The Ins And Outs Of Traveling in Nicaragua
So, you’ve decided you’d like to travel to Nicaragua? Maybe you’re looking to get away from the cold for a week or two and check out a different culture. Or maybe you’re scouting Nicaragua out because it’s on a short list of places to spend your retirement in one day. Whatever your reason for traveling to Nicaragua, you’ll want to make the most of your trip.
Nicaragua is the largest country in Central America, but it’s the least-touristed. For the moment, anyway. Savvy travelers have started setting aside any preconceptions they may have had about revolutions and earthquakes and are discovering one of most geographically diverse countries in the region at rock-bottom prices.
Getting to Nicaragua
Nicaragua’s main international airport is the newly refurbished Augusto Sandino airport in Managua. Direct flights from the United States go through Atlanta, Miami or Houston on Delta, American and United respectively. Spirit Airlines also serves Managua, as do major Latin American carriers such as TACA, Copa, Avianca and AeroMexico.
Visitors from most countries require only a tourist card, which is available for purchase on arrival for a cost of US$10 (cash only).
What are the Visa and Passport Requirements for Travelers Visiting Nicaragua?
To enter Nicaragua, your passport should be valid for a minimum of 6 months. As an American you’ll immediately be granted a 30 or 90-day tourist visa to move freely about the country.
When traveling it’s always a good idea to make a photocopy of your passport (including the page that was just stamped at entry) for back up in the event that yours is lost or stolen.
It’s also a good idea to do the same with any health and medical insurance paperwork.
When to Travel in Nicaragua
Most Americans find that there’s generally never a bad time to visit Nicaragua. There’s always something to see and do. That said, you’d want to pick the season that coincides with what you enjoy in a vacation.
After all, if you’re like most Americans and only have two weeks off, you don’t want to spend them in the rainy season if you’re a sun worshipper. And if you’re the type that wants to visit the “jungle”, you’d most likely want to do that when it’s the greenest and fullest.
So as you might expect, Nicaragua is a tropical climate, meaning it has a rainy season (winter) and a dry season (summer). There is no such thing as fall and spring in Nicaragua. Of course a Nicaraguan winter is not a Boston or Buffalo winter. There’s no snow, only rain. And the temperature stays pretty consistent year round with average temperatures running between 25 and 29 degrees Celsius.
So what’s the difference between summer and winter in Nicaragua?
In the summer Nicaragua is dry with a yellowy landscape. There is sun almost all of the time. Roads are better, there are less bugs and it’s very hot. In winter, Nicaragua is wetter, greener and lush. You’ll experience heavy downpours, poorer road conditions and more bugs.
The best idea is to choose which of these seasons is more appealing to you. Summer runs January to June and Winter runs July to December.
What To Bring On Your Nicaragua Travels?
If you decide to travel to Nicaragua during the wet season, please try to waterproof everything you intend to carry with you. You’ll also want clothing that dries quickly.
In either summer or winter you should bring clothes that are light and as “breathable” as possible.
Don’t forget plenty of sun protection (even in the winter), including a good hat.
Many Americans are surprised to discover how important neatness and cleanliness are to the people in Central America so plan to be well groomed and bring long pants in addition to shorts.
Getting Around Nicaragua
Nicaragua is extremely safe. Taxis are plentiful near airports and hotels. And they’re so cheap that you may want to use them exclusively when foot travel is not possible.
Taxis in the cities can sometimes try to overcharge foreigners, but generally they are helpful and honest. Most of them can be hired for longer-distance inter-city travel if desired, but always agree to a fare before setting out.
Using your American driver’s license, you’ll be able to rent a car from companies with familiar names.
Many of the major U.S. car rental agencies (Alamo, Hertz, Thrifty) have offices at Sandino airport in Managua and rates are not unreasonable. Four-wheel drives are all-but essential if you plan any excursions to out-of-the-way places. Regardless of whether your credit card provides car rental insurance, visitors are strongly advised to opt for local coverage as it will make unwinding from any mishaps far easier.
One domestic carrier, La Costeña, provides service from Managua to Bluefields, the Corn Islands and Puerto Cabezas. Service is fairly reliable, but can be disrupted by bad weather. Being bumped from full flights with no recompense is always a possibility.
There’s plenty of bus service too, both in the bigger cities themselves and between cities.
Public transport within Nicaragua consists primarily of buses that are geared toward local users and not terribly comfortable. With the exception of a few more modern mini-buses and coaches that serve the most popular routes, most service is provided by old yellow school buses. Fares are ridiculously cheap.
If you’re prepared for the weather and for some differences in language and culture, travel in Nicaragua is both easy and enjoyable.
Places to See in Nicaragua
For a small country, Nicaragua packs quite a punch. Volcanic landscapes, crystal-clear Caribbean waters and roaring surf on the Pacific, astounding rainforests, and colonial splendor. It has it all, and once you get off the beaten path you will more than likely have it all to yourself.
Managua is the capital and gateway, but has little to offer the casual tourist. Visitors in search of old-school Latin America head straight for Granada, a picturesque town just a short drive east on the shore of Lake Nicaragua. It’s cobblestone streets, colorful homes, and centuries-old churches are straight out of a colonial-era storybook. Those in search of a faster-paced city head about the same distance in the other direction to the university town of Leon, a revolutionary hub famed for its vibrant nightlife.
Nature lovers have weeks worth of things to see and in Nicaragua. Some head straight for the Rio San Juan on the border with Costa Rica, where jaguars and squads of monkeys fill forests that reach right up to the banks of the river. The Indio-Maiz Biosphere Reserve, with scores of rare tropical bird species, stands at the Caribbean mouth of the river not far from the village of Greytown, which was once a waystation for American goldbugs making their way from the East Coast of the United States to California before the opening of the Panama Canal.
Active adventurers will appreciate Nicaragua’s infamous volcanoes, especially Masaya on the central plateau, one of the region’s most active. Day-trippers can meander up and see sulfurous plumes rising from the crater or explore lava caves inhabited by thousands of bats. The truly adventurous can even try surfing down the face of the Cerro Negro volcano near Leon or trek the twin volcanoes of Concepcion and Maderas on Isla Ometepe in the middle of Lake Nicaragua.
Where Nicaragua truly shines is on its coastlines. The beaches here are as spectacular as one would imagine, with little of the maddening crowds one gets elsewhere. On the Caribbean side are Little Corn Island, a car-less paradise only now coming into its own as a tourist destination, and the secluded Pearl Keys near Bluefields, a string of tiny islands ringed by coral that are straight out of a Robinson Crusoe fantasy.
On the Pacific Coast are miles of unspoiled beaches pounded by some of the best waves in the Americas. The village of San Juan del Sur is an especially hot spot among the surfing set, with surf camps and cheap hostels and late-night parties on the beach.