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Upside Down: When Careful Travel Plans Go Awry

I spent months planning our somewhat complicated 6 1/2 week trip to Nicaragua. I’d be traveling with my husband and his bandmate, who would be writing and recording a new album while there. This required me to plan for many things I wouldn’t normally need to think about: traveling with and transporting lots of musical gear, finding and purchasing the few things we couldn’t bring with us, purchasing musician’s insurance, booking homes that were the right size and set up for the recording process, and much more.


I happily took on the challenge – creating detailed lists and timelines, carefully checking off each task as it was completed. Everything was in place and I was so excited to see how smoothly everything would go.


I didn’t plan on my husband getting a major and scary physical condition the night before we left.

I didn’t account for our first home’s distance from town throwing my plans off track.

I didn’t expect to get intense food poisoning and have to cancel a mini-trip with a good friend.

I didn’t expect our visiting friends in the first few weeks to distract me from the unrealistic goals I’d set for myself.


Basically, I realized I had a lot to learn about problem solving on the road, being flexible, and managing expectations. A LOT.



1. How to handle a health scare in a 3rd world country.


I’m not sure I have the perfect answer for this, but I do know that after a little trial and error, we found the best solution in our situation.


Backstory: The day before we left, I was calm and collected, as my lengthy to-do lists had all been completed. My husband was another story. He was more stressed out than I’d ever seen him, running around town doing last minute things, and trying to pack up dozens of pieces of gear to be plane ready. In the evening, he started complaining that he couldn’t blink his right eye. I was sure that it was a stress related eye twitch that he’d developed once before. He was concerned but I brushed it off, and emphasized his need to relax and just get through the next day of travel.


The next day we went on with our travels, miraculously arriving in Managua with all 11 pieces of carefully packed gear, getting through customs, and making our way to our first night’s hotel. This was when Justin made me aware how bad his problem had become and how nervous he was about it. The whole region around his eye was “frozen”. He couldn’t move his right eyebrow or blink his eye. For the first time, I got very nervous it could be something very serious (tumors, strokes, etc. were running through my head). At this point, it was late in Managua, and the next day we had a long list of errands to do in the city and before catching our shuttle to San Juan del Sur. We decided we would get through the night and see how he felt the next day.


The next day was more of the same and we weren’t sure what to do. We were fairly distracted by the tight schedule we had, and I still held hope that he would wake up better the next day, once the initial stress of the trip and all the logistics and errands were behind us.


Our first full day in San Juan del Sur, Justin woke up and told us that the right side of his mouth was now frozen. We were all legitimately freaked out, Justin most of all. He announced that he wanted to go to the clinic in town and we all agreed. We made our way to the tiny beach town and found the clinic. It was a small concrete open-air building with lots of locals sitting inside. We talked to the woman who appeared to be in charge, and added Justin’s name to the waitlist. After sitting for 15 minutes or so, we realized that we would most likely be there all day. We then discussed the likelyhood that this tiny third world clinic would know what to make of Justin’s weird and probably complicated condition. We decided to leave and I suggested he call our local doctor in Brooklyn for her advice on how to proceed.


This turned out to be the best decision we made. Justin was able to have a 20 minute doctor’s visit over the phone, complete with visual tests that I helped to administer and pass along the info to the doctor. She determined that the condition was Bell’s Palsy, a fairly rare and not well understood condition where the nerve in one side of the face fails. This results in loss of use, and often significant sagging on that side of the face for up to 6 months before it corrects itself. We all breathed a sigh of relief that it wasn’t something more harmful and permanent. She prescribed a week’s dose of steriods, which we were able to easily find over the counter in San Juan del Sur.


Belll's Palsy in Nicaragua
One of our darker first few days in Nica. One half of Justin’s face was “frozen” and we didn’t know what to do.


We still had a rocky couple weeks after the diagnoses, as Justin adjusted to the steroids, and dealt with the affects of not being able to control one eye and one side of his mouth. Slowly his condition has been improving, and we’ve all been able to put our focus back towards work and travel.


This taught me an important lesson about not panicking, and rather seeking out advice from trusted professionals before trying to make a difficult journey back to the capital of Managua, or even back to the US.


2. How to deal with a less than ideal location.


I loved where we stayed in San Juan del Sur, and I wouldn’t even change it if I could, but the location was a bit difficult. We were a couple miles out of town down Chocolata Road without a car. I didn’t want to rent a car since we would be in town for several weeks, insurance is mandatory in Nica (therefore usually doubling the cost), and we would’ve needed a large vehicle to transport all of the guy’s music gear. I had expected to easily walk to and from town from our rental home. I knew it was a bit of a distance but I live in New York – so I’m used to walking, no? Well, I didn’t account for the intense mid-day heat, and the danger of walking in the dark on unlit dirt roads.


San Juan del Sur rental home view.
The view from our rental home – nicely tucked in the jungle, a couple miles from town with a great view of Nacascolo Bay.


Walk from Playa Maderas.
Walking home from Playa Maderas, 4 miles down narrow dirt roads.


San Juan del Sur walking
Walking past small local farms.


San Juan del Sur walk to town.
Walking’s not all bad when you have views like this.


We ended up walking a few times, but it took us a few days to figure out alternate modes of transportation:

  • Taxis – This was the easiest and most luxurious option. They weren’t as cheap as I had hoped – it was $10 each way from town to our home. We reserved this option for going out at night, or for the return trip from town after grocery shopping.
  • Biking – The rental home came with two mountain bikes, and we purchased one used bike off the street in Managua on our second day in the country. These bikes weren’t the best, and the road from our home to town wasn’t the smoothest, but this ended up being one of the best options. Once we got the hang of dodging the huge potholes, avoiding random rocks, and sharing the narrow road with giant trucks, we were able to easily ride to and from town. We also found a shortcut bike and footpath across the beach that cut our distance to town in almost half!


