Arriving by Nicaragua by air to Managua with kids is an easy, safe, transparent process that should go quite smoothly for you and your family. Read on for some tips for what to expect for your air arrival into the land of lakes and volcanoes.
When you land at Augusto C. Sandino International Airport (MGA) you will quickly surmise that Nicaragua’s main international airport is not very big at all. In fact, MGA only has 7 gates which are rarely all in use at the same time. So when you arrive to the airport know that each area you need to finish your arrival process is easily within reach.
First stop Immigration
After disembarking your plane you will head straight to Immigration. As a rule of thumb, smile and say a friendly, Buenos días, tardes or noches, as the case may be, and the Nicaraguan Immigration official will respond in kind. Nicaraguans, no matter how tired and unapproachable they may seem at the moment, will default into pleasantry when greeted with friendliness and courtesy. Old school politeness is one of their culture’s most attractive inherent qualities.
You will pass the official your passports for every member of your party and the completed immigration entry form for your family that states the reasons for your journey to Nicaragua. The official may ask you directly what the reason is for your visit and you can respond that you are a tourist, or volunteering (somos turistas or estamos trabajando como voluntarios).
You should be charged $10 per visitor for a tourist visa. Most likely, everyone in your group will receive a tourist visa stamped into their passports that grants a stay of 90 days in the country. If you need more time in 90 days you can reapply for additional tourist visas in a variety of ways to get you extra days in Nicaragua.
Next stop Baggage Claim and finding a luggage porter
Update January 2, 2018: As of now there are no luggage porters working in the baggage claim area. They may or may not return; it is not clear why they are not working any more.
Now that you have your official visa, you will head to the Baggage Claim area. Keep in mind that the Baggage Claim is a secure area with cameras and no one gets their luggage out of that zone without the official luggage claim tickets that your airline gave you when you checked in your luggage at the start of your trip. This security feature can be very different for travelers that are accustomed to grabbing their luggage and heading straight to Customs without any oversight into ownership of that luggage. So have those claim tickets ready as you will need them to finish exiting the Baggage Claim area.
In Baggage Claim, you will find many porters circulating and approaching arriving passengers with identification tags on their person that show that they are officially allowed in the Baggage Claim area. Porters work for tips and they are highly useful for getting you through the last stretch of your journey. If one of them asks if they can help, you say yes! There is no need to negotiate any kind of payment at the moment, you will tip them when they have finished getting all your luggage inside of whatever transport that you have organized.
The porter will ask for your baggage tickets and will help you locate and load your luggage onto a complementary trolley (available to anyone). When you have collected all your luggage, you will move over to the baggage claim exit where someone will check the claim ticket attached to each of your luggage items with the corresponding ticket that you have produced. When all has been matched up you will be permitted to pass to the Customs area.
Final official stop, Customs.
This is your last official hurdle before leaving the restricted passenger area. You can give the porter your filled out customs form and he will show it to a customs official. The porter will load your all your baggage including carry on items onto the scanner belt to pass through a security x-ray.
Don’t worry if you are traveling with a mountain of luggage that might indicate that your intended stay will surpass the 90 days you have been granted. Excess luggage is expected at MGA for a variety of reasons. Nicaraguans that live abroad will also themselves travel with enormous quantities of gifts for everyone. Customs officials seek sellable electronics as they scan your baggage. However, you still can bring in electronics but just communicate that they are for personal use or a gift.
Leaving the restricted area.
Your porter will pick up your luggage again from the scanner belt and load it back onto a trolley (aren’t you glad that you said yes?) and now you are really free to leave the airport. Your porter will accompany you with your trolley of luggage to the main area of the airport that is unrestricted.
Here you will likely find a crowd of people that spillover out onto the sidewalk consisting of everyday folk, taxi drivers and chauffeurs who have been booked from various hotels and shuttle services to bring visitors to their next destination.
This crowd and the intense questioning from the taxi drivers can be slightly overwhelming especially if you are tired, with kids, and maybe this is your first time arriving to Managua. If you have prearranged your transport which I highly recommend, you should see a representative there with a sign with your name or the name of your hotel on it. They will direct you and your porter to the curb to where they will pull their transport around to pick you up. Your porter will put the luggage into the vehicle and you should then tip him a minimum of $5 a trolley. You can pay this tip equally well in dollars if there are no tears or major stains on the bills.
Thinking about the kids
Do they need to go to the bathroom?
There are bathrooms all over the airport right where you get off your flight, in the baggage claim area, and in the unrestricted areas in the main terminal. It is a good idea to have your kids visit the bathroom before you exit even if you are just heading into Managua, but certainly if you are going on to Granada. Either direction could be an hour plus drive depending on traffic and that can be an eternity for a child!
Car rentals and eating
If you have planned to rent a car, you can locate the rental car counters inside the airport just beyond the customs area you have just exited. If you have a porter he will show you where your specific counter is and this is probably a good time to tip him and let him go. When you have arranged the papers to pick up your car, you can head outside straight away to the rental car pickup area or you can delay that step for a few minutes and do a quick hunger status check with the family.
Are they hungry? Can they last for another 1-2 hours without eating?
If you don’t really know your way around Managua or the route to Granada, you can eat first at the airport or take some food to go with you! Keep in mind that even when you get to your final destination it takes some time to actually locate food and have it ready to eat in front of your family (this is true even in a hotel, and of course more so if you are now driving to a home rental). It can be a lifesaver with children to have provisions at the end of a long air journey before that turns into an additional car journey in a strange land.
If you need food to back you up for the next few hours, wheel your luggage about 50 feet past the main hall with the head busts of famous Nicaraguans, to where the Food Court is located. There are endless fast food eateries including Subway, Siembras y Cosechas (like a Java Juice) Casa del Café (like a Starbucks), Tip Top chicken, etc. Grab a couple of cappuccinos, smoothies, sandwiches or a family pack of chicken and you will feel quite civilized and ready to handle whatever comes your way.
Do we need to exchange money right away?
There are places to do currency exchange at the airport but not at a favorable rate. If you are carrying dollars, try to plan ahead and carry bills of $1s and $5s that will help you with tipping and small purchases where credit cards are not accepted. Before leaving home make sure that your dollars are not torn or stained or no one will want them. If you have a decent supply of small bills in dollars, there is no reason to change currency at the airport.
You can withdraw currency later from an ATM in córdobas or just purchase items in dollars and receive your change in córdobas. Even walking into a large grocery store with USD $20 to buy a soda will get you the rest of your change in Nicaraguan currency at a favorable official rate.
When in doubt in any step along the way, there are always people that you can ask. The airport is not a dangerous place and even can be somewhat sleepy at times depending on the air schedule. Folks at the rental car agency will also probably speak English if you have any random questions before you leave.