Nicaragua is a country that contains many beautiful and diverse attractions; some of them are quite popular whereas others are fairly unknown or even completely unexplored. Nicaragua not only possesses lakes, lagoons, rivers and estuaries, but also volcanoes, mountains, and cliffs. And then there are also cities, towns, and villages, and on the other hand tropical rainforest, woodlands, and plantations. Arriving at these sites is always possible one way or another, but a little knowledge about how to move around in Nicaragua can be of great help.
Read more below about some useful hints to explore this beautiful, interesting country.
Before continuing with more details, we can start with one very practical tip: if you do not know how to get somewhere, ask it! Only rarely will you not find friendly Nicaraguans who are willing to help. If you are in doubt, be sure to ask somebody on the streets. If possible, try to find more than one person, especially in the rural areas, because although people are very helpful they also tend to provide you with a mere guess in case they do not know the area. In any way, asking directions helps you find places and you will also be surprised how easy it is to get involved in a lively conversation with the friendly Nicaraguans.
Addresses: ruled by reference points
Warning! Orienting oneself using addresses in cities, towns, or rural areas can be a bit confusing for foreign visitors. It is surely useful to know a little about the rather original address system in this country.
Throughout Nicaragua, urban and rural addresses do not use any real numerical order. Instead, the system is ruled by reference points. That means that Nicaraguan addresses take a certain well-known point and continue with the route from that point. These reference points are mostly buildings (churches, governmental buildings, private buildings, commercial centers, banks, etc.) or monuments, but sometimes these points are ancient trees, hills, bridges, or famous buildings that do not exist anymore!
Furthermore, in addition to kilometers and meters, Nicaraguans also have some other units of length. To learn more about the address system and related issues, we recommend visitors to read our section about Addresses.
Transportation by land
There is a large network of roads in Nicaragua, varying in size from three-lane highways to narrow mountain passes, and varying in condition from excellent roads to poorly maintained dirt-roads that appear to be inaccessible. In order to reach the different beautiful locations in Nicaragua, it is not only necessary to know about how to get there, but also to know about the type and condition of the roads that will have to be traveled.
In Nicaragua, there are no highways that have many lanes and allow for high-speed transportation. The most important highway is the Pan-American Highway, which connects many countries in this region. In Nicaragua this highway runs from the border with Honduras in the north to the border with Costa Rica in the south, and along the way it passes many towns and cities that offer important tourism attractions.
At several points, the Pan American Highway is widened to several lanes (this happens around important cities), but the largest part of the highway consists of only two lanes in total; one for each direction. The highway is in good condition, except for some parts that might be undergoing maintenance work. This highway runs through the departments of Madriz, Estelí, Matagalpa, Managua, Carazo, and Rivas.
In general, the roads that connect major cities are in good condition, although it is possible to encounter small segments or alternative routes that could cause significant slowdown because of their poor condition.
Other secondary roads have never been asphalted or paved, but these might be the roads that lead to some of the most interesting destinations like beautiful beaches or excellent natural reserves. Some of these gravel or sand roads are quite well accessible, but others are in very irregular conditions (during the raining season, many dirt-roads suffer from the tropical downpours). In order to reach many of these beautiful but more remote destinations of Nicaragua, it can be necessary to use high clearance, four-wheel drive vehicles, in order to pass muddy, slippery roads or steep paths.
To learn more about the road conditions of many of Nicaragua’s roads, be sure to visit our Transportation section.
Transportation between destinations
Not only for travel within cities, but also for transportation between different destinations, there are several methods of transportation available, including both collective and individual options. The most important ones are urban and interurban buses, taxies, motortaxies, and taxibikes (bicycles with an extra area for passengers).
Basically all urban buses throughout Nicaragua lack decent amenities. Most of the buses that can be observed in Managua are large, yellow (former school-) buses. In other cities, roofed pickup trucks offer another public transportation alternative.
Within Managua, the urban bus network is quite extensive. The buses can be recognized by a number sign (this number could also be painted on the bus itself), which indicates the route traveled by the bus. In other cities, buses also use tags that state their destinations. A list of which buses pass by a certain bus stop can be found on a signboard at the bus stop itself. There is not much additional information available about these routes, which makes it again important to ask Nicaraguans where to get on or off a bus. Bus drivers are also often willing to tell you where to get off in order to reach your destination.
In general, the buses only stop at the bus stops if there is somebody that tells them to stop (they will not stop if there is no apparent need for). This means that it is important to let the driver know if you want to get on (or off) the bus.
The interurban buses can always be found at a terminal (or one of the terminals) within the city or town. These buses can be so called ordinarios (ordinary, regular buses): large buses, low fares, long travel times, and more frequent stops along the road; or they could be expresos (express buses): smaller buses (and more comfortable, in general), slightly higher fares, decreased travel times, and – although they are ‘express buses’ – still the possibility for stops along the roads.
In the large cities, taxies are the fastest methods of transportation, relatively comfortable and quite cheap. The taxies have no meter, which means that the price should be agreed upon beforehand, after negotiating. One advice: if you have no Nicaraguan appearance neither speak the Nicaraguan dialect, you are very likely to be charged prices that are higher than normal. These prices, however, can be negotiated down to more regular levels, and it again pays off to ask a local about the regular prices for a certain trip.
The two coasts, the Pacific and the Caribbean, the many lakes, lagoons, estuaries, and rivers make it necessary to move using waterways. Although transportation by sea, lake, or river is not yet very developed, you will always find some way of getting to beautiful islands, passing impressive rivers, or reaching pristine beaches.
