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SafetyTravel Safety: Americas: Nicaragua

Nicaragua: Republic of Nicaragua
Capital: Managua
Population: 5,023,818
Currency: gold cordoba (NIO)
Languages: Spanish (official)
Religions: Roman Catholic 85%, Protestant
Borders: Costa Rica 309 km, Honduras 922 km

Nicaragua is a young democracy with a developing economy. The national language is Spanish, yet most residents of the Caribbean coastal areas speak English, as well. The climate is generally hot and humid with dry and rainy seasons. Terrain ranges from the hilly and volcanic to coastal beaches and tropical jungles. Many foreign governments and relief organizations provide economic assistance to Nicaragua and numerous individuals (official and non-official) from the U.S. and the rest of the developed world work on community-based projects both in Managua and in the rural areas. Violent crime has not been a historical problem, yet criminal enterprises appear to be growing in organization as economic development in Nicaragua moves forward. The judicial system is corrupt and politically influenced.

The promotion of tourism is a top government priority yet Nicaragua lacks an extensive tourist infrastructure. Potential tourists may want to obtain information from INTUR, the governmental agency responsible for developing, regulating and promoting tourism in Nicaragua. INTUR's website is and offers some information in English.

Police coverage is extremely sparse outside of major urban areas. Sporadic incidents of highway banditry are reported in remote rural areas of north and northwest Nicaragua. If you do decide to travel to these areas, travel only on major highways during daylight hours. Though less frequent than in past years, political demonstrations and strikes occur sporadically in urban areas. U.S. citizens are advised to avoid crowds and blockades during such occurrences.

Nicaragua's Atlantic coast contains vast stretches of territory with little or no law enforcement outside the major towns. Nautical travelers should be aware that there are boundary disputes involving the governments of Nicaragua and Honduras in the Caribbean coastal waters adjoining these countries. Passengers and crews of foreign fishing boats have been detained and/or fined and vessels impounded. There also is a long-term boundary dispute with Colombia over San Andres Island and surrounding waters. Travelers should also be aware that narcotics traffickers often use the Caribbean coastal waters. 

On the San Juan River there have been disagreements regarding navigational rights in the Nicaragua-Costa Rica border area. Nicaragua and Costa Rica signed a three-year agreement in September of 2002 to defer presenting these issues before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for resolution. Meanwhile, the governments of Nicaragua and Costa Rica have agreed to work towards an amicable solution and to jointly-fund community development projects in the border area.

U.S. citizens are cautioned that strong currents and undertows off sections of Nicaragua's Pacific coast have resulted in a number of drownings. Warning signs are not posted, and lifeguards and rescue equipment are not readily available in Nicaragua. U.S. citizens contemplating beach activities in Nicaragua's Pacific waters should exercise appropriate caution.

Although hundreds of passengers travel daily on domestic flights within Nicaragua without incident, these flights use small, uncontrolled airstrips outside of Managua, with minimal safety equipment and little boarding security. Significant safety and security improvements have, however, been made at the Bluefields, Puerto Cabezas and Corn Island airports, all of which are located on Nicaragua's Atlantic coast.

Although extensive demining operations have been conducted to clear rural areas of northern Nicaragua of landmines left from the war, visitors venturing off the main roads in these areas are cautioned that the possibility of encountering landmines still exists.

Violent crime in Managua and other cities is increasing, and street crimes are common. Pick pocketing and occasional armed robberies occur on crowded buses, at bus stops and in open markets, particularly the large Mercado Oriental. Gang activity is rising in Managua, though not at levels found in neighboring Central American countries. Gang violence, including robberies, assaults and stabbings, is most frequently encountered in poorer neighborhoods, but has occurred in the neighborhoods surrounding major hotels and open-air markets.

