagoon, which can also be reached in a launch from Bluefields.
You should always clearly agree on a fare before entering the taxi. In most of the country there are flat rates within one city that double at night, but rates in Managua or beyond city limits depend mostly on your bargaining skills. That includes establishing whether you are talking about local currency or U.S. dollars and whether it is per person or for the whole party. Once you are in the taxi all your bargaining power is gone and there are no meters. The taxi drivers in Managua can be aggressive and there are loads so it is easy to find a fare that suits you. Taxis will take multiple fares if they are heading roughly in the same direction. Taxi drivers in all the cities are generally fair and well mannered and a nice way to see local scenery. For fares within smaller cities there is a set fare per person, so no negotiating is needed. In Managua the fare should be negotiated before getting into the taxi, and will increase depending on the number of passengers (in your party, not already in the taxi or getting in later) time of day (night is significantly more expensive) and location (going to or from a nice part of Managua may cost you a little more due to lowered bargaining power). The cheapest fare for one passenger is C$30 (2013), but the same route if you are a party of two may be C$40. A trip all the way across Managua during the day should not be more than about C$60–70 if not coming from or going to the airport. Tipping is not expected (though always welcomed). You can also split the cost of taxi to get to destinations that are close to Managua by like Masaya, if you should prefer to travel with modicum of comfort.
There have been increasing incidents of taxi crime in Managua. The most typical scenario is that an additional passenger enters the cab just a short distance from your pickup, they and the taxi driver take you in circles around town, take everything on you, and leave you in a random location typically far from where you were going. Check that the taxi has the license number painted on the side, that the taxi sign is on the roof, the light is on inside the taxi, and that the taxi operator license is clearly visible in the front seat. You may want to make a scene of having a friend seeing you off and writing down the license number. Care should be taken especially at night, when it may be best to have your hotel arrange a taxi.
You can book a taxi online through TaxiManagua. Fares within Managua start at US$20.
Some of the residents are known to travel on motorcycles, with multiple children with a mom on a single motorcycle in some cases. If you see such a thing on the roads, don't be surprised.
If you ride a motorcycle in Nicaragua, a helmet is required, and driving at night is very dangerous.
You can rent motorcycles at Nicaragua Motorcycles Adventures
Bikes are a great mode of transport in Nicaragua. They provide a free means of transport while allowing you to stop and see the country that normally would be driven right by. In more rural areas, Nicaraguans are very friendly and helpful, and the roadways, for the most part, allow for bicycles in the shoulders. As riders on horses are known to use the streets, most drivers will know how to deal with a bicycle, although the locals prefer motorcycles, if they can at all afford them. In big cities like Managua, the streets and side walks can be very unsafe for bicycles. Lanes are narrow and not meant for bicyclists. Roundabouts are also very difficult to navigate. Negotiating with traffic is almost impossible and typically best to wait for a clearing in traffic. Sidewalks are uneven and often have poles, potholes or other obstructions for effective riding.
As of 2016 bicycles (fairly similar to cheaper multi-speed US models sold in the US, such as Huffy) are widely used by both urban and rural Nicaraguans; spare parts (tires, inner tubes, pedals) and repair services are available in most towns, even small ones, although sometimes you need to ask around to find them. (e.g., the town's only bike repairman may be working out of his backyard, with no sign on the street). At any rate, knowing how to repair basic defects comes highly recommended, especially if you intend to make overland trips. If you don't already have a bike, cheap bicycles can be bought in most towns of any size, even more remote ones like San Carlos. In cities like Leon or Granada almost every hostel (and a few independent operators) has bike rental for ten dollars a day or less.
Managua now boasts a twice monthly critical mass ride (Facebook link in Spanish). Every first and third Sunday starting at 15:30 at Plaza Cuba in Managua. In other cities bike advocacy is still in its infancy but car traffic is not as heavy and you should have no major problems getting around on a bike.
Hitchhiking is common in more rural areas and small towns, but not recommended in Managua. Nicaraguans themselves usually only travel in the backs of trucks, not inside of a vehicle, when they are traveling with a group of people (3 or more). Some drivers may ask for a little money for bringing you along - Nicaraguans see this as being cheap, but will usually pay the small amount (US$1/person).
Roads on the Pacific Coast are generally speaking in an acceptable condition, though the rains at the beginning of the rainy season can hit roads in Managua paved with cobblestone particularly hard. Roads on the Atlantic side are an entirely different story. There are few paved roads and dirt roads can become impassable during the rainy season. Bring patience and spare tires and plan on taking longer than you would on the Pacific side. City driving is not a good idea in any of the cities, though you have few alternatives to driving in Managua, due to sprawling car-centric layout. If you can, hire a driver or take taxis. Buses are an option for getting around Managua, but only during the daytime. Cities like Granada or León are much more walkable and you should ditch the car rather than trying to navigate the somewhat confusing network of one-way streets.
There are no tolls in Nicaragua and as of October 2016 diesel hovers above C$20 while gasoline (distinguished by octane count into regular and super) costs C$25-30. So compared to the US or Mexico gas at roughly US$4 a gallon can be considered expensive, but it is significantly cheaper than in most of Europe.
