Nicaragua: The New Costa Rica (for Backpackers)

Tourism is ironically a traveler’s worst nightmare. Nothing can destroy the originality and unspoiled beauty of a destination more than having it flooded with vacationers. Now, when I say that, let me make the distinction between a vacationer and a traveler. A traveler travels. They seek out a culture other than their own and try to experience it fully, despite any upset stomachs, awkward encounters, or weird rashes that may result.

A vacationer seeks relaxation, comfort, luxury, and piña coladas. Not that any of these things are bad necessarily, but I disagree when they are sought from a country that doesn’t normally provide them. When the rich and the modern suddenly crash into the impoverished, the result is always a splattered mix of two worlds that don’t belong together, and an inevitable snobbery begins to ooze its way from the foreigners into the culture.

I am convinced that this invasion can only happen via spies. Yes, spies. FBI? Possibly. CIA? It wouldn’t surprise me. However, more than likely it’s some little tattle-tale who makes his way in the world by posing as a backpacker and then leaking the insider discoveries of hidden forests and unblemished beaches to millionaires in Silicon Valley, who then turn around and invest their employee’s retirement funds in a 30-story resort complete with a shopping mall in each room.

And then come the masses.

Costa Rica:

I was most saddened to see this on my trip to Costa Rica. Several weeks after my arrival, I became aware of the trickle of fair skinned people with southern accents that seemed to pop up everywhere, bringing their McDonalds and rental cars with them. Now granted, even in the most tourist-saturated places, one can find areas that are still unblemished. I was lucky enough to find a Spanish school in the sleepy beach town of Samara where I enjoyed the dirt roads, the two bars, and the fact that my Spanish teacher was also the town doctor while his wife ran a beauty salon from their living room.

And despite the frat boys doing body shots off each other, I enjoyed my time in Costa Rica. However, when it came time to choose my next travel destination, I wanted something off the beaten path: Somewhere where I wouldn’t have to worry about running into ex-boyfriends from Orange County. So I changed my research methodology and decided to go to whichever country had the highest “fear factor.” That is, whichever place made people gasp at the thought of going there even with a small army, let alone by myself. I wanted a country that at the mention of it, old ladies sprinkled me with holy water and prayed for mercy on my soul should I got abducted by the mafia. I wanted a country that made my parents worry and caused my Grandma to give me her pendant of St. Christopher. Nicaragua became an obvious choice.


From the moment St. Christopher and I stepped off the plane, Nicaragua impressed me. After getting my backpack from baggage claim, I was treated to lunch by the family of a local I had met on the plane and spent the warm January afternoon on their front porch chatting with their neighbors. And by evening they had transported me to the bus station where I hopped onto a bus to Granada.

Granada is a postcard perfect colonial town on the shore of Lake Nicaragua.  Bright colored, southern style architectural buildings surround a picturesque park complete with a stone gazebo. I spent a lazy week taking Spanish lessons, reading in the local cafes that served the best Nicaraguan coffee, and admiring the entrepreneurial spirit of Juan Ruiz, a local taxi driver/salsa dance instructor/national chess master.

At the end of the week, I boarded the crowded 4-hour ferry to the middle of Lake Nicaragua to explore the Island of Ometepe. Formed from the lava of two (still) active volcanoes, the island is rich with all kinds of jungle creatures, vegetation, and the infamous petroglyph rocks, which contain carvings from mysterious indigenous origins. Because of its isolation, the island offered a whole new kind of purebred traveler who had made the well-deserved trek to the middle of Central America’s second largest lake. The company was some of the best I’ve had in all my travels, and I left the island with two fellow Californians who have become some of my most favorite travel companions.

From Ometepe, my two new female voyagers and I took the southern bound ferry from Moyogalpa to Rivas and from there to the surfer destination of San Juan del Sur. It is by far the most tourist-filled place in all of Nicaragua; but even then, the foreigners are only seen in the evenings when they are bused in from the surrounding local surf spots. Accommodations ranged from fancy hotels to slummy hostels. I found a happy middle ground at the Casa Oro hostel. A popular place for backpackers and surfers alike, Casa Oro boasted comfy dorms that surrounded a middle courtyard, a kitchen with free pancake mix, hammocks, and an occasional iguana that would fall from the tree and stay a while. I found the private bathroom stalls especially useful after a Canadian traveler cooked the three of us dinner one night.

