How (Not) To Walk Across The Costa Rica/Nicaragua Border

costa rica nicaragua borderYou 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.”


cab driver in costa ricaNot 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.

nicaragua costa rica border“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.

[Photo/video credits: Dave Seminara]

Robbed By Cab Drivers In Nicaragua And Chicago In The Same Week?

san juan del sur taxi driverWhere the hell is Camilo?

Those were the words that I kept repeating to myself, sometimes replacing the word “hell” with more sinister, unpublishable expletives. I was sitting in the Rancho Marsella restaurant at Playa Marsella, a remote beach that is 20 minutes down a dirt track from San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, wondering where Camilo, a local cab driver who had taken us to the beach and had my $1,200 camera in his trunk, had gone.

Camilo had told me that he planned to hang out at the beach and would be ready to take us back to our hotel whenever we were ready. He seemed eminently trustworthy, so I didn’t think twice about stowing my Nikon D7000 in his trunk after I had taken a few photos of the empty crescent shaped beach.

After an hour of lounging in the beach’s only tiny patch of shade with a group of Italian backpackers, I went to the beachfront restaurant to use the bathroom and noticed that Camilo wasn’t around. I assumed that he must have gone for a walk or a swim, but an hour later when we returned for lunch and saw that he still wasn’t there, I checked the parking lot and saw that his car was gone.

No!$#@!*


No one at the restaurant knew where he went or had his phone number. I had his phone number written in my notebook, which also had all my notes for the stories I planned to write, but that was inside my camera case – in his trunk. I knew his name but had no idea where he lived or what his license plate number was. We were too far from town, down a brutal, rutted track, for him to try to pick up other fares, and he had explicitly stated that he wasn’t going to leave the beach. Was Camilo off taking photos with his new camera somewhere?

I started to panic and curse myself. Bringing a $1,200 camera to a beach in a poor country like Nicaragua is a bad idea, but as a writer, I take my camera everywhere because you need good photos to accompany stories. Still, why had I given him the temptation of leaving the camera in his trunk? There were no more than a half dozen people on the huge beach, so even if I was in the water, what was the chance it would be stolen?

“He’ll come back,” said Jen, my wife. “He probably got bored sitting around.”

I hoped she was right but feared she was wrong. He wouldn’t be able to get $1,200 for my camera, but its value still probably represented a few months work for him. And something Camilo said on the ride to Marsella stuck in my mind. “We are poor people here in Nicaragua,” he said. The words just kept rattling around in my head. We are poor people.

After 15 or 20 minutes of fretting, one of the guys at the restaurant suggested that Camilo might have gone a mile or two up the road to watch a youth baseball game. But we had passed that game on the way to the beach and when I asked Camilo if he liked baseball, he said “no.”

Still, it was worth a try, and one of the men at the restaurant drove down to the game on his moped and five minutes later, returned with Camilo, who looked aggrieved. I have never been so relieved to see a taxi driver in my life.

“I just went down to check out the game,” he said.

I told him that there was no problem but clearly the guy on the moped must have explained that I looked pissed off because Camilo sat on a step near the bar looking angry while we ordered drinks. I bought him a drink but I could tell he was hurt by the fact that I had doubted him.

On the way back to town, he pointed out his house, a typically humble, working class affair that had a small store attached, and said, “That’s where I live.” He might well have added, “I may not be rich, but I am not a thief.”

nicaraguan homeOver the next few days, Camilo drove us on a few more outings – to Granada, the ferry to Ometepe and around town – and I even had a chance to visit his home and meet his son, Camilo Jr. (see photo). We became friends and I came to realize that he’s an honest man. My fear that because he came from a poor country he might seize the opportunity to take my camera was unfounded and wrong.

Five days later, we encountered a similar situation upon our return home to Chicago, but this time, Jen and I reversed roles. After a long, grueling day of travel from Granada, Nicaragua, to Chicago, via Houston, our little boys were asleep in the cab when we arrived home at 11 p.m. We were dressed for summer and the temperature outside was below freezing, so Jen and I decided to carry one sleeping child each into their beds and then return to the cab to get our baggage.

