Chontales: Off the beaten path in Nicaragua

Juigalpa from the mirador

Juigalpa from the mirador

Towards the end of my time in Nicaragua, I decided to fit it an extra trip to travel to a different part of the country. At first, I was thinking of heading to San Carlos and travel along the San Juan River, including an old British castle and some unspoiled nature. I was planning on going with a friend, but a few commitments came up and wasn’t able to go. This wasn’t a trip I wanted to do along, so I changed my plan. I decided to explore more of the center and east of Nicaragua, including Juigalpa, Santo Tomas (where a good friend is from), Rama, and finally Bluefields on the Caribbean coast.

My trip started after 5 hours of buses and arriving in Juigalpa early afternoon. I walked around to find that there weren’t that many hostels, so I picked one, threw my backpack in my room, and went out to explore.


Sandino overlooking Juigalpa

Sandino overlooking Juigalpa

Juigalpa is a town of about 45,000 people located in the department of Chontales in the center of the country, just northeast of Lake Nicaragua. To be honest, there isn’t a whole lot that is interesting here. The church and the central park are pretty standard (but still nice). I did walk up to a mirador, a lookout point, and that had some nice views of the town below and the surrounding mountains. It also had a statue of the silhouette of Augusto Cesar Sandino, Nicaragua’s hero. I walked around the town until dinner time, ate some chicken from a fritanga (street vendor), and then headed to a local casino to watch the first game of the World Series. I picked the casino since it was the only place in town playing the game. It was just me and one other guy there watching the game between the Cardinals and the Red Sox.

Santo Tomas

Halloween Parade in Santo Tomas

Halloween Parade in Santo Tomas

In the morning, I headed to the bus stop and caught a bus towards Santo Tomas, an even smaller town in Chontales. Not a whole lot of foreigners go to Santo Tomas, nor Nicaraguans. The only reason I stopped here is because my friend, Maritza, is from Santo Tomas. She is the friend who now lives in Costa Rica and who hosted me in San Jose when I went down there in September (which you can read about here). She also happens to be coming to Illinois for a week in December with her great aunt. The only reason for stopping in Santo Tomas was to get to know the town a bit, as I thought it would be cool to see where my friend is from.

When I got off the bus right off the main highway, I decided that I would search for Martiza’s grandmother, who still lives in Santo Tomas. Having no idea where they might live and having no other information than knowing my friend’s name, I had to get started somewhere. I walked into a small pharmacy and asked the gentleman inside, “I’m looking for the house of the grandma of my friend. Her last name is Amador, and her family lives in Costa Rica.” The pharmacist thought for a bit and then spit out directions to a house that he thought may be part of the family. “Go to the corner, take a left and go 3 blocks, take a right and on the left you’ll see a house with 2 stories.” So I went in search of the house.
On the way, I walked right by the central park and ran into a Halloween parade for a local elementary school. Although Halloween is not a huge event In Nicaragua, it seems to be pretty popular and I imagine it’s growing. There was a band and all the kids were dressed up from anything from cowboys to Spiderman.

I continued on my quest but stopped at a local place for a fresco made from pitaya. I finally found my way to the house with 2 stories but the house seemed closed up. Just two doors down, I saw an older woman inside her small corner store. I walked over, and the look on her face turned to confusion as she realized I was walking up to her. Easy to tell that not many foreigners come here. I again explained what I was looking for, trying not to seem like some kind of FBI agent or stalker. When I explained to her about my friend in Costa Rica, she smiled and said, “Martiza’s grandmother is my cousin.” She kindly explained to me where Maritza’s grandmother, whose name turns out to be Lilliam and lives just a block away.

After visiting the wrong house, I was again explained that Lilliam lives right next door. I yell in through the window “Buenas!”, the typical greeting. Another confused looking older woman appeared and asks, “Si?” I could tell she was a bit leery at first, and I continued to talk through the bars on the window. A good five minutes after, she opened the door and invited me in to sit down. I guess she was finally convinced that I was no immediate danger.

