NICARAGUA - PART 1
September 2006 rolled up on me rather quickly. My 90-day visa was about to expire again and many of my colleagues had told me good things about their experiences traveling to Nicaragua. Even before I’d arrived in Central America, Nicaragua was a scary place. Perhaps it was hearing of it on the news during the Iran-contra scandal of the 80’s, remembering something about civil war and something something Sandinistas, or just that Canadians are by nature cautious, but I was indeed certain this was no-man’s land and not for the faint of heart. Nothing (as I learned about many myths surrounding Latin America) could be farther from the truth. Some fellow teachers told me of this magical harbor town just north of the border on the Pacific coast called San Juan del Sur. Rumored to be a tourist friendly haven of expats and globetrotters with pristine beaches, superb seafood, and reasonably priced everything, this sounded like the perfect fit for a budget-conscious (poor) English teacher on a quest for that next stamp in my passport. I learned of Ticabus, a company that provides quality bus service from Mexico to Panama, and caters to a slightly more affluent clientele. A cheaper option to flying, this was an executive option for hitting up Managua or a comfortable trip for those making a long trek over land. I bought my ticket in advance and prepared for the 6-hour trip.
I was excited and nervous. This would be my fourth country that year (yes, I counted stopping in Miami) and my first trip to the Pacific coast of the isthmus. The bus ride was smooth, pleasant, and comfortable. Upon arrival at the border the stark contrast to Panama was immediate and striking. A nice young bus attendant circulated and took our passports for us to be stamped by immigration. The bus then crossed into Nicaragua and we disembarked to wait 20 minutes or so. He returned with our passports stamped and ready to go. We jumped back on and were on about our way! The first natural stop is a town called Rivas. It sits on the edge of Lake Nicaragua. You can clearly see as you approac this town two enormous volcanoes set in the center of this massive fresh-water lake. I jumped off, grabbed my bag and split a cab over to San Juan del Sur a few kilometers away. This was going really well.
Driving down into the town of San Juan del Sur you were treated by winding roads, endless, lush green jungle backdrops, humid warm air, and the clear sensation that you are indeed entering a magical place. I, like a Canadian, made a reservation at a hotel. I would learn to regret doing this for the most part as the best approach in countries as these is to grab your bag and follow your gut. That said, I checked in and promptly set about the town to get my bearings and plan my first beach trip. It was like a mini version of Rio de Janeiro, with a statue of Jesus on the mountaintop overlooking the town and harbor. Restaurants lined the beach, hotels and surf shops throughout the town, and a laidback attitude from its visitors that emanated peace and serenity. I hit a little tour shack to ask about beaches and things to do. I was given a map that showed all the beaches north and south of town and made my way to sit down for dinner and plotting.
This is where Nicaragua’s reputation for value came to light. I ordered pretty much everything and anything you could imagine. If it was a drink, I drank it. At the end of this feast I was presented with a bill that I calculated at least 3 times in my head in disbelief that the conversions I was doing were right. They were indeed. I was in paradise and it was well within my budget. Drink, eat, be merry young man. For tomorrow you are going to fight the mighty ocean.