I had at least three conversations that went like this…
“Where are you going next?” someone would ask.
A thoughtful pause. “Why Nicaragua?”
In the US, where our primary association with Nicaragua is probably still the Iran-Contra affair, perception hasn’t quite caught up to reality. Nicaragua has become one of the safest and most popular travel destinations in Central America. I kept hearing great things from people who’d been there, so – when I realized I had some unexpectedly open time in April – I decided to check it out.
And Nicaragua was pretty nice. Friendly people, some interesting things to see, easy on the wallet. But I failed to hold up my side of the travel equation. From start to finish, I made bad decisions and kept shooting myself in the foot.
In that spirit, here are my five stupidest Nicaragua mistakes:
Mistake #1 – I planned my whole itinerary in advance.
When I realized my trip would overlap Semana Santa (Holy Week), Nicaragua’s biggest holiday, I thought it would be best to make all my hotel reservations in advance. Which forced me to pre-plan my entire itinerary and sacrifice a lot of flexibility.
The result? I gave myself two weeks for what turned out to be about five days’ worth of activities.
There were definitely crowds everywhere I went, but I would have been fine booking hotel rooms at the last minute, and I would have enjoyed the trip much more if I could have moved twice as fast.
Mistake #2 – I almost missed seeing lava.
Like most travelers I basically skipped Managua and headed right for Granada, a lively colonial city on the shore of Lake Nicaragua. I explored the city streets my first afternoon, and the next day I went on a boat tour of Las Isletas, an area of small islands southeast of town.
Our boat group included a Canadian living in Granada who brought along a Nicaraguan mother and her four children. “My adopted family,” said Ray, the Canadian. “The mom works on the street selling small hand-made items, and she works so hard that I thought it would be nice to give her and her kids a break today.”
Some of the islands we cruised past were dotted with ramshackle buildings that looked ready to collapse, others boasted fancy homes with satellite dishes and swimming pools. At one point we crossed paths with a tiny grade-school aged girl rowing two even younger kids towards the mainland.
In the early afternoon we dropped anchor and went for a swim. The first level of our double-decker boat had a bar, and the captain helpfully provided a floating tray so that beers didn’t need to be left behind when we hit the water.
When we returned to the dock one of the tourists – a Brit with a cockney accent – said someone had stolen money from his wallet. After a round of awkward questioning, attention began to focus on the Nicaraguan woman’s son, who cracked under the pressure, confessed, and returned the cash. The mom, in tears, felt terrible, as did Ray, and what had been a nice outing ended on a regrettable note.
On the ride back to town an American couple mentioned that they were heading to the Masaya Volcano that night. I’d heard about Masaya, but seeing a little plume of steam coming from a crater didn’t sound all that exciting. Marie and I had just done something similar in New Zealand.
“We’re going at night to get a better view of the lava,” said the husband.
Wait, what? I’d seen an orange glow rising from the Halema’uma’u Crater in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, but I’d never actually had a direct look at molten rock before. If the American couple hadn’t mentioned it, I might have missed my chance.
Late the next afternoon I rode to the entrance of Masaya Volcano National Park, where our van had to stop and wait in a long line. Park authorities restrict access to the volcano’s edge to small groups in case there’s trouble and they need to evacuate everyone. In 2001 the volcano apparently spit out superheated rocks that damaged cars and almost hit some people. My guidebook, published in October of last year, said the park was closed until further notice, so it must have only re-opened recently.
Soon after darkness fell it was our turn to spend 15 minutes at the top. Seeing a river of bubbling lava was amazing and intense – easily my favorite moment of the entire trip. And if not for dumb luck I would have skipped it.
Mistake #3 – I thought I would surf a lot.
After Granada I stayed five days at San Juan del Sur, a beach town on the Pacific coast. My plan was to spend most of that time surfing, and when I arrived I went right to the Good Vibes Surf Shop to sign up for a lesson.
“How good are you?” asked Nestor, the instructor.
“When was the last time you surfed?”
“Ten years ago?” I guessed.
“Ha! Then it doesn’t count.”
We went to Hermosa Beach the next day. Nestor was patient and helpful, but he just didn’t have much to work with. I could catch short rides on little waves, but my balance was always precarious, and more often than not I just wobbled awkwardly for a few seconds before falling. It was disheartening. I finally had to admit to myself that I’m never going to be even a halfway decent surfer.
Nestor wasn’t ready to give up on me. “You should move to the intermediate class, but now the waves are no good for that.” Under the current conditions, I could catch small already-broken waves pretty easily, but the waves that would offer a longer ride were too big for me. The Goldilocks waves I needed weren’t there.
“Will conditions be different over the next few days?”
“No,” said Nestor. “The same. Sorry to say.”
The day wasn’t a complete downer. In the late afternoon I noticed a crowd gathering near the water and walked over to find a sea turtle shuffling out of the surf to lay its eggs.
Mistake #4 – I stayed near the water during Semana Santa.