But by the time I got back outside after delivering my 3-year-old into his bed, our driver, a young man who appeared to be from East Africa, had what looked like all of our baggage out on the sidewalk and was getting ready to pull away. He mumbled something along the lines of “You’re all set,” and pulled out, just as my wife was bounding into the driveway warning that she had left her backpack and purse in the backseat.

I hadn’t realized that not all of our baggage was in the trunk and apparently our driver didn’t either but it was too late, he was gone. My wife had her work laptop, our passports, her driver’s license, cash, credit cards and more in the bags he had just driven off with.

Jen was on the verge of tears because only some of her work documents were backed up and the loss of this computer would be catastrophic for her. I recalled the young man’s name and we had an emailed receipt from him in my inbox. My wife wracked her brain and thought she remembered the name of the taxi company – Choice Taxi – but wasn’t 100% sure.

We called Choice and the dispatcher initially seemed less than helpful. She claimed that she had no list of company drivers and, even with the guy’s name and a description of the car, she was unable to confirm if he worked for them. She promised to make an announcement over their radio for him to contact her but said that since it was Friday night and their office was closed, we might have to wait until Monday, when the owner would be available, to track the driver down.

My wife kept calling her back every 30 minutes, pleading with her to make more announcements while I researched the cab situation at O’Hare airport. There are dozens of companies, perhaps more than 100, and without a cab number or license plate, trying to find a specific driver is like looking for a needle in a haystack. We called the police and all they could do was offer to take a report for insurance purposes. We found a website where you can email a complaint about a cab driver but that was it.

By 1 a.m., after we had waited two hours for the driver to respond to his dispatcher or return to our house, we called to cancel all our credit cards. My wife felt certain that the driver or perhaps a subsequent passenger had decided to pocket her stuff. But I felt like we’d get our things back. We knew the guy’s name, after all, so he wouldn’t risk his job to steal a laptop, passports and credit cards. And most people who are getting into a cab are unlikely to turn into thieves just because they see some valuable items on the floor of the cab.

Our prayers were answered at 1:30 a.m. when the dispatcher called us back to say that Yosief had (finally!) responded to her calls over their radio system.

“Please tell him to bring us our things tonight,” I begged. “We’ll give him a reward.”

We were overjoyed but also shattered from exhaustion and worry. Nonetheless, we stayed up until Yosief finally arrived at our home at 2:30 a.m.

All of our belongings were intact and I thanked Yosief, who said he was from Eritrea, profusely. I resisted the urge to ask him why he hadn’t responded to the radio calls sooner and felt I probably knew anyway – he spent most of our ride from the airport on the phone and was probably similarly preoccupied while my wife was crying and fretting over her laptop.

I asked Yosief if I could take his photo but he held the reward envelope up over his face and declined.

“That would not be good for me,” he said.

What did we learn from these incidents? Most taxi drivers, even poor ones, are honest. But it’s still a good idea to jot down a license plate number or cab number and know what company you are patronizing when you get into a taxi. And it’s an even better idea to back up your computer as often as possible.

Note: Camilo put the fear of God into me at Marsella Beach, but he charges very fair prices, speaks fluent English and is an honest, trustworthy person. If you want to hire him to drive you around while in Nicaragua, please contact him at (505) 886-72336.

[Photo credits: Dave Seminara]

Scenes From A Surf Competition In San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua

san juan del sur surfingI’ve never thought of surfing as a hyper-competitive sport. For me, it’s more of a lifestyle. I’m not a surfer but I’ve met scores of people over the years that have rearranged their lives to be in proximity to the big breaks. I can understand why surfers might want to compete so they can measure their skills against others but the surfing culture doesn’t exactly lend itself to competition.

