Trying to decide between Nicaragua Vs Costa Rica? We loved our time in both countries so let us help you decide…
Nicaragua Vs Costa Rica is a dilemma many people face when trying to choose which country to visit next in Central America. They are both incredible countries with so much to offer and of course, they are right next door to each other. So we can see why this decision can be a challenging one.
Having travelled through both Nicaragua and Costa Rica we decided we put together this comparison guide to help you weigh up the pros and cons for each country. In an ideal world, we would say visit BOTH! They are both fantastic and well worth a visit but we know realistically that is not always possible.
Vacation time and budget can be limited so it is important that you have all the facts and can choose the destination that will give you exactly what you are looking for. So let’s get started and dive right into our Nicaragua vs Costa Rica comparison.
Introduction to Costa Rica
Costa Rica is definitely the most travelled of the two countries and is well-loved by all who visit. Famous for its abundance of National Parks and super diverse wildlife, it is every nature lover’s dream destination.
In fact, Costa Rica has 28 national parks in total, with around 28% of the country being protected areas. Which is impressive by any country’s standards. They put a very high importance on protecting and preserving their wildlife and biodiversity and this in turn attracts many eager visitors.
As well as lush green jungles, Costa Rica is also known for its idyllic beaches on both the east and west coasts. Being a long thin country right in the centre of Central America it is fortunate to have easily accessible towns and beaches on both the Caribbean and Pacific oceans.
Introduction to Nicaragua
Nicaragua is a little less developed and a little less travelled than Costa Rica, this however is the precise reason why many love to visit. You get a really authentic experience of the country and more of a rustic sense of adventure.
Nicaragua is probably most well known for its Volcanos and it does have plenty. Many of these can easily be explored and are all totally different from one another. A country that is building its tourism industry around those who love a good adventure, what’s not to love about that?
Besides action-packed adventures involving volcanos, Nicaragua has so much to offer. From pristine paradise islands to colonial-style cities, cloud forests and abundant wildlife, it has everything you could possibly want from a vacation.
Nicaragua Vs Costa Rica – Let’s Compare The Basics
Ok, so now it is time to get into the details and really take a close look at Nicaragua Vs Costa Rica and how they differ.
What is the Weather like?
When looking for your next vacation destination one of the most important factors we always consider is the weather. No one wants to spend their hard-earned money on a once-in-a-lifetime vacation just to have it be hurricane season when they get there.
With that in mind, it is important to note that both Nicaragua and Costa Rica do experience hurricane season. Nicaragua is from June to November and Costa Rica is From May to November. Making travel outside of these months the best time to visit.
Nicaragua is on average a little hotter and less humid, with the highs getting up to around 34°C. Costa Rica on the other hand is still a warm tropical country but the temperature doesn’t tend to get quite as high, mostly peaking around 29°C. It is also far more Humid than Nicaragua.
Costa Rica also experiences much more annual rainfall than Nicaragua, which makes sense considering it is far greener. On average Costa Rica will have rain 150 days of the year and Nicaragua only 96 days of the year.
With that in mind, the rain is usually in showers and doesn’t last long. If you want to take a more detailed look at the difference between the two climates feel free to check out this comparison site.
What is the Nature like?
I have already touched a little on the nature of each country but now let’s dive even deeper into the nature of Nicaragua vs Costa Rica.
When it comes to National parks and protected areas both Nicaragua and Costa Rica are on top form. Both countries have made considerable efforts to preserve their natural areas and it shows.
Nicaragua has around 78 protected areas including National Parks and wildlife reserves. Their most famous and most visited is Masaya National Park. We got the chance to visit Masaya and can safely say it was one of the highlights of our time in Nicaragua.
Costa Rica however, takes the lead with around 186 protected areas in total! Covering a total of 28% of the country, including the National Parks, and wildlife reserves. The most popular of their National Parks is Manuel Antonio Park.
