By Conor Sanchez
Since moving to Nicaragua, we’ve received a variety of questions from people back home. Some ask about the work. Others ask if we’re near a beach. Some worry we’re not eating enough or that we’re only eating rice and beans (we eat plenty and, albeit simple, our diet is honestly healthier than what we used to eat stateside).
There is one question, however, that comes up more often than others: Are you scared for your safety?
First, we feel lucky to have people back home who are concerned enough to ask this question. Second, I understand what elicits their curiosity. Everyday newspapers are filled with stories about the tide of asylum seekers escaping violence in Central America. The country with the highest murder rates in the world (according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime) is Honduras, just north of here. It is followed, in respective order, by Venezuela, Belize, El Salvador, and Guatemala.
A lot of Americans have a vague notion of where Nicaragua lies geographically, but most know it’s somewhere in Central America. So to be fair to Americans reading the news, it’s easy to assume that Nicaragua would be in the same boat as its neighbors. But to be fair to Nicaragua, it’s not in the same boat at all.
In fact, it’s quiet calm by comparison. The vicious street gangs that terrorize populations north of the border have no presence here. It’s considered the safest country in Central America. The homicide rate is even a little lower than Costa Rica, directly south of the border, and yet they get almost 1 million American visitors each year (roughly 75% more than Nicaragua does). Somehow, the land of lake and volcanoes has managed to avoid the tumult occurring in neighboring countries. Managua can be dodgy, but most places are generally tranquilo (calm).
Another way of assessing the danger here is evidenced by the relatively low number of migrants going to the United States. Whereas thousands of asylum seekers escaping violence in countries like Guatemala and El Salvador continue to make the incredibly dangerous journey to the US, a fraction of them are from Nicaragua. Perhaps a few are from the Atlantic Coast, where drug-trafficking is a bigger problem.
If Nicaraguans do emigrate, they’re not motivated by fear. They do it for economic reasons and they primarily go to Costa Rica. Today about 300,000 Nicaraguans are permanent residents of Costa Rica – roughly 75% of the foreign population – and thousands more migrate seasonally for work. Every December, Nicaraguan families in our community migrate to Costa Rica to harvest coffee. A lot of my students arrive 1-2 months late into the semester and leave 1-2 months early because their families are working in Costa Rica.
This doesn’t mean we live recklessly down here. Violent crime does occur, especially robberies and thefts. Travelers to Nicaragua have to take the same precautions they would traveling to other parts unknown; don’t carry a ton of money on you, travel in groups, hire a guide if going off the beaten track, don’t wander around aimlessly in a neighborhood known for high crime, etc. We don’t take anything for granted.
In Managua we feel a little more on edge and avoid walking around at night as a result, but we’re hardly ever there. We also feel a little more targeted in places that get a lot of tourist traffic (places like Leon, Granada, and Laguna de Apoyo). Overall, though, we are fortunate to be living in a place where we aren’t sitting around biting our nails, too afraid to step outside of our house. This may not be true for Volunteers serving in El Salvador and Guatemala (Peace Corps suspended its program in Honduras in 2012).
What also helps us feel secure are the tools we got during Pre-Service Training, which help us mitigate our risks of becoming victims of crime. These include encouragement to learn the language fluently, pressure to meet as many people in your community as possible, and constant reminders to never feel so comfortable that you end up nonchalant. We have an awesome safety and security team who make sure we have everything we need to feel prepared in the case of a natural disaster or political turmoil.
Political demonstrations are a reality here. They occur sporadically, but are usually limited to urban areas. It’s happened once in our community. We’re advised to steer clear of these activities since they’re is always the chance of things getting out of hand (which could entail tear gas, rubber bullets, fireworks, rock-throwing, tire burning, road blocks, bus/vehicle burning, and physical violence between members of rival political parties). Peace Corps is constantly monitoring these events and keeping us informed as best as they can. Our rule: if tires aren’t burning, it’s probably ok.
Honestly, the biggest danger we face is transportation (which is almost just as true in the US and probably anywhere else in the world). The term ‘safety first’ is not the modus-operandi for most bus companies. Most buses only concern themselves with how jam-packed the vehicle is and whether it is moving as fast as the bumpy road we’re on will allow it to go without breaking an axle.
So to answer the question – Is Nicaragua Safe? – absolutely. Are we scared for our safety? Generally, no. We recognize risks where they exist and take the necessary precautions.
And if you’re considering visiting Nicaragua, don’t think twice about it. It’s only getting more and more popular.