Managua used bikes.
Picking out a used bike in the streets of Managua.


Hammock break in San Juan del Sur.
Taking a hammock break after a challenging bike ride to town.


  • Hitchhiking – This was my first time trying hitchhiking out and I loved it! Hitching in other countries is viewed very differently than it is in the US. In America, it’s seen as very dangerous for all involved. In many other countries, it’s a common mode of transport. I never hitched alone, so I always felt safe enough. I was amazed by the number of cars that would stop and ask if we needed rides before we even tried to flag them down. Some wanted to charge a small fee, but most were happy to take us for free and make polite conversation.


Hitchhiking San Juan del Sur
A relaxing ride to town in the back of a pickup truck.


Once we were able to figure out our transportation options, I no longer felt stranded, and was able to get out, explore, and do errands easily.


3.  How to handle getting sick on the road.


It’s not “if I get sick” it’s “when I get sick.”  If you’re traveling for a longer length of time, it’s bound to happen at some point.


Ironically, I’ve had food poisoning 4 or so times previously, but they’ve all been at home in New York City. I’m really careful when traveling in Latin America – eating almost all thoroughly cooked foods, choosing restaurants and street food carts that look busy, and skipping ice if I have any doubts that it’s made with pure water. However, this trip was so long that I wanted to cook a lot and eat healthy (aka some raw foods). I researched how to disinfect produce and painstakingly did that after each trip to the market. We also bought fresh and healthy cuts of meat from the butcher.


One night, we cooked dinner together, all ate the exact same thing and went to bed. I was violently ill that night, yet neither of my 2 friends or my husband felt remotely sick. It’s impossible to pinpoint what could have made me sick, but these things happen.


My friend and I had planned to head out that next morning for a 4 day trip to Ometepe (a volcanic island in Lake Nicaragua). I had to cancel our early morning taxi and spent all day curled up in bed and running to the bathroom. It took me a full two days to even begin walking around again.


The frustrating part, was that I had to skip the trip to Ometepe with my friend who was only visiting for a week. I contemplated pushing myself to go the following day, but I thought about sitting on a ferry in the choppy waters of Lake Nicaragua, and then riding a chicken bus, and I just didn’t think I could do it.


I was actually lucky that I didn’t HAVE to go anywhere during this time. Being in a home with my own bathroom was the best case scenario. I had to reminding myself that it was ok for plans to change. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is to give myself permission to rest if I need to. I have lots of goals and high expectations for myself, but life sometimes has other ideas, and being flexible makes it much easier to handle.


4.  How to balance work/hobbies and traveling with friends.


Before we left for Nicaragua, I had my days in San Juan del Sur mapped out. I wanted to go to Spanish School, take yoga classes, take surf lessons, explore up and down the coast, oh yeah – AND work on my business, keep up with my blog, and document the trip in a journal. It was unrealistic to believe I could do all this, and we had 3 guests scheduled for 2/3 of our stay.


I had even warned the 3 guests that I was going to be “busy” and may not be around portions of the time.


As it turned out, I did very little of my planned activities. My husband’s health scare and subsequent recovery, the distance from town, and my food poisoning really threw me off. I lost a lot of motivation and time. When our friends visited, I didn’t bother closing myself off and being precious about my time. I felt the natural urge to be a good hostess, make sure everyone was fed, happy, and comfortable.


I ended up having great adventures with all of our friends. I don’t regret being more relaxed about my goals, and spending a lot of time with our guests. When it comes down to it, if someone is only visiting you for a week, it doesn’t matter if you are home or on the road – you want to spend a lot of time with them. And that’s ok!


San Juan del Sur catamaran.
An amazing afternoon with our visiting friends. We probably wouldn’t have taken this awesome catamaran ride if they weren’t in town. (Catamaran blog post to come!)


Nacascolo Bay Hike.
Another adventure with a third visiting friend – hiking Nacascolo Bay.


La Flor Nature Reserve Sunset
A day trip to La Flor Nature Reserve that we wouldn’t have gotten around to if it wasn’t our friend’s last day in town.



Most of my struggles on this trip reflect what I strive to improve in my daily life. I’m a planner through and through. Some (my husband) might say I’m a control freak. I have very specific and lofty goals. While I think this ultimately makes for an awesome work ethic and pushes me to accomplish a lot – I’m trying to let myself relax and enjoy life more. There is so much magic in allowing for flexibility to meet new friends, take off at a moment’s notice on an adventure, or even just letting yourself have an afternoon off to recharge.


This is what Nicaragua is teaching me.

2 Responses

  1. Shelly
    | Reply

    We also stayed along the Chocolata Road back in 2012 and we were quite unhappy with the distance to town, while the views were great, not having a car was hard. Luckily we were only there for four nights.

    Sorry to hear you and your husband got sick, but at least it didn’t stop your travels all together.

    It’s always interesting when travels give you perspective on yourself. I look forward to reading more.

    • Susan Ripley
      | Reply

      Thanks for the comment!

      Yes, it is interesting how all the things that go wrong actually teach you more about the place you are traveling in, force you to be creative, and even teach you about yourself. I learned more on this trip than any other time I’ve traveled.

      I see that you’re back in Nicaragua. Look forward to following your adventures!

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