Costa Rica vs Nicaragua: Which Country Should You Visit?

So, you’re heading either to Costa Rica or Nicaragua!

As if narrowing it down that far wasn’t hard enough, now the real work begins: which one of these gorgeous Central American countries will you travel to?

As amazing as both destinations are, picking one can come down to a matter of travel style and personal preference.

Here are some of the differences to help you answer the question: Nicaragua or Costa Rica?

kate storm jumping in the air at la punta on ometepe, a fun stop on a nicaragua itinerary

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(It is important to note that I wrote this blog post before the civil unrest that impacted Nicaragua starting in 2018. Travel has since returned to the country–I wrote more updates about the safety situation here–but our personal recollections pre-date the unrest).

Costa Rica vs Nicaragua: The Differences

In Costa Rica, you can expect…

… more tourism infrastructure.

There’s no question about it: tourism is big business in Costa Rica, in a way that Nicaragua hasn’t really mastered yet.

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While you certainly won’t have any shortage of tourist-friendly options in Nicaragua, Costa Rica has a simply overwhelming number of day trips, transport services, tours, and more to guide you through as much or as little of your trip as you could hope for.

If it’s your first time outside your home country, or you’re on a family trip, this alone might be a big enough draw to pull you to Costa Rica.

woman walking down a staircase to a waterfall in costa rica

… more crowds.

The flip side of all that infrastructure? More crowds.

Costa Rica is officially on the list of places that have been discovered by big tourism, and as a result, national parks and other highlights can get crowded quickly–especially during the high season.

sloth sleeping in a tree in costa rica vs nicaragua

… higher prices.

More infrastructure, more crowds… it’s no surprise that this leads to higher prices.

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Since Costa Rica is located in Central America, it’s easy to the impression that Costa Rica can be a bargain to travel through, but generally speaking, that is a mistake.

While you can save some money by taking local transport, shopping for some of your own meals, and staying in less expensive lodging, prepare to budget the same amount here that you would to travel in most parts of Central Europe.

kate storm and jeremy storm on the beach in puerto viejo costa rica

… more English speakers.

Partially as a result of all of the tourism infrastructure, you will find far more English speakers in Costa Rica than in Nicaragua.

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Spanish is still very much the preferred spoken language of most of the population, but if you’d prefer to work with employees in the tourism industry who speak English, your odds go up by being in Costa Rica instead of Nicaragua.

Whichever country you travel to, however, we’d recommend learning at least some basic Spanish before you go–both you and the locals will be glad you did!

man walking on a swing bridge through the jungle in costa rica nicaragua

In Nicaragua, you can expect…

… significantly lower prices.

Considering that Nicaragua and Costa Rica offer many of the same natural highlights, it’s almost astonishing how different the prices are: whereas Costa Rica requires a budget similar to that of a Central European country, Nicaragua is much more in line with other countries in Central America like Guatemala and Honduras.

view of the rooftops of granada nicaragua with a church in the foreground

… fewer tourists.

While there is an established gringo trail that passes through Nicaragua (more or less concentrated in Leon, Granada, and San Juan del Sur, and to a lesser extent in Isla de Ometepe), the luxury properties and high-end resorts in Costa Rica are not present in Nicaragua.

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While you will definitely see plenty of other tourists in Nicaragua, the bulk of them will be from other Central American countries, and most tourists from outside the region being backpackers and younger travelers who are traveling through Central America.

kate storm riding a horse on a beach in nicaragua

… More active volcanoes.

Nicaragua holds 19 active volcanoes to Costa Rica’s 6, and you’ll have plenty of opportunities to get up close and personal with them.

Whether it’s climbing a volcano on Isla de Ometepe, volcano boarding (basically sledding) down a volcano outside Leon, or peering into the lava-filled crater of a volcano at night near Granada, you will not leave Nicaragua without an incredibly memorable volcano experience if that’s what you’re after.

Things to do in Nicaragua

… the quirkiness of chicken buses.

And, really, all of the cultural quirks that come with them.

Costa Rica is a beautiful place, but in many ways, it didn’t feel quite as adventurous or exciting as being in Nicaragua, where decked out colorful buses drive you across the country for a couple of dollars and the desayuno tipicos in the markets come with a flourish, a smile, and a huge scoop of gallo pinto.

painted chicken bus as seen when backpacking nicaragua travel route

This, we readily admit, is partially our fault: we didn’t try hard to find offbeat Costa Rica away from the tourist trail, as we spent most of our time there with family.

