Nicaragua is quickly becoming a popular country to visit for anyone who likes outdoor adventures. From bird watching to surfing, it is an affordable and easily accessible destination for anyone looking for a unique experience.
Lake Nicaragua is the largest lake in Central America. How big is it? It’s so big that it channels all the winds from the Caribbean side to the Pacific Coast. For a surfer this means offshore winds almost daily. Not only does Nicaragua have amazing surf but there are over 19 volcanoes to hike. Most of these are active and offer indescribable views. Cerro Negro is a must see as you sled down instead of hiking back. This amazing country also has some of the most diverse creatures and fauna in the world. It is also the home to award winning rum and coffee for drink connoiseurs.
Nicaragua also has a very rich and exciting history for all those history buffs out there. Only recently did Nicaragua end its revolutionary war by signing the Tela Accord in 1989. Even though it has been less than 30 years since the end of the war, Nicaragua is the safest country in Central America to visit. However, as with any trip abroad there are simple steps you can take to ensure you stay safe as well as keeping your belongings and possibly your pride intact. As of 2017, Nicaragua has a very low rate of reported crime; the most-reported being petty theft with most of these reports being alcohol-related carelessness.
Street Theft in Nicaragua and How to Avoid It
Nicaragua is a quickly developing country, but precautions should be taken to keep you and your belongings safe. As with every country, some areas are worse than others. These are the hotspots for theft. For those with lots of gear, you can keep your belongings safe with the Pacsafe Toursafe EXP34 Anti-Theft Wheeled Gear Bag. This suitcase is easy to use and makes getting in and out of the airport easy, though there are more conventional options. Foremost, the travel backpack has come a long long way from the old framed things, and can now keep your stuff more secure against all thievery and have room for your laptop. The Tortuga travel backpack is a good example.
The capital city is where you need to be the most vigilant with your belongings. As of 2015, Managua had over a million inhabitants, with many living in poverty. The bus station and the oriental market are the most frequent places to get robbed. The bus station is very loud and chaotic and it is easy to get distracted thus making it even easier for someone to take your things, as is the oriental market. Avoid these places at night and don’t carry around too much cash or belongings. Carry a copy of your passport instead of the real one in case your bag is stolen. When you are traveling with your authentic passport keep it in an AIKELIDA passport holder. This hangs around your neck and is easily accessible. Avoid wearing flashy jewelry and clothes or carrying around an expensive handbag. If you find yourself having to spend a few nights in Managua research the safest hotels and hostels. Read online reviews, which are available in abundance. Just don’t get carried away with paranoia. It’s good to be cautious, not terrified.
This is the second largest city in Nicaragua and has a very young population making it a super fun place to spend time in. During the day, the local market is filled with the hustle and bustle of everyday city life. There are always people buying and selling local fruits and vegetables and handmade arts and crafts. There are a lot of people around and it is easy to get distracted while looking at all the jewelry and a tough fanny pack or the tank top with secret pockets with secret pockets is an easy to reach, hands free option to store your cash. The largest cathedral in Central America is located in Leon and serves as a popular meeting spot for school kids and families as well as tourists. At night, the city comes alive with music and dancing and has an amazing mix of locals and tourists enjoying night life. Just like any late-night city outings, many of the petty thefts happen after a few drinks and becoming careless in watching your surroundings and things. There are plenty of security guards out at night that are usually pretty friendly and helpful. If your ending your night super late, get a cab to where you are staying instead of walking unless its super close.
San Juan Del Sur
“SJDS” is a big party spot. A great deal of theft and other crime is alcohol-related. They advertise Sunday Fun-day which is literally a full day of drinking and hostel hopping. If this is your plan it is best to pay for your wristband beforehand so you don’t have to carry around money. You should also leave your cellphone, cameras and passports locked in your room because even if it doesn’t get stolen there is a good chance you will lose it. This area is filled with tourists so some of the locals are keen on ripping you off by charging more for taxis. Many of the places offer shuttles to and from different spots so it is best to take them.
