Here is what I envision as my perfect first-time trip to Nicaragua--
Before I Go:
-I switch to T-mobile to take advantage of their incredible international traveling plan and also for my safety. I want a working smart phone while I am in Nicaragua--texting, calling, maps, translation programs, camera – these are invaluable safety tools.
-I switch to a credit card that does not have foreign transaction fees, like the Chase United Airlines credit card.
-I stop by my bank and get out the amount of money I think I will need for my trip, let's say 5k. 3k would be in 20's and the rest would be in 10's, 5's and 1's. I go through the bills. US dollars are accepted all over Nicaragua, so I do not need cordobas, but the dollars must be in perfect condition. Bills that are torn or have writing on them will not be accepted. If I find a friendly bank teller she gives me perfect bills. Otherwise I sit down and go through the bills and return about 25% of them to the teller and get a new set of bills to go through. Then I go through those until I have 5k in great looking bills.
-I make a reservation at the Camino Real Hotel in Managua for my first night in Nicaragua.
-I dress as if it will be 80 degrees and humid when I step out of the airport. Because it will be.
-I buy a hat with a giant brim or a jungle hat. In Nicaragua there are baseball caps, cowboy hats, and little straw hats to buy, none of which protect me from the sun in the way that I want to be protected.
This is the one Anders wears: http://www.amazon.com/Child-Wide-Brim-Mesh-Summer/dp/B00JMNEWAU?ie=UTF8&psc=1&redirect=true&ref_=oh_aui_search_detailpage
This is the one I wear at the farm: http://www.amazon.com/ADAMS-HEADWEAR-EXTREME-CONDITION-HAT/dp/B007ZH3F6C ie=UTF8&psc=1&redirect=true&ref_=oh_aui_search_detailpage
-I pack: light weight linen pants, some jeans, tank tops, light weight long sleeve shirts, a light weight sweat shirt, a huge hat, rubber boots, flip flops, and tennis shoes. I pack at least 2 swim suits.
-I have cash on me – customs requires $10 cash per person.
-Yes, I want that guy in the uniform offering to help me with my bags to help me – for lifting them, yes, but more importantly for guarding them from theft while I wait on the curb for my shuttle. I tip him $1 when my bags are safely in my shuttle.
-I do not ever under any circumstances use airport taxi's. I wait for the taxi or shuttle from Camino Real Hotel or whatever hotel I am headed towards.
-If I ever use an airport taxi I take a picture of the license plate. Then I kindly ask the driver for his driver's license and take a picture of that. Actually, I do this with every cab I get in every single time. At first it feels rude. But this is not America. People don't expect you to trust them, and they are not insulted when you don't. On the contrary, they take you more seriously as a customer and think you are smart and responsible.
-I enjoy my night at El Camino Real. I get the papusas made to order at their breakfast buffet. Then I head out because their lunches and dinners are terrible!
-If I am at Camino Real in the early evening (mosquito hour) I hear hear some big whirring-machine noises and see a cloud of smoke coming my way. That is fumigation for mosquitos which is done in every urban area of Nicaragua. The locals just stand there and breathe it. I RUN to my hotel room. I almost always travel with my air purifier and for this reason, once I get to my hotel room, I can't smell the pesticides. I don't leave my room for 3 hours (and generally the rest of the night). If I forget my air purifier, I can smell the pesticides in my room for about an hour.
-I do not rent a car for safety reasons – partly because it makes me more of a target and party because car accidents are a great way to get yourself killed (in any country). For my first time here, I prefer being driven by a local – he will know the roads, teach me things, and keep me safe. As long as he is a good driver. Many of the cabbies are honest people, but terrible drivers. Always tell your driver to drive safely, not quickly, so he knows what his priorities are.
-Traveling by bus is safe but also "roughing it," so I don't do that. If I need to save money perhaps I rent a car that does not look like a rental. I make sure to rent a nice car. In Nicaragua I always drove a new Hilux or a new Tucson and was never pulled over even once in two years. Then, I had a borrowed junker car for three weeks and was pulled over three times! To avoid getting pulled over, drive a nice car that does not look like a rental.
-Almost all cars in Nicaragua are stick-shifts.
-Sundays are the best days for long drives as there is little traffic.
-Roads are not well-lit at night and there may be a cow or stray dog in the road. Driving at night is very dangerous for this reason.
-When I am ready to leave Camino Real I have Juan Martinez of DetourNicaragua.com pick me up in his taxi. He speaks English, and I book him via text. +505 8100 3839. He charges $80 for the ride to Selva Negra, $20 extra if its at night, and 15% in taxes. I also give him a 5% tip. On the bus this trip would cost less than $20.
