Spanish language practice travelling through Nicaragua
Nicaragua is great place for Spanish practice. It’s a safe and affordable destination and most of the people you meet don’t speak English. Many Nicaraguans are friendly and willing to chat with foreigners using poor Spanish. The history, colonial architecture, and volcanic landscape make an interesting country to travel through.
My friend Steve and I came here to brush up on our Spanish before a proficiency exam. We spent 9 days travelling through Managua, León, and Estelí.
- Hiring a driver, either for personal tours or transit, is a good way to practice with a captive audience. $90 from the capital to León (about 100km) won’t break the bank on such a short trip with only a few destinations. We split the fare of course. If your driver is chatty and doesn’t speak English, it’s a great value for practice. You’ll learn a lot about the local scene that you might not otherwise.
- Take Spanish lessons. We took high quality private lessons in León at the Dariana School for $10/hour.
- Avoid the touristy locations like Granada or the beach.
11-13 March: arrival in Managua
We flew in from Honolulu via Houston. Steve had arrived in Honolulu from China earlier that day. Long trip from Hawaii. To keep it simple and get oriented, we stayed at Hyatt Place next to the Galerias Santo Domingos mall. We saw it geared towards the more fortunate of an otherwise poor country. While not representative of the country, the mall was interesting for people watching.
First day focussed on settling in and getting a sim card for Steve’s phone. There are two data companies, Claro and Movistar. We chose prepago Claro. Good service and cheap, but would have coverage limitations later on. Our mangled Spanish managed to get the right sim card from an indifferent saleswoman. But more Spanish practice.
On day 2, we took a 4 hour driving tour with a Nicaraguan guide named Maynor, who had picked us up from the airport. Good Spanish practice because he didn’t speak English. $80 for car, tour, and all our annoying questions in bad Spanish. Briefly, we:
- Went to a crowded market.
- Saw the bizarrely designed new cathedral.
- Saw Loma de Tiscapa, site of Somoza’s old palace and prison. Through Spanish language signage and chatting with Maynor, we made our way through a sobering account abuses that occurred inside.
- Saw the old catedral, damaged in the 1972 earthquake that helped put the revolution in motion.
- Went to the Puerto Salvador Allende by lake Xolotlan, had a heavy lunch of Toña beer, meat, and plantains.
14-15 March: lessons, guerrillas, y leyendas in León
Maynor drove us to León where we stayed at the Hotel Cacique Adiact. (Pricey for the area, but centrally located and comfortable). Very hot town with many Spanish era cathedrals and an old fashioned grid layout. We stayed close to the central plaza.
After lunch at El Sesteo (bean purée with onions, good and cheap) we went to our first 2 hour Spanish lesson. Since we’ve been studying, we both got a short grammar review followed by conversation practice.
The next day we walked to the museo de la revolución in the central square. A Sandinista veteran gave us an all-in-Spanish tour. No other choice, so a good stop for Spanish practice. Honestly, I only picked up maybe 15-20% of what he said, but what I did understand was amazing. The tour starts in modest museum with pictures and placards. You then climb to the top of the building to see the city from the roof. (We were told we couldn’t fall through, “it is concrete”…I think. Again, 15-20%).
León was the first city to fall to the Sandinista guerrillas in 1979 and it saw intense fighting. Throughout the tour, the guide would exclaim things like, “Over there on that street we captured a government tank,” and “Down that way was the National Guard headquarters.”
Next, we made our way to the museo de leyendas y tradiciones. I think one Tripadvisor reviewer sums it up best:
“This museum is an uncanny mix of the serious (it is a former dissident prison with murals depicting torture) and the wackadoodle (a mannequin in a wig with a giant cloth boob hanging out of her robe who cackles via a hidden tape recorder). This really can’t be rated on a 1 to 5 scale but if you go, it will be a dreamlike experience. I loved it.”
And, lo and behold, this museum houses the captured tank that our veteran tour guide told us about.
This is a great place to learn about the local myths and legends. There are two major themes (forgive mistranslations):
- Spanish misdeeds and just deserts (e.g., the padre sin cabeza – a priest who protected Indians thus earning a decapitation at the hands of the Spanish. He shows up to extract revenge every so often).
- Stories of furious women, turned ghost or pig-witch, who extract vengeance on drunk and/or philandering men in the streets.
The next day we our second Spanish class. Mostly conversation. Something seemed to be working. I was happy to be able to talk a little local politics. Nicaraguans seem to love talking politics.
We ate dinner at Casa Vieja. Steak, beer, and the place to ourselves. Not much nightlife here. 21 dollars total.
16-17 March: volcanos en route to Estelí
We arranged to climb a nearby volcano, cerro negro. When we arrived, the tour operator told us the thing to do was “sled” down the rocky mountain from the top. Everyone was doing it. Only $10 more.
Was pretty cool actually. Didn’t seem like a great event for Spanish practice, but we were able to chat with a Texan lawyer of Nicaraguan extraction on the tour with us. One of the guides who didn’t speak Spanish talked with us as well. He asked us if we were “from Brazil.” We took this mean our Spanish was improving. A conceit we allowed ourselves.
After cleaning up at the hotel (I had volcanic ash in my hair for a few days. Couldn’t get it out), we drove to Estelí. Two and half hour drive to a higher elevations. Estelí had fewer tourists and was a bit rough around the edges. Ate more beef for dinner and drank beer on the roof our our hotel, Los Arcos. (Comfortable, by the central square and a grocery store, good breakfast).
