Things You Need to Know Before Visiting Nicaragua That Guide Books Won’t Tell You
By Heide Brandes
The temperature was a thick and moist 90 degrees in Rivas, Nicaragua when the old man started yelling at me and my fiancé Ash in Spanish.
He was stooped over with legs so arthritic that they bowed out like a wishbone, but his crisp white linen suit and shiny black shoes made it clear he wasn’t a beggar or one of the streets homeless.
We both stopped, and the old man ignored me while continuing to yell at Ash. Since neither of us spoke Spanish, knowing what he was so publicly upset about taking a while, but it came down to the shorts Ash was wearing.
Offended by the Shorts
He was offended by the shorts. Apparently, Ash should have worn long pants and a nicer shirt. I could only imagine what he thought of me in my tank top and shorty shorts.
We shrugged at him apologetically, but this old man hobbled behind us for a block berating us on our lack of respectable clothing. He wasn’t the only one.
In many places in Nicaragua, when visiting the town center, people are expected to dress up and dress conservatively.
That little tip was one of many I wish we knew before visiting this Central American country. Nicaragua is a country of contradictions in many ways. You can surf the slopes of an active volcano and you can swim in oceans as blue as Navajo turquoise.
Before visiting Nicaragua, be aware of those surprises that the guidebooks won’t tell you.
A Dollar for Some Grass
Ash and I had just landed in Managua and were struggling to haul our luggage to the bus that would take us to our rental car when a cheeky little slip of a boy ran up to me and pressed a blade of grass, tied into a sweet little knot, into my hand.
“How nice,” I said, grinning at Ash. I smiled at the boy and crawled into the bus.
Suddenly, this cheeky little boy was screaming at me, his hand held out demandingly. He kept yelling at me until one of the other passengers told me he expected money for that gift, and in a fit of confusion and embarrassment, I pulled out a dollar and gave it to him.
The Chiclet gum hawkers are easy to spot, but the adorable little children handing you offerings aren’t. If you allow a “porter” to “help” you carry your luggage, you’ll be expected to pay. Those free maps others try to give you aren’t free either.
So unless you really like that knotted grass, just shake your head politely to anyone who offers gifts or assistance.
Upgrade or Upchuck
I’m a spend-thrift. I admit this freely.
In Nicaragua, though, upgrade your rental car. We decided to go cheap and ended up with a tiny stick shift car with no power steering, no power breaks, no locks but on the driver’s door and, horror of all horrors, no GPS. In a country where street signs are sometimes as elusive as the howler monkeys, a GPS is vital.
Be prepared to share the road in that rickety little rental too. While driving the highways, we dodged potholes with 18-wheelers, red bicycle taxis, ox-drawn carts, horse-drawn buggies, motorcycles, herds of cattle, wandering horses and the occasional baby sitting in the highway. Seriously, we dodged a baby on a major road.
Dress like the Locals
Unless you are in the party surf town of San Juan Del Sur on or the Caribbean Corn Islands, dress in long pants or skirts. The conservative Catholic culture means that even in 100-degree heat, people consider it rude to dress in very short shorts or skirts.
Even on the shores of Lake Nicaragua inland, most families swam in shorts and T-shirts, not swimsuits.
The rule changed when we arrived on Little Corn Island off the Caribbean coast near Bluefields. This island, which is only accessible by giant, open-air canoe-like boats (or the ferry, for the faint of heart), is a getaway for anyone looking for an island paradise without all the tourists or fancy resorts.
The hour-long, $165 round trip flight from Managua to the Big Corn Island is an easy way to get rid of your crappy rental car and spend a few hassle-free days on the islands. But, the flight only leaves twice a day, so call ahead of time for reservations or book it the night before.
Little Corn Island (), only 1.5 square miles, is home to roughly 800 people who speak Creole English and Spanish, and the popular activities include fishing, snorkeling, horseback riding, day drinking, sunbathing, night time parties, yoga, paddle boarding, and massage.
Ash and I decided on deep sea fishing. On Little Corn Island, deep sea fishing does not mean boarding a huge fishing boat with technical gear, but loading up in a tiny bass boat with one guide, a couple of fishing poles and a diesel engine puking up black smoke.
By noon, both Ash and I were doing our own puking over the side of the boat as the tiny vessel churned through the high waves, turning our insides into a stew from too much sun and engine smoke.
The four Red Snapper we caught was worth the bout of seasickness, and once back on shore, we found a man in a shack to clean the fish and cook it up right on the sand, seasoning it with garlic and a magical mix of Creole seasonings that lit the mouth on fire.
Before giving up on mainland life and escaping to the islands, Ash and I aimed for Isla Ometepe. Ometepe is an island in the middle of the great Lake of Nicaragua and home to two volcanoes, Concepcion and the dangerous Maderas, who claims the lives of wayward hikers every year.
If you take a ferry to Isla Ometepe (ferry schedule: ), be prepared to pay a couple of times. You’ll pay a fare to ride the ferry, a
fare for tourism tax, a fare for taking a vehicle and another tax. If you do not speak Spanish, this can become very confusing when the fare collectors come by yelling “Blanco auto?” over and over looking for the owner of the crappy white rental car.
If you hike Maderas, you’ll need a guide. Every year, hikers get lost on the rabbit warren of trails, fall off cliffs, die from over-exertion or simply disappear among the slopes of the volcano.
I found my guide by simply asking the waiters at the small nature lodge of Finca del Sol, that we lived in for three days. The English-speaking waiters knew a guy who knew a guy. Also, don’t smile overly much at non-English-speaking waiters. They think you are creepy.
Even with a guide, I was vastly unprepared for how challenging the hike was. For one, howler monkeys roar from the dark jungle-like angry gods and they like to pee and throw feces at you.
The trail itself is straight up the slope and bees the size of small birds will dive bomb your head all the way up. About three-quarters of the way up, my guide Marco announced that “we are coming to the hard part. It’s all knee-deep mud from here.”
I know when I’m beat. I looked across the vast vista from nearly the top of Maderas and bowed my head at her dominance.
“Let’s go back down,” I said, and Marco cheerfully agreed. Three hours later, we were sitting in the sparkling natural pools of Ojo de Agua, sipping straight magical rum out of coconuts.
Other Things to Consider
Nicaraguans love children. You can use this to your advantage when visiting with locals or trying to ask directions. People tend to be friendlier to tourists with small ones tagging along.
Never leave your luggage in your vehicle unattended. You’re likely to never see it again.
Try the island dish called Rundown, a one-dish seafood stew that looks like a murder scene, but is filled with chunks of fish, conch, lobster, coconut milk, root vegetables, plantains and more.
This local dish is prepared by all the island “mamas” and is named for how anything they have lying around is “run down” into a stew.
That being said, consider Nicaragua. Good luck, and keep your pants on.
Heide Brandes is an award-winning journalist and editor with more than 18 years of experience as a reporter and editor. She has been published in Forbes, Silicon66, Bloomberg News, The Red Dirt Report, Splurge OK!, The Guardian UK, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, TrailGroove Magazine, Destinations Travel Magazine, New York Daily News and the New York Times. She is also the Oklahoma correspondent for Reuters News Service. Besides freelancing full time, Heide is an avid traveler, a medieval warrior, hiker, professional belly dancer and belly dance instructor and kind of a quirky chick who lives in Oklahoma City.