Driving in Nicaragua

By Martin Nelson

They just finished upgrading a brand new, four-lane stretch of the Pan America highway from Jinotepe to Diriamba. The upgrade continues from Jinotepe to Managua only reducing to two lane through congested towns. It is beautiful with lots of reflectors, yellow side, lane and center stripping; feels like one of the best highways in California from where I come fifteen years ago. What a surprise when I was forced to leave the lane closest to the center for a left turn, swing into the right hand “slow” lane in front of oncoming traffic behind me,  return to and stop in the fast lane and wait for oncoming traffic to pass from the other direction in order to turn left!  What the heck!!!

This peculiar turn arrangement prompted me to jot down some of my thoughts  I’ve been accumulating about driving challenges in Nicaragua. I should say right away Nicaragua highways are very, very good. They are far better than Costa Rica’s and those in other Central American countries. And they are continuously being upgraded!

When I first came in 2004, some friends advised that I never drive here … “hire a chauffeur! If there’s an accident your driver can stay behind and work things out and you can take a taxi home!” (the law says you will go to jail if you move your car even a few inches to get it out of stalled traffic). If your driver gets pulled over for breaking an obscure driving law, he or she may be better able to resolve it.  If involved in a fender bender, your driver can wait for your insurance agent and police to show up (a requirement). Indeed, many of my new  north American friends did not then drive, nor do not drive even now.

But I’m prideful and refused to be a ride-along.  As a result I have had a couple of avoidable accidents and a couple of near misses. Before going into those, however, let me share some of my impressions.

First, getting a driver’s license requires a written exam, a medical clearance and an eye test. I did none of these for my first license and I don’t think I’m the only one judging by the way others drive. The only test I was given was an eye exam but the handheld device I was to use didn’t work so they just accepted the fact that I had a California license without any sight restrictions. I often wonder how many others are out there on the road with night blindness or far less than 20-20 vision, or no notion of what are the Nicaragua driving laws!!!

Then there is the philosophy that two things cannot be in the same space at the same time. Witness for example, taxis which stop in traffic or in busy intersections to pick up or let off passengers. They will stop on blind curves, in the so-called fast lane or wherever putting the onus on others to stop or move around them. Big problem at night when many don’t have adequate tail lights. That raises two pet peeves.

There is no fast or slow lane on the four lane highways. Motor bikes unapologetically putt along in the lanes closest to the center causing faster vehicles to swerve around them to the right. And those three-wheel put-puts, (caponeras) that are everywhere. These slow tricycles are often filled with a dozen passengers, some hanging out the sides and move at a sails’ pace. They will dart out from anywhere and never signal a turn. And do you think they might pull off to the right a bit so we could pass? No such luck! And there are hundreds of them around and in the major towns; they bring folks in from the rural areas to the bus stations and taxi stands.

There are several kinds of busses. The big yellow chicken-busses divide between “express” and regular.  Both are slow, but cheap. You are not supposed to cross a yellow line when they stop in front of you, but most people do with their fingers crossed. You WILL get a multa (citation) if you cross that line for ANY reason including gliding around a stopped bus or broken down vehicle or turning into a gas station (got one for that earlier this year). Then there are the huge Tica and NIca Busses that drive like the wind  throughout Central America… stay out of their way!

The smallest and fleetest type of “bus” is actually a van. The van has a driver and a fare taker who shouts in passengers. These busses are usually non-stop city-to city and are the preferred method of public transportation. Some of the drivers are pretty reckless but the ones I don’t like sort of coast along popular transit areas fishing for passengers. They will stop anywhere and challenge you to cross the sacred yellow line to get around them.

So what are the challenges of driving in Nicaragua? Most roads are two-lane affairs with lots of cross traffic and no shoulders where one can easily pull off the road. One has to be alert for horse-drawn carts, capneras swerving onto the highway driving slowly in front, horse back riders, oxen driven carts (usually without lights or reflectors) bicycles and motor bikes with as many as five adults and children riding without helmets, stray dogs and farm animals (pigs, sheep, goats, cows both driven in a herd and wondering onto the highway), barouches (drunks swerving alongside and crossing the road), children kicking soccer balls onto the highway, potholes like on Pluto, barely marked detours due to road construction or repair, broken down trucks which have spread tree branches out to warn following traffic, and old cars and trucks that are way past their safe and useful life.

