Nicaragua Canal Set To One-Up Panama Canal

Panama Canal
U.S. Navy, Flickr

Today, the Nicaraguan National Assembly is expected to rubber-stamp a $40 billion proposal by a Chinese consortium to build a canal across the country. The new canal will be over 150 miles long, dwarfing the famous Panama Canal.

The idea of a canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans through Nicaragua has been around since colonial times, and up until 1970, the United States held rights to build it. However, the current proposal will see a newly formed Hong Kong-registered company, HKDN, build the waterway.

Nicaragua is one of the poorest countries in Central America. The construction of the new canal will see the country’s GDP double and employment triple in only five years, according to The Guardian.

Of the more than half-dozen proposed routes for the canal, at least five will run through the freshwater Lake Nicaragua, the largest lake in Central America. Any land-only route would have to make a considerable detour to get around the lake.

Though the proposal has met with little resistance in parliament because of the large ruling party majority, no studies on the environmental or social impact of the project have been completed as yet.

Learn Spanish With Lonely Planet’s Fluent Road

Learn Spanish Fluent Road
Courtesy of FluentRoad.com

Traveling to Spain or Latin America this summer and want to say more than “Donde esta el bano?” (though, that’s an important one to know)? Lonely Planet has just launched a new online foreign language program, Fluent Road, partnering with Spanish language program Fluenz. The focus is on Spanish for now, but you can choose from dialects from Argentina, “neutral” Latin America, Mexico, or Spain.

Fluent Road is designed for travelers to get the basics before a trip: Spanish for transportation, finding accommodation, ordering food, etc. It’s also a good stepping-stone to a more intensive learning program, and travelers could easily work up to a Fluenz course after completing Fluent Road. What differentiates this from other language learning like Rosetta Stone or Pimsleur is a dissection of the language, showing you how Spanish works and providing explanations, not just rote immersion. Fluenz founder and avid traveler Sonia Gil guides you through obstacles, pronunciation, and practice speaking, writing and reading as a native speaker and “language geek.”

As with all online learning, you can go at your own pace; there are 30 video lessons that can be completed in one to six months. Other useful features include the ability to record yourself to compare pronunciation a native Speaker, and customizable digital flash cards to help practice. You can also contact the teacher and program designer via Twitter.

Take a free 12-hour trial now, subscriptions start from $9 for a month to $30 for six months of access, at www.fluentroad.com.

Video: Top 10 Greatest Adventures For 2013 By Richard Bangs

Richard Bangs, the host of the television show “Adventures with a Purpose,” has been called the “father of modern adventure travel” by Outside magazine. So when he makes a list of ten great destinations for 2013, it’s a good idea to take notice. In the video below, Bangs shares his suggestions for some of the top destinations to visit this year. The list is comprised of some old classics, some places that are on the rise and others that are just down right surprising. If you’re still searching for ideas on places to visit this year, then perhaps you’ll find just what you’re looking for right here.


International Budget Guide 2013: Granada & San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua

san juan del sur surferAmericans have long associated Nicaragua with the Cold-War era Iran-Contra scandal but as prices rise in Costa Rica and safety drops in Mexico, more and more savvy travelers are discovering that Nicaragua is a safe, cheap and interesting place with great beaches, reliably warm weather and a vibrant cultural scene.

Travel writers have been hyping Nicaragua for years. In 2005, Frommer’s called it “the next big thing” and glossy magazines like Travel & Leisure and Condé Nast promoted the country as a budget friendly alternative to Costa Rica. Until recently though, Nicaragua was still considered more of an off-the-beaten track backpacker destination than a place for American families to vacation. That tide is starting to turn, as The New York Times recently illustrated by naming Nicaragua one of its places to visit in 2013. On April 1, the country’s first super luxury resort, Mukul, opened. If it succeeds, others will surely follow.

For the moment, Nicaragua is still a delightfully budget friendly holiday destination. According to the Wall Street Journal, foreign visitors spent an average of just $43 per day in Nicaragua in 2011. Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, next to Haiti, so travelers should be prepared to experience heartbreaking poverty. Many who come for a vacation in Nicaragua end up staying to volunteer and even those who don’t are often changed by their eye-opening experience in the country.

In checking out our recommendations below, please note that save Mukul and a few other ritzy places, nearly every hotel, restaurant and attraction in this country could qualify as “budget” or “value” by American standards. Our recent scouting trip didn’t operate on a strict backpacker’s budget, but according to Tim Leffel, author of “The World’s Cheapest Destinations,” savvy backpackers can by on as little as $15 per day in Nicaragua.

Budget Activities

Surf the Pacific: The Pacific Coast is a haven for surfers. San Juan del Sur is about a two-hour drive from the Managua airport and is a great base for surfers. Playa Hermosa, near San Juan del Sur, is a particularly good surf spot but there are dozens of other viable alternatives. There are several shops that rent boards and offer surf lessons, including Arena Caliente, Good Times Surf Shop and Baloy’s Surf Shop. Arena Caliente also has a surf camp as does the all-girl surf camp Chicabrava.

