Tell your friends that you’re going to Nicaragua and they’ll most likely respond in one of two ways: “Is it safe?” or “Why? What’s there?”
As the conversation progresses they’ll probably reveal what most people know of Nicaragua: that it’s somewhere in Central America, that they had a civil war in the 1980s and that Bianca Jagger is Nicaraguan. (Useful fact, that!)
Few tour companies offer Nicaragua as a destination and even where they do, it’s ridiculously expensive. One well-known adventure tour company is currently offering 15 days touring Nicaragua for £2480 per person including flights.
So, with the alternative being staying in storm-lashed England for the whole winter, the prospect of visiting a little-visited destination, establishing a. what it has to offer, b. whether or not it’s safe and c. whether it was feasible to do it on a reasonable budget, looked an attractive proposition.
Nicaragua is a country of volcanoes – 19 of them, six of which are still considered active – of cloud forest, tropical dry forest, coasts on both the Caribbean and Pacific, colonial cities (Leon and Granada), a large and colourful craft market at Masaya and, most intriguingly, Ometepe Island. Ometepe is 31 km long, shaped like a figure of eight, round two volcanoes. It’s in the 8,200+ sq km Lake Nicaragua and can only be reached by ferry.
Putting together an itinerary was therefore quite easy, and I wondered why more tour companies aren’t offering it? Our itinerary included all of the above, apart from the Caribbean coast, which can only be reached by flying there.
There were highlights daily, including:
Volcano boarding down the active Cerro Negro which involved carrying a board up it, inspecting the steaming crater, donning a protective suit and then careering down 500 metres of volcanic grit at speeds of up to 50 mph. Huge fun but we finished off looking like mirror image Pandas, with black faces from the ash and white eyes where the goggles had been.
Visiting the cloud forest and the tropical dry forest and spotting agouti, kinkajou, lizards and so many birds it’s impossible to list them all. In both of these places we were woken at dawn by the fearsome roar of the howler monkeys.
Colourful Granada, where it looked like every resident had been to the paint wholesalers in the last week and had been forbidden to choose a colour that someone else already had; and where the only buildings above two stories are the church towers and the imposing and brightly coloured cathedral.
A day out in the towns and villages around Granada, visiting San Juan De Oriente, a pottery town where the residents still use ancient techniques and Masaya craft market, where stalls selling hammocks, paintings, door chimes, masks and many other artefacts, all as colourful as a Granada street. Later we drove to the top of Masaya Volcano, which is active and belching out so much smoke and sulphurous fumes that it blots out the sun.
A relaxing couple of days at San Juan Del Sur, drinking piña coladas, watching pelicans dive for fish and hiking about eight kilometres to an impressive petroglyph in the nearby forest.
But if all of these merited a visit, the experience which will stay forever in our minds was undoubtedly the three days on Ometepe Island. We reached Ometepe via a rusty old diesel fumed car ferry, which only had space for about 10 cars and less than 50 passengers. It cost us 70 Cordoba each (about £1.50) and chugged across the lake like the “African Queen”, ready to sink at any moment. Once on the island a taxi collected us and drove us to Finca Mystica, at the southern end of the island. The journey was mostly on a paved road but paved roads haven’t yet reached the south end and the last seven km was along a bumpy, rutted cart-track.
You will find many “fincas” in Nicaragua. These are coffee farms or eco-farms, often with visitor facilities. Finca Mystica is owned by Americans Ryan and Angela Cassidy. They have four en-suite two-person bungalows and a large dorm-style bungalow, all facing the lake. Food is served all day, from 7.30am until the evening meal at 7pm. The food is simple but absolutely delicious while the drinks are unique, varied and quite refreshing. I recommend the rum and banana or the ginger and lime. The cost is ridiculously low. Accommodation and three meals a day for three days plus drinks totalled $219 for two of us.
On arrival we did a one mile walk through the forest spotting birds, stunning butterflies and the ubiquitous howler monkeys. We spent a day hiking 11 km, uphill to the refreshingly cool San Ramón waterfall and another kayaking down the Rio Istian spotting caimans, turtles, more monkeys, a migrant osprey and many types of heron.
On Ometepe, the kids were so friendly they wanted to have their photo taken. Not for money, just to see their digital image. If you break down, everyone stops to see if they can help, including the local bus. If you want a lift, just wave your arms and everyone stops. An Idyllic ethos, but when we had walked 11 km in temperatures of around 35 degrees Celsius and would have liked a lift, the only people we saw were horsemen – not a car or truck in sight – for one and half hours! The adults invariably shout “Hola” or “Buenos Dias” as you pass by and it’s easy to see why Ryan and Angela regard it as their paradise.