We also got to visit Manuel Antonio Park and can see why it is so popular. It is one of the smaller but most easy to access parks and definitely worth a visit. However, the Park with the most wildlife is easily Corcovado National Park.
If you weren’t aware by now that Central America is FULL of Volcanos, then let me be the one to tell you it is. They are everywhere and Nicaragua and Costa Rica are no exception.
However, it might surprise you to know that despite Nicaragua being far more famous for its Volcanoes it actually has much less than Costa Rica. Nicaragua has around 19 Volcanoes, whereas Costa Rica is known to have around 200 (volcanic formations).
The most famous Volcano in Costa Rica is Arenal Volcano located near La Fortuna.
Nicaragua’s most famous Volcano is Masaya Volcano where you can drive up to the car park on the edge of the crater and look in and see the lava bubbling away below with your own eyes.
But perhaps one of the things Nicaragua is most well known for Is its extreme adventure activity of volcano boarding. Yes, you read that right. You hike up to the top of Volcano Cerro Negro with your wooden board and then suit up and slide the entire way back down the side of the volcano.
I was skeptical at first having heard some of the horror stories but we gave it a go and had a blast. Definitely, a fun and unique activity to brag about to the folks back home.
When it comes to Beaches, Nicaragua does have some pretty awesome beaches but Costa Rica is the champion in our eyes.
The best Beaches in Nicaragua are without a doubt on the Corn Islands. These paradise islands are still relatively untouched and if you’re looking for white-sand beaches this is the place to go.
Nicaragua also has beaches the whole way down its Pacific coast that can be empty and stretch for miles and miles. A popular beach town to visit is San Juan Del Sur.
Costa Rica on the other hand has so many beautiful and popular beaches it is hard to know where to start. From super popular beach towns with bars and restaurants, party beaches and resorts to quiet isolated and protected beaches full of wildlife. Costa Rica really has it all.
Tamarindo is a popular and more lively beach town, Puerto Viejo is a wonderful relaxed and slow-paced beach town and then you have the incredible Drakes Bay where there are countless empty picturesque coves and beaches. We included some of the best in our 3-week itinerary for Costa Rica.
It is not uncommon to see Monkeys and sloths on the beaches in Costa Rica which is pretty special.
Speaking of Monkeys and Sloths, when you compare Nicaragua vs Costa Rica and their wildlife, Costa Rica takes the crown again. However, we did see both monkeys and sloths in Both countries.
Costa Rica is one of the most wildlife-rich and biodiverse countries in the world. Considering it is a pretty small country you really do feel like everywhere you look there is wildlife to see.
For example, we of course saw tonnes of different wildlife inside the national parks such as monkeys, sloths, tapirs, coatis, snakes, deer, crocodiles and so much more. But we also regularly saw wildlife just walking down main roads or on public beaches and at our accommodations.
Animals were everywhere!
Nicaragua was also home to a lot of wildlife you just have to look a little closer sometimes to find them. We saw monkeys in San Juan Del Sur and a sloth at the top of Mombacho Volcano. We also got to release baby sea turtles into the wild in Nicaragua which was a really special experience.
We also explored some Mangroves not far from Leon and saw huge crocodiles, iguanas and so many different species of birds.
It is very easy to experience wildlife ethically in both countries.
How safe is it to visit?
When you look at Nicaragua vs Costa Rica in terms of safety, they are both pretty safe. Perhaps Costa Rica can be regarded as having slightly fewer risks to tourists but they are both safe to travel.
We felt totally safe and had no issues in either country. We felt safe at all times and didn’t hear from anyone else about having any troubles either.
However, Nicaragua is a lot poorer than Costa Rica and there is a lot more poverty. This can occasionally lead to petty crimes and desperate people taking chances. You just have to be a little more aware of your surroundings in Nicaragua and don’t leave your things where you can’t see them.
Despite Costa Rica being more developed and with a lot more infrastructure, there is also a lot more tourism. And we all know by now that crowded tourist locations are often hotspots for petty crimes like pickpocketing.
