Costa Rica vs. Nicaragua

For years, there has been a “sibling” rivalry between the Costa Ricans and Nicaraguans. Before moving to Central America, I had never been to Nicaragua nor Costa Rica. It was all new to me. After experiencing them both though, I think they’re both great! Of course I’m a bit more partial to Nicaragua as I’ve spent much more time there, but I thought Costa Rica was lovely as well. Ironically, I found more similarities than there were differences between these bordering countries. They’re both beautiful, warm & lusciously tropical Central American countries. There are, however, some striking differences as well. Here I compare and contrast the two wonderful countries to show you the differences and similarities a first timer saw of the two.

Cost of Living

Costa Rica is much more expensive than Nicaragua. I’m talking like way more expensive. The prices for just about everything you see in Costa Rica are the same as you would see in the States. Maybe a bit cheaper than European prices, but not by much. With these prices, however, come many more convenient amenities that foreigners are used to, which is nice for expats. We realized that the cost of living was very high here before we moved because we did a lot of research on it and knew we wouldn’t save that much money by living in Costa Rica compared to California. Nicaragua was much more in our budgeted price range and we’re so happy it was.

American Corporations

The first thing I noticed when we crossed the border into Costa Rica and drove through Liberia was a McDonalds and Burger king on either side of the highway. Did I just travel back into North America? Then, across the street from McDonalds was CitiBank, Jon’s old bank back in the States. This was weird. I suppose those expat cravings would be suppressed for… well, ever. Nicaragua has McDonalds as well, however, only in Managua. The government makes it more secure for American cooperations to do business in Costa Rica and there are many more expats living here who will actually use them. More money = more opportunity and Costa Rica is seen as more of a money making opportunity than Nicaragua at the moment. Personally, this makes me happy. It makes me feel like Nicaragua is still a secret little untouched gem and I hope it stays that way for a very long time.


Ah, the beaches of Costa Rica. They really are one of a kind. The trip to Costa Rica made both of us realize that we need to explore more of the Nicaraguan beaches as we’ve really only been to San Juan del Sur and the surrounding beaches. There are beaches all over Nicaragua, just like there are in Costa Rica. There are coconuts, stray dogs, soft sand, humid air, warm weather, big waves, sting rays, beautiful blue water and lots of wild life on the beaches of both countries. The biggest difference between the Costa Rican beaches and the Nicaraguan is the amount of people on them. Costa Rica 25 years ago was like a piece of untouched treasure to international surfers, so people came from all over the world to surf the perfect untouched waves. 25 years later, those once uncrowded beaches are now covered with people from all over the world to surf or just relax. We sometimes drove for hours to try and find a quiet beach, it wasn’t easy. This gave us motivation to travel along the coast of Nicaragua more so that we can experience all of the untouched beaches the country has to offer before the same thing that happened to Costa Rica happens to Nica.


Costa Rica = LOTS of tourists

Nicaragua = not as many tourists

Infrastructure Development

The infrastructure in Costa Rica is much more developed than in Nicaragua for the most part. In both countries locals still have sheet metal houses with dirt floors (the middle/lower class is similar as the cost of living is much higher in Costa Rica). A funny little thing my dad noticed was that Costa Rican highways have a lot more signage than Nicaragua does. Besides that, the Costa Rican buses are very nice and fancy–everyone has their own individual seats. But I don’t really mind the well used school buses in Nica.


Costa Rica decided a long time ago that a military was unnecessary for a country that had no intention of ever going to war. So, instead, they have a very large police force in very fancy black uniforms all over the place. They make me feel much more secure than the Nicaraguan police do. Unfortunately there is a lot of corruption in the Nicaraguan police force and their intentions are to make money from bad situations more than relieve them. Other than that aspect, however, I don’t feel more safe or secure in one country over the other. I feel just as safe walking around Nicaragua as I do in Costa Rica. We heard that the crime rate in Costa Rica is actually a bit higher than it is in Nicaragua and perhaps that’s because there are more people with more money to steal from. Rich people don’t move to Nicaragua to retire–it’s more of a place for people who want to stretch their dollar to the fullest. In any case, it’s important to travel smart and cautiously no matter where you go.

36 responses to “Costa Rica vs. Nicaragua

  1. Lived in Costa Rica for a little over a month and I could not believe how expensive it was! I definitely would love to travel to Nicaragua or Honduras next. I fell in love with Central America.

  2. It’s true that Costa Rica is more developed and pricier than Nicaragua in many ways. But it’s still possible to live there on a budget – you just have to live like a local and avoid those imported items and dining out at American chains. If you shop at local markets and keep your diet full of fresh fruits and veggies and local seafood, chicken, and beef, you’ll save big time. That’s what many retirees do. Another factor in cost of living is the cheap medical care you’ll find in Costa Rica. On the public system, you’ll pay a low monthly fee and after that your care is free.

  3. I’m studying abroad in Costa Rica right now, and I would LOVE to visit Nicaragua, if I can squeeze it into my semester…
    I feel like Costa Rica is an easier transition for someone living outside of the US for the first time, for a lot of the reasons you have in this post, and because the people are pretty used to tourists and usually can speak a little English; it’s like having training wheels.
    Great post!

    • Thanks so much for reading Renee! We hope that you do get over to Nicaragua during your semester in Costa Rica. It’s so close and you’ll love it! If you do go and want any advice or suggestions let us know 🙂 Safe travels to you and have a wonderful time in beautiful Costa Rica!!

  4. thanks for this post! nicaragua was recommended to me a while ago as a better alternative to costa rican living. i hope i get to experience it firsthand one day 🙂

  5. Reblogged this on Yogi Gypsy and commented:
    Over the years Nicaragua has become the go-to destination for yoga retreats, wellness excursions and healing tours; but why? Costa Rica is just a few hours flight away and also has some of the best beaches in the world. So what does Nicaragua have that Costa Rica is missing? Read below!

  6. Great post! I haven’t visited either country although I studied a course on Central American years back and I’m still very interested. More for my list!

    • They’re both great countries to add to your list, especially if you took a course on Central America! It would be fun to actually see and experience some of the things you learned 🙂

  7. Once south of the Rio Grande, the corruption and poverty escalate wherever one goes, I suppose. The contrast described between Costa Rica and Nicaragua remind me ot the two that border the U.S> –Canada and Mexico. Interesting contrasts …

    • Thanks for reading Jack. Bordering countries always seem to bring comparisons and contrasts. It’s always interesting looking a them both and what their differences + similarities are!

  8. Great piece. Extremely informative and well written. I was riveted – it’s EXACTLY what inquisitive travellers want to know about. Trip Advisor should incorporate a similar style when comparing countries and cities/resorts. Bravo!

    • Thanks so much Hugh–we really appreciate your kind words about this post! We really wanted to give travelers who had never been to either place before an insiders view of what to expect. We’re so glad to hear that you think we did just that. Thanks again 🙂

  9. Really useful! I’m heading to Costa Rica and Panama this summer as a solo female traveller and you’ve relieved me a bit that it is safe enough!

  10. Interesting comparision. I’ve never been to either country yet. Costa Rica isn’t really on my list, just because it seems to be already ‘discovered’ and so too expensive. I went to Honduras and liked it there. I’m still trying to get to Nicaragua and Panama. They both sound like great places to spend some time.

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