Trip Coach: October 16, 2007

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Joshua Berman, freelance writer, trip leader, and co-author of Moon Handbooks Nicaragua, answered your questions on Nicaragua.

Joshua Berman: Buen Dia' Everyone! I'm Joshua Berman, co-author of Moon Nicaragua and Moon Living Abroad In Nicaragua, the two most comprehensive guidebooks to Central America's largest, least visited, and most fascinating nation.

I'll start with a tip-of-the-hat to my co-author in crime, Randall Wood, who lives in West Africa with his Nicaraguan wife and will not be joining us today. Randy and I first started exploring Nicaragua as Peace Corps Volunteers in 1998 and have continued to work, travel, write, and enjoy "The Land of Lakes and Volcanoes" as much as we can. You can always reach us at GoToNicaragua.com where we field readers' questions daily--just in case you forget to ask something today.

I am a freelance writer, editor, and trip leader, who specializes in volunteering abroad. For more on me, please visit joshuaberman.net

Bueno, we've got many excellent questions, so let's begin.

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Wilmington, N.C.: Our family is traveling for 5 weeks in Dec/Jan. How do we get listing of cultural events/performances etc. E.G. Dimension Costena, Ruben Dario Theater? How do we find fine artists in their element? Alan

Joshua Berman: Since you have a decent chunk of time, Alan, I'd say just get down there, settle in, and read the newspapers for local listings. Sounds like you may be spending a few nights in Managua--do so over the weekend and you are guaranteed live performances. Do not miss Casa de Los Mejía Godoy and one of the many fine salsa bars around town.

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New York, N.Y.: I'm from the sandy shore of New York's Atlantic coast. What's the best way to get over to the Atlantic side of Nicaragua once I touch down in Managua? What can one find out there to do?

Joshua Berman: Don't leave the airport--just hop a local puddle jumper for the 45-minute flight to Bluefields or Big Corn Island. You'll find clear waters, snorkeling, Hank Williams and Bob Marley on the radio, and lots of fish to eat.

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Sparta, Tenn.: My husband and I are considering going to Nicaragua sometime in the late winter. Is it feasible to rent a car and travel independently? We would like to tour the whole country for about two weeks.

Joshua Berman: Yes, you can rent a car, but only if you're comfortable driving in more chaotic conditions than you're probably used to. You'll also want some conversational Spanish skills for when the policia pull you over for some invented "mala maniobra," which means "bad driving." I recommend the bus system, or if you have the cash, hiring a car and driver recommended by your hotel so you can enjoy the scenery instead of having to deal with dodging cattle, dogs, drunkards, and horse carts in the roads.

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Santa Rosa, Calif.: Is there anything you would recommend bringing to endure the scheduled power outages? For example, kerosene lanterns? The places I will be traveling will not have generators.

Joshua Berman: I wouldn't want to travel with any fossil fuels sloshing around my pack, so I'd take a long-lasting LED headlamp, and maybe a battery-powered small lantern. Bring a surge protector for your laptop, spare batteries, and when you get there, stock up on candles.

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Oaxaca, Mexico: How would you describe the conservation ethic and ecotourism opportunities in Nicaragua? What are some of the best and worst examples?

Joshua Berman: Great question, amigo. Nicaragua is still one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere and pressure on remaining forests and natural resources is high, especially as rural populations continue to push into unsettled areas with slash and burn agriculture. Deforestation is a massive problem, especially when complicated by bark beetle plagues and fire. Proper solid waste disposal is another big issue and you can do your part by producing less trash when you're there (please go easy on the disposable water bottles! Refill a bottle you bring from home instead!).

Of course, tourism is the double-edged machete that can either help the situation or complicate it. Fortunately, there are many examples of excellent low-impact, community-friendly tourism opportunities throughout the country, where participants can learn about local wildlife and plants while interacting with and supporting local communities.

