Central America and Southeast Asia are criminally underappreciated. Because they are relatively cheap and accessible places, swarms of travelers flood these wonderful countries year after year, rightfully so.
The infrastructure is improving in all these places, as is the ubiquity of English, which results in more travelers and the feedback loop continues. This is the unfortunate relationship. As countries in the Global South with these geological joys wish to improve the livelihood of their people, they look to tourism as the answer.
First, foreigners (and locals) enter these places and leave trash behind and ravage the natural beauty in a very direct way. Then, as more and more follow the trendsetters, hotels and restaurants pop up, ruining the inherent local culture. And then the worst of all happens – McDonald’s appears.
Southeast Asia seems to be more dramatic in this regard, but all the countries have developed to make this region a typical place to simply travel through. It’s less people traveling to these countries and more traveling through.
One Place Over Many Days or Many Places For a Few Days?
I spent 10 days in Vietnam and it wasn’t nearly enough. Not. Even. Close.
I saw Saigon and Hanoi, some places in between, took a train, went on an overnight cruise, took some day trips, some hikes and so on. While the trip overall was highly satisfactory, I left with more questions than I came with.
And while on the trip, I met many an American on a Southeast Asia whirlwind tour. This is highly anecdotal, but I’ve met a dozen or so folks whose itineraries were essentially 3 days in Cambodia, 3 days in Thailand, 3 days in Vietnam, 3 days in Laos and that’s it (or something to that effect).
I prefer to spend 12 days trying to understand one place as much as I can, rather than 3 days in 4 places seeing only the most touristy of Lonely Planet traps.
I concede: to each their own. However, this is the thrust of this chronicle: one shouldn’t zip through these countries at a breakneck pace. Smell the roses.
Central America Whirlwind Tour
Central America appears to be very similar to Southeast Asia in this regard. They are both fairly easy to backpack and bounce from place to place, spending no more than 72 hours in each place, which on average 24 are spent sleeping.
I met umpteen people on my journey who had been in Nicaragua for just a few days who had just come from Honduras and were off to Costa Rica. These are waypoints, not destinations.
Moreover, often the purpose of these journeys is merely celebratory. Many backpackers simply put their bags down, drink beer for lunch, hang out, drink the night away, wake up late, go on an easy day trip hungover, drink beer for lunch, rinse, repeat.
Now, there is nothing wrong with this. I have certainly spent portions of my travels doing just this. The purpose of my journeys is never to drink though. A beer is genuinely the cherry on top to a day of 10+ miles of walking and many desires fulfilled and questions answered.
When I travel, I always have a few central questions I want to answer or at least a few themes I want to understand more clearly. There is generally a focused purpose. I love exploring nooks and crannies of cities. I love speaking with middle class folks in a lowkey joint. I love seeing the mundane, as it reveals much about a country’s character.
When I started researching Nicaragua, learning about its history and discovering the differences in the regions, I quickly realized there are vast differences. León is liberal, Granada conservative, Managua boring. (I kid.) The beaches are pristine, wonderful. The interior is often jungle, sometimes lake country, sometimes barren. The east-west divide is punctuated by impenetrable forest, which meant that the Pacific Coast was mostly Spanish, and the Atlantic Coast was influenced by the English and is vestigially so today.
My journey through the country took me to Granada, Volcán Masaya, Ometepe Island, San Juan del Sur, and Playa Maderas. Places I never went are the gorgeous jungles of the interior, the old city of Léon, the capital of Managua or the oddly Anglicized city of Bluefields.
These are places that one probably will gloss over in a guide book. They are inconsequential, truly, in a rapid tour through Central America; however, if you genuinely wish to understand Nicaragua independently from neighboring nations, then these places are integral to that comprehension.
I had a wonderful time in Nicaragua. I truly enjoyed the menagerie of experiences and borne out of this appreciation is the desire to see more of Nicaragua. If I had a month to spare, I might consider spending a week in each place. But with a short time, one country is more than enough. Some people spend a lifetime in one country; that must indicate something.
Should you Take a Day Trip to Costa Rica?
I even put my money where my mouth is. At one point in the journey, in the surfing village of Playa Maderas, my buddy Kevin decided to try his hand at surfing. Apparently, the beach is one of the prime locations for the sport in the country, so why not set your sights high?
As for me, I figure I should learn how to swim well before surfing in a bay known to have riptides. Don’t put the cart before the wood chipper as the saying goes.
So I was trying to figure out what to do with myself. Eager to explore more of Nicaragua, I reasoned a day trip to Léon might be cool, but the bus ride in one day proved prohibitively long. Heading to Bluefields required a flight over the jungle to be a day trip, so maybe cross that out. And the last option I thought of was Liberia in Costa Rica.
The last idea was simply to check it off the list, a la carefree backpackers. I thought better of this, and instead spent the day lazily on a hammock overlooking a treelined crest of volcanic rock reading Blood of Brothers by Stephen Kinzer. I think this was a better choice, as I learned more about the country while enjoying its intrinsic beauty.
I don’t intend for this post to be holier-than-thou. If you have a conviction, as I do with purpose of travel, then I can expound said theory. I don’t think backpackers through Southeast Asia are necessarily bad people or misguided, although a select minority of them most certainly are deranged folks. (Thailand’s expats, I’m looking toward you.)
I have a purpose for my travel. I have central questions and a primary thesis from which I bounce these inquiries. An auxiliary purpose is often to enjoy a local lager and relax. Others may invert this purpose, and that’s okay.
For some, the accessibility of these places allows them to design their trip as such, and that’s perfectly fine. I acknowledge there is more than one viable way to travel.
At the end of the day, I think travel is beneficial to all. The focus of this piece is highlight that Nicaragua is simply a place that one should not zip through on their way to another Central American place.
Nicaragua is a wonderfully diverse place if you look for it. Bluefields, I’m coming your way next time.
Let me know what you think in the comments below! Do you agree? Should you spend your time in Nicaragua, or can you zoom right on through?
Like what you’re reading on Nicaragua? Check out some other related articles in: The Nicaragua Chronicles!!