Thinking of heading down south, and having a hard time choosing between Costa Rica vs Nicaragua? You’re in the right place. Both countries are full of natural beauty, rich culture, and lots of activities.
I’ve travelled to both, and truly enjoy both of them. I can’t say enough good things about either one, but I can say that they’re very different from each other.
Despite being right next to each other, Costa Rica and Nicaragua have been run differently by their governments, which has lead to societies and priorities that have been set up differently. They have some similarities, but a lot of differences too that you might want to keep in mind as a tourist.
So which should you choose between Costa Rica vs Nicaragua? Let’s go through all the things to keep in mind.
Similarities between Costa Rica and Nicaragua
First, let’s go over how Costa Rica and Nicaragua are similar. Both Costa Rica and Nicaragua have:
- Spanish as their official language
- Active volcanos, and great beaches, and rainforest
- A variety of accommodation styles – from resorts to budget accommodation
- A dry season and a wet season
- Similar local food; Gallo Pinto is a traditional dish of both countries
Tourist attractions in Costa Rica vs Nicaragua
Here are some of the main draws in each country to keep in mind when trying to decide which one is best for you.
Highlights in Costa Rica
-Monteverde Cloud Forest, the most famous cloud forest in the world
–Hanging bridges in the rainforests that give you a bird’s eye view of the jungle
–Coffee, fruit and chocolate farms that practice sustainable, organic farming
-La Fortuna, with a view of Arenal Volcano
-World class beach resorts, and lots of beaches for surfing and families with kids
Highlights in Nicaragua
-The island of Ometepe (pictured above) with towns, lush rainforest and a volcano
–Masaya Volcano, which allows you to look into the lava pit.
–The Corn Islands, on the Caribbean side of Nicaragua, offer a tropical atmosphere. Little Corn is completely car-free.
–León and Grenada, two colonial cities beautiful architecture
-San Juan del Sur beach, popular for surfing
Which is more touristy?
Costa Rica is much more touristy than Nicaragua. Part of the reason is because draws a larger variety of tourists than Nicaragua does (couples, families with young kids, young backpackers, the retired, etc.) The time between December and March is the peak time for tourists. According to the Costa Rican embassy, Costa rica received 2.2 million tourists in 2022. This number will likely increase in future years.
Nicaragua receives more tourists than you may think, but not nearly as many as Costa Rica. Tourism in Nicaragua has been increasing every year since the 1990s, although it has been declining in recent years. The peak year for tourism in Nicaragua was 1.9 million people in 2017. Since 2017, it has been declining due to political unrest, and then the pandemic.
Beaches in Costa Rica vs Nicaragua
Most of the touristy beaches in both Costa Rica and Nicaragua are on the Pacific Sides of the country. The Atlantic (Caribbean) side of both countries isn’t as popular. They both have beautiful beaches, some great for surfing, some sandy, shallow and family-friendly.
Beaches in Costa Rica
Most people looking for a beach vacation in Costa Rica head to the Guanacaste region, in the northeast of the country. They beaches are sandy, with turquoise waters and often have amenities. There are also some good beaches in the Manuel Antonio region (pictured below.) What I like about Manuel Antonio is it has a good mixture of beaches and rainforest, and there are a few great beaches for families there, with calm waters and a sandy shoreline.
Beaches in Nicaragua
Nicaragua has some popular beaches on the Pacific coast that are popular for surfing, but not many tropical beaches on the east coast. The one exception to this is Nicaragua’s Corn Islands. Little Corn and Big Corn – both of these islands are picturesque and laid back, and well worth a visit while you’re in Nicaragua.
Ultimately, for beaches, you can’t go wrong with either Costa Rica or Nicaragua. They both have beautiful beaches to offer, whether you’re looking for surfing, relaxing on the sand, or family-friendly beaches.
Rainforests and Wildlife in Costa Rica vs Nicaragua
There are rainforests in both countries, but you’ll find that one of them has much more than the others.
Rainforests in Costa Rica
The rainforest is a big part of the tourism in Costa Rica. Costa Rica has a huge commitment to biodiversity, and because of that, its a haven for rainforests and wildlife. Overall, if you want to see jungles, lush exotic plants and wildlife, then head to Costa Rica. It will not disappoint in that area at all. We did several hikes in the rainforest in Costa Rica, and we saw sloths, toucans, exotic frogs, monkeys and tropical birds.
Rainforest in Nicaragua
Sadly, a lot of the rainforest in Nicaragua has been cleared for farming and housing, but there is some rainforest: The Indio Maíz Biological Reserve, which you can visit, is one of the most extensive rainforests in Central America. Overall though, its much harder to spot wildlife in Nicaragua.