Some of my favorite examples are in the north--Tisey and Miraflor Reservers in Estelí, Finca Esperanza Verde and the CECOCAFEN community coffee tours in Matagalpa, to name a couple. There are also excellent community based ecotourism models in León and Chinandega areas, like Padre Ramos and Isla Juan Venado. Also check out Hacienda Merida on Isla de Ometepe.

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Huntington, N.Y.: Is there public golf anywhere in Nicaragua?

Joshua Berman: Yes many of the "Nicas Ricas," as the country's elite are known, grew up in Miami and love to hit the links. There are some scraggly country clubs near Managua, and maybe a course or two in the gated communities going up around San Juan del Sur, but overall, the answer is "Not so much." Plan a golf vacation elsewhere and instead, follow Nicaraguans to the closest baseball stadium to join them in their biggest sport passion.

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Chicago, Ill.: I feel in love with Ometepe and the people there. Is there any way to buy just a simple place on Ometepe? Rhea

Joshua Berman: Rhea: I agree, there is something very special about La Isla de Ometepe, a gorgeous double-cone pair of volcanoes rising from Lake Nicaragua, also known as Lago de Cocibolca, or "The Sweet Sea." There is a calm, magical quality to life there. I've heard a few people mention that Ometepe will be the "next big thing" in Nicaraguan real estate, but as far as I know, this has not happened yet. Your best bet is to go to the island, talk to as many people you can and see what's available. You may also track down realtors in Rivas or San Juan del Sur (there's certainly no shortage of them).

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Belleville, N.J.: My wife and I are BIG wine drinkers. So much so, in fact, that we try to schedule our vacations around visiting new regions to try the local wines. After hitting several different regions on the West Coast and multiple wine festivals, we're eager to branch out a bit. My wife especially loves non-American wine. Does Nicaragua have a wine industry to make a trip there worthwhile?

Joshua Berman: Nicaraguan wine? Sorry. Some towns produce sweet "wine" from papaya or cashew fruit, but I doubt it's what you're looking for. That said, Nicaraguan-produced Flor de Caña is the best rum in all of Central America. No joke, so if you're willing to expand your beverage base, then by all means, come on down! Nicaragua also produces some of the best coffee in the world, and a trip to Matagalpa or Esteli for "café-turismo" is a must.

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Lawrence, Kans.: Is a trip from our cruise boat to Leon and the mud pots worth making? Is it safe?

Joshua Berman: To Leon from San Juan del Sur and back in a single day? Sounds like a very long day. I'd stick closer to San Juan, maybe do a trip to the pottery town of San Juan d'Oriente if that interests you. Is it safe? YES!

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Waukesha, Wis.: Our cruise gets in at 8am in San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua Nov. 21, 07. Can I hire a taxi or bus tour at the port to sightsee instead of taking the cruise's tours? Is it expensive?

Joshua Berman: I always recommend hiring local services over the cruise ship's more expensive options. The only way cruise ships are beneficial for Nicaragua is if passengers leave a little cash in the local community--otherwise, the only thing San Juan residents receive is a loud convoy of exhaust-spewing buses through their otherwise peaceful village and little else. Just walking the streets and beaches of San Juan del Sur should be an exotic enough of an experience--why spend hours in a vehicle, when you're already in one of Nicaragua's premier destinations?

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Los Feliz, Calif.: Hi. I am traveling to Costa Rica and to Nicaragua around New Year's. I want to know which is the best crossing point from CR to Nica. In Nica, I need to end up in San Juan in the south. Thanks.

Joshua Berman: You'll cross into Nica at Pe?as Blancas, which is only about a half hour from San Juan del Sur by bus or collective taxi. The only other option is to take a boat into Nicaragua from Los Chiles, Costa Rica up the river to San Carlos, at the mouth of the Rio San Juan. This is far less common and more remote.

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Kingsley, Mich.: We're hoping to go to the Corn Islands in late March. (Please don't tell any more people about them!) We're thinking 2-3 days on Big Corn and 2-3 days on Little Corn, with a night in Managua on either end (for flight purposes). There are lot of accommodations listed for both islands; any tips you have for places to stay would be helpful. Also, any safety worries, either on the islands or in Managua?