It’s more dude-pass-that-joint than let’s-throw-down-I’m-going-to-whip-you, so when I was invited to attend and write about a surf competition/bacchanal called Pitaya Fest in San Juan del Sur, (SJDS) Nicaragua, I leapt at the chance to see what competitive surfing was all about.On a Saturday morning in February, I piled into a stifling hot van outside a backpacker hostel in SJDS with my wife and two little boys and found myself sitting knee-to-knee across from a host of beautifully idealistic young American do-gooders and a pair of German girls wearing royal blue T-shirts that read “Christian Surfers.”


kid surfing in nicaraguaThe do-gooders were a delightful group of young people who were taking a year or more off after college to help people in Costa Rica and Nicaragua and they regaled us with stories, including one about a girl they encountered who gave birth at age 9. I got the feeling that they’d learned more in their brief time in Central America than they did in college.

As we struggled to hold our ground on the bench seats as the van breakdanced across a rutted dirt track toward Hermosa Beach, outside SJDS, I wanted to bottle up the group of idealistic Americans and release them the next time someone anywhere in the world tells me that Americans are greedy, selfish people who don’t lift a finger to help anyone else in the world.




Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, next to Haiti, and it’s impossible for anyone with a conscience to visit the country and not feel motivated to help the legions of poor people who live in improvised, ramshackle dwellings alongside almost every major road in the country. Plenty of tourists come to Nicaragua for the beaches and the prospect of a cheap holiday, but are motivated to stay on as volunteers after they arrive.

Playa Hermosa is a lovely, huge, crescent-shaped beach where some scenes from Survivor Nicaragua were shot in 2010. I was told that the abysmal road leading to the beach was even worse before Jeff Probst and company rolled into town. Before we made it into the event, we passed by a security checkpoint manned by a guy with a bulletproof vest brandishing what looked like an old AK-47. In the last few years, a few tourists have been robbed in around Playa Hermosa, so they now have security to protect what is one of the country’s few privately owned beaches.

The 2013 Pitaya Festival Is Here!” from david kalani larkins on Vimeo.

The surfing competition was already a few hours into its second day when we arrived and the first competitors we saw must have been part of a beginners’ heat, because they appeared to have no idea what they were doing. In fact, none managed to remain upright on their boards for more than ten seconds at a time.

christian surfersThe event appeared to be co-sponsored by the Christian Surfers group (Quicksilver was the primary sponsor) but the DJ’s choice in music wasn’t very Christian. One of the first songs we heard went something like this:

(Unintelligible) Mumble, mumble, mumble
Shake that ass girl
(Unintelligible) Mumble, mumble, mumble,
Shake that ass girl

Later in the day, my wife saw the Christian Surfer group sitting in a circle on the beach, holding hands, eyes closed in prayer. Perhaps they were praying for everyone’s sins.

hippies on the beachThe sizable crowd was a fair sampling of the gringos who wash up in SJDS as visitors or expats. Backpackers in need of a shower and some clean laundry. White guys in dreadlocks with their tattooed, wasted-looking girlfriends and poorly groomed dogs. Middle-aged North American snowbirds, missionaries and assorted cheapskates looking for a cut-rate version of Costa Rica. Alcoholics attracted by Nicaragua’s cheap rum. Miscellaneous mid-life crisis and I’m here to change-my-life or maybe catch-something-that-I-might-be-ashamed-of types. The aforementioned do-gooders. Surfers, wannabe surfers and their dogs, some of them with coffee colored skin and incongruous orange-colored hair.

che guevaraAspiring North American coffee-shop revolutionaries in Panama hats and Che Guevara T-shirts who like totally aspire to stop the military industrial complex, global warming and the genocide in Darfur and various other places they know nothing about. Unemployable Latin American studies majors who aspire to start NGOs with vague goals involving “sustainability” and “empowerment.” Nicaraguans with substantial coolers sitting on uncomfortable white plastic chairs or lying on hammocks plus assorted riff-raff and ne-er-do-wells like me.

The surfing and the music got better. Much better. And the people mentioned above got more drunk and more stoned. At noon, I smelled my first whiff of ganja and wondered whether the surf announcer, who tried to sound like the beachside equivalent of Andres Cantor, the Latino soccer announcer famous for his GOOOOOOOOOOOAL! calls, would ever shut up.

