Safety in Nicaragua
January 25, 2009 12:12 AM   Subscribe

Can you shed any light on how safe Nicaragua is for American tourists?

A large group of friends and I are thinking about going to Nicaragua at some point this year. We would be traveling to San Juan del Sur via the airport in Managua. I have read conflicting reports on the safety of the country, and the city of Managua in particular, when it comes to tourist travel. The State Department's website ( paints a particularly bleak picture. Beyond that, I was unable to find much reliable information online on Nicaragua's safety--even anecdotal evidence seems largely recycled (e.g., try googling "is Nicaragua's negative image justified"), or offered by people who have an interest in attracting tourists to their properties in Nicaragua. Does anyone out there have any good sources of information, or at least authentic anecdotes, to share? Any tips on how to stay safe?
posted by holympus to Travel & Transportation around Nicaragua (15 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I visited Nicaragua— Managua and Ometepe— about ten years ago. My understanding at the time was that some areas, eg nearer the Honduran border, would be much more dangerous for me to visit than others. So maybe a similar situation pertains today, and you're havng a hard time getting clear information about tourist safety because it's hard to say much about the country as a whole. (I was also traveling with someone who knew the country much better than I, so I basically left judgments like that up to him…)
posted by hattifattener at 12:59 AM on January 25, 2009

My cousin went a few years ago with a friend and felt so unsafe that she cut her trip short....and this is someone who is an almost unfazeable, widely-traveled photographer.
posted by brujita at 3:07 AM on January 25, 2009

i was there in 2003. flew into managua at night and, despite being quite an experienced traveler, i admit i was a bit freaked out. my lack of spanish didn't help. or the fact that i was staying in a dodgy guest house near the bus station, not a salubrious part of town.

in the daylight, things were a bit less intimidating. i got a bus down to san juan del sur and, while i still regretted my lack of spanish, no longer felt freaked out. i hung out there for a while and then made some friends and traveled out to omotepe and grenada, then to bluefields and the corn islands (out by awful bus, back by plane), and then up to leon. all told it was about three weeks.

i heard some stories about travelers getting mugged in grenada when i was there. bluefields was definitely dodgy and we kept our wits about us. i also heard stories about theft-scams in the corn islands; hotels would help people steal your stuff and then "help" you get it back. no confirmation on the veracity of that story; it was just a story i heard.

someone did nick a bunch of my rum from open bottle in my bag when i checked it in transit...

so, in short, not so safe, not so dangerous. the state dept website is super cautious, so take that with a grain of salt. if you're an experienced traveler (and nicaragua isn't easy travel), you should be safe enough baring bad luck.

i'd recommend learning a mess of spanish as even those in the tourist industry there frequently speak no english. with a large group, you'll be unlikely to face any violent crime -- solo targets are easier. don't take any flashy jewelry or electronics you'll miss if they get stolen. be prepared for uncomfortable bus rides.

the corn islands are lovely, especially little corn. omotepe is worth a visit. leon was quiet and nice. the flor de cana rum is quite tasty and cheap. bring me back some, huh?

photos are here, look under 2003/nicaragua/
posted by xz at 3:44 AM on January 25, 2009

The State Department's website paints a particularly bleak picture.

Never been to Nicaragua, but have been to a lot of questionable places after reading the State Department warnings. My take is that, coming from the US Feds, they have a very heavy emphasis on safety and CYA. Better to tell you not to go than to tell you it is OK when it turns out otherwise.

So my advice would be to assume that what the State Dept. claims are dangers have occurred in the past, but that they won't necessarily happen to you.

It would be interesting as a point of comparison to see State Dept. give their assessment of travel to Detroit or similar.
posted by Meatbomb at 5:11 AM on January 25, 2009

Just last week I actually wrote an article on information and misinformation about Nicaragua on the internet. In short, that article goes into some of the background of the misinformation about Nicaragua.

But about your question in particular - Nicaragua is certainly no more dangerous than the countries directly north (Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador) and probably a hair safer actually. I lived in Nicaragua for 3 years (now I'm in Costa Rica). Tourists in Nicaragua are usually safe, but if you are gullible or sloppy then you are far less safe. Even the police may rob you if you let them (same with many latin countries). The most important things to remember are: do not get drunk or do any drugs; do not hang out on the streets at night any more than absolutely necessary.

Why are you going to San Juan Del Sur by the way? It's safer than Managua but not the safest or most authentic, just your typical semi-sketchy tourist town. Why not go to Ometepe, La Boquita, or Chinandega - more safe, less touristy - take a look at my review of Rancho Esperanza. You might also take a look at the articles in the Safety in Central America and Nicaragua forums.
posted by peter_meta_kbd at 6:59 AM on January 25, 2009

I was in Nicaragua in 2003 (solo, female). I remember reading in a guidebook that it has the lowest crime rate in Central America, which jibes with my experience. The only place I ever felt less-than-safe was Managua. But I didn't spend much time there.

Anyway, it was sort of jarring to read the comments here saying people felt unsafe - the crime rates seemed much higher in Honduras and Guatemala. I would recommend knowing some Spanish.
posted by lunasol at 7:32 AM on January 25, 2009

I cover Emerging Markets so I go to crazy places all the time. I was last there pre the elections in November, 2008. You need to not be going there. Let me repeat that: You need to not be going there. Theft is high, the police are ineffective and corrupt, taxis can be rough, there are a great number of protests, and leptospirosis is very common. I have been to a great number of unsafe countries and this is definitely on my "not going, sorry to disappoint you" list when asked.
posted by arimathea at 7:36 AM on January 25, 2009

FWIW, in 2005 a friend who basically looks like the Terminator got held up with a machete. I don't know where in the country this took place, though.
posted by Beardman at 8:12 AM on January 25, 2009

I spent some time in Honduras which I understand has about the same level of safeness as Nicaragua. I never felt unsafe though I did have my bag stolen once though (stupid mistake on my part.)

