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Guide: Nicaragua

Mombacho-volcano-landscape-nicaragua-31335809-1024-768Nicaragua is picturesque, from the jagged lava-rock beaches to the gigantic lake in the south that houses the worlds only fresh water sharks. After years of war and internal conflict, present day Nicaraguans simply want to live in peace. Most Nicaraguans are willing to share their experiences and viewpoints about the conflicts of the past and yet they are eager to move ahead into a more prosperous and cheerful future.

Tourism in Nicaragua is less common than in her highly popular neighbor Costa Rica.

The natural beauty of Nicaragua is attractive and as the war years fade into memory’s dusty shelf, you can expect to see more development and tourism within the country.

This is the largest country in Central America, but you can drive through it rather quickly.

Essentially there is only one major highway running through the country and therefore the chances of getting lost are dramatically reduced.

There are several police checkpoints along the road. This usually means that two police officers have been dropped off somewhere along the main highway. They stand by the side of the road and wave cars over to conduct their officiating. When pulled over the police ask for your papers and destination and then send you on your way.

These procedures seem to be uniform throughout Central America.

Entering Nicaragua

After going through the official Honduran border gate you will pull up to the official Nicaraguan border gate, about 50 yards away. Here the border officials enter your passport number into a book. No charge! Though the officials may request a private donation for their work. You will soon learn that everyone will ask you for money in Nicaragua.

Three Border Crossings

Between Nicaragua and Honduras there are three border crossings; Las Manos (near Ocotal), El Espino (near Somoto), and Guasaule between El Triunfo (Honduras) and Somotillo (Nicaragua).

Aduana and Migration

The Aduana and Migration offices are located another 50 yards down the hill in a semicircular building. When you enter the building several teenagers will request your paperwork. They will show you some official badge which supposedly gives them the right to guide you through the paperwork and to freedom.

The officials will search your car and then record all the necessary vehicle information. For example, they will check your vehicle identification number on your engine and record it in your vehicle paperwork. After two hours of confusion and frustration you will leave with the following paperwork and pay the following fees: Certificado de Vehiculos $40 US, Exclusivo Para Moneda Extranjera $20 US and Tarjeta De Turismo $5 US.

The second two items must be paid for in US DOLLARS. No exceptions! If you do not have US dollars you will lose money in the exchange with the border exchanger—don’t forget to purchase enough money to transit through the country.

Learned Lessons

I’m not sure whether the $40 US I paid for the Certificado de Vehiculos was valid, I think this went into someone’s pocket. I asked several officials and never got a straight answer. Be prepared, these are the games that border officials like to play. I was also solicited several times for propina by a number of the officials at the Nicaraguan entry point. I was suspicious about the $40 US fee and keep referring to this payment and therefore I was never coerced into paying anything additional.

Special Directions
Bring US currency for your entry into Nicaragua, $35 US. Also check your forms for proper entry and exit dates. If you plan on staying for more than 3 days you can request a 30 day permit for your vehicle and person. There is no additional cost for the thirty day permit.

The police treat tourists differently than they treat people solely in transit and if you decide to stay for more than three days you won’t have to deal with extending your visa.
Nicaraguan Border/Managua

Driving Time: 3 hour
Kilometers: 200
Miles: 121
Hwy: CA 1

The roads in Nicaragua are the worst of any in all of Central America. As mentioned above, it is difficult to get lost because CA 1 is really the only major road running through the country. Follow the signs to Managua, if you find any.

Depending on how long the border entry and exit procedures take, you can make it through Nicaragua in one day. Most likely you will be given a transit visa good for 3 days.

My recommendation is to travel on to San Juan del Sur and spend a day or two in this incredible town and then cross the border into Costa Rica. San Juan del Sur is only 45 minutes from the Costa Rican border; it is truly a fantastic place!

Learned Lessons

The officials at the border will ask you what your final destination is for the day, then they will indicate it on your Tarjeta De Turismo.

This is not your final destination for the trip through Nicaragua, it is your destination for the day that you enter Nicaragua. Regardless of where you are going, tell them Penas Blancas at the Costa Rican border. I told the officer at the Honduran-Nicaraguan border that I was traveling to Managua that day. Thus Managua was written as my final destination for the day of entry on my Tarjeta De Turismo.

When I was stopped about one hour north of San Juan del Sur, the officer told me that I must go back to Managua and receive permission to travel past Managua that day.

After some discussion and a small donation, I was allowed to proceed. Check your paperwork before you leave the Nicaraguan border and make sure that the officer writes down the city that you indicate. Games, games and more games!

Special Directions

Driving away from the Honduran border you will encounter little civilization. There are few places to eat until you arrive to Managua, thus fill your stomach and tanks near the border. But don’t eat too much because the roads leading to Managua are horrible, be prepared for a rough ride.