Mission Complete: Maritza's home in Santo Tomas

Mission Complete: Maritza’s home in Santo Tomas

This was a very strange moment for me, one of those that keeps me traveling. It’s one of those times where I started thinking about where I was, what I was doing, and just how crazy the entire situation was. I’m in a small town off the beaten track in Nicaragua at the house of the grandmother (and also the house where Maritza grew up) of my friend who I met coincidentally in Ometepe, the volcano island. I know Maritza’s entire immediate family, as I had stayed with them for a few nights in Costa Rica. And somehow I found the house just by asking around random people. I loved seeing the pictures of Maritza and her family in the house. I had a nice 45 minute conversation with Lilliam about her family and life in Santo Tomas.

When I travel, I always strive to immerse myself in the culture. I do my best to talk to locals, learn about their lives and their traditions, and experience their way of life. That’s the biggest reason why I travel, to get to know the culture and the ways of the locals, as you can always learn a lot from them. I realized at this moment how successful this aspect of my time in Nicaragua had been. Between my work, many people I’ve met, and experiences like this one in Santo Tomas, I can say that I’ve had the chance to really learn about the culture. This is due to a few factors. The most important is the language. My Spanish has really improved and I can now have conversations with ease with any given person. With this, I’ve been able to meet some locals, which puts me in situations like this one. Thirdly, my work takes me to a very poor community where no tourists would ever go, and I am working directly with locals. Although I am always hard on myself and always want more, I think my time in Nicaragua has provided me with many great chances to be fully immersed in the culture.

Getting Sick

After talking with Lilliam, I went to try one of Santo Tomas’s famous quesillos, a tortilla topped with cream, onions, and cabbage. Although they’re typically tasty, I was starting to feel body aches along with a headache. I was feeling it a bit all morning, but it got worse as the day progressed. The mattress from my hostel was pretty horrible, so I blamed it on that. I then jumped on a bus and 3 hours later was in the town called Rama. I was feeling even worse at this point, so I quickly found a hostel and laid down to take a nap. I was planning to take a boat the next morning along the Escondido River to the city of Bluefields on the Caribbean coast. However, I woke up the next morning and felt even worse than the day before. I decided I’d take the day to rest with the intent of leaving the next day. I paid a bit more for a room with a TV, so that kept me company for the day. I even caught the movie “Tremors” in Spanish. I slept a lot with the hopes of feeling much better, but waking up the following day was no better than the previous day. I decided that I felt okay enough to take the 7 hour bus back to Managua, just so I could get back to Granada and be able to rest at home. On the way back, I called a friend from Managua who I met through Couchsurfing. He was nice enough to pick me up from the bus station and take me to his normal doctor. We then went to the lab at a hospital to do a blood test and urine samples. When they both came back fine, the doctor was worried that I might be in the early stages of having dengue fever, a tropical virus that is transferred through mosquitos. She told me to go home, rest, and then get more tests done 2 days later.

So I then went to a doctor in Granada after having more tests done. The doctor tells me that he thinks I have an intestinal bug, and he recommends that I go get a fecal exam done. After getting this exam done, I went to another doctor with my results. Finally, she tells me that I have a parasite and an amoeba which was probably caused by water or food I had in Juigalpa. This is the first time I’d ever had either of these. I stocked up with the recommended medicines and headed home. I spent the next 7 days in my house, resting, keeping hydrated, and trying to get to feeling better. On the 6th day, a day before my friend Brian came to see me, I started feeling normal. Being sick is never fun, and even less fun when you’re in a different country. Luckily, I made it and the timing worked out okay with Brian coming to see me!

Unfortunately, I didn’t get the chance to make it to the Caribbean coast, but seeing Juigalpa and meeting Maritza’s grandmother in Santo Tomas made the trip worth it. Getting sick is always a risk when traveling to developing countries. I’ve been relatively lucky in the past, but I mostly likely ate or drank something that caused this. I am definitely staying with bottled water from now on!

About Trent

I started Frugal Purpose to share my love of personal finance to assist your pursuit of a more fulfilling life. I am a financial analyst by trade, traveler at heart, and want to share with you the beauty of this world.


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