No Postcards from Managua

A jet clears the Yucatan peninsula and approaches the cord of land strung from North to South America. The wings descend over the lava and lakes of Nicaragua toward the hot Managua tarmac and the promise that the end of a seventeen-hour travel day is near.

In anticipation of this moment I’ve been studying with Rosetta Stone for two and a half months. And while the usual chore of clearing the cobwebs from my Spanish vocabulary won’t be necessary on this trip, I’m not exactly excited to strike out into a city that guidebooks peg as “difficult” and “nondescript”.  As I walk through the terminal with a sigh, bound for the sprawl of Managua, I decide in favor of a last-minute change of plans.

4 granada rooftops 33 e1397779516579Donning my best Spanish accent I approach a horde of taxi drivers and ask the price to Granada, the former capital an hour south.  I don’t know what the fare should be, but I do know that the initial quote always includes a clueless foreigner tax. Feigning astonishment, I inform the drivers with a smile that I’d better start walking. One driver decides to waive the tax for me and we’re soon on our way.

I should feel guilty—long distance cabbing like this is a cardinal sin for backpackers like myself. Even after negotiating a reasonable price, I’m spending nearly a day’s budget by true shoestring standards, but I rationalize: the same wad of cash placed in the palm of a Manhattan cabby would scarcely earn me directions to the nearest bus stop.

4 cathedral of granada 2 33An hour later the taxi drops me on a cobblestone street between the stucco walls of Spanish architecture painted in muted shell tones of yellow, pink and blue. Tables line the sidewalks of the street leading from the main cathedral and central park down the hill toward the dark, windswept lake in the distance.

A modest crowd of travelers, Nicaraguan and foreign alike, adorn the sidewalk cafes where they are served liters of beer wrapped in paper napkins under dull yellow street lamps. If not for the coral palette, I might be looking at the weathered facades of a European city.

Wandering away from the higher-priced hotels of the city center, I find a lodge a couple blocks from the central park. I’m greeted by the owner, Gustavo, and we chat as he shows me through an open courtyard adorned with plants and rocking chairs to a simple room with a bed and fan. Gustavo is an extroverted Costa Rican with a pencil-thin mustache and crystal clear Spanish, prone to loud and contagious bouts of laughter. With a good feeling about my host, I adopt the room as a home base for exploring Granada.

As I settle in and crack open my first bottle of Nicaraguan lager, I recall the start of my first Central American adventure, standing verbally paralyzed and helpless outside the airport in Guatemala City. Since then, arriving unannounced in foreign cities late at night, equipped with only my backpack and a smile, has become a favorite pastime of mine.

I’ve since learned two important lessons that have allowed for my penchant for poor planning, last-minute decisions and the always-exciting results.  First, pack what you think you need, then lose half.  Second, start to learn the language before you get off the plane—you’ll never appreciate it more than your first couple hours in a foreign country.  Light luggage and a handle on the language have given me endless freedom while traveling, even if sometimes it’s simply the freedom to change my own lousy plans at a moment’s notice.

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  • Afsha Khan

    first to comment! Woohoo! Okay, lovely pictures. What camera do you use?

  • fantasyimogene

    Cool pictures!

  • Moranna

    Super blog! Thoroughly enjoyed your travels from my armchair. Many years since I did any back-packing Daniel and the world was not so open and free then!! I really envy you and hope you continue to enjoy your back-packing!

  • ladyjustine

    So true… though it has to be said, a friendly cabbie is a good friend to have. I have turned up in countless cities and finding a good cabbie is the best find ever! They’ve taken me to fantastic hotels for half the cost I’d expect, and often they speak a Western language.

  • ewot

    i think this was retouched, it’s too contrast…cmiiw…

  • Raul

    I really like the pictures. Very vivid colors.

  • Ruby Craft

    The pictures are wonderful! You’re braver than I am! I went to Jamaica once, and returned happy that I had been there, but sick for three weeks.

  • Heather

    Awww…this makes me ache to return to Nicaragua. I have been there for the past three summers with a backpack and each year I pack lighter. If you are still there (or plan to go back)…taking a bus to San Juan Del Sur is one of the richest experiences, packed with locals and chickens, you’ll feel surreal. And you can buy ceviche and a Tona or two for a modest few dollars…not to mention a simple room with all you need–a bed, bathroom and fan. Thanks so much for your post. I’m inspired.

  • Nate

    Very cool piece. I hear you on the language thing. I hate planning when I travel (where’s the fun in that?) Speaking the language means you can forgo planning and just figure it out on the ground.

  • language journeys admin

    Heather, check back in a couple weeks for Dan’s upcoming post on San Juan Del Sur.

    Thanks everyone for your thoughts!

  • Jennifer

    I agree, lovely pictures and great writing!

  • Daniel McIsaac

    Thanks for the comments everyone!

    Afsha, these photos were taken with my trusty Nikon D40x with a low ISO and long exposure. It’s a smaller digital SLR so it’s easy to travel with.

  • Slamdunk

    Your tips make sense to me. Language prep is essential–even if you can only get a few of the words correctly.

  • pockettrockett


  • Bald History

    These are the kinds of unsolicited photos that make me sad that I can’t afford to travel at the moment. What a beautiful place. I won’t hold it against you.

  • Lu

    Very good post and nice photos very vivid colors.

  • batikmania

    Beautiful. Great pictures, and it’s such a nicely written blog posting. 😉

  • Imaginarium of Pau

    I love the photos. Very nice. The color of the sky is perfect.

  • liferelinquished

    Language is THE most important thing in any Latin American country I’ve been to. It makes life easier – or rather, it makes life POSSIBLE. I think you have to know a little to get any type of experience down there, unless you like leeching around as an obnoxious tourist. Cool pictures! Haven’t been to Managua yet, but I have a friend from Costa Rica who now lives in Nicaragua again, so it’s high on my list! Impressed that you were backpacking down there, I’m not quite tough enough for that…Appalachian Mountains of NC and VA are enough for me, thanks. It sounds fun in a you-go-ahead kind of way. 🙂 Rosetta Stone is great for Spanish, but at some point, actually speaking the language TO a REAL person just does wonders that Rosetta Stone cannot.

  • thiagoestefani

    beautiful pictures!! strong colors! just great

  • DC

    very vivid. beautifully taken

  • language journeys admin

    We agree, talking to native speakers does wonders for your language learning. For those who don’t have the chance to connect with native speakers as often as Dan does, our TOTALe program includes access to Studio sessions which give you the opportunity to practice with live native speakers from your home. You can also connect with other learners in our online community to chat and play games. If you’re interested in learning more you can visit

  • Hidden Reader

    You should write books. I love your story and I loved how I can picture myself doing what you experienced. I went to Nicaragua in 1992, its been a long time, I was 11 or 12 at the time when I went with my family. Thanks for the memory although things have changed since I was there. Anyway, I love your pictures hope to see more of your travels!

  • Eamon

    Nice post, great advice at the end! So simply put and definitely a keeper!

  • jhsketch

    Beautiful photographs and post.

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