What makes Nicaragua a unique country to travel to?
The second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Nicaragua is a developing nation that faces many economic and political challenges. Crime, while less severe than neighboring countries to the north, continues to affect residents and visitors alike. The national language is Spanish, although many residents of the Caribbean coastal areas also speak English and indigenous languages. The climate is hot and humid, with the hot dry season running mid-November through mid-May and the less hot rainy season running from mid-May through mid-November. Terrain ranges from the hilly and volcanic to coastal beaches and tropical jungles. Geological faults, along which active volcanoes are situated, run through the country. Tremors are common, and a major earthquake destroyed most of downtown Managua in 1972.
Nicaragua presents many opportunities for tourists. There is a growing tourist infrastructure with comfortable resorts and several large, international chain hotels in Managua catering to business and government clientele as well as tourist travelers. However, support infrastructure is still basic. A good highway network exists along the Pacific littoral and central mountain region, and streets in most cities are in decent condition. However, most rural roads are unpaved. Nicaragua’s Atlantic coast is largely roadless. Public transportation is undependable and sometimes unsafe. Emergency services are sporadic, and most hospitals are substandard. Potential tourists may want to obtain information from the National Tourism Institute (INTUR – Spanish only), the governmental agency responsible for developing, regulating and promoting tourism in Nicaragua. Nicaragua’s government and judiciary are not always responsive to efforts by the U.S. Embassy to facilitate Nicaraguan government processes for U.S. citizens.
While less than in neighboring countries, violent crime in Managua exists, and petty street crimes are common. Gang activity exists, but also remains less prevalent than in neighboring Central American countries. Pick-pocketing and occasional armed robberies occur on crowded buses, at bus stops, in taxis, and in open markets like the Oriental and Huembes Markets. Violence, robbery, assault, and stabbings are mostly confined to poorer neighborhoods, including the area around the Ticabus terminal, a major arrival and departure point for tourist buses. However, over the past year, acts of petty crime have taken place in more upscale neighborhoods and near major hotels, including in the Zona Hippos, Galerias Mall, Santo Domingo, Las Colinas, and South Highway neighborhoods. We also advise U.S. citizens not to leave any valuables or passports in a car, especially while shopping at gas station convenience stores, as there have been a large number of reports by U.S. citizens of cars being burglarized in these locations.
In the past, some U.S. citizens were targeted shortly after arriving in the country by criminals posing as Nicaraguan police officers who pull over their vehicles – including those operated by reputable hotels – for inspection. In each case, the incidents happened after dark and involved gun-wielding assailants who robbed passengers of all valuables and abandoned them in remote locations. Some assailants employed threats of physical violence. While the traditional scene of these attacks has been the Tipitapa-Masaya Highway, also known as Carretera Norte, this activity has also spread to the Managua-Leon Highway. There has also been an increase in armed robbery attempts by masked individuals along roadsides leading to popular tourist destinations. Assailants will step out of roadside vegetation with weapons in an attempt to stop the vehicle and rob passengers. Another criminal strategy is to set up make-shift blockades of tree branches and rocks to force travelers to stop. Once vehicle occupants exit their vehicles to move the items, they are typically robbed at gun or knife point.
U.S. citizens should exercise particular caution when approached by strangers offering assistance with finding a taxi cab. Dozens of U.S. citizens have reported being victimized by fellow travelers who offered to assist them in locating and/or sharing a taxi in and around San Juan del Sur, San Jorge, Granada, Managua, Masaya, and other popular tourist destinations. Upon entering the taxi, the U.S. citizens were held at knife- or gunpoint, threatened with bodily injury and/or rape, robbed of their valuables, and driven around to ATMs to withdraw funds from their accounts. Taxi drivers have also picked up additional passengers along the route who then threaten and rob the U.S. citizen, generally in conjunction with the taxi driver. After the assault, the U.S. citizen victims were left abandoned and destitute in remote areas. In 2011, two U.S. citizen victims were beaten and raped after providing incorrect bank card PIN numbers to assailants.
