The single biggest area of concern when it comes to security in Nicaragua is the country’s place in the Colombia–U.S. drug route. Smugglers, mafiosos, dealers, and crackheads are found along the Atlantic coast, where rising drug-related crimes threaten the very fabric of some communities. The Corn Islands have experienced several rapes, including violent ones, and San Juan del Sur experienced a wave of violence in 2008 that was excessive by any standards, including a kidnapping.
The Tipitapa–Masaya highway, formerly a convenient shortcut for going from the airport to Granada while avoiding Managua, is increasingly dangerous at night as it is the scene of fake “police inspections” that end up with foreign tourists being forced to go from ATM to ATM, withdrawing cash.
Before traveling, check official reports, including the U.S. State Department’s warnings at travel.state.gov and the travel forums at Go To Nicaragua. Managua is clearly the city with the most crime, but bigger cities, like Estelí and Chinandega have neighborhoods you should skip as well (ask at your hotel to get the most updated local info).
Avoid traveling alone, especially in remote areas including beaches, at night or while intoxicated, and pay the extra dollar or two for a cab. No one should take a cab when the driver has a friend riding up front—complain loudly if he tries—and pay attention to your surroundings and where you are going.
You are most at risk of pick-pocketing (or hat/watch/bag snatching) in crowds and on public transport: avoid urban buses in Managua. Keep a low profile and leave your flashy jewelry, watches, and expensive sunglasses at home. Keep your cash divided up and hidden in a money belt, sock, or your undergarments (take a cue from the many Nica women pulling soggy córdoba bills out of their cleavage).
If you are the victim of a crime, report it immediately to the local police department (dial 118), at a minimum because your insurance company back home will require an official police report before reimbursing you. Nicaraguan police have good intentions but few resources, lacking even gasoline for the few patrol cars or motorcycles they have—don’t be surprised if you are asked to help fill up a vehicle with gas.
This is annoying but not uncommon, and chipping in for $20 of gas will help them get the job done, which they often do! While police corruption does exist—Nicaraguan police earn a pitiful $55–60 per month—the Nicaraguan police force is notably more honest and helpful than in some Central American nations, and has gotten more professional during the Ortega administration.
Additional Information on Crime
Nicaragua is part of the underground highway that transports cocaine and heroin from South America to North America and, as such, is under a lot of pressure from the United States to crack down on drug traffickers passing through in vehicles or in boats off the Atlantic coast. Drug-related crime is rapidly increasing on the Atlantic coast, particularly in Bluefields and Puerto Cabezas. All travelers in Nicaragua are subject to local drug-possession and use laws, which include stiff fines and prison sentences of up to 30 years.
Marijuana thrives in Nicaragua’s climate and conditions. It is known locally as la mota, el monte, or, in one remote Matagalpa valley, pim-pirim-pím. It is officially prohibited despite popular usage, and the current laws allow harsh penalties for possession of even tiny quantities of cannabis sativa, for both nationals and tourists alike. Canine and bag searches at airports, docks along the Atlantic coast, and at the Honduran and Costa Rican border crossings are the norm, not the exception.
As a foreign, hip-looking tourist, you may be offered pot at some point during your trip, especially on the Atlantic coast and in San Juan del Sur. The proposal may be a harmless invitation to get high on the beach, or it may be from a hustler or stool pigeon who is about to rip you off and/or get you arrested. Use the same common sense you would anywhere in the world.
The world’s oldest profession nearly tripled in practitioners from 2000-2005, especially in Managua, Granada, Corinto, and border/trucking towns like Somotillo. Since then, flagrant prostitution at roadside has been curbed, forcing the trade underground again. Though illegal, puterías (whorehouses), thinly disguised as “beauty salons” or “massage parlors,” operate with virtual impunity, and every strip club in Managua has a bank of rooms behind the stage, some with an actual cashier stationed at the door.
Then there are the commercial sex workers on Carretera Masaya, and the nation’s numerous auto-hotels, which rent rooms by the hour. The situation is nowhere near as developed as the sex tourism industries of places like Thailand and Costa Rica, but it is undeniable that foreigners have contributed in no small way to Nicaragua’s sex economy. Travelers considering indulging should think seriously about the social impacts that result from perpetuating this institution.
Excerpted from the Fifth Edition of Moon Nicaragua.