The hub for domestic flights is Managua International Airport. Other airports are little more than dirt strips outside town (or in Siuna and Waspám, in the middle of town). The airport in San Juan de Nicaragua is located across the bay in Greytown and is one of the few airports in the Americas where you need to take a boat to get on your flight.
La Costeña (www.lacostena.com.ni) is the domestic carrier with a good safety record. It services Bluefields, Bonanza, the Corn Islands, Las Minas, Ometepe, Rosita, San Carlos (via Ometepe), San Juan de Nicaragua, Puerto Cabezas, Siuna and Waspám. Many domestic flights use tiny single-prop planes where weight is important and bags necessarily get left behind, so keep all necessities in your carry-on luggage.
Flights on all routes are grounded in bad weather, but this is actually fairly rare. Normally the worst that happens is delays. The Bluefields–Bilwi flight is typically cancelled unless there is enough demand.
Domestic departure tax is US$2, payable in córdobas or US dollars. It is not included in the price of your ticket.
Nicaragua gets praise from long-distance cyclists for its smooth, paved roads and wide shoulders. Apart from in the mountainous northern region, the main highways through the country are also fairly flat, which gives cyclists plenty of opportunities to enjoy the spectacular scenery.
Bicycles are the most common form of private transport in the country and most drivers are used to seeing them everywhere from main highways to country roads. However, while the infrastructure is designed to accommodate bicycles, the extremely limited enforcement of speed limits and drink-driving legislation is an issue, and the hazards of riding on Nicaraguan roads are not negligible.
Buying a bike is easily done; even the smallest towns will have somewhere selling them. The price-to-quality ratio is not great – expect to pay a little under US$100 for a bottom-of-the-line model. Something fancy will probably cost more than it would back home. Selling your bike when you leave is a matter of luck; places such as Granada, León and San Juan del Sur all have notice boards in travelers’ cafes, which would be your best bet. As a last shot, try selling it to a bike-rental place, but don’t expect to recoup much of your investment.
Renting bicycles is difficult outside Granada, San Juan del Sur, Ometepe and León, but your hotel can probably arrange it for you. Bikes rent for around US$5 to US$7 per day – weekly discounts are easily arranged. Bike-rental places may require a few hundred córdobas or your passport as deposit.
Many destinations are accessible only, or most easily, by boat. Public pangas (small open motorboats) with outboard motors are much more expensive than road transport – in general it costs around US$6 to US$8 per hour of travel. In places without regular service, you will need to hire your own private panga. 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. 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. While it’s not common, boats do sink here and tourists have drowned – please wear your life jacket.
River boats on the Río San Juan tend to be slow and fairly cheap. There are often express and regular services – it's worth paying a bit extra for the quicker version.
Following are the major departure points with regular boat service.
Bluefields To Pearl Lagoon, El Rama and Corn Island.
Corn Islands Regular boats run between Great Corn and Little Corn Islands.
El Rama To Bluefields.
San Carlos To the Islas Solentiname, the Río San Juan, the scenic border crossing to Costa Rica and several natural reserves.
Waspám The gateway to the Río Coco.
Bus coverage in Nicaragua is extensive although services are often uncomfortable and overcrowded. Public transport is usually on old Bluebird school buses, which means no luggage compartments. Try to avoid putting your backpack on top of the bus, and instead sit toward the back and put it with the sacks of rice and beans.
Pay your fare after the bus starts moving. You may be issued a paper ‘ticket’ on long-distance buses – don’t lose it, or you may be charged again. Some bus terminals allow you to purchase tickets ahead of time, which should in theory guarantee you a seat. While buses sometimes cruise around town before hitting the highway, you’re more likely to get a seat by boarding the bus at the station or terminal.
Bus terminals, 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 will help you find your bus – just make sure they put you on an expreso (express) and not an ordinario (ordinary bus) or you'll be spending more time on the road than you planned.
Costs & Classes
Buses generally cost around US$1 per hour/50km, a bit more for expreso (express) buses, which supposedly only stop in designated bus bays. Ordinarios or ruteados (ordinary buses) stop everywhere and for everyone and will turn off the highway to enter towns along the way.
Faster microbuses cost about 25% more, and service most major routes, with vans leaving when full. Some very remote rural destinations accessed only by bad roads will use covered military trucks with bench seats. These cost about the same as a regular bus but are way less comfortable.
Nicaragua's Traveling Traders
Who said traveling by bus is boring? In Nicaragua not only are there awe-inspiring volcanic landscapes to gaze at through the windows, inside the bus is a whole world of entertainment.
And we're not talking about the soft-rock soundtrack or classic Steven Seagal marathon on the tiny TV. The real entertainment on Nicaragua's battle-scarred school buses comes from the traveling salesmen, particularly those hawking cut-priced medicines and ointments.
Need to get smarter before arriving in Rivas? No problem. Hair loss issues? There's an elixir to cure both of these. And you probably didn't even know that in addition to your backpack, you were carrying around all those parasites on the unnecessarily graphic images on the salesman's full-color poster.
While they are not doctors, nor even pharmacists, these 'medicine men' always seem to do a brisk trade. Although they haven't yet cracked the traveler market. Perhaps the lack of a hangover cure has something to do with it.
Shuttle buses are privately owned, air-conditioned minibuses that zip between major tourist destinations. They are considerably pricier than public transport, but are the fastest and most comfortable way of getting around if you don't have your own wheels, with space for your luggage and your surfboards. They work out cheaper than sharing a taxi unless you're looking to hire a private shuttle to more remote destinations.
Car & Motorcycle
Driving is a wonderful way to see Pacific and central Nicaragua, but it’s best to use public transportation on the Caribbean side as roads are, for the most part, terrible.
