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Georgina Lawton

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Nicaragua has ended up being a firm favourite of mine for backpacking but admittedly, it didn’t begin like that. Indeed when I first decided to travel to the Central American country that borders  Honduras and Guetemala, I expected something a little different.

Despite the fact that half my friends hadn’t ever heard of Nicaragua, I’d found some really interesting volunteering jobs in the country on Search Jobs Abroad (my go-to site for finding work abroad) prior to booking my plane ticket. However, at the last minute, I decided that I wanted to see the country as a tourist instead. And I definitely didn’t come to regret my decision.

What I didn’t expect was for the country to be SO beautiful in terms of scenery and natural resources; volcanoes, beaches, waterfalls, mountains — Nicaragua has the lot. And it’s really cheap, too  (general costs listed below).

I also didn’t expect the culture to be quite as conservative. After trips to Cuba and Colombia, I assumed things would be a little more…open like they are in other parts of the Caribbean and South America. In fact, the first day I touched down in the city of Leon, I remember that wandering around in shorts got me stared at a lot.

travel to nicaragua
Leon

Despite this however, I’d return to the country in a heartbeat.

And once you adjust to the local charm, you’ll realise why this naturally stunning location is only  now emerging as a backpacker haven after a the end of a bloody revolution which raged from 1978-1990.

Not only is Nicaragua recognised as one of the safest Latin American spots for travellers, but it’s also easy to travel around, find hostels, meet other travellers and plan activities to suit whatever mood or budget you’re in.

Here’s what to expect — and what to check out  — when you travel to Nicaragua; a super-cheap, incredibly beautiful,  country with Caribbean vibes on the coast and Latin life on the mainland.

Culture & Cost

If you travel to Nicaragua and speak Spanish, you’ll find that it’s generally pretty “clear” for someone who’s trying to learn. Nicaraguan’s take their time getting their words out and are generally pretty patient.  Internal travel is also easy and generally safe (although watch yourself in the capital, Managua at night-time) and getting around via the local “chicken” buses is normal for backpackers. Failing that you can easily arrange private gringo mini buses from hostels to get around the country but I did the former and always felt safe. Plus, it was an experience.

travel to Nicaragua
Nicaragua is great for market shopping

Travel to Nicaragua is also incredibly wallet friendly, hence the increasing number of tourists. Here are some typical costs:

  • Two-hour local bus from Managua to Rivas, 70 cordoba (£1.80)
  • Cafe lunch of salad and omelette in Ometepe, 90 cordoba (£2.30)
  • 1 night’s dorm accommodation in Granada, 200 cordoba (£5.20)
  • Toña beer, 30 cordoba (0.80p)
  • 1 night’s private accommodation at a B&B on the Corn Islands, 446 cordoba (£12)

When it comes to Nicaraguan culture, I generally found it to be friendly but  pretty conservative. When it was 35 degrees in Leon for example, local girls were wandering around in *actual trousers* and so as tourists clad in shorts,  me and my friends often attracted plenty of stares and whistles, which got old pretty quick. In fact, if you’re a woman planning travel to Nicaragua, get prepared for some of the worst cat-calling you will ever experience in Leon. Sorry.

I also spoke to a local NGO in Leon for an article I was writing and learnt that violence against women and femicide in rural areas, still occurs far too regularly. I went to a feminist rights protest in Leon and discovered that many Nica women are extremely displeased with their government’s protection of women and how the heavily patriarchal society can discriminate against working women and those who are unmarried. So although it’s very safe to travel around solo, female backpackers should be aware of some aspects to the culture.

Here’s what to check out when travelling around though…

Leon
GO FOR: volcano boarding, exploring

A colorful street in Leon, Nicaragua

Leon

The city of León is famed for its volcano boarding – and yes, that is exactly what it sounds like.

