Quite a few of the visitors we’ve met in our northern Nicaraguan travels work online and typically, Internet cost, quality and tips are a part of our conversation. While taking time for a digital detox can be a fantastic way to decompress, that was never what this trip was intended to be… staying connected is necessary for both my sanity (in avoiding isolation) and employment. We had done some research into the country’s two most popular mobile Internet options, Claro and Movistar, before leaving Canada.
As prepared as we thought we were, we’ve learned quite a bit in our time here that can help you cut the learning curve. In this post, you’ll learn how to pick a provider and, should you go with Movistar, find out how to get a prepaid account, buy recarga (credit), and cash in your Superbonos (promotions) for free data. Ready? Here goes…
Claro vs. Movistar: Which One is Best for Digital Nomads in Nicaragua?
The choice of service provider was made simple for us as it became clear early on that Movistar was going to be our only option. There are a couple of reasons for this that you’ll want to factor into your decision:
1. Can you roam from home? If you’re only here for a couple of weeks and can get a decent roaming plan from your cell provider at home, that’s an option. You’ll pick up the signal of whatever tower is closest. Given how insanely expensive Canadian data rates are and the length of time we planned to stay, that didn’t make sense for us.
2. Are you moving into a home, or traveling around? If you want the best speeds, you’re going to want Claro home internet. You can’t do prepaid, and may need to have a satellite dish installed. That wasn’t going to be an option for us, so we knew we were either looking for a mi-fi device, or tethering off a cell phone. (Want to learn more about your options in a city like San Juan Del Sur? Elisha & Gordon MacKay wrote a great post about that on their blog, In Nica Now.)
3. Who offers cell coverage in the area(s) you’re visiting? Again, this was an easy choice for us because we planned on staying in a town that has a Movistar cell tower. If you’re in a major city like Managua, you can count on having a decent signal from Claro or Movistar, but if you’re heading into more rural areas, the maps provided by Open Signal are super helpful.
What Do You Need to Get Prepaid Mobile Internet in Nicaragua?
Just a few things:
- An unlocked mobile device
- A Nicaraguan SIM card
- A way to recharge your card as needed
Knowing we would need to find a Movistar store and get set up, we made sure our first hotel, Art Hotel in Managua, had good wi-fi (don’t take their word for it… read reviews! Outages can last for days here.). Our Spanish is fairly basic, so this allowed us to use Google Translate at the hotel to ask the staff where we could find a Movistar star. The front desk clerk was awesome and arranged for the hotel driver to take us to the store, accompany us in in case we needed help, and bring us back to the hotel afterwards for about $20 USD.
Your Unlocked Mobile Device
We had planned on getting two cell phones hooked up down here and brought an unlocked iPhone 6, an Android smartphone, and a Blackberry 10 with us.
On entering the Movistar store in a large mall in Managua, we were given a number and asked to wait for an English speaking rep. Between his patchy English and our rusty Spanish, we managed to successfully sign up for service (alright, Google Translate helped there, too).
In order to get a SIM card, we needed to show our passports and give an approximate address. You can use the address of your hotel or rental. We fit a new SIM card in the iPhone no problem, and the rep programmed our first code for Internet–more on your codes below.
I mistakenly believed the Android was unlocked, so the Movistar rep cut one of the SIM card down to micro size. Unfortunately that meant that once I realized it was still locked to a Canadian carrier, the SIM card was too small for the only remaining phone we had left, the Blackberry. We’d wasted about $15 USD on that SIM, so briefly considered buying an unlocked device at the store. We were surprised though to learn that our least expensive option, a small flip-phone, was going to be about $60 USD, and it went up from there.
We decided to try it out with just one connected phone; we could always visit another Movistar store in Chinandega, closer to where we were staying, if needed. After two months, we still think that was the right choice. I’ve just tethered off Trevor’s phone when needed.
The moral of the story is, make sure your device is unlocked, or budget to buy an unlocked device while you’re here.
How to Recharge Your Movistar Phone As Needed
A couple of things come with your Movistar SIM card:
- An online Movistar account
- Free Facebook and SnapChat
- The ability to add “Superbonos” to your recharge balance (recarga)
This is where I was completely lost for a few weeks.
Set Up Your Online Movistar Account
This makes it possible to see your usage and check your recarga, promotional and multiuse balances online, as opposed to calling the number *72536 to check it. I tried calling that line a few times but couldn’t seem to make the right choices to actually get my balance.
Instead, I registered for an online account and always accessed this information from a laptop using Chrome, which automatically translates page content from Spanish to English for me. It’s not always a perfect translation, but I can usually get the gist of what the page says. If you only have access to a smartphone and don’t speak Spanish, see if you can set up something similar. The online account also helped me understand what online activities really ate up our Internet, as I could check it before and after work (or watching a movie, which I might have done once or twice…).