Avoid being out at night (especially in big cities), avoid highways at night, don't be flashy, try to blend in and keep your wits about you. You'll be find.
posted by DieHipsterDie at 8:20 AM on January 25, 2009

Arimathea's experience is clearly much more recent than mine, but I wandered all over the country (including spending a couple of days in Managua bustling around on foot, local bus, and taxis) during the summer of 2004 and the closest thing I had to a problem was a couple of fairly pushy "charity workers" asking for donations.

That said, San Juan del Sur is pretty disappointing touristy shithole and not worth the trek. (Ometepe, yes.)
posted by kittyprecious at 8:40 AM on January 25, 2009

I have been to Nicaragua in 2007 and 2005. Managua is pretty shady, and we usually try to get out of town as quickly as possible. If you have to spend a night, the Best Western across the street from the airport is not bad.

I always felt pretty safe in other areas of the country, but I agree with the other people that have said to be careful at night in the big cities. Be sure to check out the Ometepe if you can.
posted by bignerds at 8:51 AM on January 25, 2009

I did about what the OP is considering doing in spring of 2007; got about 10 friends together, flew in and out of Managua, and visited a number of other spots in the country, including San Juan del Sur (but also including Granada and Ometepe). The general consensus from everyone - even the locals - was that Managua is not safe and you should not do anything there other than fly in and out. I arrived around midnight and took a cab to Granada immediately.

I also heard that the Caribbean coast is where most of the drug running occurs and that tourists should definitely stay away from there. So we did.

The other areas seemed relatively safe, though we were careful to not go out alone at night and were generally just aware of our surroundings the whole time. Standard international travel stuff. I thought my camera might have gotten "stolen" though there's a good chance I left it on a bus, so... not sure.

I disagree that San Juan is a "shithole"; it's one of the few relatively convenient ways to access the ocean, and the beaches are clean, beautiful and not at all crowded - other than the main strip right in town, of course. It's nothing special on a cultural level, though, and you should definitely get to some other areas, however, like Ometepe, Granada, and perhaps Laguna de Apoyo if you're really into volcanos.

I'd be curious to hear what particular experiences arimathea had and whether he/she thinks things have changed due to the Nov. 2008 elections. I admit I was there before that, but I hadn't heard of any significant strife on that account, to a degree that would endanger tourists.
posted by rkent at 9:34 AM on January 25, 2009

I went to Nicaragua in 2005 and spent several days in Managua and a few days total in Matagalpa and Granada. I never felt unsafe and had no problems, no threats, no fear, nothing stolen. And I had been kind of worried because of the State Department warnings and I guess just because of bad propaganda-infused holdover from the 80s.

I had a business contact who lived in Managua and asked her about it before I left so I could provide my family with some assurance. She said that she never felt unsafe, even going about her business around town alone. And she was a petite, very good-looking woman. So that was comforting.

When I got there I found the same to be true. I was with a group and the organizers told us to just not do anything flagrantly risky like walking around the streets at night, particularly with visible valuables. Daytime was fine. It just felt like anywhere, people going about their business. We weren't really hitting tourist areas, if that makes any difference.

The only sketchy thing that happened the whole time was a pathetic attempt at pickpocketing as I was snaking my way through a massive political rally. Just looked the guy in the face and that was the end of that. I heard that a big gang was there, but I didn't see any trouble.

I'm sure there are ways to get yourself in trouble there, both dangerous (e.g. mugging or rural highway bandits) and more just sleazy/pedestrian (crooked cabbie or hotel staff), but generally I think if you keep your head about you you'll be fine. Use one of those inner hidey pouches for most of your cash and passport just in case. I find them annoying and unnecessary, but I guess you never know.
posted by kookoobirdz at 10:59 AM on January 25, 2009

I've visited twice - August 2007 to the Pacific coast (Leon, Ometepe, and Granada), and March 2008 to the Corn Islands off the Atlantic Coast. Flew into Managua both times but have never spent more time there than it took to board our next form of transport out.

I love Nicaragua - it's beautiful, cheap, and I haven't had even a sketchy travel experience. I heard from someone who traveled at the same time that I was there about a camera being stolen in Managua, but that was all. I have taken local transport (chicken buses, motorcycle taxis, tiny airplanes), had more than enough rum, traveled with an expensive camera in sight at all times, stayed in a shack on the beach, walked through the jungle in the dark, and always felt very safe. My friends who have gone have had similar experiences. I would love to go back, if there weren't so many other places I'd like to go too.
posted by milagu at 11:54 AM on January 25, 2009

I was there in Dec. 2006 -- we (two women) flew into Managua, took a bus to Granada, then went on to Ometepe, then a beach town (can't remember the name, might have been San Juan del Sur). We had a great trip, and never felt particularly unsafe. Then again, we didn't do anything stupid either, which is to say we didn't hang out in Managua, nor did we trek around very late at night, nor did we get really drunk in public.
posted by janet lynn at 2:27 PM on January 25, 2009

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