Being Tourists in Nicaragua

“Please be a traveler, not a tourist. Try new things, meet new people, and
look beyond what’s right in front of you. Those are the keys to understanding
this amazing world we live in.”
~ Andrew Zimmern

I’d heard different versions of this quote long before we left for this journey around the planet. Or rather I’d seen them scroll by on my Facebook feed, written in some funky-looking font and set against the backdrop of an ocean sunset or something. “Be a traveler, not a tourist.”

To be honest, the first time I read it I was a little annoyed. It gives the impression there’s a right or wrong way to explore the world around us. I mean, who’s to say any one kind of travel experience is better than another? If someone wants to trek through the Thai jungle to a Buddhist monastery and eat their meals on banana leaves with the locals, then good for them. But if another person wants to sit on a Thai beach while drinking Bud Light and eating Snickers bars, that’s their prerogative. I mean, aren’t both people seeing a different part of the world? Aren’t they stepping out of their comfort zones and getting exposure to a foreign culture? Why designate categories over something as personalized as how one chooses to travel?

Although, I will admit that during our journey I’ve come to understand the point this whole “traveler vs. tourist” distinction is trying to make. There’s something special that gets missed when people go to new places but do the same old things. They might be collecting some exotic photos in their social media feeds, but the experience can’t have the same effect on them than if they’d gotten away from the Americanized resort and the English-speaking tour guides for a while. It’s the little challenges and uncertainties that come with travel, whether domestic or international, that make the experiences unique. They create little shifts in our thinking which we keep with us long after we’ve returned home. Navigating around a new city, trying local foods, learning the history, seeing both the beautiful and the heartbreaking…this seems to be the difference between travel and tourism.

However, that’s not to say that being a tourist in the classic sense of the word isn’t a helluva lot of fun! Throughout our journey, our family has avoided packaged tours, primarily for economic reasons. With five of us, it was always a lot more cost effective to get ourselves to the popular spots on our own and avoid the upcharge for a bus and a tour guide. But here in Nicaragua we’ve definitely taken advantage of having things prepackaged for us. A tour business is literally right next door to our house and they offer easy access to everything from zip lining to volcano hikes. Our large crew has given them a lot of business this month and we’ve had some really good times.

Like, for instance, the canopy zipline tour all 13 of us went on together our first week here. With our friends, the Perrys, as well as other Chattanooga friends, Andree, Charlotte, Karen and Grace, who were in for a visit, we put on some harnesses and helmets and flew through the trees for an afternoon.

We also hired a driver to take our large crew over to a beach near San Juan del Sur. Once a small fishing village, this town became a bustling international port during the California Gold Rush. Boats brought travelers and treasure seekers down the Caribbean Sea and up the San Juan river to the shores of Lake Nicaragua. After taking a stagecoach over the narrow strip of land between the lake and San Juan del Sur, they’d get on another boat and sail to California. Today the regions to the north and south of the port city are known for their beautiful coastlines, surfing beaches and tourist resorts.

Of course, we didn’t have everything arranged for us. We coordinated some things on our own. One day we found three taxis to take us out to an area Jay and Brian had stumbled upon while biking. When the road ended we all unloaded out of the cars next to a small farm. The family living there eyed us curiously as our big group of gringos tromped by their home and into the forest beyond it. After a short walk we were overlooking Laguna Apoyo, a massive crater lake formed by an ancient volcano. We made our way down the hill and spent an afternoon swimming in the clear blue waters. While we splashed around and relaxed on the small beach, local boys brought their herds of cows down to the water for a drink.

Jay and Brian also ventured out to hike Volcano Concepcion, one of the two active volcanoes which form the island of Ometepe in Lake Nicaragua. Their trip was both self-planned and also guided. They researched it and got a taxi down to the town of San Jorge where they caught a ferry over to the island. They quickly found a hostal for just $8 for the night, the only problem with it being that when they got back from dinner it smelled like the inside of someone’s dirty sweat sock. Their olfactory systems had to tough it out.

The next morning they met up with their guide who would show them the trail up the volcano. Jay wasn’t feeling his best. The previous night’s dinner or possibly the rum drinks that went with it caught up with him during the first part of their trek, so he had to spend some time off the trail. However, he powered through it like the badass he is and soon the two of them were up near the top of the volcano looking down over Lake Nicaragua. The last 200 meters of the volcano had been closed off due to the toxic fumes coming out of the crater, but Brian and Jay still saw gorgeous views when the clouds parted around them.

Throughout their trek they had the company of some interesting characters, including a memorable young German guy who giggled like a little girl because he was high on something, or at least that’s what he told them. It was apparently true given his behavior. He would scrunch up his nose and giggle at everything around him. At one point he grabbed Brian’s camera and started taking photos of himself…while giggling, of course.

So, tourists or travelers, whatever you want to call us during our time in Nicaragua, we’re finding ways to explore this country and enjoy everything it has to offer. Having our friends with us is making this last leg of our around-the-world adventure really special. We’re creating some great memories to laugh about when we see them again in the states.

About the Author

Tracey Carisch

Mom, wife, friend and change agent traveling the world with my family to learn our place in it. After spending a career in organizational change management and community initiative implementation, I put my career on hold for our family's trip around the world. In April of 2014 we sold almost everything we own, put the rest in a storage container, and departed on this journey. While my husband continued his software development work to financially support our trip, I planned and documented our adventure, homeschooled our three daughters, and found volunteer work opportunities for us to do in the communities we visit. Now that we've returned to the U.S., I'm completing book about our family's adventure and our lessons learned.

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