Questions around the safety in Nicaragua always arise when you talk to friends and family about retiring there. Isn’t the country ruled by a dictator? Is it politically stable?
Those types of questions are understandable. After all, Daniel Ortega, the infamous Nicaraguan Sandinista leader, was re-elected in 2006, 2011 and again in 2016.
After the 2006 election, real estate prices plummeted and foreign investors feared for the worst.
While President Ortega has not fully lived up to his promises of creating new jobs and fostering economic growth, he has achieved some positive developments, like re-establishing free education and health services.
One of his pet projects, the construction of the controversial Nicaraguan canal, has certainly brought the country international attention. Only time will tell if the China-funded mega project will indeed be realized, and in what time frame.
By 2018, five years after Hong Kong-based HKND (HK Nicaragua Canal Development) Group won the government contract to build the canal, not much progress can be seen.
My own experience of Nicaragua since I moved here in 2010 was the experience of a peaceful and stable country, where you could see the economic growth everywhere – in new roads, modern shopping malls, new residential areas (both for Nicaraguans and expats), luxury resorts, even a new airport, and much more.
All of this came to a screeching halt in April 2018.
Nicaragua Safety Update 2018
How the Protests Began
In early April peaceful demonstrations led by environmental groups, rural peasant population (campesinos) and students took place in different parts of Nicaragua to protest against the slow and insufficient response of the Government to forest fires in the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve.
Then, on April 18th, after the Government announced reforms to the social security system (called INSS), more people, mostly students and pensioners, took to the streets in Managua and other cities around the country.
Pro-government youth groups (the so-called “turbas sandinistas”) and police forces were sent to stop the protests, which turned from peaceful to violent.
On Sunday, April 22nd, President Ortega announced the cancellation of the social security reforms and offered negotiations. But by then, a large part of the population, and especially the student groups, demanded that Ortega and his wife and vice-president Murillo step down.
Since then, we’ve seen a “national dialogue” initiated and suspended, roadblocks (“tranques”) erected and dismantled, hotels and restaurants closed down and re-opened. We’ve also seen pro- and anti-government marches happening almost every week.
I am not going to take any sides here, or make any political statements. That’s not my place to do. And honestly, it’s impossible to know which version of the “truth” to believe.
I invite you to form your own opinion. Here are two resources you might want to read, both painting a very different picture and both published in August 2018:
How the Crisis Impacts My Life as an Expat
Let me give you an overview about how the unrests since April impact me on a personal level and as the owner of RetirePedia, where I organize retirement and relocation tours to Nicaragua.
On a personal level, the biggest change is how I feel about living in Nicaragua. I love this country and its people. Otherwise I wouldn’t be living here since 2010. I’ve always felt perfectly safe. Of course, I do adhere to “common sense” behavior which I summarize in my safety tips further down.
And then you hear about shootings on the street. About students, journalists, police officers being injured and killed. Your Facebook newsfeed is filled with images and videos of masked men, riot police, burning tyres and buildings on fire.
When shops and supermarkets were being vandalized and looted, I honestly wondered whether my daughter and I might have to leave the country, and fast!
Fortunately, and in true Nicaraguan spirit, neighbors organized themselves quickly to stop the looters from doing more damage. There was even a video showing how people brought stuff back that had been stolen!
You can imagine that all these events, and the constant bombardment with horrible news, cause a lot of distress.
On a more practical level, the crisis influences my daughter’s school life and our movements within Managua and the country.
At the height of the protests, my daughter’s school remained closed for days in a row, sometimes a whole week. Summer vacation started a week earlier. Several teachers and a good number of students left.
For a long time, attendance for the pupils was voluntary. With transport being the biggest concern, children from other parts of town couldn’t come every day. Luckily, thanks to modern communication tools, the kids could work through material and even write tests at home.
The other tangible change for me (as for most everyone I know) is that I don’t go out at night anymore. Events like InterNations meetings or PHash gatherings (a group that regularly meets for hikes) were moved from afternoon / evening to morning / midday hours.
Other than that, life for me personally has pretty much returned to normal. For my business however, i.e. organizing tours to Nicaragua, things are far from normal. All my tours after April 2018 were canceled, or I didn’t even get bookings. So far, I don’t have any inquiries for 2019.
My tour partners from “Tours Mas por Menos” left the country. There was simply no way of earning an income here any more for this young Nicaraguan-Dutch couple. In addition, they just had their first baby, so it was best for them to leave, at least temporarily.