The beaches are gorgeous. But unfortunately, it is a bad idea to leave anything unattended on the beaches, basic things like sandals and towels will probably be snatched up. You can try hiding your things among the trees and bushes but this is not a full proof method. You can always ask someone nearby to keep an eye on your things. Always consider the amount of time you intend to stay on the beach. If you are just going for a quick swim to cool off it is easy enough to keep an eye on your things or if you are with a group of friends you can take turns.
Most street thefts will take place without you even knowing it and is more about the opportunity presenting itself rather than wanting to harm you. However, if someone comes up to you and demands your things it is suggested to just comply with their demands, especially if a weapon is being used. There have been instances reported about use of guns but usually it is a knife if any weapon is being used at all. The police in Nicaragua are not common and don’t typically respond to reports of theft so it is best just to be smart and use common sense.
The Chicken Bus
The most common way to get around Nicaragua is the chicken busses. The chicken busses are always super packed with people getting on and off constantly. At times local women will come on selling treats and drinks and get off at the next stop (hint: try them they are pretty good!). The busses are by far the cheapest way to travel throughout the country and a great way to meet locals and practice your Spanish plus they are pretty interesting and fun. You will see some wild things like birds and iguanas.
You can keep your things safe by bringing a minimal number of items and packing your bags sm
artly. For example, keep your most important and valuable things at the bottom of your bag, and keep your bags zipped and on your lap. Backpacks like the Oscaurt anti-theft travel backpack are water-resistant and have a USB charging port. Many also have a secret compartment for your laptop and other important things like your passport and wallet. If you’re traveling with bigger things or a lot of luggage it’s best to put these things on the top of the bus or underneath it if possible.
The taxis are typically pretty safe and should have a standard rate from point to point. However, there will always be a couple drivers trying to charge you more. Many people bargain with taxi drivers about their prices to see who will give them the cheapest price, especially at the airport. From Managua Airport to Miramar should be around $60, as of the writing of this article. When the taxi does come to pick you up, agree on the rate before you even start driving. A lot of drivers tend to drive with family members or their wives. If this makes you uncomfortable it is totally acceptable to find a new taxi. Licensed taxis will have red plates and will also display the drivers ID for you to easily see. Licensed taxies are similar to those in the US where you can flag one down at any time of the day. You can also hire private taxis that are usually more expensive but could be more negotiable in price than licensed taxis.
This is not the safest or most common but it can and does happen. This is usually closer to the beach towns that have long dirt roads leading down the beach. Most people will just stop and let you hop in the back of a pickup truck. If you find yourself doing this hopefully you’re a really good judge of character and are with a group of people, not by yourself.
Renting a Car
Just like at most international airports, at Managua Airport you can rent a car near baggage claim. This is a convenient and reliable place to rent a car to travel Nicaragua. If possible, try to get an SUV as most of Nicaragua still has dirt roads. After you have rented a car use common sense, keep your valuables out of sight, keep the windows up and car locked. Be aware of the rules of the road because cops will take advantage of the foreigners that are not carefully following the lines and will try to take your drivers license unless you pay a “tariff,” or fine.
This is the most common form of transportation for locals and long-term tourists because it is cheap. It’s even common to see a full family on just one bike! The most common theft would be leaving a bag unattended on the handle bars. There have been few instances of parts of motor bikes being stolen but that is very rare. The most reliable place to buy or rent a motorbike are the main stores in Managua like Triumph, Casa Pellas Yamaha or Masesa Central. You can buy cheaper bikes secondhand off other tourists or locals but these are not always the most dependable.
Scams: Don’t Get Taken
This is not necessarily a scam but you should be aware of the exchange rate. The most accurate place to exchange your money is at the airport or in a bank. Many places, especially in little beach towns, don’t have ATMs and only take cash. There are many places that accept the US dollar but it has to be in really good condition. It is best to carry around small bills so little tiendas have enough change. Locals tend to be very honest and give the right change back but it is always a good idea to know the exchange rate.
