Should I Study Abroad in Nicaragua or Panamá?

by Brad Miner

The word is out and it’s no longer a secret that Central America is becoming a hot destination for students considering study abroad. A biodiversity hotspot, Central America is chock full of tropical rainforests, phenomenal beaches, mountains, volcanoes, lakes, and much more! All of these things combined make it one huge outdoor playground just waiting to be discovered by the curious and adventurous college student.

Bungalows over the ocean in Bocas del Toro, Panama

Clear water perfect for snorkeling and scuba diving in Bocas del Toro, Panamá - Photo Courtesy of Brad Miner

Central America (or América Central in Spanish) is comprised of seven different countries: Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panamá. All of these countries (with the exception of Belize, which has English as its national language) provide students with the opportunity to learn the Spanish language and break away from the norm. 

However, two of them are serious top contenders for the best places to study abroad in Central America. But, trying to decide between study abroad Nicaragua or Panamá can be insanely difficult. The reasons to study abroad are endless, but luckily, there are a few very specific reasons why you should choose Nicaragua or Panama for your study abroad adventure.

Enhance Your Spanish Skills

Students at a Cerro Negro Volcano

Brad (far right) with friends on a tour visiting the volcano Cerro Negro outside of León, Nicaragua - Photo Courtesy of Brad Miner

Simply put, there is no better way to learn Spanish than by learning it in a country where Spanish is the national language. Whether you are a beginner or advanced Spanish speaker, you will casually learn something new every day by hearing and practicing the language regularly, which is something that study abroad will most definitely provide.

Considering both of these nations are nontraditional destinations for study abroad, studying Spanish in either Panama or Nicaragua will keep you surrounded by native Spanish speakers and increase your opportunities for practice daily (as opposed to your classmates studying abroad in Spain with 2,000 other foreigners). Also worth noting, the Spanish accent in both Nicaragua and Panama is relatively easy to comprehend even for the most novice Spanish speakers, making both locations even better places to study Spanish in Central America. Beyond universities, there are also a number of language schools in Panama and Nicaragua that provide students with the opportunity to enhance their Spanish skills.

Far, But Not Too Far

Although Panamá and Nicaragua may seem far from home, they’re much closer in comparison to Spain or the many Spanish speaking countries in South America. A flight to Panamá City, Panamá (the capital city of Panamá) is only three hours from Miami, five hours from New York, and a little under seven hours from Los Angeles. In comparison to a minimum of nine to ten hours to Europe, you’ll be able to enjoy the Central American sunshine for a semester in no time!

Top Universities with Diverse Academics

Nicaragua is home to Universidad Centroamericana (UCA), located in the city of Managua. At UCA, students may choose from courses in a variety of disciplines, from liberal arts and business to environmental studies and conservation, all taught in English. Students who study abroad in Nicaragua will not only gain a better understanding of the course subjects, they will also increase their understanding of Nicaragua; courses typically incorporate current challenges faced in Nicaragua (i.e., poverty, economic competitiveness, and infrastructure development) into coursework, so students can connect what they learn in the classroom with what they experience and witness during their daily life. 

Panamá is home to two of the best universities in all of Latin America: la Universidad Tecnológica de Panamá (Technological University of Panamá) and la Universidad de Panamá (University of Panamá). Although a variety of courses can be found in other academic areas, studying abroad in Panamá is ideal for students pursuing science majors. This small country is home to a variety of myriad reefs, mangroves, rivers, and white-sandy beaches, all of which make it a perfect place to study abroad for anyone looking for courses related to tropical ecology, marine ecosystems, biodiversity, and wildlife conservation. Another bonus is that English is widely spoken in Panamá and many locals learn the language early on in school. If you are unsure of your ability to communicate in Spanish, you may have an easier adjustment to life in Central America if you study abroad in Panamá.

Street Cafes in Granada, Nicaragua

Some of the beautiful architecture found throughout the city of Granada, Nicaragua - Photo Courtesy of Brad Miner

Environmental Hotspot

As previously mentioned, Central America is a biodiversity hotspot full of rainforests, beaches, mountains, volcanoes, etc., and Nicaragua and Panamá are no exception. Both countries are also extremely close to the equator, can you say hello to summer time all year round?! Just make sure to bring an umbrella if you are studying abroad during the wet season (mid May to November), because when it rains, it pours! Each country offers its fair share of things to do and places to see, thanks to the diverse natural landscape and pleasant climate that is a staple in Central America.

View of Lake Nicaragua and Ometepe Island in Nicaragua

Pictured is the second largest lake in Latin America, Lake Nicaragua, with two volcanoes in the background forming the island Ometepe - Photo Courtesy of Brad Miner

Nicaragua. Take a break from your studies and participate in volcano surfing down the side of the volcano Cerro Negro, outside of the city of Léon! After that, take a bus down to Granada and explore the second largest lake in Latin America, Lago de Nicaragua (Lake Nicaragua). You want to be careful in this lake as it is the only body of water in the world to have freshwater sharks, so no swimming! Make sure to take some time to admire the Spanish colonial style buildings and churches spread all throughout the city too.
 
Panamá. Looking for some white sand beaches and crystal clear blue water? Well look no further than Bocas del Toro, Panamá (“Bocas” for short)! Bocas is an archipelago off the Caribbean coast chock full of beaches among its nine different islands and has provides a great opportunity of underwater activities, like snorkeling and diving. Plus, have you ever dreamed of watching the sunset and rise over two different oceans in the same day? Due to Panamá’s slender “S” shape you can easily! Enjoy the sunrise over the Atlantic Ocean and then later take the over an hour trip cross country to watch it set over the Pacific.

Cost of Living 

Nicaragua. If cost is a critical factor in choosing your location for study abroad then look no further Nicaragua. The U.S. dollar stretches much further in Nicaragua than it will in any other Central American country. Currently, $1 is equivalent to about 26 Nicaragua Cordoba. For a simple comparison on cost differences the average price of a can of soda in the U.S. is $1.63 (or roughly 43 cordoba)and in Nicaragua a can of soda costs about $0.96.

Panamá. Unlike the rest of Central America, the cost of living in Panamá is relatively similar to that of the United States. That may be because Panamá utilizes the U.S. dollar as one of its official currencies, with the other currency being the Panamánian Balboa (PAB). Both currencies are on a one-to-one exchange rate, meaning $ is the same as $1 PAB.

Studying abroad is about stepping out of your comfort zone, having new experiences, creating everlasting memories, and exposing yourself to a whole new part of the world, and both Nicaragua and Panamá offer you that.

Where will you study abroad in Central America?