I’ve always considered myself an adventurous traveler; I love to explore and go pretty much anywhere and am lucky to have found a partner who feels the same.
As an avid traveler, I often sign up for notifications for deals on flights. For one of my last trips, I decided to be extra adventurous – we would purchase whichever flight deal popped up next from either Detroit or Chicago that was both in our budget and to a country that neither of us had been to before. That country, as it turns out, would be Nicaragua.
After buying our tickets, we found a beautiful Airbnb near in a small surf town called Playa Gigante, about 2 and a half hours from the capital. After flipping through pictures, booking the Airbnb, arranging our transportation, and doing all our research, we were ready for a calm, relaxing beach trip.
Instead, we ended up with the exact opposite.
Essentially, the country of Nicaragua was experiencing some political unrest at the time. We heard that vicious riots that had begun mid-April between college students and President Daniel Ortega’s newly imposed pension reforms. We were to arrive on the first of June, less than 48 hours after the mother’s day massacre.
Social security reform. President Daniel Ortega. You can learn more about the protests here.
Nicaragua has a generally peaceful history and actually has a higher Global Peace Index score than the United States. The protests were condensed in the capital, and we were staying nearly 100 miles away. We had reliable transportation arranged ahead of time and were not planning on spending any time in the capital, other than our time at the airport, so we decided to continue with our trip.
When we landed, we easily found our ride. Our driver was great and everything went smoothly…until it didn’t.
After we exited the airport, our driver suddenly pulled over, made a phone call, and exited the car. For nearly 10 minutes, we were left sitting in the van wondering what was going on. Something was not right.
The driver came back and told us all of the roads were closed. We looked around us and noticed the streets were lined with fresh graffiti, gangs rode down the streets in the back of pickup trucks wielding large guns and machetes, bandanas tied around their mouths. Stores were being looted, trash lined the streets.
“We need to get you out of here,” said our driver.
We would have to wait until 4 am the next morning to leave as that was the only time the roads would be anything close to open. But luckily, he knew of a hotel in a gated community where we would be able to stay safe until it was time to evacuate. That would be our only chance to leave the city.
He informed us that our final destination of Playa Gigante in Rivas was safe. The commotion was only happening in the bigger cities, specifically the capital, Managua, where we were at that moment. The roads had been closed just earlier that day by protesters.
That night was terrifying. All night, we heard gunshots, shouting, and stories from locals about how, just a few nights prior, gangs had broken into that very neighborhood, but were chased out by the residents who blew trumpets out their windows and ran into the streets with machetes.
“Not today, we said!” recounted our new friend, Tomas, a local veterinarian that we met at the neighborhood bar (we definitely wanted a drink after all that). We got to learn all about the tumultuous past few weeks from the locals – their version, not what was being reported on the news – a history lesson that sunk in better than most. Ultimately, we were reassured of the undying strength, will, and generosity of the Nicaraguan people and that, for the night, we would be safe where we were.
Morning came and our ride showed up. We had a small caravan at that point (there was another group that also tried to exit the city the night before who ended up staying at the same hotel). It would be safer that way, anyway.
We passed some unforgettable things on that drive. We saw cars on fire, homemade roadside cemeteries, and countless barricades of bricks, branches, and burning tires. At one point, we passed a gasoline truck tipped over on the side of the road, abandoned.
It turned out that the protests and subsequent roadblocks weren’t just in the capital. Granada and other cities along our route had also been affected by the unrest. What was supposed to be a 2-hour drive ended up taking over 4 hours. We drove on dirt roads, through forests and fields and past some extremely impoverished communities. Although heartbreaking, it was educational, to say the least. We got to see the real Nicaragua, parts that most tourists and Americans don’t usually see.
The stay in Playa Gigante was great – calm, relaxing, scenic. We met some wonderful people and didn’t run into any trouble.
After a few quiet days, we started hearing that outside of our peaceful bubble, more roads were closing. ATMs were running out of money. Hospitals were ordered not to treat anyone who might be considered a protester. Towns were starting to run out of food and trucks couldn’t make deliveries. The US Embassy even shut down. We heard a rumor that just a few towns over, poisonous gas was being dropped from helicopters. That was just a rumor, though…hopefully.
It was at that moment that we decided to call our travel insurance company and see what they could do about getting us home. Who knew what the status of the country would be in one week when we were originally supposed to return.
Travel insurance determined that our request for an early return was valid and tried their hardest to arrange us a cab back to the capital. The problem was, however, that there was not a taxi driver in the country that would make the trip. Roads were still closed, conditions still hazardous, and gas was becoming extremely scarce.
We met some expats who lived down the street from our Airbnb who informed us about a little known airport just a few miles away, Costa Esmeralda Airport. They were operating two flights a day to Liberia, Costa Rica. These flights were filling up almost as fast as they were becoming available. Since you could only purchase flights from within the country, World Nomads was able to arrange reimbursement for our flights to Costa Rica, along with a ticket straight to our hometown from there.
We caught a ride with some expats who were dropping another off at the same airport. We were lucky, and privileged, to be able to leave the turmoil. There were many that couldn’t escape if they tried.
For 30 minutes, we flew low to the ground in an airplane that wasn’t much larger than your average minivan. My knees literally touched the back of the pilot’s seat as we sailed over lush jungles, rivers, and beaches, the Pacific ocean just to our right. It was one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking things I’ve ever experienced. My heart filled with love, awe, and ache for this country and its people.
Nicaragua is truly one of the most beautiful, welcoming, and strong-willed countries I have ever traveled to. We learned a lot on this trip, and despite everything that happened, I would go back in a heartbeat.
World Nomads kept us safe. World Nomads got us home. Nicaragua welcomed us with open arms, despite all they were going through. For that, I am forever grateful.
To learn about one way you can help support the people and communities of Nicaragua, visit https://anfnicaragua.org/
Traveling soon? We highly recommend purchasing your travel insurance through World Nomads!