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Nicaragua and Costa Rica

Author: RichardNika (More Trip Reviews by RichardNika)
Date of Trip: May 2011


colorful mural central americaOn Saturday, May 7th, 2011, I began my second-ever trip to Central America - Nicaragua and Costa Rica - with a late night Spirit Airlines flight to Managua, the Nicaraguan capital. I'd only been to that part of the world once before, on a two-day trip to Antigua and Guatemala City in the late summer of '07 - it was also written up on this site. I've been reminded several times since that, having been there just before their violent election campaign, I was lucky to have made that trip unscathed, particularly after having ridden the "chicken bus" between Antigua and Guatemala City.

This was to be an eight-day trip. Two nights in Managua, one in Leon, two in Granada and the final three nights in San Jose, Costa Rica, from where I would fly home on Sunday, May 15. New countries, new cities, new experiences, new people. I traveled with two small under-the-seat bags to avoid Spirit's charges for placing bags in the bins, a subject on which I will avoid further comment..

The flight to Managua left on time and was uneventful. Departure was close to midnight, but because of a two hour time difference - Central American countries don't do daylight savings time - I arrived at Managua not long after midnight. Passengers had been handed two forms to fill out, and just before touchdown, we were told sorry, there's yet another form. It was a health form, and the final question asked if the person filling it out had "decay." Period. I checked the no box. The passengers included a fair number of young American backpacker types. The airport was clean and modern. I went through the passport and customs line, nothing inspected, but, just as in Cuba, my incoming bags had to go through an x-ray. I paid an entry fee of $10 and exchanged some money for Nicaraguan cordobas, each of which is worth a fraction less than a nickel. The young woman behind the exchange counter kept up a non-stop rapid-fire mantra, over and over. "If you exchange $130, you will get a better rate. If you exchange $300, you will get the best rate."

Because of the late hour and for safety reasons, there was no alternative but to take an officially-authorized airport taxi which, for the expected rate of $20, took me to the Villa Angelo, a small, neat and clean hotel not far from the center of Managua. It was a long ride, with numerous traffic lights - largely ignored - and the usual conglomerate of restaurants, gas stations, shops and even a casino en route. My room was clean and modern, with an effective remote-control A/C and cable TV with almost 100 channels, including CNN, BBC and Fox. A maid brought a moderate-sized but tasty breakfast featuring eggs, rice and beans - known in the region as "gallo pinto" - and, of course, coffee. The biggest problem was the shower - the water, such as it was, came through a thick white plastic electric heating thing, and the resulting thin irregular spray required the use of a washcloth and a good 15 minutes to wash and rinse. And I did my first stint of washing out a set of socks underwear and a shirt and hanging them in the closet to air dry. That's what you have to do if you want to travel light, and to do it soon enough before you check out to make sure that there will be enough drying time.

A new country and a new city! Sunday morning I set out to explore Managua. I'd been warned about crime, and had my money belt safely looped around and inside my collar and under my shirt. It was three blocks uphill to a main thoroughfare leading to Lake Managua - the Avenida Bolivar. It was very hot, but I had known it would be. A word about Nicaragua's two big lakes. Lake Managua borders the capital. It's big, but nowhere near the size of Lake Nicaragua, which lies to the south and appears on the map to almost pop Central America in two. More about that one later. I passed a small car dealership, government and private offices, and a Chinese restaurant. I turned right into a side street, having been told I'd find a small lake and a park that way, but it was the wrong street. I passed the pyramidal Crowne Plaza hotel, where Howard Hughes had infamously stayed until the December 1972 earthquake, which had flattened much of the city, sent him scurrying away the next day. The walk towards the lake was downhill, but after six or seven blocks, the street was blocked off, and a block after that, security people made me cross to the left side. The blocked off area of Bolivar, many many blocks long, was occupied by perhaps 100 motorcyclists, who raced in a group up and down the blocked-off stretch, making u turns at either end. That was it - Managua's version of a fantastical, once-in-a-lifetime spectacle. One block later, I crossed to a median area on a side street, noticing that, along the left side of Bolivar, great vacant scrubby trash and garbage-strewn areas were fenced off and filled with thousands of people - eating, drinking, but mainly just standing around, crowded together, watching the interminable loud gang of cyclists go up one side, make a u and down the other side.

I sat on a round concrete outcropping, hot and dehydrated, and alone until I was approached by a man with both arms missing below the elbow. He began speaking to me in Spanish, which, to my regret, I am not at all fluent in, He didn't appear to be begging, and finally walked away. I felt badly for not having understood him. I tried to cross the rest of the side street and was turned back by security people, who made it clear that I could advance towards the lake only by climbing over concrete blocks and low fences to enter the fenced off areas and then exit at the next side street and then do likewise with the next fenced off area. I did this for two blocks, climbing over mounds of trash and garbage, and at one point buying a cold coke, something I normally never drink. The sun was merciless. Finally, I said, out loud "I've got to get out of here!" I retreated through the two fenced off areas I'd traversed, and headed left, down a side street, and then right, along a narrower through street which, however, also led towards Lake Managua.

street scene central americaThe poverty along the street was striking. There were tiny homes squeezed together, made of concrete or something similar, always right up against the sidewalk, many with the doors open and people inside, some watching TV, others just sitting, many with a pet dog inside. There was trash and garbage scattered here and there, though not as horrendously as in those fenced-off areas - in fact, I never did see a trash container in Managua. I was desperate for another cold drink. Finally, I came to a small outdoor cafe on a corner. It was a poor sort of place, covered with a sort of roof. I ordered another coke, debated whether it was safe or not to pour it over the supplied glass of ice, finally did so, and sipped as I watched the few customers and the cafe's dog. A young man came over, speaking a little English, and introduced himself. When I told him I was from Miami Beach, he proudly showed me his Florida drivers license, with an address in Homestead, about 30 miles south of Miami.