There is a general speed limit of 100 km/h on freeways that you really should not exceed, as cows and horses roam the streets as if they owned the place. Inside of cities there is a 45 km/h speed limit and on all other roads it's 60 km/h. Police have a particular skill in filtering out rental cars to collect "fines" from tourists, so drive defensively and within speed limits. The normal procedure for traffic fines is for the cop to collect your licence handing you a ticket, which you take to a bank to pay the fine. The bank will give you a receipt with which you can pick up your license later. However, far from every police officer will follow this standard procedure every time and should you be in a hurry, they are likely able to accommodate you by allowing you to pay on the spot. Haggling about fines does happen, and if your licence has been taken by a police officer you may sometimes get around paying the fine by convincingly arguing your case at the police station.
A particular quirk of the Nicaraguan laws of the road is that you absolutely must not move your car a single inch after you were in an accident. If you do, you will be saddled with full legal liability for all damages. Wait until the police arrive and ask for permission to move your car if you have to. Should you be unfortunate enough to get into an accident resulting in major injury or death, you will be taken into custody until everything is cleared up. In most cases the easiest way out is to take a plea - deal, though you should talk to an attorney first if that happens to you.
Nicaragua has a lot of roundabouts (rotondas) and they serve as local landmarks in Managua. Changing the lane inside a roundabout or shortly before one is illegal and will be fined, especially if you're driving a rental.
Most country's drivers licenses are accepted for up to 30 days. If you intend to stay and drive longer, you would have to get a Nicaraguan driver's license which is only available to citizens and legal residents.
¿Qué onda chele?
Nicaraguans, like many of their peers around Latin America are a lot more informal than any Spanish you might have learned from a book or an overly formal teacher. Slang and nicknames are the name of the game and some of them are only understandable if you take their meaning ironically while others are derived from indigenous languages once or still common in the area. While some Spanish and Mexican terms may be known due to TV, Nicaraguan slang relies on a lot of words that will draw blank stares in many other parts of the Hispanosphere or will have a totally different meaning. Common terms thrown around with abandon are "chele" for "white guy" or "foreigner" which is apparently derived from leche - milk. The female form is "chela". "Tuaní(s)" is a word signaling how cool something is and one possible etymology links it to "too nice". "Broder", most likely derived from "brother" is a term used to refer to a male friend. While "onda" literally means "wave", "que onda" can be translated as "what's up?" In general, Nicaraguans tend to be rather irreverent and use terms that would be considered politically incorrect or impolite in many other places. Former Managua mayor and President Arnoldo Aleman for instance was (affectionately) known as "El Gordo" - the fat man - during his tenure as mayor and even seemingly offensive nicknames like "chinito" (East Asian looking person; literally "little Chinese") are meant innocently and usually derived from outward appearance. "Chigüin" may affectionately refer to ones child or to a little boy on general and it also referred to the heir apparent of the last Somoza, Anastasio Somoza Portocarrero, son of President and Head of the National Guard, Anastasio Somoza Debayle and his wife Hope Portocarrero, who was and to some extent still is known as "El Chigüin". Another common thread is irony, like calling a fat man "flaco" (skinny guy) or a dark-skinned person "chele". Do tread lightly trying to use slang yourself, especially towards older people or people acting in their formal capacity (police, soldiers, border agents, etc.), but trying to get a grasp on the most common slang will make your stay much more enjoyable and might even endear you to your hosts.
Spanish is Nicaragua's official language. Do not expect to find much English spoken outside of the larger and more expensive hotels. Creole English (think Jamaican patois to get a first approximation) and indigenous languages are spoken along the Caribbean coast, and in the inland of the remote Bosawas national park (in the east of the country, thus the Caribbean in Managua parlance). Nicaraguans tend to leave out the s at the end of Spanish words, usually replacing it with an "h" sound (j in Spanish). Thus "dale pues" ("alright then", a common term when wrapping up a conversation) becomes "dale pueh". "Vos" is typically used instead of "tú", something that is common throughout Central America. However, "tú" is understood by native Nicaraguans as it shows up a lot in media, songs and books. For a handful of verbs, the "vos" form differs from what would be the "tú" form but you really needn't worry about such nuances. As in most Latin American countries, the plural form "vosotros" is almost unheard of outside of the Bible. When addressing a group, "ustedes" is the preferred form. Unlike modern English, Spanish distinguishes between different levels of formality through pronouns and verb forms - to be on the safe side use "usted" (the polite form) unless specifically told otherwise. Usted takes third person verb forms.
Nicaraguans, especially poorer people in more rural areas, sometimes spell words phonetically rather than the way they appear in a dictionary. This might include signs for small shops. Reading the sign out loud often helps making sense of it.
Nicaraguans like to call their country the country of lakes and volcanoes. Some of the most noteworthy volcanoes include:
- Volcán Concepción and Maderas on Ometepe
- Volcán Mombacho near Granada
- Volcán Masaya near Masaya. If it is not considered too dangerous you can drive up by car.
- Volcán Cosigüina that used to be one of the highest in the region but exploded in the 19th century, dotting the Golfo de Fonseca between Nicaragua and El Salvador with many small islets made out of its debris.
Other sights include:
- Wildlife on Ometepe or in the protected areas of Indio-Maiz (southeast, Rio San Juan Region) and Bosawas (northeast, Caribbean Nicaragua)
- Churches en masse especially in León (with one of the biggest churches of central America) and Granada
- Lake-panoramas and sunsets along the shores of Lake Nicaragua (Cocibolca)
- Museums and murals dedicated to the country's revolutionary past and its civil war (especially in Sandinista-strongholds such as León or Estelí)
Thankfully, Nicaragua retains much more colonial era architecture than its southern neighbor, and if you are coming from the south, places like Granada or León can be a breath of fresh air, compared to the rather bland modernist architecture you'll find there.