Joshua Berman: Most of the options in Moon Nicaragua are still good ones, including Casa Iguana on Little Corn and Hotel Club Paraíso or Picnic Center on Big Corn. As for safety, when you arrive, ask your hotel hosts about where it's safe to go after dark and other specific local suggestions. Use standard common sense and you'll be fine.

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San Diego, Calif.: We are going to Granada & Corn Island in November. I have been to Corn before but this will be the first trip to Granada. Do you have any don't miss/experience for Granada? It looks beautiful. I am interested in transportation from Managua to Granada. also. The El Club Hotel's web has info that they will pick you up at the airport. Do you know anything about this place? Any other cool hotels in Granada that you can mention would be appreciated. Thanks!

Joshua Berman: There are now a few regular shuttle services between the airport in Managua and Granada--I assume this is what you're looking for. Check out Paxeos. To get from the airport to San Juan del Sur, check Adelante Express. If you're talking about traveling from downtown Managua to Granada, just make your way to the University of Central America parking lot (known as "La UKA" pronounced "La Ookah") and take a "microbus" for the 30-40 minute drive. This option costs less than $2.

El Club is new and nice and swanky, but if the bar is hopping, you'll hear it in your room, which is quite small. If you're in Granada, try one of the converted colonial options like Casa San Francisco, Hotel Alhambra, or Hotel Darío.

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Bradenton, Fa.: We are planning a combined Costa Rica/Nicaragua summer trip for mid-July with two adults and our children ages 9 and 13. What are the must sees of Nicaragua? We are planning on roughly 7 days for each country. Would you suggest San Juan del Sur of Pochomil for some beach relaxing? So far we are thinking of Granada, Masya, Mombicho volcano, Las Isletas. Planning on taking the tica bus across the border as of now. Would you advise against a car rental? We like to take advantage of public transportation. This will be our first Central America trip and want to remain safe but also do some exploring. Any help would be greatly appreciated.

Joshua Berman: San Juan del Sur is much more friendly for foreign tourists than Pochomil, in terms of services and creature comforts, but Pochomil is closer to Managua and has a few fancy new hotels going up. One of my favorite rustic beach getaways is near Pochomil, called Los Cardones.

All of your other ideas for destinations are excellent, really hard to go wrong--you can reach all of those places on day trips from Granada or one of the Pueblos Blancos. Do you fly back home from Managua?

I would advise against renting a car. If you have a good guidebook, or a little bit of Spanish, you'll be able to figure out bus schedules and none of your destinations are too far from anything else.

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Buffalo, N.Y.: I have read that Little Corn Island in Nicaragua has become unsafe due to violent crime. I read that some tourists were robbed by machete. Any improvement on this problem?

Joshua Berman: There have been a handful of incidents of petty theft on Little Corn over the years, maybe one or two more serious crimes, but I haven't heard of any in a long while. I believe the island banded together and ran out the bad apples a few years ago, but always use common sense when in a foreign environment. Nicaragua's Atlantic Coast is, unfortunately, a part of the drug trafficking route between Colombia and the US, so there are occasional flare-ups of crime throughout the region related to this. Corn Islands are beautiful--enjoy!

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St. Louis, Mo.: Where in Nicaragua is the best eco-tourist place that might look like Costa Rica 20 yrs. ago, with good food & reasonable prices, and without hoards of tourists? Travel time is Spring Break in March. My wife is a teacher, we are 60 yrs. old we will leave from STL for 1 week. Thanks in advance. Bill

Joshua Berman: You'll find what you're looking for ANYWHERE in Nicaragua, especially if you head to points north, where foreign tourists are still few and far between. Look into Finca Esperanza Verde outside San Ramon, Matagalpa. March is the hottest time of year in lowland Nicaragua, and the climate is cooler up in them thar hills. Things are all still pretty rustic, by most North Americans' standards, which is what makes it so nice. Also look into retreats in Esteli's Tisey and Miraflor reserves.

