Reykjavik Backpackers - Backpacking Around the World

Backpacking to Nicaragua - Our Story

I half expected Nicaragua to be a land of cratered roads, street gangs and Latin anarchy. After all, one of the most common accounts you hear about the Central American republic in the press is that it is the "second poorest country in the Western hemiphere" after Haiti.

So it was a pleasant surprise to find that Nicaragua seems much more developed, safer and friendlier than is widely reported. Instead of a third-world disaster with tattooed gang-bangers on every corner in Managua -- a town synonymous with danger -- the city seemed to be a fairly prosperous, easy-going place. By prosperous, I mean that no one seemed to be going hungry, and there was plenty of hustle, energy and smiles in the market.

Omatepe, Lake Nicaragua, Planet Backpacker

Nico kids on their way to market on Ometepe Island.

Despite its reputation, Managua seemed orderly to the point of being humdrum with plenty of new cars, good roads, and well-landscaped boulevards. There is surely poverty here, but we managed to miss running into it.

In January, 2007, pals George Foster, Bob Perkins spent a week doing the country's tourist circuit, finding it easy to get around on its go-anywhere bus system. We also found a considerable number of European tourists (including a couple dozen Norweigian college girls) and even a few Americans.

A return trip in 2013 found that little had changed: Nicaragua was a tad bit more sophisticated, having added an international flavor with the opening of a number of new restaurants from around the world, but the country still has a pleasant feel that ranges from rustic to the colonial vibes.

Here's a good trip for first-timers:

The first stop out Managua is a folklorico town called Masaya, where I hoped to buy a handmade guitar at a highly-touted workshop. The guitar factory proved to be a bust with a lackluster staff and instruments I'd classify as "crummy" at best. In town, there's an old fort which serves as the tourist market selling so-so handicrafts. It's also worth checking out the nearby Volcan Masaya, which is said to be Nicaragua's most accessible volcano -- a wide-open smoking vagina of the earth. Overall, Masaya is a nice enough place, worth a day's outing.

Grenada, however, was much more pleasant, with a large square in the center of town, adjacent to an old Spanish cathedral. The city is pleasantly compact with an extensive market. We arrived without reservations and had a tough time scoring a room on a street full of hotels just past the church.

Thus, we ended up with a place fancier than I would have liked in a hacienda-style hotel with an inner courtyard bursting with flowers.

There are plenty of good restaurants in Grenada and even some nightlife in the form of a local dance bar where the band was kicking out salsa tunes. The European women travelers didn't give us Americanos even a glance, so enamored were they with their suave Nico dance partners.

Then it was on to Playa San Juan del Sur, a beach town brimming with international backpackers, many of whom were hunched over a long row of computers in our "Internet hotel." We managed to arrive not long after the well-publicized murder of a popular local young woman, with the blame laid on her American sometime-boyfriend. But we three amigos were clueless as to any local rage over the matter (which precipitated an international incident in which the imprisoned yank said he was framed).

It was here that we bumped into the aforementioned Norweigian girls -- a surly bunch -- who were in town for a couple of weeks studying Spanish. "We won't steal your shit," they informed us at the beach when we took a plunge -- as if we would begin to suspect them of such. We were also squired around town one evening by an elderly madame, looking for her lost whores, who were apparently busy with customers. We weren't necessarily interested beyond wondering what it was all about, though I must confess, when a beautiful, young, tawny-skinned hooker cupped her full breasts and pursed her cherry lips in invitation by the dark of the moon on a walk through the "wrong" end of town, it definitely piqued my interest.

Omatepe Island, Nicaragua, Planet Backpacker

A rodeo on Ometepe Island in the middle of Lago de Nicaragua. Nearest medical help: hours away...

Playa San Juan del Sur has some excellent surfing action about 10 miles up the coast on a beach which is easily reached by a charter boat. I went body surfing here and got tumbled around ass-over-teakettle on the bottom of the ocean, nearly breaking my nose. Here too is a surfer's outpost of palm huts, tents and a beach bar, packed with heavily pierced and tattooed dudes & dudettes from California who are insufferably hip.

We wrapped it up with a couple of days on the island of Ometepe in the middle of Lake Nicaragua, home of freshwater sharks. The island is reached by a ferry that bobs like a cork in a flushing toilet. Our accommodations at the Hospedaje Central were superb (atmosphere-wise, anyway with its jungle courtyard and circus colors), with rooms for around $10 each. Again, we bumped into more interesting international travelers -- a young woman from Sweden bumming around Central America on her own, who shared a joint with us; and three Dutch women in their 30s doing much the same trip as the Tres Amigos.

Ometepe is a 'must' visit since it has the feel of old Nicaragua. On a drive across the island we ran into a funeral procession of hundreds of farmers walking down the highway. We also managed to find a local rodeo that same day and joined hundreds of natives cheering on brave young cowboys on their bucking bulls -- a reckless pastime, considering the island has no hospital or doctor.

We also climbed most of the way up the largest of the island's two active volcanos -- a grueling six hour trip that includes a hike through the jungle and a chance to commune with monkeys and nibble on live termites at the invitation of our guide (George, the brave one, said the ants tasted like potato chips; other claim they're like carrots). I climbed several hundred yards higher up the slope, but then turned tale and ran when a monstrous pea-green plume of sulpherous smoke began descending the volcano in my direction like a creeping dragon.

Evenings at the main village in Ometepe are best spent at Jerry's place -- a sprawling restaurant-bar which offers a nightly film projected on the wall. Jerry is a former U.S. tennis pro who came to Guatemala years ago to try his hand at inn keeping. Selling his property at a huge profit, he made his way to Ometepe to start anew on an island where lakefront property can run as little as $5,000 per acre. He bought a ramshackle building and remodeled it with local help into one of the best restaurants on the island.

You still hear echoes of the revolution in Nicaragua: our guide on Ometepe told of his family's property being stolen by the Sandinistas, who talked a good game of equality for all, but quickly went the way of plunder and corruption, building multi-million dollar villas in prime beachfront locations for themselves with all the goodies.

Back in Managua, we made a swing through the huge market next to the bus station. I had a delicious slice of lemon meringue pie -- fresh from the oven -- for about 25 cents U.S. But alas, found no guitars worth buying, though I scoured the market from one end to the other.

Thumbs up, Nicaragua!'

IF YOU GO: A good place to spend your first night in Managua is the Best Western just across the road from the airport. It's relatively expensive, but chances are you'll be arriving late and may not want to try finding your way around the city at night.

Hazards, danger, hassles: The Managua bus station is a hurly-burly place, reportedly chock full of pickpockets and con men. Have your taxi take you directly to the bus of your destination and get on board immediately to provide a buffer from the crowd. We talked to one college-aged American who made the mistake of opening his pack in the middle of the station to find a tip for his cab driver, only to have a mob rip off all of his possessions (and money) in a frenzy of theft.