The end of my time in San Juan came with a sad farewell to my new travel friends, sweetened by the gratitude of having had companionship for a leg of my journey. Leaving the youthful crowd behind in San Juan, I traveled by bus to Leon. Once the former capital of Nicaragua, Leon is now a University town with a thriving Latino frat boy population. The town in itself is not as postcard perfect as Granada, however, it was by far the best city I visited because it offered an actual taste of what everyday life is really like for a Nicaraguan.I enrolled in Spanish school once more and, wanting to save a few bucks, set up camp at the Albergue hostel, located in Barrio San. Although sleeping in a dorm with 20 sweaty male travelers and showering from a trashcan filled with cold water made me develop a still-lingering body odor, for $3 a night, I was not complaining. Plus the odor helped keep away the overly eager college boys who seemed to shift into catcalling and whistling cruise control at the sight of a blond gringa. Besides the amazing amenities, the hostel offered something priceless: authentic conversation.

Every evening after class, the young front desk clerk and the old man who lived across the street would sit in the hammock chairs with me, smoke fat Cuban cigars, and tell me about life in Nicaragua, from politics, to parties, to promiscuity. It was from them I learned of the oppression the Nicaraguans endured from their own government, their struggle to pursue a career, and the discrimination they face from their more economically stable neighbor, Costa Rica.

It had only been a couple of days and my thriving hostel home life was also accompanied by active school days at the Leon Spanish School. Classes included walking to the market with my private teacher, going to the museum, reading, and drinking coffee. The afternoons were filled with trips to the nearby black sand beaches, art galleries, dance class, and cooking lessons. And if all these failed, I joined my fun-loving international group of students for a drink at a restaurant under the shade of the largest cathedral in Central America, which is located in Leon’s town square. One afternoon was especially exciting as a couple classmates and I decided to try out the Leon-invented sport of Volcano Boarding.

Volcano boarding can only be done on Leon’s active volcano – Cerro Negro. Proof of the high population of teenage boys, the sport involves sliding down a 2,380-foot pile of volcanic rock on a wooden board. It’s a tough hike up but as adrenaline junkies will testify, there is nothing quite as exhilarating as having black rocks fly at your face at 50 miles an hour. I would not have missed it for the world.

Needless to say, when it came time to leave Leon, my heart sank (as well as the heart of my Spanish teacher, who had proposed the night earlier). I gathered my sweaty belongings and snuggled up on the spare tire in the back of the bus en route to the airport, watching the countryside go by. Nicaragua had been everything I hadn’t thought it would be and more. Proof that the unknown and uncut always trumps the developed; I encourage all travelers seeking culture, beauty, and adventure to pack their backpacks and head to Nicaragua. For all you vacationers…I hear they make a mean piña colada in Costa Rica.

Nicole Gallego Written by:

Nicole’s travel addiction began in college, when she had too much time and too little expenses to dissolve her part time income. She wanted to experiment, try new things, and experience a little craziness. So in the summer after her freshmen year, she packed her first backpack and headed to Guatemala on a volunteer trip with her school. And from there, it snowballed. The following summer she spent 9 weeks in Europe, then 2 months in Costa Rica, another 6 weeks back in Europe after graduation, then a quick fix trip to Panama, then a binge trip to Nicaragua. Each trip she swore would be the last one. Just one more, to “get it out of her system,” then she would start her career, wear a suit, have a 401K, get married, and save for a house, like all good American girls should do. And that really was the plan. Honest. Her CPA career fought a tough battle against her travel desires, but in the end she realized there is too much to see, too many people to help, and too little time to waste. Travel has since been her favorite pastime, her inspiration for writing, and played a huge role in defining her values and faith. Her writing endeavors are done in an attempt to encourage others to value the shortness of life, see the beauty and needs of the world, and do everything we can to make it a better place.