Nicaragua

Should You Travel to Nicaragua?

When talking to people prior to our trip to Nicaragua, I got the same question over and over again, “Is it safe there?” To which my reply was always the same, “It’s safe enough.” When I say I want to see the world, I really mean I want to see all of it, not just the places that have a Four Seasons. With that being said, there are many things a tourist can do to travel safely. Here are a few tips should you ever decide to visit Nicaragua:

Language: I have been to several Spanish-speaking countries before, even though I do not speak Spanish. During my other travels, I never felt like it created too much of a problem with communication as many of the locals spoke a fair amount of English. However, that was not the case in Nicaragua. Luckily, Rob and Tami both spoke Spanish so it was not an issue during our vacation. But, if you don’t speak Spanish, and neither do your travel companions, Nicaragua might not be the best choice for you.

Transportation: As I mentioned in a previous post, police corruption is definitely an issue in Nicaragua. This can make driving in a rental car a bit stressful; and let’s be honest, not everyone can afford to charter a helicopter! A good solution to this problem is to hire a driver rather than renting a car. This can be done at a reasonable cost. You won’t have the same amount of flexibility as you would with your own rental, but you also won’t have the headache of paying off the police for your traffic “violations.”

Safety: According to Wikitravel, Nicaragua was rated the safest country in Central America. I definitely felt much more “at ease” in Costa Rica, but I still thought Nicaragua was fairly safe. With that being said, common sense and good situational awareness will go a long way! Previously, I mentioned our neighbors at Playa Coco were robbed by a guy with a machete, but I doubt they were savvy travelers. Walking around after dark, in an isolated area, is just asking for trouble no matter what country you are visiting. Don’t make yourself an easy target.

Our trip to Nicaragua was an adventure, to say the least. The country really does have a lot to offer for tourists, so don’t write it off just yet.

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Travel to Playa Coco in Style

Who wants to deal with police corruption while driving on Nicaragua’s roads? Not me! Next time, we are ditching the rental car and fueling up our chopper!

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Oh, I’m sorry…did I forget to mention that Rob and I won the lottery and we now own a helicopter? That’s right, I did forget to mention it. But, only because it never happened (a girl can dream though).

Apparently, a very wealthy Nicaraguan man owns a townhouse at Playa Coco and he likes to spend his weekends there. Driving back and forth every weekend would be such a drag. I can totally see why he would opt for this mode of transportation instead. The word on the beach was this guy owns the largest cigar manufacturer in Nicaragua. He even had his own weekend staff to see him off. Whatever. I’m over it. I don’t like the guy anyway because he doesn’t like to share his hammock!

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Hammock story: Rich guy’s staff sets up his hammock whenever he visits Playa Coco so that he can lounge on the beach, smoking his cigars, swinging in his hammock. I didn’t realize the hammock was not part of the “communal” property (like the pool), and I decided a nap in the hammock was just what the day called for. Unfortunately, I was quickly signaled to back away from the hammock. Then, the hammock disappeared just as quickly as his departing helicopter!

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The Land of Volcanoes

Nicaragua is often referred to as “the country of lakes and volcanoes.” As you can see in the picture below, there is an impressive line of volcanoes that runs from north to south along the western side of the country. This picture shows Nicaragua’s share of the Central American Volcanic Belt. Some of the volcanoes are dormant, while others remain active. These volcanoes offer interesting opportunities for tourists. You can hike to the top of these volcanoes, swim in crater lakes, and there is even a thing called volcano surfing!

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The two closest volcanoes to Playa Coco are located on Ometepe Island inside Lake Nicaragua. Concepcion is an active volcano and Maderas is dormant. People actually live on this island and there are even coffee and banana plantations amidst these two volcanoes. The last violent eruption of Concepcion occurred in 1986, but there have been less catastrophic eruptions as recent as 2009. Tourists are able to climb both volcanoes, but each have extremely high difficulty ratings. It is estimated to take about 10 hours to climb and descend Concepcion and the tour books recommend that you start no later than 6 a.m. The only problem there is that the earliest ferry to the island leaves after 7 a.m. So they recommend that you take the ferry the previous day and then spend the night on the island. I could be wrong, but I don’t think there are any hotels on the island and we forgot (a.k.a. didn’t intend) to pack a tent. Of course, Rob was all about doing this little adventure anyway, but there wasn’t much he could say to convince Tami and I to join him!