There is an endless selection of things to do in Nicaragua, but some of the most overlooked are the fiestas patronales or Saint Festivals that happen nearly every day in some town or village in the country. Participating in the fiestas patronales is a great way to really experience the culture of Nicaragua, and such customs such as the dance of the Gigantona and the Los Aguizotes parade are truly unforgettable to see. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to determine what is going on and when. After April 2018, the Catholic churches have stopped sponsoring fiestas patronales, replacing them with prayer meetings inside the churches. The government is now organizing fiestas patronales.
Exchange rates for Nicaraguan córdobas
As of January 2020:
Exchange rates fluctuate. Current rates for these and other currencies are available from XE.com
If you are entering Nicaragua by land, get rid of those Honduran lempiras and Costa Rican colones as they are hard to exchange away from the border.
The national currency is called the córdoba oro (ISO code NIO, locally abbreviated as C$), known locally as peso, simply "cordoba" or vara(s), among other designations. Peace corps volunteers and expats sometimes say "cords" but Nicaraguans don't use that word.
The currency is devalued by 5% every year compared to the US dollar in what could be considered a sliding peg with built-in inflation. The córdoba thus traces and tracks the movements of the US dollar in its exchange rates to other currencies.
Most places accept US dollars (albeit sometimes at less than face value) but you will often get change in córdoba oro. Córdobas are essential when paying bus fares taxis, small meals and other daily purchases, try and have somewhere around C$500 in small bills on you at all times. Nearly all banks exchange US dollars to córdobas but lines are often long, and you may have to use your credit card to get money rather than your bank card. Make sure you bring your passport when exchanging money. All ATMs give out local currency and most can dispense US dollars too. Make sure that the ATM you're using is part of one of the networks listed on the back of your bank card. Though you may be able to find some ATMs that work on the MasterCard/Cirrus system, most will use only the Visa/Plus system. In many cases an ATM is in its own air conditioned (read: freezingly cold) mini-room with a door that you can close. You should opt for those over others, because the door is usually non-transparent thus protecting your data from prying eyes. It can sometimes be difficult to get change for a C$1000 or C$500 note as well as for a US$20 note. US$100 and US$50 notes are often not accepted at all except by banks; so if you are traveling from the USA (or another US$-using country), it is advisable to bring the bulk of your money in US$20 bills, with an ample supply of $5 and $1 bills as well (for places that quote the price in US$, but claim to have no small US bills to give change).
Cordobas come in bills from 1000 to 10 and in coins from 10 (rare) to 0.10 (10 centavos) but coins smaller than one cordoba are mostly just used to make change in supermarkets and can often be found lying around on the street. All coins except the 25 centavos and the C$10 piece are silvery in color and bills are either made from paper (C$500 and C$1000) or polymer (plastic; all other bills including the C$200) with both somewhat more likely to tear than US dollars or euros. Bills can be distinguished by their color and by their size, and higher value bills are larger than smaller value bills. It is not uncommon to find marks or damages on bills and this will usually not be a problem with córdobas, but dollars may be refused if they aren't in pristine condition.
Euros (banknotes only) are exchanged only at banks and the exchange rate is much worse than what you would get exchanging US dollars. If you come from a European country it would be easiest to make sure to have a bank account that allows to withdraw money in Nicaragua cheaply or for free.
In case you need currency exchange when the banks are closed or you want to exchange currencies that the bank won't exchange, there are private money changers known as "cambistas" or "coyotes". While most of them are honest and belong to cooperatives that have an eye on their honesty, there are some dishonest money-changers that try to pass of 1980s córdobas as genuine currency or are otherwise out to trick you. Keep the exchange rate in mind, do your own calculations (manipulated calculators have happened) to double check theirs and don't hand your money over before you had a good look at the currency you are about to receive. Money changers can be found at most border crossings and in Managua at the Huembes market and the La Colonia supermarket at Plaza España. During the opening hours of the banks they often offer better rates and shorter waiting times, but it is your judgment call whether you deem it worth the risk. To minimize risks, try getting your money in small bills, which also makes it easier to make change.
Most modern stores, especially Texaco (Star Mart), Esso (On The Run), La Union (supermarket owned by Wal-Mart) will take US currency, often at a slightly better exchange rate than banks or "cambistas" on the streets (make sure to look for cambistas' ID badges), with change in córdobas. Limit the bills to US$20 for best success. Cambistas have no problem with US$50 and US$100 bills. They won't accept euros, Canadian money, or traveller's cheques. There is a currency exchange right at the airport but rates are - as usual - abysmal and you are rather advised to look for an ATM in the airport (there should be several) and withdraw Cordobas there.
US and international credit cards are accepted in major store chains (Palí, La Colonia, La Unión). Many hotels accept credit cards as well; but, especially in remote areas, you'll often be charged a 4-6% surcharge for paying your bills with a credit card.
If you are going to take one thing home from Nicaragua it should be a hammock. Nicaraguan hammocks are among the best made and most comfortable ever. The really good ones are made in Masaya, ask a taxi to take you to the fabrica de hamacas, the mercado viejo or the mercado nuevo. You will find the most variety and best prices in Masaya. A simple one person hammock should cost under US$20. Hammocks are also sold in the Huembes market in Managua, which has the only large local goods and arts and crafts section in Managua.
