Nicaragua is a small but beautiful country in the heart of Central America. With rolling hills, pristine beaches, and exotic jungles, for many there is just one question keeping them from the land of lakes and volcanoes: Is Nicaragua safe?
It’s only practical to consider your safety before traveling to a different country. Especially if that country has a fraught political history. You should always do your research before going anywhere abroad for the first time.
If you want to know if Nicaragua is safe for tourists, you’ve come to the right place.
Luis and I can offer safety advice from two perspectives: a Nicaraguan tour guide and a female tourist. We’ve been around the block and put together a list of our top 5 safety tips for a smooth trip.
So let’s break down if Nicaragua is safe for tourists, exactly when and where to exercise caution, and how to stay out of harm’s way on your next vacation.
The Safest Country in Central America?
First, let’s look at the facts.
Nicaragua is consistently ranked among the safest countries in Central America. (Although if you asked born and raised Nicaraguan Luis his opinion, he’d tell you it’s by far number one.)
The homicide rate is the lowest in Central America: 5.7 per 100,000 inhabitants. That’s half of Costa Rica’s 11.5 and a mere fraction of Belize’s 29.0, Mexico’s 26.0, and El Salvador’s 17.6.
To put things in perspective, compare Nicaragua to the homicide rates in these popular U.S. cities: 17.0 in Washington, D.C., 20.0 in Milwaukee, 31.4 in Las Vegas, and 40.6 in New Orleans.
Gun ownership, too, is the lowest in Central America. Despite the fact that it is perfectly legal to own a gun in Nicaragua, the country’s firearm rate is a lowly 5.2 per 100 civilians. By contrast, the U.S. hovers around 120.5.
Nicaragua’s neighbors are more than double that figure, with every other Central American country clocking rates ranging from 10.0 to 14.1.
Nicaragua has also been remarkably successful in preventing gang proliferation.
Unlike the Northern Triangle of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, it isn’t afflicted by gang violence. In fact, many international security experts consider Nicaragua to be an “oasis of peace” in Central America.
So if Nicaragua is considered one of the safest countries in Central America, then why does it have such a bad reputation?
Past Political Problems
Nicaragua made headlines back in 2018—and it wasn’t for its natural wonders.
Civil unrest hit the country hard as citizens reacted to political reforms. Protests broke out across Nicaragua, and tensions escalated as the government cracked down on demonstrators.
Though the conflict is long over, Nicaraguan tourism still feels its effects.
Many people continue to associate Nicaragua with the revolution that ended over 30 years ago. The 2018 turbulence did little to counter this perception.
But this period of Nicaragua’s history is not the normal travel experience today.
Remember: Things can go wrong anywhere. No one can promise perfectly smooth sailing, especially when it comes to travel. We certainly aren’t. But what we can tell you is that Nicaragua is no more inherently dangerous than any other country: it has its good sections and its bad sections.
Most problems are concentrated in big city Managua. But outside the capital, Nicaragua is about as safe for tourists as it gets.
Culture of Nicaragua
You’ll find that this small country is rural, religious, and friendly to visitors.
It isn’t densely populated—not even in the cities. More than half of Nicaragua’s land is conserved as a protected area. Most urban areas are relatively small and often historic.
More than 80% of Nicaraguans identify as Christian. Many national festivals are religious in nature.
There is a strong culture of “God, family, and hard work.” Family is everything here, and the elderly are met with great respect. Close friends and distant relatives are all seen as part of one big community. Cooking, praying, and sharing time together after a long day of work is a normal aspect of the Nicaraguan lifestyle.
Visitors are greeted warmly here. Tourism is a major industry in Nicaragua, so foreigners are welcome and appreciated. Nicaraguans are social and hospitable people, always willing to lend a hand to neighbors and strangers alike. They take great pride in their country and happily share it.
But that doesn’t mean it’s all sunshine and rainbows. There’s crime all over the world, and Nicaragua is no exception.
So what exactly do you need to watch out for as a tourist in Nicaragua?
