Before I left for Nicaragua, my family, friends, and loved ones flooded my ears with warnings.
“Don’t get kidnapped!”, “Make sure you don’t let go of your passport!”, “The drivers are crazy, so don’t get killed!”
I didn’t know what to expect.
What I discovered was far more beautiful, than what anyone warned me about.
I’m not going to lie, the border was kind of a sh*t show. I took a bus from San Jose, Costa Rica to the frontera [border], and we were all instructed to get off the bus, take our bags out from the undercarriage, and have our passports in our hand.
There were a few points in time where the driver actually held on to our passports and took care of a part of the customs process for us. The entire time I was on edge; my mother’s warnings that “an American passport is worth over $50,000 dollars,” were ringing in my ears. I wasn’t at ease until my passport was returned (which it was before we boarded the bus again).
Don’t worry, no one stole my identity.
TRAVELER TIP: Have a reservation made in advance and the confirmation information on hand and ready, whether it’s on your phone or on a paper. This will help you to avoid possible complications at the border.
After the bus pulled away from the frontera, at a town called Peñas Blancas, the landscape opened wide to reveal sweeping savanna grasslands, spotted with small fincas [farms] and cows grazing in the pastures.
The bus drove along a thin strip of land that is sandwiched between Lake Cocibolca and the Pacific Ocean. As we drove, wind turbines towered above us, powered by the strong the constant wind currents that whip across the landscape.
As we drove along the lake, two huge mountains loomed in the distance, their peaks stretched up above the cloud line. It took me a few minutes to realize that they were actually volcanoes, twin giants in the center of the lake. I regret not taking more pictures, but when taking photos in a moving bus, you can’t expect top quality.
INSIDER TIP: I took a bus from the company TransNica. It was a bit pricey (well, compared to the other bus options) but well worth it in terms of comfort.
San Juan del Sur
This was the destination that I spent most of my time in and was, incidentally, my favorite.
I had plans to do some serious surfing and had heard amazing things about San Juan del Sur’s, waves, town, vibes, and all.
What I discovered did not disappoint me. This port town is nestled up against the beach and was bustling with activity. The streets are lined with colonial-style houses with rounded archways and tall plated windows with shudders. In the distance, white houses wrapped around the mountains like crowns. It reminded me so much of Spain (colonial architecture reminding me of Spain, haha go figure).
I stayed in a hostel for around $19 a night (it would have been cheaper if I had a bunk room instead of a private room, but what can I say, I’m spoiled).
The town was full of tourists, and I was surrounded by people speaking all languages. There were francophones, Germans, Dutch, and English speakers all over. This was actually surprising to me, as I interacted with more tourists in Nicaragua than I did with actual Nicaraguans.
SURF TIP: San Juan Del Sur is a bay, and has absolutely no waves as a result. There is, however, a shuttle* that takes you from San Juan del Sur to Playa Madera which is where all the good waves are. (If you want to know more about the waves, I have another post up and coming).
Getting Around in Nica
This was interesting. If you are looking to travel on a budget, Nicaragua is definitely the place for you. Getting from San Juan del Sur to Granada, a 3-hour journey cost me a little less than three dollars in the local buses.
The local buses, however, and what the Spanish call, loco. Before I went to Nicaragua, I had heard these buses referred to as “chicken buses”, but I never understood why…. until I rode in one.
These “chicken buses” are basically old school buses that have been repurposed and had the ceilings reinforced to carry small bags and with handholds, for those of you who are standing. And trust me, you will be standing.
These “chicken buses” are so titled because the drivers shove as many people as possible into the bus… like chickens or sardines.
Honestly, I’ve done my fair share of riding in crowded public transport but never have I experienced something like this. On the way back to the frontera, I just bit the bullet and paid a cab to drive me the 3 hours. It was only $30, so it was totally worth it.
Things you should know before visiting Nicaragua…
Nicaragua is a Third World country, and this presents itself to you in a lot of different ways when traveling.
It’s economy, while slowly growing due to the recent influx of tourism, is dealing with high inflation rates, and thus their native currency is very low in value.
About 30 cordobas = $1 USD, so I would recommend using dollars as frequently as possible, as they are widely used and highly valuable. You are much more likely to haggle and get better prices when US dollars are involved.
Life is hard in Nicaragua for those who permanently live there. The ‘president’ Daniel Ortega dedicates around 71.8 million US dollars towards military expenses, and about zero dollars on education… The only schools I noticed in my time there were all Catholic or private institutions.
The annual wage in Nicaragua is roughly $2,220 USD. Shockingly low.
The result of such a low annual wage is children, starting at the age of 4 or 5 years old, are working instead of attending schools. Women don’t have access to education or birth control, and the elderly are in the streets, begging tourists for change.
This was the first country that I’ve visited where the disparity of wealth between the tourists and the natives was so obvious.
So brace yourself, and be kind to the Nicaraguans that you interact with, for their life is much more difficult that many of us can comprehend.
- Nicaragua is a beautiful country, full of stunning landscapes, and affordable activities. I definitely recommend it as a travel location.
- Nicaragua is super affordable and perfect for people who are looking to travel on a budget.
- San Juan del Sur was my favorite location in Nicaragua.
- Nicaragua is a Third World country, so prepare yourself accordingly.
- Nicaragua isn’t as dangerous as people say, if you are smart and savvy.
* the ‘shuttle’ was more like a truck with seats nailed onto the back. It worked, but you should definitely bring sunscreen.