Late last year I traveled to Costa Rica with some friends. It was my first trip to Central America and yes I had expectations. We have all heard about the unsurpassed beauty of Costa Rica so it wasn’t too far fetched that I’d be impressed. My sister-in-law at the time begged to differ. Calling Costa Rica the “Disneyland” of Central America she was upset we had not chosen to spend our time with her in Nicaragua. Well a few months into the new year I found a bangin’ deal to Nicaragua and we were able to experience Nica as well. I have noticed post after post of curious vacationers wondering which country they should visit, Nicaragua or Costa Rica. While Costa Rica was stunning, Nicaragua also had its perks. Each country has its own pros and cons so I wanted to lay out what I found to be true in the small snap shot impressions I got from each trip. So who wins in the following categories?
If you have interest in Central America than surely you have heard about all of the volcanic activity throughout this part of the world. It is a big draw for tourists to come get close to Earth’s epic forces and Costa Rica and Nicaragua are both touted to have some of the best volcanic experiences available. It was clear from the second we flew into Managua – this country has loads of volcanic activity. We flew over at least 4 massive crater lakes coming into the country, with perfect cone shaped domes dotting the surface as far as the eye could see. Driving through Nicaragua, there was almost always a volcano in sight, whether it was the omnipotent Volcán Concepción or Mambacho – the ever present backdrop behind the beautiful city of Granada. Costa Rica has its volcanoes as well but due to the rain while we were there we didn’t really get the empowering sense that we were surrounded by volcanic activity. We even stayed on a volcano, Mt. Arenal, and was not able to witness it the entire time because of the rain. This wasn’t just us. If you look up reviews on the two most popular volcanoes in Costa Rica, Poas and Arenal, you’ll find hundreds of reviews that tell you the same thing. The volcanoes are beautiful…when you can see them. Nicaragua takes this one home.
This one isn’t even close. When it comes to getting the best bang for your buck, Nicaragua takes the cake. We were spending close to or more than standard American prices for food, drink, and lodging in Costa Rica. You can get the same value in Nicaragua for half the cost or less. At this “pricier” Nica hostel we lodged at in Laguna Apoyo, top shelf cocktails ran you about $2. We did splurge more in Costa Rica, but even if we had not, the cost difference is substantial. The bus fair between towns in Nica will run you about $1 where as the bus systems in Costa Rica could run you $3 just to get from one side of town to the other. Our hostels ran us about $12-$19 a night. Hostel private rooms run you about $20-$30 in Nica where private hostel rooms in Costa Rica will run you $50-$60. If you like to pinch pennies then this would be your ideal destination! It may not stay this cheap for long!
This one was tough! Costa Rica and Nicaragua both have miraculous sunsets. The beaches fill with golds and pinks and purples every night and becomes a dream for any photographer or romantic sap. However, just from looking back through pictures, I have to say Manuel Antonio surpassed San Juan Del Sur and Playa Maderas with their depth of color and dynamic cloud play. Sorry Nicas, in my book this one goes to the Ticos.
The people of Nicaragua have not had the peaceful past that Costa Rica is known for. The country endured a bloody affair during their revolution and overthrow of the Somoza regime in 1978–79. This was followed by the Contra War of the 1980s which took the lives of tens of thousands of Nicaraguans and was the subject of fierce international debate. My sister-in-law’s boyfriend Miguel had a close family member in the war and you can feel that while the country still has some shady politics to sort through, they have a sincere desire to keep the peace after such a tumultuous history. If you are interested in history and understanding the people of our world a little better, what they have had to endure and what rebuilding looks like, this may be a good place to start.
I think the pictures speak for themselves. If you are wondering about Nicaragua, we honestly maybe saw one Iguana the entire time we were there. I know they do have many of the same animals that Costa Rica has but I think you need to travel way off the beaten path to see them. In Costa Rica they are all around you. For wildlife enthusiasts, Costa Rica would be a sure bet.
This country is rich in colonial heritage, seen in its architecture and structure. To complement the beautiful buildings, the city is doused in vibrant colors. The last time I saw this much pop of color was maybe in Burano, Italy or off the coast of the Cinque Terre. It instantly makes you happy. If you want vibrant cities full of color, look no farther than Leon or Granada.
Pura Vida! Being a clean, peaceful, and resourceful country, Costa Rican’s don’t have too much to be angry about. These are some of the happiest, most laid back people I have met and its contagious. I was hoping Nicaragua would have some kind of comparable carefree takeaway but it was mostly the backpackers, surfers, yogis, expats, and tourists within Nicaragua that brought that attitude with them. I found myself laughing more about nothing with Ticos. Nothing was rushed, everything was friendly, and even when there was a problem, “Es no problem!”
Honestly the food was ho hum in both countries. I would say some of the dishes we got in Nicaragua were a tad bit better, but only in touristy spots. The ceviche featured here was amazing. However, when it comes to local food it is the same in both countries. Beans and rice or pinto gallo is the staple with fried plantains and a rubbery type of cheese as common sides. I will say that we had excellent fish in both locations, but again usually the fish is fried. It is definitely not the healthiest food. The tipping point for Nicaragua over Costa Rica was the introduction of Tostones Con Queso, an appetizer consisting of plantain pancakes topped with fried cheese and cabbage salad or pico de gallo. We had it several times, so delicious! The only way I enjoyed the local cheeses in both Nica and Costa Rica was fried. I hate to say it, but if you are craving culinary masterpieces, Central America is not known for having the creme de la creme of cuisine.
