As we've travelled south through Central America, we've asked people coming the other way what they've thought of the countries they've visited, and there's a surprising consistency to their opinions. Costa Rica gets summed up as being expensive and touristy, but great for wildlife and outdoor sports; El Salvador is always described as incredibly friendly, but fairly light on big attractions; and when people talk about Guatemala they tend to talk about the other travellers they met there, and oh yes, did you go to Tikal and wasn't it simply amazing? But it's Nicaragua that gets the pithiest response. Everyone, and I mean everyone, uses exactly the same phrase for Nicaragua; they shrug and say 'well, it's cheap.' It's not exactly the most ringing endorsement you've ever heard.
The thing is, it's not a bad way to sum up the country. Nicaragua has the lowest prices in the region for travellers, a direct consequence of it being the poorest country in Central America; the Nicaraguan córdoba has been steadily devaluing against the dollar for some time, and this helps to bring prices down for foreign visitors. The only exception we found was the price of tours, which are kept high because the target market can afford it; our day-long coffee tour cost US$140 for the two of us, which is pretty much a European price. We were happy to pay that, but when your hotel room is costing you just US$15 a night for a double room with en suite bathroom, it certainly stands out. Meanwhile transport is very cheap, accommodation is very cheap, food is very cheap, and that's always welcome for the traveller with a finite budget.
On the other hand, it's also cheap as in 'cheap and nasty'. The food is pretty rubbish; the transport is noisy, uncomfortable and polluting; the beds are hard; and the country is clearly poor, with open sewers in the cities, holes in the pavements, dust absolutely everywhere, and in places like Granada, lots of beggars and people who simply demand that you give them money. I don't have a problem with any of this – these are all facts of life in poor countries – but it means that while Nicaragua might be cheap, you tend to get what you pay for.
As for the sights, there are some great ones – we loved Little Corn Island and Isla de Ometepe – but most of the other places we visited were less enticing. The colonial city of León is worth a look even though it's as hot as hell, but we found Granada's seedy tourism a bit too much to bear; the canyoning in Somoto is quite entertaining but is probably not worth the long journey north; and the coffee and chocolate tours around Matagalpa are mildly diverting, but not exactly life-changing. Most of the time, when balancing the effort/reward equation, we found that the amount of effort often outweighed the reward... for us, anyway.
So it's a bit of a challenge travelling in Nicaragua, which is not much of a surprise, but it would be a lot easier to ride the ups and downs if the people were cheerier. Unfortunately the Nicaraguans seem to be a bit cheesed off with life; they're not a terribly smiley people, and they don't seem to want you in their country. There are exceptions of course, but the nice people we met were almost always involved in the tourist industry, whether tour guides or hotel staff, so they had a vested interest in being friendly. Outside of the tourist bubble, the people are often genuinely arsey. I lost count of the number of times that I went into a shop and politely asked for something, only to have the grumpy woman behind the counter stare at me as if I'd sworn at her; then eventually she'd turn around, shuffle to the back of the shop, dragging her feet like a grumpy teenager, and when she'd return she'd throw the product on the counter with an almost audible sigh of irritation, as if I'd gravely insulted her by the mere act of trying to offer her money in exchange for her goods. This approach to customer service – which we in the West would call an 'attitude problem' – seems to apply to everything, from restaurants to taxis, and although you soon get used to it, it doesn't exactly help you fall for the locals' charms; indeed, there simply don't appear to be any to fall for.
But then you remember that Nicaragua is incredibly poor and that the Nicaraguans have plenty to be grumpy about. And you shrug your shoulders and thank your lucky stars that purely by an accident of birth, you're able to visit this country... and you're able to leave it, too.
Or, to put it another way, 'Well, it's cheap.'