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But that’s the thing: in Nicaragua, we never had to go looking.

Even in very backpacker-heavy towns like San Juan del Sur, the area still had a very distinctive, Nicaraguan feel to it–something lacking in Costa Rica, which still ranks as the only country outside the USA in which we’ve ever seen a Taco Bell.

Things to do in Nicaragua

Nicaragua vs Costa Rica: The Similarities

In both Nicaragua and Costa Rica, you can expect…

… adventure activities galore.

Volcano hikes, ziplining, kayaking, scuba diving, surfing, horseback riding… as pronounced as the differences between the two countries seem when deciding between putting together an itinerary for Costa Rica vs Nicaragua, the truth is, the two countries have far more similarities than differences when it comes to what kind of trip you will plan there.

Whichever you choose, you definitely won’t run out of fun things to do in Costa Rica or Nicaragua!

two volcano boarders in blue jumpsuits on volcano cerro negro

… beautiful beaches.

Whether you’re drawn to the wild Pacific coastline or laid-back Caribbean beaches, you will have plenty of options to choose from in both Costa Rica and Nicaragua!

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In Nicaragua, we visited amazing Pacific beaches in and around San Juan del Sur, and have the Caribbean paradise of Little Corn Island on our wish list for next time.

In Costa Rica, we spent time in laid-back Caribbean Puerto Viejo, and have our sights set on the beautiful Pacific Guanacaste region (Playa Junquillal looks delightful, for example) for our next visit!

beach in puerto viejo costa riva with palm leaf in the foreground

… acceptable food.

Sorry, guys–no one comes this far south in Central America for the cuisine!

There’s a saying among travelers in the region that the food is amazing in Mexico and gets worse the farther south you get, and we definitely agreed: Mexican food is delicious, Guatemalan food was great, and it is basically downhill from there.

You won’t starve, and there are several tasty Nicaraguan and Costa Rican foods, but we don’t sit around daydreaming about the cuisine in Nicaragua or Costa Rica either.

typical costa rican meal on a black plate as seen from above. when deciding costa rica vs nicaragua, the food isn't a deciding factor

Safety in Costa Rica vs Nicaragua

Technically, crime is lower in Nicaragua than in Costa Rica–especially petty crime, which always has a tendency to show up in places where hoards of tourists congregate.

However, we felt extremely safe in both countries, and both felt far more secure than Honduras or even Guatemala (which ranks as one of our two favorite Central American countries).

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Though unpleasant situations can occur anywhere, if you take normal precautions and behave with discretion, there’s no reason to think you’ll attract trouble in either Nicaragua or Costa Rica.

That being said, one of our normal precautions when traveling is to purchase travel insurance from World Nomads, and we definitely wouldn’t visit Costa Rica or Nicaragua without it!

Check prices for World Nomads Travel Insurance in Costa Rica or Nicaragua!

Costa Rica vs Nicaragua: Puerto Viejo Beach Swing

Costa Rica or Nicaragua: The Final Decision

Personally, we greatly preferred traveling in Nicaragua vs Costa Rica.

We loved the culture, we loved the landscapes, we loved the adventure, we loved the cities and towns… and we also really, really loved the prices.

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When we arrived in Costa Rica, it was after spending about 4.5 months backpacking south from Mexico City, passing through Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua along the way, and the sticker shock when we arrived in Costa Rica was enormous.

Prices appeared to almost double as soon as we crossed the border, and the most noticeable thing about it was the other than that… not much had changed.

In other words, Costa Rica provided a similar value with similar experiences to what we saw in Nicaragua, they just charged a lot more for it.

True, the greater tourism infrastructure and English-speaking presence, along with Costa Rica being the more popular destination for international travelers, all contribute to this, but after spending months in the region, we didn’t value those things enough to consider the extra cost worth it.

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For people who are less accustomed to traveling in Central America or within the developing world in general, those tradeoffs may be absolutely worth it!

That is a completely valid option, and Costa Rica is absolutely a country worth exploring–we don’t want to be negative about it, because it’s an incredibly beautiful place with lots to offer–but for travelers like us who prefer to be a tiny bit more off the beaten path in exchange for lower prices and less crowded adventures, Nicaragua is the clear winner in the contest of Costa Rica vs Nicaragua.

Things to do in Nicaragua

 

36 thoughts on “Costa Rica vs Nicaragua: Which Country Should You Visit?”

