I first went to Nicaragua in 2002. Then, I crossed overland from Costa Rica and stayed for about a week. I found the country to be interesting but gnarly. There were few services for visitors, personal security was a major concern, and the feeling was not just ‘third world’ but also decidedly ‘post-war’. My most vivid memory of Managua was seeing people chopping apart trees in the street medians because they needed firewood.
(Bus station in Subtiava.)
Nicaragua in 2014 is much different, and after spending a week there we came to think we were in a special place during a special time. The country lacks the smooth banality of a place like Costa Rica but also the abject danger of a place like Honduras. I felt safer there than I have in almost any other country. It’s decidedly third world but the poverty does not seem as grinding as elsewhere. The people are friendly, and everyone went nuts over Cooper. As a follow-up on Managua, 2002 vs. 2014, I can report that while the capital is not about to win a beauty pageant, the trees in the medians have grown back and uniformed workers now trim the median grass with weed whackers. You should still watch your stuff, but it’s no longer necessary to use a cab when making a nighttime trip of a half-block (as was routinely recommended in 2002).
(Basilica and square in León.)
In 11 days we spent $850: that figure does not include, of course, the plane tickets ($650 each) but does include the $10 per person entry fee and a night at a hotel in Denver, as well as all food, hotels, bus and taxi rides, tours, guides, and incidentals in the country. Notable expenditures included surfing lessons, day-use fees at a hotel in Lago Apoyo, and a tour of the small islands along the south shore of Lago Nicaragua. Most hotels were in the $45 range – including tepid water, satellite TV, and air conditioning – and most dinner tabs in sit-down restaurants came to about $10, a few beers included.
Nicaragua is the largest nation in Central America but a lot of the big sights are fairly concentrated, meaning you can go from city to mountain, and mountain to coast, and back again just using a series of two-hour bus hops. When we first planned the trip we thought about spending the entire week in a single beach hotel, then in our normal fashion gradually chipped away at that. Our itinerary, day by day, included:
4. Léon-Las Peñitas
5. Las Peñitas
6. Las Peñitas
7. Las Peñitas-Granada
(It seems like we spent a lot of time in the air but we had an afternoon departure from Missoula and a night in Houston, ensuring an early arrival the next day in Managua. Returning, we had an afternoon departure from Managua and a late arrival in Denver, then an early flight home. Even with the hotel rooms that schedule was cheaper than a one-day haul each way, but also seemed best for breaking the trek for Cooper.)
Crime in Nicaragua in 2013 was roughly comparable to that of the United States, and the country is well-advertised as the safest in Central America. In looking more closely at things, you quickly see that crime stats are hard to interpret and compare, let alone believe, and they don’t take into the special consideration the plight of the tourist, who is almost always, in every country in the world, at greater risk of crime than a local is. So while crime is not an inconsequential concern, I believe in Nicaragua it’s not much greater than what an American tourist would find in a traditionally-considered ‘safe’ country such as the UK or France.
(Hotel rooftop, León)
The weather was not as ‘bad’ as I thought it would be (hot = bad), but can say it was still pretty darn hot. The mornings were bright and clear and manageable until about 10, when steamy sweaty heat kicked in. That lasted until about 2, when the sky clouded and eventually broke into air-filling downpours – take a deep breath during one of these and you could also get a cup of water in your lungs. Those storms usually cleared off by sunset, leaving what could actually be pleasant sunsets blending into warm evenings.
(Hotel courtyard, León)
(It was getting late, and hot, and Cooper was crying for a juice. Just then it seemed a city full of juice stalls was totally absent of juice stalls. We wandered around and finally found juice in this bar, and Cooper drank it through a straw while music pumped and people yelled.)
(Iglesia de la Merced, León: built in the 1500s, razed by pirates, and rebuilt.)
There’s a lot of country to see, and we just scraped the surface. Maybe next year Cooper will be ready for the 24-hour epic by bus from the capital to the Caribbean.
(Headed home: Honduras and the Gulf of Mexico)