Nicaragua also produces excellent, highly awarded rum called Flor de Caña. This is the most common liquor drunk in Nicaragua. Those aged 5 (go for Extra Light over Extra Dry or Etiqueta Negra) and particularly 7 years (Gran Reserva) are a great buy for the money - about US$4–6 a bottle. Buy in the local stores as the prices at the duty-free airport shops are higher. Gran Reserva is the best value based on price and quality.
A trip to the artesan towns of the "Pueblos Blancos" is the most rewarding way to shop for local arts and crafts. The best and easiest location for tourists to buy artesan items is in the craft market in Masaya. There is a similar market with the same products (from a lot of the same vendors) in Mercado Huembes in Managua with slightly higher prices than in the market in Masaya. 10 minutes from Masaya, 30 minutes from Granada and 40 minutes from Managua, these towns are the arts and crafts center of Nicaragua. Catarina is home to dozens of nurseries with plants as diverse as this lush tropical country can produce, and also boasts a beautiful view over the Laguna de Apoyo (volcanic crater lake) where you can enjoy the view from numerous restaurants. San Juan del Oriente is the center of pottery production. You can find dozens of mom and pop studios and stores, meet the artisans and choose from a dazzling and creative array of vases, bowls and other ceramic items. Some of the best shops with more original designs are a few blocks into town off the main highway. Finally, Masatepe is known for its furniture—particularly wicker and wood, and with a special focus on rocking chairs, the favorite Nicaraguan chair. Although you might not be able take any rocking chairs or ferns home with you on the plane, it is definitely worth "window" shopping in these picturesque towns. You can also find San Juan del Oriente pottery, Masatepe furniture and other arts and crafts in Masaya, Mercado Huembes in Managua, and in the streets of Granada, Leon and other places visited by tourists. Remember to bargain. Although you may be a tourist, you can still bargain.
Shopping to Western standards is found mainly in Managua in shopping centers, the largest being Centro Comercial Managua, There is also the modern MetroCentro near the rotonda Ruben Dario. There are smaller and inferior malls at Plaza Inter and in Bello Horizonte at Plaza Las Americas. The fanciest shopping center, with a large food court and restaurants, is Galerías Santo Domingo, located at Carretera Masaya at about Kilometer 6.
Shopping like the locals takes place at the mercados, or public markets. The largest (and must be one of the largest in the Americas) is Managua's Mercado Oriental. This market contains everything in individual stores or stalls from food to clothes to home electronics. Mercado Oriental is one of the most dangerous locations for tourists in the city. If you go, take only the cash you want to spend. No wallets, watches or jewelry and if you take a cell phone, take it in your pocket not visible to others. It is best to go with a local or better yet a group of locals.
Less frightening, safer and with a similar selection is Mercado Huembes. It is smaller and more open (less difficult to get trapped in a dark isolated passage). This market has the aforementioned Masaya artisan crafts at higher than Masaya prices. There are a few other markets similar in nature, smaller in size, farther away from the beaten track and not worth looking for due to lack of safety and less goods at higher prices.
The small balsa-wooden figurines that you can buy at many places are produced on the Solentiname islands where you can watch as they are made and can probably arrange to have one custom made for you. A lot of the people on the Solentiname archipelago also paint and some sell their paintings directly out of their homes or at the markets of Managua, Masaya and other big cities.
Taxes and tips
Nicaragua has a national sales tax (or rather value added tax) of 15% that is called Impuesto al valor agregado and almost universally abbreviated IVA. Most small shops operating cash only will not charge it and most supermarkets will quote all prices including tax. However, it is common for restaurants to quote prices without tax and this is legal as long as the disclaimer "Los precios no incluyen IVA" is printed somewhere onto the menu (often in small print). Tips are common only in midrange and upscale restaurants and are frequently added onto the bill under the heading "propina voluntaria" (voluntary tip) usually of 10%. While you might in theory refuse to pay this "voluntary" tip, it is a good idea to pay it if there is even a slight chance of you ever showing up in the same restaurant again. There is however no need to tip more than that. Tip and tax together can add 25% to the quoted price in any restaurant, so be aware of that before you order. In most other fields the quoted price will be the final price but taxi drivers (who are bound by law to flat fares inside all cities except Managua) tour guides and hotel staff certainly appreciate a tip and will remember your tip on the next encounter.
Nicaraguan food is very cheap for Western standards. A plate of food from the street will cost C$30-70. A typical dinner will consist of meat, rice, beans, salad (i.e. coleslaw) and some fried plantains, costing under US$3. Buffet-style restaurants/stalls called "fritanga" are very common, quality varies quite a bit. A lot of the food is fried in oil (vegetable or lard). It is possible to eat vegetarian: the most common dish is gallo pinto (beans and rice), and most places serve cheese (fried or fresh), fried plantains and cabbage salad. There are a 'few' vegetable dishes such as guiso de papas, pipián o ayote—a buttery creamy stew of potato, zucchini or squash; guacamole nica made with hard-boiled eggs, breaded pipian (zucchini), and various fried fritters of potatoes, cheese and other vegetables. However, the very concept of vegetarianism is unknown to the majority of Nicaraguans, especially in the countryside, and saying you "don't eat meat" may get people to offer you chicken instead, which is considered distinct from "meat" (pork or beef).
