Thinking of going to Costa Rica? Who isn’t? It’s almost the Florida of Central America, with so many gringos enjoying la Pura Vida in their oversized Hawaiian shirts (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Costa Rica is relatively safe,
inexpensive, and just exotic enough to sit firmly on many travelers’ bucket list. But neighboring Nicaragua is finally getting its well-deserved due as a destination. This is not to say the country is a Mecca of human rights and wealth – it isn’t. But since about 2015, tourism has begun to offer the nation great hope.
Here are 10 reasons why adventurers are choosing the black sheep of Central America over the Wheel of Fortune prize destination.
1. Nicaragua is increasingly safe, whereas Costa Rica is getting more dangerous.
All Central American capital cities are scary, but San Jose street crime is on a sharp rise. Nicaraguan criminals are more face-to-face. People are starving and desperate for your pocket change and phone. Costa Ricans truly capitalize on tourists’ naiveté, with opportunistic crimes ranging from vacation package scams to pickpocketing.
2. Nicaragua is WAY less expensive.
Costa Rican prices are overall comparable to those in the United States. An Imperial Costa Rican beer will run about $2 whereas a Nicaraguan Victoria costs $1. You can get a seaside villa in a Nicaraguan resort town on Air BnB for $50 a night, compared to $150 for comparable accommodation in Costa Rica. Aside from getting to Nicaragua, which is more expensive because there are far fewer flights to and from Managua than there are to San Jose, Costa Rica is literally two or three times as costly to enjoy.
3. Nicaragua’s nature is just as stunning.
4. Nicaraguans don’t exploit foreign workers.
Little known fact: Costa Ricans (Ticos) employ hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguans (Nicas) and their working conditions aren’t pretty. We want to think of Costa Rica as a site of equality, but the truth is, their human rights violations are just somewhat better hidden. Nicas live in destitute slums and are the abused brunt of Ticos’ bad moods. The Costa Rican economy would crumble were it not for the Nica-driven service industry. According to some sources, the Nicas and gay people experience the most discrimination among Ticos.
5. Nicaragua’s colonial history is more interesting, and therefore so are its architecture and towns.
Granada, in particular, is a building buff’s dream. It’s one of the oldest Spanish settlements in Central America – a claim Costa Rica can’t come close to making.
6. Nicaragua’s indigenous peoples are thriving activists who represent about 5 percent of the total population.
Costa Rica does not have a substantial indigenous population – nor much diversity in general.
7. Nicaraguans care about your tourism dollar and therefore they care about you.
Granted, it’s a little harder to get around Nicaragua, which has historically been the second-poorest nation in the Western hemisphere. But they’re thrilled to develop a sustainable tourism industry and are therefore investing in the physical and cultural infrastructure to accommodate everyone from budget backpackers to high-end adventurers.
8. Nicaragua is increasingly ecologically responsible.
Speaking of sustainability, Nicaraguans look to their wealthy neighbor to the south for cues regarding how, and why, conservation is important. Activists are putting great energy into cleaning up the large central lakes, rivers, and jungle.
9. Nicaragua has better food.
All Central American nations have tropical fruit and proprietary beans and rice dish. In Nicaragua, it’s gallo pinto – fried rice, boiled red beans, onions, garlic, red pepper, and often some greens. You can get a McGallo Pinto at McDonald’s, that stuff is so integral to being Nica. Costa Rica’s national dish is also gallo pinto, but it usually features black beans. The two countries argue about the origin of gallo pinto, but Nicaragua’s has more depth of flavor. Costa Rica’s Salsa Lizano hot sauce is brown, thin, and kind of spicy. Every Nicaraguan restaurant has its own family recipe for chilero, a jar of hot (!) peppers, veggies, and spices swimming in vinegar. You’re not going to see many international chains in Managua as you are in San Jose, but isn’t it nice to get away from rampant commercialism and support local endeavors?
10. Nicaragua has all the rainforest, volcanoes, beaches, and nature reserves that Costa Rica does.
It also has the world’s largest island in a freshwater lake, the thick Moskito Coast, small indigenous villages, “white” colonial towns, and the cloud bromeliad forests of the Segovia Mountains in the state of Estelí.
11. Nicaraguans live in poverty under an authoritarian government.
The nation could use a boost from responsible tourists who care about Nicas’ well-being. Costa Rica, with its democratic and peaceable system, simply doesn’t need our help as much.
Angela Orlando is a doctor of cultural anthropology who founded Women’s
Wilderness Writing Workshops, intensive and inclusive writing retreats located in
sacred international sites. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org and