Children Selling Drugs
How’s that for a clickbait heading? While this also isn’t necessarily a scam, it is in your best interest to not buy drugs in a foreign country. There have been stories about kids coming up to you in streets and restaurants asking if you want to buy weed and coke – just say no, to kids, selling drugs, kids. Don’t be an idiot. ‘Nuff said. The local law is harsh even against marijuana, with tourists being an easy target – it’s just not worth it. Which leads us to…
The police in Nicaragua do not get paid a lot. It happens quite often that you will get pulled over for a minor traffic infraction or you have some sort of interaction with cops in the cities, maybe you were a bit too drunk or you did get caught with a little bit of weed. Some officers will take your documents until you pay the “fine” or “ticket.” You can offer to pay right then and there and he will probably ask for whatever cash you have in your wallet. They will pocket this and let you go – most of the time. As in other situations, it is a good idea to carry copies of your documents, especially if the officer is just looking to put some extra cash in his pocket. Just like getting pulled over or dealing with police in any country be polite and try not to panic. It is up to you in these situations, many people play along and just pay the bribe but it is also in your right to ask the officer for his name and badge number and that you will follow him to the station to pay your fine there.
Hotel and Accommodation Safety
There are so many ways to look for and book accommodations in today’s world. It is simple to read comments and check websites for people’s feedback.
The hotels in Managua are generally pretty safe. They are close to the airport and usually have shuttles or taxis that can take you right there. The hotels you find in the cities are usually what you would expect, safe and secure. Well-known travel-oriented websites such as TripAdvisor, Lonely Planet, and Trivago will generally show you the best online prices, though it is worth checking the individual pages of each establishment for better deals.
Airbnb, as you likely know, can be a great way to find cheap housing, especially if you’re looking for long term digs. While most homes in Nicaragua are open air they are usually surrounded by gates and fences that you definitely want to lock at night and while you are away. It is a good idea to have a safe or a secure room where you can lock important things away in. You can bring your own portable door lock for extra security.
Motion detecting lights like from Mr Beams are wireless and battery operated. These are a great option as you can easily travel with them. Just note that hostel and hotel operations that have full-time staff are typically more secure than a rented Airbnb house as people are more likely to be on duty at all hours.
There are great hostels to stay at in Nicaragua, both in the cities and along the beaches. As with most hostels, lockers are usually provided for you to keep your things in but bring your own lock and remember to actually lock it. A simple travel combination Master Lock padlock is handy and you don’t have to worry about losing the key. You can use it on your luggage too. Electronics and cash are the most common things to be reported as stolen, keep them locked away when you are not using them. Always keep your bedroom doors locked. If you are in a shared dorm room don’t be afraid to talk to your roommates about keeping the door locked at all times especially when the last person comes into bed. Some hostels have armed guards walking around at night but this shouldn’t alarm you as it is just a precaution. If you have any concerns or questions do not hesitate to ask the managers, staff or owners of the place you are staying. One of the newer forms of robbery is having a thief go into unlocked dorms while people are sleeping and snagging whatever is on the ground or an easy grab like a cell phone or wallet. Try to have the last person in remember to lock the door or put the phone under your pillow!
The Final Word on Safety in Nicaragua
Nicaragua is one of the safest countries to travel through in Central America. The culture and people are generally happy to see their economy grow through tourism and are super helpful, especially when you are friendly and respectful. The best way to stay safe and keep your belongings safe is to use common sense. Most theft is crime of opportunity so don’t leave your valuables unlocked and out in the open. Keep yourself safe by not walking around alone late at night and just make smart choices.
Travel & Leisure Nicaragua Guide: good mainstream source of adult-friendly info
US Department of State: always a reliable source of detail and paranoia, but especially for Americans, you really should read it