For $20-25 you’ll be whisked up to the (dormant) Cerro Negro volcano by a local guide who will provide you with a seriously unsexy boiler suit and show you how to slide down the

But if that’s not your thing, wandering around the colonial city of León will create plenty of photo ops (the yellow Iglesia La Recolección church, for one). And you’ll find plenty of cute cafes, (French bakery, Paz De Luna being the best) and lots of Nica beer flowing freely from the main backpacker hostels, too.

I spent three weeks in León to learn Spanish with the well-run Metropolis Spanish School in the city centre and really enjoyed it.

For $230 a week I received four hours of tutoring with a skilled local teacher, all meals and board with a friendly Nicaraguan family and two local excursions and you can read more about my Nicaraguan home-stay  experience here.

Ometepe
GO FOR: Waterfalls, volcanos, hiking

 Ometepe is an island of outstanding natural beauty that will satisfy your activity fix.
travel to nicaragua
Hotel Omaja’s amazing pool in Ometepe

Accessible from the mainland by ferry, Ometepe houses two volcanoes — and climbing these isn’t for the faint of heart. The largest, Volcano Concepción, will take up to 11 hours round trip, and Volcano Maderas, the smaller, eight hours.

Both cost upwards of $30 to hike with a mandatory guide, but if you’re lazy like me, get a few pictures with the volcano in the background and opt for the almost as impressive San Ramon waterfall trek instead, which is just under 4 miles walking in total.

Ometepe island is deceptively large and it’s a good idea to rent mopeds or motorbikes to explore the whole thing in its entirety. But if you fall off within the first five minutes like I did and get banned from driving one (so embarrassing), almost all hostels and hotels will rent you a bicycle, too.

A backpacker favourite, Ometepe has an abundance of “hippy hostels,” but with all that activity you’re going to want to relax somewhere tranquil and gorgeous, like Hotel Omaja, which is 20 minutes from the waterfall and luxury at a good price.

GRANADA
GO FOR: More volcanos, Lake trips

Buildings rise above the trees in Grenada, Nicaragua

Georgina Lawton

Even though I contracted food poisoning from some street food here (not fun), Granada was a favourite Nica location of mine. I stayed in the very backpacker-y De Boca En Boca, rated the best hostel in the city and loved it because it was cheap and included eggs for breakfast.

With its gorgeous colonial architecture, palm tree-lined streets and a thriving artsy and backpacker community, I found it easy to meet people and arrange really fun activities here.

A night tour of the live Masaya volcano (yep, another one) was epic, as the lava glowed visibly in the dark and I also explored the serene and scenic Lake Nicaragua by boat ($30 for both with English-speaking guides from a company called Allah Tours, in the centre of the city).

CORN ISLANDS
GO FOR: Beaches, partying

Big Corn Island, Nicaragua

Travel to Nicaragua wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the crystalline waters and constant sunshine on the Corn Islands.

When you’re done with the mainland, return to Managua for your flights to the Caribbean side of the country, comprised of two islands, Big and Little  Corn. Chilling out is practically mandatory and lobster is available everywhere.

Book your flights with La Costena (around $170 return) and be prepared to completely fall in love with this coconut tree-lined paradise where locals speak Spanish, English, Creole and a local Indian language among the Mestizo people.

Both islands are just now opening up to tourism, but the smaller one, known as Little Corn, is more popular with travellers due to its abundance of buzzing beach bars and barefoot-all-day vibe. (It reminded me of a less commercialised Thai island).

For gorgeous beachfront views and amazing food on Little Corn, stay at the stunning Las Palmeras Hotel, where you’re guaranteed delicious bar food, fun late-night convos with the two Canadian managers and a tranquil swim on their beautiful beach.

Most tourists also head to Desideri for delicious Western and local food in the day and later, kick the night’s partying off at Tranquilo, where the whole island starts drinking before branching off into one or two of the larger ‘clubs’ later.

Big Corn

However, if you like your beaches quiet, you’ve got more chance of having one to yourself on the larger of the two islands, Big Corn, which is inhabited mainly by locals who make their money from fishing lobster most of the year and where tourists often only crash for a night or two.