Overall, if rainforest is a focus for you, then you should choose Costa Rica.
Food in Costa Rica vs Nicaragua
The traditional dishes in Costa Rica and Nicaragua are similar. They both have Gallo Pinto, which is a rice and bean mixture, with often egg and/or meat on the side. They both have fresh fruit; tropical fruits as well as avocados. Its also common to have plátano (fried plantains) in both countries.
One difference to note is the type of restaurants you’re most likely to find in each country.
Restaurants in Costa Rica
Costa Rica has its local, hole in the wall restaurants which they call “sodas” (two are pictured below.) I personally like eating in sodas; and some of them have English menus, however, knowing a bit of Spanish might help because they aren’t restaurants that specifically cater to tourists.
You will find many upper scale restaurants in Costa Rica that specifically cater to tourists are you looking for a certain comfort level. Costa Rica is set up to offer you a comfortable vacation, so if you don’t enjoy eating in ‘local’ restaurants, you’ll find plenty of places that resemble a restaurant in North America or Europe.
Restaurants in Nicaragua
You can find many nice restaurants in Nicaragua. There aren’t as many ‘high end’ ones that are made to suit a Western tourist looking for a upper scale vacation, perse, although there are some. You can still find restaurants that are geared towards tourists (two examples are pictured below) but of course, there are also the “sodas,” the local hole in the walls as well.
Beer in Costa Rica vs Nicaragua
Costa Rica makes several of its beers, and breweries have been popping up everywhere in the country lately. There are 11 different beer bands that I recommend trying in Costa Rica. Nicaragua brews its own beer too, its called Toña. You can find Toña beer in most of the restaurants.
Volcanoes in Costa Rica vs Nicaragua
Both Costa Rica and Nicaragua have a handful of active volcanoes, along with many more that are considered dormant or extinct.
Good to Know: In order to be considered “active” a volcano has to have erupted at least once in the last 10,000 years.
Volcanos in Costa Rica
There are six active volcanos in Costa Rica. La Fortuna gives you a great view of the Arenal Volcano, which last erupted in 1968. You can also visit the amazing Poás Volcano, and look into the crater (pictured below) – you won’t see lava though. However, Poás Volcano is known for having the largest crater in the world at 980 feet wide.
Volcanos in Nicaragua
Nicaragua is home to one of the most famous volcanos in the world, because its one of the only six in the world where you can still see lava if you look into the crater. (Pictured below.) This is Masaya Volcano, which has its own National Park and tours you should visit. Visiting Masaya Volcano was one of the highlights of our trip in Costa Rica.
Overall, if volcanos are something you’re really interested in – then you should choose Nicaragua. Its very rare to be able to see lava any more, and Masaya Volcano is one of the few volcanos where you can currently do that.
Getting Around Costa Rica vs Nicaragua
Both Costa Rica and Nicaragua have:
- car rental companies
- public transit
- private shuttles
- domestic flights
Driving in Costa Rica is pretty easy, and its very common for tourists to drive around, exploring the country. This is what we do when we visit. There’s also the option of hiring private shuttles, and there are several shuttle companies. You can take public busses, but its helpful to know a bit of Spanish in order to navigate the trips.
In Nicaragua, we hired a driver to drive us around the mainland. The domestic airline of Nicaragua is called La Costeñais, we used them to fly to Big Corn Island.
Safety and Crime Rate
Having travelled to both, we never felt unsafe in either country. We also know that statements like these can be subjective, so let’s look at the statistics and facts.
Crime rate in Costa Rica has been steadily increasing since the 1990s, but the rate has slowed down, according to statistics analyzed by . The crime rate in Costa Rica for 2020 was 11.9%.
In Nicaragua, crime rate has actually been declining since the 1990s, and the crime rate is actually lower than Costa Rica’s crime rate. I’m not sure if its actually lower, or because they don’t keep track and record the same way that Costa Rica does. Nicaragua has had issues with political unrest in recent years. I visited during some political unrest, and that carries a small risk. You have to research what the current situation is in Nicaragua, depending on when you plan to go.
Ultimately, both countries are relatively safe when you exercise caution. If you’re planning to travel with kids, then I think Costa Rica might be better only because it has a more comfortable set-up for tourists.
Accommodations in Costa Rica vs Nicaragua
Both countries have a mix of hostels, budget-friendly hotels, resorts.
Receiving millions of tourists per year, many which are seeking a luxury beach vacation, Costa Rica has a lot to deliver in the way of high end resorts, and all-inclusive options. So if this is the kind of vacation you’re after, then you should head to Costa Rica. However, there are also some budget-friendly hotels, farm stays, AirBnbs, and hostels. There are also great hotels for families.