Surfing isn’t much of a spectator sport but surfers make damn good company and they know how to party. I made a few lame attempts to understand what was going on, but it’s hard to stay engaged with a competition that has 56 different divisions and drags on for hours or days on end. From what I gathered, the surfers had 15 minutes in each heat to ride as many waves as they could, but only their two best rides counted towards their overall score.


Set back from the beach, there was a stage and a lineup of bands, plus a host of booths offering everything from $1.50 rum and cokes, chocolate cookies to pulled pork sandwiches.

I met a 40-something expat volunteering at a BBQ pit who told me that he moved to SJDS in 2009 to “do something different.” He said that that the town’s real estate market mirrored that of the U.S. There was a boom from 2004-7, followed by a bust and a sputter that lingers to this day.

“A piece of land that was 25K in 2007 was going for about 15k by 2009,” he said.

My children made friends with some gringo expat kids whose parents moved to SJDS from Lesotho (seriously!) and I met a host of interesting people as well. I was struck by how open and friendly people were and how easy it is to become part of this community in a place that I would assume is as transient as they come. I met more interesting people in six hours on the beach than I would in six months in Chicago. And I found out that the event was a fundraiser for local charities, which inspired me to have a few more rum and cokes, in order to support the good cause.

At 2 p.m., the surf competition DJ, operating under a tent on the beach, wisely shifted from the angry gansta rap to Bob Marley’s “Legend” compilation. What’s a surf gathering without some Bob Marley, right? Fifteen minutes later, a band took the stage and launched into Marley’s “So Much Trouble in the World” as the DJ played “Stir It Up” simultaneously. Competing Bob Marley tunes was still better than the gangsta rap (see video below).




Shortly thereafter, a small Nicaraguan guy in a faded tank top began puking just yards behind my little patch of shade underneath a tree behind the surf tents.

playa hermosaHe was serenaded by a group of inebriated hippies who were mashing it up to Marley’s “Buffalo Soldier.”

Fighting on the Rye-ver, Fighting for Survival
Wye-yo-yo, Wye-yo-yo-yo, Wye-yo-yo-yo-yo!

Soon, a succession of drinkers followed, one-by-one, to piss in my general vicinity and I decided to move from what was becoming a de-facto toilet.

By three o’clock, I felt like I was in the Twilight Zone as a “Grease” cover band called Bario La Planeta launched into their set. Only in Nicaragua can you wash up at a beach and find yourself singing “Go Grease Lightning” in the company of of junkies, flunkies, do-gooders and gringos with baffled looking Nicaraguans looking on in puzzlement (see video).




Late in the afternoon, guys and gals who actually knew how to surf – and how to surf well – got into the act but I still had no idea what the hell was going on and I’m pretty sure that most in attendance didn’t gave a damn who won. I’m told the party raged until 3 a.m. and Agusto Chamorro won the men’s open competition. In the world of competitive, but not exactly cutthroat surfing, I’m betting that none of the “losers” left the beach broken hearted.

[Photo credits: Dave Seminara]

Has Mañana Arrived For Nicaragua?

leon nicaraguaTravel writers have been hyping Nicaragua as the next big tropical paradise for years. The New York Times listed it as one of 46 places to go in 2013. A host of travel magazines have promoted it as a cheaper Costa Rica without the crowds. And CBS brought some of Nicaragua’s natural beauty into American homes three years ago by filming a season of “Survivor” in the country.

But an article in the Wall Street Journal last week about the challenges of trying to pitch Nicaragua to high-end travelers highlighted the reality that the country is still more of a haven for backpackers than the well heeled. In 2011, visitors to Nicaragua spent an average of just $43 per day, compared to $118 in neighboring Costa Rica. But is Nicaragua in danger of losing the cool, off-the-radar status it once enjoyed?

Fifteen years ago, Amber Dobrzensky boarded a Greyhound bus in New York City and eventually washed up in Matagalpa, Nicaragua’s Central Northern Highlands, where she helped build a medical clinic and taught English.

“The country had a profound impact on how I viewed the world,” she said. “I didn’t want to leave Nicaragua.”