Your home driver’s license is valid for driving in Nicaragua for the duration of the entry stamp in your passport.
Fuel & Spare Parts
Gas stations are generally located on the outskirts of major towns and cities and can be rare in rural locations. The availability of spare parts depends on the make of your car. Toyota, Nissan and Hyundai are the most common, and parts are widely available. For other makes you may have a frustrating wait while parts arrive from Miami.
Whether renting or driving your own vehicle you must purchase obligatory third-party insurance. If arriving in Nicaragua in your own vehicle, you'll purchase it at the border. For rentals it costs around US$12 per day.
When renting, you’ll also be recommended supplemental insurance, ranging from US$10 to US$30 per day depending on the coverage and excess. Your credit card may already cover it; call to make sure.
To hire a car, you’ll need a driver’s license and major credit card. Most rental companies 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. If you rent a car outside Managua, drop-off fees at Managua Airport are very reasonable.
Following are some of the better car-rental agencies:
Dollar (www.dollar.com.ni) Also rents vehicles with drivers in the Managua area.
Road conditions vary wildly throughout the country, although there has been some progress with continuing projects to improve them.
The Panamericana (Pan-American Hwy) is paved all the way from Honduras to Costa Rica while the roads from Managua to both El Rama and San Carlos are also wide, paved highways. There is now a paved highway from Managua to Nueva Guinea, with the last section between Nueva Guinea and Bluefields being sealed at the time of writing, making it considerably easier to access the Caribbean coast.
Some secondary roads are very good, particularly in the north, while others are suspension breakers. Access to Pacific beaches is generally poor and requiring a 4WD outside dry season, as is the majority of the road network on the Atlantic side. If you can afford it, rent a 4WD instead of a city car.
There are no up-to-date maps showing real road conditions, which change every rainy season. Ask locals if you're not sure. Older paved roads are often horribly pockmarked with axle-cracking potholes.
During rainy season, roads flood, wash away and close. Some roads are never recommended for casual drivers, including the Río Blanco–Bilwi road, easily the worst in the country.
The biggest danger on Nicaragua’s highways isn’t other cars (although gas stations selling liquor is a worry), but rather everything else that uses the roads: from bicycle rickshaws to drunk, staggering pedestrians and wandering wildlife. It’s best to have an eagle eye and keep speeding to a minimum. Driving after dark is best avoided if possible, as it is difficult to spot the many potential hazards on unlit roads.
At the time of writing in mid-2018, road blocks stemming from the political unrest affecting Nicaragua were a problem on all the major roads, accompanied by deadly police violence as they tried to clear them.
Nicaragua’s traffic laws are pretty standard. Driving on the right, giving way to anything bigger than you, wearing a seat belt at all times and keeping speeds below 45km/h in cities should keep you out of trouble. Speed limits tend to be 60km/h on rural roads and 80 or 100km/h on motorways.
Many towns are mazes of unsigned one-way streets that prove a boon to traffic cops.
Nicaragua's traffic cops are notorious for targeting foreigners, looking for a quick shakedown. Officers may wave drivers over and accuse them of something as vague as ‘poor driving.’ Drivers should never initiate a bribe – it may be an honest officer who just wants to give a warning. If a bribe is requested, prudent drivers pay it.
If a ticket is issued (the police get a cut of the fine you pay to banks), you'll need to surrender your license and then pay the fine at the bank, before picking up your documents at the departmental police station closest to the infraction (which may be a fair distance from your final destination). The procedure may take several days and is more than a little inconvenient, so if you're certain that you have been shaken down, one option for foreign visitors is to not pay the fine, abandon the license and get a new license when you get home.
Hitchhiking is never entirely safe, and we don’t recommend it. Travelers who hitchhike should understand that they are taking a small but potentially serious risk.
Nevertheless hitchhiking is very common in rural Nicaragua, even by solo women – to find a ride, just stick out your thumb. Foreign women, particularly those carrying all their bags, should think twice before hitchhiking solo. Never hitchhike into or out of Managua.
In rural areas where bus service is rare, anyone driving a pickup truck will almost certainly stop for you. Climb into the back tray (unless specifically invited up front) and when you want to get off, tap on the cabin roof a couple of times.
You should always offer to pay the driver, which will almost always be refused.
The only city really big enough to warrant catching local buses is Managua, the bus routes are really convoluted, the bus stops are often not marked and the service is only worth using if you've been living in the city for some time and know exactly where you're going. Given how inexpensive Managua's taxis are, it's not really worth spending time figuring out the bus routes for the sake of saving a few coins, particularly if you're only in the city for a day or two.
Dirt bikes, quad bikes and beach buggies
In popular destinations with notoriously rough roads, such as Isla Ometepe, San Juan del Sur and several of the Pacific beaches, you'll often get outlets renting rugged sets of wheels that make tackling those roads a piece of cake. Expect to pay around US$25 per day for a dirt bike, up to US$65 per day for a quad and up to US$80 for a serious dune buggy.
Rickshaw & Tuk-Tuk
In smaller towns there are fewer taxis and more tuk-tuks (motorized three wheelers) and triciclos (bicycle rickshaws). They’re inexpensive – around US$0.50 per person to go anywhere in town – and kind of fun. Tuk-tuks are also the easiest and quickest way to get between the Pueblos Blancos near Masaya.
Almost all taxis in Nicaragua are colectivos (shared taxi or minibus), which stop and pick up other clients en route to your destination, however it is always possible to pay a bit extra for an express service.
Managua taxis are unmetered and notorious for ripping off tourists. Always negotiate the fare before getting in. Taxis at major border crossings may also overcharge, given the chance.
Most other city taxis have set in-town fares, usually around US$0.50 to US$0.70, rising slightly at night. 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 around US$10 for every 20km.
There are no passenger train services.