If you like meat, grilled chicken and beef is delicious, the beef is usually good quality but often cooked tough. Also try the nacatamales, a traditional Sunday food, that is essentially a large tamal made with pork or beef and other seasonings, wrapped in a banana leaf and tied with a banana-leaf string (C$35-40). People who make them often sell them from their homes on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays; watch for signs that say, "Hay nacatamales" ("We've got nacatamales"),
Indio Viejo is a corn meal (masa) based dished made with either shredded chicken or beef and flavored with mint. The typical condiment is "chilero" a cured onion and chile mixture of varying spiciness depending on the cook. Nicaraguan food is not known for being spicy, though either chilero or hot sauce is almost always available (but be prepared for strange looks if you use them extensively).
While nowhere near as omnipresent as in neighboring Costa Rica, salsa Lizano (a kind of Worcestershire-like sauce) can usually be had with your meal and is sold in most supermarkets. Soy sauce (salsa china) and Worcestershire sauce (salsa inglesa) are commonly sold in supermarkets as well. If they don't have it, just ask.
The typical Nicaraguan diet includes rice, small red beans, and either fish or meat. Nicaraguans pride themselves for their famous gallo pinto that is a well-balanced mix of rice and beans and is usually served during breakfast.
Nicaraguan tortillas are made from corn flour and are thick, almost resembling a pita. One common dish is quesillo: a string of mozzarella-type cheese with pickled onion, a watery sour cream, and a little salt all wrapped in a thick tortilla. It can be found on street corners or in the baskets of women who walk around shouting "Quesiiiiiillo". The most famous quesillos come from the side of the highway between Managua and Leon in Nagarote (they also serve a local drink, tiste) and La Paz Centro. The best selection of cheeses, from quesillo to cuajada, is in Chontales.
A typical dish found for sale in the street and in restaurants is Vigoron, consisting of pork grind, yuca and cabbage salad, chilis can be added to taste.
Fritangas (mid to large street side food vendors and grills that usually have seats and are found in most residential neighborhoods) typically sell grilled chicken, beef and pork and fried foods. They also commonly sell "tacos" and "enchiladas" that can be delicious but have very little in common with their 2nd cousins-once-removed in Mexico. Tacos are made with either chicken or beef rolled up in a tortilla and deep fried, served with cabbage salad, cream, sometimes ketchup or a homemade tomato sauce, and chile on the side. "Enchiladas" don't have anything enchiloso about them (not spicy). They are a tortilla filled with a beef and rice mixture, folded in half to enclose the mixture, covered in deep fry batter and then yes, deep fried. They are served similarly to tacos.
One alternative to the fried offering in the typical menu is carne en baho. This is a combination of beef, yucca, sweet potato, potato and other ingredients steamed in plantain leaves for several hours.
One typical dessert is Tres Leches which is a soft spongy cake that combines three varieties of milk (condensed, evaporated and fresh, hence the name) for a sweet concoction. Your diet expert and your dentist will hate it, but as it is typically only eaten at special occasions, it is okay to indulge once in a while.
On the Caribbean coast you can have pretty much anything "de coco" (with or made out of coconut) try pan de coco (coconut bread)or gallo pinto with coconut. A famous delicacy of the Caribbean coast is rundown (sometimes spelled and pronounced ron-don) which consists of fish and some other ingredients cooked until the fish "runs down" as it takes a lot of time to prepare it should be ordered up to a day in advance and preferably for more than one person.
Plantains are a big part of the Nicaraguan diet. You will find it prepared in a variety of forms: fried (subdivided into maduros/sweet, tajadas/long thin fried chips, and tostones/smashed and twice fried), baked, boiled, with cream or cheese, as chips for a dip. Green bananas and guineo bananas are also boiled and eaten as side dishes. Ripe (yellow plantains) (platanas maduros) can be eaten fresh as well, also people don't seem to do it too often; they are less sweet, and have a more "substantial" taste than bananas.
Passion fruit (known in international Spanish as maracuya, and in Nicaragua more commonly as calala) is fairly common in Nicaragua. Nicaraguans seem to prefer to use them for making sweetened drinks (refrescos) etc, but they can be eaten fresh as well. They are especially good with ice cream or plain yogurt.
Most of oranges you'll see grown in Nicaraguans' yards are of a sour kind; almost as sour as a lemon, or sometimes even a bit bitter, they are not eaten, but are squeezed for juice. You can do it as well; squeeze the juice of 1-2 oranges (which will amount to a few tablespoons) into a cup, fill the rest of the cup with water, and some sugar to taste - and here's your cup of lemonade!
Mangoes grow on huge trees, and are harvested by means of mesh bags attached to long poles; sometimes people just hurl a few rocks into a tree to pick a few fruit to eat. During some parts of the year, or in some towns with little trade, you may not see any mangoes available for sale, but you may find a lot of them on the ground under roadside mango trees. If you take the trouble to pick some of those least damaged by the fall and pests, and to wash them, you may find them actually tastier than those on sale!
If you travel to Chinandega, ask the locals who sells "Tonqua" It is a great fruit that is candied in sugar and is only available in Chinandega. Most Nicaraguans outside of Chinandega do not know what Tonqua is. Tonqua is a Chinese word for a fruit, because tonqua is a plant that Chinese immigrants introduced to the Chinandega area.
