Getting around the country is often very taxing, especially if you want to use public transportation. Decrepit roads and a chaotic bus system mean you may have to ante up for an expensive taxi or shuttle ride between cities if you don't fancy taking a chicken bus. Fortunately, everything is relatively close, and the only real epic journeys are if you want to explore the interior highlands or get to the Caribbean by land and sea.
At the end of Managua's airport terminal, there is a tiny departure lounge that accommodates Nicaragua's domestic airline operator La Costeña (tel. 505/2263-2142; www.lacostena.com.ni) which provides "puddle jumper" propeller planes that carry people and packages to Puerto Cabezas, San Carlos, Bluefields, and the Corn Islands.
Air Nicaragua -- You can relive the romance (and fear) of early aviation on Nicaragua's La Costeña airline. You realize that this is going to be a flight with a difference when you are physically weighed along with your luggage as part of the check-in process. Your boarding pass is a big, plastic, re-usable card and the plane itself something you might see in an Indiana Jones movie. You sit so close to the pilots you can hear them chat about their round of golf, since some planes have no cockpit partitions. Yet, these daredevil puddle jumpers do get you there, and the ride on a clear day turns into a glorious aerial tour of the country.
Have you ever wondered where those old yellow school buses go after being decommissioned from carrying North American children? They go south. The potholed roads of Nicaragua are full of trundling "chicken buses" or old school buses, which riders (some of whom do carry livestock) can hop onto and off of at multiple destinations, making for a very slow ride.
The country also has small express vans that are faster than chicken buses, but -- since they still allow as many folks as possible to pile on along the way -- they can get very crowded and uncomfortable on long journeys.
Some better-quality bus companies do exist, but in general, traveling by bus is a colorful, yet exhausting and sometimes intimidating, business. The main problem is not the actual buses but the chaotic market bus stations you must negotiate upon departure and arrival.
By Taxi & Shuttle Bus
Taking taxis or shuttle buses is an increasingly popular way of getting around the country. Small, private companies usually connected to a travel agency or hotel will pick you up at your airport or hotel and transfer you to your next destination. It is particularly popular for those traveling among the main tourist destinations of Granada, San Juan del Sur, Managua, and León. The price depends on whether you are lucky enough to have somebody else sharing the ride, but will never be less than C600 between destinations. Two reputable companies are Tierra Tour (tel. 505/2315-4278; www.tierratour.com) and Paxeos (tel. 505/2552-8291; www.paxeos.com).
Nicaragua used to be described as a country of oxen and Mercedes Benzes, but now it is more like a country of old school buses and SUVs. In general, the roads are very bad, and you will be doing yourself a big favor if you spring for a four-wheel-drive. One good thing about driving here is that there is very little traffic. The northern highlands are the most beautiful area for touring by car.
Car rentals are generally cheap, but it is wise to shop around. Make sure you get unlimited mileage or are aware of the charge per kilometer if you go over. A car costs C600 to C2,000 per day, more if you require a 4WD. The best-known company is Hertz (tel. 505/2266-8400 in the Intercontinental Hotel or 505/2222-2320 in the airport; www.hertz.com). Lugo Rent-a-Car (tel. 505/2266-4477) and Dorado Rent-a-Car (tel. 505/2278-1825) are both located at Rotonda El Dorado in Managua. Alamo has a desk in the international airport (tel. 505/2277-4477; www.alamonicaragua.com) and offices in Granada and San Juan del Sur. Budget, 1 block south of Estatua Montaya (tel. 505/2255-9000; www.budget.com.ni) and Avis, 1/2 block south of Estatua Montaya (tel. 505/2268-1838; www.avis.com.ni) are two other good options. Note that many towns (such as Masaya) lack rental-car outlets, so if you are intent on touring the country by car, it is probably best that you do so from Managua or Granada.
Traffic Cops -- An on-the-spot "fine" for a missing fire extinguisher is a common trick for a roadside shakedown by unscrupulous traffic police. Check with your car-rental company that your car possesses all the legal requirements.
Driving Rules -- The official rules of the road in Nicaragua are very much the same as those in North America. People drive on the right, and standard international signage makes it clear who has the right of way at city junctions. Seat belts are obligatory, and speed limits apply to urban areas.
Not that anybody notices. The standard of driving is poor and sloppy, with speeding and fender benders very common. Watch out for drivers turning without indicating and chaotic city traffic circles where anything goes. Huge potholes are frequent, especially in rural areas of Nicaragua, where kids make a living by filling these hazardous craters with dirt in exchange for change from drivers.
A valid driver's license is necessary, and it is recommended that you get an international license before you travel. Police checkpoints are frequent. It is important never to move your car after an accident, even if it is blocking the road. If an accident causes an injury, both drivers are taken into custody until the matter is cleared up, which can take several days.