Nicaragua, a 1st visit to a 3rd world

Aeropuerto Internacional Managua, Nicaragua

It is highly recommended not to fly in at dark, and not to accept rides from unmarked cabs when visiting Central America. I’m also told it is a good rule of thumb to know the language, and hide a little money in your shoe. However, to maximize our vacation time, we flew out directly after work that evening, and landed in Managua, Nicaragua at 11:08pm. We paid the $10 entry fee at customs, and shuffled a few feet over to the single baggage claim area to find The Husband’s Surf Board. Some college kids in front of us were laughing, waiving to people, and speaking a perfect mix of English and Spanish. I wish I had more than 1 year of high school Spanish, all that comes to mind is “Donde está la bana?” and “ lo siento, no dinero”. These phrases are probably not going to be useful in finding our hotel driver. I glance to my left and see eager kids, families, and drivers holding names on signs. They are crowding against each other, some pressing their faces against the glass doors, and all searching to find whoever they are waiting for. In no particular order everyone continues a couple steps to the left in the direction of a glass doorway that seems to be the only exit out of this tiny airport. Two airport personal shout something in Spanish, and gesture for us to throw our backpacks on the conveyor belt x-ray thing before leaving the area. Grabbing them from the other side, we move with the crowd out into the 93 degree, night air of Managua.

Chaos.

It’s dark, the streets are dimly lit and alive with people, there’s trash along the roads and everything seems to be made of dirt. My eyes widen as I clutch our passports a little tighter and I suddenly feel very much like a foreigner, and very far from home. It’s hot, but I feel like I should cover up with my sweater. The Husband (completely at ease, without concern) tells me to keep walking, probably so we’d blend in, but there was no blending in. I had a red backpack and he’s in a bright green shirt carrying a 6ft surf board. Each time someone bumps into me, I think I’m going to be pick-pocketed. I listened to too many stories before we came, the unknown builds fear and as much research as I had done, I knew very little about this place. Taxi drivers and young kids (no older than 8 or 9) flock to us, “Cab? Where are you going? Need ride? Ride to a hotel? Here’s a cab! Just one dollar, please 1 dollar!” My face must have been showing my concern because The Husband tells me we are fine, everything is fine, just chill.  But where was our driver? I had seen a guy holding a sign with the name of our hotel when we were inside but he wasn’t here now, and there were stories of people posing as hotel drivers to lure tourists into their cars and rob them, so how did I even know if that was our driver! All of a sudden a kid grabs The Husband’s surf board out of his hands and runs into traffic. A security guard darts over to intercept the board. “Over here! Hotel Camino Real!”, the kid shouts. There it was, the shuttle had our hotel name (check), the driver showed a paper with our first and last names (double check), we got in.

Hotel Camino Real, Managua

Soft morning sunshine and warm air welcome us as we step out of our room, we are surrounded by wild gardens, a little unkempt, but beautiful none the less. Big palm bushes and bright pink-orange flowers fill in all the undeveloped spaces between rooms, pathways, sitting tables and swimming pools. It is a new day and the concerns from last night are no longer memorable. A bellhop opens the door for us as we pass through the lobby and head to breakfast, others behind the front desk smile in our direction. It is strange to see so many lights and Christmas decorations when it’s a humid 88 degrees outside……..and inside (a/c is used sparingly, if even present at all). Breakfast is a bit strange. The buffet set up and decor resembles that of most hotel breakfasts; funny patterned carpet and chairs, white table clothes topped with fake flowered center pieces, and funky oversized paintings hung on the wall. There is an omelet station, and tortilla station – fresh but a little on the rubbery side from the corn tortillas I’m familiar with. Rice and beans, Chile rellanos, migas, a variety of fresh fruits I’ve never seen before, and something swimming in bowl of vinegar that I think you are supposed to put on top of everything. The coffee is Café con Leche, and our waitress comes around frequently to pour hot coffee from one pot and then tops off our cups with hot milk from another. I was confused why the coffee was so hot when I had opted for so much milk, and it took me about 3 cups in to realize the milk was hot too! Genius idea. I will be warming my milk at home from now on.  This hotel must have been too close to the airport and used to travelers, as I think we got taken on the price, $25! I thought it was included with our room so we just walked out. Shortly after we were flagged down by a few employees and, after a limited English/ Spanish discussion with the front desk, it would appear breakfast was not included. Awkward….. Oh our ride is here! Going to Aqua? Why yes, yes we are! I cannot wait to get to my tree house!