Here are some of the incidents I have had. First serious accident was clearly a poor choice in judgement, and I wasn’t even driving! Young, willing to learn housekeeper Karen wanted to learn to drive. We loved traveling with Karen since she would jump out a smack the ass of cows that wouldn’t move from in front of us. So we worked with Karen, but unfortunately hadn’t gotten around to show her how to back up. Karen came to me while I was sunning on the beach and asked if she could take the car across Iguana to pick up a homework assignment. Hours later I discovered she picked up her friends and drove them to the highway after first backing up into a tractor. Demolished the back end of the truck. I limped into Rivas, paid the police for gas to come investigate and called all my friends to attest I was driving, not Karen for insurance reasons and to protect Karen, etc.

The first incident when I was actually in the car was in Granada, stuck in crawling traffic on the city’s main drag. A father and daughter on a bike swerved in between my car and the car in front, turned right at the roadside and toppled over. Dad looked up as I crept by and read my license plate and accused me of hitting him. I didn’t and was able to prove it.

Not too long after, I opened by driver side door and a caponera ran into it. A woman was slightly bruised and settled for my paying the doctor’s bill and a bit more.

My tie rod broke when I was returning from a long trip to Estelí and my car plunged off the road into a tree just a few miles from home late at night. Almost totaled the car and the insurance company raised my rates. Took almost a year to get parts since the garage where I had the car towed had to close because the owner died the next day and no one knew how to process the claim or find parts (Toyotas are really popular here because parts are easily found, other cars? Not so much.)

I’ve lost two side rear view mirrors, passing too close to construction signs and another parked car’s mirror sticking out a bit too far.

I may have bumped into a female police officer in Jinotepe who was directing traffic. She more or less walked into my left front side and didn’t even get dust on her uniform. But she insisted I had injured her and the chief sided with her in spite of the lack of evidence. It cost a few bucks sick leave for her and we all moved on.

Then I really was at fault when I pulled out of a Hardwar=e store parking lot in Managua and I hit a fast moving van coming from my blind spot. Since I was turning it didn’t matter that he was speeding. I paid. The insurance company extorted an incomplete repair job, but that’s another story.

In Rivas I was driving through town and a big motorcycle ran through a stop side and I grazed the front of his bike. He managed to stay upright but probably was walking with a limp for a while.

I’ve had a couple of dings backing into stuff. (brought a replacement for right rear light assembly from the US). My body-shop in Rivas always smile when they see me coming. Especially the time a cow fell on my car as I was waiting for the herd to pass.

My strategy? Well I drive much more patiently and have mechanics on call in Managua, Jinotepe and Rivas … the three major cities where I mostly drive to and from.

Multas, Traffic violations. I’m not stopped as much as I used to be stopped. The first years here there was a lot of harassment and corruption. We are supposed to carry a fire extinguisher and red reflective triangle. If we ran into a jerk (not literally) he might ask for both even if we were stopped just for a license, registration and insurance card check. Then they stopped us for not having the inspection stickers required each year. In the early years no-inspection was actually required, just a few Cordoba changed hands. Now they annually check both the mechanical condition of the car and smog it. My experience is that the traffic police are hard-working and mostly polite. They stand for hours and have to put up with lots of lip. Now they have radar guns so I had to buy a radar reading device that’s saved me twice.

They do tend to hang out where making a mistake is almost inevitable. So there have been a dozen or so negotiations.

So when stopped we have the choice, usually, of negotiating or paying a fine at our city of registration to get our license back. I don’t negotiate if I haven’t broken a law; I let them take the license and have a friend pay a few cords to get the license back. When negotiating, I carry two wallets; one with less than two or three hundred cords (less than $10) and another wallet with my working cash. My license is in the first wallet which I show is almost empty.

In Managua, traffic lights are sometimes suggestions. Especially at night when there isn’t much traffic.

So why do I still drive in Nicaragua? I cannot imagine a more beautiful country and driving more slowly than in the USA is for the most part a rewarding experience; there are more shades of green than can be counted! Picking up passengers is always a hoot when I try to converse in my barely passable Spanish. But stopping is always, sincerely appreciated. More and more drivers have learned to drive with their lights on during daylight, and now most will blink them to warn that traffic police are around the bend. It’s sort of a driver camaraderie. Makes me feel part of the community.

And every kind of fruit and vegetable can be bought in roadside stands. for next to nothing. The warm pastry was bought this morning from a gal fanning away flies from her warm offerings right on the edge of the Salinas highway in Coyol … fantastic!

And there are smiling children everywhere in a country no larger than New York state. Average age of the population is 15 and most of them on low cc motor bikes! What a great place to explore, what friendly people always ready to help.

One Comment