If you’re looking for upper scale fancy resorts, you won’t find as much of that in Nicaragua, but there are still some very nice places to stay. I felt truly spoiled by some of the amazing places we stayed at in Nicaragua.
Which is more expensive?
If you eat in a Costa Rican hole-in-the wall restaurant (called sodas) then you can eat pretty cheaply. But if you’re eating in American-style restaurants, it’ll be more expensive. If its in a very touristy area, then the prices for those restaurants will be jacked up even more. Its also more expensive to fly to, and get around Costa Rica.
There are some nice hotels and resorts in Nicaragua too, but not to the same level as in Costa Rica. You can stay in these ‘nicer’ places for cheaper than what it would cost in Costa Rica. Ultimately, if you’re on a strict budget, then I would choose Nicaragua. That was a big part of the reason I chose it.
Which is best for you?
To break it down, here’s what each of the two countries entail: this might help you see which country you most envision yourself travelling to
Costa Rica might for you if:
- You want to see rainforests and wildlife. Costa Rica has more rainforest, and more chances to see exotic animals in their own habitat
- You’re interested in biodiversity and sustainability. Costa Rica will inspire you in how it preserves nature, and even plants new forests, creating homes for wildlife and clean air to breathe
- You’re interested in visiting sustainable farms, chocolate and coffee farms
Nicaragua might be for you if:
- You want to snorkel or scuba dive in tropical, Caribbean waters (Little Corn Island)
- You enjoy strolling through colonial towns and looking at old architecture (Grenada and León)
- You enjoy travelling to destinations off-the beaten path. (Nicaragua is touristy, but much less so than Costa Rica.)
- You’re interested in volcanos and want to see real lava from an active volcano (Masaya Volcano)
Costa Rica vs Nicaragua: FAQs
Here are the most commonly asked questions about Costa Rica and Nicaragua, visiting and comparing the two countries and weighing which one is best for the individual tourist
Is Costa Rica or Nicaragua safer?
Both Costa Rica and Nicaragua are relatively safe countries. Nicaragua is statistically safer than Costa Rica, in terms of crime rate that is officially recorded. According to records, Nicaraguan crime rate has been declining over the past couple decades, whereas Costa Rica’s crime rate has been increasing. However, Nicaragua occasionally suffers from political unrest which causes some safety issues, so its important to research the current political situation at the time you’re visiting. Overall, I believe that Costa Rica is a little bit safer for tourists simply because it has more amenities in place, especially for tourists coming from Western countries.
Is Nicaragua nicer than Costa Rica?
Both countries are beautiful, offering slightly different experiences. If you’re looking for relaxing beach resorts, or hikes in the lush rainforest (especially the cloud forest) or to spot wildlife, or visit organic, family-owned coffee and chocolate farms, then you’ll love Costa Rica. If you want to hike volcanoes, visit colonial towns with old architecture, then you might prefer Nicaragua. Both Costa Rica and Nicaragua have great beaches for surfing, as well as family-friendly beaches.
Is Costa Rica or Nicaragua more expensive?
Costa Rica tends to be more expensive because of the services it offers to tourists: resorts, restaurants and activities specifically catered to foreigners on vacation. You’ll pay more for these amenities and experiences. However, its still very possible to do Costa Rica in a more budget-friendly way.
What are two ways that Costa Rica is different from Nicaragua?
Costa Rica is different from Nicaragua in two main ways: for one, it has a lot more rainforest and tourism surrounding their preservation of the rainforest than Nicaragua does. Two, it has a lot more of the ‘high end’ luxury tourism that caters to Western tourist on an upscale vacation. There are some great places to stay in Nicaragua as well, but not to the same level of luxury resorts as what you see in Costa Rica.
Is Nicaragua tourist friendly?
Nicaragua is tourist friendly. There are hotels, accommodations, restaurants and amazing places to visit that would be very enjoyable to tourists. Its not as common or popular of a travel destination as Costa Rica is, but Nicaraguans are friendly people and are very thankful for tourism because of how it supports their small businesses. One thing to keep in mind is that there may be more people trying to approach you to ‘sell’ things in Nicaragua.
Final Thoughts: Costa Rica vs Nicaragua
If I was going to choose one again, it would be a very tough choice. I love the jungle, and I like the fact that Costa Rica preserves the jungle so well. I loved seeing wildlife in their own habitat. I’ve never seen as much of it as I have in Costa Rica.
Nicaragua is beautiful, I especially love the colonial cities and architecture (Grenada and León), the Masaya volcano was amazing to see, and I also really enjoyed Little Corn Island and Ometepe.