As my son approached two years old we wanted to take an international trip while he could still fly for free. While most families would probably choose somewhere in Europe or Asia, we decided to veer way off the beaten path. We settled on Central America, more specifically Nicaragua. It was a head turner when we told our family and friends. Our parents were terrified of us taking their grandson to a third world country. Co-workers first response was to ask if this was a mission trip. When I explained that it was a vacation trip, they joked in jest about raising money for my ransom. It was interesting to note how many people thought that there was a war going on in Nicaragua. Try twenty years ago when something called Iran-Contra plagued the television every day. Nicaragua has significantly improved since then, but they still have a long way to go compared to their Central American neighbors.
We took off from Miami and landed at Managua International Airport. We traveled to Nicaragua during the height of the Swine Flu epidemic that was affecting the entire world. Every employee at the airport was wearing a face mask. We got stuck in a line as soon as we got off of the plane. The person in front of me informed that Nicaragua was trying to keep the Swine Flu out of the country since Costa Rica had already reported cases there. Everyone had to stand in front of these special thermal cameras that measured your body temperature. We were given the okay sign and we proceeded to Customs and Immigration. We encountered our first problem when we discovered that our son’s diaper bag was left on the plane. I found someone who spoke English and they helped me go back through the secured area and retrieve it. We were hoping that this was not a sign of things to come.
We cleared immigration and paid our $5 tourist fee and proceeded to get our bags. There are only two carousels and it was crowded and hectic. We found two of our bags, but after thirty minutes, we were still two short. We found them eventually stacked against the wall. If you don’t get them when they are on the carousel, baggage handlers will take them off and stack them against the wall. After all the bags were accounted for, we went to the Budget car rental desk where we were taken to our small compact Suzuki Alto. Before we left, I asked for directions to the Crowne Plaza. He told me to go straight on the main road in front of the airport until I reached the statue. To explain the statue he was talking about, he started pointing into the air as if he was firing a weapon. Not really understanding what he was talking about, I said thank you and went on our way.
After a few miles on the road, we started getting into the city and the statue that he was talking about came into focus. It was some soldier looking figure holding an assault rifle into the air with the initials FNT written on it. I turned left and a few blocks away, we found the Crowne Plaza. This statue became one of our landmarks as we drove around the city. Managua, like most cities in Nicaragua, does not have street names. Most locals give directions based on landmarks that may or may not be there anymore. Although we had a map of the city which has street names on it, it does you no good because there aren’t any names on the streets. We picked our own landmarks to use as well as the many roundabouts in the city.
We checked into the hotel and had a crib delivered to the room for our son. After we began to unpack, we noticed that it was about 5 and we needed to eat dinner so we can get back to the hotel before dark. We drove a few blocks away and found a restaurant across from the MetroCentro, one of the malls in Managua. We were the only ones in the restaurant and I soon realized that it looks like they were tying to close, but they served us anyway. It was Sunday and it was also Mother’s Day which makes sense because of everyone was in the street trying to sell roses as you stopped at an intersection. We brought some food for our son to eat, but seeing how he hadn’t had any milk since Miami, we ordered a glass. The milk was served at room temperature and our son wouldn’t touch it. He had to settle for water. This was not a one time occurrence. We discovered milk is not the same in Nicaragua as it is in the US. It does not taste the same nor can you find anyone that serves it cold, restaurant or a convenience store. We ended up giving our son juice the entire time we were in the country. Milk probably never tasted as good as it did when we landed in Miami.
We left the restaurant and walked to the car parked across the street. A security guard was there letting me know that he watched it for me. I didn’t quite understand until a few days later. If you park somewhere in Nicaragua, people will offer to watch your vehicle. Of course, this service is not free and they expect some type of tip. I just thanked the security officer and we sped away back to the hotel. We spent more time at the restaurant than we should have and it was dark by the time we headed back to the hotel. Let the adventure begin. Only a few blocks away, but it seemed like a world away when we got lost. I pulled into a Shell station and asked someone if they could tell me how to get to the Crowne Plaza. I showed them my map that I was given by the car rental company. Like I said before, the map I had looked foreign to them and they proceeded to tell me to take a few blocks here and then turn toward the lake. I gave up and tried driving by my instincts hoping that will get me there. After second guessing each other, we finally found the hotel and a sense of relief came over us. We got back to the room, put our son to sleep, and prepared for the next day’s adventure, whatever that might be.
These are some tips to hopefully make a visit to Managua a little more enjoyable and a little less stressful.
1. Managua is a city with no street names. We found plenty of maps of the city, some better than others. The city has plenty of statues and monuments scattered about. When you are confident you know where you are on the map, write down a description of the statue on the map. That way if you get lost, you can located your own landmarks and get to where you are going from there.
2. Nicaragua’s currency is the Cordoba. At the time of this visit, 20 Cords (as they are called), equals $1 US. It is a good idea to carry small bills. Many places are unable to make change for the 500 Cordoba, which is $25 US. Most places accept US currency, but your change will be in Cordobas.
3. Begging on street corners or selling everything from papayas to candy is common. Poverty is still heavily prevalent in Nicaragua. Be prepared for people to come up to your car and try to sell you items. Just be stern and say no. Most people will move on. Whenever you park your car anywhere where there is no security, don’t be alarmed when someone asks you if they can watch your car. At the beginning I allowed it and usually gave them about fifty cents. Eventually, I just started saying no.