The Vancouver native eventually did leave, but she returned in 2008 and has lived there ever since. She edits a cultural magazine called Hecho and is the author of the “Moon Guide to Nicaragua,” which just came out last week. We spoke to Amber to find out if Nicaragua’s still the next big thing or if it’s already arrived.


moon guide nicaraguaWhere do you live?

I live in Managua, which is an unlikely place for expats. I’ve always intended to migrate toward the beach, but I haven’t been able to decide which stretch of beach I want to land in. I love both coasts.

Travel writers have been hyping Nicaragua for years. But it’s still not overrun by gringos, is it?

Compared to Costa Rica, it’s still pretty quiet. It’s also still relatively inexpensive; it’s definitely cheaper than Costa Rica or Panama. It has great diving on the Caribbean coast and great surfing and whale spotting on the Pacific side. There was an article in the Wall Street Journal recently about the challenge of pitching Nicaragua as the next paradise.

They’ve just opened the country’s first luxury five-star resort – it’s called Mukul – and they invited a lot of travel agents to promote it but I think a lot of people were scratching their heads. People were saying, ‘This place is fantastic but it might be hard to pitch it.’ Nicaragua is still a bit raw and unvarnished, especially the rest of the country, so it’ll be interesting to see where the trend leads.

Invariably, when a place that used to be very under-the-radar starts to attract more attention, the old guard gets antsy and starts worrying the place will be ruined, right?

There was just an interesting article about this question in the Nicaraguan Dispatch called “Has Nicaragua Gone Mainstream?” The truth is that chaotic things still happen here. It’s a fun place. There’s a very telling phrase here – mañana no existe – which means tomorrow doesn’t exist. This mentality really resonates here. Schedules don’t stick but you just shrug your shoulders and move on, but tourists don’t really like that. So it’s definitely more of a country for travelers, rather than tourists.

I came here for the first time to work for an NGO in 1998 and the difference between then and when I returned in 2008 to live here has been huge. In ’98, I think I saw six travelers in eight months.




Have Nicaraguans benefited much from the increase in tourism?

There are benefits but they are just starting to be seen. I think there were 1.2 million tourists last year. Roads have improved and, while that may have been done for tourism, everyone benefits from that. There are a lot of foreign owned businesses but Nicas are also now getting into the act.

san juan del sur nicaraguaSo for travelers who plan to base themselves in the country’s two most popular places, the colonial city of Granada and San Juan del Sur, on the Pacific, are there some excursions you recommend to get off the beaten path?

Ometepe Island can be done as a day trip from San Juan del Sur, but you might prefer to stay for a couple days. It’s an island made up of twin volcanoes that’s in the center of a lake. There are volcano hikes and the views are fantastic and the nature and wildlife are amazing. One of the volcanoes is active and it’s often smoking into the skyline. It’s pretty spectacular.

There are also beaches to the south that, because the road access isn’t very good, aren’t crowded and you can often see turtles coming ashore to lay eggs.

Is it easy to get away from the crowds in San Juan del Sur?

Absolutely. There are at least 5-6 beaches within a half hour of San Juan. But in the rainy season, you need a 4 x 4 to get to them. You can have a non-touristy experience very close to a tourist center.

There are some great excursions from Granada as well. You can tour the isletas; there are several hundred tiny little islands at the foot of the Mombacho volcano in the lake. Some of them are just big enough for a house. You can mountain bike on Mombacho or do hiking tours. The Laguna de Apoyo swimming hole is another great trip from Granada. It’s a beautiful, extinct volcano crater and there are a few small hotels and an eco-resort there. It’s very peaceful and quiet and it’s only about a half hour from Granada.

Do most travelers need a rental car?

It depends on the aim of your travels. You can get everywhere on buses and there are also shuttles to get you to places like Leon, Granada and San Juan in an air-conditioned mini-van, which is a step up from the chicken buses you hear about. To get to the major cities and towns, you will have a choice between chicken buses or other buses or collectivos, which are shared minivans that leave from bus stations once they are full.




In the book, you recommend a two-week, best of Nicaragua itinerary that takes travelers to Granada, Masaya, Ometepe, San Juan del Sur, San Ramon and Big Corn Island. Is that very ambitious for two weeks?