We only stayed in town one night. In the morning we perused the museo de historia y arqueología. As we browsed, a tour group of old men from the US who smelled like cigars walked in. They were apparently on the fancy tour arranged by the local cigar maker. We eavesdropped on their English-speaking tour guide and learned the name Nicaragua is a portmanteau of the name of a local tribe, the nicarao, and agua (presumably because of the two giant lakes). A nice freebie.
17-19 March: bus ride into the mountains, conversations on a farm
Took a colectivo (shared taxi) to the cotran norte bus station. Crammed in with our bags and 2 other people. The colectivo driver and another passenger were fighting about something. She told me the driver was being impatient. Again, Spanish practice. He was liberal with the brakes and accelerator.
We took an old bus grandly named el camino real up the dirt road to the farm, which was near the village named la cebollal. The converted schoolbus bus must have had 60-70 people on board, but our hotel owner had paid a teenage kid to get on at a previous stop to grab seats for us. The bus had a crew of 5 people besides the driver. One of them sold tickets for the bus enroute. Another collected them. One rode on top with the cargo. The others I’m not sure. 30 cordobas each for a 2.5 hour trip (about a dollar). En route a teenage girl sold medicine (some sort of snake oil cure all) by screaming an advertisement pitch. The bus had to ford a small creek at one point. Also had to honk its horns to scare away herds of cattle blocking the road.
Lots of campesinos seem to make “Costco” runs into town, hauling supplies back by bus. Sacks of concrete, spools of barbed wire, jugs of milk, etc. As we slowly climbed into the mountains, the bus driver seemed to pay more attention to a TV screen playing Mexican music videos (accordions, tubas, girls being sprayed with champagne, that kind of stuff) than the road.
We got off near the end of the line, which was a further 2 kilometers from the farm (finca lindos ojos) we were staying at. One of the workers from the farm, a lady with her 3 year old boy, met us at the gate and checked us in. We were the only guests there, so we each had our own cabin. The finca had about 5 of various sizes and a small house for the workers.
The lady was also the cook and made us a home cooked dinner of tortillas and cheese, pasta with meat sauce, and salad straight from the farm. We bought warm beers to go with the food. Her husband, who tends the finca buildings and animals, chatted with us in intentionally slow and basic Spanish. He told us our Spanish was passable and that most tourists didn’t speak any. Good for the ego. He agreed to take us on a farm tour and horseback riding the next day. After dinner, Steve and I smoked local cigars and drank local rum on our porches before turning in.
The following morning we had breakfast of beans and rice (gallo pinto), banana, cheese, and coffee. Everything was from farm including the coffee, which they roast on site. The 3 year old son of the workers ate with us. More Spanish practice, but closer to our level. Steve’s video of our bus ride is a big hit and he kept asking for “otra ve’ el bu’…última.” They seem to drop the final “s” sound off their words here.
The husband took us on a walk of the finca. He told us he knows the names of all the plants and trees. Many have medicinal uses. He showed us the potato fields and the spot where they grow coffee shaded by banana trees. The farm is small but it took us about 10 minutes of slow walking end to end.
They grow lettuce, herbs, and radishes for the salads “for the tourists.” “Nicaraguans prefer rice and beans,” he told us. This area has a good number of eco-tourist joints. The Duke of Luxembourg is apparently building a fancy but unneeded farmer’s market structure. The architectural rendering posted by the construction site comically features a parking lot full of expensive, non 4×4 cars. The locals would have preferred a paved road.
In the afternoon after a lunch of meat stew, we went horseback riding to a waterfall down the valley. 6 km trim. The horses are calm and easy to maneuver.
The owner arrived later that night. We had a fantastic dinner of Nicaraguan food with bratwurst, sauerkraut, cucumber salad, and German bread. Over dinner we find out she has been living in Nicaragua for 25 years. She arrived from East Germany in the solidarity brigades and now works with an NGO in town.
In the morning over another great breakfast, we talk local politics a bit (in English since the owner arrived). The ostensibly Chinese plan to build a canal across Nicaragua is unloved. We also find out there is an interesting system called bona campesina (I may have this wrong) that the husband and wife are using. Essentially, the government give you chickens. You must care for them and return a set amount of offspring to keep it going. Eventually you can qualify for a pig or a cow. The system suffers from various problems, but is popular. I asked where this concept came from and am told it’s an “ALBA idea.”
All in all 2 nights, 2 cabins, horseback riding, 3 good meals a day, conversation – about 180 USD, split between us.
We hitched a ride with the owner and her friend back into Estelí. She gives a geography lesson on the way. We also got a moral dilemma to ponder: while the cigars we enjoyed the previous evenings support a thriving industry that employs thousands of workers, the thirsty tobacco plant is apparently depleting local water sources quickly. Sounded like almonds in California.
While thinking on these complexities of economic development, we met our driver who took us back to Managua. On the way he took us for roadside tortillas called guirila. Thin and buttery tasting, cooked between banana leaves on a fire stove. Served with cream and soft queso. Incredibly good. Hopefully uncontroversial.
On our way, we called Best Western to get a room for a half day since we have a lot of time to spare until our red-eye flight back to the US. The hotel looks like a central Florida retirement trailer community and was full of US tourists. Giant, self-contained groups of missionaries, high school students, and spring breakers. But it was right across the street from the airport and had cold beer.
We really enjoyed Nicaragua. Lots of opportunities to practice Spanish. Amazing history and sights. Affordable, safe. Highly recommended as a immersion trip for anyone learning Spanish.