By K. Mennem - Originally featured in the San Diego Reader
Nicaragua may be one of the continent's last untarnished jewels that hasn't been flooded with foreign tourism. Lying just to the north of Costa Rica, it can be managed on an extremely low budget.
Getting around the country
If you're traveling without pre-arranged plans, getting out of the capital, Managua, may not be the easiest. Managua has plenty to offer, but venturing to one of the colonial cities of León or Granada is a must.
Arriving at the Augusto C. Sandino International Airport in Managua, you might expect shuttles and buses departing for what should be booming tourist cities. As I learned the hard way, this is not so.
Granada: tips and must-sees
Granada, one of the oldest cities in the Western Hemisphere, is about an hour ride from the airport. With no buses or shuttles regularly traveling to Granada (unless you prearrange or pay high dollar for a private shuttle), you have few options. Taxis are cheap, as you can negotiate a taxi for around $30USD for the hour ride to Granada. You can also take a taxi to the UCA bus terminal in the city, which will cost you about $10.
The 16th-century Cathedral of Granada.Once you arrive at UCA, there are shuttles to and from Granada at least every hour. This will cost you a mere few dollars and drop you off near the central park.
At some point it's beneficial to exchange into the local currency, the cordoba. One United States dollar is worth almost 26 cordoba. U.S. dollars are generally accepted, but you'll stand a lesser chance of getting ripped off if paying in the local currency.
When traveling to Nicaragua, it's advised to at least have an understanding of basic Spanish, as English is not spoken everywhere. Nicaragua shares strong ties, culturally and politically, with Cuba and Venezuela, keeping American influence out of much of the nation.
After you have figured out your way of traveling to Granada, sit back and enjoy the ride. The scenery and lively roads you will see on the way are beyond interesting. You will see cows and horses tied up to posts along the highway to feed, as well as full families somehow managing to cram rides on single seat motorcycles.
Entrance to Hotel el Club.Upon my arrival in Granada, I checked into Hotel el Club by recommendation of Manny, my shuttle driver. The hotel was $42 a night and was in a great location. The rooms do not have air conditioning, but most of the year a fan will do in Granada.
I was pleasantly surprised at the lack of tourists roaming the streets of the colonial city. Maria, the bartender at the hotel, suggested a walk to the central park and to continue east on the pedestrian street Calzada to see more of the city.
Calzada has a long line of cafes, restaurants, and bars. Here you can pick up a local Nicaraguan cigar and the local favorite beer, Toña, for a few bucks. Beer often runs under the equivalent of a U.S. dollar and meals often are less than $7, even in the main city square. There are a few American-themed bars playing music in English, but stopping at these will likely cost you more.
Many talk about the threat of crime in Nicaragua, but it consists of mostly petty crime. The nation is not plagued with gangs as some other nations in Central America are. Basic travel precautions, such as not wearing jewelry or flashing money, will likely prevent any incidents.
After a few days I was tempted to lengthen my stay in Granada, simply for the atmosphere, great food, and cheap prices. However, I had to get back to Managua.
Back to Managua
Getting back has its options as well. You can find a taxi, but some local drivers prefer not going to the city. The other option is taking a shuttle from the station just south of the central park. When you approach the station you will hear men yelling UCA (pronounced "ooo-k-aa").
These shuttles will cost you less than a dollar, but are actually a local transit that stops a couple dozen times on the way back. I was hesitant at first, but it was well worth the lively trip.
If you are packing lots of luggage, you may have to go for the taxi, as the shuttle buses are packed, picking up and dropping passengers all the way to the city.
Returning to the UCA station in Managua is a good takeoff point if you decide to explore more of the country, as buses and shuttles leave frequently for multiple destinations.
Nicaragua is one of the least visited countries in the Western Hemisphere. That alone should be enough of a reason for you to want to visit. Because of this, it is not always easy to find all the hotels that are out there.
If you do a Kayak or Orbitz search for hotels, it is likely that you will not find all the small and great hotels available. There are lots of hotels to be found for $40-60 USD per night. You will need to conduct a Google search in Spanish to find all these.
These hotels will usually their own website where you can book. Some you will have to call (again in Spanish usually).
Just make sure to look at all the options before quickly booking a Kayak.com hotel. There is a lot more out there that may just take a little longer to find.
Managua is the second biggest city in Central America. Despite a rich history, much of the city center was destroyed in the 1972 earthquake. Over 6,000 people were killed in that earthquake, but the city of Managua bounced back, rebuilding into a bustling city.
Despite the large number of visitors who travel to Leon, Granada, and San Juan del Sur, most skip Managua all together. To be honest, the city itself does not offer what the mentioned cities do, but it is still worth spending some time here. The city of over 2.1 million is one of the most affordable large cities in the Western Hemisphere.
Picking an area to stay in can be tricky, as hotel zones are spread out through the metro. Many may suggest to stay at places like the Hotel Hilton Princess Managua, because of its location near the MetroCentro mall and several universities. I prefer to stay a little closer to Lake Managua and what used to be the historical zone.
The Hotel Mansion Teodolinda is a very affordable choice (under $80 per night) and gives you access to all of the city quickly by taxi. The hotel is four blocks away from the Rotunda Plaza Inter, which hosts many of the cities festivals and events. During my last stay I stumbled into a massive Hugo Chavez (ex leader of Venezuela) memorial party at the plaza.
If you keep heading north from there on Avenida Bolivar, you will make your way to Lake Managua, which has a number of great seafood restaurants along the water. To the west is the popular Puerto Salvador Allende, which hosts local lake cruises and a number of nightlife options in a secure area. Prices are a little higher here, but it is worth the stop.
During the day, a visit to the Catedral Santiago de Managua should be at the top of your list. This giant structure was gutted by the 1972 earthquake, but stands as a beautiful shell. Events are sometimes hosted on the front steps. Security is usually there to prevent people from stepping inside, but during my last visit I was able to elude the officer long enough to snap some photos inside.
The casinos in the city are not much worth spending the time or money, so I usually recommend stopping into one of the cities many mercados.
Drinking is also a popular pastime in the city. You will notice bars on every street, many with what seem to be where you can pull up and order drinks from your car. I would not recommend renting a car in Managua on your first trip, so being in a taxi you may get to experience this.
Taxis, meals, and beer is dirt cheap in Managua. If you avoid the high dollar spots and anything that looks to cater to tourists (there are not many), you can find a beef steak meal and a beer for under the equivalent of $9 USD. Almost everywhere the local beers are typically not much over a buck. Taxis are usually just a few bucks. Make sure to negotiate a price before hopping in.
MANAGUA – Nicaragua welcomed 545,174 foreign visitors in the first five months of this year, which represents a growth of 8.3 percent over the same period in 2013, according to figures released by the Nicaraguan Tourism Institute (Intur).
Between January and May 2013, Nicaragua received 503,077 foreign tourists, which means that in the same period this year there was “a substantial increase” of 8.3 percent, the executive president of Intur, Mayra Salinas, told reporters.
The official said that 25 percent of all foreign tourists who entered the country in the first five months of this year were from North America, though the greatest number, whose percentage she did not specify, came from Central America.
Salinas said that Nicaragua is positioned as a tourist destination worldwide.
She said that in the first five months of this year some 29 cruise ships sailed to the Central American country with at least 52,796 foreign tourists, of whom 37,000 visitors disembarked.
Nicaragua expects to take in some $440 million in foreign currency from tourism this year and greet 1.31 million tourists.
In 2013, the country received 1.23 million tourists, who spent some $417 million in foreign currency in the country, according to official figures
-Spanish News Agencie EFE