9. Adventurous Activities
Again Costa Rica takes the cake when it comes to getting your thrills. Nicaragua has some of the same activities such as ziplining and a tour that allows you to surf down the side of a volcano. The surfing down a volcano sounds really exciting but in reading reviews people get hurt a lot on these tours. Sleds get broken easily and after hiking up for an hour you get one ride down the mountain. I am not saying its not cool and exciting, but if I am being honest with you, it sounds like the end prize is more of the bragging right that you surfed down a volcano. Additionally, because Costa Rica is more developed and geared towards tourists, the activities you sign up for will be well organized with great tour guides and good equipment. Many of our tours combined the activity with something cultural like a sugar plantation tour or a stop at the National Park. If you like ziplining, canyoneering, boating, horseback riding, rafting, kayaking, etc, Costa Rica will not disappoint. I will never forget ziplining over the most beautiful cloud forest in Monteverde.
I loved the beaches in Costa Rica. You will find endless postcard-worthy shorelines lined with lush rain forests, palm trees, clear blue water, and pristine little alcoves to get lost in. Not to mention the possibility of finding a sloth or monkey or friendly puppy to play with. We saw sea turtles and swam in the warm water. Even at night the water is wonderful and you can float under the stars. Depending on the time of year, you can usually find good surf. Snorkeling was not the best I have experienced, but still a worthy endeavor. Nicaragua has less variety of beaches and they are more of the dry desert climate variety. While Costa Rica has its fair share of dryer areas in the north west which are similar to Nicaragua, it is also rich with your picture perfect, palm tree studded, white sand coastlines.
11. Backpacker/Surf Culture
While Costa Rica may have prettier beaches, the scene at the beaches in Nica was something special. First of all, you have San Juan Del Sur if you want to party the night away. Its almost like Nicaragua’s version of Vegas. And then, just a few miles up the road you have a more relaxed surfer vibe. Backpackers and surfers have found out the secret that is Nicaragua and it has become a haven for the bohemian beach seekers of the world. It still has that wanderlust energy about it. While Costa Rica may beat Nica aesthetically, Nicaragua takes one home for that lost in paradise feeling. With a cheap drink, Marley playing in the background, traveling artists at the table next to you and yogis practicing handstands on the beach as the rest of us watch a dozen surfers catch silvery waves, it feels like you have found a little corner of the world that only the cool people know about. These places are short lived. As secret backpacker havens become more well known, they get flooded by tourism and developed. If this sounds appealing to you, I would go before its too late. Hop on a flight to Managua, take a ridiculously cheap 3 hour crowded chicken bus ride to San Juan Del Sur, find someone to drive you the 8 miles down the bumpy dirt road to Playa Maderas, and check into Buena Vista Surf Club. You wont regret it.
Here comes the sun! Nicaragua blew us away with the weather. I was expecitn muggy humidity like we had in Costa Rica. With the dryer climate you get more sunny days and less rain. While the tropical environment of Costa Rica makes for wonderful rain forests and supports the spectacular fauna and flora, Nicaragua will give you better travel days and less hassle when it comes to maneuvering your vacation around rainy days.
My sister-in-law would probably fight me on this. While Nicaragua does have the reputation of being the safest country in Central America, I felt much more secure in Costa Rica. I usually bring my IPad and camera with me most places for blogging purposes so I have to be a bit on the safe side when traveling. When we were in Costa Rica we had laptops, cameras, a go pro, and my Ipad. After doing some research I ended up leaving my IPad at home for Nica. I was happy I did. I didn’t go one day in Nicaragua without hearing some horror story about theft or sometimes even assault. Because I don’t want to deter anyone from visiting Nicaragua, I will spare you some of those stories. You can research more on the topic if you’d like. The fact is, Nicaragua is still a developing country and people will go to great lengths when they are desperate to survive. I met a girl on the beach traveling through Central America who also felt it was okay to bring her IPad to Costa Rica but not to Nica. That being said, I want to make it clear that we didn’t have any incidents in either country. I have been robbed several times throughout my travels and you should always be careful wherever you go. Try to find accommodations with safes in the room. Our hostel Casa Maderas at Playa Maderas was wonderful as they had 24hr on-site security provided by G4S. I also recommend to make sure you always have someone watching your stuff when at the beach, in both Costa Rica and Nicaragua.
While Nicaragua had incredible scenery, Costa Rica hands down had it all. From lush tropical jungles to volcanoes, to pristine beaches and perfect sunsets, this place had me sold. It was indeed your typical calendar print paradise. If you want to feel like you are living inside a post card during your vacation then you might err on the side of Costa Rica.
So there you have it. Both countries are equally as desirable but in different realms. It just depends what you want. Remember that my experience in both countries is limited, just a snap shot. But I also believe if you are going for a short vacation, a snap shot may be more valuable. I would visit both countries again in a heart beat. The question is what grabs you? If you are looking for breathtaking scenery, wildlife, and adventures – Costa Rica is your ticket. However, this comes with a heftier price tag and less authenticity. If you are a traveler that seeks real experience and want to try something outside of your comfort zone, something that pushes you to better understand humanity and appreciate more subtle but equally as powerful beauty, then Nicaragua could be your dream destination. If you want it all like I do, then maybe we can quit our jobs and go backpacking across Central America. Okay, maybe not realistic but a girl can dream! Happy travels.