Volcano Hikes/Boarding: There are several volcanoes that make for good day trips from San Juan del Sur or Granada. You can hike or drive up to the crater of Masaya Volcano ($5 entrance fee), which is just outside Granada, but if you stick around too long, you might get a bit light headed, as this is an active volcano. Isla de Ometepe has two more active volcanoes and is a great day trip from San Juan del Sur. There are places to hike and zip line all over the country and you can volcano board on the Cerro Negro Volcano near Leon.

Study Spanish or Volunteer: Nicaragua is also a great place to learn Spanish or volunteer. In San Juan del Sur, La Escuela Rosa Silva’s Spanish School (50 meters west of the market) offers four hours of daily instruction for just $100 per week. Roger Ramirez’s One-on-One Spanish Tutoring Academy (Calle Calzada) offers private lessons in Granada starting at just $6 per hour. The Moon Guide to Nicaragua has an extensive list of volunteer opportunities with organizations in Granada like Building New Hope, Empowerment International, and La Esperanza Granada.

ometepe nicaragua

Hotels

Granada- Hotel Plaza Colon- Travelers can find perfectly acceptable hotels in Granada for as little as $25 per night, but for a little bit more, you can stay at this historic old beauty of a hotel, located right on the city’s principal square. The rooms are spacious and tastefully decorated, the staff is helpful to a fault and there’s a great little pool in the hotel courtyard. From $99. Parque Central. hotelplazacolon.com

San Juan del Sur- Villas de Palermo- By Nicaraguan standards, this condo complex is a bit of a splurge, but it’s a great value for families who want a full apartment, complete with a big, modern kitchen, rather than a hotel room. Many of the apartments have an ocean view and there’s a glorious pool and a free shuttle that makes the 1-mile trip into town on the hour during daylight hours. From $159. villasdepalermo.com

Isla de Ometepe- The Corner House B & B- Rooms at Ometepe are stylish but simple and are a bargain for what you pay. The Canadian woman and British man that run the place are extraordinarily friendly and will help you plan adventures around the island. Try the excellent breakfast. From $25. thecornerhouseometepe.com Moyogalpa.

Restaurants

Granada- Restaurante El Garaje- This intimate, little place doesn’t seem appealing from the street – they keep the gate locked, you have to ring the doorbell to enter and the place is very dark – but the food is excellent and dirt cheap, with full meals for $4-7. A Canadian couple from Vancouver who came to Granada on a vacation and decided to stay run the place out of a front room in their home, and you can watch them prepare the eclectic menu, which changes every night and can include anything from fresh fish to quesadillas to Thai. 512 Calle Corral.

San Juan del Sur- Asados Juanita- Juanita is very easy to find. Just look for the crowds and you’ll see her grilling up meats on the street. For $4, you get a choice of freshly grilled meats, a small salad, plantains, rice, beans and guacamole. Near Casa Oro Hostel and the Central Market.

Laguna de Apoyo- Abuelas- The Laguna de Apoyo is a great place for a swim and the setting for this restaurant couldn’t be lovelier. It features very tasty grilled meats and seafood, with most entrees in the $8-12 range. Best of all, you can go for a swim and lounge on one of their lagoon-side deckchairs after your feast.

Logistics

Getting Around
Car rental isn’t particularly cheap in Nicaragua but it’s easy to get around without a car. The Nicaraguan government has invested heavily in building and repairing roads in recent years in a bid to boost tourism. In San Juan del Sur, you can hire a driver for around $50-$60 a day. Just talk to any of the cab drivers you see parked in the town or ask your hotel for help.

A ride on a local chicken bus will cost about 60-80 cents an hour and more comfortable minibuses aren’t much more. A short ride in a taxi in Granada can cost as little as 50 cents each because the drivers stop to pick up other passengers. The one hour, twenty minute ferry ride to Isla de Ometepe costs less than $2.

We used Camilo Rivera, a taxi driver based in San Juan del Sur, (505) 886-72336 – and can highly recommend him – for $50-60 per day depending on where you want to go.

Seasonality
Weather in Nicaragua is almost always hot, sunny and dry in the high season, which runs from December through February, plus Easter. March-May can be uncomfortably hot. June-August is a bit cooler and generally dry, while September-November is the rainy season.

Safety
Nicaraguans boast that their country is the safest in Central America. There is no reliable way to test that claim but in our scouting trip we felt safe in San Juan del Sur, Ometepe and Granada. As in any developing country, tourists sometimes get robbed, but in most cases, they are crimes of opportunity and the victims aren’t harmed. Use the same precautions here that you would in any large city. Americans should also be extra careful not to run afoul of Nicaragua’s laws, especially the drug laws, as the justice system is deeply flawed and a number of foreigners have been imprisoned on dubious charges.

Note: San Juan del Sur and other towns in Nicaragua don’t use traditional street names and addresses. On our scouting trip this didn’t prove to be a problem as cab drivers in Granada and San Juan del Sur know how to find just about any beach, hotel, restaurant, store or attraction you might want to visit.