Before taking a taxi, make sure that it has a red license plate and that the number is legible. Pick taxis carefully and note the driver's name and license number. Instruct the driver not to pick up other passengers, agree on the fare before entering the taxi, and have small bills available for payment, as taxi drivers often do not make change. Also, check that the taxi is properly labeled with the cooperativa (company) name and logo. Purse and jewelry snatchings sometimes occur at stoplights. While riding in a vehicle, windows should be closed, car doors locked and valuables placed out of sight. Radio dispatched cabs are recommended and can be summoned at Managua’s international airport and to most major hotels and restaurants.
Many consider the police presence in the tourist destination of San Juan del Sur to be inadequate. There have been incidents of sexual assaults of foreign tourists on beaches in Nicaragua. U.S. citizens were the victims of such assaults in 2011 at a popular beach hotel in San Juan del Sur and in 2013 at a beach hostel at Playa Majagualnot far from San Juan del Sur. The Embassy recommends travelling in groups when going to the beach or to isolated areas. Single travelers should exercise special caution while traveling to beach areas, to the Atlantic Coast, and in other remote areas of the country.
Police coverage is extremely sparse outside of major urban areas, including in the remote beach communities on the Pacific Coast and Nicaragua’s Atlantic coast autonomous regions. Lack of adequate police coverage has resulted in these areas being used by drug traffickers and other criminal elements. Street crime and petty theft are common problems in Puerto Cabezas, Bluefields, and other urban areas along the Atlantic coast. Given the area’s geographical isolation, the Embassy’s ability to provide emergency services to U.S. citizens who choose to travel in the Atlantic coastal area is limited. Police presence is minimal on the Corn Islands as well.
Throughout Nicaragua, U.S. citizens should utilize hotels and guest houses which have security measures in place, including but not limited to rooms equipped with safes for securing valuables and travel documents and adequate access control precautions. U.S. citizens report that even in hotels with safes, items have gone missing.
Do not resist a robbery attempt. Many criminals have weapons, and most injuries and deaths have resulted when victims resisted. Do not hitchhike or go home with strangers, particularly from nightclubs. Do not accept rides from strangers at major bus terminals or border crossings. Travel in groups of two or more persons whenever possible. Use the same common sense while traveling in Nicaragua that you would in any high-crime area of a large U.S. city. Do not wear excessive jewelry or utilize your smart/cell phone in a fashion that attracts attention to its inherent value. Do not carry large sums of money, other valuables, or ATM or credit cards that are not needed.
Do not leave valuables inside parked vehicles. U.S. citizens residing in Nicaragua are urged to review residential security procedures, including with their domestic employees, and strengthen security measures to help safeguard their houses.
Don’t buy counterfeit and pirated goods, even if they are widely available. Not only are the bootlegs illegal in the United States, if you purchase them you may also be breaking local law. Be wary when making purchases from street vendors or in markets. Buying pirated goods undermines legitimate businesses.
While you are traveling in Nicaragua, you are subject to its laws even if you are a U.S. citizen. Foreign laws and legal systems can be vastly different from our own. There are also some things that might be legal in the country you visit, but still illegal in the United States, for example, you can be prosecuted under U.S. law if you buy pirated goods. In some places you may be taken in for questioning if you don’t have your passport with you. Engaging in sexual conduct with children or using or disseminating child pornography in a foreign country is a crime prosecutable in the United States. If you break local laws in Nicaragua, your U.S. passport won’t help you avoid arrest or prosecution. It’s very important to know what’s legal and what’s not where you are going.
Persons violating Nicaraguan laws, even unknowingly, may be expelled, arrested, or imprisoned. Penalties for possessing, using, or trafficking in illegal drugs in Nicaragua are severe, and convicted offenders can expect long jail sentences and fines. Nicaragua’s judicial system is subject to political interference and suffers from widespread corruption. Laws are not enforced uniformly. Detainees, both Nicaraguan and foreign, have been subject to imprisonment for lengthy periods without charges being filed against them. U.S. citizens should be aware that Embassy officials are limited in what they can do to assist detainees.
