The Licencia Code: Or the Quest for a Drivers’ License.


It is a quest worthy of the best Dan Brown novel: to crack “The Licencia Code” and get a Nicaraguan Driver’s License. We have read so many books with successful resolutions, that we innocently undertook the task, naively believing the church transportation coordinator who said, “Just show your US driver’s license and your residency cedula.” That was before the days we spent going to the bank for a pile of receipts and sitting in driving school learning the laws here—basic rules like “stop for red lights” and “stay in your own lane”—conventions that most local drivers ignore. After passing a written test for a certificate of graduation, we spent one day in various lines at the Red Cross getting our blood typed and having vision and psychological exams.

Supporting characters

One day Betty, our lawyer, took us to the police station to take a written test. Richard, our driving school instructor, was there to shake hands with the police officers and assure that we had identical passing scores, despite my still-limited Spanish and the fact that we know we answered the ambiguous questions very differently from each other. After that, we were finally ready to go to Managua to take our driving test.

It was a Dark and Stormy Night

Since we recently moved to Juigalpa, a three hour drive from Managua at rush hour, we left Sunday evening to spend the night with friends in the city. All the power was out when we arrived in Managua, and there are no street or directional signs, so we turned too soon and spent an anxious hour running our gas supply lower and lower, wandering through the narrow streets of a pitch dark barrio, where we certainly couldn’t admit we were lost. We finally arrived at our destination nearly four hours after we left Juigalpa.

The Secret Location

Monday morning, we met Jafet, Betty’s son, at a centrally located gas station and followed him to the driver’s testing area—a very wide road that was not marked with any indication that it was any kind of official testing location.

Greasing the Palms

Richard was there to meet us. He smiled and shook hands with police officials, and we did not have to accomplish the task we stood and watched numerous competent drivers fail: backing around into a narrow space between two cones from a distance of only one meter out. We went directly to the practical test on the street. After 50 years of driving, we both passed the test, though I got the only black mark—for stopping in a no parking zone when the tester told me to pull over there and change drivers.

Into the Ancient Maze

Next we followed Richard and Jafet across town to a police station where we paid about 40 cents to get into a dirt lot where a jumble of trucks, buses, motorcycles, and cars were all jockeying to invent their own system of parking spaces. We were still there when we got a phone call from Richard, who was inside with our papers. The man who needed to examine and sign them was out to lunch, and we needed to come back at 1:30.

The Great Escape

Getting out of the parking lot proved a lot harder than getting in. The jam was so complete that one driver got a bucket of water and started washing his bus in the line. A large truck pulled up onto the grass to pass a broken-down bus, and officious drivers got out of cars to tell everyone what to do. Half an hour later, we were finally out on the street when we got a call from Betty, telling us to go into the police station immediately. So we parked in a neighborhood, divided our cash into several different stashes in our underwear and bags, and trekked back across an arroyo and past gangs of loitering young men into the police station, a large complex of buildings and lines, where we searched in vain for Richard. When we called him, he again told us to come back at 1:30. Apparently Betty had not talked to him.

The Over-worked and Sometimes Bumbling Assistant

We decided to park our car at the church office and take a taxi back to the police station, but before we could leave, a phone call from Richard brought a new plot twist. Our pile of papers had someone else’s blood type reports. Apparently, when Betty picked up our blood test results from the Red Cross, she mixed up the papers. Another phone call established that she had our results, so we arranged to meet her, this time at a different police station. Jafet again led us across town, where we met up with Richard and Betty. We paid a teenager to “watch” our illegally parked car and went inside.

The Obligatory Car Chase

We actually got to the front of the line this time, only to discover that with the Christmas holiday and delays taking the written and driving tests, our vision and psychological exam certificates had expired by four days. Now with our car escorted by Betty, Richard, and Jafet, we raced to a bank and bought new vouchers for vision and psych tests, then followed our team across town to the Red Cross to repeat the tests. I sailed through without a hitch. The psychologist recognized me and gave me a new certificate without making me retake the written or oral tests. (Really, anyone who can handle the license process can certainly keep their cool in traffic.) But alas, Frank’s vision voucher was in fact a blood test voucher. Betty managed to persuade the tester to accept it, since it was actually for a greater amount anyway. Back into the cars, with new certificates in hand, we followed Jafet back to a police station, only to find that it had closed early.

The Sinister Villain

Somehow confident that we were now ready to sail through the process on our own, Betty handed us our papers and told us to go to the police station in Juigalpa the next day to get the licenses. We stood in different lines morning and afternoon, and with the advocacy of a sympathetic lawyer who was there with his own client, finally reached the office of the police chief, who needed to approve our papers. He poured over them. We had completed driving school and two driving tests. Nothing was expired. Everything was ours. All the receipts were paid.   So he invented some new requirements. He told us we needed to go to immigration in Managua and get a stamp for our residency cedulas proving that we live in his Chontales district. Also certificates of good health—the first time anyone has heard of them. We called Betty and arranged to try again in Managua the next week.

Why did we do this? Because we don’t want to face the red tape of surrendering and then tying to reclaim our US licenses if we have a traffic stop. We would like to put them in the mission safe with our passports. We are frequently stopped by the police for “document checks” and random harassment. One day we came around a corner in the right lane and saw a police car and officers on foot in the road ahead. So we changed lanes to move around them. We were waved over and fined for changing lanes illegally. Fortunately, we had cash with us and paid the $30 “fine” directly to the officer rather than losing a driver’s license.


Yesterday, after another day going to Managua, we got our licenses. We calculate it took six full days of effort. Trámites means business transactions; it also means red tape. You decide.


6 thoughts on “The Licencia Code: Or the Quest for a Drivers’ License.

    • Everyone has to take the classes and tests, but the chief in Juigalpa was definitely anti-American and not going to give us a license under any circumstances. But most people here can get around many requirements by simply paying the right price to the right person We actually wanted to be legal.
      When we took our car for the “mechanical inspection,” they collected our money and filled out the form without checking anything. We drove home laughing at the old buses and taxis belching clouds of black smoke.

  1. Loved this story. I’m not sure we would have stuck with it so long!!! We are so happy we don’t drive here. 😛

    Sent from my iPad


  2. I loved your story. It reminds me of our time in Brasil. Fortunately we didn’t need to have a car, and when we wanted to go somewhere, we just rented one and our regular driver’s license and an international license was good enough for that.

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