I'd been thinking about what to do after my volunteer program ended the last week of November, and after much debating decided going to Nicaragua would be
2) a chance to see a new country, and
3) not completely terrifying as I'd met a girl who was working in Granada, and so at least had one person I knew who I could go up and hang with for a bit.
While I'd been traveling nearly every weekend before my Nicaragua trip, the thought of backpacking solo still scared me up until the point that I crossed the border between countries. There's just something a little more ominous sounding about "backpacking in a different country completely alone for the first time" than "traveling for the weekend with my bestie Lindsay." At least for me there was.
But I shouldn't have worried. I survived for 10 days and made it back to Costa Rica in time to meet my family at the airport- and managed to have fun while doing so.
Nica Adventure, Cliff Notes Version
Saturday, December 1
-Left at 5:45am for San Jose. Was informed the direct buses to Granada weren't available until Monday. Decided to bus-hop instead. Met American named Sherry at the border who was also going to Granada. Had a tiff with officer in border control window- he "forgot" to stamp my passport. Was denied entrance to country by immigration official and had to return to office for another stamp. Finally boarded bus with Sherry to Granada. Arrived and split off from Sherry to go to hostel where my friend Nonny was working. Set stuff down. Went out with Nonny and friends for dinner/clubbing. Slept at Nonny's friend's house (without Nonny- looonnggg story...). Great first night in Nicaragua.
Sunday, December 2
-Recovered. Explored Granada a bit. Ate typical Nicaraguan "frito." Slept early.
Monday, December 3
-Accompanied Nonny to her volunteering project. Played with kids. Sang the Beatles. Went out for drinks. Packed.
Tuesday, December 4
-Said bye to Nonny and left Granada. Ventured to Isla Ometepe [large island home to two enormous volcanos] by chicken bus and ferry. Felt very alone. Set up volcano hike with guide and a French-Canadian guy named Julian. Tried to sleep in a hammock while listening to a man in the Russian Mafia talk about drugs. Restless night.
Wednesday, December 5
-Woke up at 4am for 5am tour. Ate a pb&banana sammich. Completed an 8-hour volcano hike [5,250 feet up, active volcano, extremely windy]. Felt accomplished and exhausted. Showered and slept.
Thursday, December 6
-Left island for the beaches of San Juan del Sur with my bodyguard, a 29-year old Brit named Romy. Super cool guy. Arrived at crazy hostel in every sense: renovated mansion= crazy luxurious, up on a hill= crazy gorgeous views, party hostel reputation= mentally crazy people. Yikes.
Friday, December 7
-Beach day with Romy! First hitchhiking experience and I was immediately obsessed. Gorgeous water, beautiful day, amazing beach. Located delicious, cheap tacos. Went to major gringo beach party.
Saturday, December 8
-Switched from hostel to dirty, sketch hotel. Switched from hotel to other hostel in town. Breathed a sigh of relief. Met new friends (Max, Simone, Astrid, drunk naked Australian dude, etc.) and walked to the Jesus statue on the hill for sunset. Most delicious shot EVER: rum in a passion fruit half with sugar on the side [thanks Romy!]. Party hopped, night swam in ocean, watched Beerfest [<- pretty funny], didn't sleep much. Fun night.
Sunday, December 9
-Early morning run, another beach day with Romy and Max. More hitchhiking. Sunday BBQ at hostel. Packed and early night.
Monday, December 10
-Left for the border on chicken buses with Romy. Border crossing and parting from Romy. Sad. Sat in a bus aisle for four hours to San Jose. Made it back to Atenas after dinner.
A great trip.
Nica vs Costa
A surprising amount of animosity exists between Costa Ricans and Nicaraguans- mostly coming from the Ticos. I think this mainly has to do with how many Nicas try to enter Costa Rica illegally, but any time something bad happens in Costa Rica it's blamed on the Nicas residing with the country, so maybe their negativity is justified.... Yet despite all the teasing I received from my Tico friends about wanting to visit Nicaragua, I have to say I was quite impressed by the country and in many ways it gives Costa Rica a run for its money.
Major Differences I Observed:
- Accent- Nicaraguans speak Spanish slightly differently, leaving me saying "que" a lot more than in Costa Rica. I just wasn't used to it at first.
- Buses- Nicaraguan buses suck, frankly, compared to those of Costa Rica. They're converted school buses instead of greyhounds, which pretty much makes all the difference. Nica "chicken buses" have seats that are smaller, less comfortable, and much more cramped [one of the better times to be short: leg room!]. Also, there either tend to be less seats on Nica buses or just tons more people- every bus I rode was invariably packed to the brim with people. So much so that if you sat next to the aisle, you couldn't escape having one of the standing persons' asses in your face. 'Twas lovely. Also, Nica buses picked up food vendors literally every five feet, meaning there was always someone attempting to entice you into buying something. That happens on Tico buses as well, but only at designated rest stops. [Okay, to be fair some of these differences make Nica buses more fun and entertaining, but if you're existing on three hours of sleep and just trying to get home, they make the ride seem a lot longer....]
- Animals- farm animals roamed a lot more freely in Nicaragua than I've really ever seen in Costa Rica. Buses would have to weave between herds of cows, horses were ties to almost every fence post, and spotting a pig rooting in the bushes by the side of the road was not uncommon. I liked that.
- Cost- without a doubt, Nicaragua is so much easier on the wallet if you're trying to travel on a budget. Hostels, food, drinks, transport- all was MUCH cheaper than in Costa Rica. Bananas were literally $.04 <- you can bet I ate a lot of those. And there were some $.25 tacos in San Juan del Sur that were to die for. Yummmmm.
- Tourists- compared to the most visited areas of Costa Rica, the touristy parts of Nicaragua are still pretty devoid of foreigners. Of course it's not like I was the only gringo in the places I went, but the locals were much more prominent, as was their culture. Costa Rica's popularity and relative prosperity has definitely westernized the Ticos' way of life.
- Places to Go- while there are certainly some amazing places to hit in Nicaragua, there appear to be less locations than in Costa Rica. I was only in Nicaragua for 10 days and saw only three different areas of the country, but I pretty much hit all the "worth seeing" places besides one or two. In Costa Rica there are many more spots to go visit that offer significantly different environments, wildlife, and experiences from each other. I traveled to seven different location in Costa Rica over two months and still have a sizable list of areas I'd love to go check out.
Overall, both countries are amazing, of course. But for a shorter trip or one done on a more limited budget or one in which you're trying to get a taste of a significantly different culture from the US, then I'd recommend Nicaragua over Costa Rica. Costa Rica has some of the most gorgeous natural landscapes in the hemisphere, but the country is more expensive and definitely more Americanized. I'm certainly not upset about having been based in Costa Rica- I'm just saying that were my traveling situation different (i.e. not volunteering and solely backpacking), I'd probably have spent more time in Nicaragua than Costa Rica. But since I had the luxury of being based in Costa Rica and getting to explore the beautiful country, I'm extremely grateful.
I can't wait to get on the road again.
I can't wait to get on the road again.