“NEVER believe anything taxi drivers tell you about the buses…” “Money changers are generally honest and can save you time, but know the exchange rate…” “If you’re going to risk lung cancer anyway, you’ve got to try Fenix cigars…”These are among bits of honest, insider advice Paige R. Penland offers to those venturing to southwest Nicaragua in her independently published guidebook, “AWeek or Two in Southwest Nicaragua.”A freelance writer who wrote the northern half of Lonely Planet’s Costa Rica guide, Penland covers Granada, Masaya, San Juan del Sur, Ometepe Island, Rivas and the Tola beaches in her simple, 68-page guide, which can serve as a useful complement to some of the glossier, thicker, well-known guidebooks.In particular, it offers detailed advice on exploring off-the-beaten-path destinations such as Pie de Gigante, a pristine stretch of sand rewarded to those willing to hike seven kilometers to get there. Penland even gives the names of knowledgeable locals to look for, something you just won’t find in Lonely Planet.HOWEVER, if you like colorful maps, glossy photos and indexes, you may be better off sticking with the standard guidebook publishers or using “AWeek or Two in Southwest Nicaragua” as a supplement. The book doesn’t pretend to be more than an unpretentious guide published independently this year by Penland’s own Iguanacaste Publishing, and, thus, its good advice comes with oversights and even mistakes.Indeed, the author herself disclaims in a warning on the inside cover, “This book was not created by a crack team of international guide-writing experts outfitted with global positioning systems, wireless laptops, four-wheel-drive Jeeps and 24-hour tech support… So, go ahead and double-check bus schedules, opening hours, hike times and other vital stats whenever you get the chance.”Upon glancing over the guide, The Tico Times discovered an error regarding the location of Morgan’s Rock, a luxury eco-resort the guide claims is south of San Juan del Sur. In fact, Morgan’s Rock is just north of San Juan del Sur (see review, TT, May 6).AS San Juan del Sur is the only spot I’ve visited that’s covered in the guide, I used it as a frame of reference in judging the advice offered. While I doubt every hotel and restaurant in the town is listed, Penland does a good job of touching on expat favorites such as Ricardo’s Bar and Hotel Elizabeth, as well as pointing the adventurous toward activities such as turtle- watching, diving and canopy tours and directing surfers to the best breaks.The guide is geared toward backpackers and budget travelers, who, it’s probably safe to say, make up the majority of those venturing to southwest Nicaragua anyway. However, each destination’s description also includes accommodations in both the “cheap” and “not so cheap” categories, and a wide range of restaurants.For the actively inclined, Penland describes volcanoes and hikes to be explored on Ometepe Island, which she calls “a striking contender for the ‘World’s Most Beautiful Place’ award.” The island sounds like an appealing alternative to Costa Rica’s well-trekked volcanoes, and, as with most of the spots in the guide, Penland’s description left me eager to check it out.IF you’re looking to cross the border and venture off Costa Rica’s gringo trail, “AWeek or Two in Southwest Nicaragua” should make a good travel companion. Just take the author’s advice and double-check logistics – and maybe bring along one of those glossy maps from Lonely Planet.To order a copy, e-mail orders@ iguanacaste.net.
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