(Editor’s note: That Lake Nicaragua is super scary! Bull Sharks and active volcanoes, oh my!)

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Concepcion (left) and Maderas (right) on Ometepe Island

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Concepcion Volcano (I really wanted to befriend this pig!)

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Maderas Volcano

As mentioned in an earlier post, the Mombacho Volcano is close to Granada and borders Lake Nicaragua. Mombacho is dormant and it is the second most accessible volcano in the country. There is a paved road so visitors can drive to the top of the volcano. We attempted to visit Mombacho after we departed Granada, but unfortunately, the park was already closed for the day (darn Sunday hours!).

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View of Mombacho from bell tower

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View of Mombacho from downtown Granada

The Masaya Volcano is active and it is the most accessible volcano in the country. There is a national park (Nicaragua’s first and largest) around the volcano and a paved road leads directly to the Santiago crater. The park actually includes two volcanoes (Masaya and Nindiri) and five craters, but the Santiago crater is the most active crater in the park. The Masaya Volcano is currently going through a cycle of passive degassing, which means sulfuric gas (among other gases) is continuously emitted from the crater. The cycle started in 1993 and still continues today.

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Volcanic passive degassing

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Looking into the Santiago crater

The volcano has erupted several times throughout history (most recently in 2003) and it was feared by the indigenous people as well as the Spanish conquerors. The Spanish baptized Masaya “La Boca del Inferno” (The Mouth of Hell) and they planted a cross above the crater to exorcise the Devil.

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Overlooking the Santiago crater (sporting the provided yellow hardhat)

Check out the video below to see this awesome smoking crater!

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San Juan del Sur

As I mentioned in an earlier post, San Juan del Sur is the closest town to where we were staying (Playa Coco). Once a sleepy fishing village, San Juan del Sur is now a tourism hotspot and considered the quintessential surfing town in Nicaragua. It is set aside a crescent-shaped bay and it is home to the Christ of the Mercy statue. The Christ of the Mercy is a giant statue of Jesus Christ that sits above town on the northern end of the bay, and it is the biggest statue of Christ in Central America (just in case you are a big fan of Christ statues).

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There are many activities to do during the day, but San Juan del Sur also has bustling nightlife. The nightlife in Playa Coco is pretty much nonexistent, so we decided to spend an evening in San Juan del Sur so we could do some bar hopping. There are a ton of beachfront bars and restaurants and many of them offered sweet happy hour specials (we basically would have been losing money if we didn’t take advantage of these deals!).

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After quenching our thirst on several tasty beverages, it was time for dinner. We picked a seafood restaurant along the beach so we could watch another beautiful sunset.

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Visit Granada…But Don’t Feed the Children

When planning our trip to Nicaragua, I was told that we had to visit Granada. Granada was founded in 1524 by Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba and it is considered the first European city in mainland America. Granada is Nicaragua’s 4th largest city and it is rich with history and beautiful architecture. I was excited to visit Granada, but after our driving experience on Day 1, none of us were looking forward to the 2+ hour journey to get there. However, after establishing a better road strategy we managed to make it to Granada without getting pulled over!

We arrived in the historical center of the city and immediately began to appreciate the colorful buildings and colonial architecture. We walked around the Parque Central (town square) to get a nice view of the Cathedral and the streets lined with horse-drawn carriages.

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View of Cathedral from Parque Central

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For lunch, we decided to eat in the Parque Central at what appeared to be a popular outdoor restaurant. The food was delicious and very inexpensive. I ordered gallo pinto (rice & beans) with pork for about $2.

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Eating in the middle of the town square had its downsides though. We were constantly bombarded by street vendors selling food or crafts, and children begging for money and/or some of our food. I had some leftover food, but I didn’t give it to the begging children. I gave it to this beautiful (well-mannered) guy…

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I was getting some strange looks from the kids (and other bystanders) when I fed the dog rather than the children! I may not speak Spanish, but I am pretty sure I could read their thoughts….”WTF! You are going to feed that mangy mutt instead of giving your food to me?” Short answer…yes, that is exactly what I am going to do. I’m sure a lot of readers will think I am heartless, but I really don’t even feel bad about it. And, as it turns out, according to Wikitravel, I actually did the right thing:

“Social workers in Granada strongly advise to not give money or food to begging children. In Granada the homeless situation is not nearly as severe as in other poor cities. Orphanages and charity organizations take care of homeless children, and poor people have access to charity kitchens. The kids that beg and sell items to tourists do this to make easy money, and are being exploited by adults. Anything you give to these children keeps them from the place they belong: in school.”

