Before bringing my family to Central America, my biggest concern was our safety. I had read several warnings about petty crime in the country, particularly in San José. One article threatened the high probability of being robbed at gun point in the middle of the day, so we have steered clear of the capital. We go to bed early, avoid troubled-looking people and dead bolt our doors before leaving home. Over the last half-year in Costa Rica, this worry has mellowed to the normal level of caution I would take living in the States. When preparing for our border cross to Nicaragua, I didn’t consider this fear would have a reason to grow.
Upon our arrival into the poorer country that meets Costa Rica to the North, I instantly felt the pressure of a lower economy’s impact on a people. We were barked at to change our currency, whistled at to help with our bags, and almost forced to hand over our passports for “official-looking” people to fill out our forms. This being our first time, and us being entirely clueless, we accepted some help with our forms and allowed someone to arrange a taxi for us. That arrangement cost us a few buck’s tip, and about a $30 overcharge on a taxi. A little goes a long way for these individuals, so at the end of the day, we brushed off the hustle.
The active town of San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua is young and hip. There are lots of back packers, surfers, and yogis enjoying a colorful piece of paradise. Boats freckle the town’s long cove and children, dogs, and volley-ball players eat up all hours of daylight on the beach. We wandered through it’s streets and tasted the coffees, dinners and gelatos while large green parrots screeched down from power lines and palm trees. Our hotel was the epitome of pleasure, and the weather was fantastic–but something just didn’t feel right to me.
The hotel held a captivating view of the sea, enjoying a small private cove as a back drop. It was like looking at an ever-changing painting as the sun rose and fell in crystalline colors. I asked if there was a trail to the cove, and there was. It was a suitable walk with children, wide and not too long. The staff told me it might be a twenty minute walk. I was excited to see it, and thought about venturing down with just the little ones. A light rain postponed my plans that day, and so I went the next morning, along with my husband.
When the trees on the path unlocked their leaning arms to reveal the cove, we were awe-struck. The beach was made up of large rounded pebbles, and the shades of blue from the shore to the deep ocean were dazzling. Towering cliffs cradled the water with strength. Along their edges, large waves hammered and crashed, spraying high up into the air. My husband isn’t one for taking pictures un-prompted, but for this scene, he made an exception. He backed up and started capturing his family in one of the most beautiful places he never imagined he’d be.
There was a group of locals not too far from us, enjoying the peace of the private cove as well. They were chuckling amongst themselves, leaving us alone until my husband whipped out his iPhone. As if summoned by the shiny piece of technology, a few men separated from the group and staggered up to him. They were drunk. I turned around to see two of them on either side of him, almost grazing him with their shoulders. They were taking turns tapping him and muttering all over him in thick, confusing Spanish. I instantly knew what was going on. They were going to snatch his phone. That would be fine, as long as they didn’t hurt us. However, I had a feeling in my gut that they wanted to fight.
I was angry. How dare they threaten the safety of people with young children? How dare they even think about robbing someone with babies! I walked closer to them with my precious ones held firmly against me and asked them what the problem was. One middle-aged man with a cross tattooed on each shoulder left the tantalizing iPhone in my husband’s hands and sauntered over to me. His breath reeked of alcohol. He spat his rolling Spanish at me, and I could only decipher the word, “danger,” repeated over and over again. Another man had taken his place against my husband, and all the protectiveness I have stored inside me for such an occasion bursted out.
“We are leaving, we don’t need any help, goodbye” flew out of my lips in confident Spanish and with a disapproving tone. They fell back and let us pass. ”VAMOS,” I instructed my husband, who broke away from the two stunned men and shadowed us out of the cove. I was walking fast since I could hear the group laughing and calling at us as they started leaving as well. Chris told me to slow down a bit and to not look back.
Once we made it to the busier dirt road, I could breathe. Once we turned onto to our hotel’s drive, I could speak. ”That was too close,” we agreed, “It was stupid to go there alone, even if in the middle of the morning.” My husband let out, “I can’t wait to get back home to Costa Rica.”
As our car flew down the windy route back home, we sounded our praises of Costa Rica. We are so grateful to feel safe in the country we chose to live in temporarily with our children, but are now aware that not every land near it is as secure. There are many Expatriates that live in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua that would disagree with me–sure–but what matters to me is my own intuition when it comes to the safety of my family. We’ll not be going back to San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua any time soon. If we do, we know better to keep to the public places and continue to lock ourselves away at night.
If you are traveling with kids and desire to see a remote, seemingly untouched bit of geographical beauty, take a guide or a local friend with you. You don’t want to put yourself into the same position we did.