Where can you travel for perfect tropical weather, beautiful beaches, magnificent volcanoes, friendly locals, and live well for under $25 a day? Maybe Hawaii in the 16th century, right?
Travel to Nicaragua is well under the radar for North American vacationers. Though I planned such a trip with two other backpackers, who also had some low-budget travel experience in Central America, we didnt really know what to expect. Most acquaintances ominously warned me to stay away.
Isnt Nicaragua where those crazy Sandinistas run around the country dodging bullets from the Contras? Did I know the Communist leader, Daniel Ortega, was just elected president again? After all, it is the second poorest country in the western hemisphere. If the robbers dont kill you, the mosquitoes will. And on and on.
Actually, despite the Nicas passionate interest in politics and the many insurgencies of the past, Nicaragua is now one of the safest countries in Latin America. Statistically, violent crime there is a fraction of that measured in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, their more turbulent neighbors to the north.
The U.S. government has meddled mercilessly in Nicaraguan affairs in the past, yet most locals seem to like gringos. The humblest North American traveler is rich beyond the average Nicaraguans dreams, yet we experienced relatively little begging on the streets. Best of all, I didnt even see even one mosquito. Shhh... Nicaragua is a secret.
Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, has most of the pitfalls of any Latin capital city. Yet, even Managua has at least one nice open-air market and other vibrant shopping and entertainment venues to offer.
Granada, one of two renowned colonial-period cities in the country, was crowded with tourists from Europe and even a few North Americans. Trips to a nearby volcano and its downtown market are big hits for travelers. Granada is nestled near Lake Nicaragua, the biggest lake in Central America. In addition to its size, the lake is famous for its freshwater sharks and two large volcanoes that form the island of Ometepe.
San Juan del Sur is a booming beach town on the Pacific Ocean near the Costa Rican border. Among many activities, trips to secluded surfing beaches and fishing excursions are popular. This town was the most expensive of any place we visited. My private room with bath was still only $15 per night and a huge meal could be ordered at any of several high-end restaurants on the beach for less than $5. The average bus ticket between Nicaraguan destinations costs about $1. But remember, you cant mention Nicaragua to anyone.
A real jewel in the country is Isla de Ometepe, a 45-minute ferry ride from Nicaraguas bustling cities on Lake Nicaragua. This unique island was formed by two volcanoes and is ringed by villages and beautiful beaches. The volcanoes are still active but no worries, none have erupted in several years. A throwback from another era, most of Ometepes residents reside on farms, explaining why the roads are trafficked by livestock, not cars. The islanders seem to survive on their own enterprising, such as plantain production and cattle ranching. It is said that most own their own land.
While on Ometepe, climbing the perfectly-formed cone of Concepcion Volcano is a must-do. Rising from parched farmland into jungles teeming with howler monkeys, blue magpies, and an occasional poisonous snake - one never knows what the next corner will bring. The grueling journey ended at cloud level of the volcano. We battled fierce winds on this last leg of our seven-hour trip, much of it on treacherous volcanic rock. Wow.
While in Nicaragua, it was obvious that more than a few gringos were prowling the country for real estate deals. Purchases of property by foreigners for second homes and retirement have increased dramatically of late. Real estate prices in Nicaragua have risen five-fold since 2000 but are still cheaper than in Costa Rica or Panama. I discovered some Nicaraguan lots on the water that were selling for only $5000, though most of the areas real estate is a little more expensive.
But please, please, whatever you do, dont tell anyone. Nicaragua is our secret, okay?