“I didn’t pay to go on vacation and throw poop!”
Taylor grins at me. “Yes Karen. Yes you did.”
This is life in Nicaragua with Free and Easy Traveler. Ten days of beaches, surf, parties and stupidly-cheap alcohol punctuated by birthday parties, volcano boarding, bazooka-shooting, iguana soup and a beach olympics event that has you throw horse crap as accurately as you can.
FNEZ tours are designed for people who want more freedom and time in a place, but with backpacker prices and the security of having their living and travel arrangements organized by someone else. You aren’t expected to have a lot of previous backpacking experience or speak the local language, just be ready for lots of adventures, parties and new friends.
I had signed up for their “Surf Town Getaway” for my final stop, anticipating days where someone else took care of all the logistics and I could focus on my last few chances to surf before returning to Toronto.
What I got was a surprise birthday cake, stories about life in Fort McMurray, near-constant access to the local rum, comical encounters with people high on coke, volcanic gravel in my pants, zillions of mosquito bites and the experience of releasing baby turtles into the sea.
I don’t know if I would go on another FNEZ trip, especially the New Year’s Eve Nica tour or some of the 40-day visits through Thailand. The structure was a dramatic difference, both in cost and culture, from the months I had spent backpacking by myself. And as someone who never lived in residence or with roommates, I was a bit unprepared for all the constant (but good-hearted) teasing and partying.
Still, I don’t regret booking with FNEZ. The group leaders took great care of everyone, providing advice, changing itineraries for maximum thrills and sights while always encouraging us to have fun and making sure there was no shortage of “icing” moments. Even though I spent more than I expected, didn’t sleep much and learned the hard way about the horrors of sea lice, I met some amazing people, saw beautiful things and had some incredible adventures I probably wouldn’t have experienced on my own.
The details: I paid $680 for a 10-day land-only package after scoring a Buytopia deal ($40 for a $250 coupon). I booked it in mid-August of 2011. The cost didn’t include any meals, excursions and certain kinds of transportation. Accommodations were in hostels and group rooms. Group leaders did often arrange things like connections with reputable tour companies, group beer purchases, birthday parties, shopping at local markets and last-minute itinerary changes. There were very few opportunities to speak Spanish.
Tips: You’ll need lots of water-resistant sunscreen with a high SPF, sunglasses, and mosquito repellent for at night. Nicaragua’s high winds make it hard to wear a hat. A bandanna is incredibly useful for volcano boarding. The local currency is cordobas, but USD is often accepted at decent rates and easily exchanged at local banks.
The verdict: Going with Free and Easy is great if you don’t know the language, don’t have a lot of time and are looking to party and see lots of different things with new friends. It isn’t for people who are on a tight budget, recovering alcoholics, straight-edgers or folks who prefer staying in hotels.