We usually share photos to better relate our experiences and provide a more personal look at a country and its culture. Here we do the same, but we add a cautionary tale.
Aside from the garden-variety border scam (from which a group of righteous Nicaraguan women saved us), our time in Nicaragua was pleasant and relatively hassle-free: climbing volcanoes, enjoying colonial cities, visiting revolution and martyrs' museums, relaxing on a volcanic island, and meeting microfinance clients outside of the capital city.
After our visit, we fortunately had little first-hand experience to refute the prevailing guidebook wisdom suggesting that Nicaragua is the safest country to visit in Central America.
Then a few weeks ago we received a message from Nikol and Martin, a Czech couple we became friends with while trekking Nicaragua’s El Hoyo and Cerro Negro volcanoes. The joy of receiving a message from fellow travelers we really connected with (as it happens, we lived just blocks from one another in Prague) was quickly replaced by shock. Their story knocked the wind out of us:
…after Granada we wanted to go to Rivas…one lady asked us where we were going and said she was going in the same direction. She showed us the bus terminal. When we reached the station, she asked us if we wanted to share a taxi to Rivas; there was a car, she asked the price. (1st mistake: we did not check if it was a real taxi and didn’t mark license plate; 2nd mistake: our bags were put behind the seat, not in the trunk). We sat in the back with the lady and driver… on the way to Rivas he took another guy and he sat with us in the back and after a while another guy came in on the front seat… so we did not have any bad feeling … we were talking with all of them…suddenly the car turned down a quiet street and the guy from the front seat pointed a knife at us and screamed ‘DINEROS!’ (MONEY!)
…they caught our hands and legs, put something over our heads, punched Martin a few times and started to search us. We did not have lot of money, even on the credit card, so they were getting more and more upset. They drove with us for two hours and went through our backpacks (behind the seats) and took our clothes, trekking shoes, camera, books, all the souvenirs, cell phone, diary, everything. After 2 hours they kicked us out with our day bags, passports and 400 Cordobas ($20) twenty kilometers from Managua.
Some locals took us to a Christian community so we contacted my sister through Skype. The rest of our trip we used Western Union.
Nikol and Martin are experienced travelers. They speak Spanish and have seen their share of scams and adventure (for example, Nikol traveled around Northern India on a motorbike). Their story hit very close to home. The thought that it could have easily been us haunted us for days.
Sure, you could argue that no one should take shared taxis, or that you should write down the license plate number of every one you take. But the reality is that after spending months in Central America without any problems, it's easy to become accustomed to doing what the locals do, including taking shared taxis and becoming friendly with people you meet on the street.
You become comfortable, you tire, you trust (and you want to trust); you let your guard down. You find yourself at the intersection of fatigue, trust and vulnerability. As long-term travelers, we have all been there. What separated their fate from ours was fortune and timing.
The reality is that Nikol's and Martin's experience could have happened in any number of countries. Nicaragua, like anywhere else, is not beyond crime and violence particularly where poverty, money and tourists intersect.
So what does this story have to do with photos from Nicaragua?
Nikol’s message to us ended with:
Please, if by any chance, we can see more pictures from your trip it would be just perfect for us to have something to look through at home and to show to our friends.
So we dedicate these photo sets to Nikol and Martin and the photos they weren't able to bring home.