In Nicaragua, Semana Santa is a big deal. Celebrations go on almost constantly, and a big percentage of the population does their celebrating at a beach.
As someone who hates crowds, the smart move would have been to steer clear of the water until the holiday ended. Instead I managed to put myself right in heart of the action, first in San Juan del Sur, where the beach was packed, and then in San Jorge, a modest town on the shore of Lake Nicaragua that also has a popular beach.
Most travelers stay in San Jorge just long enough to catch the ferry to Ometepe, an island on Lake Nicaragua formed by two active volcanic cones. I was headed to Ometepe, too, but there are great views of the island’s volcanoes from San Jorge, so for the sake of photos I planned to spend a night there before and after my two days on Ometepe.
On my first morning in San Jorge I woke up at 4:50am and headed to the beach for sunrise photos, wondering if anyone else would be up yet. Very quickly I wondered if anyone was still asleep. Hundreds of people were already running around on the beach and playing in the surf. I had a tough time getting a shot without someone running in front of my camera.
The ferry to Ometepe was a madhouse. The line for tickets curved far down the road and the boarding process was frustratingly ambiguous. Eventually I made it onto one of the ferries, but savvy locals had pushed their way on board first and monopolized all the seats, leaving me and the other hapless stragglers sitting on our bags on the top deck and baking in the sun.
I tried to remind myself of the logic I’d used when I planned the trip. I assumed the crowds would be crazy, but I thought it would be interesting to experience the holiday celebrations. And I guess on some level it was, but mostly all I saw were swarms of people playing in the surf. “Everyone goes to the beach for Semana Santa,” said Ray, the ex-pat I met in Granada. “Even though very few Nicaraguans can swim. And there’s a lot of drinking, so every year a bunch of people drown.”
Mistake #5 – I rented a scooter.
Thanks to the holiday, buses weren’t running on Ometepe, making it tough to get around. I stayed in Moyogalpa, on the east side of the island, and wanted to check out Ojo de Agua, a spring-fed swimming pool about 14 miles away. It was too far to walk, the island doesn’t really have taxis, and the idea of riding a bicycle in the punishing 95 degree humid heat didn’t sound fun.
“Think I’m gonna rent a goddamn scooter tomorrow,” I texted Marie.
“Don’t crash!” she responded.
Which is exactly what I did, of course. I’d never driven a scooter before, but there’s not much too it and I got myself to Ojo de Agua without a problem. I arrived early, anticipating a big holiday crowd, but it didn’t matter – the place was already overflowing, literally and figuratively. There were so many people I had trouble just walking around the pool. Not my scene. I left without even getting in the water.
Soon after fleeing Ojo de Agua I needed to take a left turn. A couple of police stood at the intersection, and I made sure to stop completely. Then I accelerated, turned left, and immediately felt the wheels skid out from underneath me. My left leg and the left side of the scooter scraped against the pavement.
“Are you kidding me?” I thought as I hauled the scooter back up.
One of the cops walked over. She pointed at my leg, which was bleeding in a couple places, and said something in Spanish I couldn’t understand but sounded like, “Hey, your leg is bleeding.” Then she pointed at the damage to the scooter and made a comment that sounded like, “Wow you really scratched the hell out of that thing.”
“It’s fine,” I told the cop, furious at myself for being so clumsy. I spent the ride back to Moyogalpa wondering how I could have let that happen and trying to predict how much the rental company would charge me.
I returned the scooter that evening. “How’d it go?” asked the scooter guy with a big smile.
“Bad,” I said. “I scratched it.” His smile vanished.
The scooter guy spent fifteen minutes on the phone with his boss, grimly relaying a detailed report of the damage. The reimbursement figure they decided on was $134, which didn’t seem unreasonable, and I was glad to put an end to the embarrassing episode.
“Are u waiting for me to say I told you so with the scooter?” Marie texted.
Argh, I should have just rented a bike!
So what can we make of my dismal showing?
Well it definitely got me thinking about my story. Consciously or not, we all have a story we tell ourselves, a personal narrative that helps explain who we are and how we relate to the world. An important part of mine revolves around competence. I like to think I’m good at the things I choose to do. Of course there’s a lot I’m terrible at – singing, dancing, almost all sports, dressing like a real adult, the list is endless – but I protect myself by mostly avoiding those things.
This trip to Nicaragua poked some holes in my story. I imagine myself as someone who could be a decent surfer, but my San Juan del Sur performance provides convincing evidence to the contrary. I imagine myself as someone coordinated enough to not crash a goddamn scooter, but that’s now factually incorrect. More significantly I imagine myself as a good traveler, but I bungled one decision after another in Nicaragua.
And despite this, or maybe because of it, the trip was good for me. One of the best things I’ve learned from my dad is the importance of having a sense of humor about yourself, and in Nicaragua I laughed at myself a lot. The trip pushed me to get more comfortable being bad at some of the things I’ve chosen to do. If my story can’t handle a mild slap of reality, it needs a rewrite.