For a large number of reasons, Nicaragua is one of the most captivating travel destinations in the entire Western Hemisphere. It has an amazing tropical climate, rich colonial and indigenous history, stunning volcanoes, picturesque beaches, and a warm culture. However, today the country finds itself in the midst of the largest social uprising since the civil war ended in 1990. Everyday life has changed dramatically since April of 2018, and the tourist industry has been affected as well. For good reason, you might be wondering, is Nicaragua safe to travel to? Here’s a brief rundown on all the safety precautions and everything to keep in mind before heading to Nicaragua.
Recent Civil Unrest
In April of 2018, peaceful anti-government demonstrations organized by students, pensioners, and everyday workers sought to protest recent changes in the social security system — increased taxes, decreased benefits, and muddier anti-corruption laws. Thousands took to the streets demanding president Daniel Ortega resign and elections (scheduled for 2021) be pushed up to 2019.
In the first four days of the demonstrations, at least 25 people were killed by government forces. Although Ortega reversed the social security overhaul within a month of its announcement, protests continued and they were met with violent backlash from police, military, and “parapolice” or heavily armed ordinary citizens dressed as pro-Ortega militants. As of September 2018, one human rights organization listed the death tally at 448. Ortega blames the protests on a “conspiracy” propagated by the United States, and tensions between the two sides have only slightly cooled off in the five months since.
Effects on Tourism
In the decades prior to spring 2018 — which is somewhat crudely being called the Central American “Arab Spring” — Nicaragua was largely regarded as a traveler’s haven. Listed by many sources as one of the safest countries in the world and the second safest in Latin America, Nicaragua was an ecotourism mecca for those looking to dodge the crowds of neighboring Costa Rica.
Since April, however, much has changed. Many of the popular colonial cities have become ghost towns, and the beaches are almost completely deserted. Most hotels, restaurants, and tour operators catering to tourists have closed their doors. While there’s definitely less commotion on the beaches, Corn Island, and smaller towns in the main epicenters of Managua, León, or Granada, are where you’ll find roadblocks, dangerous streets, and higher rates of petty crime.
Reports from the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada have all issued travel warnings for the entire country of Nicaragua. As of September 2018, all government agencies have told people to reconsider all non-essential travel. The U.S specifically has Nicaragua listed at a level three travel advisory (on their four-point scale) due to crime, civil unrest, and health risks. For perspective, both Venezuela and Pakistan are also listed at level three.
Tips for Travelers
For travelers insistent on visiting Nicaragua, heed the advice of all international travel advisories. First, make sure you have a foundation in Spanish in order to get yourself out of a tricky situation. Avoid walking alone at night, leave your valuables locked in a hotel room, and consider getting around via private transportation. The most important thing to remember is to avoid all large gatherings, protests, and demonstrations, and to remain as apolitical as possible. Parapolice have been known to arbitrarily detain anyone that seems to be in opposition of the Ortega government, so it’s best to steer clear of any politically-charged conversations.
Violent crime in Nicaragua has been reported, but the cases are pretty rare. If you are attacked or asked to give up your belongings, do so without putting up a fight. Areas to avoid specifically include anywhere near the old cathedral in Managua, near the Tica bus, bus terminals in poorer areas, and the Mercado Oriental in Managua.
Road safety outside of the main cities is still very much developing. Conditions are poor and lighting is bad, so it’s recommended not to drive after dark, especially because roadside assistance is not available and cell service is limited. As far as your health is concerned, there has been an uptick in the Dengue fever epidemic in Latin America, as well as an increase in the reported cases of the Chikungunya and Zika viruses.
Natural disasters have also been known to affect Nicaragua. Recent years have seen more seismic and volcanic activity, and the rainy season between the months of May and November can bring heavy storms and even hurricanes. Be sure to stay tuned to local authorities and local news if any of these alerts are on the horizon.
Finally, the tap water is not considered safe in Nicaragua. Buy bottled water and watch out for smoothies and mixed drinks that may have used tap water, as well as ice cubes. It’s not particularly dangerous, but be prepared for a bout of traveler’s diarrhea.