Visitors may want to avoid walking and instead use officially registered taxicabs. You should avoid taking taxis after dark, if possible. Taxi drivers and passengers have been victims of robbery, assault, sexual assault, and even murder. Before taking a taxi, make sure that it has a red license plate and that the number is legible. Pick taxis carefully and note the driver's name and license number. Instruct the driver not to pick up other passengers, agree on the fare before you depart, and have small bills available for payment, as taxi drivers often do not make change. Also, check that the taxi is properly labeled with the cooperativa (company) name and logo. Radio-dispatched taxis are recommended and can be found at the International airport and at the larger hotels. Purse and jewelry snatchings from motorists sometimes occur at stoplights. While riding in a vehicle, windows should be closed, car doors locked and valuables placed out of sight. All bus travel should be during the daylight hours and on first-class conveyances, not on economy buses.

Street crime and petty theft are a common problem in Puerto Cabezas, Bluefields and the Corn Islands along the Nicaraguan Caribbean coast. Lack of adequate police coverage has resulted in these areas being used by drug traffickers and other criminal elements.

Visitors should not hike alone in backcountry areas, nor walk alone on beaches or trails. Volunteers and others who may come to work in rural areas on a temporary or long-term basis should also observe the aforementioned precautions. There have been isolated incidents of sexual assaults in these areas. The best way to avoid becoming a victim is to utilize good personal security practices. Use the buddy system and make sure your fellow traveler(s) knows your whereabouts.

Do not resist a robbery attempt. Many criminals have weapons, and most injuries and deaths have resulted when victims have resisted. Do not hitchhike or go home with strangers, particularly from nightspots. Travel in groups of two or more persons whenever possible. Use the same common sense while traveling in Nicaragua that you would in any high-crime area of a major U.S. city. Do not wear excessive jewelry in downtown or rural areas. Do not carry large sums of money, ATM or credit cards you do not need, or other valuables.

While in a foreign country, a U.S. citizen is subject to that country's laws and regulations, which sometimes differ significantly from those in the United States and may not afford the protections available to the individual under U.S. law. Penalties for breaking the law can be more severe than in the United States for similar offenses. Persons violating Nicaraguan laws, even unknowingly, may be expelled, arrested or imprisoned. Penalties for possession, use, or trafficking in illegal drugs in Nicaragua are strict, and convicted offenders can expect jail sentences and heavy fines.

Under the PROTECT Act of April 2003, it is a crime, prosecutable in the United States, for a U.S. citizen or permanent resident alien, to engage in illicit sexual conduct in a foreign country with a person under the age of 18, whether or not the U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident alien intended to engage in such illicit sexual conduct prior to going abroad. For purposes of the PROTECT Act, illicit sexual conduct includes any commercial sex act in a foreign country with a person under the age of 18. The law defines a commercial sex act as any sex act, on account of which anything of value is given to or received by a person under the age of 18. 

Medical care is limited, particularly outside Managua. Basic medical services are available in Managua and in many of the smaller towns and villages. However, treatment for many serious medical problems is either unavailable or available only in Managua. Certain types of medical equipment, medications and treatments are not available in Nicaragua.

In an emergency, individuals are taken to the nearest hospital that will accept a patient. This is usually a public hospital unless the individual or someone acting on their behalf indicates that they can pay for a private hospital. A list of medical resources can be found on the U.S. Embassy in Nicaragua�s website at

Malaria is endemic, particularly in low-lying areas such as Managua and around the beaches. Dengue is also a problem. Tap water in Managua has been tested and found safe for drinking; however, you are urged to drink bottled water, especially when traveling outside of the capital. Payment for medical services is typically done on a cash basis although the few private hospitals will accept major credit cards for payment. U.S. health insurance plans are not accepted in Nicaragua.

Nicaragua is prone to a wide variety of natural disasters, including earthquakes, hurricanes and volcanic eruptions. General information about natural disaster preparedness is available via the Internet from the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) at

Driving at night on rural roads outside major cities is also discouraged. Driving is on the right side of the road in Nicaragua. However, U.S. citizens will encounter road conditions and driving practices significantly different from those in the United States. The information below concerning Nicaragua is provided for general reference only, and may not be totally accurate in a particular location or circumstances.