Diving and paddle boarding is the main tourist activity on Big Corn and can be arranged through the Dos Tiburones dive shop, where the expert instructors will take you out on the crystalline waters and show you a selection of tropical fish.

And for the best food on the larger island, check the traditional Caribbean dishes at Seaside Grill,  Danet’s place, or G&G where you can get lobster or a “ron-don” dish (a Caribbean stew comprised of fish, plantain, shrimp and lobster) for less than £8.

What I wish I did…

  • I never checked out the “Sunday Funday” beach party and pool crawl tour in San Juan del Sur. It has a notorious reputation among backpackers as the best party in the country for tourists, but I didn’t head there.
  • I wish I visited the Surfing Turtle Lodge, just outside of Leon because during turtle season you can help them nest — and that apparently involves setting baby ones free INTO THE SEA moments after they are born!
  • I also wish I hadn’t got stuck on the Corn Islands for so long (actual weeks) because during rainy season, it’s hard to get off! Saying that, there are worse places to pass the time…

When are you going to travel to Nicaragua? Need any tips or fancy sharing your experience?  Comment below!

A version of this article appeared on Elite Daily

As I write this now, a man has plonked himself down on the couch next to me, asking me if I’m new to the area, and what time this cafe  closes.

I can feel my body tensing up, my eyes quickly darting down towards my laptop because I can’t be arsed for the next line of questioning, which I know will inevitably be related to my race.

It always goes this way and I won’t know what to say. Or he won’t accept my answer.  Answering  where are you from?  will satisfy the curiosity. But it won’t make the discussion any less awkward for me, because I don’t have an answer for why I really look the way that I do and I don’t know if I ever will.

My trip to the Dominican Republic in March 2017  came at just the right time. After almost two months of living and working on the Corn Islands, off the coast of Nicaragua (which was slowly gnawing at my soul and driving me to insanity), I was craving a more frenetic pace of living with access to more than one nightclub.

I still wanted a culture infused with Latin and African influences, but I didn’t want to spend too much money  or get island-fever ever again. I needed people and space and a city in which to breathe — even if it was going to be more heavily polluted air than I was accustomed to. So I booked a one-way trip to Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic’s once-dangerous capital, knowing relatively little about the city or the  country I was planning to spend a month in, but excited all the same.

Untangling the politics of black hair is tough – and trying to explain it to those who have never experienced the intrigue, the questioning, the barrage of unwanted comments, the weird looks and the uninvited hands being plunged into their own hair…is even tougher.

As my acceptance of my own curls has grown over the years, naturally so has my understanding of how to take care of them as well as my knowledge of black hair. I owe a significant amount of credit to one of my best friends who I met at University; a British-Nigerian girl who got me started on the path to really understanding my hair, aged 20. (Thanks Abi!). Because it’s only now I realise four years later as I’m on a quest to find out my own roots, (literally), that I realise all that time spent disparaging my hair was probably down to the fact that I was trying desperately to fit in with what surrounded me and denying my own self in the process.

So you haven’t yet got your Cuba itinerary and you’re not really sure what’s waiting for you on the Caribbean island. So allow me to set the scene…
Retro cars racing through a melting, orange, Havana sunset.
Sultry teenagers tapping their toes to an infectious salsa-beat.
The distant clip-clop of a horse-drawn carriage on cobbled streets.
Thick, sweet cigar smoke billowing from the mouths of elderly locals…

Welcome to Cuba.

I was sitting on a beach in Corn Island, Nicaragua last week, planning my writing tasks and messaging friends and family when I thought: is this how to be happy? Have I single-handedly cracked the code to life at 24 years old???

Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Well, probably not quite yet.

But, I’d just been invited on another press trip, received a nice, juicy pay-check to write a series of travel articles for a content marketing client (I’d been paid before completion for once — anyone who writes knows how much of a rarity this is) and, I’d had an essay in a major newspaper accepted for publication.