Based on the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, bilateral agreements with certain countries, and customary international law, if you are arrested in Nicaragua, you have the option to request that the police, prison officials, or other authorities alert the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate of your arrest, and to have communications from you forwarded to the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate.
Medical Facilities and Health Information
Medical care is very limited, particularly outside of Managua. Basic and emergency medical services are available in Managua and in many of the smaller towns and villages. However, treatment for many serious medical problems is either unavailable or available only in Managua. Ambulance services, where available, provide transportation and basic first aid only. More advanced medical equipment, and some medications and treatments, are not available in Nicaragua. Physicians and hospital personnel frequently do not speak English, and medical reports are written in Spanish.
In an emergency, individuals are taken to the nearest hospital that will accept a patient. This is usually a public hospital unless the individual or someone acting on their behalf indicates that they can pay for a private hospital. Payment for medical services is typically done on a cash basis, although some private hospitals will accept major credit cards for payment. U.S. health insurance plans are generally not accepted in Nicaragua, however, the Embassy has been informed that Hospital Metropolitano in Managua accepts Blue Cross Blue Shield and Tricare.
Tap water is not considered potable in Nicaragua. All persons should drink only bottled water.
Individuals traveling to Nicaragua should ensure that all their routine vaccinations are up to date. Vaccinations against Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, rabies, and typhoid are strongly recommended. A yellow fever vaccination is not required to enter Nicaragua unless the traveler has recently visited a country where yellow fever is endemic. Travelers taking prescription medications should bring an adequate supply with them when coming to Nicaragua. Many newer combination medications are not available in local pharmacies.
In July 2013, the Nicaraguan government declared an alert based on an increase in cases of Dengue Fever, H1N1 flu, and leptospirosis. We advise U.S. citizens to take appropriate precautions and consult with your medical professional for advice before you visit Nicaragua.
Safety and Security
As in many developing countries, Nicaragua presents a number of security concerns to which travelers should pay close attention. Political demonstrations and strikes continue to occur sporadically, are usually limited to urban areas, and occasionally become violent. Typically, protests in Managua take place at major intersections or rotundas. Activities observed during past protests include, but are not limited to, the use of tear gas, rubber bullets, fireworks, rock-throwing, tire burning, road blocks, bus/vehicle burning, and physical violence between members of rival political parties. Police have often been slow to respond, and reluctant to interfere in violent confrontations between rival political factions. Because even demonstrations intended to be peaceful can escalate into violence, U.S. citizens are advised to avoid crowds and blockades during such occurrences, to monitor local media reports, and to exercise caution when in the vicinity of any large gathering.
The country’s spectacular landscape presents additional safety concerns. Strong currents off sections of Nicaragua's Pacific coast have resulted in a number of drownings. Powerful waves have also caused broken bones, and sting ray injuries are not uncommon at popular beaches. Warning signs are not posted, and lifeguards and rescue equipment are not readily available. Those visiting Nicaragua's beaches should exercise appropriate caution, as even the most experienced swimmers and surfers have drowned.. In the past 18 months, four U.S. citizens have drowned in the waters of Nicaragua’s Pacific coast.
Hiking in volcanic or other remote areas can be dangerous and travelers should take appropriate precautions. Hikers should have appropriate dress, footwear, and sufficient consumables for any trek undertaken. Individuals who travel to remote areas are encouraged to hire a reputable local guide familiar with the terrain and area. Individuals hiking Volcan Maderas and/or Volcan Concepcion on Ometepe Island are required by law to hire a local guide. Hikers have perished or lost their way on these volcanoes. While they may look like easy climbs, the terrain is treacherous. Volcanic activity recently increased, resulting in a minor eruption of the Volcan San Cristobal near Chinandega in September 2012 and increased seismic activity under other volcanoes. U.S. citizens in an area of volcanic activity should heed the advice of local authorities and, if necessary, evacuate to safe areas.