So you really do just have to be alert no matter where you go in Central America.
What is the food like?
The food in both Nicaragua and Costa Rica is pretty similar. Plenty of rice, beans and plantain. Lots of lovely fresh fruits and vegetables and corn is the staple ingredient for a lot of dishes.
The main difference is that food in Costa Rica is much more expensive than in Nicaragua. This is the case for both local and Western dishes.
Both countries had a wide variety of restaurants and the quality was similar no matter where we went.
Finding Vegan food wasn’t difficult in either country but Costa Rica did have slightly more options in most places that we visited.
What are the people like?
We found the local people of both Nicaragua and Costa Rica to be really friendly. But there were a couple of interesting things that we noticed in each country.
In Costa Rica we didn’t meet as many locals, at least it felt that way, because there are far more foreign visitors everywhere. A lot of the guesthouses and hostels we stayed at were run by people from all over the world.
However, all of the local people we did meet seemed to speak really great English and were really friendly and happy to have a chat with us.
In Nicaragua, all of the people we had the chance to speak to and have a conversation with were really lovely too. But the general public was a little more tough to crack and this was explained to us on a walking tour we did.
The people of Nicaragua have had a really tough time with dictators, wars and so on. They are tired and struggling a lot of the time. It’s nothing against us tourists they just have a lot to deal with and who can blame them?
But once we understood this, we had a new appreciation for the people of Nicaragua and just how strong they are to have suffered all they have been through and still be able to smile at you, as you cross them on the street.
We loved seeing groups of neighbours take chairs out onto the streets, to catch up at the end of the day and be together as a community.
How expensive is it to visit?
This is one of the points where Nicaragua and Costa Rica are hugely different because Costa Rica is far more expensive than Nicaragua. In fact, Costa Rica is probably the most expensive country in all of Central America.
To give you an idea, our average daily spend in Costa Rica was $190 for 2 people. In Nicaragua, our average daily spend was $115.
Everything from accommodation, food and transport is just more expensive in general in Costa Rica. But the thing that can really make costs add up is the price of the activities. It is still absolutely worth visiting Costa Rica, it is just good to know in advance that things can get really expensive.
For this reason, we were far more specific about the things we wanted to do there and made sure to plan out our time to be more efficient without spending. A great way to save some money is to plan in advance with Costa Rica. As it is more popular things can book up in advance and you end up having to pay more.
Nicaragua was a lot cheaper for accommodation, food and transport but the price of tours and activities can quickly add up.
We spent 3 weeks in Costa Rica and our total spend was – $4200
We spent 4 weeks in Nicaragua and our total spend was – $3300
For inspiration on planning a trip to Nicaragua, check out our full itinerary.
Getting around the country?
We found it pretty easy to get around both Nicaragua and Costa Rica but it was probably slightly easier in Nicaragua.
In both countries, we used combinations of public buses, Taxis, shuttles and boats to get around. Often between touristy destinations it is obvious and easy to get from A to B. But we did have a couple of times in Costa Rica where it just wasn’t very straightforward and was very expensive.
Travel in Costa Rica seemed to also take a lot longer and the roads weren’t always as good as you would expect them to be. We found getting to and From Monteverde less straightforward than expected and also getting to Drakes Bay is known to be a challenge.
In Nicaragua however, most of the places you will want to visit are along the west coast and fairly short distances apart. There are always public buses and affordable tourist shuttles. The most challenging place to get to is probably the Corn Islands, for which you will need to Fly and take a boat.
Nicaragua Vs Costa Rica – Best Places To Visit
Now that we have compared all the basics of Nicaragua and Costa Rica, we wanted to share some of the best places to visit in both countries. Based on places we have actually visited.
Best places to visit in Costa Rica
- Drakes Bay
Drakes Bay was our absolute favourite place in Costa Rica. It was remote and relatively undeveloped. A little bit of a challenge to get to. You have to take a boat that drops you off on the beach.