Managua/San Juan del Sur
Driving Time: 3 hours
Kilometers: 141
Miles: 88
Hwy: CA 1—CA 2

When entering Managua stay on the straight-away and follow the signs to Central. About 10 minutes after entering the city you will come across a sign that reads Jinotepe CA 2. Steer left, this is the road you want. Follow this road until you meet with a traffic circle. Follow the traffic circle around and exit UNI-UNAN.

There is a large sign, you can’t miss it. This road will eventually lead out of town and on to the road for Penas Blancas and San Juan del Sur.

* Please note that the Interamerican Hwy changes from CA 1 to CA 2 until the border with Costa Rica.

The exit for San Juan del Sur is about 10 minutes past Rivas. From the main road it’s another 18K to the coastal town. Follow the road all the way to the beach. If you have come this far, please don’t miss San Juan del Sur, it’s one of the most beautiful places along the entire trip.

Take a hike along the coast in either direction, there are some fabulous tidal pools. There is also some decent surf at the river mouth, just ask the locals.

Hotel & Eats

Casa Internacional Joxi is a half block from the beach and has great service and food. John, the Norwegian owner, offers fax, telephone and Internet services to his guests. He has rooms with air conditioning and private baths for $15 US. This town offers great seafood, a large lobster dinner will cost you about $7 US. There are several restaurants located on the beach, enjoy yourself! The people are eager to speak of their experiences and they are very friendly.

The Costa Rican border is 24k past Rivas. The road is horrible, it takes about one hour to reach the border from Rivas or San Juan del Sur.

Learned Lessons

In Managua at the traffic circle follow the signs to UNI -UNAN. The signs do not indicate Jinotape CA 2 anywhere. This is a puzzling spot so make sure you make the correct turn-off.

Special Directions

For some peculiar reason CA 1 becomes CA 2 between Managua and the Costa Rican border. Again, it’s always better to use cities as references, the road signs and road numbers mean very little to the local people.

Exiting Nicaragua
Driving Time: 1 hours
Kilometers: 24
Miles: 88
Hwy: CA 1—CA 2

If you thought entering Nicaragua was difficult, you are in for a surprise because exiting is even more of a headache. Again you will need a guide. Any of the teenagers will do, cost for a guide will run about $6 US. There are various stops you need to make. One with Migration $1 US, one with the transit police $2 US, and one with the Aduana.

The Aduana official will request your paperwork and then send you down the road for copies of your passport, car title and driver’s license. Once all the copies are delivered and the official finishes recording, stamping and officiating, you are on your way.

Show you paperwork to the guards at the exit gate and proceed to the Costa Rican border entry 4k down the road.

The Costa Rican border is 24k past Rivas. The road is horrible, it takes about one hour to reach the border from Rivas or San Juan del Sur.

Learned Lessons

These exit procedures take about 1-2 hours. Plan accordingly, you need time to process your paperwork on the Costa Rican side. The roads leading to and away from the border are very bad, so drive carefully.

Exchange your money on the Costa Rican side, the rates are better. It is also helpful to have extra copies of your passport, car title and driver’s license—the officials will ask for them when you exit Nicaragua.

Special Directions

You will be approached by several kids that will want to watch your car. Pick one and let him know he is responsible, $1 US.

Enjoying Nicaragua


The capital of Nicaragua is spread across the southern shore of Lago de Managua and is crowded with more than a quarter of Nicaragua’s population. It’s been racked by natural disasters, including two earthquakes this century, and since the 1972 earthquake the city has had no center. Those returning to Managua after a few years will notice marked changes.

An improving economy has produced a construction boom. It will be obvious, however, that the recovering economy has not benefited everyone, as poverty is still widespread.

Several of Managua’s attractions stand around the Plaza de la República, including the lakeside municipal cathedral, which has been reconditioned with help from foreign donors and is now open to the public. Near the cathedral is the recently renovated Palacio Nacional, which has two giant paintings of Augusto Sandino and Carlos Fonseca at the entrance.

The Huellas de Acahualinca museum houses the ancient footprints of people and animals running toward the lake from a volcanic eruption.

The Museo de la Revolución has interesting historical exhibits with an emphasis on the revolutionary struggle of this century. There are also several lagunas, or volcanic crater lakes, which are popular swimming spots.

Barrio Martha Quezada is a residential district with many simple, cheap guesthouses and places to eat. This is where backpackers tend to congregate. On weekends there’s dancing and partying around Plaza 19 de Julio.