Safety of public transportation: poor 
Urban road conditions/maintenance: fair 
Rural road conditions/maintenance: poor 
Availability of roadside assistance: none 

Motorists driving to Nicaragua should use the principal highways and official border crossings at Guasale, El Espino and Las Manos between Nicaragua and Honduras and Penas Blancas between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Although some of the principal highways connecting the major cities are in good shape, drivers should be aware that seasonal, torrential rains take a heavy toll on road conditions. Motorists are encouraged to prepare accordingly and may want to carry a cellular phone in case of an emergency.

Road travel after dark is especially hazardous in all areas of the country. With a few exceptions, Nicaraguan roads (not major highways) are in poor repair, potholed, poorly lit, frequently narrow, and lack shoulders. Many roads severely damaged as a result of Hurricane Mitch in October 1998 have not been repaired.

Some of the major highways and roads are undergoing major repair, repaving and upgrading. Be on the lookout for detours and slow traffic on these roads. In general, road signs are poor to non-existent. Bicycles, oxcarts, horses and vehicles without lights are at times encountered even on main thoroughfares in Nicaragua. Motorcycles, often carrying three or even four passengers, dart in and out of traffic with little or no warning. Many vehicles are in poor condition, travel very slowly and are prone to breaking down without warning. Drivers should be especially careful on curves and hills, as many drivers will pass on blind spots. Speed limits vary depending on the type of road, but because the government lacks the resources, traffic rules are rarely enforced.

Due to the age and disrepair of many vehicles, many drivers will not signal their intentions using turn indicators. Rather, it is common for a vehicle operator to stick his hand out the window to signal a turn. If you do drive in Nicaragua, you need to exercise the utmost degree of caution, drive defensively and make sure you have insurance.

Avoid riding the many different shapes and sizes of buses stopping anywhere on the road to pick up passengers. They are overcrowded, unsafe and often are used by pickpockets. Because of the conditions discussed above, traffic accidents often result in serious injury or death. This is most often true when heavy vehicles, such as buses or trucks, are involved. Traditionally, vehicles involved in accidents in Nicaragua are not moved (even to clear traffic), until authorized by a police officer. Drivers who violate this norm may be held legally liable for the accident. 

Nicaraguan law requires that a driver be taken into custody for driving under the influence or being involved in an accident that caused serious injury or death, even if the driver is insured and appears not to have been at fault. The minimum detention period is 48 hours; however, detentions frequently last until a judicial decision is reached (often weeks or months), or until a waiver is signed by the injured party (usually as the result of a cash settlement).

Visitors to Nicaragua might want to consider hiring a professional driver during their stay. Licensed drivers who are familiar with local roads can be hired through local car rental agencies. In case of accident, only the driver will be taken into custody.

Regulations governing transit are administered by the National Police. For specific information concerning Nicaraguan drivers permits, vehicle inspection, road tax, and mandatory insurance, you may wish to refer to the National Police website at You may also contact the Embassy of Nicaragua or a Consulate for further information.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has assessed the government of Nicaragua's civil aviation authority as Category 2 - not in compliance with international aviation safety standards for the oversight of Nicaragua's carrier operations. Consultations to correct the deficiencies are ongoing. Air carriers under oversight by Category 2 aviation authorities are subject to heightened FAA surveillance when flying to the United States and may not add additional flights, new service, or larger capacity aircraft. At this time, there are no Nicaragua-based airlines flying to the United States. For further information, travelers may contact the Department of Transportation within the U.S. at telephone 1-800-322-7873, or view the FAA's International Aviation Safety Assessment (IASA) web page at

The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) separately assesses some foreign carriers for suitability as official providers of air services. In addition, the DOD does not permit its personnel to use air carriers from Category 2 countries for official business except for flights originating from or terminating in the United States. Local exceptions may apply. For information regarding the DOD policy on specific carriers, travelers may contact the DOD at telephone (618) 229-4801.

Please also refer to the separate Worldwide Caution Public Announcement.

October 14, 2004

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