The P wave anisotropy of the crust and uppermost mantle has been determined in two separate areas of the continental margin of Central America covering offshore and onshore parts of southern Nicaragua and northern and central Costa Rica. Our study is based on traveltime data from local earthquakes recorded with three combined onshore and offshore seismic networks that had been deployed in three half-year intervals between 2002 and 2006. The P wave traveltime data have been tomographically inverted in terms of an elliptical anisotropic P wave velocity distribution. In the upper crust beneath Costa Rica, the seismic anisotropy is of the order of 2%–5% and locally strongly variable in orientation corresponding to the complicated tectonic structure. In contrast, the upper mantle beneath both study regions shows stronger anisotropy of the order of 5%–10% and a more coherent orientation of the axis of fast P wave velocity that varies systematically on regional scales: The upper mantle of the incoming oceanic plate is characterized by a trench-normal orientation of the fast P wave velocity axis presumably corresponding to mineral alignment (lattice preferred orientation LPO) in transport direction. This pattern is corroded in the uppermost part of the subduction zone, possibly by the influence of bending-related trench-parallel faults and serpentinization that can overprint or annihilate the LPO anisotropy. The upper mantle of the overriding plate and mantle wedge shows a clear trench-parallel orientation of the fast P wave velocity axis. The anisotropy is stronger in Nicaragua than in southern central Costa Rica (factor of 2 orders of magnitude). The development of a stronger anisotropy in the Nicaragua could be driven by a change in the stress regime from compressional in southern Costa Rica to transpressional in Nicaragua corresponding to a change from near-orthogonal subduction in the SE to oblique subduction and slab retreat in the NW. From a comparison with S/SKS wave, GPS, and geochemical observations follows that the most likely explanation for the observed pattern of P wave anisotropy in the mantle wedge is LPO caused by a trench-parallel shear deformation and/or NW oriented escape flow originating in the compressional zone near the Cocos Ridge collision area.