Back in January, when Ultan and I were planning our trip to Nicaragua for June, it was still a sleepy surf country that was slowly being discovered as a travel gem by more and more tourists. It wasn’t as hot of a spot as Costa Rica, but with affordable prices, stunning scenery, and rich culture, it was gaining serious momentum. It was the perfect place to escape for a week.
And when we were planning our route and booking hotels, we did a lot of research about how safe Nicaragua is for tourists, what areas we should avoid, and what to look out for. While there was a typical warning about pickpocketing in big cities, there really weren’t any other glaring dangers. As long as we had common sense and remained aware, we would be fine. The Nicaraguan people are known for being welcoming and friendly, so we couldn’t wait to experience it for ourselves.
But fast forward to April, just two months before we were set to travel to Nicaragua, and the country began experiencing its biggest uprising since the civil war ended in 1990. There were protests in major cities, roads were shut down (locals put walls of bricks across roads all over the country), and innocent people were dying. It was heartbreaking to read daily updates of things getting worse as our trip drew closer. But we continued to monitor the news every day, and we reached out to our hotels about the current tourist situations in each spot. Long story short, we decided to still go, but to just be extra careful.
The day we were flying to Nicaragua, we were so relieved to see that they had agreed to peace talks, which meant protests would stop and road blocks would be taken down while things were negotiated. We were excited and relieved, and thought that maybe our trip wouldn’t have any hiccups after all.
The first leg of our trip was to Little Corn Island, which is a tiny island off the Caribbean side of Nicaragua. We knew this would be safe as it was virtually untouched by anything going on on the mainland. And we knew that we could always extend our stay there for the rest of the trip if things on the mainland didn’t seem steady enough.
Our stay on LIC was amazing, and we talked to many of the workers about our next stops back on the mainland and what they thought we should do. They even went as far as to call their friends and family in the cities we were planning to visit to ask about current conditions (Nicaraguan people really are so wonderful!). Long story short, things seemed to be a little calmer — definitely not totally quiet — but better. There weren’t nearly as many roadblocks up and our next hotel said they hadn’t had any issues with tourists reaching them, so we decided to fly back to the mainland and continue on with our planned itinerary. And that’s when everything changed.
We had arranged for a driver to take us from Managua airport on the mainland down to San Juan del Sur to our next hotel, which is on the Pacific side of Nicaragua and is usually about a two-hour drive. The driver knew which roads were closed and which roadblocks we could safely get through (there were masked men guarding each roadblock, some with makeshift guns, but they usually would accept a few dollars and let you peacefully pass). Our drive started at around 5 p.m., and literally as we were driving, things in the country began to get worse.
The normally two-hour drive was going to take us around four hours with the roadblocks, but again, we were told it was OK. And neither one of us had any weird gut feelings that things would go wrong, so we pressed on. The backroads we took led us high up a mountain with hardly any street lights, and after passing a roadblock that was halfway torn down to let cars through, we eventually came across a solid wall of bricks in the road with nowhere to pass. As we approached the wall, we got a flat tire because the protestors had also put nails in the road right before the roadblock. The driver pulled the car over to quickly change the tire, Ultan got out of the car to help him, and then we heard shots. The protestors that were guarding the roadblock started firing at police about 200 meters away from us. I ducked down and huddled in the backseat of the car and just prayed, and Ultan ran back around and jumped in the car as soon as the tire was fixed. He was in such shock, so high on adrenaline, and in a lot of pain from his sunburn that he looked at me and said, “I’m not shot anywhere, am I?” The driver got back in the car, and despite him not speaking any English and us not speaking any Spanish, made the gesture of people shooting and looked at us in a way that said, “We need to go right now.”
At that moment, Ultan and I didn’t care about the rest of our trip — we just wanted to get home. We told the driver to take us back to the airport hotel in Managua, and he understood. But on the way back (we were two hours into our journey when we came across the roadblock, so we had long way to go), the fog on the mountain got so thick that we couldn’t see anything. There was lightening and thunder all around us, and the driver had to actually stick his head out of the car window to try and see what was ahead. It felt like at any second, we were just going to drive right off that mountain. We also drove by an overturned gas truck, which protestors tried to blow up in front of the police station. People were running and yelling around it, and we didn’t know why until after the fact when we were reading the news.
It was the scariest night of my life. After we finally got back to the airport hotel, we booked new flights home for the next morning, and came home early. Before and during our trip, I kept scouring the internet for other tourists like us to see if I could get an honest opinion about what traveling through Nicaragua was really like right now, and I didn’t find one. So if you have a trip planned or are planning one, I would 100 percent wait until things calm down. Unless you go to Little Corn Island and that’s it, it really is just too dangerous right now. The country is angry, grieving, and trying to fight for what they believe in (as they should), and you never know when you might get caught in that crossfire. Nicaragua is a beautiful country with lovely people, and I truly can’t wait to go back again someday to experience it when they’ve found peace.