Lessons from a Month in Nicaragua

Nicaragua is known as the land of lakes and volcanos. This is Concepcion, one of the two volcanos on Ometepe, in the middle of lake Nicaragua.

Nicaragua is known as the land of lakes and volcanos.

I haven’t been posting as many blog posts as usual, because for the past month I’ve been traveling in Nicaragua. This trip has had many goals: I’m working on three reported stories, getting to know my husband’s home country, exploring a possible book project, learning about Nicaraguan food and, of course, trying to relax and have fun occasionally.

It’s been 9 years since I took a trip quite like this. While we’re in Nicaragua for a month, we’ve traveled to a lot of different places, and we haven’t stayed more than a week anywhere (with the exception of Granada, where we are now and will be until we leave in a week). I did something similar in 2006, when I went to Spain for a month and traveled around the country, jumping around every couple days.

Since our trip is coming to a close, I wanted to reflect on some things I’ve learned – about Nicaragua, about tourism in general and about myself.

1. I Don’t Love Travel

When I talk to people about all the different places I’ve lived, one common response I get is: “You must love to travel!” But there is a big difference between traveling and ‘living,’ and I prefer the later. I was tired of traveling two week into our trip. I don’t love eating at restaurants, nor to I get excited about hotels, even if they are interesting. It’s also hard (maybe impossible) to genuinely connect with a place in three days, especially if you are staying in a hotel, eating at restaurants and don’t have any local connections.

I do like living places, because that means experiencing daily life in one place. It also doesn’t require the act of traveling – moving from one place to another – with is exhausting.

I also have to say that I got the impression from a lot of travelers that they were here to check something off their list, not because they were really interested in the country. In fact, I don’t think I met a single person who said they were visiting Nicaragua because there was something – anything – about the country that attracted them. Based on my conversations with people, most travelers came to Nicaragua because they were traveling through Central American and, well, Nicaragua is between Costa Rica and Honduras, so you kind of have to spend some time there if you want to travel over land between those two countries.

2. Having a (semi) Local Guide Helps

My husband was born in Nicaragua and lived here until he was 8, and he also lived in Managua for 3.5 years after college. It had been 10 years since he had visited the country, but he has been able to explain a fair number of customs, foods and quirks. Before we left, we also sat down with my mother-in-law and she made a list of all the foods we should try and what we should and should not do.

Last night, we didn’t feel like cooking (we’re staying in an apartment found on Airbnb with a kitchen in it), but we weren’t convinced by any of the restaurants in the area. After walking around for a while, my husband suggested that we just buy some beans. In Nicaragua, people eat beans all the time, but that doesn’t mean that everyone wants to spend all day cooking beans. So people who do have the time and could use some extra cash make a huge amount of beans and sell them, pre-cooked. Our neighbor sells fried enchiladas and salads, and we asked her if she happened to sell beans. No, she replied, but a woman a block a way does. We grabbed a pot and headed over to buy 20 cordobas ($0.80) worth of beans. Without my husband’s prior knowledge, I certainly wouldn’t have known to ask.

3. Nicaraguan Food is Delicious, but Most Visitors Wouldn’t Know

Yes, a lot of Nicaraguan food is pretty basic, and the staple food of rice and beans is not particularly exciting. But there are certainly things to get excited about – nacatamales, vigaron, the vast array of beverage options. The problem is that in most places that cater to foreigners, there is zero Nicaraguan food on the menu. In some of the more resort-like areas, there was absolutely no option other than hotel food, so even if you wanted to try something authentically Nicaraguan, you were out of luck.

I spoke to several people who thought the food here sucks. I’ll admit that I compared Corn Island unfavorably to Thailand, both in beach quality and culinary inspiration, but that was just as much about the restaurants that we found being bad as it was about the national cuisine (which is actually different on Corn Island than it is in the rest of the country).

4. Hotel Shuttles are a Rip Off

There is a shuttle service that will take people from Granada to the airport in Managua for $18 per person. A taxi from Granada to the airport in Managua costs $30. Do the math: The shuttle only makes sense if you are traveling alone. Otherwise, you are paying more for worse service.

When we traveled to Ometepe, we took a shuttle from Granada to San Jorge, where the boats to Ometepe leave. It cost $13 per person, and was supposed to leave at 10 am. At 10 am we were picked up from the hotel – so far, so good. But instead of heading directly to San Jorge, we headed to the shuttle headquarters, where we waited for an hour for more people who were supposed to go with us on the shuttle. Then we stopped to pick up more people, some of whom had to sit on a wooden stool because the seats were all full. We finally left Granada at 11:30.

A taxi from Granada to San Jorge costs $30, and would have left immediately. It would have been marginally more money, but way better service. If we could find one or two other people going to the same place (not that much of a challenge, in our experience) it would have been far cheaper. Lesson learned.

Also note that when we asked the hotel reception how to get to San Jorge, she said we had to take a public bus. She didn’t mention the shuttle until we noted that there was a sign behind her advertising the shuttle. She didn’t mention a taxi, either, and we didn’t think about it, which was a mistake.

So the other lesson is don’t trust the people at the hotel. We’ve also had hotel staff give mis-information about bus schedules, the cost of taxis and all kinds of other info.

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Are there other things I’ve learned? Of course. But these are some of the overarching themes of the trip. Which I will be writing about a lot in the next couple weeks.