I’d put down a deposit on a studio apartment and had just moved into a perfect space steps from the beach, for a fraction of what I’d be paying for rent back home, (a steal at £240 p/m).  I realised that I have enough money to support myself in whatever travel endeavours I feel like doing next. I have no-one to answer to and everything to accomplish.  

Since sharing my identity issues and story about being raised white as a black woman at the end of 2016, some fairly interesting things have happened to me (nearly all of them good). Although I was scared about addressing an issue that had plagued me for years, and worried about the potential backlash I’d face from family members or strangers, pouring my heart out on the internet turned out to be the best decision I made last year. Here’s why:

Life in Cuba is a complicated, beautiful…mess. Don’t expect things to work logically, because a lot of the time they won’t. But do expect a vibrant way of living unparalleled to any other place, with some of the friendliest people in the world.

After spending almost a month in Cuba from December 2016-January 2017, experiencing all the highs and lows it has to offer, and talking to plenty of Cubans, I’ve compiled a list of essential need-to-knows.

Because although Cuba hasn’t really been shrouded in mystery (at least not for travellers outside the US), there’s a lot of misinformation out there about what life in Cuba is really like for both locals and tourists.

Here are 12 crazy things you should know about Cuba before you go.

      1. Hitch-hiking is a way of life

        Life in Cuba
        Casually waiting by my taxi…

        I read in someone’s Cuba Lonely Planet that the country has less traffic on the road than 1940s’ Britain. And driving around is definitely a bit eerie – a  bit 28 Days Later if you will.  Like it’s normal to pass groups of people at the side of the motorway, surrounded by bags, thumbing lifts and running desperately towards the nearest moving vehicle because car ownership is so rare in Cuba that all cars and trucks are potential taxis. I’ve also read online that it’s mandatory for government vehicles to pick up locals and that it’s illegal for Cubans to take foreigners in their cars without a taxi license. (I can attest to the latter part because once, my entire taxi was taken to the police station – with all of us in it – when a street cop realised I was a tourist and not a Cuban).

      2. There are queues for everything 

        Life in Cuba
        A one-hour queue for Churros (I was in it, obvviously)

        Being British I thought I could handle a line or two, but Cuba takes it to a whole other level; there are queues for buying water, street food, getting into museums, waiting for taxis and of course, the coveted Wi-fi cards.

      3. Cuban queues are different to ALL other queues in the world so don’t try and queue like you do back home

        Life in Cuba
        Chilling with some Cubans and definitely not queuing

        Cubans have their own distinctive style of queuing that basically works like this; imagine you’re the last person to join ANY queue in Cuba. You have to say: “ultima persona?” meaning “who’s the last person?” to find out where the line ends. The person who was last will make themselves known until someone else comes along and asks if you’re the “ultima”, to which you will say yes, and so it continues so everyone knows who is in front and behind them. Why? Well it’s really normal for Cubans to dip out of line and return back again one, two, or three hours later – so remembering who is around you is supposed to stop things getting confusing (it doesn’t).

      4. Wi-Fi is rationed with cards

        Life in Cuba
        A Cuban Wi-Fi card

        Ok, so although not rationed in the WW2-sense, accessing the internet is a mission. You’ll need to purchase a one or five -hour Wi-Fi card ($1.50 and $5.50 respectively) from either the national internet provider, ETEC (expect queues of at least 90 minutes), or from street hustlers and other shops who will charge you more than double (up to $7 for one hour, sometimes). Another normal part of life in Cuba!

      5. Wi-Fi is only accessible from certain parks and hotels

        Life in Cuba
        Logging in, whilst in the street

        This would never work in the UK because it rains all the time, but life in Cuba is characterised by public Wi-Fi spots, outside. Once you have your card, you need to head to a designated spot (recognisable because everyone’s sitting in the street with their phones/laptops) and login. Touristy hotels also have Wi-Fi but sometimes Cubans aren’t allowed in.