I finally forced myself to get up, exit the shade, and resume my walk. A block away, the cyclists were still buzzing. I finally came to a sign saying I was entering a tourist area. I had to turn right, and soon found myself by the lake, lined with cafes, few of which had any customers. One of the many cycling ice cream vendors pedaled by - they all had signs on their little cooler-vehicles offering a "special" on "Eskimo" for the equivalent of 35 cents. I bought one - a small cup of vanilla ice cream with threads of chocolate. It wasn't the last one I'd buy, and was quite good.

I passed the monuments and buildings alongside the lake, several of which were very tall and futuristic in appearance, and came upon billboardes featuring Nicaragua's Sandinista president, Daniel Ortega - yes, the same one targeted years ago by the US-supported "contras" - and the national motto: "Socialista! Christianity! Nicaragua!" I reflected on the fact that Nicaragua is theoretically, if not truly socialist, while at the same time imposing prison terms of up to 10 years on women who get abortions, even if it's to save the woman's life. The city's largest cathedral loomed blocks away.

I knew I would never survive the uphill walk back to the hotel in the broiling sun, so I hailed a cab. Cabs are dirt cheap in Nicaragua, along with so much else, and I had the name of the hotel and also a map with its location marked. The driver hadn't a clue. He drove me around and around for over an hour. As he drove aimlessly about, I could hear the motorcycles still roaring back and forth. He'd stop to ask people where the hotel was, and I'd show them the map. No one had a clue, including one English-speaking lady who warned me that it would be dangerous to walk in Managua even in daylight. Finally, he stopped and queried someone who went inside another small hotel and made a phone call, then came out and spoke with the driver, who gave him the equivalent of a dollar. The driver then found my hotel and managed to talk me out of an extra dollar or so atop the already ridiculously low fare. Thankful to be back, I paid and retreated to my air conditioning and cable TV. The Villa Angelo had no food service other than breakfast, and I was very hungry. I asked where I could find a restaurant and was told to go back to Bolivar and back down to a mall adjoining the Crowne Plaza. I didn't feel like going that way again, so I left the hotel and walked to the left several blocks, where the houses seemed pleasantly middle class and well designed. Coming to a major intersection, I turned right, and decided that if I didn't find a place to eat after two blocks, I'd go back and drink bottled water and go to bed. The sun was low in the sky and I had no intention of being out after dark. And it got dark early - Central America doesn't use daylight savings time.

At the end of the second block, mercifully, was a restaurant. Not just any restaurant, but Pollo Estrella, a modern, semi-fast-food chicken, beef and pizza place complete with beer and credit card acceptance, reminding me of Miami's Pollo Tropical chain. I had a chicken patty platter with beer, then happily walked back. For the record, Nicaragua has two local beers, Tona- with a squiggle over the n, pronounced Tonia - and Victoria. Both are good, and either costs a dollar a bottle in any restaurant or bar.

The next morning, I finally found the little lake and park. It involved a very steep uphill walk and a dollar fee paid at a security booth. I was at the top of a steep hill, next to a playground with a sign advising that only those 12 and under would be admitted. No one was there. In fact, no one was around the hilltop street and the small lake, with steep banks, and very pretty, was far below.


There are numerous bus stations in Managua, but if you want to travel either north to the college and back-packer favorite town of Leon, or south to the very special town of Granada, alongside Lake Nicaragua, your best bet is to take a taxi to UCA, pronounced OO-ka, which is actually an acronym for a university which is allegedly adjacent to the terminal. The terminal itself is a block-long crazy-quilt of vendors, vans, cabs, buses, and booths. After boarding a minibus to Leon, I discovered to my horror that I'd left my moneybelt in my room. I jumped out of the van, hailed a cab and returned to the hotel. The money belt had been placed in the safe, and nothing was missing. Another cab returned me to UCA, and I got into the same van, which by now was crowded. These minibuses don't leave until they're full. Vendors kept approaching the window - I bought a small bag of tiny cookies and crackers for something like 10 cents.

The crowded minibus - thankfully, I had a window seat - eased out into a wide, busy thoroughfare, passing through intersections jammed with street vendors, most notably young men toting enormous boards to which dozens of pairs of sunglasses were attached. The $1.50 fare was collected. The political billboards and Ortega loomed large over the street. The passage out of Managua seemed endless, but we were finally on a country road, passing endless farm land inhabited mainly by the scrawniest-looking cows I had ever seen, and one dead cow by the side of the road. There was a classically-shaped volcano in the distance.

cathedral church central americaI'd been advised to exit the vehicle at a "UNO" blue and white gas station just outside Leon and take a taxi to my lodging, Tortuga Booluda, a hostel where I had a private room reserved. I liked the ambiance of the place, which fronted on one of the many primary streets of this city of over 150,000. There was an honor bar, really a large cooler, filled with beer, bottled water and soda, and an airy lobby complete with a pool table and a huge map of the world, and an outdoorsy corridor area leading back past some dormitory rooms to my private room I unloaded and walked 4 or 5 blocks through the main square and past an outdoor market to the fine old cathedral. I had a snack and a soda. Numerous booths offered "hot dog" and "hamburguesas." Later, back at the hostel, I asked about places to eat, saying I wanted Nicaraguan food, and a small cafeteria type place near the square was recommended. It was nice if not fancy, with a garden patio area in the back. I took a tray and selected a sort of beef, potato and shrimp stew and a heap of rice and beans. At the cashier, I paid the equivalent of 85 cents. It was a good meal. Walking back the 5 or 6 blocks in the dark, I felt perfectly safe.

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