Drakes Bay is the ideal place to base yourself for exploring the incredible Corcovado National Park. This is by far the best National Park in the country and they only allow around 300 people to enter per day so you need to book in advance.
We also loved the beaches at Drakes Bay and often had them all to ourselves.
- Manuel Antonio
Perfect for anyone who wants to experience a national park without a guide. You still need to book your entrance time online in advance but you don’t have to have a guide to enter. This means you can explore at your own pace.
The highlight for us was the beaches within the National Park. I highly recommend visiting the park as soon as it opens, that way you will have the beaches to yourself for a couple of hours before everyone else arrives.
The public beach in Manuel Antonio is also a great place to chill, enjoy a drink in the sun and maybe try some water activities.
Monteverde is home to a lush green cloud forest where you can take tours to spot wildlife or try the popular zip-lining courses. We did the zip-lining and it was so much fun to speed through the tree canopies and admire the forests from above.
If you prefer to keep your feet on the ground, you can also explore the forests on the tree-top walkways they have built, giving you a great bird’s eye view of the forest.
For details on how to get to Monteverde from Liberia, we have a full guide.
Best places to visit in Nicaragua
We absolutely loved Leon. This charming colonial city had a natural authentic feel to it. There is loads to do around the city including visiting the many churches, climbing onto the roof of the vast white Cathedral for a view over the city, visiting the many museums and galleries and taking a tour of all of the impressive street art.
Unlike most street art, these all had a theme of the country’s history which was fascinating to learn about.
Leon is also only a short bus ride from the beach and mangroves. It is also the place to be if you want to get your adrenaline pumping and give volcano boarding a try.
For more info on how to spend your time in Leon, you can read our post here.
Granada is a slightly larger city than Leon and feels more geared toward tourists. This means more restaurants, more tour shops and more to do!
Granada is also a great place to explore the surrounding volcanos from. A couple of our favourites were Masaya and Mombacho. It is also located right on the edge of Lake Nicaragua where you can do boat trips and explore the hundreds of small islands.
- Ometepe Island
The largest Island on Lake Nicaragua is Ometepe Island. This enormous island is shaped like a Giant figure of 8 with a massive volcano on each side. It is possible to hike both volcanos but it’s not for the faint-hearted.
For our top picks on where to stay in each country, check out our favourite hostels in Central America.
Nicaragua Vs Costa Rica – Top Things To Do
Sometimes it is easier to pick a destination if you know what the best things to do in each place are. So here we will list all of the top things to do in both Nicaragua and Costa Rica so you can compare.
Top 10 things to do in Costa Rica
- Go wildlife spotting in a National Park
Corcovado and Manuel Antonio are our top choices for National Parks to explore.
- Zip-Line your way through a cloud forest
Both Monteverde and La Fortuna have brilliant places to go Zip-lining.
- Surf the Waves of the Pacific Ocean
The most popular spots for surfing are Tamarindo, Jaco and Dominical.
- Go Scuba Diving at Cano Island
You can take boat trips from Uvits or Drakes Bay to Cano Island. You can also go snorkelling here if you aren’t into scuba diving.
- Go Canyoning
You can do this from either La Fortuna or Manuel Antonio.
- Swim under Waterfalls
There are so many stunning waterfalls in Costa Rica but some of the most popular are Rio Celeste, La Fortuna Waterfall and La Paz Waterfall.
- Hike Arenol Volcano
You can do this with tours from La Fortuna.
- Visit a Sloth Sanctuary
For more info on the best Sanctuaries and places to see Sloths, check out our guide.
- Go White Water Rafting
La Fortuna Rapids are one of the best spots in the country for white water rafting.
- Enjoy a hot spring
Some of the best ones to visit are Rio Negro Hot Springs & Mud Baths and Baldi Hot springs resort.
Top 10 things to do in Nicaragua
- Give Volcano Boarding a try
This is done from Leon and on Volcano Cerro Negro. It is best to join the sunset tours and enjoy the party bus on the way back.