[Photo credits: Dave Seminara]

One Day In Nicaragua: Self-Deportation, An Active Volcano, A Dead Boa, A Dip In A Lagoon And An Art Deal Gone Bad

Stepping over a dead boa constrictor with flies buzzing around it wasn’t what I had in mind when I hired a guy named Carlos to take us to see Volcán Masaya, a national park in Nicaragua where you can drive right up to the crater of an active volcano. But when we piled into his Toyota Corolla on a sizzling hot morning in late February, Carlos wanted us to see much more than just the smoldering volcano.

“I’m going to take you to a farm and then we’re going to visit a mask maker, before we hit the craft market, Laguna Apoyo and the volcano,” he said, before we’d even had a chance to test his air conditioning or fasten our seatbelts.

We wanted to see the craft market in Masaya, Laguna Apoyo and the volcano but I wasn’t sure about the rest of it. That uncertainty grew when we pulled up in front of what seemed to be a dilapidated farm as a host of mangy looking dogs serenaded us with howls and barks. A young man in a dirty, pale-blue T-shirt led us into some caged enclosures to look at iguanas and Carlos asked me if I’d ever eaten one. I have not.


iguana“It takes like pork,” he said. “You put it in a tortilla and serve it with a little salt and lemon juice. You want to try it?”

I didn’t but I’d seen Andrew Zimmern feast on iguana, porcupine and other exotic delicacies while filming his Nicaragua episode back in 2009 and was curious where he went. Carlos said that there was only one restaurant that had retained a permit to cook iguanas and it was in Masaya, near where we were going.

Carlos and the farmhand showed us some turtles, lizards and bunnies before leading us into a caged enclosure to see some boa constrictors. I assumed they would be inside cages but as we stepped inside the enclosure, we nearly tripped over a dead boa, whose carcass was a target for swarms of dozens of hungry winged creatures.

“When did he die?” I asked Carlos.

“Hard to say,” he said as the farmhand began poking a stick under some empty shelving units behind us. “But there are four other boas in here, don’t worry.”

“Four other boas?” my wife said, grabbing our little boys, ages 3 and 5. “Where?”

“They could be anywhere in here,” Carlos said.

And with that, we were ready to exit, but the farmhand seized a massive boa by the neck and we couldn’t help but stop to stare at the darn thing. It was hissing and coiling itself around the guy’s arms, clearly pissed off. For all we knew, it probably killed the dead boa in the corner, so after a few minutes we beat a retreat back to the car.

The visit to the mask maker felt safer and, to me, more interesting. I’m usually leery of these types of stops on a tour because typically the point is to bring you to a place where you will hopefully buy something, securing a commission for your guide in the process. The whole spectacle makes me feel like a piece of meat on a hook in a slaughterhouse, but in this case, it was just an old man sitting in the courtyard of his home with no shirt on making colorful, painted masks with his own hands. He made no attempt to sell us anything and seemed please to have us wandering around his home, snapping photos and asking ignorant questions.

The craft market at Masaya, built in 1891 and refurbished in 1997, is the best place to buy handicrafts and souvenirs in Nicaragua. There are dozens of vendors and if you enjoy haggling, this is the place for you. I sparred with a 4-foot-tall woman who called me “my love” and “my dear” over a painting I wanted but ended up paying very close to her original asking price because she correctly sensed that I really wanted the thing and used that advantage to crush me like a bug.

After a delicious lunch and a dip in the Laguna de Apoyo, a terrific swimming hole near Masaya, Carlos told us about his U.S. immigration woes. When he was 12, his mother arranged to send him to the U.S. by purchasing fake identity documents to make it appear as though he was the child of a Nicaraguan woman who had a better chance of getting a U.S. tourist visa than she did. At 22, he paid an unscrupulous immigration attorney $10,000 to try to legalize his status but it didn’t work and he eventually returned to Nicaragua. Now, at 40, he felt like his chance to live in the States had come and gone.

The Masaya volcano has to be one of just a handful in the world where you can drive right up to its craters. The volcano has erupted 18 times since the early 16th Century with the last major eruption going down in 1772, but there was some volcanic activity in April of last year that forced the closure of the park for several weeks. Prior to 1529, locals threw virgins and children into the volcano as sacrifices, and during the Somoza dictatorship in the ’70s, dissidents were also supposedly tossed into the volcano.

We hiked around the Santiago crater and although I appreciated the view and the novelty of standing right on the age of the smoldering volcano, I felt dizzy after a half hour and couldn’t help but assume that in the U.S., tourists wouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the crater of an active volcano.




On the way back to the hotel, Carlos regaled us with stories about tourists he’s guided and I asked him if he wanted to see tourism boom in Nicaragua.




“We want more tourists,” he said. “But not at the expense of our culture and our traditions. We’ve got to keep what we have.”

[Photo/video credits: Dave Seminara]