Shopping for groceries
Nationwide supermarket chains include Palí (the cheapest and most crowded), La Union, and La Colonia (the most upscale one, with slightly higher prices and the widest selection of imported goods). A few Walmarts exist as well (mostly in Managua); in fact, Palí (and maybe some other chains too!) are owned by Walmart. Smaller towns, such as Ometepe's Moyogalpa and Altagracia, may only have smaller independent supermarkets.
Nicaragua being a small country, it appears that for most products most stores carry the same small set of brands. For example, in the dairy aisle you'll usually find Eskimo (a Nicaraguan national brand), and may also see some products by Parmalat (an international brand) and Dos Pinos (out of Costa Rica).
Local grocery stores (pulperias) are typically tiny; in smaller communities, they are no more than kiosks, or simply someone selling a few products from his living room. Often, no refrigerator or freezer is available in small stores; so milk is sold in UHT boxes, and cheese is very salty (to slow spoiling). Panaderias and pastelerias, where available, sell fresh bread and pastries.
Most cities have large markets, where all kind of produce, bread, cheese, and sweets can be found.
When buying packaged dairy products in supermarkets, pay attention to labels: some of them (sour cream, milk in plastic bags, sometimes ice cream) may be adulterated with vegetable fats.
Rum is the liquor of choice, though you will find some whiskey and vodka as well. The local brand of Rum is Flor de Caña and is available in several varieties: Light, Extra Dry, Black Label, Gran Reserva (aged 7 years), Centenario (aged 12 years) and a new top-of-the line 18 year old aged rum. There is also a cheaper rum called Ron Plata.
Local beers include Victoria, Toña, Premium, and Brahva. Victoria is the best quality of these, similar in flavor to mainstream European lagers, while the others have much lighter bodies with substantially less flavour, and are more like the palid mainstream US lagers. A new beer is "Victoria Frost" which is similarly light.
In the non-alcoholic arena you will find the usual soft drinks such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi Cola. Local drinks include pinolillo and cacao,which are delicious drinks from cocoa beans, corn and milk and usually some cinnamon, a thick cacao based drink; Milca, the first red soda in Nicaragua; and Rojita, a red soda that tastes similar to Inca Cola or "Red Pop" (if you're from Texas or the southern United States).
Nicaraguans drink a huge variety of natural fruit juices and beverages (jugos naturales which are usually pure juices, and (re)frescos naturales which are fresh fruit juices mixed with water and sugar). Popular are tamarind, cantelope, watermelon, hibiscus flower (flor de Jamaica), limeade, orange, grapefruit, dragon fruit, star fruit (usually mixed with orange), mango, papaya, pineapple, and countless others. "Liquados" or shakes of fruit and milk or water are also popular, most common are banana, mango or papaya with milk. Also common and very traditional are corn and grain based drinks like tiste, chicha (both corn), cebada (barley) and linaza (flaxseed). Most fresh drinks are around C$10–20. As in other parts of Central America, avoid juices made with water if you are not conditioned to untreated water, unless at a restaurant that uses purified water (in Spanish: agua purificada).
If you don't like ice (hielo) in your drink just say so otherwise you will be getting huge chunks of ice that may or may not be made from purified water and thus defeat the purpose of avoiding tap water by ordering coke.
A word on bottle deposits: while almost all plastic bottles and cans don't have a deposit, glass bottles do. In some small pulperias (family-owned mini-stores for everything) you may not be allowed to take a glass bottle with you unless you bring them an empty bottle in exchange. So either you will have to drink your coke there or they give you a small plastic bag with a straw to take the drink (but not the bottle) with you. Street vendors of home-made soft drinks ((re)frescos) would often have them in plastic bags as well; spiced vinegars are sold in markets in such bags too.
Accommodation can generally be had quite cheaply throughout Nicaragua. Options range from simple hammocks (US$2–3), to dorm rooms in hostels (US$5–9), to private double-bed ("matrimonial") rooms (US$10–35, depending on presence of TV, air-con and private shower room and WC). You will likely only find real luxury in major cities like Managua, León or Granada and in a very few resorts such as Montelimar (Somoza's old holiday residence) and even then prices almost never reach four figures.
High and low season are not as pronounced as in e.g. Costa Rica, but there is a pronounced spike in rates during semana santa (Easter week) which is the time of year most Nicaraguans take their vacation. Doubling and tripling of prices is not unheard of in e.g. San Juan del Sur during that time. There is another minor spike around Christmas / New Year's , but it isn't as pronounced. You can sometimes negotiate better rates during the rainy season, but don't count on it.
While Barrio Martha Quezada has typically been a budget destination for visitors to Managua due to its many inexpensive hotel options, it has become increasingly dangerous, especially for tourists, with robberies occurring in broad daylight. Unless you need to be in this area to catch an early morning bus from a nearby terminal, it is advisable to avoid Martha Quezada, particularly since it is far from what is termed the "new" centre of Managua. The area near the Tica Bus station has a reputation for being dangerous as well, and tourists may be well advised to take a cab directly to and from the station, even if the walk is short. Backpackers Inn near MetroCentro (5min by taxi from the UCA microbuses), Hotel San Luis in Colonia Centroamerica (5 min by taxi from Mercado Huembes bus terminal) are good budget options in safe neighbourhoods, as are numerous hotels of various prices in neighbourhoods around the new centre near Metrocentro and Caraterra Masaya (i.e. Altamira, Los Robles, Reparto San Juan).
