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Monday, March 28, 2016

I Pretend to Plan a First-Time Trip to Nicaragua - Updated 1/18

For the record, my new perfect first time trip to Nicaragua would involve visiting The Cacao Farm and never leaving. There is no where else in the country (or even the world that I know of) that offers a higher quality of life if you value health, free time, and beauty. I used to enjoy traveling all around Nicaragua, but now I find it only tolerable since the food (even at gourmet restaurants) is never as good as I could get at my farm, the service is never as good, and the buildings are rarely as beautiful. The only place that can even come close to being as nice as our farm is Rancho Santana, which, although more fun socially as there are more people and more things to do, doesn't provide the same level of peace, free time, or health that our farm provides and costs at least six times as much.

Note that this is written from my perspective: a mom, perhaps overly cautious about safety, not really all that into roughing it.

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. *If I am going straight to The Cacao Farm and staying there, I skip this and just use the fiber wifi.

-I switch to a credit card that does not have foreign transaction fees, like the Chase United Airlines credit card. *If I am going straight to The Cacao Farm and staying there, I skip this as I won't need my credit card for anything.

-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. *If I am going straight to The Cacao Farm, I get out what I will need to pay for my stay and have a little extra for tips. Though tips are not required or even recommended, most people who have visited us have fallen in love with the staff and tipped them well before leaving. A very good tip here would be $5 for each week of your stay per person (e.g. one for the woman who cleans your room and one for the cook. Guests have also tipped the farm manager and the gardener as they are friendly and helpful for people who want to interact with farm animals or participate in farm work).

-If my flight gets in late and/or I am old and need to travel slowly, I make a reservation at the Camino Real Hotel in Managua for my first night in Nicaragua. Otherwise I skip this average hotel and have The Cacao Farm taxi meet me at the airport.

-I dress as if it will be 80 degrees and humid when I step out of the airport. Because it will be. (Unless it is February, March or April in which case it will be 80 degrees and dry or unless it is November, December, or January in which it will be in the mid seventies.)

-I dress nicely. People in Nicaragua dress nicely - think new looking jeans and a polo shit and leather shoes. If you look like a slob, busses will rarely stop for you and some restaurants will refuse you entry. *If you are coming straight to the farm and staying there wear whatever you want!

-I buy a hat with a giant brim or a jungle hat if I am planning to do touristy things. 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: lightweight linen pants, some jeans, tank tops, light weight long sleeve shirts, a huge hat, rubber boots and flip flops. If I plan to go traveling about I also pack a light coat, tennis shoes, and swim suits. If I think farm work sounds like fun I bring appropriate clothes for that. If I have a child I pack swim suits and many changes of clothes and also clothes that can be ruined. I also plan to be here for more than a week. Many kids who have grown up in cities don't know how to enjoy a farm, and it takes them a week to get into the swing of things. Then they become happy, scrappy, filthy farm children with a beautiful, glowing robust health that is rarely seen today.

The Trip:

-I have cash on me – entry into the country requires $10 or $20 cash per person, I can't remember.

-I arrive at the Managua airport. I buy Kinder eggs from the airport store which are illegal in the US. This makes me happy. If I am a chocolate snob I do not buy these as, though they are fun, the chocolate is only average.

-When the guy in the uniform offers to help me with my bags, I accept. I point out which bags are mine and he does all the lifting. He walks me and my bags through security to customs. He places my bags on the conveyer belt and then leaves. He does not expect a tip.

-My bags go through the conveyor belt. If the customs official thinks I am bringing new items into the country, they send me over to a special area to have my bags inspected. This is why, if I am bringing any new items into the country, I take them out of their boxes and bags. If they let me go, I put my bags on a cart and exit the customs area.

-I am now in a large room. There are two sets of double doors through which I can exit the airport. Outside there are people everywhere, and it is quite chaotic. For that reason I don't exit the large room until I spot the man holding the sign with my name on it. Only then do I exit, and I head straight for him. He greets me and takes one of my bags, and then he tells me to wait there while he heads to the car, which is parked in the parking lot. I wait on the curb with my other bag. He pulls the car around, and I get in. If I only have one bag I just walk with him to the car. We head out. If I have not eaten in a long time, I get some food at the airport before I leave as the drive to the farm takes two to three hours (depending on traffic).

-I enjoy my time at the farm! I think two weeks is a nice amount of time for first timers. If a week is all you can manage, that is the shortest amount of time I would recommend.

If I want to explore Nicaragua:

 -The farm taxi driver takes me to Selva Negra Resort in Matagalpa, about four hours away. It's a coffee plantation that looks like the Bavaria area of Germany as it was built by two hundred Germans that came to Nicaragua in the late 1800's. It is old rainforest, beautiful, and has fun wild life like howling monkeys. I have a reservation there fore 3 nights. I have a great time, I definitely do any tours they are offering, but now I understand what Roslyn means about how high quality of life is at the farm.