      6. There are two currencies

        Life in Cuba
        Above: CUP. Below: CUC

        CUC (peso convertible) is used for most tourist activities, hotel prices, club entry and taxi fares and is pinned to the dollar. CUP (peso Cubano or moneda nacional) is known as the ‘local’ currency and is accepted almost everywhere, but is mainly used for street food, buses and other ‘local’ activities.
        1 CUC = $~1 USD = 25 CUP

      7. Both currencies are called ‘pesos’ amoung locals

        Life in Cuba
        Paying for coffee in the street in Havana would be in moneda Nacional, not CUC

        Just to confuse things even more.

      8. The average monthly Cuban wage is $25

        Life in Cuba
        A pro-Fidel poster

        Doctors, receptionists, politicians… life in Cuba means everyone makes $25 a month thanks to a Communist regime that’s been enforced since 1959 which, as a consequence, means the hustle in Cuba is also very real (scams are everywhere). However, looking at the average Cuban you’d never guess the extent of their poverty; they’re fiercely proud and it’s common to see guys dressed in head to toe labels.

      9. Cubans don’t have mortgages

        No mortgages in Havana, or elsewhere

        They also have some of the best doctors in the world.  A couple of very big advantages to a Communist dictatorship.

      10. There are two prices for NEARLY everything

        Life in Cuba
        Market shopping

        The local price and the tourist price. And that applies, no matter what currency you’re paying in. Museums, clubs and buses will advertise both prices openly but sometimes in local shops and markets, it’s just kind of  just unsaid which can be frustrating. For example, people often assumed I was Cubana when I hid my camera (and spoke very little) and one time when my accent must have been particularly good, I paid 0.50c/CUC for a portion of churros in the street. The following week I returned and was fed some BS about the price changing to $1 because of the packet size, when I’d just watched Cubans pay the price I’d been charged the week before. My Cuban friend told me it’s because I looked like a tourist that day.

      11. Three generations of families often live in one space

        Life in Cuba
        Making friends in a Cuban house

        Staying in a couple of Havana home-stays, I witnessed how life in Cuba really is for the average family. Often times in one tiny space, you’ll have; a mother and/or father, a grand-parent, a baby, plus various cousins and brothers and sisters. The largest, nicest rooms are rented out to the tourists (and came with air-con, fridges, a double beds) whereas the Cubans often piled into one or two rooms, with shared beds.

      12. Christmas isn’t really a thing

        Life in Cuba
        Business as normal in Havana on Christmas day

        I travelled through Cuba during Christmas and it’s like any other day. A few restaurants may have some decorations up and you might spot a waiter in a Santa hat, but that’s about it. This was probably because Christmas was actually banned in Cuba until 1997.

Experiencing life in Cuba as a tourist, is an unforgettable, eye-opening, slightly maddening experience. Could I live there? Probably, yeah – but not for too long because the restrictiveness of daily life might break me. (One time I cried after queuing for 2 hours only to learn that they were out of Wi-Fi cards). I’m still itching to get back though…

Are you going to Cuba or have you experienced any of the above? Tell me!

You’re not black here. The locals won’t call you black“.

These were some of the first words uttered to me by a (white, European, male) island inhabitant when I arrived on Big Corn Island.

You’s a white gyal,” another friend who was born and raised on the island his whole life, told me on the bleach-white sands, one blisteringly hot day.

I remember looking at all the other people, similar in shade to me and I felt… un poco confuso (a little confused).

Why could I not be black here?!

Part of the beauty of Big Corn island is that its reputation is almost totally eclipsed by its more famous neighbour, Little Corn island.

This allows the larger, more overlooked of the two locations to retain a feeling of true remoteness — this, despite the fact more than 10,000 people live there.

But because most of them are locals and because most tourists head straight to Little Corn, for the visitors who really give the bigger island a chance, they’ll feel as if they’ve discovered their own little slice of paradise.

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