Look for pensiones or huespedes or hospedajes as these are the cheapest sleeps costing under USD5. They are usually family owned and you'll be hanging out with mostly locals. Make sure you know when they lock their doors if you are going out at night. Hotels have more amenities but are more expensive. There are some backpacker hostels in Granada, San Juan del Sur, Isla Ometepe, Masaya, Managua, and Leon; otherwise, it's pensiones all the way.
Spanish schools and courses are available in most cities, especially Granada. Look for specific listings in local guides, or just inquire when you're there.
Schools offer homestay as an option. Living with a Spanish family helps to use your Spanish and you learn the culture as a bonus. The courses are usually 20 hours per week.
Employment opportunities for foreigners are limited. Since the country has a strongly agricultural and touristic economy, it can be difficult finding employment prospects. Other than that, doctors and engineers are always in short supply, though wages are no where near even the standards of some other countries in the region.
One job of particular interest to foreigners is teaching. If you are a native English speaker and have a bachelor's degree, you can teach at any major Nicaraguan university. The same also applies for other fields. Be aware, however, that courses and majors at Nicaraguan colleges and universities are limited. However, a degree can help you secure a good job and enough spending money during your stay. Instructors earn about US$500 a month and have plenty of free time to roam around. Opportunities have also become available for other languages, particularly romance languages. However, if you desire to teach a course other than English, it is best to consult with the university of your choice and see if they are willing and able to have you teach your course. If this is something you wish to do, you are advised to create a syllabus in advance. It can help you, the applicant, obtain the position faster and easier compared to not having any material at hand available.
Foreigners also enjoy volunteering. In Nicaragua, there are various opportunities for community service. Most of the organizations in Nicaragua can be used in obtaining community service hours for any organization or any college/university requirement. Look into organizations like the Fabretto Foundation. Abundance Farm, a small family-run farm in Carazo, accepts volunteers but screens them through email prior to arrival. It is a taste of the real Nicaragua and not for the faint at heart.
Nicaragua has an impressively dense network of hospitals, centros de salud and puestos de salud covering even remote areas. If you have appropriate medical knowledge, your help in one of those is certainly welcome, but you should be aware that supplies and anything that costs money are often severely lacking. Depending on your country of origin, you may also do (part of) your mandated practical studies in Nicaragua, but talk to your university before heading to Nicaragua.
- Nicaraguan Spanish has a distinction between "formal" and "informal" you. The formal form ("usted" for one person, "ustedes" for several people) is used with strangers, older people and higher-ranking people. The informal form ("tu" or "vos" with one person; "vosotros" for several people is hardly ever used outside of the bible, but still correct (mainland) Spanish, Nicaraguans would talk to a group using "ustedes") is used among peers and friends and after you have been explicitly offered to address someone informally.
- Don (for men) and Doña (for women) are a common term to politely address people with their given name. e.g. Don Ramon or Doña Maria. It can be loosely translated as Mr./Mrs.
- Nicaraguans are very conscious about their appearance and don't understand why "rich" tourists would go around in shabby clothes or unkempt. It's true a smile goes a long way, but in Nicaragua a shower with your smile goes an even longer way.
- While Nicaragua has a sizable irreligious minority and a growing (US-style) evangelical community, most people like their faith (usually Catholic) the way it is, thank you, and don't take too well to it being ridiculed or overt attempts at proselytizing.
- Men in shorts are not a common sight among Nicaraguans, and considering mosquito-risk, you should consider wearing pants or jeans
- Some Nicaraguan women bath with a t-shirt on top of their bathing-suit. While you don't have to do that, females going topless at the beach is certainly a no-no.
- It is common to be given nicknames by strangers based on your appearance. If you are visibly white, people will probably call you "chele" (from leche, milk). Nicknames such as "gorda" (fat lady), "flaco" (skinny man), or "negro" (black), are common and are not considered offensive.
- In a similar vein as the above, people might comment on your weight or, if they see you again after some time, on gains or losses in it. As weight is plain to see, they don't consider it an offensive topic to talk about. In fact it is sometimes even treated as a topic fit for small talk!
Nicaragua has made considerable strides in terms of providing police presence and order throughout the country. Crime is relatively low. However, starting in 2008, reports of low-level gang violence began coming in from Honduras and El Salvador. The National Nicaraguan Police have been successful in apprehending gang members and reducing organized crime.
Do not travel alone at night. Pay for a taxi to avoid being assaulted in dimly-lit areas. Tourists are advised to remain alert at all times in Managua. Although gang activity is not a major problem in Managua nor Nicaragua, caution should be exercised. Tourists are advised to travel in groups or with someone trusted who understands Spanish. There are local organizations that offer translator or guide services. One of them is Viva Spanish School Managua.
It is also advised that tourists refrain from using foreign currency in local transactions. It is best to have the local currency instead of having to convert with individuals on streets or non-tourist areas. Banks in Nicaragua require identification for any currency conversion transactions. Use ATMs that dispense the local currency. When using ATMs, follow precautions and be aware of your surroundings.
Buses can be extremely crowded and tight in terms of space. An overhead rack tends to be provided for the storage of bags and other items, but tourists are recommended to keep their bags at hand, in their sight, at all times and maybe to put a lock on your bag. A good idea is having a smaller bag for items you positively cannot afford to have stolen and never leave it out of sight.
Collective taxis are also risky as organized crime has flourished in this transportation sector because of fixed passengers. In other words, drivers already know who they pick up and thus can mug the one extra passenger. This crime, however, is not common. When riding taxis, tourists are strongly recommended to close their windows, as theft through an open window does occur in (frequent) Managua traffic jams and at red lights.