  1. My sister is heading to Costa Rica for the first time in May and she has never left the United States so needless to say she is a ball of emotions. I just showed her your blog post and all this great information really helped her to start researching all her questions/fears/worries etc.

    Absolutely great post!

    Reply
    • Oh, how exciting for your sister! Of all the Central American countries, Costa Rica is absolutely the best one for a first trip outside the USA–I hope she has an amazing time!

      Reply
  2. Little Corn Island sounds so sweet as do the other beaches here! Even though the food culture doesn’t sounds great in Nicaragua, I’m still sold! In fact, I’m planning on visiting this year, so I really can’t wait. Saying that, I wouldn’t turn down a trip to Costa Rica either, it looks so beautiful!

    Reply
    • Hope you have an amazing time in Nicaragua! Not making it to Little Corn Island was a sad point for us–hopefully we get there next time!

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    • Make sure beaches aren’t littered with garbage – before going- which drifts in with the tides and not put there by the locals!

      Reply
  3. Loved the way you have laid out all the facts of both these countries. It makes things easier for any traveler not just to choose between the 2 but also know what to expect. I personally found both these countries intriguing though Nicargua being cheaper would be the first one i would like to head to.

    Reply
  4. Costa Rica sounds a great place for those surreal beaches and plenitude of adventure activities. While we try to avoid the touristic places, Costa Rica having more English speakers definitely makes the trip easy. We haven’t visited an active Volcano yet but Nicaragua having 19 active volcanoes and less crowd surely makes for one of the top reasons to add it to the bucket list.

    Reply
  5. Awesome pictures.. totally loved them. If its a matter of lesser prices, lesser crowds & active Volcanoes then my vote is hands down for Nicaragua. I haven’t been at an active volcano site so I am sure it will be a great experience.

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    • Active volcanoes are definitely an incredible experience! We’ve been to a couple, and it never gets old seeing the Earth come alive like that.

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  6. This is a great breakdown between the two countries! I love Central America, and like you mentioned, each country has its own quirky, you simply have to identify which one suits you best. Personally, I love both of these countries equally for different reasons! Happy travels!

    Reply
  7. Great comparisons of pros and cons on choosing between Costa Rica or Nicaragua. Costa Rica or Nicaragua have similar beauty but they differ in infrastructure, more crowded, crime -rate and Language barrier. As Nicaragua is less crowded with less crime rate, I would prefer it, though it is slightly offbeat. For me including Steripan in my packing list, is most essential item during planning a trip to Costa Rica or Nicaragua.

    Reply
    • Good decision, congrats ,Nicaragua is the best country of Central America because is safest, kind people and beautiful places to visit.Nicaragua full of volcanos , beaches , and rich food and fruits.

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  8. That’s a beautiful comparison between the 2 countries. I’m connecting it to the comparison between Brugge and Ghent in Belgium! Nicargua is totally my kinda place than Costa Rica. That said, I don’t know if I’ll ever get to visit the American continent. Till then, thanks for your virtual tours!

    Reply
    • Thank you! Yes, I love writing compare/contrast articles–mostly because I’m always looking for similar content when making travel plans!

      Reply
  9. This was a very interesting and helpful comparison from a traveler’s perspective. I have not been to both the place but now I know both and can pick if I have to choose. Costa Rica for the beaches but Nicaragua for its active volcanoes.
    And who doesn’t like less prices and less crowd.

    Reply
  10. That too countries have beautiful places but have you been at any time in Honduras? Trujillo, Roatan, utila, Copan Ruinas those are amazing places that you will no find in Central America even in Mexico. I invite you to visit Honduras!!!!!

    Reply
    • Thanks, Jose! We have been to Honduras and greatly enjoyed it–we visited Copan Ruinas, Utila, and La Ceiba/the Cangrajel River Valley. I’d hesitate to recommend mainland Honduras to first-time visitors of Latin America, though–it doesn’t have quite the beaten path that Nicaragua and Costa Rica do, with the exception of the islands! 🙂

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    • I have been to Copan Ruinas , La Ceiba, the Jungle River Lodge on the Rio Cangrejal nearby, and about two weeks on Utila, where I got my SCUBA certification! Beautiful place Honduras!

      Reply
  11. I have spent substantial time in both Costa Rica and Nicaragua. I have air transport to Nicaragua booked for January 2019. We are currently trying to rebook flights to somewhere else.