Domestic travel within Nicaragua by land and air, particularly to the Atlantic coast, can be risky. Domestic airlines are generally up to international standards, but when flying to more remote locales, travelers should be aware that airports are likely to be poorly developed facilities with short airstrips, minimal safety equipment, and little boarding security.
Traffic Safety and Road Conditions
While in Nicaragua, you may encounter road conditions that differ significantly from those in the United States. Driving in Nicaragua poses many difficulties and risks, including mandatory arrest for drivers involved in accidents that result in death or serious injury until police are able to determine who is at fault. Driving is on the right side of the road in Nicaragua. Motorists driving to Nicaragua should use the principal highways and official border crossings at Guasaule, El Espino, and Las Manos between Nicaragua and Honduras and Penas Blancas between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Although some of the principal highways connecting the major cities are in generally good condition, drivers should be aware that seasonal torrential rains take a heavy toll on road beds. With few exceptions, secondary roads are in poor repair, potholed, poorly lit, frequently narrow, and lack shoulders. Road travel after dark is especially hazardous in all areas of the country. Motorists are encouraged to prepare accordingly and to carry a cellular phone in case of an emergency.
In general, road signs are poor to non-existent. Bicycles, oxcarts, dogs, horses, and vehicles without lights are encountered at times even on main thoroughfares in Nicaragua. Motorcycles, often carrying passengers, dart in and out of traffic with little or no warning. Many vehicles are in poor condition, travel very slowly, and break down without warning. Drivers should be especially careful on curves and hills, as many drivers will pass or park on blind corners. Speed limits vary depending on the type of road, but due to a lack of government resources, traffic rules are rarely enforced.
Due to the age and disrepair of many vehicles, many drivers will not use their turn signals. Rather, it is common for a vehicle operator to stick his hand out the window to signal a turn. If you do drive in Nicaragua, you need to exercise the utmost caution, drive defensively, and make sure you have auto insurance.
Nicaraguan law requires that a driver be taken into custody for driving under the influence or being involved in an accident that causes serious injury or death, even if the driver is insured and appears not to have been at fault. The minimum detention period is 48 hours; however, detentions frequently last until a judicial decision is reached (often weeks or months), or until a waiver is signed by the injured party (usually as the result of a cash settlement). In accidents that result in death, drivers are usually detained until they reach an agreement with the family of the victim even if they are not at fault.
Visitors to Nicaragua might want to consider hiring a professional driver during their stay. Licensed drivers who are familiar with local roads can be hired through local car rental agencies. In case of accident, only the driver will be taken into custody.
The Embassy has received a number of complaints from U.S. citizens who have been stopped by transit police authorities demanding bribes in order to avoid fines. Motorists in rental cars and those with foreign license plates are more likely to be stopped by transit police. Transit police have seized driver licenses and car registration documents from motorists who refuse or are unable to pay. Subsequently, these drivers have reported difficulties in recovering the seized documents. U.S. citizens are urged to ensure that their vehicles comply fully with Nicaraguan transit regulations, including being in possession of an emergency triangle and fire extinguisher, and that the vehicle is properly registered. If transit police authorities demand an on-the-spot payment, drivers should ask for the officer's name and badge number, as well as a receipt, and inform the Embassy of when/where the event took place. Reports should be sent via email to the U.S. Consular Section in Managua. Rental car agencies should also be advised if their vehicles have been deemed negligent in meeting Nicaraguan transit regulations.
Avoid taking local buses. They are overcrowded, unsafe and often are used by pickpockets. Because of the conditions discussed above, traffic accidents often result in serious injury or death. This is most often true when heavy vehicles, such as buses or trucks, are involved. Traditionally, vehicles involved in accidents in Nicaragua are not moved (even to clear traffic), until authorized by a police officer. Drivers who violate this norm may be held legally liable for the accident.
Regulations governing transit are administered by the National Police. For specific information concerning Nicaraguan driver’s permits, vehicle inspection, road tax, and mandatory insurance, you may wish to refer to the National Police web site. You may also contact the Embassy of Nicaragua in Washington, D.C. for further information.