Managua to Aqua Resort & Spa

It seems the whole country is permanently camping. I Love camping, so already I’m excited. Clothes hang air-drying from ropes strung from tree to tree, and everyone is bustling about. Happy dogs romp free, tongues hanging out and tails wagging, but mules and goats are leashed to trees?  Hardly any grass, housewives are sweeping the dirt between the wild foliage that is growing around their homes.  Everything is green, overgrown with blooming fruit, and dusty… well everything that I can see anyways. The Husband’s 6ft surfboard is taking up much of my view from our sweet escorted ride. Rafael was a bit confused on how to load the surfboard into his Toyota Yaris. After many configurations, he decided that a diagonal placement from dashboard to back seat was the choicest storage option.

Cars & buses are broke down & being worked on, I see what appears to be possibly a solo county worker, wearing an orange vest & scooping black gravel or asphalt into what’s left of a wheel barrel. The front end has completely rusted off and there is a large plastic looking feed sack hanging over the edge that seems to be patching the holes in the bottom, so as not to let any treasures sift through.  Another guy stands barefoot on a stool painting his tin planked over hang with stripes of brown, a man sleeps in a hammock strung from the rails in the back of a make-shift flatbed truck, and donkeys are pulling carts.  Everywhere u look, something is for sale.  A paper sign hangs from a barred gate “hay $1”. I wonder if that is Cordobas or US $? $1 US equates to $24.10 Cordoba so that would be like 4 cents! Oh, I wonder how much hay you get for 4 cents. Mothers are wearing aprons & cooking food on the street in deep fryers made from blue metal trash cans that have been cut horizontally, turned on their sides and filled with hot oil. The road we drive on is paved, for now, but adheres to no particular direction or rules.  We pass cars, flat bed passenger carrying trucks, scooters with families of 4, mopeds, motor cycles, teetering trucks full of Pepsi bottles or stacked crates of live chickens, piled higher than what would be considered safe by any standards. Bicyclists, donkey carts, buses, and those on foot all share the same roads, with no one particular type of transportation being more prominent than the other.  We speed along as fast as the roads allow until someone, or something stops, or crosses in front of us, at which point the norm is to give a little beep-beep of the horn and swerve around.  Two way traffic comes right at you, on a road barely big enough to accommodate.  Sometimes we drive on the right, sometimes the left but the whole time Rafael seems to be continually counter steering against an off kilter alignment.  At any rate the system seems to work, as I have not witnessed one accident or any sign of road rage. We pass a gas station that shows $28.01 Cordoba/ liter.  According to Google, there’s 3.78541 liters in a gallon so that makes about $4.39 US/ gallon. Considering the average income here is $365- $1000/ year, gas stations are not that popular, and there are not many of them.

A big rig stops abruptly in front of us, bringing our car to a halt. That, and the surf board, is really limiting my vision to the source of the stop. There are many people walking about in this area and I’m beginning to feel a little uncomfortable the longer we stay put. A few minutes go by and Rafael decides, since we are already stopped, this would be an optimal time to rearrange our luggage. He pops the trunk, jumps out in the middle of the road, and starts pushing on my back seat. Apparently the rear seats fold down, that makes sense. Surf board is now half hiding in the trunk & half posing as my backseat passenger. Much better!

The terrain turns more rural & the houses more sparse as we pass fields of sugar, coffee, rice, papayas, plantains, corn & coconuts.  There are active volcanos on my right & my left that peek out above the tropical tree tops.  Nicaragua has over 50 volcanos, 7 of which are considered active. I might think I was in Hawaii if it weren’t for the roadside trash, barbed wire fences, oh and the fact that we have yet to see the ocean.  It appears nature is the cleanup crew here, as the trash biodegrades into the ground and the weeds grow on.  In the streets of Rivas people linger outside their homes with doors and windows open. I get a glimpse of what’s inside.  Most have dirt floors inside too, but are filled with regular furnishings.  I can see part of a wooden armoire, couch and dresser. One man, shirtless, covers his face with a welding mask as sparks fly while he repairs his fence.  People are working on rock walls, eating food, tending to animals, drinking glass bottled soda and just looking about, passing time. We turn left, right, right, then left, through semi cobble stoned roads barely wide enough to fit our car.  A donkey is tied to a post, a woman lingers in a doorway holding a baby, and a mule (or maybe it’s an ox, not quite sure) pulls another mule down a driveway.  The cobblestones end as we approach where this road is being made….by hand!  About 20 guys rearrange the stones and swing pick axes to break up the dirt to flatten it.

We are 2 hours into the drive, the roads are all dirt now & when another car passes, it leaves us in a cloud of dust; ehhhh….kinda thirsty. On the up side, veinte minutos until we reach our destination and the homes are getting much nicer, some even have real clay shingled roofs. It seems like we are really out here, but I see signs for beaches as we approach a private gate, so that’s comforting. I stifle a laugh as the guard literally lifts open the electric-looking gate by straddling it for leverage, and throwing his body back like he was riding a see-saw. He gives our driver a friendly welcoming tip of the hat, who waves back as they seem to know each other.  We drive through a tunnel of trees up a bumpy road and stop at what looks like a one room hut. Our driver gets out and starts moving our back packs into the “reception area”. We are here? Ahhh… I hope this doesn’t turn out to be one of those places that spiced up their website to attract guests. Where’s the beach?? Donde esta la playa por favor!

