Getting Around in Nicaragua: Finding My Way in the Country with No Addresses

July 21, 2014
getting around in Nicaragua Living in Nicaragua: Returning to Esteli

foreign-correspondent badge finalI arrived at the airport in Nicaragua’s capital city of Managua eight months ago at about 6 p.m. on a Thursday.

The organization I am working with had given me a file to print out with all necessary emergency contact information and the address of the hotel I would be staying at for the next week. Outside the Managua airport, I saw the yellow polo shirt uniform of the taxi company they had suggested I use. So after negotiating the 200 Cordoba price, I hopped into one.

“Where are you going?” the driver asked me.

“La Posadadita,” I answered, rummaging through the papers to find the address, “the address is…” I trailed off, looking at the paper. Something was wrong. There was the name of a hotel, but no street names, no house numbers, nothing. Just some sort of vague description: “3 streets east of the old memorial hospital, 1.5 blocks north across from the optometrist Dr. Maria.”

Getting to different Nicaraguan cities is no easy feat in itself.

getting around in Nicaragua
Sarah in Nicaragua

I checked my papers again, searching a bit more frantically now. The address had to be somewhere. The taxi driver took the paper from my hand.

“Oh, okay, I know where that is,” and within seconds we were off, hurtling through the humid and hot air of Nicaragua’s capital city.

Travel in Nicaragua is primarily accomplished with buses and collective taxis, as well as the occasional ferry or panga (speed boat) thrown in.

Getting to different Nicaraguan cities is no easy feat in itself. First you have to figure out which of the five different bus terminals in the city your bus departs from. Then you have to figure out the difference between express buses and ruteadas (chicken buses), as well as find out where in the chaotically structured bus terminal you are supposed to get your ticket from and to whom you are supposed to pay.

Then you have to actually find your bus amid broken Spanish, taxi drivers hustling you, erratic bus departure times, and often 35-plus degree weather. However, once you are finally in your destination city, getting to where you want to be going presents you with yet another challenge: finding the address.

Even if you see a street name, it is highly unlikely that anybody else will know it. Addresses here are based on this sort of collective memory of important places.

If you look at a map of any city in Nicaragua, except for the old historic centers, you will notice one thing. Or, perhaps better said, you will notice the absence of something. Street names. Even if you see a street name, it is highly unlikely that anybody else will know it. Addresses here are based on this sort of collective memory of important places. I say memory intentionally because many times people don’t use the current landmarks, but rather historical landmarks such as the old memorial hospital in Managua, which actually now doesn’t exist beyond a pile of ruble and stones. Yet somehow everyone knows where it is, even the 5-year-old kid at the hotel who was born long after it collapsed.

Confusing, right?

Getting around in Nicaragua is actually surprisingly easy once you get the hang of it. Now having lived here for eight months, I have completely changed the way I view maps. I always start by noting where is north. Then I look for major landmarks: Is there a hospital nearby? A church? A park? A university? A central street?

Anything basically with a name works well. Then I note the closest landmark and count the number of blocks north, south, east, or west to get to my final destination. That also means that any one house can have multiple different addresses, depending on where you are coming from. It always helps to ask at the hotel or wherever you are going what the landmarks are. There will always be a general landmark for people who are not from that area (like a school or a church) and then a smaller landmark that everyone who lives in that area will know, which can be as specific as a restaurant, or as unspecific as a blue house with a large tree in front.


About Sarah Sax

Sarah Sax took her first trip from the US to New Zealand when she was 9 months old and has never quite stopped. She has lived in the US, New Zealand, India, Germany, Canada and is currently residing in Nicaragua where she works for CUSO International, researching food and nutrition security. She is fascinated by the similarities and differences of the various places she has visited and nothing lifts her soul quite as much as the view of an open road in front of her. Follow her adventures on her blog.

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