It’s ambitious but it depends how much time you want at each place. If you’re into beaches, you might want to spend more time around San Juan. If you’re into culture you might spend more time in Granada, Masaya or Leon.

For travelers who want a relaxing beach holiday and they have time for just the Caribbean or the Pacific coast, how should they decide where to go?

Once you get to the Corn Islands, there’s great diving and snorkeling and fishing but there are no volcanoes, no hustle and bustle, no crafts. There’s more diversity of things to do on the Pacific side.

san juan del surWhat are some must-do experiences in Nicaragua?

Volcano boarding at Cerro Negro, near Leon is really unique to Nicaragua. You can sit down and do like a sled type of volcano boarding or you can do it on a modified snowboard. But to ride down the ash and grit and rock of the crater of an active volcano is pretty memorable. There’s no other country where you can slide down an active volcano, so that’s a huge draw. It’s about three hours from Granada, but it’s near Leon and Leon is a great alternative to Granada. You have the same colonial charm but it’s slightly younger and less trafficked.

So Leon is an alternative to busier Granada. What’s a good alternative to San Juan del Sur?

From Leon, there are two nice beach communities, Poneloya and Las Peñitas, which are less popular with surfers but they are very lovely beaches.

What about food and drinks in Nicaragua?

The thing that most people want to try and also bring home with them is Flor de Caña rum. I wasn’t a rum drinker but it’s incredibly drinkable. It’s world-class rum. Everyone leaves with a few bottles of it. Rum is cheaper than water. A half-liter goes for $7 roughly. A cocktail at a bar could be $3; $4 would be a stretch actually.

Beer is also cheap in Nicaragua, right?

It’s very cheap. There are three primary national brands. It’s about $1 per beer at a bar.




What about food?

Everyone should try gallo pinto, which is refried beans with rice mixed together and eaten with a chili hot sauce. And there is a lot of vigoron, and fried and stewed porks, often served with yucca or cabbage. There is also a breakfast food that is like a tamale called nacatamal, traditionally eaten on weekends, where people throw in all kinds of ingredients left over from the week.

In the book you wrote about the tensions between the gringo community and locals in San Juan del Sur, and how that came to a boil in 2007 when an American, Eric Volz, was imprisoned on pretty flimsy grounds for allegedly murdering his ex-girlfriend. (He was later released.) There was some ugly anti-American sentiment at that time, has that died down?

That’s history. I think Nicaraguans mostly see the benefits of having foreigners here. There are elements of tourism that people here enjoy and other elements that trouble people. Anti-gringo sentiment isn’t unique to San Juan or Nicaragua. The doors are open to foreigners here, no matter where they are from.

Nicaraguans boast that it’s the safest country in Central America. Is that a fact?

It’s hard to say. In general the crime here is opportunistic, and petty, not violent crime. I’m a solo female traveler and I’ve lived here for five years. Incidents can happen anywhere in the world.

Do you worry that too many gringos will discover Nicaragua?

It’s an unpredictable country and I think a lot of travelers will fall in love with the place and spread the word. Tourism will continue to grow, but I don’t see it ruining what is special about Nicaragua or the authenticity of the experience here. Most tourists are going to stick to the most popular destinations, so you’ll always be able to go to the cowboy central lowlands and highlands of the country and not see a single tourist. Nicaragua will continue to keep its doors wide open and I don’t think it’s going to change much.

[Photo credits: Javier Losa, Alex Barth and thombo2 on Flickr, Amber Dobrzensky]

Video Of The Day: Little Corn Island, Nicaragua

I was recently researching Little Corn Island, Nicaragua. I instantly became charmed by the island and obsessed with the idea of visiting it as soon as possible. But it’s difficult to find footage online featuring the tiny island. Situated 43 miles east of Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast, the island only encompasses 1.1 square miles. The island’s highest point is only 125 feet. Little Corn Island is a beautiful little dot on the map, populated largely by English-speaking Creole people. This video captures the island so far the best of any I’ve seen, and I have a feeling it still hardly does it justice.

Nicaragua's San Cristobal Volcano Spews Heavy Ash Cloud