Both at the Pacific and the Caribbean coast there are international ports. However, the only two ports that also experience tourist arrival are located at the Pacific coast: San Juan del Sur in the south, and Corinto in the north.
There are many small ports and docks that provide connections to other destinations. At the Pacific coast there is a private marina, and there are several small fishermen towns that make it possible to visit destinations like the Juan Venado Island or the Islotes de Cosigüina. At the Caribbean coast, there is one municipal wharf and several private ones in the bay of Bluefields. From here, paradisiacal locations like the Corn Islands, Laguna de Perlas or the Rama Keys can be accessed.
The immense Lake Nicaragua is only crossed by a few boats. There is a wharf in the city of Granada. One boat route from here runs from Granada to Altagracia (at Ometepe Island), and then to the towns of Morrito, San Miguelito, and the city of San Carlos (from here, there is transportation to the Solentiname archipelago). At Ometepe Island, there is another port at Moyogalpa, which is connected to the city of San Jorge in Rivas. Several boats and one ferry travel daily back and forth (the ferry is currently not running though). At the Asese port, in the city of Granada, there are also boats that tour around the islets of Granada.
When it comes to fluvial transportation, all of the large rivers offer some sort of public transportation. At the San Juan River, the city of San Carlos has a port that connects this site with the historical fortress of El Castillo, the reserve of Bartola, and the immense Indio-Maíz Natural Reserve. The port at the end of the river, at San Juan del Norte (or Greytown) can also be reached from here. Another port in the Caribbean zone is the one in El Rama, which allows people to travel the interesting Escondido River and reach Bluefields.
Transportation by air
Nicaragua has one international airport and four airstrips for local flights, connecting the Pacific with the Caribbean and the San Juan River.
The international airport is located in the city of Managua, at kilometer 11 of the northern highway. Direct flights from several Latin American countries and the U.S. arrive daily. Visitors from Europe and other parts of the world normally stop-over somewhere in the region. Airplanes to the local airstrips also depart from this same airport.
There are set schedules for the small airports. They are located to the south in San Carlos, in the mining triangle (central part of the RAAN province), at the Caribbean coast in Puerto Cabezas and Bluefields. Big Corn Island also has its own airstrip. There are several projects underway that aim to connect other zones throughout the country by constructing an airstrip.
How to drive in a four-wheel drive car
In older cars, changing between two and four-wheel drive can be quite a hassle. In these cars the driver will have to manually adjust certain aspects of the tires, which will take some time and requires the driver to exit the car. In newer cars, however, changing between the different driving options is much easier.
Car rental companies will generally only rent out new cars that are equipped with these newer mechanisms. To illustrate the process, we will outline the procedure for a Mitsubishi Montero. Please note that the procedure is very similar in other cars, but depending on the brand and make there might be slight differences.
The Mitsubishi Montero has four different driving options. Below is an overview of the different options, including the descriptions given by Mitsubishi:
|2H (2WD)||Dry paved road|
|4H (Full-Time 4WD)||Dry paved road or slippery road|
|4HLc (Center differential lock engaged 4WD)||Rough, sandy, or snow-covered road|
|4LLc (Low-range center differential lock engaged 4WD)||Low-speed driving requiring high power|
For a good road that is not slippery there is no need to use the four wheel drive option, and the car can run in the standard 2H mode. In this case, drive is to the rear wheels only. In addition, most four-wheel drive vehicles have either two or three additional options. In this case there are three different options. The descriptions above explain briefly when to use which option. Obviously, there is not a high probability of encountering snow-covered roads in Nicaragua, which makes the 4HLc option being used less often.
In general, if a road is slippery (because of mud and rain for instance), and the car needs more grip, then it is best to use 4H. During the raining season roads are more likely to require this setting. The next mode, 4HLc, is useful for gaining more control at unpaved roads that are covered by a thick layer of sand. The last option, 4LLc is considered the most powerful option. If roads are very slippery and there is a high risk of losing grip, then this option should be used. This option is also useful for ascending steep roads. If a road is moderately steep, the 4H option can also be sufficient. An example of a steep road that requires 4WD can be found at the Mombacho Volcano. Here, cars are required to ascend the first part using the 4H option. After passing a certain point the road will become even steeper and the 4LLc option is necessary. It is furthermore important to note that going downhill a steep road generally requires the same setting as going uphill.
In order to change between the different driving modes, the car comes with an additional lever. Next to the shift lever that is used for changing gears, there is a small lever that allows the driver to quickly switch between modes. Although it is possible to switch between certain modes while driving, it can be useful to always switch modes while stationary. There are slight differences between how to change the driving mode, but in general the driver will have to press the clutch, and then slide the transfer shift lever to another position. After releasing the clutch and accelerating a little, the appropriate lights on the dashboard should tell the driver which mode has been engaged.
Finally, it is always useful to let the car rental agency demonstrate the different options and methods of changing driving modes. The car manual will also explain more details of this process.
Although there are often other alternatives to driving a four-wheel drive car, there are many remote, beautiful places that are much easier accessible in a 4WD. The simple operating procedures allow many people to drive these cars. Hiring a driver can also be an alternative, and many car rental agencies offer such service.
For more transport information, visit the Transportation page. Here you can find bus schedules, car rental information, airfares, condition of the roads, traveling times, and more.