My partner and I just returned from skipping out on some of the Asheville winter and spending a week in sunny Nicaragua. We had an amazing time, but we also learned some things along the way that we wish we’d known before we left. In the past, I’ve been more of a long term international traveler (my previous trips have all spanned about a month) and I mostly spent the first week of those trips getting oriented to the local culture. This time a week was all the time we had, so we had to get organized and oriented rapidly if we wanted to do much of anything while we were there. We did a lot of research and planning before we left, but we also learned a couple of things the hard way. Below you’ll find five tips for making the most out of your trip to Nicaragua.
First, get out of Managua ASAP. Managua is the largest city in Nicaragua by far, and it’s also home to the big international airport, so you’ll have to at least pass through if you’re flying into the country. A couple of different resources had suggested that Managua was a “skippable” destination, but we decided to spend a day here, thinking that it would be nice to see three different places instead of just two. (In addition to Managua, we had decided to spend some time in Granada and Leon.)
I recommend Managua if you enjoy walking on the side of a smog filled highway with poor pedestrian infrastructure, shopping at strip malls, eating in sports bars, or spending over an hour in a taxi traveling three kilometers. Otherwise, I highly recommend getting out of dodge as quickly as you can say “chartered bus”. (We did end up eating a really lovely Valentine’s dinner at a swanky restaurant a couple of blocks from our hostel, but it didn’t make up for the rest of the city.)
Second, if you have limited time, pick a base camp and make day trips to the surrounding areas. (I highly recommend Granada: it’s a gorgeous colonial city with a walking calzada in the center of town where locals, tourists and ex-pats mingle and connect.) It was difficult to do much on “travel days,” because we had to check out of our hostel or hotel in the morning, and we couldn’t check into our new place until the afternoon. In retrospect, I think we could have seen more if we had rented a hostel or an airbnb in one city and stayed there during our entire trip, while taking cabs or buses to the things we wanted to see and do. Most of the main destinations for travelers in Nicaragua are all located within a 2 hour radius from one another, and transportation is cheap. (Many of the buses are less than a dollar, and chartered transport from one city to another was about $15/person if you looked around for a good deal.)
To make your trip as fun and cost effective as possible, recruit some friends to join you. Even traveling with one other person was beneficial: we were able to split the cost of hotel style accommodations and stay in private rooms during our entire trip. Four people would have been ideal: we could have rented houses for ~$15/person and also saved money on guided tours.
Before you go, make sure you learn some Spanish. (Or recruit someone to come with you who speaks the language.) Most Nicaraguans speak little, if any English; if you don’t speak or read any Spanish, getting around will prove arduous. (My partner and I have a decent amount of Spanish between us and we still struggled sometimes; Nicaraguans tend to drop a lot of end consonants, making the Nicaraguan accent slightly difficult to understand.) If you’re looking to work on your Spanish before you go and you’re a beginner, I highly recommend Duolingo. Another option if you have the time and money is an immersive, in country Spanish school; the immersive nature of courses like these enables you to rapidly improve your language skills. For more on learning a second language as an adult, check out my blog post on the topic.
One of the coolest experiences of our trip was kayaking around Las Isletas: 365 tiny islands off the coast of Granada, many privately owned by the super rich. The best part of our kayaking adventure? Lorenzo, our hired guide. We booked a tour 24 hours in advance through a local tour company, and they drove us to the shore of the lake where Lorenzo outfitted us with a double kayak. He spoke a small amount of English, so we spent much of the tour communicating with him in Spanish (or Spanglish, in some cases). He took us to see howler monkeys and bats, and told us about the different islands, but he also talked with us about life and culture in Nicaragua.
(If you decide to hire a guide, make sure you tip them well; tips make up the majority of their salary.)
Don’t forget to bring Cipro (or another broad-spectrum antibiotic). I’ve never returned from an international trip with entirely normal digestion, and this trip was no exception. Supposedly you can drink the water in the main cities in Nicaragua. We didn’t, and we both still ended up needing to take antibiotics after ingesting some sort of amoeba somewhere along the way. (After I got back, I read that the chances of experiencing traveler’s diarrhea during a two week period in Central America are approximately 60%.) If you do end up needing to go the nuclear route, don’t follow the instructions on the pill bottle, which will often tell you to take a full seven day course of antibiotics. For a healthy adult, this is major overkill: I took two pills, 24 hours apart, and my symptoms stopped within two hours of the first dose. Realistically, a single pill is often sufficient. After you’ve finished taking the antibiotics, do what you can to replenish your gut flora, either by eating probiotic rich foods like yogurt or kombucha, or by taking a few probiotics.