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]

How Cheap Is Nicaragua? How About $2 Beers In A Luxury Hotel Minibar

minibar pricesIf I ruled the world, I would issue a decree commanding every hotel to install minibars stocked with $2 bottles of beer. But since that’s never going to happen, you might have to go to Nicaragua to experience such an enlightened minibar alcohol policy.

I’m a frugal traveler – a cheapskate, if you will. And so I rarely – almost never, in fact – use the hotel minibar (unlike David Samuels of The Atlantic, who recently wrote a long and bizarre piece about how hotel minibars provide him with companionship). But last week while staying at the Hotel Plaza Colon in Granada, Nicaragua, I made liberal use of a hotel minibar for the first time in my life. The Plaza Colon is probably the most luxurious hotel in Granada and it’s one of the finest places to stay in the country, but I was shocked and delighted to discover that ice-cold bottles of beer cost just $2 in my room’s minibar. Bottled water cost $1, and a small bottle of rum was just $6 (or $8 if you wanted higher quality stuff).

You know you’re in a delightfully cheap country when a luxury hotel prices beer in the minibar at $2 and, sure enough, Nicaragua doesn’t disappoint on the value scale. Tim Leffel, author of “The World’s Cheapest Destinations” considers Nicaragua to be one of the world’s cheapest countries and after a recent visit there, I have to agree.


Two dollars is actually a pretty high price for a beer in Nicaragua, where most places charge $1 for a 12-ounce bottle of local beer. The Hotel Plaza Colon is an outstanding hotel and room rates there hover around $100 a night. Basic hostel beds go for $3-8 and in many parts of the country you can find a decent hotel room with A/C for $30 or less. If you are very, very frugal, you can travel for about $15 a day in Nicaragua.

If you patronize a restaurant that caters mostly to locals, like Asados Juanita in San Juan del Sur, you can eat a big dinner of freshly grilled meats, plantains, rice, beans and salad for about $4 (see video above). At the other end of the spectrum, you can eat at a touristy place like Abuelos, which is right on the gorgeous Laguna de Apoyo, for roughly $8-10 each. At Abuelos, you can gorge yourself on freshly grilled meats and then take a dip in the lake to cool off (see video below).




Car rental isn’t particularly cheap, but even in the most touristy areas of the country you can hire a driver to take you around for $50-60 for a full day, depending on how far away you want to go. 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 and other cities 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 Ometepe island costs less than $2. A good one hour massage will set you back about $15-$25.

Entrance fees to tourist attractions, like the volcano parks and other natural wonders, rarely exceed $5. We paid just $3 to get into the Ojo de Agua, a gorgeous natural spring on Ometepe, and thought we had died and gone to heaven (see video).




After a budget busting week in pricey Costa Rica, we were thrilled to arrive in much more affordable Nicaragua. I don’t think it’s the cheapest country in the world, but it’s definitely the cheapest country that is close to the U.S.

[Photo/video credits: Dave Seminara]

Here’s How They Roll In Nicaragua

nicaraguan transportationNicaragua is a beautiful country. There are stunning beaches, active volcanoes, mountains, mangrove swamps, picturesque islands and just about every type of terrain you can imagine. But on a recent visit to Nicaragua, I found all of the creative ways that people travel even more fascinating than the landscape.

There are about six million people in Nicaragua but in some parts of the country it can feel like at least that many people are en route somewhere at any given moment in every type of conveyance imaginable. You see people everywhere coming and going from work or school, hauling firewood, or transporting goods to sell on the street or in a market.
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There are plenty of cyclists, and it is not uncommon to see two or three people riding on one standard bicycle. (A Nicaraguan friend swears he’s seen up to four school kids on a bike but I never saw that many.) I never saw a cyclist wear a helmet – understandable in a poor country – but it was more than a bit disconcerting to see so many adults wearing helmets on motorcycles but carrying children on their laps without any protection. There are carts being pulled by horses, donkeys and cattle. There are trucks with open or caged areas for human passengers. There are rickshaws and, even more fun, open-air three wheeled moto-taxis.


nicaraguans traveling in a cageAnd then there are the ubiquitous chicken buses, many of which have colorful names, logos and designs. I rode one chicken bus called “El Brujo” (The Witch) because it services villages near Granada where people go to consult witches. Most chicken buses are old school buses from North America and riding them is like a trip down memory lane if you grew up Stateside in the ’70s and ’80s. There were no live chickens on “El Brujo” but we had plenty of entertainment: a blind man came in to play the harmonica and a host of others came in and out at the bus at various stops to sell cold drinks from plastic bags and other treats (see video above).
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Taxis in Nicaraguan cities like Granada are dirt cheap and fun too, because they usually will continue to pick people up if there’s even a sliver of space in the car, or even if there isn’t, providing you with an opportunity to mingle with locals. Even ordinary cars can be a lot of fun because many Nicas like to plaster them with slogans, decals and other decorations. My favorite car had logos for Flor de Caña rum, an energy drink and Jesus Christ.

