The bus is undoubtedly the main way to get around Nicaragua and a great way to discover the country’s geography, its people and even some of its culture (music, food, clothing, manners). Most of the buses are old, decommissioned (but often fantastically repainted and redecorated) yellow American school buses. Expect these buses to be packed and your luggage (if large) to be stowed in the back or on the roof of the bus (along with bicycles and other large items). Better be quick or you will have to stand or sit on a beanbag for most of the journey. On most lines you can buy your ticket a day or two in advance, which guarantees you a (numbered) seat (look for the number on your ticket or above the windows). Some have not replaced the original seats designed for 7-year-olds, so you may have sore knees at the end of the journey. Often snacks and drinks are sold on the buses (or through the windows) before departure or at fast stops. A typical fare can range from US$1 or less for short journeys (~30min) to US$3-4 for longer journeys.
With the exception of Managua’s city buses, which use contactless prepaid cards to pay fares, buses in Nicaragua are usually operated by a two-person crew. In addition to the driver, each bus usually has a younger “assistant” who stands at the front door, announces stops, collects fares and helps passengers board (often with special attention to pretty women).
Most cities in Nicaragua have a main bus terminal for long-distance buses. Managua has many terminals, each serving a different part of the country, depending on its geographical location in Managua. Mercado Israel Levites, in the western part of the city, serves the cities on the Pacific coast to the north, for example Leon, Chinandega and all points in between. Mercado Mayoreo, in the eastern part of the city, serves points to the east, north and southeast, such as Matagalpa Rama or San Carlos, Rio San Juan. Mercado Huembes, in the southern part of Managua, serves points in the south, such as Rivas/San Jorge and Peñas Blancas.
Minibuses (“microbuses” as they are called) are another method of travelling around the country. These are essentially vans that can hold up to 15 people (some can be larger, the size of a shuttle bus). The minibuses run regularly between Managua and relatively nearby towns such as Granada, Leon, Masaya, Jinotepe and Chinandega. Most of them depart from and return to the small microbus terminal located in front of the Universidad Centoamericana (the buses and the terminal are therefore known as “los microbuses de la UCA”). The microbuses run all day until late afternoon or early evening, depending on the destination, with shorter times on Sundays and a certain rush hour during the week, as they serve the nearby towns from which many people commute to Managua. Microbuses cost a little more than school buses, but are faster and make fewer stops. As with school buses, you can expect them to be overcrowded, probably with even less space, as drivers often load more people than the vehicle is designed for. On the other hand, most drivers (and driver’s aides) are friendly and helpful and will help you stow your luggage. They serve the main bus terminals in Leon and Chinandega, Parque Central and Mercado de Artesanias (and then depart from another park a few blocks away) in Masaya, and a park a block from Parque Central in Granada. There is limited microbus service to other cities from the respective bus terminals in Managua.
At the international airport, to the right of the main terminal, there are two offices that house the national airlines. They are ideal if you want to get to the Atlantic coast. Prices vary, but it takes an hour and a half to get to the Corn Islands rather than a whole day by land. If you are trying to save time, this is the best way to get to the Corn Islands or anywhere on the Atlantic coast. Destinations include San Carlos, Big Corn Island, Bluefields, two of the three towns in the “mining triangle” and new connections to Ometepe and San Juan del Norte (Greytown). The planes fill up quickly and the luggage allowance is very limited. So check if the time saved is worth the cost and effort. For more information visit their website
With the boat
It is customary for your bags to be searched before each boat trip. The rules on what can be in your luggage vary, but on the San Carlos – Ometepe – Granada boat, alcoholic drinks are often confiscated when you board and returned to you when you disembark.