Although extensive demining operations have been conducted to clear rural areas of northern Nicaragua of landmines left from the civil war in the 1980s, visitors venturing off the main roads in these areas are cautioned that there is still the possibility of encountering landmines.
You will need a little bit of money to go over international borders. Nicaragua charges a border toll of US$10-13 (depending on the "administrative tax"). This is on top of a CA-4 visa that's good for crossing the borders between Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Under the treaty establishing that visa, the border guards are not supposed to check people with such a visa, but they do so anyhow and charge tolls, which they claim are border crossing visa fees.
Widespread protests against Ortega's government's attempt to reform social security laws broke out in April 2018 in every major city and department of the country - with violent clashes between protesters and police in the streets which resulted in more than 60 deaths, more than 400 injuries, and more than 200 arrests. Rioting, looting of stores, vandalism of property, and burning down of buildings occurred (especially at Managua and Leon), so tourists should avoid these protest areas and steer clear of large gatherings in urban centers. It is against Nicaraguan immigration law for foreigners to involve themselves in local politics
According to the U.S. State Department's Consular Sheet for Nicaragua, the tap water in Managua is safe to drink, but bottled water with chlorine is always the best choice. The water in Esteli is especially good as it comes from deep wells. Bottled water is readily available, with a gallon at a supermarket around an American dollar.
Given its tropical latitude, there are plenty of bugs flying about. Be sure to wear bug repellent containing DEET particularly if you head to more remote areas (Isla Ometepe, the Rio San Juan Region, or Caribbean Nicaragua).
Dengue fever is present in some areas and comes from a type of mosquito that flies mostly between dusk and dawn. Malaria is not of serious concern unless you are heading to the Caribbean coast or along the Rio San Juan east of San Carlos. You may be advised by a doctor to get Hepatitis A and typhoid vaccinations before heading to Nicaragua. These will substantially lower your odds of getting seriously ill from contaminated food or water, but they don't offer full protection, so you still need to be careful. Also, the Zika virus is known to be present in Nicaragua.
Even though there is a public health system and many public hospitals, these are terrible options for tourists apart from the gravest emergency and even then only until a private hospital can send an ambulance. However they can usually deal with minor problems just as well as any non-hospital doctor could and charge you nothing. There are several private hospitals, in order of quality from best to worst are Hospital Metropolitano Vivian Pellas at Carretera Masaya Km 10, Hospital Bautista, Hospital Militar near Plaza Inter and a few others.
Despite promoting medical tourism, these hospitals rarely have English speakers on staff for dealing with tourists. If you insist or someone with you does, you may get an English-speaking employee. It is still best to have some Spanish or attend with someone bilingual.
If you have a problem and Cruz Roja are called (the Nicaraguan Red Cross ambulance service) and you have money or insurance have them take you to one of the private hospitals in the order mentioned. They will probably ask you anyway, but specify the private hospital or call the hospital for their ambulance.
Private hospitals are much less expensive than in the United States: a private room with private nurse in 2009 at Metropolitano was US$119 per day. An MRI of the knee in 2010 was $300. Emergency surgery in 2008 in Bautista including surgeon, anesthesia, operating and recovery rooms and supplies was US$1,200 with the private room under US$100 after that.
Nicaragua Embassy Washington DC 1627 New Hampshire Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20009 (202) 939-6570
Nicaragua Consulate General Los Angeles 3550 Wilshire Blvd. Los Angeles, CA 90010. (213) 252-1174
See the article Managua for foreign embassies in the country.
Nicaragua maintains diplomatic relations with (and has an embassy of) the Republic of China (Taiwan), rather than the People's Republic of China (the mainland).
While most of the TV channels are owned by Ortega, his family or the government, the newspaper scene is much more diverse and it is here that you are most likely to see criticism of the government. Most newspapers also have an online edition and they can keep you up to date with what's going on in Nicaragua and the rest of Central America. While both La Prensa and El Nuevo Diario are focused on Managua to a ridiculous degree, they have semi-regular "tourism" sections that are well worth a read if you speak Spanish and they are rather cheap at C$7 a copy (C$10 in more remote areas like the Caribbean Coast or the Rio San Juan Region).
- La Prensa(in Spanish). Founded in 1926, La Prensa generally supports free market, neo-liberal economics and is largely pro-US. It is conservative on social issues. They loathe Ortega and everything he stands for and take (almost) any opportunity to say so.
- El Nuevo Diario(In Spanish). Its offices are in Managua. El Nuevo Diario was founded in 1980 by a breakaway group of employees of La Prensa. Its politics are to the left of .La Prensa.
- Hoy [dead link] is a Managua-based Spanish language tabloid style newspaper with less tradition than the two mentioned above and even more of a focus on traffic accidents, crime and the price of tomatoes at various markets in Managua. However given their target demographic, it might be easier to read if you aren't that sure of your Spanish. Hoy also has articles on places of touristic interest which can also be read on their website.
- El 19 Digital (in Spanish). This is the official outlet of the ruling Sandinistas and quite blatant in its political outlook. The place to go for speeches by Ortega and his Vice President/wife and if you want to know how they want to be seen by the world at large. They do however also have straight news, even though they are short on anything that could make Nicaragua or the Sandinistas look bad.
- The Right Side Guide [dead link] (In English). Everything you need to know about traveling and living on Nicaragua's Caribbean coast.