Born and bred Nicaraguan, one of the most difficult questions that I get asked by friends and new clients is “is Nicaragua safe to travel to?” The short answer is yes, of course it is.
With more than 1.5 million tourists visiting the country annually, and more every year, Nicaragua is on the brink of a tourism boom, and for good reason. There is something here for everyone – volcanoes, surfing, lush jungle, fabulous beaches, centuries-old colonial architecture and warm-hearted, friendly people. The last decade has brought travelers here in troves, who often compare Nicaragua to Costa Rica twenty years ago, before the fast food chains and all-inclusive resorts.
The long answer is more complex.
First, let’s address the elephant in the room. Nicaragua has a complicated political past, with long reigns of dictatorship and a violent civil war that ravaged the country in the 1980s, killing tens of thousands of Nicaraguans, and provoking fierce international debate. Thirty years after the war ended, Nicaragua still battles an international image as a war-torn country, but is actually one of the safest countries in Central America.
On April 18, 2018 Nicaraguan protests began when demonstrators in several cities started to protest against social security reforms implemented by the government to increase taxes and decrease social benefits. During five days of unrest, nearly thirty people were killed, leading to the government cancelling the reforms. Opposition has continued to grow, however, and protesters continue to push for the resignation of President Daniel Ortega. As of February 6th, 2019, 325 people have been killed in clashes, making this conflict the most deadly civil conflict since the end of the civil war.
As the result of the clashes, many governments around the world have upgraded travel advisories, recommending that travelers reschedule vacations where possible. Tourism in the country has been stifled for the past year, with many hotels, restaurants and business closing for extended periods during the conflicts. In December, after several months of relative stability, most hotels reopened their door, and tourists have begun to return to the country, though the flow has been more of a trickle than a flood.
In Nicaragua, crime on tourists does exist, ranging from petty pickpocketing to strong-arm robberies and more violent incidents, though violent crimes on foreigners are relatively rare. According to the Nicaragua 2018 Crime & Safety Report by OSAC, thefts and robberies are the most commonly reported crimes, and most take place in the capital city of Managua, and other large cities, including Granada, Rivas, and León.
A little research and pre-trip preparation can keep you safer. In most cases, vigilance, awareness, and safety-minded behavior is enough to keep you out of harm’s way, but labeling the whole country, or any country for that matter, as “safe” or “unsafe” is unrealistic.
What Should You Expect while Traveling in Nicaragua?
Coming from a developed country, or small town with a low crime rate, you might not know what to expect from a developing nation like Nicaragua. If you're planning to travel to Nicaragua, there are a few things you should know before you go.
Nicaraguans have various safety and security measures in place that we take for granted on a daily basis – we have high walls around our homes, home security systems, and bars on our windows. Many people live in gated communities manned by round-the-clock security staff, and there are armed guards posted in the doorways of most major hotels, banks, and many businesses. For visitors, this can be alarming, but there is no need to be nervous – these security measures are there to keep you safe.
Petty crime is a frequent holiday spoiler worldwide, no matter where you travel. Almost everyone has a friend of a friend with a story – backpacks stolen off the backs of chairs in restaurants, car windows smashed for cameras lying on the back seat, and expensive sunglasses or cell phones nabbed from unattended beach blankets.
Does that mean that you need to leave your watch at home and only bring a disposable camera that you carry in an under-shirt money belt? Absolutely not. The great thing about petty crime is that it is an easy thing to avoid. Keep your valuables with you at all times, use room safes and lock boxes, do not leave things in your car, and keep the bling to a minimum. Problem solved!
What about Gang Violence?
Gang violence is a significant problem in Central America, with gang members flowing back and forth between the southern United States and the Northern Triangle (Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador). Nicaragua is widely regarded as an oasis of peace, “Central America’s security exception” (Schrader, 2017, p. 360) where gangs have never been able to establish a foothold.
Suffice to say that gang violence in Nicaragua is a minimal concern.
How Can You Travel More Safely?
The best way to keep yourself safer while traveling is to keep safety front of mind. Be aware that poverty is prevalent in Nicaragua, and poverty breeds desperation. People are often willing to capitalize on situations that could potentially mean their family will eat tonight instead of going to bed hungry. Don’t provide opportunities for crime, be aware of your surroundings, and leave fancy jewelry, watches and expensive sunglasses at home. Don’t flash your cash around.
Always trust your instincts. If a place, situation, or person feels unsafe, remove yourself from the situation without stopping to think about whether or not you’re hurting someone’s feelings.
You don’t need to be afraid to go out at night – there’s no need to hide away inside your locked compound before dark, but there are a few precautions you should take. Don’t wander city streets at night, even if you don’t have far to go. Opt instead to spend the extra few bucks for a cab to get you back to your hotel safely instead. Avoid unpopulated beaches and remote areas after dark, and stay in groups whenever possible – don’t embark on a moonlit walk alone.
Tips for Staying Safe
- Keep your backpack or purse on you, and close to your body. Keep all pockets zipped, and do not hang it off the back of your chair or leave it unattended when you visit the restroom.
- Don’t leave anything visible in your car. Cell phones, sunglasses, cameras, suitcases, bags – it’s all fair game. Check your doors to ensure the vehicle is locked before you walk away. If there is an attendant anywhere nearby, it’s likely worth a few córdobas to get him to keep an eye on things while you’re gone.
- Stay aware. Keep your head and eyes up when you’re walking around town and in crowds. Make eye contact with passersby, and be aware of your surroundings. Avoid using headphones when walking around. Don’t walk around alone at night.
- Keep valuables close to you. It’s safe to carry a camera around, but don’t be complacent. Don’t put valuables down anywhere, and don’t leave them unattended on the beach, even for a quick swim.
- Be aware of pickpocketing scams. Pickpocketing is common at bus stations, on crowded buses, and in the markets. If someone approaches you and tries to get into your personal space, simply walk away.
- Do not hike alone. When hiking, always go in a group, and if you are inexperienced or visiting an unfamiliar area, hire a guide. Carry your phone with you for emergencies, but do note that there may be locations where there is no signal. Take sufficient water, a rain shell, appropriate footwear and layer your clothing – weather can change very quickly.
- Getting around safely. Avoid hitch-hiking in Nicaragua, watch your drinks and do not accept drinks from people you don’t know, do not go home with strangers or invite strangers back to your room after a night at the bar, and travel in groups whenever possible.
- Be selective with taxis. When possible, order cabs at the airport or from your hotel. Ensure that there is a red border around the license plate, and that the plate number is clearly displayed. Do not share taxis with people you don’t know, and do not allow your drivers to pick up other passengers. In a few cases, tourists have reported that they were invited to share a cab, and once inside, robbed at knifepoint, or driven to ATMs to make cash withdrawals.
- Do not fight back. If you are ever threatened by an armed thug, don’t resist. Too many injuries and deaths have resulted from non-compliance. It’s never worth it.
- Don't participate in protests. Don't get involved. It isn't worth it!