As you can imagine, the tourism sector was hit hard by the recent events. Many hotels, restaurants, bars and tour operators had to close down or reduce their staff. Even the high-end luxury “Mukul” resort (owned by the influential Pellas family) shut its doors.
Others, like the Gran Pacifica Beach & Golf Resort, remain open and deeply committed to serving their owners, guests and the local community. In his August 2018 newsletter, Mike Cobb (ECI’s Chairman and CEO, and a personal friend of mine) wrote:
“We are confident that Nicaragua will come out of this situation a better and stronger tourism and residential destination. The recovery will happen. Therefore, we continue to invest in significant development at Gran Pacifica right now.”
Should You Come to Nicaragua Now?
Phew, I knew you would ask! It’s a tough question to answer, and ultimately one you have to answer for yourself.
According to the travel advisories issued by the USA, Canada and many European countries, you should “reconsider travel to Nicaragua due to crime, civil unrest, and limited healthcare availability.”
Personally, I believe that there’s no danger for your health and life when you come here as a tourist, or to explore the country as a potential retirement place.
You will meet fewer tourists. You’ll find some hotels and restaurants closed, even in popular tourist towns like Granada and San Juan del Sur. On the other hand, you’ll probably get lots of great deals and discounts.
Should you come, from a moral point of view? Some people say that if you visit Nicaragua now, you support the Government because you strengthen the impression that everything’s back to normal.
Others say that if you visit now, you help the Nicaraguan people because you bring much needed resources for the tourism industry. Personally I think that your visit would do more good than harm, but I cannot make that decision for you.
If you decide to come, pay close attention to the local news. Protest marches are still happening, as are national strikes. If in doubt, ask in the various Facebook expat groups if something’s happening in the area you plan to visit.
“Today Nicaragua” is a good source for up-to-date reports in English language. If you speak Spanish, I recommend you follow the news at “La Prensa” or “El Nuevo Diario.”
Safety in Nicaragua: Crime Rates
Nicaragua has – for a long time – been regarded as one of the safest of all Central American countries.
A global study about homicide rates conducted by UNODC (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime) ranks Nicaragua at the second lowest rate amongst Central American countries.
Its homicide rate of 11.49 per 100,000 people is just behind Panama’s rate of 11.38. Costa Rica’s rate is slightly higher with 11.77 (in comparison, United States has a rate of 4.88, Canada 1.68 and Spain 0.66).
Despite its relatively low Central American crime rate, Nicaragua does experience both violent and nonviolent crimes (predominantly thefts and robberies).
Main crime areas are Managua, the capital city, and the major tourist areas, San Juan del Sur, Granada, Masaya, León and Corn Islands.
Police coverage in rural areas is extremely sparse, and even in the cities the police force is often badly equipped. For example, I’ve heard stories about police officers being picked up in private vehicles because their police cars had run out of gas.
Nicaragua Safety Tips
Although Nicaragua is a much safer place than most of its neighboring countries, and definitely safer than its reputation, there are some things you should keep in mind for your safety in Nicaragua:
- Don’t leave your house unattended, especially at night. The safest option is to either live in a gated community with 24/7 security services, or hire your own safety guard.
- Don’t ever leave any valuables in your car!
- Lock your car doors and keep the windows shut while driving, especially when you have to stop or the traffic is slow going.
- Don’t wear flashy jewelry and keep your bag close to your body when you are out and about, especially in crowded places like markets or bus stops.
- When you hail a taxi from the street, first make sure that it has a red stripe across the top and bottom of the license plate and that the number is legible.
Before you get into the taxi, agree on the fare with the driver and tell him not to pick up other passengers. (This is a normal practice here in Nicaragua. It’s a way for the locals to save on the taxi fare, and for the drivers to earn more money.)
- In Managua, don’t use the yellow city buses. While I know that some expats, especially younger ones, have used them without any problems, they are an ideal environment for pick-pocket thieves.
Based on my own experience, the smaller, van-like, mini buses are safer to use. (These buses normally connect Managua with other cities, but you can also use them to get around town.)
- Last, but not least, don’t wander around on your own. This advice applies to basically everywhere in Nicaragua. In my opinion, the only exception would be shopping malls in Managua or the main tourist streets in Granada and San Juan del Sur.