(Even without Wikitravel’s blessing, I still prefer dogs over children.)

After lunch we decided to walk down to the waterfront. Granada is located along the coast of Lake Nicaragua, one of the world’s largest fresh-water lakes. Fresh-water lakes sound safe, right? WRONG! Lake Nicaragua is home to the Nicaragua shark (a.k.a. the Bull Shark) and they are extremely aggressive. Don’t believe me? Check out this article that lists Lake Nicaragua among the Top 10 Shark Infested Beaches in the World!

On our walk back to the Parque Central we passed the beautiful Guadalupe Church.

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Guadalupe Church

Then we stopped at Lilly’s Café for a refreshing smoothie. Lilly is an expat that has been living in Nicaragua for about 20 years. We had a nice conversation with her about what it is like to live in Nicaragua. Despite the issues with police corruption, she seems to be extremely happy living there. Before we left, Lilly recommended we go to the La Merced Church and climb the Bell Tower of Iglesia for the best view of the city and the Mombacho Volcano. There was a $1 entrance fee to climb the bell tower, but the view was more than worth it.

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La Merced Church

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View of Cathedral and Lake Nicaragua in the background

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Mombacho Volcano

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We enjoyed our visit to Granada and amazingly we made it all the way back to Playa Coco without getting pulled over!

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La Flor Beach Natural Reserve, Part 2

We returned to La Flor Beach just in time to catch another beautiful sunset.

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Sunset at La Flor Beach

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Shortly after that, Rob spotted another congregation of birds on the beach. After our experience earlier in the day, we knew that meant more turtles were hatching. We rushed over to scare away the birds and we watched more turtles dig their way out of the sand and make their way to the ocean. Rob was able to get some video, so now you can see it in action too.

These turtles seemed to have a much greater chance of survival because all of those pesky sea birds were gone! This time around it didn’t seem like the turtles were in imminent danger, so I allowed them to make the journey on their own. I just stood close by and lent a watchful eye to make sure the land birds didn’t try to sneak back.

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It was really cool to see all the turtle tracks in the sand as they waddled their way to the water!

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We hung around a bit longer to wait for the turtles in the basket (from Part 1) to be released. Finally, after it was completely dark outside, someone brought the basket of baby turtles to the beach. By this time, even the land birds were long gone, so it seemed like these turtles had a great chance for survival. The only problem was they had been in that basket for a very long time and I think they must have been exhausted from trying to climb out of the basket all day long. There were a few of them that made a bee-line right for the water, but most of them putzed along rather slowly. After a while, we decided it was time to offer a “little push” to the ones that were struggling. Or as the local said “thats okay, we will help the ones who look a little sad” (translated by Tami).

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La Flor Beach Natural Reserve, Part 1

Just a short distance from Playa Coco, lies the La Flor Beach Natural Reserve. This beach is considered a sanctuary of nature because Olive Ridley turtles come to the beach en masse to lay their eggs. Thousands of turtles arrive at the same time, an event called arribadas, and each turtle will lay about 100 eggs. The eggs will hatch about 50 days later and swarm the beach. The arribadas increases the hatchlings’ chance of survival because when they hatch in huge numbers, they outnumber their prey making it possible for more of them to survive. Seven arribadas occur every year between July and January. Despite these numbers, the Olive Ridley turtles are still threatened, and in some places they are endangered. We were there very late in the season, so we didn’t see any turtles laying their eggs, but we did see a LOT of turtles hatching. We also witnessed first-hand just how difficult their initial journey can be.

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Upon arriving at the beach, we paid our entrance fee of 200 cordoba each (about $8). We noticed there was a basket of baby turtles on the ground and we learned that these turtles had hatched too late in the morning, so the employees of the reserve collected them in the basket and planned to release them later in the evening (this would make more sense later). He told us if we came back around 6 p.m. we could watch these turtles being released. The picture below is blurry because the turtles were desperately trying to climb out of the basket and I was not allowed to use a flash.