The boat is the only way to get to the Solentinames and remains the most popular way to get to Isla de Ometepe. Be aware that strong winds and bad weather can cancel ferry trips. This is not necessarily a bad thing, however, as wind and bad weather can make the ferry ride uncomfortable for those prone to seasickness, and many of the boats used to access Ometepe are older, smaller ferries and launches. The quickest route to Ometepe is from San Jorge (10 minutes from Rivas and often connected by the same bus from Managua to Rivas) to Moyogalpa. A much longer journey can be made (with only two trips a week) from Granada to Altagracia. There is a large modern ferry from San Jorge that runs daily to the new port of San Jose del Sur, near Moyogalpa.
The boat is also a convenient way to get to Big Corn Island. Take a bus to Rama, which is the end of the road. This road is in good condition and the ride should not be too bumpy. There is a weekly bunk boat to the Corn Islands and small launches to Bluefields and El Bluff several times a day. You can also take a speedboat to Bluefields or El Bluff. From there you can take a boat to the Corn Islands or a flight from Bluefields. The first boat from Rama to Bluefields usually leaves at dawn and allows for a boat ride. Similarly, a large freighter takes two days to return to Rama from the Corn Islands, with an overnight stop at El Bluff to pick up cargo. There is now a route (but don’t expect much) from Rama to Pearl Lagoon, which can also be reached by speedboat from Bluefields.
You should always make a clear agreement on the fare before getting into the taxi. Most parts of the country have fixed fares within a city that double at night, but fares in Managua or outside the city limits depend mainly on your negotiating skills. In particular, you need to establish whether it is local currency or dollars and whether the price is per person or for the whole group. Once you are in the taxi, you have no bargaining power and there is no taximeter. Taxi drivers in Managua can be aggressive and there are many of them, so finding a suitable fare is easy. Taxis will accept multiple fares if they are going in roughly the same direction. In all cities, taxi drivers are generally fair and well mannered, and it is a good way to see the local scenery. In smaller towns there is a fixed price per person, so there is no need to negotiate. In Managua, the fare has to be negotiated before you get in and will increase depending on the number of passengers (in your group who are not yet in the taxi or who get in later), the time of day (it is much more expensive at night) and the location (going to or from a nice part of Managua can be a bit more expensive due to less bargaining power). The cheapest fare for a single passenger is C$30 (2013), but the same ride for two can cost C$40. A ride around Managua during the day should not cost more than C$60-70 if you are not going to or from the airport. Tipping is not expected (but is always welcome). You can also share the cost of a taxi to destinations near Managua, such as Masaya, if you prefer to travel with a minimum of comfort.
There have been increased incidents of taxi crime in Managua. The most typical scenario is that one or more additional passengers get into the taxi shortly after you have been picked up, they drive you around the city in circles with the taxi driver, taking everything you have with you and leaving you in a random place, usually far away from your destination. Make sure the taxi has the licence number painted on the side, the taxi sign is on the roof, the light inside the taxi is on and the taxi operator’s licence is clearly visible on the front seat. You can ask a friend to drive you home and take down the licence plate number. Be careful, especially at night, and it is best to ask your hotel to get you a taxi.
You can book a taxi online at TaxiManagua. Fares within Managua start at 20 USD.
Some of the residents are known to ride motorbikes, in some cases with several children on one motorbike with a mother. If you see something like this on the streets, don’t be surprised.
If you plan to ride a motorbike in Nicaragua, be aware that helmets are compulsory and that night riding is very dangerous.
You can rent motorbikes from Nicaragua Motorcycles Adventures.
Bicycles are a great way to get around Nicaragua. They are a free way to get around while allowing you to stop and see the country that would normally pass you by. In the more rural areas, Nicaraguans are very friendly and helpful, and the roads allow bicycles on the shoulder for the most part. Most drivers will know how to handle a bike, although locals prefer motorbikes if they can afford them at all. In big cities like Managua, the roads and pavements can be very dangerous for bicycles. The lanes are narrow and not designed for cyclists. Roundabouts are also very difficult to navigate. It is almost impossible to negotiate traffic and it is usually best to wait until traffic is clear. Pavements are uneven and often have posts, potholes or other obstacles that make it difficult to ride efficiently.
