Travel Primer for Gringos... Nicaragua
If you are not traveling with an organized group, your first visit to Nicaragua is best done with the assistance of someone who lives in Nicaragua or has previously visited the country. Hopefully, this person will accompany you for the first few days to provide an orientation and "hands on" guidance. An alternative (although more expensive) method would be to use a professional tour operator such as Tiera Tours or TravelNica, stay at a resort such as Montelimar on the Pacific coast or a hotel such as the Las Mercedes (within walking distance of the airport). There are also many other excellent hotels in Managua. Most hotels are able to provide initial assistance and can serve as your "base of operations" until you feel more comfortable in traveling without assistance.
It is NicAmigo's suggestion that you go to Granada where you can stay at the Alhambra, Colonial, La Gran Francia or any other of the many excellent hotels in the city (practically all price levels are available and most are very easy to find). A taxi (choose only the taxi operators with the red and white license plates) can take you to Granada from the airport for about $25-$35 during the daytime (be sure to negotiate the price BEFORE you go... pay a translator if you do not speak Spanish). As an alternative, the taxi can also take you to the dispatch center for the small van-type air conditioned buses that make a run every half hour (or so) to/from Granada at a very reasonable cost. If you hire a taxi, be sure to choose an authorized taxi service (has a red license tag) rather than just a car with a "taxi" sign on it.
OK... so you don't want to let someone else do the driving. No problem? Well, renting a car is easy... driving may be something else. You can rent a car at the airport. Prior arrangements before your trip are highly suggested... NicAmigo recommends Targa Rent-a-Car email@example.com or LUGO Rent-A-Car firstname.lastname@example.org although cars from other companies such as Budget and Hertz are available.
RULE NUMBER ONE: you MUST know where you are going BEFORE you start. If you turn left in front of the airport, you will drive right into Managua and goodness knows where you'll end up ...there are areas that you should not enter. Traffic is very congested, busses will change lanes whenever they want to, streets are generally not marked and it is VERY EASY to get lost. And don't even THINK of driving at night.
A better alternative might be to use Granada as your base for visiting Nicaragua. Buy a map at the airport, turn right when leaving the airport, head to Granada. Watch for signs, consult your map, and you should not have a problem getting there... there is one right turn after leaving the airport and one left turn when you finally reach the stop sign at the Masaya-Managua Road.
The roads between the airport and Granada are now in excellent condition!
When you arrive in Granada, turn right at the first main intersection (ESSO gas station is on the left and you may see a red light on the right side of the road ... CAUTION, the light is difficult to see and does not operate during electrical blackouts). Go to the first stop sign and turn left. Proceed to the Central Park, turn left and park anywhere in this block... the Hotel Alhambra is on your left, the Hotel Colonial is just around the corner and La Gran Francia Hotel is located on the other side of the park just West of the Cathedral... sit on the Alhambra Hotel veranda and order a cold one ... WHEW!
The people at the Hotel Alhambra and all the other local hotels are most friendly and helpful. They will even suggest other housing arrangements for you if you'd like a more or less expensive room at a different hotel or alternate housing location (such as a Bed and Breakfast) or even a whole house. There are several local tour operators located within a couple of blocks who would be most happy to help you and offer travel suggestions. The people on the front porch of the Alhambra Hotel are also a great source of information ... of all my experiences in Nicaragua, just sitting on the veranda of the Hotel Alhambra is an interesting and most memorable experience.
Managua is the center of practically all commercial activity in Nicaragua and includes the best shopping areas, restaurants, hotels and commerce in general. No doubt at some time in your itinerary, you will go there. But, as mentioned before, you MUST know where you're going and a person who either lives there or is well acquainted with the city should be with you on your first visit. There is no central business district (most was never rebuilt after the 1972 earthquake) and the city sprawls in all directions with good parts and areas not so great located throughout the maze. I do not know of a square block in the whole city and street address are, for the most part, non-existent. Stop light merchants selling all kinds of merchandise, food and even animals or birds as well as people asking for money will tend to unnerve even the well seasoned traveler. Expect Academy Award quality acting if you turn someone away... especially children. If the activity on the streets does not get to you, the traffic will. So, again, until you have some experience, get someone knowledgeable about the area to go with you.
Travel throughout southwestern Nicaragua is not difficult... the main roads are usually in fairly good condition and gas stations are reasonably spaced. Travel to northwest Nicaragua is possible although you should only stay on main highways. Travel to the Atlantic coast can be tricky and is not recommended without local assistance or prior experience. Side roads into the countryside can deteriorate quickly and should be avoided unless you know where you are going and have a 4 wheel drive vehicle.
Caution: An extremely important driving rule in Nicaragua is to NOT, under ANY circumstance (even if an accident is not "your fault"), cause an injury to another person while driving a car. Even a simple "fender bender" accident can be an extremely frustrating and time consuming experience... just "be careful" out there!
NicAmigo has been told by reputable sources that it is not appropriate and is illegal to offer a bribe; however, it may be advantageous to discreetly provide some "financial assistance" to the police person's family. Suggesting or accepting bribes is prohibited by the Nicaragua National Police; however, for what it's worth, the practice seems to be prevelent and "normal". Providing "assistance" might (or might not) work for you. Surprisingly, during one of my police "stops" in February, 2007, the policeman asked (in perfect English) for "ten dollars"; so I paid my "fine" and off I went.
The number of police "check points" are springing up with increasing frequency within the past year or so. Please note that NicAmigo does not consider being stopped by the police to check vehicle papers a nuisance as this is a very effective deterrent to vehicle theft and many of the stops are only for this purpose.
A few words about the travel safety issue: The most requested information about Nicaragua that is sent to me or that comes up in my conversations concerns the travel safety issue. I think this illustrates the misinformation that is generally attached to visiting Nicaragua. There are, believe it or not, many people who think that there is still fighting and bloodshed going on in the country and the people are still engaged in a civil war. Let me assure you: the war is OVER... there is no organized armed conflict going on now or in the past several years. And, it's unlikely that there will be another war in the immediate future.
Nicaragua is a very peaceful country.
Travel throughout the country, with few exceptions, is known to be safe as long as normal safety and security precautions are taken (see Travel Tips from NicAmigo page for further details). I have personally encountered very few problems during my 26 trips in the last 17 years. I even drive at night on some well known roads although it is VERY difficult and absolutely NOT recommended.
The United States Department of State website provides an extensive review of Nicaragua including a section about safety and driving within the country.
There are so many good things about Nicaragua that it would be unfortunate to have an incident or situation change your positive viewpoint. By being an informed traveler, you should not have any problems greater than your ability to cope with them.