Grab a cuppa coffee – or a fine batido (smoothie) – and read my top 9 travel tips for Nicaragua, an often-overlooked slice of Central America …
Nicaragua has a spirit you can feel. World-class wildlife and a growing eco-tourism movement combine with a cacophony of noise, and locals who aren’t afraid to talk politics. It makes for a destination with more fire and passion than the country’s plethora of volcanoes.
The environment – travel tips for Nicaragua
1. Wildlife: embrace the wild side
There’s a whole lot of wildlife going on in Nicaragua, making it a paradise for nature lovers and photographers. Monkeys, colourful parakeets and magpies with long blue tail feathers, bats, random trees with spikes, cacti, something that looks like a giant guinea pig whose name I haven’t learnt yet …
Stop and listen for a while when you’re out walking. The forest is a magical place, full of life. I saw a skunk in the wild there. Or at least I think it was a skunk – I wasn’t getting too close to check 🙂
And let’s not forget the landscape for all that wildlife. Volcanoes abound!
Who knew Nicaragua was such a wildlife and nature haven? Which brings me onto number two …
2. Show the eco-tourism movement some love
With a growing eco-tourism movement comes a choice of eco-friendly places to stay. Think solar panels, composting toilets, recycling practices, and filtered water refills; all coupled with blissful vista’d locations.
In many respects, Nicaragua seems to be going through an upsurge in environmental awareness (aside from an annoying habit of lazily-tossing rubbish from bus windows). Whether this is the result of improved education, opposition against the environmental and social impacts of the Nicaraguan Canal project, or something else entirely, who knows?
As visitors we can lead by example, and stay in some truly unique places at the same time.
3. Pack earplugs
Nicaragua is a country that gets up early. After a month, the best lie-in I’ve managed is 7.45am. It messes with my “not a morning person” sensibilities, but I’ve learnt to embrace it. Cockerels (roosters), buses pomping their horns, parrots, dogs … all will do their best to wake you up before 7am. I can’t emphasise this Nicaragua travel tip enough – take earplugs 🙂
Getting around – Nicaragua travel tips
4. Buses – catch ‘em from where they originate
Many inter-city journeys in Nicaragua are only a couple of hours long, so don’t discount the good old chicken bus. They’re also very handy for days out.
The attendant will collect your fare, and – if you’re travelling from the buses’ originating point to its final destination – will fix your luggage to the roof rack.
My top tip – catch a bus at its origin point if you can – doubly true if you have luggage. That way you’ll get a seat.
Popular inter-city destinations are also served by minibuses, which will cost a little bit more (we’re talking about $0.50).
The pros: you’ll definitely get a seat, and they don’t stop at every lamppost.
The con: they don’t all have luggage racks so your rucksack may end up on your knees.
5. Get ready to share your taxi
Taxis in Nicaragua are collective, and will pick up and drop off passengers heading in (vaguely) the same direction en-route. Don’t let the prospect of getting into/sharing a cab with complete strangers freak you out, although local advice would suggest avoiding it in Managua. Journeys are very cheap (10-20 cordobas, or around $0.40-$0.80 per city journey).
Food and drink – travel tips for Nicaragua
6. Eat the local food
OK, so you’re probably not visiting Nicaragua for the cuisine. But there’s some hearty local food to be enjoyed.
A “Nica” breakfast of gallo pinto (rice and beans mixed together), scrambled eggs, plantain and cheese is a top Nicaragua travel tip recommendation of mine, and makes a fine way to start the day.
You’ll find plenty of other typical local foods on offer, at a fraction of the price of more western cuisine: Roast chicken – goooooood. Fried plaintain crisps (chips) – gooooooood! Random sweet breads sold by ladies at bus stations – goooooood. Bags of unidentifiable fruit pieces served with a dash of chili, lime and salt – delish! Give the local food a go!
7. Get your smoothie on and/or relax in coffee heaven
You can always find a freshly squeezed fruit smoothie, known as a batido in Nicaragua.
You can get ‘em made with juice (jugo)/water, milk (leche), and sometimes with ice-cream (helado) too. In markets, street stands, juice bars, and on café and restaurant menus, fruity goodness is never too far away.
I now have a serious batido addiction.
Nicaragua is also home to some damn fine coffee. My best cup so far? At the Coffee Museum in Matagalpa, the northern highlands.
Local people – Nicaragua travel tips
8. Learn some Spanish
Here’s a plea from the heart: For the love of God, learn some Spanish (the country has plenty of Spanish language schools such as La Mariposa, where I spent two weeks). English isn’t widely spoken, although some guides / accommodations will speak it.
Be warned though, slang is prevalent. Even the newspaper had words that confounded my dictionary. “Chele/chela” is used a lot to describe pale skin, of anyone or anything. I met a guy with a gorgeous white horse called La Chela.
In a nutshell, knowing at least some “tourist Spanish”, particularly if you’re travelling independently, is pretty much essential.
9. Say “hola”, have a chat and maybe even meet some former revolutionaries!
Being friendly costs nothing, and a quick “hola” can go a long way. For the most part, people are friendly, although solo female travellers may be on the receiving end of random declarations of love from men they haven’t even had a conversation with (I just ignored these).
A good natter isn’t hard to come by. People here are good conversationalists – they have opinions about politics, the Nicaraguan Canal project, different countries, and aren’t afraid to discuss them. You might even meet some former revolutionaries! This all helps to get under the skin of Nicaragua a little more, and to confound a few perceptions.
From the coffee-picker who had studied English via a correspondence course with the University of Birmingham in the UK, to the retired biologist expressing his views on Margaret Thatcher before picking me some fresh mandarins, just two more examples of how the spirit of Nicaragua is very much alive and kicking.