Around Managua

The large volcano at the center of Parque Nacional Volcán Masaya National Park , which still steams and belches, is surrounded by smaller volcanoes and thermal springs. Legends say that the Indians used to throw young women into the boiling lava to appease Chaciutique, the goddess of fire.

The Spanish believed it was the entrance to hell, inhabited by devils. Entrance to the park is only 14 miles (23km) southeast of Managua.
The Laguna de Xiloá, a stunning crater lake 12 miles (20km) northwest of the city, is a favorite swimming spot.

At El Trapiche, 11 miles (17km) southeast of the city, water from natural springs has been channeled into large outdoor pools surrounded by gardens and restaurants.


León is traditionally the most liberal of Nicaragua’s cities and remains the radical and intellectual center of the country. Monuments to the revolution, including bold Sandinista murals, are dotted all over town, and many buildings are riddled with bullet holes. Though scarred by earthquakes and war, the city is resplendent with many fine colonial churches and official buildings.

Its streets are lined with old Spanish-style houses that have white adobe walls, red-tiled roofs, thick wooden doors and cool garden patios. Its cathedral is the largest in Central America and features huge paintings of the Stations of the Cross by Antonio Sarria as well as the tomb of poet Rubén Darío. The Galería de Héroes y Mártires has a display that includes photos of those who died fighting for the FSLN during the 1978-79 revolution.

The Caribbean Coast

Unlike the rest of Nicaragua, the Caribbean coast was never colonized: It remained a British protectorate until the late 1800s. The only part of the rain forest-covered coast usually visited by travelers is Bluefields, but some visitors also head out to the Corn Islands (Islas del Maíz). The journey from Managua to Bluefields involves a five-hour boat trip down the Río Escondido.

Bluefields’ mix of ethnic groups—including Indians (Miskitos, Ramas and Sumos), blacks and mestizos from the rest of Nicaragua—makes it an interesting place, and the people here definitely like to have a good time; there are several reggae clubs and plenty of dancing on the weekends.


Granada, nicknamed ‘La Gran Sultana’ is reference to its Moorish namesake in Spain, is Nicaragua’s oldest Spanish city. Founded in 1524 by conquistadores, it rumps up against the imposing Volcán Mombacho on the the northwest shore of Lake Nicaragua. With its access to the Caribbean Sea via the lake and the San Juan River, Granada has always been a main trade center.

Today the town is relatively quiet and a major literary center, and retains its colonial character. It’s a wonderful walking city, with most major attractions, including the Cathedral and Parque Colón, within a few blocks of the plaza. When you’re ready to cool off, the lake is only a 15-minute walk away. The Assumption of Mary (August 15) is the town’s biggest party day.

Nicaragua Environment

Nicaragua is the largest country in Central America. It’s bordered to the north by Honduras, to the south by Costa Rica, to the east by the Caribbean Sea and to the west by the Pacific Ocean. The country has three distinct geographic regions: the Pacific lowlands, the north-central mountains and the Caribbean lowlands, also called the Mosquito Coast or Mosquitía.

The fertile Pacific lowlands are interrupted by about 40 volcanoes, and dominated by Lago de Nicaragua, which is the largest lake in Central America.

The Mosquito Coast is a sparsely populated rain forest area and the outlet for many of the large rivers originating in the central mountains. To date, 17% of the country has been given national-park status.

Lago de Nicaragua supports unusual fish, including the world’s only freshwater sharks, as well as a huge variety of bird life.

The cloud- and rain forest in the northwest contain abundant wildlife including ocelots, warthogs, pumas, jaguars, sloths and spider monkeys. Avian life in the forests is particularly rich: The cinnamon hummingbird, ruddy woodpecker, stripe-breasted wren, elegant trogon, shining hawk and even the quetzal, the holy bird of the Maya, can all be seen.

The jungles on the Caribbean coast contain trees that grow up to almost 200ft (60m) high and are home to boas, anacondas, jaguars, deer and howler monkeys.

Nicaragua’s climate varies according to altitude. The Pacific lowlands are always extremely hot, but the air is fresh and the countryside green during the rainy season (May to November); the dry season (December to April) brings winds that send clouds of brown dust across the plains.

The Caribbean coast is hot and wet; it can rain heavily even during the brief dry season (March to May). The mountains of the north are much cooler than the lowlands.

Nicaragua was devastated by Hurricane Mitch in November 1998, when more than a year’s worth of rain fell in in just seven days. A series of violent earthquakes and volcanic eruptions in the fall of 1999 didn’t help the situation much


2 Responses to Guide: Nicaragua

  1. Clara B at #

    Thanks! great read! Im trying to figure if i should drive or fly to Costa Rica or just stay in Managua for 3 days after Little Corn isl. Ideas?

  2. Fly to Costa Rica . . . not much to do in Managua for three days.

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