Aqua’s Hidden Tree houses, Tola

The entry to Aqua reminds me of the unevenly nailed, old wood gate in front of my parent’s house. Make it look like there’s nothing good behind it. This was my Dad’s idea to detour any looky-lous, or potential robbers from putting his property on their to-do list. I believe Aqua had the same idea. Up the steps and through the doorway of this thatched roof shack puts you at the beginning of another world. I feel like I’ve just been on safari with my back pack, hat and slightly dirty sun dress. One of the staff, in a nice cotton collared polo, pours us filtered water from the water cooler. The glasses are so crystal clear, I wonder if they broke out a brand new box just for us. Rafael heads back to the Yaris and waives good bye to us. Another perfectly polo dressed staff gestures towards the solid teak check-in desk where the girl begins to check us in using perfectly pronounced (rehearsed) English.

“You will be staying in the Dormolina Luxury Tree house suite, and here is your cell phone as we do not have phones in the room. To set up your complementary welcome massage you can call the spa or just stop by. I will let the beach front restaurant know of your arrival and they will make you welcome drinks whenever you are ready. The beach is just a 2 minute walk through the trees. Ernesto is usually down there and he will help you with snorkeling, paddle boards or kayaks if you like. Carlos will help you with your bags and take you to Dormolina, let us know if you need anything at all.”

Wow. Everyone is smiling at us and seems very excited for us to be here, which is making me even more excited! Carlos points to the map of the property and shows us where we will be going. He says he just started here a few months ago and loves it, and we are going to love it too. We follow him out the side door that leads to a small wooden planked drawbridge style path through the trees. My eyes are not big enough to take it all in; this quiet beauty is unlike anything I have ever seen before. Instantly we are in a jungle. I feel like I just stepped through the wardrobe into Narnia, except it was a backdoor of a thatched roof hut and I’m not in the snow, I’m in a tropical jungle oasis. Long green vines hang from massive tree tops, all the way down to the crushed red rock paths, that lead you off the drawbridges down to the ocean. Blue sky peeks through the tree canopy and there are soft chirping birds, crickets, a light whispering breeze, slow crashing waves, and monkeys all singing a song more beautiful than any nature sound cd or Pandora station I’ve ever heard. It’s not simulated peace, its live; the jungle is playing a live continuous concert. I look behind us; the thatched roof hut has disappeared. If it weren’t for the path, I would not know where we came from. The tree houses are crafted from the trees they are built in, and almost completely blend back into them. Up a winding open air 3 story staircase, we stop just below the tree tops, and cross a beautiful Teak wood deck as Carlos opens the door to our all Teak crafted room. Teak shower, teak closet, teak table and side tables, teak vanity, teak chairs, and a teak king size bed that looks out through a teak framed sliding glass wall into the tree tops and beyond. The whole wall opens and leads you to another balcony and a plunge pool, which is all amazing, but there is another tree house just to the right of the pool?

When booking this room, I searched and searched, and the most important features I wanted, was an ocean view and a private plunge pool. This other tree house was significantly blocking our ocean view and if someone was staying in there, this was not going to be very private at all!  This was my first real vacation, we had worked long hard mind-altering hours this year to save for it, and I just wanted everything to be perfect, and now I’m here with no cell service and hopefully I hadn’t booked the wrong room! I unzipped my backpack and rummaged for the confirmation itinerary I had previously printed online. I unfold my papers, walk over to Carlos and in what I thought was my nice voice, but was later told by my husband, that it was more my annoyed customer voice, I ask “hi, ummmm are we in the Luxury ocean view suite with private plunge pool?, because I booked the Luxury Ocean view suite with private plunge pool and there is that other villa right there and……” “Yes, this is your room and private plunge pool and,” he walks over, unlocks the other tree house next to the pool, pulling the doors apart to open the entire wall, “this is your private kitchen”. This is all ours? This whole floor? Oh my goodness!! Ha! I cannot contain my excitement. Teak floors, teak chairs and table, stainless steel fridge, copper bottom hanging pots, bar height rock counter tops and professional gas cooktop, dishes stacked perfectly next to crystal clear glasses in all teak shelves, filtered water cooler and another balcony. That’s four balconies, our suite has 4 balconies! The wall completely slides out on this side too and the view, wow. You can see the teal waters in the private cove, and beyond the cliffs bigger waves are crashing at playa Colorados. We can hear the waves too. It is all just unreal. I cannot believe we are here. I did not know places like this existed, I could not imagined it any more perfect; It feels like we are in a painting.

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