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We walked onto the beach and we were the ONLY visitors there. The beach was beautiful and it seemed like the Olive Ridley turtles had picked a fine nesting ground! We weren’t exactly sure what kind of show nature would provide for us, but in the meantime, we were happy to enjoy the view.

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Rob was exploring the beach when he noticed birds congregating on the beach. He quickly realized that a nest of turtles was hatching and the congregation of birds was there for a feast. He called over Tami and I and our Tortuga Rescue began.

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We scared away all of the land birds and we even had to scare away several crabs that popped out of their holes in the sand and tried to grab the baby turtles. Were we allowed to touch the turtles? Technically, no, we were not supposed to touch the turtles. I’m a fan of Darwin and I understand the “survival of the fittest” concept, but these little guys were just too cute and we felt like we had to try to rescue them. We found other nests that were hatching at the same time and it was beginning to get harder to keep the birds away, so we started our own turtle escort service. We were trying to get as many turtles safely into the water as we possibly could (even if it meant picking them up and racing them to the water ourselves).

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So, we likely saved a large proportion of them from the crabs and the land birds. But, there was little that we could do to protect them from the sea birds (let alone all the fish that were waiting to eat them). The sea birds were swarming the waves and just picking off the turtles one-by-one. It was enough to get even me in the water to try to scare them off! I ended up in the water waving my arms around like a mad woman trying to scare off the birds. But the birds were relentless and kept dive-bombing the water, rarely ever coming out empty-beaked.

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It was as amazing to see these little guys hatch and head for the shore, as it was disheartening to see how many of them didn’t make it. I was really glad we were able to witness these baby turtles digging their way out of the sand and I hope that we at least saved a few of them in the process. After all of the excitement was over, we decided to return to our condo, but we planned to come back to the Reserve for the evening turtle release.

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Remnants of a turtle nesting area

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Chillin’ With the Locals

During our stay at Playa Coco we quickly became friends with the locals. The local animals, that is! Playa Coco is “home” to several stray dogs and cats, and of course I wished I could take all of them home with me. Since that wasn’t an option, I did the next best thing. I saved my table scraps and shared my Nutri Grain bars (which Rob was not happy about) and we put out fresh drinking water every day. These dogs were so stinking cute, and even though you could clearly see how famished they were, they sat patiently and politely waiting for whatever food you could spare (rather than nearly taking your hand off as some pets do when you give them a treat!)

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I named the dog above Baby Girl. She had already had at least one litter, but I could tell from her teeth that she was still just a pup herself. She was covered in fleas and I could see way too many ribs, but she was so sweet! Even when I had no food to give her, she was content to just chill on the patio with me while I read.

We also got some face time with a few Howler Monkeys in the trees right outside our condo. I was super excited to see them up close because Rob and I could always hear them during our honeymoon in Costa Rica, but we never really got a good view of them. Howler Monkeys rarely ever come down from the trees, making them much harder to see close-up. Luckily for us, we had a sweet roof-top deck that allowed us a great view!

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Howler Monkey

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The sound of a Howler Monkey is quite unique. I recently learned that they are actually the loudest land animals on the planet! I would never have guessed that these little guys could beat out the roar of a lion or the trumpet of an elephant, but I guess it is true. The only creature louder than a Howler Monkey is the Blue Whale.

If you have never heard a Howler Monkey, click here for an audio clip.

Finally, Rob had a rather unpleasant experience with the local wildlife when he got stung by a jellyfish. You know who didn’t get stung by a jellyfish? That’s right… me, because I don’t go in the water! It’s dangerous in there. I did, however, feel like I was obligated to offer to pee on him to alleviate the stinging (and I guess some people are just into that kind of thing anyway), but he promptly declined my offer (as well as opted out of going back into the ocean for the rest of our trip!)

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Playa Coco

Playa Coco is a beautiful beach along the Pacific Coast of southern Nicaragua. It is considered one of the most spectacular beaches along Nicaragua’s Pacific Coast. The beach is about 1 kilometer long and it is quite pristine due to its remote location. The closest town is San Juan del Sur, approximately 12 kilometers away. It is about a 25 minute drive from San Juan del Sur to Playa Coco via a combination of paved and unpaved roads. Because this beach is off the beaten path, it is not at all crowded, making it the perfect place for rest and relaxation.

