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Though a poor country that has seen years of conflict, Nicaragua is friendly and peaceful today, and is blessed with stunning beaches and landscapes. Beyond bustling Managua are the easily explored, culture-rich cities of León and Granada, the volcanic islands of Lake Nicaragua and the beaches and jungle of the sublime Bluefields.
Only around 1,000 miles of the 12,000 miles of roads are paved. Barring the Pan American Highway, potholes and inconsistent signage are obligatory, cities are hectic and police are corrupt. Driving at night is especially hazardous. Cars can be hired with a local driver.
Driving licences: you can drive on a UK licence for 30 days but it’s a good idea to have an International Driving Permit.
Which side does Nicaragua drive on: the right.
Motorways: 50mph (80kph)
Rural areas: 31mph (50kph)
Built-up areas: 18mph (30kph)
Alcohol limits: 0.08 per cent, same as the UK. Violators are automatically detained for a minimum of 48 hours, or sometimes even weeks until the judicial process is carried out.
Driving age: 18 years, with most rental companies only renting to those 25 years and up.
Seatbelts: all passengers must wear them, while infants under four years must be strapped into a child seat in the rear.
Mobile phones and GPS: it is illegal to drive and use a mobile phone unless with a hands-free kit. If you have an iPhone or iPad with a GPS app, be sure to have the hands-free car dashboard dock. GPS is sketchy, but there are programmes with downloadable maps of Nicaraguan cities.
Cost of fuel in Nicaragua: about half of UK prices, with diesel being cheaper than petrol.
Car hire and fuel payment: major credit cards are accepted at urban fuel stations, but they may not be accepted everywhere. Major car rental suppliers accept credit card payment. Notify your credit card company of your intention to travel while using your card overseas.
Insurance: having fully comprehensive insurance with excess is a must. Rental cars typically only come with basic insurance.
Traffic and parking: city driving is tough due to inconsiderate local drivers and heavy traffic, especially in Managua. It is best to use hotel car parks than risk parking on the street (if you can find space) as car theft is a problem.
There are set fares in the cities, which are cheap though not all drivers stick to them. They start at around £0.50 but can go up to £1.50 for long journeys. Managua taxi drivers in particular are adept at ripping off visitors and can be aggressive. Make it clear if you don’t want the driver to pick up other people en route as most taxis operate as shared colectivo taxis. An alternative for sightseeing are the caponera three-wheelers.
International services terminate at the main bus station in Managua, with daily buses from Honduras, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Panama and Guatemala, with fares from the latter around £12. Tica Bus serves the region; the leg from Panama City takes in San Jose in Costa Rica. Local buses, while numerous, are typically crowded and uncomfortable. Stick to private services between towns, booking in advance when going from Managua. Fares for short trips are almost always under £3, while they start at less than £0.10 for inner-city routes.
There is a river border crossing in the south from Costa Rica (at Los Chiles) though no ferry service between Central American centres. Major cruise lines P&O and Holland America, among others, serve San Juan del Sur in the south (Pacific coast). Managua is a couple of hours by road from the port.
The main international airport is in Managua, with a small airstrip in Granada receiving international flights from San Jose, Coast Rica. No direct London flights arrive in Managua, so UK travellers must route through Rome or a US city such as Miami. International passengers entering through Managua’s Augusto Cesar Sandino International Airport must pay a US$10 fee to enter. Domestic flights serve Bluefields and Puerto Cabezas (Caribbean coast), as well as Corn Island (for Big Corn and Little Corn islands, 50 miles off the Caribbean coast), among other destinations, from Managua.
Managua is the capital and main hub, residing on the shores of Lake Managua in the west. Many landmarks have been destroyed by earthquakes over the years though the cathedral and National Palace still stand.
Nearby Granada (south) on Lake Nicaragua is the country’s oldest city and much easier on the eye, as well as being easy to drive around. There are many Spanish colonial buildings to take in, while just south is the imposing Mombacho volcano and within the lake is Isla de Ometepe, which boasts great hiking.
León, just north of Managua, is also strewn with colonial buildings, and some of the best surf occurs between these two cities. In the southeast is the stunning Bluefields region which occupies both rich jungle and verdant Caribbean coast.
The best beaches are arguably on Corn Island—due east of Bluefields—where some of the best scuba diving can be had. Costa Rica is close at hand, but rented cars from Nicaragua cannot be driven here.
Temperatures are uniform year round, at about 27°C (80°F), with deviations in the highlands and atop volcanoes. As Nicaragua is tropical, there are wet and dry seasons, with the dry season roughly from December to May and the wet season between August and November. Managua and the Pacific are best visited in December and January when it is slightly cooler at night. April to May is the hottest period here, while the Atlantic coast sees the occasional hurricane in September or October.