I had finally made the decision to go somewhere. I couldn't get anyone to go with me, but I was going. I had 6 weeks, money in the bank (kind of) and an open mind. But it's really hard to choose where you want to go when you want to go EVERYWHERE. I had to sit down and really figure out what was going to work with my time-frame, budget, and need for adventure. The final verdict? Nicaragua.
What led me to choose Nicaragua as my first time backpacking destination? Here's why I decided to travel Nicaragua & why you should to...
1) Nicaragua is cheap
As a poor college student trying to plan her first backpacking trip to a foreign country, my first priority and concern was cost. Once I factored out what money I would need to put aside for paying bills while I was gone (rent, utilities, etc.) I had about $1,500 to spend on my trip. My first initial thought was Costa Rica. It's close to home (for me) and I'd always heard great things about it from friends and family who had visited. Upon further research however, I learned that Costa Rica has since become more commercialized and just plain expensive to travel. But just to the north, we've got Nicaragua - "The New Costa Rica!"
Flights into Managua, the country's capital, are pretty cheap. You can fly to most of the Central American countries for less than $100 if you are flying out of a major city in Florida or Texas and plan ahead, but Nicaragua is among the cheapest to fly into. My one-way flight from Orlando to Managua was only $81.
In terms of accommodation you can find hostel dorms for as little as $5 a night. On average I ended up paying around $8 for a bunk and maybe a little extra if I wanted a night of air-con. Street food was always a cheap option for around $2 a meal, and you can buy delicious fruit on the street for pennies just about anywhere. The local transportation is also incredibly cheap and easy to use! A one hour bus ride would be equivalent to about $0.80. Insane. The activities geared towards tourists could also always be haggled down to a great price!
2) Nicaragua is safe & Easy to travel
When I told my dad I was going to Nicaragua, he plainly replied. "Nicaragua is not a safe country." Well Dad, it's not the 1980's anymore. Nicaragua does have a past of gang warfare and bloodshed, but now is considered one of the safest countries in Central America next to Costa Rica and Panama. Nicaragua's past of socio-political instability coupled with its high level of poverty still gives the country a bad rap. As a traveler, your main concern is petty street crime (which, hello, can happen anywhere). Just don't go wandering off drunk in the middle of the night down a dark ally waving your wallet in the air. Despite some verbal harassment in the streets, I never really once felt unsafe in Nicaragua.
Also, the major hotspots for backpackers to go to are all generally close together and easy to get to, and during my trip I almost always took the local "chicken buses" from city to city. They are very easy to use and incredibly cheap! These types of buses also have a bad reputation but I never had any problems! Just don't be alarmed when a baby is being placed on your lap because there is physically no more space on the bus. They'll squeeze you in tight. Just don't let your backpack out of sight and hold your money close.
3) Nicaragua is Beautifully Diverse and Full of Adventure!
This is a country that offers a vast array of landscapes and wildlife to experience! Full of towering volcanos, endless lakes, pristine beaches, and lush vegetation, Nicaragua never really gets old.
In the cute colonial town of Granada you have Mambacho Volcano as your backdrop, while close by you can see real bubbling molten lava in Masaya Volcano or relax at the beautiful Laguna de Apoyo. Go more north to see the sites and art in Leon, or head to the middle of Lake Nicaragua to the enchanting island of Ometepe where I experienced some of the most incredible sunsets of my life (also crazy monkeys). Party it up in San Juan Del Sur then visit some of the smaller beaches on the Pacific Coast. There is such a variety of activities that come with the diversity and beauty Nicaragua has to offer.
4) Volunteer opportunities
A big deciding factor for me were the volunteer opportunities that arouse in Nicaragua. During my trip I knew I wanted to do some volunteer work and possible stay in one place for a while, so I registered with Workaway, a work exchange site that helps travelers connect with hosts all over the world. I ended up working at a very cool hostel on the side of Mambacho called Treehouse Nicaragua for part of my time in the country. The only reason I left Nicaragua was because of a volunteer opportunity that came up in Playa Grande in Costa Rica that I decided to accept! Volunteering abroad allowed me to really get the feel of a place and settle into a community while also saving some money.
Yes, I am female. Yes, I went by myself. Yes, this was my first time backpacking - first time out of the U.S. even. I came back in one piece with all of my important belongings in tact, full of memories and life-changing experiences.