Top Ten Cheap Thrills in Nicaragua

By: International Mel

Nicaragua is a thrilling place. It’s a stunningly beautiful country with a nice mix of adventure opportunities, beautiful beaches and vibrant cities. The locals are friendly, it is reasonably inexpensive and, if you look for it, there is culture everywhere. Much of the country is still off the tourist grid, which leads to an exciting, Wild West feeling.

But when you’re far from home, it’s easy to gravitate toward the familiar. If you don’t try, you can find yourself spending all your time in French bakeries, pizza places or Irish dive bars – Nicaragua has those too. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But sometimes it’s easy to get too comfortable in these places and lose the experience of traveling in this wonderful country.

So when you realize you haven’t eaten gallo pinto or spoken a word of Spanish for your entire trip, here are ten cheap ideas to help you break out of your comfort zone, engage with the culture and have a more authentic – perhaps even thrilling - experience. None of them cost a lot of money or require superhuman effort. They can get you into the groove and experiencing the excitement Nicaragua has to offer, quickly. You’ll gain a deeper understanding of the culture and perhaps meet some new friends as well.

Ride the Bus
Hop on a chicken bus and have yourself an adventure. Take a few rides and you’ll get in the rhythm. Before the bus leaves, vendors will get on board to sell anything you could possibly need. Flashlights, hand creams, food, drinks, bibles and so much more are offered for sale. Once you’re moving, you’ll see there’s a ringmaster – he manages the money, squeezes in the passengers and directs the driver. He communicates though a set of whistles that tell the driver when to stop, go, and if he needs time to load a bike or get a 50 pound bag of rice off the top rack. Throughout the ride, salesmen, hustlers and preachers will hop on the bus for a stop or two. If they’re having no luck, they’ll get off and wait for the next bus. It’s a carnival atmosphere for just pennies.

Eat on the Street
From tropical fruits to the local specialty, gallo pinto, to delicious barbeque meats, there is no shortage of culinary variety in Nicaragua if you look for it.  You can eat healthily, inexpensively and break out of your comfort zone by trying something new from your local street vendor. Try quesillos, a concoction made of cheese, onions, cream and spice, in a tortilla that’s wrapped perfectly to eat on the run for about US$0.25. Or vigaron – practically the official dish of Nicaragua – a rich mix of pork, yucca and spices (US$1). Watch the vendors make the food and get a lesson in local cooking. Chat them up a bit, they’ll remember you next time and give a warm smile.

Find a Fiesta
Celebration is a regular part of Nicaraguan culture. You will find impromptu parades, festivals and commemorations of history happening regularly, wherever you are in the country. Sometimes, all you have to do is walk outside to find a procession, folk dancing or – my favorite - fireworks being set off with incendiary glee. You can do a bit of research to find out of if a special festival will be held near you. Noche de Aguizotes, a costume parade complete with oil lamps, gasoline spray and unrestrained revelry celebrates Nicaraguan folklore at the end of October. Dia de la Muertos, much more sedate, honors ancestors and happens in November. Wherever you are in Nicaragua there is something to celebrate. Find it, and enjoy.

Give of Yourself
To truly understand the Nicaraguan culture, you need to understand the challenges faced in this society. Leave the well-worn tourist path behind and immerse yourself in a part of Nicaraguan society that the average visitor will never experience. There are plenty of ways to help. Many NGOs make their home in the country so you have plenty to choose from. You will be surprised how quickly your host country can transform your experience into something special when you invest your heart in a worthy cause. Do a bit of research before you leave or show up at one of the many charities that work in the country and they will be happy to put you to work teaching English, a desired skill you already have.

Go to a Baseball Game
Passion. That’s how Nicaraguans feel about baseball. They start playing in the street when they’re just a few years old and their love for the game never abates. Whether you’re a fan of the sport or not, their enthusiasm is infectious. Attend a game in Nicaragua and you’ll experience things you haven’t at an American baseball field. Live bands and rabid fans that climb anything that can hold them to get a better view are just the beginning. The passion is contagious and you’ll find yourself dancing in your seat and waving your hat with glee.

Take a Walk
Taxi’s are cheap. It can be tempting to use them as your main transport. But a walk, particularly off the beaten path, can open your eyes to a world just outside your door. In Nicaragua, much happens on the stoop - the few feet just outside the home. Mothers care for children, dinner is eaten and the locals watch the world go by. Say hello. You’ll become a familiar face and in a short time you’ll be recognized and make a connection that can lead to friendship. Perhaps you’ll be invited to a local event or fiesta with your new friends.

Practice Spanish
If your Spanish is not fluent, inexpensive Spanish lessons can be found all over Nicaragua. You can practice for free anywhere. Nicaraguans are a helpful, friendly group, and they love to talk about their history and the unique natural assets of their country. Many museums provide commentary only in Spanish – guides are accustomed to travelers with superficial language skills and are happy to spend a little extra time making sure you understand. This will increase your comprehension skills rapidly.  And if you engage, even if you don’t understand everything, you will start to absorb and be more comfortable using what you know.

