Wanting to escape to someplace foreign this past summer but short on time due to Jave’s demanding work schedule, we decided to cash in on some frequent flyer miles for a quick jaunt to Granada, Nicaragua. When we shared our plans with friends and family, they were perplexed as to why we’d want to go there. So I thought it’d be helpful to share some of the factors that we considered when choosing Nicaragua as our getaway destination, and hopefully, you’ll be inspired to travel there too.
Nicaragua tourism is still in its development stages. Despite the fact that more and more expats are settling in Nicaragua for its affordable real estate, and more and more tourists are traveling there, it’s sandwiched between destinations that are undeniably more popular – primarily Guatemala and Honduras to the north and Costa Rica and Panama to the south. Nicaragua’s relative unpopularity is one of the reasons that Jave and I were drawn there for a visit.
Still, as noted, travelers are quickly discovering the benefits of Nicaragua tourism. On more than one occasion during our trip, we heard from other tourists and locals alike that Nicaragua is more appealing than Costa Rica, for example, because Costa Rica is overrun with eco and adventure tourists. Consequently, according to a fellow traveler we met who’d just left Costa Rica, it seems to be losing its authentic sense of culture.
Our local guide, Carlos, said that he made the same observation during his travels to Costa Rica. He also expressed concern about the impending construction of the Nicaragua Canal – a project that’s being headed by Chinese businessman, Wang Jing. With construction of the canal set to begin in December 2014, Carlos said that many Nicaraguans are concerned about the environmental impact that construction will have on the water levels of Lake Nicaragua as well as the potentially adverse impact that an increased foreign presence and influx of tourists will have on the country’s cultural identity. Nevertheless, Carlos explained that he’s hopeful because the Nicaraguan government seems to be taking these issues to heart and it seems to be committed to developing the country gradually and responsibly.
If the Nicaraguan government succeeds, tourists to Nicaragua will continue to be rewarded with an unadulterated encounter with the country’s culture, its land, and its people.
Like many other Central and South American countries, Nicaragua is very affordable. While we spent about $460 for our hotel and food during our 3-day/2-night getaway, we could’ve spent a lot less if we’d chosen to stay in cheaper accommodations such as a hostel. We usually take the boutique hotel route, so for about $115 per night, we booked a hotel in the heart of Granada where we had a huge room with a huge balcony (complete with rocking chairs) that provided an uninterrupted view of the Cathedral of Granada. Not bad at all for a little luxury!
We also could’ve spent less if we’d only eaten street food or at local cafetíns where you can easily get a meal of “comida tipica” for about $2 to $5.
In fact, on our first afternoon in Granada, Jave and I indulged in street food (two full plates of vigarón and sodas) followed by a trip to a local bar where we each ordered drinks, and our grand total for the afternoon was about $14.
Even our tours and excursions were very reasonable and never exceeded more than $30 per person. Our chocolate-making workshop at Choco Museo cost about $19 per person (not including tax), and one morning, we each got 1-hour massages for about $24 per person (not including tax). That’s very reasonable in my book considering that most massage schools in urban U.S. cities charge at least $35 for a 45-minute massage.
It’s Naturally Beautiful
Forming part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, Nicaragua is a country full of volcanos and lakes. With the added bonus of the Atlantic on the east and the Pacific on the west, Nicaragua offers a diverse landscape full of lush vegetation and wildlife. If you base your Nicaragua stay in Granada, not only will you have striking views of Mombacho and its seemingly ever-present cloud forest, but you’ll also have quick access to the neighboring town of Masaya where you’ll find the Masaya and Nindirí volcanos.
In terms of lakes, Masaya Lake is at the base of the Masaya volcano, Lake Apoyo is nearby, and Granada sits on the shores of Lake Nicaragua – the nineteenth largest in the world. While there are many other volcanos and lakes worth mentioning, I’m only focusing on those located near Granada since that’s where we stayed.
It’s Relatively Safe
When discussing our Nicaraguan travel plans, one of our friends’ and family’s primary concerns was our safety. And I can understand why. Having lived in Panama as a kid in the early ‘80s, there were two places in particular that my family would never consider venturing off to – Colombia and Nicaragua.
