Managua - Hurricane Otto made landfall as a dangerous Category 2 hurricane on a sparsely populated stretch of Caribbean coast in Nicaragua on Thursday, becoming the southernmost hurricane on record to hit Central America.
The US National Hurricane Center said the unusually strong late-season hurricane hit land just north of the Costa Rican border near the town of San Juan de Nicaragua with winds of 175 km/h.
The centre called Otto dangerous in part because of the heavy rains and storm surge it carries.
Heavy rains from the storm have already been blamed for three deaths in Panama.
The centre said Otto will continue to move across southern Nicaragua and northern Costa Rica and is expected to weaken to a tropical storm by Thursday night.
In Bluefields, Nicaragua - the nearest big town on the Nicaraguan coast - residents prepared to ride out the hurricane.
"In our house, we have packed up some things in plastic bags and we went out to buy some provisions, just in case," said Bluefields resident Jean Hodgson. "But if we had to leave our house, we don't know where we could take refuge." The area is low-lying and easily flooded.
Further south - and closer to where Otto hit - residents in the coastal town of Punta Gorda said they were planning to ride out the hurricane.
"There is fear, because these kinds of things are scary, but we are praying and doing what the authorities have told us to do," said Punta Gorda resident Sara Pantin.
Nicaragua closed schools and was evacuating more than 10 000 people from communities in the storm's path. Heavy rains were expected to affect the entire country, raising the possibility of flooding and landslides.
Officials in Costa Rica ordered the evacuation of 4 000 people from its Caribbean coast and called off school nationwide for the rest of the week. Heavy rain was already causing flooding in some areas and the president announced that public employees would not have to work Thursday or Friday.
By Thursday morning, 16 government shelters in Costa Rica held about 1 335 evacuees. People often take shelter with relatives during such evacuations.
The storm caused heavy rains in Panama as it moved roughly parallel to that nation's northern coast, killing three people there.
Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solis said Otto could damage the country's important coffee and agriculture sectors.
Nicaragua also feared damage for impoverished farmers and to coffee crops that are almost ready for harvest.
Otto "could seriously jeopardise food security for small-holder farmers who rely on maize, beans, cocoa, honey, coffee and livestock for their livelihoods," said Jennifer Zapata, a regional director for Heifer International, a US-based anti-poverty group.
Otto was moving west near 15 km/h and the hurricane centre said it could re-emerge over the Pacific as a tropical storm.