    It is important to point out that there is a currently a lot of political unrest in Nicaragua. There has been a lot of protests involving violence, and an estimated 250 people killed. Rotating national strikes are impacting transportation and supply lines. Numerous countries, including Canada, have issued travel advisories recommending no tourist travel to Nicaragua.

    Let your own sense of adventure be your guide. But please do some research in advance of heading there.

    Reply
    • Yes, we have been following the situation as well and are sad to see how much the situation has deteriorated in the last few months.

      I certainly hope things have improved substantially by next January, but you never know.

      If we were to pick one Central American country to head to for a return visit tomorrow, it would be Guatemala (a close second to the Nicaragua of 2017 in the region for us).

      Reply
  12. Very interesting this article. I like both places . In my opinion, I am looking for something more adventure, exacting, and of course cheaper and safety. I will visit Nicaragua ?? can’t wait to do visit this beautiful country

    Reply
    • Have fun! I feel obligated to mention (you are probably already aware) that Nicaragua did have some serious instability after I wrote this post. My understanding is that things have died down a lot and that tourists are starting to return, but we haven’t been back personally.

      Enjoy & stay safe!

      Reply
  13. Kate & Jerry, I think you forgot couple of things:
    1.Security in CR is way better than Nicaragua
    2. CR got several alive volcanos, w the Arenal as the most beautiful of America.
    3. Around each tourist attraction, you can find dozens more. Not in Nicaragua.
    4. CR got 1,200 beaches well a conditioned for tourism. Nicaragua ONLY about 10, yes that few.
    5. Cheap sometimes is the most expensive way.
    6. Those buses that you showed, are really a very dangerous option. Too old and w irresponsible drivers.

    Reply
  14. You sound like backpackers, for you most beaches got accondionated spaces, with showers and toilets facilities. Never in Nicaragua.
    So, I think you should’ve to see more CR, before make a blog about it.
    Don’t get me wrong, I like cheap prices too. But sometimes you need to find a decent budget for food. If you don’t want to cook.
    Example: The ONLY beach in Nicaragua, with decent infrastructure, is San Juan del Sur, and prices there are expensive or similar to CR.

    Reply
  15. Denis,
    You sound like a jealous Costa Rican. Relax. Both countries are awesome. Crime, by the way, is much lower in Nicaragua. Google it. Yes, tourism infrastructure is less developed in Nicaragua but the article is not about how many 5 star hotel there are. I’ve been to plenty of beaches and accommodations are plenty in Nicaragua.

    Reply
  16. As a person who traveled between both countries frequently I can tell you this. Nicaragua is definitely the cheaper place. Your dollar will go far down there. Costa Rica has become a travel Mecha destination for central America. It’s got the best water system of any country down there and it is expensive. That being said you get what you pay for. I’m not sure where you got your numbers from with crime rates but I would never under any circumstance walk around by myself in any part of Nicaragua after dark. Costa Rica on the other hand I have taken family out for late night beach walks. The people are more friendly and you don’t have that vibe where you gotta look over your shoulder periodically.

    Reply
    • I don’t think, so because I personally have done many journeys to Nicaragua, and my family and I have enjoyed all the night in different places and city of Nicaragua without any problem ; in addition we have done the best tourism of our live. The rich foods and fruits, beautiful beaches, nice people, safe and comfortable places to rest after a full day of diversion.I invite you connect with the best country of Central America”Nicaragua”, and discover the beautiful that it has to offer every day.

      Reply
  17. Interesting article… I am from Costa Rica. Nicaragua and Costa Rica are amazing because we share similar micro climes, volcanos, beaches, but let me give you some insights for Costa Rica. On top of what I read, Tourism is our Gross Domestic Product main Source so we must be ready to receive international visits, that means investment in touristic infrastructure, security, education, hospitals, etc. 27% of territory are National Parks & Reserves. One of the best Health systems in the world. CR was rated in 2019 happiest place in the world. Life expectancy is 79 years. Safest country in Central America. All these represents higher cost but we definitely need to improve on that. One tip; nowadays security has changed worldwide so please don’t leave your belongings unattended, don’t show laptops, cameras, don’t leave alone at night, etc. You can get great food with affordable prices wherever you go but please ask to locals. In my country you can find hight mountains (12.500′), savanna, beaches, volcanos, bird/whales sighting, rain forest, etc. I hope you can enjoy your trip to any place you choose!

    Reply

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