As of 2016, bicycles (very similar to the American multi-speed models sold in the US, such as Huffy) are widely available among urban and rural Nicaraguans; spare parts (tyres, tubes, pedals) and repair services are available in most towns, even small ones, although you may sometimes have to ask around to find them. Spare parts (tyres, tubes, pedals) and repair services are available in most towns, even small ones, although you may have to ask around to find them (e.g. the only bike repair shop in town may be working in its backyard and not have a sign on the street). Either way, it is highly recommended that you know how to fix basic defects, especially if you intend to go on overland rides. If you don’t already have a bike, you can buy cheap ones in most towns of any size, even in remote towns like San Carlos. In cities like Leon or Granada, almost all hostels (and some independent operators) offer bike rental for ten dollars a day or less.
In Managua, there is now a critical mass walk every two months (Facebook link in Spanish). Every first and third Sunday from 15:30 in Plaza Cuba in Managua. In other cities, cycling promotion is still in its infancy, but car traffic is not that heavy and you should have no major problems getting around by bike.
Hitchhiking is common in rural areas and small towns, but not recommended in Managua. Nicaraguans themselves usually only travel in the back of the truck, not in the vehicle, when travelling with a group of people (3 or more). Some drivers may charge a little money to give you a lift. Nicaraguans see this as a way to be cheap, but they usually agree to pay the small amount (US$1/person).
The roads on the Pacific coast are generally in acceptable condition, although the rains at the beginning of the rainy season can hit the paved roads in Managua particularly hard. The roads on the Atlantic coast are a different story. There are few paved roads and dirt roads can become impassable during the rainy season. Bring patience and spare tyres and plan for longer driving time than on the Pacific side. Urban driving is not a good idea in any of the cities, although in Managua you have few alternatives to a car due to car-oriented urban sprawl. If you can, hire a driver or take taxis. Buses are an option to get around Managua, but only during the day and you need a rechargeable TUC card to pay for the ride, which is only available to those with Nicaraguan ID. In cities like Granada or León, it is much easier to get around on foot and you are better off leaving the car than trying to navigate the somewhat confusing network of one-way streets.
There are no tolls in Nicaragua and, as of October 2016, diesel is in the range of 20 córdobas cents, while petrol (differentiated by octane rating into regular and premium) is in the range of 20 córdobas cents. Compared to the United States or Mexico, petrol can thus be considered expensive at around USD 4 per gallon, but is significantly cheaper than in most European countries.
The speed limit on the motorways is usually 100 km/h, but you should not exceed it, as cows and horses run across the roads as if they owned the place. Within cities, the speed limit is 45 km/h and 60 km/h on all other roads. The police are particularly adept at checking rental cars to collect “fines” from tourists, so drive defensively and within the speed limit. The normal procedure for traffic fines is for the police officer to collect your licence and issue you a ticket, which you take to a bank to pay the fine. The bank will give you a receipt that you can use later to collect your licence. However, not all police officers follow this standard procedure every time, and if you are in a hurry, they may allow you to pay on the spot. Fines are haggled over, and if your licence has been confiscated by a police officer, you can sometimes avoid paying the fine by arguing your case convincingly at the police station.
A special feature of Nicaraguan traffic law is that you are not allowed to move your car even one centimetre after an accident. If you do, you will be responsible for any damage. Wait for the police to arrive and ask permission to move your vehicle if necessary. If you are unlucky enough to have an accident that results in serious injury or death, you will be taken into custody until everything is sorted out. In most cases, the easiest way out is to accept a plea deal, but you should consult a lawyer first if this happens to you.
Nicaragua has many roundabouts (rotondas) that serve as local landmarks in Managua. Changing lanes in or just before a roundabout is illegal and punishable, especially if you are driving a rental car.
Driving licences from most countries are accepted for up to 30 days. If you intend to stay and drive longer, you will need to obtain a Nicaraguan driving licence, which is only available to citizens and legal residents.