Nicaragua: Gringa’s definitely on the wrong bus.

That’s definitely what she was thinking.

I sat there huddled into the back corner of the mini-bus. The only backpacker. The only non-Spanish speaker.

When I’d flown out of Honduras, I was determined I’d be a better backpacker in Nicaragua. We’d lived in luxury in Honduras mostly because we were there for a wedding, but also because the choice was between money and desperation.

In Guate, I took the easy route. I paid for taxis and a nice hotel. I told myself it was because I was short on time, but maybe I was a little scared too.

In Nicaragua, I was going to rough it.

I started by promising myself that, although I’d have to take a {$20} taxi to the bus station, I was getting on that public bus. Where he dropped me was not the place I’d researched online. They said there was a sign with a lion on it. Lion, León… get it? But every single person in that long line, snaking through the bus shelter, assured me that this was the bus for León. After about thirty minutes, I was halfway through the line when I realised I only had U.S. dollars. I carefully negotiated the conversation in my head before tapping the girl in front of me.

Leon, Nicaragua - Central America

Can I pay in U.S. dollars?

Yes, I think so.

How much?

33 Córdoba. Something like $2?

I relaxed a bit. I quickly did the calculation on my money conversion app. $1.99. I had 2 one-dollar bills. Phew.

It was another thirty minutes or so until I finally got to the front of the line; I handed my pack off to the driver and quickly, purposefully crawled to my hiding spot in the back corner of the bus. I had noted about forty-five minutes prior that there was a definite lack of gringos around the bus station. I’d been sure this would be the backpackers preferred mode of transport, but it seemed to be just me. I was all in.

The driver came around the back to collect our money and as I shakily pushed my two one-dollar bills over the back of my seat he began grumbling loudly in Spanish, throwing his hands around dramatically.

Is it enough?

It was the old women next to me.

Yes, exactly.

Then it’s FINE. She waved her hand in an equally dramatic gesture.

A series of Spanish conversation followed in which I was unsure if she was addressing the driver or me. I tried to hand her the bills thinking she would swap them for Córdoba, but she raised her hands innocently. What was I thinking she would have any use for two U.S. dollar bills for?

Finally, he snatched them out of my hand. A girl in the seat in front of me looked at me with what I can only assume was pity. I smiled, inwardly embarrassed at my lack of Spanish and preparation for the situation, and thankful I’d managed to keep my seat on the bus.

Through shouts and foot traffic, the bus pulled out of the station and onto the open road just as the sun began to sink behind the horizon. And it was just then that my brain started turning. Here I was in a country I knew nothing about, where they spoke a language I didn’t understand. I had no local money and no way to get a hold of anyone I knew. What the fuck was I thinking?

I laughed. No going back. I was in it now.

The women next to me turned to me and started in with her Spanish. I listened carefully, it seemed easy enough, I was sure she’d asked me where I was from. Inwardly feeling proud because I knew the words to answer, but in reality the quiver in my voice probably gave away my nerves.

I’m from the U.S., but I live in Australia. 

She didn’t respond, just looked ahead, a little distressed.

I definitely said half of that sentence in Italian I was thinking to myself. Sometimes you just have to go with it.

What country? 

She was fairly persistent.

The U.S.

Maybe it was the Italian that threw her off. She half nodded before turning to her phone. I must have given a satisfying answer.

I followed the blue dot on my iPhone GPS until we were just outside of León. Immediately as the bus pulled into a petrol station just off the highway, the sinking feeling set in.

Where does this bus stop? 


Shit. We were literally just outside the city and it was pitch dark. I had not planned this well at all.

And how do I get to the centre? 


I stepped out of the bus with a pile of fifteen Nicaraguans and was met with an enthusiastic taxi driver who looked all of sixteen years old. I was the last to squeeze into the collectivo. I smiled nervously.

I turned to the boy next to me.

Where are you going? 

He showed me on my iPhone where he was being dropped off while describing where it was in Spanish. Something about a church. As if there weren’t about thirty churches in the centre of León.

I’m going here.

I pointed to Lazy Bones Hostal on the map, which Google had kindly marked and saved for me after my last online search.

Do you want me to tell the boy?

Yes, please. 

The boy in the seat next to me began to explain to the young driver how to get to the hostel. When he was sure all was understood, he turned back to me, speaking softly but still rapidly in Spanish. I waited for a proper pause before looking at him apologetically my eyes filling where my shaky voice faltered to let him know that I didn’t understand.

As if it was the easiest thing in the world, he switched to English, equally as soflty spoken. Describing to me that the hostel was highly regarded and it had a nice pool, which was perfect for the hot Nicaraguan days. Then, just as quickly, the car pulled over and he hopped out.

Have a great trip. He had such a kind face, and I was so grateful for his help.

As we pulled up outside Lazy Bones; just one of many sets of massive wooden doors on the abandoned cobblestone streets, I explained to the driver that I only had U.S. dollars. It took a while, but I finally got there. I only had a $5 bill, it was more than enough and I didn’t mind giving it to him because I didn’t have anything else.

So thankful to be safely at the right place, I completely forgot that he was perfectly capable of giving me change in Córdoba.

I handed him the $5 (about three times the cost of the ride), jumping out of the car and showering him with excited Spanglish thank yous and I rang the buzzer of the hostel. When the lock clicked, so did my second smart travel thought of the evening.

What if there wasn’t a room left at 8 pm?

I hadn’t booked anything all trip, so the thought hadn’t even crossed my mind. Shit. Here I was now, again, all in.

I negotiated my massive pack through the tiny hole in the doorway and walked up to the front desk. As I waited for the girl at the front to finish with another guest, in walked Michael from the back of the hostel. I’d made it. I was finally reunited with the American boys from Antigua. I was finally in Nicaragua, the most anticipated stop of my trip.

And yes, they did have a free bed.

I set down my pack, flung my books onto the bottom bunk and a few unplanned tequila shots and too many Toñas later, the boys and I called it a night. We had a big day of volcano hiking and boarding to wake up for.

Leon, Nicaragua - Central America

As I half-drunkenly negotiated my space on my bunk, moving my trusty purple Moleskin and massive copy of Shantaram off the pillow and onto the floor, I picked up my tiny Spanish dictionary. That word that the old lady had used, I was sure she had asked me what country I was from, but it sounded so Italian. I looked up the word paseo.


She’d not asked me where I was from but where was I going. I’d told her the U.S. So, again she’d tried, being more specific with the street I was going to. And I’d persisted; the U.S.

As she turned to her phone, the only thing going through her head must have been, this gringa is definitely on the wrong bus.