Visit this page to set up your Movistar account once you have your SIM card connected.
Buying Recarga (Prepaid Credit) for Your Movistar Account
Recarga is prepaid credit for your cell phone, and you can buy it anywhere you see a Movistar sign displayed at a corner store in the cities… it’s EVERYWHERE. Here in the smaller fishing village of Jiquilillo, you can buy it at the pulperias (corner stores & bars)–sometimes. It’s not unusual for their systems to go down, or that they might not be able to sell it to you right then for some reason. That’s why I was happy to discover Mobile Recharge.
Yes, they charge a percentage of your recarga as a service fee, but we were okay paying that as a convenience when it was the only option.
We’ve been using Mobile Recharge for about 6 weeks without issue. I like that I can set the currency to Canadian dollars so I can see exactly what’s going to show up on the credit card bill. You can also create an account to have it save your login and payment preferences.
We usually buy 300 NIOs (Nicaraguan cordobas) which is enough to let us get the GB Movistar data plan and qualify for some Superbonos. What the heck does that mean? I’m glad you asked. 😉
Buying Prepaid Movistar Data & Activating Your Recarga
Once you buy your recharge balance, you have to let Movistar know by text message how you want those funds to be applied. The first time we recharged here in Jiquilillo, the pulperia attendant saw that I had no clue (silly gringos) and sent the text to the number 7000 for me. Within seconds, we received a flurry of text messages back, some from 7000 (Movistar) and a couple from other numbers, talking about “Superbonos” and “quintuplica” (getting 5x the recharge balance). I decided after that that I’d better figure out what we were buying.
Those codes, with prices in cordobas and the associated benefits, are here:
There’s one very important one missing that a lot of us use here on the weekends so we can watch movies online: FINNAV. This gives you a whopping 10GB to play with! It costs about 30 cordobas and is pretty well the only time we watch TV or movies.
What About All Those Superbonos Text Messages?
Now, hopefully I can save you a bit of frustration here and maximize the value of your recarga. Over the next few weeks, I noticed the Promotional Balance in our online account climbing, but I had no idea how to apply it to actually give us data. Every time we got low, I bought more recarga, and the Promotional Balance eventually ballooned to about $180 USD.
In the meantime, we got a ton of texts from random numbers, sometimes 5 or 6 a day, telling us about SUPERBONOS!!, 10GB weekends, doubling to quintupling our recharge, etc. I replied to some of these as instructed, but kept getting messages back that I didn’t have enough saldo (balance) to get the deals.
I went to the Movistar website and embarked on a truly painful 45 minutes of mangled Spanglish conversation with a rep who quickly grew impatient with my running to Google Translate between every exchange. BUT, I did eventually learn something very important: you need to join the Movistar Tribe to use that promotional balance.
Why did I not know this before?? Anyway, you can read about the Movistar Tribe (Tribu) here. It doesn’t cost anything to join, and it gives you 3 days of free Facebook, SnapChat and WhatsApp usage with each $50 cordobas in recarga. It also lets you send special codes to spend your Promotional Balance on data. I couldn’t find those Superbonos codes online, so I wrote down what the chat rep told me. They work today… if they don’t work when you try them, you may need to contact Movistar for updated bonus codes. Remember, these are for your promotional balance only, not your recharge balance (now do you see how the online dashboard is so helpful?):
- 150 MB package Valid 1 day Price VAT included C $ 60 NAVEGA1 to 7000 command,
- 300 MB package Valid 3 days Price VAT included C $ 150 NAVEGA3 to 7000 command,
- 500 MB package Valid 7 days NAVEGA7 command To 7000 Price C $ 250 VAT included with 1 mbps speed
There are a couple of other ways to use your promotional balance, as well:
Again, these were current at time of writing; see Movistar Nicaragua for the most up to date offers.
Calling Home to Canada from Nicaragua: (Almost) Free
Using Movistar for our cell and Internet in Nicaragua has been a great experience, despite my slow pickup on the Superbonuses. In two months, we’ve spent a grand total of $120 Canadian on recarga using about 30GB a month, plus the $15 USD it took to get started (I did not include the cost of the wasted SIM). For comparison, our Canadian cell plans were each $75 per month, and our home internet was $60, so we’ve gone from over $200 per month for phones and Internet to $60.
Unless you work online like I do, you’ll probably use far less data, especially with free Facebook. Because WhatsApp offers free voice and video calls with other users, we’ve spent $0 on long distance with family and friends at home. We just made them all sign up for the app. I said (Almost) Free because we still use Skype VOIP-to-landline for the few holdouts who aren’t into WhatsApp.
Best of all, we’ve had no down time in this particular location, and when visiting nearby cities. We’ve lost signal driving between Jiquilillo and Chinandega, but I’ve never missed a work call or had Internet too slow to work.