When we left El Tunco in El Salvador for Nicaragua, we knew we were in for a painful experience. A 40 mile section of Honduras stood between us and Nicauragua, and given our last experience with corrupt border officials and police there, we were in for a grueling day fighting crowds and avoiding bribes. Armed with our previous experience, we were not shocked by the chaos and disorder that ruled at the El Salvador-Honduras border. 40 miles later the crossing from Honduras into Nicaragua was largely uneventful, as we received our car import permit for free and purchased Nicaraguan car insurance at the border. We breathed a sigh of relief as Honduras disappeared into the distance behind us and the volcanoes of Nicaragua loomed ahead.
We were very underwhelmed by Masachapa and Pochomil, the first beaches we encountered in Nicaragua. Ramshackle shanties and half assembled thatched-roof huts ringed the beaches, and the restaurant and hotel owners seemed to have learned their sales tactics from the Honduran border. We were chased down the sandy street by men waving menus and shouting the dinner specials. After losing the crowd following the car, we found an overpriced dump of a hotel and stayed the night, hoping that the beaches further south would be more appetizing.
On our drive south, we learned some valuable lessons about how to avoid bribing the Nicaraguan police when they pull you over for some bogus reason. Whether it was speeding, passing, or not having an orange safety triangle, we almost enjoy interacting with the police at this point. They are always friendly as they sadly explain that we have violated some law and will now have to pay a fine. Unfortunately they explain, this means they will have to keep our license and we will have to drive to some distant town the next day to pay a fine in order to retrieve our license. Because this particular police officer is a good guy though, he will offer us the very reasonable alternative of paying him directly to avoid the inconvenience of waiting a day and driving around. Knowing that we haven’t been speeding, passing, and the triangle excuse may be bogus, we play along and state that we would be perfectly happy to retrieve our license and pay the fine the next day. This sends the police officer into a state of confusion, causing him to ask if we understood what he said. He then pulls his last trick out of his hat, and whips out a pad of paper as if to write a ticket. We just sit there serenely, nodding, and wait for him to give up and hand us back our license when he realizes we have called his bluff. Works like a charm. We have probably been pulled over 10 times in the last 2 weeks, and this has worked every time.
We had high hopes for San Juan del Sur, a beach town in southern Nicaragua close to the Costa Rica border, as the Lonely Planet guides described it as slightly ‘vacuous and gringofied.’ In general for beach towns, we have found that this signifies the availability of a variety of nice restaurants, hotel options, and usually a beautiful location. While the town was pleasant and we were looking forward to several days of sun and surf, our stay there was cut short by two unrelated and unfortunate events. First, Chris had a bizarre infection that caused his foot to swell up alarmingly, which we refered to as ‘club foot’ for the next few weeks. Without an appointment, we paid $1.50 and waited only 15 minutes to see the local doctor, who prescribed antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, rest and ice. Later that night, his eyes swelled halfway shut making him look like a freak of nature. Second, we befriended a local restaurant owner who helped us translate the Spanish legalese in our Nicaraguan insurance document, and we found out that our car was dangerously underinsured by the policy we had purchased at the border. After calling the Nicaraguan insurance office the next morning to try to purchase sufficient coverage, we had to rush to Managua. To buy sufficient insurance, the Nicaraguan insurance company had to see our car in person, and was closing for the Christmas holiday in three hours. Two and a half tense hours later, we navigated our way through the un-named streets of Managua, frantically asking directions from the locals, and interrupted the holiday party of the insurance company. They were very gracious, quickly wrote us an excellent policy, and turned off the lights behind us as we left the building. Exhausted by the frantic driving and medical semi-emergencies, we found a lovely hotel in Granada with swimming pool, AC, and cable TV, and happily lazed around for two days while awaiting the arrival of our friends Laurie and Steve from the Unites States.