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Chicago, Ill.: My wife (33) and I (42) want to go to Nicaragua from Chicago over the holidays. What's the best 9 day itineary for Nicaragua if you like beaches and wildlife?

Joshua Berman: For beaches and wildlife, you may choose to base yourself in San Juan del Sur--or if you're more adventurous, head up to the Pacific Northwest coast outside Leon. Find a great colonial hotel in Leon and do boat and wildlife tours of the coastal islands and nearby volcanoes.

For a thorough rundown of Nicaragua's "must-sees" and a list of suggested itineraries, visit our Nicaragua Travel Planner which excerpts trip ideas from Moon Nicaragua.

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Blacksburg, Va.: I want to visit Central America (including Nicaragua) next summer, but I know it's rainy season. Can I still have an enjoyable trip? I can travel anytime in June or July. I don't have an agenda, but I'll probably spend 3 or 4 weeks in the region. How will the rain affect sight-seeing? Is there any chance of having a sunny day for the beach? Thanks!

Joshua Berman: That's one of my favorite times of year to be in Nicaragua. The weather is cooler, especially up in the northern mountain areas and it usually rains for short periods during the day or night ¿ sometimes longer. The old traveler's maxim is "there is no such thing as bad weather, only improper clothing." Just keep smiling and look for rainbows after the afternoon showers and yes, you will have an enjoyable trip.

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Syosset, N.Y.: I know some folks who may be traveling to Nicaragua with a very young child--what do they need to know?

Joshua Berman: Their child will be a local celebrity! Family is so important in Nicaraguan culture, and the presence of a baby or small child will immediately elevate you out of the normal Joe Tourist crowd as everyone wants to hold and cuddle your little munchkin who, in Nicaraguan Spanish, will be lovingly referred to as a "chiguin," "cipote," or "chamuca."

Expect loud exclamations of "Que preciosa! Que lindisima! Que bonita!"

As for safety, follow proper immunization protocols, protect the baby from mosquitoes and the sun, and have a great time.

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Boston, Mass.: You are filled with knowledge! I spent a summer in Honduras a few years ago and had a trip leader who was very into Nica. You remind me of him. I am going on my honeymoon next summer. We are still trying to decide where to go. What is Nica like in the summer time?

Joshua Berman: Nicaragua is nice and cool in the summer months, which make up the Central American "invierno" or wet season. This is one my favorite times of year--the hills are green, the nights are cool and "fresquito," and the dust is settled. There are many, many romantic adventures to be had. If you have time, you can study some Spanish, or just set out and find your own little love cabin in the cloud forest... Reserva Selva Negra is a classic retreat for couples, north of Matagalpa, or maybe you'd prefer the beach at Los Cardones. It'd be hard to go wrong. Congratulations!

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Bradenton, Fla.: Thanks for your help with my previous question. Yes, we will fly from Ft. Lauderdale or Miamin to San Jose and then home from Managua to Florida. At first I was looking at Pohcomil as being "quieter" and less touristy but then realized it may be very crowded becuase it is so close to Mangua. We were thinking of basing ourselves in Granada and then ending the trip near the beach for some downtime. Is it possible to surf in San Juan. I have read Pochomil is great for surfing but lacking rental places. If you had the choice would you base in Granada or Pueblos Blancos? Would you include Omtepe as a must see also???

Joshua Berman: Ometepe is definitely a must-see but takes time, a few days minimum. Surf options much better in an around San Juan del Sur--also check out the surf camps around Popoyo, west of Tola. The vast majority of tourists to Nicaragua base in Granada, so there are many, many more hotel and restaurant and tour options than somewhere like San Marcos or Catarina, but if you'd like to experience small-town pueblo life, try one of these.

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Joshua Berman: Thanks for your questions everybody!

Again, Randy and I are always available to help with your trip concerns on the forum of our website GoToNicaragua.com where you'll find tips, news, suggested itineraries, and more. Be sure to pick up a copy of our books, Moon Nicaragua and Moon Living Abroad in Nicaragua (both with Avalon Travel Publishing), and keep an eye on my blog, The Tranquilo Traveler.

Adios!

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