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But this beach isn’t just for lounging. The waves at Playa Coco are ideal for surfing, making this locale a surfer’s paradise as well. We saw both veteran and novice surfers hitting the waves during our stay. Did I do any surfing, you ask? Yes! I did a lot of page surfing on my Kindle while listening to the waves crash in front of me. In case you didn’t already know this about me, I do not go into bodies of water unless I can see my feet (and all the other creatures) through the water.

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Our luxurious, beachfront rental townhome was amazing and very affordable. The rental was part of a small, gated townhome community with 24 hour security. Each townhome had a magnificent view of the beach, private roof-top deck, garden patio, and stone walkways to the beach. Additionally, there was an oceanfront pool, as well as lush, tropical landscaping that was maintained daily.

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Local restaurants and/or amenities were limited at Playa Coco. So, if you are looking for an area with lots of restaurant options and/or an active nightlife, this is probably not the place for you. There were just a couple of restaurants nearby and we were told they were quite expensive (exploiting the fact that options were limited). So we opted to eat-in on most days. We did our grocery shopping in San Juan del Sur and made sure to replenish our rum stock when needed.

A family renting the unit next to us, decided to walk to one of the nearby beach restaurants and they were robbed by a guy with a machete on their walk back to the property. The gated community with 24 hour security felt quite safe to me. But, outside the secured perimeter is a different matter altogether! Packing tip: If you plan to walk around at night in isolated areas of Nicaragua, you might want to bring your own machete. This is completely legal as long as you check your bag!

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Welcome to Nicaragua….y policia corrupcion

It was an extremely long day getting from DC to our condo in Nicaragua. After landing in Managua and picking up our rental car (where we were taken through the most thorough rental car inspection of our lives!) we headed south to Playa Coco. We were all a bit nervous about the two hour trip because we heard that signage wasn’t that good and the directions we were given were shoddy at best. No worries though, Rob and I are always up for a little adventure. Or so we thought…

Rob and I have traveled the globe and we have never had any issues driving in a foreign land. After being in country for just a few short hours, and in the car for only two hours, we were pulled over not once, but TWICE! Each time, the police officer got Rob’s driver’s license in hand and basically held it for ransom. Rob and Tami were doing an excellent job using their linguistic skills to try to get us out of a sticky situation while I just sat there wondering what the hell the three of them were saying. Me = no habla.

How it all began:

Unsure if we were driving in the right direction, we decided to turn around to look at the road signs once more and then we pulled to the side of the road to get our bearings straight. Cue traffic stop #1. A police officer pulled up next to us and began listing off all the illegal components of our maneuver. Rob and Tami’s apologetic pleas were getting us nowhere with this police officer. He clearly wanted money, not our pathetic excuses about being confused with our directions. And judging by the way he kept listing off the infractions one by one, this was not going to be cheap. With Rob’s license in his hand he got back on his motorcycle (or maybe it was a moped, I can’t recall) and told us to follow him. We were certain we were going to end up at some police station and pay dearly for the very minor traffic infractions. Instead, he led us just a short way up the road where we talked with two (much nicer and more understanding) police officers. Rob and Tami explained our confusion and apologized for the “illegal” U-turn and other assorted “crimes.” Thankfully, the nice officer pointed us in the right direction and sent us on our way, sans extortion.

At traffic stop #2, we weren’t so lucky. There were police officers standing in the road and they just waved us to pull over for another alleged “infraction.” The officer quickly got Rob’s license in hand and then he just walked away. We just sat there for about ten minutes waiting to see what was going to happen. Finally, Rob got out of the car to see what was going on. Apparently, the officer was just sitting in his little police shack, doing nothing, letting us just sweat it out. He told Rob that we had to pay 400 cordoba (about $16) to get his license back. If we didn’t have the money he was going to send his license to the court building and we would have to go there to pay the fine. Rob handed him 150 cordoba and told him that was all we had. The officer quickly asked what else we could give him. Rob knew he was fishing for American dollars and told him the only other thing we had were credit cards. He begrudgingly handed over the license and sent us on our way.

Our first day driving in Nicaragua was not a pleasant experience. Moral of the story…when driving in Nicaragua and a vehicle-less police officer flags you to pull over….ignore him and keep driving! Since this all happened on day 1 of our trip, I have a feeling we will have ample opportunity to test out this theory.

Our anticipated two hour trip to Playa Coco took much longer, but we arrived at our condo just in time to see the sun setting on the beach. Our condo is fabulous and the view is amazing!

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