And of course, there are plenty of people getting from point A to point B the old fashioned way: on foot. Some of these people, including a lot of really tough, strong women, carry tremendous bundles on their heads. Check out the galleries to see all the creative ways that Nicaraguans roll. It’s a poor country and many of the people you see on the roads need to get where they’re going just to survive but a traveler passing through this country can’t help but admire their creativity and determination to get where they are going.
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[Photo/video credits: Dave Seminara]

Moments of Serendipitous Travel Bliss In Nicaragua

fat man getting haircut outdoors in nicaragua ometepeI was sitting on the Che Guevara ferry, which was bouncing over choppy waters in Lake Cocibolca on the way back from Ometepe island in Nicaragua, when I heard a sweet melody drifting slowly through the humid night air like a message in a bottle floating in the lake. I peaked around the corner of the boat to investigate and stopped dead in my tracks to listen to a young man and his grandmother singing a beautiful, melancholy Christian song.

They were holding hands as the boat swayed backed and forth and I was struck by how unselfconscious the young man was. One could ride planes, trains, boats and buses for a lifetime in the United States and not come across a young man holding hands with his grandmother and singing an impromptu song for no reason other than fun, but here they were.

I listened to their song and then introduced myself. The young man’s name was Janier Mairena. He was 25 and from a town called Altagracia on Ometepe. His grandmother’s name was Maria Auxiliadova Mairena. After chatting with them, I went back to sit with my family and realized that those kind of moments of serendipitous bliss, bordering on rapture, are why I love to travel. I knew I’d never forget them or their sad song but I wanted to share it with others, so I went back over to them and asked them how they’d feel about singing the song again, this time while I filmed them (see video).


At first, they just laughed and seemed confused by my request.

“I’m going to put it on YouTube,” I told them. “Give me your email address, Janier, and I’ll send it to you.”

But Janier had no email address and wasn’t familiar with YouTube. Ometepe is a beautiful, but poor and undeveloped island that is about to get an airport. I wondered if in five or ten year’s time any young people on the island will still be without email and unfamiliar with YouTube. Janier gave me the address of his church on Ometepe, saying it was all he had, and then he and his grandma happily sang the song again, just because I asked for the encore.

A few weeks before traveling to Nicaragua, I interviewed Amber Dobrzensky, the author of the “Moon Guide to Nicaragua,” and she mentioned that one of the things she loves about the country is its unpredictability. After visiting the country in late February for the first time, I now know exactly what she meant. These were a few moments of unexpected delight that I’d like to share.

ometepe outdoor haircutOne of the pleasures of visiting a country like Nicaragua is that you see things that you’d never see in the U.S. I could drive around Chicago from now until doomsday but I don’t think I’d ever see a man with a nice, big round belly getting an outdoor haircut with his shirt off. So when I saw just that by the side of the road in Ometepe, I asked our cab driver to pull over so I could meet and photograph the guy.

The big man, his barber and the bystanders had every right to wonder who the hell I was and I’m not sure I would have agreed to a photo if I was in this guy’s situation, but he didn’t hesitate to give his consent. I was greeted as a welcome curiosity on an otherwise dull Monday morning rather than an annoyance.




The man was sitting outside a humble home next to a huge pile of freshly picked plantains and when his neighbors got wind of what was going on, a few came out of their humble homes to tease him.

My Spanish is pretty rusty but I recognized that they were calling him gordo (fat). I think that one woman said something on the lines of, “The tourist wants to take a picture of you because you are so fat.” But instead of taking offense, the man started laughing and then I started laughing uncontrollably and everyone shared in the fun.

breakdancing in nicaraguaAnd on my last night in Granada, I stumbled across two very different musical talents that surprised and delighted me. The first was a group of guys breakdancing on the street. When I first saw them, from a distance, I was surprised – breakdancing? People are still doing that? But when I stopped to watch these kids I was amazed.

They were unbelievably good and the show just kept going on and on and I couldn’t fathom how they weren’t collapsing in exhaustion. I had the feeling that if these kids were in the U.S., they’d probably have their own show on MTV or, at the least, would be invited to perform at big time venues and on TV, but here, all they could do was pass the hat, and since Nicaragua is a poor country, very few people dug deep to recognize their talents.




My last meal in the country was at a place called El Camello and the food was good but the live music was even better. They had a singer/guitarist who had a great voice but whose passion and fire were even more impressive. I felt that if he lived in L.A., he’d probably already have a recording contract and groupies. He was putting every ounce of his soul into the music and when he stopped by our table during a break to ask for tips, I understood why.

His name was Luis Rolando Casamalhuapa and he was extremely grateful for the tip we gave him.

“I hate having to go around basically begging for money, but I really need to unfortunately,” he said.

He explained that he got into a terrible car accident in his native El Salvador that left him in a coma for more than three months.

“I was really lucky I didn’t die,” he said. “But my teeth were totally smashed out and I need all kinds of dental work.”

Luis said that he came to Nicaragua because the extensive dental work he needed was cheaper there but he was still a bit short and was playing in restaurants and teaching English in order to try to earn the rest of the money he needed. When I’m in the U.S., and someone approaches me with a sad story in need of money, the cynic in me often doubts if they are telling the truth, but in this case I believed every word, even though I couldn’t give Luis the $600 he needed to get his dental work done (nor did he ask for it).

All of the people described in this story touched me in some way – because of their sincerity, their sense of humor, their talent, or their resilience in the face of disaster. And the moments I shared with them, as our paths crossed, are what I’ll treasure most about my visit to Nicaragua. Go to Nicaragua and experience it for yourself. They’ll sing for you; they’ll breakdance for you; hell, they’ll even let you take their photo while they’re getting haircuts with their shirts off.

[Photo/video credits: Dave Seminara]