If 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.
Nicaragua 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.
%Gallery-181146% 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.
And 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).
%Gallery-181145% 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.
I 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.
One 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.
And 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.
You can learn a lot about a country by walking into it across a land border. VIP’s enter at the airport or zoom through in a car, but when you walk across the frontier, especially in a developing country, you get a window into how ordinary people and traders travel.
Before leaving on a recent trip to Costa Rica and Nicaragua, I tried to research the logistics of how we would get from the Liberia airport, where we were supposed to drop our rental car, to San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, but found no definitive take on how much it costs or what the transportation options are. So when a cab driver I talked to at a gas station in Liberia offered to take us from the airport to the border the next day for $80, I wasn’t certain if it was a good deal but agreed to it nonetheless for lack of any better ideas (with my wife and children in tow, we weren’t up for taking a chicken bus).
Francisco, our courtly silver-haired driver turned up on time, but we soon realized that his A/C was broken.
“Too expensive to fix it,” he explained. “Sorry.”
Not a good sign on a sweltering hot afternoon, but he said the ride took only an hour, so I had no problem sweating it out. We puttered along in Francisco’s old pickup truck as swarms of cars passed us on the Pan-American Highway. I knew we were going slow but had no idea how slow because Francisco’s speedometer was also broken.
As we neared the border, we passed a few security checkpoints where police officers checked for illegal immigrants, guns and drugs. The homes on the side of the road were smaller and more improvised the closer we got to the border and even before we arrived in Nicaragua it seemed as though we’d left the middle-class comforts of Costa Rica behind.
Our hotel in San Juan del Sur, the terrific Villas de Palermo, hooked us up with a company called Iskra Travel that was supposed to transport us from the border to San Juan del Sur for $45. But the driver was supposed to meet us at the border at 1 p.m. and Francisco was sputtering along so slowly that we didn’t reach it until 1:30, and we hadn’t even cleared customs yet, so I had no idea if the driver would wait for us on the other side.
There was a long line of travelers waiting to get into Costa Rica but when we asked where to enter Nicaragua, people in line pointed off in the distance. There’s a no man’s land that must be a good mile long between the two countries with very little shade. It was sweltering – easily 90 degrees (probably more) – and we were transporting two small kids, a stroller and a few pieces of luggage.
By the time we reached a uniformed Nicaraguan border guard, my shirt was completely soaked through in sweat. Costa Rica abolished its army in 1949, so the border area isn’t the kind of tense frontier where photography is a problem. I took advantage of the loose atmosphere by snapping a photo of my wife as the Nicaraguan border control officer examined her passport.
I assumed we were going to be waved into the country in a matter of moments but the guard had a problem with our passports. My wife and I both have very mediocre high school Spanish and it took us a few minutes to realize that he wanted us to go back to Costa Rica to get an exit stamp.
He said we all had to go back, not just me, and I wasn’t about to walk the mile in the hot sun with all the baggage again, so I hired a rickshaw driver to cycle us back to Costa Rica (see photo below).
At first, I was annoyed by the hassle, but within just a few seconds of being on the rickshaw my mood brightened considerably. There was a light breeze and being carted around felt like a beautiful little luxury that was well worth the $8 (round trip) our driver asked for.
Back in Costa Rica, we were directed around to the back of the immigration building to a room that was empty save a few officers at their desks. Lots of people were waiting to get into Costa Rica but we were the only ones leaving.
“They sent you back for exit stamps?” asked the Costa Rican officer, watching the beads of sweat pore off my chin onto my T-shirt.
“Yep,” I said, and the officer and a colleague sitting next to him laughed, as if our exertion was the most amusing thing they’d experienced in years.
On the way back to Nicaragua, our rickshaw driver asked me how much I paid for my camera. Given the situation, I wasn’t eager to admit that it cost $1,200, so I lied and said, “$100” (see video).
“I’ll give you a hundred for it,” he said.
“No thanks,” I said. “I need my camera.”
“OK, $150,” he said.
“Thanks,” I said. “But my camera is not for sale.”
“But I need a camera,” he pleaded.
I just ignored him and soon enough we were back talking to the same Nicaraguan official and this time he stamped us in. But our brush with Nicaraguan officialdom wasn’t quite over. We walked another few hundred meters and then stood around in the hot sun wondering where to meet our driver from Iskra Travel. We were 90 minutes late and I assumed he’d given up on us.
A trio of young men came by to hector us about buying forms from them. I was sure it was a scam and ignored them, but my wife, who is from a small town in the Midwest and can’t help but be nice to everyone – even annoying pests and con-men – entertained their sales pitches.
“They have badges,” she said, “they seem official.”
I examined the peskiest guy’s badge and confirmed that he worked for some travel agency, not the government. He wanted us to pay $1 for immigration forms that were supposed to be free. We headed off to the east of the road toward a cluster of buildings and noticed two car rental companies: Alamo and National – good choices if you want to use a company that has offices at the border.
We gravitated to a line where we paid about $4 to a bored looking clerk who then pointed us to another line right across from his booth. As we stood in that line, my older son made a card with his birthday and half-birthday on it to give to the Nicaraguans (see photo above) and a mentally-disabled person began to emit piercing calls, followed by maniacal laughter and ear-to-ear smiles. My older son covered his ears and everyone else smiled nervously or gave him some coins. It was a welcome to Nicaragua I’ll never forget.
A man carrying a sign with my name on it emerged and I was thrilled and amazed that he had waited for us. We made it to the front of the next line and the clerk asked us for $48 U.S. to enter the country. I handed him three $20 bills and then struggled to understand why he wasn’t handing us back our passports.
Clearly there was a problem with our poor Spanish; we couldn’t for the life of us understand what it was. I confirmed once more that he wanted $48 and pointed to the pile of bills I’d given him totaling $60. After a few minutes of mutual incomprehension, someone behind us in line came forward to interpret.
“He says one of your $20 bills is no good,” the man said, before handing what looked like a perfectly good 20 back to me.
“What’s wrong with it?” I asked, totally confused.
“He says there is a crease in the bill.”
The bill looked fine to me but luckily I had another one in my wallet that he found acceptable. After much ado, we were finally, officially allowed to enter Nicaragua.
Within a matter of minutes, we could see the twin volcano peaks of Ometepe Island rising like pyramids across Lake Cocibolca and we were bathed in the lovely artificial frost of fully functioning A/C. It felt great to be in Nicaragua.
While Gadling’s Dave Seminara was busy reporting on surf competitions and rainforests in Costa Rica and Nicaragua last week, he didn’t have time to stop and ask questions about a surprising fixture in one outdoor market: colorful paintings of people on the throne. The bizarre subject matter was prolific in the mercado in Masaya, Nicaragua, he says, and indeed, one blogger noted the town’s trend in 2007, saying the style tends to be derivative of famous Latin American painters. My friend who attended a Spanish-language immersion program in a different Nicaraguan locale never saw anything of the sort, so it’s possibly a Masaya thing – a very cheeky Masaya thing.