Stroll in the Market
Lose yourself in the chaos of the market. You can find almost anything there from shoelaces, to a new backpack to types of fruit and produce you have probably never seen before. The meat section might make you squeamish, but if you’ve ever wondered what a turtle egg looks like, or how many ribs you can get from a cow, you’ll see it here. You will witness the genuine, day to day life in this society at the market. It is expected that you’ll haggle a bit, but if you’re not comfortable using your Spanish, you’ll still get a spectacular deal. If you’re not looking to buy, just stroll around and watch the locals barter, shoot the breeze and go about their daily business. This mini-city turns into a ghost town around 6 in the evening and starts again before sunrise.

Attend a Religious Ceremony
No, I’m not suggesting you convert, but religion is an important part of life in Nicaragua. Seeing the dedication and enthusiasm of the faithful is something that can’t be missed. Whether you walk in a procession or just attend Sunday mass, you’ll get a glimpse into the world of the Nica. Many processions include carrying heavy, religious icons on a litter, for miles up hill. As they pass, the icon, and those carrying it, are applauded, church bells ring, sirens blare. It is moving. You are welcomed, with no pressure (except maybe to thrown some coins in the offering box) and accepted as part of the community. It can be a powerful way to see another side of the culture.

Get off the Beaten Path
Nicaraguans want to show you their country. And there are still sites that have not been folded into the tourist machine, such as the Ruins of Veracruz in Sutiaba, Leon. It’s not a managed tourist site but if you ask at the pulperia next door, they’ll show you how to get behind the gates and you can have a private walk around. Often, a guide or local will want to show you something really special. I was once invited to see a bat cave in Ometepe and another time, to walk atop the roof of the Museum of the Revolution in Leon to see one of the most incredible views of my life. No extra charge. Nicaraguans just want you to have a good time and appreciate their beautiful country. They best way to make this happen is to show enthusiasm and interest. Again, language skills aren’t necessary for this. Just a genuine curiosity.

In Nicaragua, there’s no need for an expensive tour, stuffed in the back of a van, with ten other tourists taking the same photos. Make sure your experience is as rich as it can be. Take a chance. These cheap thrills can help you appreciate your host country in ways the usual tour-driven traveler never well. You will gain an understanding of the local context, gain once in a lifetime experiences and have stories to tell long after you’re back to the comforts of home.

About the author

Expat Blog ListingInternational Mel is an American expat living in Nicaragua. Blog description: One Girl, One World
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Contest Comments » There are 9 comments

Erin Persley wrote 10 years ago:

Hola International Mel! I really enjoyed your tips for cheap thrills in Nicaragua. It is easy to get believe you have to plan an expensive, overly detailed tour when your travel but your suggestions are a great, cheap way to have some Nica fun. I especially liked your "eat on the street" and "attend a religious ceremony." Eating quesillos and strolling in a parade are the best ways to get immersed in Nica life. Keep up the writing and travel tips!

Wayne Nesbit wrote 10 years ago:

Hard to find "real" tips on getting the feel of a place when you haven't been there. I feel like I could now go to Nicaragua and know EXACTLY what to expect! Thanks Mel... and keep it coming! I hope to follow in your footsteps.

Liberty! wrote 10 years ago:

Fun, interesting and different tips! You will not be very popular with the tour industry but what the heck - people should know they don't need to book a tour to really immerse themselves in a place. Kudos!

Bloggerific Master wrote 10 years ago:

Thanks for giving us insight and opportunity instead of dictating what we "must" do. It is great to see a blog that gives information and suggestions that suit all types and not just one particular type of traveller. Thanks iM!

Paul Lewis wrote 10 years ago:

Internationalmel writes very well, and not only are her tips useful but they also make you want to be there. Great P R for a country not on the beaten path but also useful tips for experiencing any vacation.

Adam Nicholson wrote 10 years ago:

I find getting off the beaten path is the best way to get to know a place -- the real heart of it rather than just the well-known and usually touristy things. And the only way to find those places are by talking with the locals.

Moe wrote 10 years ago:

Fun, interesting and relevant - makes me want to head south to Nicaragua and get on a chicken bus!

Tami Goldmann wrote 10 years ago:

Love her blog, her articles and all her great tips for travel. Mel makes you feel like you're right there beside her experiencing new cultures and the people in it. She's like your own travel guide taking the plunge before you do, exploring the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of Nicaragua. She makes it exciting and "in living color" describing her personal experiences (doesn't hold back either) until you can't wait for more and more. I know she's having a blast, I am too through her eyes! I can't say it enough that she's giving us all a lovely gift to be a part of her travels and I mean it. I feel like I'm right there exploring the culture with her. What a blessing to be me and what a gift she's giving us all. What a Merry Christmas! What a joy for the Nica (as she calls it) to be described so lovingly, like her own family and part of her own culture by describing their passion and what makes them unique.....

Wendy Herda wrote 10 years ago:

Internationalmel is so inspiring , I'm a single gal myself and she makes solo traveling sound fun and safe. Thinking about becoming an ex-pat myself after Reading her blogs. Her information is so detailed and fun to read, that I can't wait to read the next ones.

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