- Visit a turtle Hatchery
Our top recommendation is to spend a couple of days at the Surf and Turtle Lodge. A bus ride and a boat trip from Leon and you will be on an isolated beach with nothing for miles. Just you, the waves and the baby turtles (in season of course).
- Surf the Waves of the Pacific Ocean
The most popular spots to go surfing are Popoyo and San Juan Del Sur.
- See the Lava in Masaya Volcano
A short evening trip from Granada takes you to the crater of the volcano for sunset. This gives you the best light to see the red lava inside the Volcano.
- Hike the cloud forest at Mombacho Volcano
A day trip from Granada will take you to the base of Mombacho where you can hike up to the cloud forest and around the crater that is now completely filled with lush greenery.
- Visit Monkey Island on Lake Nicaragua
Take a boat trip from Granada out onto the lake and around monkey island. Where the local monkeys will come to greet you as you go by.
- Go crocodile spotting in the Mangroves
Head to the beach from Leon and join a guided boat trip through the mangroves.
- Hire a scooter and explore Ometepe Island
The best way to get around Ometep Island is by scooter. Rent one for the day and go for a ride, you can easily do a lap of the whole island in a day.
- Relax in heaven on the Corn Islands
The heavenly beaches of Big Corn and Little Corn eagerly await anyone willing to do the journey to get to them.
- Party at the Treehouse Hostel
One of the most famous parties in all of Central America can be found just a short ride from Granada at the Tree House Hostel.
As you can see there is so much to do in both countries. While some activities are the same or very similar, there are also a few unique options too depending on what interests you most.
Nicaragua Vs Costa Rica – Which Was Our Favourite And Why
This is a tricky question to answer but after some careful consideration we have agreed when it comes to Nicaragua Vs Costa Rica, our favourite was Costa Rica.
This is mostly down to the fact that we are huge animal lovers and you just can’t beat Costa Rica when it comes to Wildlife.
We honestly loved both countries and this was a close call. If only you could visit Costa Rica on the budget of Nicaragua, that would be the dream.
Nicaragua vs Costa Rica FAQs
To make sure we leave no stone unturned and no question unanswered, here are a few more frequently asked questions.
What are the main differences between Costa Rica and Nicaragua?
The main differences between Nicaragua and Costa Rica are as follows;
Costa Rica is more expensive than Nicaragua but has much more wildlife and National Parks.
Nicaragua is cheaper and easier to navigate whilst being more focused on activities around volcanos.
Costa Rica is a smaller country and more developed than Nicaragua.
Nicaragua feels more authentic and has a more colourful recent history to explore.
Is it cheaper to fly to Costa Rica or Nicaragua?
I did a couple of checks and it seems that flying from both London and New York, it is slightly cheaper to fly to Nicaragua than it is to fly to Costa Rica. But not by much.
Does Nicaragua have fewer tourists than Costa Rica?
Yes, Costa Rica receives more than twice as many tourists as Nicaragua each year.
Is Costa Rica or Nicaragua better for surfing?
Nicaragua is known to be the better location for surfing due to its more consistent and reliable surf conditions. It also has more surf-suitable days a year than Costa Rica typically does.
Is it easy to cross the Costa Rica – Nicaragua border?
Yes, it is easy to cross the border. We entered from Nicaragua into Costa Rica and had no issues at all. I can imagine it may be a little more of a process going into Nicaragua from Costa Rica as they tend to make things a little harder than they need to be. It still shouldn’t be an issue regardless, may just take more time to get across.
There are regular tourist shuttles that go between San Juan Del Sur and Libertad or San Jose.
Nicaragua Vs Costa Rica – Final Thoughts
So there you have it, an in-depth comparison of Nicaragua Vs Costa Rica. They are both really amazing countries with so much to offer that really, no matter which one you choose you are guaranteed to have a blast!
If you are still torn between the two then perhaps let your budget decide for you.
We would love to hear how your trip goes and as always if you have any questions feel free to get in touch!