-The farm taxi driver takes me to San Carlos where I catch a boat to the Victoria hotel in El Castillo. I marvel at how well Disneyland did in recreating a "jungle cruise." I at the Victoria hotel for a night and head back to the farm the next day.

-The farm taxi driver takes me 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. Then I take a short cab ride head to Laguna Apoyo where I stay at Pacaya Lodge & Spa for a night. They arrange for me to do a tour of the volcano.

-The farm taxi driver takes me to Rancho Santana. I surf, lay by the pool, drink at the bar, and spend a fortune.

-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. I do not go to San Juan del Sur and think everyone who recommends it is insane.

-The only other place to stop is Managua. I don't know why anyone would want to go to Managua, but just in case you want to see the city before you fly out, I recommend stay at the Hyatt at the Gallerias Santa Domingo. Their food is terrible, but their location is right next to a large mall. The movie theater at the mall costs only about $2 to see a movie. There is a good organic restaurant a short cab ride away called Ola Verde (I love their green and red salad and their fish soup. Anders loves their curry over rice.) Meson Real is the best of the gourmet restaurants I have tried. Down the street from Ola Verde is a food truck village that is a brilliant concept with only average food. Except the ice cream. It's called Kiss Me and it's better than Haagen Daz.

-If I am in Managua I take the Hyatt shuttle to the airport. If I am at the farm I take the farm taxi.

-After I check in for my flight, I walk past a few stores. One is called Momotombo and sells Momotombo chocolate, the only chocolate I have found in the world that does not have nasty soy lecithin added. I like their pure milk chocolate, their caramels, and their cashew chocolates.
Notes for those traveling around:

-A 10 cordoba tip (33 cents) is standard for bellmen. I generally don't have cordobas so I do $1. Most restaurants have included the tip in your bill. Taxi drivers don't expect tips and always seem surprised when I give them one, usually $1 or $2.

-If I ever use a taxi in Nicaragua, I ask the driver if he has air conditioning. If he does not, I look for another cab. When I find a cab with a/c, I snap a picture of the license plate before I get into the car. I make sure the driver sees me doing this. Then I ask the driver nicely to see his diver's license ("licencia" in Spanish). I take a picture of this with my phone. At first it feels rude. But this is not America. People don't expect you to trust them here, 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 confirm that he looks like the picture on his license and confirm that the license is not expired. Now I tell him where I would like to go.

-If I spent the night at Camino Real when I arrive, 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 or anywhere else in Nicaragua and I hear hear some big whirring-machine noises and see a cloud of smoke coming my way that is not a fire: that is fumigation for mosquitos which is done in every urban area of Nicaragua. The locals just stand there and breathe it. I ... run.

-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, and if you can, use the cabbie I recommend as I have already tried him out!

-My aunt has rented cheap cars and driven all around Nicaragua. She also stayed at hostels. She has had no problems.

-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. If you do get pulled over though, don't sweat it. Just tell the cop you really can't give him your license and ask him if he can help you. He will say that he can help you if you can help him. You give him $5. He lets you go.

-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 dangerous for this reason.

Notes on safety:

-Ten years ago when Tom and I visited Nicaragua for the first time, we stayed at a hostel 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 left our passports, credit cards, cameras, and phones, and only took our cash. Either way, that is the last hostel I have stayed at. That being said, I know many people who have traveled all over in hostels here and had no problems.

-My cousin has had several smart phones stolen, always out of his pocket while he was at a festival or out late at night drinking. I have never had a phone stolen here. The locals tell me they don't bring their phones or wallets to festivals.

-Another cousin of mine was driving a cheap rental car and was pulled over and robbed by the police. Though he was also rude to them and speaks no Spanish. I have never been robbed by the police. I have had nothing but pleasant interactions with them - though no interaction with them would be preferable. I have been pulled over for traffic violations three times. Twice I was let off. Once I gave the cop $5 and was let off.

-A friend's brother visited and a local hot girl talked him up and invited him to a party. When he got into a cab with her it turned out she was really part of a crime gig. They dove him to the middle of nowhere, robbed him, and left him.

-I got a flat tire once and was stuck at the side of the road. This guy pulled over and changed my flat tire in a matter of minutes and sent me on my way. He would not accept a tip.

-In my experience Nicaragua is not a dangerous place, but it is different than the US, as in, don't be an idiot and you will be fine.

-Moreover, Nicaragua has some incredible things, like doormen, bellmen, and porters in grocery stores. You don't have to open doors, carry luggage, or carry your groceries to the car or even put them in the car. I didn't even realize how much I loathe those activities until I came here. I LOVE these services. Nicaragua is also much more child-friendly than the US. It is very nice to be a mom somewhere where everyone is nice to your kid, talks to your kid, and acts like whatever he is doing is perfectly normal - so much less stressful!

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