In 1980, Nicaragua’s dictatorial Somoza dynasty came to an end when he was assassinated in Paraguay after seeking refuge there in hopes of escaping the Sandinistas who’d taken over the country. Adding fuel to the fire, there was in-fighting between the Sandinistas, and eventually the Contras, an anti-Sandinistas rebel group were backed by the CIA to oust them. Long story short, the ‘80s were not a great time to be in Nicaragua. Then in the ‘90s, Nicaragua endured a lot of political and social unrest due to rigged elections which were unsurprisingly backed by the United States.
I’m sure that news stories of Nicaragua’s years of socio-political instability along with its poverty were the source of our loved ones’ concerns. But according to the State Department, although there are gangs and petty street crimes (as is the case in most countries), crime in Nicaragua is less frequent than in its neighboring countries.
With that said, Jave and I never felt the slightest bit unsafe during our stay in Granada. However, we had enough common sense to not venture out alone at night, to avoid isolated streets and shady-looking areas, and to refrain from flaunting our money and cameras. Although we did notice that every bank and ATM machine we visited had armed guards on standby, we never experienced any safety issues during our short stay there.
Its Food is Amazing
You can’t leave Nicaragua without trying vigarón which, as I previously mentioned, is a street food that we ate for lunch on our first afternoon in Granada. I have to admit that this dish of mashed manioc topped with slaw and fried pork skin wasn’t exactly my favorite. Served on a banana leaf, I probably would’ve enjoyed it more if it was served warm instead of at room temperature.
What I did love in Nicaragua was the beef! While I’m not a big red meat eater, I have to say that the beef in Nicaragua is some of the best I’ve ever had. In fact, I haven’t had beef so juicy, tender, fresh, and non-metallic tasting since my years living in the Midwest where grass fed beef is king. As with most Nicaraguan meals, your beef will be served with beans, rice, plantain, and salsa that has a bit of kick. On our last afternoon in Nicaragua, we stopped for lunch on La Calzada at a restaurant called Nectar. While we ate at more authentic restaurants, the beef at Nectar was equally delicious.
Nicaragua is also well known for its seafood, and in Granada, local restaurants are sourced with fresh catches of guapote from Lake Nicaragua. Guapote is huge and rather mean-looking with gnarly teeth, but it tastes dang good! If you want to make sure that your fish is fresh, don’t be shy about asking the waiter to bring the fish out for your inspection before ordering – that’s what the locals do!
It’s an Ideal Place to Volunteer
Nicaragua is one of the poorest countries in Central America with the average worker earning around $2 to $3 per day. According to Carlos, construction workers typically earn around $10 per day making the country’s minimum wage one of the lowest in the Americas and in the world. Although Carlos told us that most Nicaraguans are content to live simple lives, the need in the country is apparent.
In any area where there’s a tourist presence, you’ll likely be approached by young kids asking you to buy the fruit, souvenirs, or other knick-knacks that they happen to be selling.
We were approached by one young boy selling banana leaves that he’d shaped into figurines, and despite my attempts to tell him no gracias he insisted that I take a grasshopper figurine home with me. Short on Cordobas, Jave gave him the equivalent of $0.60 and we felt really badly about that. But Carlos assured us that $0.60 is a lot for a young kid. We were also approached by another young boy and his friends while eating in Granada’s Parque Colón. He asked for the remaining Coke in Jave’s glass and he drank it there on the spot and passed it around to his friends. I say all of this to reiterate that Nicaragua is a poor nation and as in many poor nations, kids are out on the streets hustling to make a living from a very young age.
There are many NGOs that you can get involved with to assist with Nicaragua’s sustainable development. Other volunteer opportunities in the country are focused on teaching English, providing healthcare, and addressing environmental issues including sustainable agriculture. GoAbroad is a great place to start your search for an organization that matches your volunteer aspirations. Nicaragua is definitely a place that Jave and I can see ourselves returning to again and again, not only to vacation, but also to volunteer.