-Selva Negra Resort in Matagalpa: I have a reservation there fore 3 nights. I have a fantastic time!
-Now I go to Esquina del Lago, about 5 hours away. I have my cab stop at Kiss Me Ice Cream in the city of Matagalpa on my way out and talk to the expats who run that place. Then I continue to Esquina del Lago. This cab ride will also cost closer to $200.
-Hotel Esquina del Lago in San Carlos is run by Phillippe, an expat from France, and his son. They are super friendly, and I enjoy talking to them for hours! I will definitely do a jungle cruise while I am there and may or may not stay at a hotel up river in El Castillo for a night or two before heading back to Esquina del Lago. I have them find me a cab (note how the hotel is always finding me a trustworthy cab, I am never just getting into one on the street), and I head out.
-I haven't exactly "enjoyed" my time at Esquina del Lago. They don't have a/c's so it's more rough than I like. But it was adventurous, so it was worth it.
-2 hours north, I stop at The Cacao Farm for a week. I relax, hang out, learn to use a machete, and just enjoy the setting.
-Next I head on to Granada, about 4 hours. I stay at Plaza Colon or Los Patios. If I don't have kids I consider staying at Tribal. I definitely meet the expat who runs the bookstore, and all the expat yoga teachers at Pure Spa. I eat lunch at Tia India and chat with the Canadian expats who own that tasty tasty place. Then I head to Pan de Vida for chocolate chip cookies made in a wood fired oven! I stay in Granada 1-3 nights. Perhaps I do a colonial house tour with expat Amy who owns a gallery nicaragua-art.com.
-Next I take a short cab ride head to Laguna Apoyo where I stay at Pacaya Lodge & Spa for a night.
-Then Rancho Santana sends their driver to come get me, and I go enjoy 3-7 days of bliss (however much I can afford!) If I can, I rent a house there for a month! At their restaurant, since I am a foodie, I do not order their watery guacamole. Instead I order their ceviche, papaya verde salad, fish chowder, ciappino. For breakfast I enjoy their egg and bacon sandwich.
-If I want to rough it again, I go to San Juan del Sur. I stay at Maderas Village and hopefully get to talk to the owner about his fine wood furniture company (furniture made in Nicaragua and sold in the US). I surf and do yoga. I either love the San Juan area and move there or I hate it and never return. (I belong to the latter group.)
-If I do not want to rough it on the beach at Maderas, I stay at Pelican Eyes or Rancho Chilamate if I don't have kids.
-That's the basic tour of the general areas. If you really want to get out there (and rough it) you can plan a trip to Omatepe or Las Perlas. No one has anything nice to say about Leon except that it is just like Granada, so I skipped that.
-The last place to stop is Managua, if I want to. I stay at the Hyatt at the Gallerias Santa Domingo. Their food is terrible, but their location is perfect. I walk to the mall and enjoy seeing a movie for $2. I take cabs to nearby restaurants: Ola Verde, La Marseillaise, and Meson Real. Down the street from Ola Verde is a food truck village that is awesome. I definitely go there.
-Ola Verde is the only organic restaurant in Nicaragua. Their green and red salad is excellent. Also their fish soup.
-I take the Hyatt shuttle to the airport.
-A 10 cordoba tip (30 cents) is standard for bellmen. I generally don't have cordobas so I do $1. Most restaurants don't require tips, but leaving 5% is nice. Gringo restaurants will add a 15% "voluntary tip" to your bill. There is nothing voluntary about it. Taxi drivers don't expect tips and always seem surprised when I give them one, usually $1 or $2.
-A note on San Jual del Sur: Years ago when Tom and I visited Nicaragua for the first time, we stayed at a cheapish hotel in San Juan del Sur not far from the beach. We had someone come into our hotel room and rob us while we were sleeping! He was kind, left our passports, credit cards, cameras, and phones, and only took our cash.
-My aunt rented cheap cars and drove all around Nicaragua on her first visit. She also stayed at hostels. She had no problems.
-My cousin has traveled all over Nicaragua on buses and also has stayed at hostels. He has had several smartphones stolen.
-Another cousin drove a cheap rental car and was pulled over and robbed by the police. Though he was also rude to them and speaks on Spanish.
-My friend's brother visited and agreed to shared a cab with a local hot girl who was really part of a crime gig. Don't share cabs with strangers folks!
-I haven't had any problems in recent years.