Pacific and Central Nicaragua are blessed with a newly paved highway system and (usually) good dirt roads to most destinations, which are easy to see using public buses, rental cars or even bikes. The Caribbean side, however, is linked to this grid by only a few terrible roads; access is usually easier (or in rainy season, possible) by plane and/or boat.
Many destinations are accessible only, or most easily, by boat. In places without regular service, you will need to hire your own private panga, or light boat. Prices vary widely, but you'll spend about US$50 to US$100 per hour for four to six people; tour operators can usually find a better deal. Many public boats are collective, and only leave when full - which could be tomorrow. It's easy, if not cheap, to hire boat transport up and down the Pacific Coast. On the Atlantic side, it's much more difficult.
Bluefields Boats leave daily for Pearl Lagoon and El Rama, and twice weekly to Big Corn Island. Boats run between Big Corn and Little Corn twice daily.
El Rama Boats leave several times daily to Bluefields.
Granada Connected by twice-weekly ferry service to Isla Ometepe and San Carlos; it's more convenient to get to Ometepe via San Jorge, with almost hourly boat service to the island.
Waspám The gateway to the Río Coco. You can arrange private boats up and down the river, including to the Honduran border crossing.
Bus service in Nicaragua is excellent if basic. Public transport is usually on old Bluebird school buses - Canadian and US visitors can keep an eye out for their old district! - which means no luggage compartments. Try to avoid putting your pack on top of the bus, and instead sit toward the back and put your bag with the sacks of rice and beans; you could also keep it on your lap. Chances are the bus will be too crowded to keep it on the seat next to you.
Pay your fare after the bus starts moving; this is a good place to change large bills. You may be issued a paper 'ticket' on distance buses - don't lose it, as that'll be an excuse to charge you again. Some bus stations, including Mayoreo in Managua, allow you to purchase tickets ahead of time; this does not guarantee you a seat. And while buses generally cruise around town before getting under way, you're more likely to get a seat by boarding the bus at the station or terminal.
Bus stations, often huge, chaotic lots next to markets, may seem difficult to navigate, particularly if you don't speak much Spanish. Fear not! If you can pronounce your destination, the guys yelling ('Managuamanaguamanagua!') will help you find and board your bus. Note that taxi drivers may lie about bus schedules, safety and more; just ignore them.
Buses cost about US$1 per hour, 30km to 40km, a bit more for expreso buses, sometimes called directos, which only stop in major destinations and shave a few minutes off your trip. Ordinarios or ruteados stop for anyone on the side of the road, which makes them slightly less safe and more time-consuming.
More comfortable microbuses cost about 25% more, and are available for most major routes, with vans leaving 'when full' (about 10 people). On the other extreme, many rural destinations connected to large cities by really bad roads use covered military trucks with bench seats (sometimes called ruteados), which cost about the same as a regular bus.
Thanks to former President Bolaños' 'one kilometer per day' paving program, Nicaragua has some of the best roads in Central America, most of them empty because so few people can afford private cars. Driving is a wonderful way to see Pacific and Central Nicaragua, but it's best to use public transport on the Caribbean side, as roads are just terrible.
Renting a car in Nicaragua is relatively inexpensive, with sedans as low as US$20 per day, including taxes and mandatory insurance. In rainy season, if you plan to go off major roads, get a 4WD, which will cost anywhere from US$35 to US$120 per day. Rental companies require a driver's license and major credit card, and most want you to be at least 25 years old. Renting a car at Managua International Airport costs 15% extra, so consider taking a taxi to an off-site office.
By law, you must purchase basic insurance (US$10 per day), which usually has a whopping US$1500 deductible and does not cover flat tires. You'll be recommended supplemental insurance for another US$10 to US$15 per day, but your credit card probably already covers this; call them to make sure. Double-check your tires, including the spare, and the jack, and don't be afraid to ask for newer equipment if you think there's a problem.
If you're sure you want a car, first make sure that parts are available for the car: Toyota, Nissan and Hyundai are good choices. Gas prices are about the same as in Western Europe, so if you won't need to go off paved roads often, consider a more fuel-efficient sedan.
Locals often sell cars informally, but foreigners should definitely pay a lawyer to write up an escritura, or sales history, then register the ride at Administración de Rentas, with offices in all department capitals. You'll need emissions and equipment checks (about US$30), a Nicaraguan driver's license and mandatory car insurance (US$70 to US$100 per year). Importing a car less than five years old is possible; Nicaraguan Customs (www.dga.gob.ni) has details in Spanish.
If this seems like a lot of red tape, read My Car in Managua, by Forrest Colburn, who bought a car here in 1985. You'll be grateful for the new system.
Driving in Managua (heck, driving period) is not recommended after dark; even if you've rented a car, consider taking taxis instead. Other sizeable towns, including Granada, León, Matagalpa and Estelí, are mazes of unsigned one-way streets that prove a boon to police officers in search of a bribe. Be careful!
Almost all taxis in Nicaragua are colectivos, which stop and pick up other clients while taking a possibly circuitous route to your destination. They can get crowded.
Managua taxis are unmetered and notorious for ripping off tourists, and taxis at major border crossings may also overcharge, given the chance. Most city taxis have set in-town fares, usually US$0.70. Ask a local how much a fare should cost before getting into the cab.
Hiring taxis between cities is a comfortable and reasonable option for midrange travelers. Prices vary widely, but expect to pay US$10 for every 20km. As taxi quality varies widely, try to choose a comfortable, reliable-looking vehicle for longer trips.
Most domestic flights are based at Managua International Airport; its occasionally chaotic domestic offices are just west of the international terminal. Other airports, many of which are little more than dirt strips outside of town (or in Siuna's case, in the middle of town), include Waspám, Bilwi (Puerto Cabezas), Las Minas (Siuna, Bonanza, Rosita), San Carlos, Bluefields and Big Corn Island. On the Pacific Coast, airports in Granada, Montelimar and near Chinandega allow charter flights.
There are two domestic carriers, Atlantic Airlines (222 5787; www.atlanticairlines.com.ni), with daily domestic flights to Bluefields and the Corn Islands, and La Costeña (263 2142; www.flylacostena.com), with regular services to Bluefields, Corn Islands, Las Minas, San Carlos, Bilwi and Waspám. Try to make reservations in advance, particularly for Managua-San Carlos and Managua-Bilwi flights, and show up early to confirm, or they may give away your seat. Domestic flights use tiny planes where weight is important and bags necessarily get left behind, so keep all necessities in your carry-on luggage. Domestic departure tax is US$2, payable in córdobas or US dollars only.
Nicaragua gets a big thumbs up from long-distance cyclists for its smooth, paved roads and wide shoulders. Bicycles are the most common form of private transport in the country, and not only is infrastructure designed to accommodate them, drivers are used to seeing bicycles on the road and usually act courteously. There are also lots of opportunities for mountain biking - just find a dirt road.
Renting bicycles is difficult outside Granada, San Juan del Sur, Ometepe and León, but your hotel can probably arrange it. Rental bikes tend to be cheap, Chinese cruisers that need TLC, so test your options.