With the constant chirp of cicadas, the click of geckos and the roar of the howlers, it seemed like Jurassic Park, reached via the African Queen with the return journey on the “Ferry Che Guevara” (I’m not joking, that really was it’s name!).
So yes, there’s a lot to do and see, but is it safe?
We invariably found the people warm and friendly, willing to talk and never threatening. There is no chance of being caught up in a long-resolved civil war.
In Nicaragua the local currency, the Cordoba, is interchangeable with the US Dollar, 25.3 Cordoba to the Dollar. Although both are accepted everywhere it’s useful to carry Cordoba for those transactions which aren’t an exact Dollar fit. Rather than queue in a bank, we were advised to approach a money-changer on the street: “You will recognise him because he will be waving wads of Cordoba”. There are many areas of the UK where I would not wave wads of money in the air!
The people are honest too. On Ometepe Island an English translator quoted me $25 per kayaker plus $20 for boat hire to get to the river mouth. When I went to pay $70, the owner insisted on returning $20, explaining that I had been over-quoted. “The kayak includes the boat,” he insisted. I have been to many countries where I would be waving goodbye to the extra $20, none the wiser!
In restaurants we invariably left a tip. On many occasions the waiter looked at the bill and the payment in total puzzlement. The look said it all: “why have you given me $55 for a $50 bill?” When we explained that it is a tip for you, they broke into a smile and a grateful, “Muchas gracias”.
In Granada I asked if we could get some laundry done. This is the way we travel – reduce the luggage and get our clothes laundered half way. At our guest- house I asked for the bill when we left and queried why it didn’t include laundry costs. “There’s no charge, just tip the staff,” said Chris, the owner.
So if it’s not the place and it’s not the people, perhaps it’s the food which leads people to think it might be “unsafe”?
Not so, although the staple is Gallo Pinto – rice and beans – this is an optional choice for the tourist. We ate some of the most delicious food I have ever had:
Pargo (a fish not dissimilar to swordfish) in Basil Sauce
Corvina (another fish) with Grand Marnier sauce
Coconut chicken curry
Vigoron, a speciality of Granada made from yucca and cabbage with pork crackling, which sounds bland, but is in fact exceptionally tasty
Piu V, a rum cake named after Pope Pius the 5th
And many others: three meals a day, all delicious. Oh, and the Gallo Pinto wasn’t bad either.
Overall, it’s as safe and honest as you could wish a country to be. But there are undoubtedly risks: after we’d boarded down the volcano, we were told tales of broken collar bones and seriously injured faces. So do it, but do it with care!
On entering the Volcano Masaya National park we were given a leaflet containing the warnings: “This is an active volcano and may erupt at any time” and, ominously, “Park your car facing the exit”.
We had considered driving but thought better of it on internet reports of spot police checks and fines. Instead I recruited a car and driver from a local company “NicaRoads” – at less than half the cost of a hire car. A good decision! We were told that in the event of an accident, the locals will surround you pending police arrival, (community policing). You will be imprisoned pending establishment of liability and compensation and that it will nearly always be the Gringo’s fault.
Although the roads are in good condition, finding your way would be next to impossible, There are few directional signs and even fewer distance markers. Our local driver would veer off a main road for no apparent reason, drive through a market and appear on another main road the other side!
As for costs, I arranged our own flights and we stayed in guest- houses, lodges, Fincas and small hotels. All the time we had double en suite rooms – we’re too old for backpacking, dorms, shared bathrooms and roughing it.
Flights, 16 days accommodation, transport, food, trip fees, tips, ferry costs, souvenirs and entrance fees, in short, ALL costs, came to around £3200 for two of us, £1600 per person. Significantly less than the tour company price of £2480 per person quoted earlier (and there are invariably extra costs involved even on so-called “all-inclusive” tours).
Nicaragua is a safe and beautiful country with many options for nature and adventure. It’s hot and dry in our winter. The food is exceptional and the people friendly and honest. It can be done independently at a very reasonable cost.
But if you’re thinking of going, do it now:
We met very few European travellers but lots of Americans and Canadians. One American, a travel agent from Chicago, told us that Nicaragua was becoming the next big thing for Americans and that she had come here to check out hotels et cetera as she’d already had four enquiries, following an article in the New York Times.
When popularity increases, you’ll probably find a McDonalds on every corner (we didn’t see a single one), tips being expected, laundry being charged for and prices rising. Incredibly, but helpfully, everywhere we stayed had the modern day tourist essential: WiFi. Perhaps in anticipation of an expected tourist influx,,,