Going Beyond the Guidebook

8 miraflor trees 2 20My guidebook and I are on the outs. So far, in my current location of Estelí, Nicaragua, it has provided me with bad directions to a hostel, two restaurants, a cigar factory, a guitar maker, and a bar. I’d be truly surprised if the author has been to this city at all. Speaking Spanish here has become less of a convenience and more of a necessity. Admittedly, I rarely travel without a guidebook—having a map, historical background, recommendations, and transportation information for nearly every city you visit is a huge advantage—but I’ve developed a love-hate relationship with them. 8 miraflor stream 20The best guidebooks I’ve seen are still riddled with inaccuracies. Even if the authors and publishers have done their homework, new editions are generally only published every three years or so. If you spend any time in the developing world, you’ll know it’s earned that title. A lot can change in three years. Beyond faulty information, a guidebook entry can change a place with a mere mention. If a popular book exposes an off-the-beaten-track destination, for example, that place won’t stay off the beaten track for long. For all these reasons, I’ve put my Nicaragua guidebook aside, at least in Estelí. I’ve decided to consult with random locals to determine my next destination, but, while this city has begun to develop a tourist infrastructure, I’ve yet to encounter an English-speaking Nicaraguan here. Travelers aren’t coddled like they are in San Juan del Sur, so my sessions with TOTALe are paying off now more than ever. 8 miraflor farm 20I hear from a woman working in my guesthouse about an unusual tourist attraction in the highlands, to the north. The Miraflor Reserve is used mostly for coffee production and some cattle ranching. That’s not exactly a reserve by most standards, but farmers there have made an agreement to limit land use in certain ways to preserve the area’s natural beauty. On the heels of that, many of the farms have built accommodations for travelers. There’s an office in town where I arrange a trip to Miraflor, and the young, Spanish-speaking receptionist tells me how to catch a bus to the reserve the following morning. I return to Hotel Nicarao where I ask the night guard if he can wake me up at 5 a.m. In the morning, I board an old American school bus that winds its way up into the mountains on a road of rock and dust. Sleeping on treacherous bus journeys—while second nature to Central Americans—is a skill I’ve only just begun to acquire. It helps, of course, to practice at 5:30 am. Luckily, I’d been chatting with Leonel, the man sitting next to me, about my destination, because he wakes me up at the fork in the road that leads deeper into the reserve. 8 miraflor horses 20My instructions are to exit the bus at this fork and walk twenty or thirty minutes up the road. A man on horseback at the crossroads sees me exit the bus, and waits. To my surprise, he offers me his horse. Typically wary of helpful people while traveling, I politely refuse his help. “No, gracias,” I tell him, “It’s good exercise.” He rides alongside me as I walk, and I discover that he’s the pastor of the local church. He escorts me to the farm where I’ll be staying for the next couple of days, and walks in to chat with the women in the open-air kitchen as they prepare eggs with tortillas and fresh coffee for breakfast. Clearly my caution was unnecessary. Miraflor hasn’t become so overrun with visitors as to encourage scammers or thieves, and though I scorn myself for being so jaded, I’m glad my Spanish was good enough to tactfully refuse the pastor’s genuine offer of help. I sit and sip locally grown and roasted coffee as hummingbirds buzz around the surrounding garden. It’s a peaceful place. 8 humming bird 20I spend my days in Miraflor on horseback, alongside Luis, a local guide. We ride through the boulder-strewn hillside under mossy trees. The ground is carpeted with broad, colorful leaves that remind me of a New England autumn, though the temperature must be close to a hundred degrees. Like most guides here, Luis doesn’t speak a word of English, but in Spanish he points out orchids and explains coffee production as we hitch our horses by the flowering coffee plants. There’s a generator that kicks on for a few hours in the evening to power a couple of buzzing lightbulbs, but I eat by candlelight just the same. The meals of grilled chicken and gallo pinto are infused with woodsmoke from the fires over which they’re prepared. After dinner, I scratch in my notebook for a while and then go to bed early, already getting used to sleeping with the rhythm of the sun. After the chaos and commerce of Estelí this place is a perfect change of pace. I’m glad I put my guidebook down for a while and began to rely on my Spanish to navigate.

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Daniel McIsaac

Daniel S. McIsaac is a freelance writer and photographer with a particular interest in the frontiers of contemporary travel: cultural exchange, unconventional destinations, education, volunteer work and responsible tourism. A serious advocate with an affection and respect for every destination, his writing often ignores this, in favor of the ridiculous and irreverent. Traveling from an early age whenever possible, Daniel was encouraged to continue his world exploration while studying at Oberlin College. There, amidst the cornfields under a gray winter sky, he learned that he should leave the country as soon as humanly possible, preferably for somewhere warm and by the sea. This inspired idea has since delivered him to five continents, sixteen countries, and several states, territories, protectorates and future undecided locales, all with little more than carry-on luggage and a sense of adventure. Though a writer and English major, Daniel professes a serious distaste for the study of grammar in the context of language instruction and this has consistently sullied his prior relationships with foreign language, which have included a protracted courtship with Spanish and a torrid affair with Mandarin Chinese. In an attempt to remedy this, he is currently traveling through Central America and studying Spanish with Rosetta Stone. Rosetta Stone commissioned Dan to try TOTALe and provide his thoughts. In addition to writing for Rosetta Stone, Dan has written travel pieces for magazines and online publications. When not on the road, Daniel resides in the Outer Banks of North Carolina where he spends his time building wooden surfboards, playing acoustic guitar, surfing and sailing. More of his writing and photography can be found at www.crawlwalktravel.com.
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