costa rica vs nicaragua

Costa Rica vs Nicaragua Vacation

2015 certainly seems to be Nicaragua’s year. On practically a daily basis, another travel media outlet is shouting about Nicaragua as THE hot travel destination of the moment.

things to do in granada nicaragua

If you read this blog regularly you’ll know my family is gearing up for a big Central American adventure in the coming months. Together we’ll be exploring Panama, Costa Rica and Nicaragua.

And I must admit, I’m MOST excited about checking out Nicaragua!

Why? I’m intrigued by the country’s unique culture, can’t wait to view unique wildlife without the company of crowds, and I think it’s an ideal opportunity to introduce my kids to a developing country.

But it’s true that Costa Rica and Nicaragua do share some significant similarities as travel destinations. If you’re thinking of traveling to Central America with your family, you’ll likely be considering if you should book a Costa Rica vs Nicaragua vacation.

Here are some things to consider to help you make that decision.

How easy is it to get around? 

Obviously when traveling with kids, ease of getting around is important. And THIS is where Costa Rica shines.

Costa Rica offers a well-developed tourism infrastructure. This is tourism industry speak for “it’s easy to get around.” Here you’ll find professionally trained guides and tour operators with years of experience who clearly understand what foreign tourists demand. Road transfers are efficiently managed, there are several options for domestic flights around the country and it’s simple to rent a car and drive yourself around.

La Fortuna Waterfall Costa Rica

Further North, Nicaragua’s tourism infrastructure is still very much developing. What does this mean to you and your family? While you’ll find plenty of hotels and operators who cater to backpackers, finding family-friendly operators and hotels can be slightly more challenging. It may be more difficult to rent a car and self drive, and there are fewer domestic or charter airlines that cater to tourists in Nicaragua.

things to do in granada nicaragua

Also as a result of this still-developing infrastructure, tourism employees are generally more green, or inexperienced, than those in Costa Rica. With new hotels opening at lightening speed, many employees are relatively new on the job and still learning. This of course will change over time.

How much does it cost?

The clear distinction here is that travel in Costa Rica is going to, generally, cost more than Nicaragua.

A more well developed infrastructure, more modern hotels and experienced, professional guides all come at a price. While of course the idea of “expensive is all relative, you can expect to pay American prices for most food and drink in Costa Rica. On the other hand, in Nicaragua the cost of living is much lower and as a result food and drink is cheap in Nicaragua. 

With regards to hotel prices, you’ll find cheaper prices in general in Nicaragua vs. Costa Rica. But also expect to find small, boutique hotels in Nicaragua as opposed to a wider variety of large resorts in some areas of Costa Rica. So it’s not exactly comparing apples to apples.

Family-friendly things to see and do

Costa Rica is a small country and very easy to get around. During the span of once week you can easily cross the country, seeing all the major sites including the Pacific Ocean and the Carribbean Sea, volcanoes, hot springs and some unique jungle wildlife.

best family hotels in costa rica

Now, in Nicaragua you can see all those things too! It’s just not quite as easy to get around so it may be best to plan for a bit more time. Driving distances to reach the key sights in Nicaragua are still reasonable; things are just a bit more spread out. In fact, Nicaragua is the largest Central American country, covering 50,193 square miles.

In Costa Rica, you can visit both Pacific and Caribbean beaches for snorkeling, scuba diving, deep-sea fishing, and sailing. National parks and nature reserves such as Toruguero on the Caribbean, Monteverde, Manuel Antonio, Rincon de la Vieja, and the Arenal area, are all must-see destinations.

punta uva costa rica

The less-popular Central Valley includes San José museums (Jade, Gold museums) as well as the traditional towns such as Sarchí and Grecia. Travelers love zip-lining, white water rafting, experiencing the hot springs in Arenal and other jungle adventures here.

In Nicaragua, colonial towns like Granada are a main draw. Granada, León, Masaya, and the “white towns” offer travelers the true colonial feel of history and architecture. Costa Rica simply does not have colonial towns of the same magnitude nor architecture as Nicaragua.


Ometepe Island in Lake Nicaragua is a truly unique experience. Ometepe Island holds the distinction of being the largest island in a fresh water lake in the world. This island is also full of pre-Columbian history plus two magnificent volcanoes. Getting there on one of the ferries is half the adventure.

So it really depends on the dynamics of your family and what you think the kids will like most.

So is Nicaragua the “new Costa Rica?”

I honestly think both countries are of course worth visiting in their own right. But if you’re asking yourself “should we go to Costa Rica or Nicaragua?” I hope this was helpful in helping you make that decision!

Want more? Check out my Costa Rica and Nicaragua Family Travel Guides here.

Have you been to either destination? I’d love to have you weigh in on the conversation!


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