Public transport, especially buses, is geared toward the domestic population. It’s very cheap but quite uncomfortable.
The standard local buses in Nicaragua are the usual old North American school buses, though an increasing number of express minibuses and coaches also serve the more popular routes – only a few córdobas more, they are less crowded, stop less frequently and occasionally even have air conditioning. Most intercity buses begin running between 4am and 7am, departing about every thirty minutes, or when the bus is full, with last buses leaving by 5 or 6pm. Bus stops are usually at the local market – only Estelí and Managua have anything approximating a modern terminal – and fares are very cheap. You’ll pay US$1–4 for anything up to three or four hours, with longer journeys to the Atlantic coast costing up to US$20. There is often a list of fares displayed at the front of the bus. You can usually keep your luggage with you, although especially on busy services it may end up on the roof or in a pile at the back of the bus. It should be safe, but it’s worth keeping valuables on your person. Most buses have a conductor and a helper (ayudante) as well as a driver – in most instances, you’ll pay the conductor once the bus is moving. If you have a lot of luggage, you may be charged extra, but it should never be more than the price of a single fare to your destination.
Timetables for key routes can be viewed on thebusschedule.com/EN/ni/index.php. Alternatively, your accommodation should be able to fill you in.
Taxis – many on their last legs – are most often seen in cities, but they also make long-distance journeys; a good deal, especially if in a group. In Managua, most taxi fares are US$1–3 during the day and US$2–5 at night. Outside the capital, in-town fares vary, but are usually around US$0.50–1. Always agree on the fare before getting into the cab, and don’t be afraid to haggle if the rate seems high – at Managua’s bus terminals, overcharging foreigners is the norm.
Renting a car is probably the best way to explore the country’s many beaches. Rates average US$40 a day for the cheapest models. Outside Managua and the main west-coast highway, you’ll want something robust and preferably 4WD. Rental is most reliable in Managua – Alamo, Avis, Hertz and Thrifty all have offices at the airport. You need a valid licence, passport and a credit card. Make sure you take out full-cover insurance. Bear in mind when driving that road signage is quite poor, and you’ll need to ask directions frequently. And as with other Central American countries, don’t drive at night – it’s less a question of crime than the lack of lighting, which disguises potholes, sudden deviations in the road or even the road disappearing altogether, as well as cattle straying onto the highway.
Although it’s generally safe to hitch a ride with a pick-up truck (but not advisable otherwise), it’s only common among locals in the countryside where there is little or no other transport. Most pick-up trucks will happily stop and let you jump in the back – just bang on the roof when you want to get off. If you’re driving in the countryside yourself, it’s almost rude not to stop and pick up people walking in the same direction.
Boats provide vital links around Nicaragua’s numerous waterways and two large lakes. On the Atlantic coast, they are the main means of transport. For travellers the most useful routes are those between Bluefields and either Pearl Lagoon or El Rama (both of which are served by small boats called pangas), and the cargo boat which goes between Granada and San Carlos, stopping at Ometepe. San Carlos can also be accessed by boat from the border crossing at Los Chiles.
Nicaragua’s domestic airline, La Costeña (2263 2142, lacostena.com.ni), operates fairly reliable flights around the country, with Managua the inevitable hub. Routes run from the capital to locations including San Carlos, Bluefields, the Corn Islands and Puerto Cabezas (the latter two are hard to reach without flying), and also run from Bluefields to the Corn Islands and Puerto Cabezas. A return will set you back US$80–180, and can be bought by phone or online, as well as at the airport.
If the flight is full, there’s a chance you’ll be bumped – rare but not inconceivable, especially if you’re travelling to or from the Corn Islands around Christmas or Easter. To be safe, call the airport you’re departing from (numbers are given throughout the Guide) the day before you fly to confirm your booking. If you are bumped, your reservation will be valid for the next flight. Luggage occasionally gets left behind, especially on the smallest planes, but is almost always on the next scheduled arrival.
Nicaragua’s buses are cheap and safe, but if you’re in a group, in a rush, or want to travel later in the day you may want to consider a shuttle – cars or minibuses that head between the tourist hotspots. The trip from Managua airport to San Juan del Sur, for example, will set you back around US$65 between two or US$130 among six – compared to US$2.50 on the slow bus (though you’d also need to make your way across town from the airport to the bus station – around US$5 per person in a taxi). Most tour companies can arrange this, or try the shuttle companies direct onadelanteexpress.com or paxeos.com.