“We are regretfully suspending our tours to Nicaragua. Due to unfavorable economic and political conditions we feel that it is not advisable to enter or travel in Nicaragua at this time. Hopefully it will become more favorable in the future, so that we can once again offer tours to this historic and interesting country”. . .
I am planning to post the above notice on my Web site. As a paratransit tour operator for people with disabilities, I feel that I must take this action and warn others about driving into Nicaragua based my personal experience.
Last month I took my daughter, Rachel, and her two girl friends on a private weekend tour to Granada.When we got to the border we had to go through the usual procedure of inspections, obtaining permits and paying fees. There was no problem other than the wait – two-plus hours on the Nicaraguan side.
The official inadvertently put three people traveling on the permit, instead of four. My name was listed as the driver/owner, so I assumed that the number “3” referred to the passengers. I assumed wrong.
This resulted in incident #1 with a police officer just outside of Rivas. He flagged us down upon seeing our Costa Rican plates (probably a red flag). He asked for the vehicle entry permit and pointed out that we were four. I politely explained that had been a slight oversight made by the border official.
But the cop continued harassing me over it and said that he had to issue a $40 ticket, and that one person would have to leave the vehicle.
Obviously we weren’t about to do that, and anyway what he was really after was a bribe. After 20 minutes of negotiation, we eventually agreed on a $10 “pass for four,” and three brownies.
The second incident came while I was driving after dark on a road entering Granada, where a traffic cone had been placed in the middle of the road for no apparent reason. I accidentally bumped it and didn’t realize what had happened until a motorcycle officer stopped me a couple hundred meters ahead.
He told me that I had to pay a “multa” for hitting the cone and also for the “damages” to the cone. I followed him to a nearby station where we were surrounded by half a dozen cops. They showed me the cone that had no real damage, such as a break or crack.
There were only two black marks near the top where my bumper apparently hit it. In any case, they made it seem like I had just committed a major crime. The officer immediately took my license away and said that he’d write me a ticket. Instead of doing this at the scene, he told me to go to my hotel in Granada and that he’d find me later.
After an hour or so we finally met up and he gave me a ticket and he said that I could pay it in the bank the next day (Saturday). I did as he instructed and called him on his cell phone to show him the paid receipt.
He then returned my license, but I wasn’t done yet. I still had to pay for the traffic cone. I was either to give him $25 without an official receipt, (since he was off duty and he didn’t have any with him) or I had to buy a new cone in Managua.
I was going to Managua the next day, so I decided that the second option would be best – to have the actual cone and a receipt. In reality, I could have just skipped this and no one would have known otherwise …to be continued below.
Incident #3 occurred just outside of Masaya on the main highway later that afternoon. The police were stationed at an intersection pulling over cars. In this case the officers said that I didn’t make a proper rightturn signal, although there is a designated and protected turn lane for doing so. After explaining the violation and fine, the officer actually came out and said “tengo hambre, almuerzo.” In other words, if I gave him and his partner money for lunch, they’d forget about the ticket. They each got 100 córdobas ($5.50) to “do lunch.”
Incident #4 happened the following day, Sunday, as I drove solo to Managua to drop off some items in my van. Just before Masaya there is another traffic checkpoint; and like in Costa Rica, cops in Nicaragua don’t seem to need probable cause to stop cars.
The officer could not tell me that I had done anything wrong other than having Costa Rican plates. So after looking at my license and documents, he said that ever ything was OK and that I was free to go. However, on my dashboard he had spotted a spray can of mace. He explained that his department does not issue such equipment and that he really needed it. He also said that he was hungry.
Ultimately I helped in equipping him with a chemical agent and another handout. It seems that 100 córdobas is going price for a lunch instead of a ticket.
Incident #5 came in Managua, not at a traffic stop but rather at the “Plaza del Sol,” where the traffic cop from incident #2 had told me to go to for the replacement traffic cone. Something got lost in translation because when I arrived, an officer at the main gate told me that I was at the National Police headquarters.
I related what had happened regarding the traffic cone. He informed me that there was a hardware store nearby where I could buy a cone the next morning, on Monday. After awhile he offered to provide me with one from their storage supply.
While I waited for the cone, I asked him why the police were making so many traffic stops. He candidly explained that the government has not been paying them their salaries. He told me that he has been a cop for 16 years and that he had not been paid for three weeks.
In the end, I left surreptitiously with a $20 cone, which he conveniently put in a big plastic trash bag for me.
My last obligation was to deliver the traffic cone to the police station in Granada.
After discovering the traffic cop who gave me the ticket was not on duty, I left it with his fellow officers. One of them hand wrote a receipt on a piece of paper and said that it was official. In any case, I took a picture of the cone on the desk with the officers, just in case.
Please-email me at email@example.com and I’ll send you a copy of the photo if anyone doesn’t believe it.
So if you were planning to take your car into Nicaragua, especially if you are thinking of doing so with Costa Rican plates, I’d have your córdobas ready!
By the way, they’re not just picking on foreigners; a Nicaraguan told me the same thing had happened to him.
As a tour operator, I will not subject my wheelchair clients to these conditions. It is disgraceful that police officers are harassing motorists for money.
Shame on the Sandinista government for allowing such unprofessional practices.
This was the first time that I’ve experienced such shakedowns in all the times I’ve been to Nicaragua. In short, if you have to travel there, remember the old Greyhound slogan, “Take the bus and leave the driving to us.”
Erik Shiozaki owns and operates Vaya Con Silla de Ruedas, a company that has been providing paratransit tours throughout Costa Rica and Nicaragua for 10 years. He lives in Sarchí.