If you’re flying into Nicaragua than you’re flying into Augusto C. Sandino International Airport, just outside of Managua. It’s pretty clean, pretty small, and pretty easy to negotiate. There are direct flights to Managua from some major US airports; fares usually hover around $500 mark, but can come down to $300, or up to pretty much anything (these are airlines we’re talking about). There aren’t that many direct flights to Managua. Some cheapish indirect flights pass through Managua via Panama City or San Salvador on the TACA airline network.
There’s a $5 entry tax to pay to immigration at the airport. Have a few US dollars on you. Don’t be the ass that has to be escorted through the airport to the ATMs, only to find they don’t accept your card (many ATMS won’t).
There can be a lot of taxi tout hustle around the airport. There have been incidents involving tourists picked up by shady taxis here. Apparently the safest guys are those hanging back and wearing red polos. They’re part of a collective that has become known as the safest taxi option from the airport. The guys in red charge a lot but their prices are somewhat negotiable. Despite the uniform and the high fees, they can be as useless as any other driver when it comes to finding an address in the labyrinth of unmarked Managuan streets.
Crossing Into Nicaragua Overland
Most people entering Nicaragua though are doing so by land as part of a grander Central American odyssey. Nicaragua has a couple of border crossings with Honduras to the north. There are less crossing options to Costa Rica in the south, because most of that border is occupied by lake and river; it’s easiest to cross close to the Pacific Coast. There may be boat services between Costa Rica and Nicaragua on the Atlantic side. Make sure you have your entry and exit procedures taken care of ahead of time if you’re planning to take the boat.
Old American School Buses
Travelling within Nicaragua can be a nostalgic experience, given that the standard mode of transport is the decommissioned US school bus. Most have been given new names like God Blesses and Jesus Saves, but some still bear their original names, like Dade County.
No trip within Nicaragua is ever very far; from Managua you can get to either border within a few long hours. The buses stop frequently, fill to bursting, and are occasionally visited by some truly obnoxious clowns that demand rather than ask for tips. Buses are operated by a driver and two guys who collect money and help passengers on and off. The vast majority of these guys will make sure you get to where you are going. A few will make sure they get your money and then leave you somewhere vaguely closeish to where you kind of wanted to go. Keep an eye on your stuff on the bus; things go missing from outside pockets very easily.
These buses are very cheap and pretty good at getting you to wherever you want to be within the space of about three hours. Be warned though that once the sun starts to go down, the number of buses plummets to almost zero. Don’t count on taking a bus after 5, and don’t even bother trying after 6.
There is a fancier service operated by Ticabus that makes few stops and offers air-conditioned, odour-free connections between bigger cities. These behemoths look ridiculous on the tiny Nica roads, and given how little time the average trip in Nicaragua takes, it seems pretty unnecessary to climb aboard unless you’re really, really determined not to meet any Nicas while in Nicaragua.
Minivans also run between major cities. These leave as soon as they fill, which can take a while. The driver-touts are aggressive salesmen that will always tell you their van is just about to leave. Once they start though they don’t stop, which means a faster ride and no risk of sharing your seat with a screaming, sweating family. Some vans have air-conditioning; most don’t have much space for serious luggage. There have also been unconfirmed rumours of people being held up in these vans.
Taxis in Nicaragua – Your New Best Friend
Nicaraguan taxi drivers are all about one thing; repeat business. Spend much time in Nicaraguan taxis and you will end up with a great mound of makeshift business cards; the names and numbers of all the taxi drivers who have given you ride and are hoping you will call them for many more. To this end, every taxi driver is a salesman and tour guide, who will be keen to fill you in on all the best hotels, nightlife and daytrips around town.
What the drivers really want is for you to hire them to take you to the nearest beach, to spend the day there waiting for you, and to bring you back. If you’re thinking in cordobas this is not cheap; if you’re thinking in dollars it sort of kind of is. It is easy though, and avoids the swelter and dawdle of Nicaraguan buses. Negotiate vigorously.
Official and unofficial taxis are not always easy to differentiate, in terms of appearance, cost or safety. Official taxis are supposed to have some kind of red and white striped motif on them, but often don’t. They should also have correct license plates for the department they are operating in. Regardless of the hazy un/official status of your taxi, always negotiate the fare before starting your trip, and make sure you have exact change. Almost all taxi drivers will try to double or triple up on fares, so you can often end up sharing the cab with a bunch of surly strangers headed in the same vague direction as you. This is perfectly normal, but is also how most taxi crime happens. The risk might be marginally lower if you are the first rather than the last to get in the taxi.
Some towns, such as Rivas, are big on collectivo taxis that fill up at major transit points and run more or less set routes. These, too have a reputation for occasional shadiness. They are faster than buses and cheaper than taxis, though.
Hitchhiking in Nicaragua
Transport is cheap enough in Nicaragua that there isn’t much culture of hitchhiking. Why should someone bother to stop and pick you up when there will be an old school bus rattling by at any minute? In more remote areas trucks might stop to pick you up, as they do the macheteros working on the land. Unless you’re carrying a machete you should probably expect to pay something. This is true of most rides you’ll get in Nicaragua. People still sometimes think that foreigners = easy money.
Hitching with foreigners is a different matter, and is a very easy way to get between specific gringo-friendly destinations, like the beaches around San Juan del Sur.