Crime in Nicaragua
Nicaragua is simultaneously one of the safest and poorest countries in Central America. And where there’s poverty, there are people looking for easy money.
That means opportunistic crime is the most common safety issue here.
Don’t be surprised if beggars approach you in cities like Granada. Just remember: being poor is not the same as being dangerous. While it can be irritating, there’s no need to feel threatened by people hawking goods or asking for spare change.
HN Hint: If someone is persistent, the best thing you can do is either ignore them or politely decline by saying “No, gracias.” If you do want to help, it is better to buy them food than to offer money.
Luckily, most problems can be avoided by taking common sense safety measures.
Here are our top 5 safety tips to help you have a stress-free trip to Nicaragua:
Staying Safe in Nicaragua: 5 Tips To Prevent Problems
It might be tempting to grab a quick lift from a stranger, but we advise against hitchhiking as a tourist in Nicaragua. Use authorized taxis, public buses, or private shuttles whenever possible. Even if you believe they have good intentions, if a stranger approaches you, be on the safe side and don’t accept rides or offers to share a cab.
HN Hint: To identify an official Nicaraguan taxi, look for a red border around the license plate and a clearly displayed number, taxi name, and company logo on the car (or tuk-tuk) door.
Most hotels in Nicaragua offer airport transfers, so there’s a good chance you will never even need to figure out transportation on your own.
Use A Tour Guide in Managua
If you are interested in visiting Managua, we recommend hiring a tour guide for your visit. The capital is a major city in Nicaragua and where you are at the greatest risk of safety incidents like petty theft. The historic Managua Vieja neighborhood in particular should only be visited with a tour guide. There is an unusually high rate of violent crime in this section.
It’s easy to accidentally end up on the wrong side of town when you are unfamiliar with an area, so sticking with a knowledgeable local is your best bet.
Stick Together After Dark
Night walks on the beach might sound romantic, but they’re a good way to get mugged if you’re alone. Particularly in party destination San Juan del Sur, stumbling home all by yourself after the bars is not a smart idea. Locals in this town will even warn tourists against strolling the shore by yourself after dark.
Now if you’re on a private resort property, this is a different story. But in general, it’s good practice not to walk on the outskirts of any foreign town alone at night.
Conceal Your Valuables
Pickpocketing is likely to be the biggest problem most travelers will ever face in Nicaragua. Be mindful of your belongings when you are in crowded areas, especially bus terminals and public markets. Don’t keep your phone or wallet in your back pocket, and try to avoid flashing expensive items like watches or jewelry. Keep your wits about you while snapping photos and never leave your bags unattended.
You should always bring cash when traveling to Nicaragua, but make sure it’s not all in one place. Consider using a money belt to protect the cash you’re keeping on you—it’s a lot more comfortable than stuffing a wad of bills in your sock.
Leave Politics to the Pundits
Though unlikely, the number one tip we can give you to stay safe in Nicaragua is to steer clear of political protests. After the 2018 unrest, Nicaraguans have kept public criticisms of the government to a minimum. But on the off chance you do encounter political demonstrations in Nicaragua, do not engage and walk in the opposite direction.
Actually, it’s wise to avoid public political commentary of any kind. Open displays of dissatisfaction are not as well-tolerated here as they are in countries like the United States. The last thing you want is to get in trouble with the law on your vacation.
Nicaragua is a country made beautiful by its people. Its cities feel like small towns in the hands of warm and easygoing Nicaraguans. They take care of each other and are quick to help a stranger. There is a powerful sense of community that draws you in, even as an outsider.
But like any place worth visiting, Nicaragua has its problems. Poverty and political trouble are sad realities that the nation and its tourism industry are forced to contend with.
The good news is that Nicaragua’s struggles don’t need to hold you back from experiencing its rich culture and stunning natural vistas. With basic situational awareness and common sense safety strategies, there’s no reason to fear.
If you follow our safety tips and keep an open mind, you’ll find that Nicaragua can be a truly incredible destination to explore.