Transportation in Nicaragua: Planes, Push-Cars and Pickup Trucks

My #WaterAidNica trip started with your standard flight. After a very long layover in the Atlanta (GA) airport, my teammates for the week and I met up and boarded the plane that would take us to the capital city of Nicaragua, Managua.

Except it didn’t. Barely in the air, the pilot made an announcement about the radio not working properly. We needed to turn around and head back to Atlanta. To make matters worse, the pilot explained that the plane was too heavy to land and we needed to burn some fuel for about an hour. In the meantime, he was working on if/when/how we might get to Nicaragua that evening.

Once we landed safely back in Atlanta – an airport I was quite sick of at that point – we were told that a plane was ready for us two gates over. We could see it from our seats. The challenge was that we had to board that new plane in an extremely short window of time. Why? Because the Managua airport closed at midnight, and if we didn’t make it on time, we’d need to find another airport that would allow us to land.

12-seater plane

My #WaterAidNica teammate, Caitlin, and I enjoyed some cafe (sans a cover) on the small plane. Photo by Alanna Imbach.

We did end up making it to Managua that night, though it was close. Not long after we were back in the air, the flight attendants were asking for any doctors or nurses on the flight to help with a medical emergency. Luckily, it was just a bloody nose on a scared little girl. The crew, who were working overtime at that point, was spectacular.

We arrived in Managua late, but still before midnight. Our hotel was across the street, so we didn’t have far to go. A good thing since our next flight, the one I was more worried about, was early the next morning. A 5:00am meeting in the hotel lobby awaited us.

Surprising, the 12-seater plane that we took from Managua, on the Pacific side of the country, to Bilwi, on the Caribbean coast, was the smoothest ride of our entire trip. Being a domestic flight, we did not know what to expect. There are only a couple of these flights a day, and air travel in Nicaragua isn’t overly regulated. It ended up being a beautiful ride that showed us a glimpse of Nicaragua from the air at sunrise.

Once we got through the “airport” in Bilwi (it was not your typical airport), we were met by WaterAid’s amazing country director, Joshua Briemberg. Joshua had a vehicle ready for us. Unfortunately, it did not start. We ended up having to push the car to get it going. A task we would do repeatedly during the week. By the end, we chalked it up to team building. Honestly, it was pretty fun.

Caitlin, a journalist, Dixie, our fabulous translator, and me after pushing our car for the week to get it started in the morning

Caitlin, a journalist, Dixie, our fabulous translator, and me after pushing our car for the week to get it started in the morning.

In case you are wondering why I’m looking at my hands in the above picture, here’s what the back of the car looked like:

The back of our car for the week. Nicaragua has brown, clay-like soil, which gets everywhere!

The back of our car for the week. Nicaragua has brown, clay-like soil, which gets everywhere!

Transportation was a strong theme for me in Nicaragua because it affected everything. It’s not easy to get from one point A to point B in the country, especially on the Caribbean coast, where we were. The roads aren’t paved and are barely maintained. It took us about two hours to travel roughly 40 miles. We actually lucked out with the roads since we were visiting during the dry season. While we encountered huge holes in the road and extremely uneven terrain, we were told the roads were as good as they get during the year. During the rainy season, parts of the road flood and become impassable. Crossing the river becomes a challenge as well.

wawa river

Waiting for the barge to pick us up and take us across the Wawa River.

Speaking of crossing rivers, we had to get out of the car and wait for a barge to cross the Wawa River. It was, well, probably not the most well-maintained barges. As you can see from the picture above, cars, buses and people cross the river via the barge. There were also people selling food on the edge. We barely made the barge on our way back from a visit to one of the rural communities one evening. It apparently closes for an hour a couple of times per day. If you miss it, you simply have to wait until someone comes back to run it. We got the car on the barge with just seconds to spare!

A popular mode of transportation for locals was the motorbike. For fun, we strapped a GoPro camera on Joshua, WaterAid's country director.

A popular mode of transportation for locals was the motorbike. For fun, we strapped a GoPro camera on Joshua, WaterAid’s country director.

I asked a lot about transportation during our trip. I found out that there are communities that have no road access. You have to drive as far as you can and then take a boat or plane to reach the most remote places. As you can expect, these are the hardest communities to work in and provide access to clean water and sanitation. The cost of transportation is a huge barrier to water access. In fact, many water organizations have left Nicaragua due to the prohibitive costs of transportation, both to reach rural communities and to purchase and deliver the materials needed for building wells, installing toilets and other structures. WaterAid America is in some of the most remote areas of Nicaragua and assessing more areas in which to work. The key to their success so far is getting community members involved from the beginning, training them to build and maintain water systems themselves.

selfie wawa river

I took this selfie in a dugout canoe on the Wawa River!

Linda (whom I wrote more about last Friday) took Caitlin and I in her dugout canoe across the river to see her crops. Without a car, or even electricity in her house, she lived very simply. When I asked Joshua what pregnant women did when they went into labor, he noted that they would have to find a way to get themselves to Bilwi, where the closest hospital was located. (It sounds like Joshua has had a few interesting childbirth moments in the back seat of his car!) Of course, the lack of transportation and the difficulty of getting from the rural areas to the city contributes to newborn and maternal mortality rates.

And let’s not forget that many women and children without water access are forced to walk several hours during the day to retrieve water from the river. Unfortunately, this action not only takes them away from their children and other daily duties, but the water is not safe to use.

A well installed by WaterAid and community members means that this mom does not have to leave her children multiple times per day to fetch water.

A well installed by WaterAid and community members means that this mom does not have to leave her children multiple times per day to fetch water.

On our last day in Nicaragua, we had the opportunity to act like tourists in Managua. Joshua was kind enough to help us find a taxi we could trust, as the city is not the safest place to explore and the taxis can be dangerous. Just another mode of transportation to be concerned with. Our driver took us to an active volcano and a few places to find souvenirs.

Oh, and did I mention on our last day in Bilwi, we rode to the airport in the back of a pickup truck?

My ride to the airport in Bilwi was in the back of a pickup truck. A fitting way to end our staff on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua.

My ride to the airport in Bilwi was in the back of a pickup truck. A fitting way to end our stay on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua.

As I stepped into my Ford Explorer this morning to drive for the first time in over a week, I couldn’t help but be thankful for my car that started on the first try, well-paved roads (even with the frost heaves!), my close proximity to two hospitals, and easy access to clean water and toilets.

What transportation challenges have you faced?

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  1. LOVE this so much!
    Jennifer James recently posted..Maternal Health in KenyaMy Profile

  2. Oh my gosh what a spectacular adventure! I really enjoyed reading about your experience. I know this left a profound mark on you! As for transportation issues… never anything quite as dramatic as that. On Russia I rode on a train that seemed to be from the early 1900s. And of course I had some adventures in military cargo planes…
    Glad you are home safe and sound.
    Alexa recently posted..Always Their Mother… A Special Mother’s Day CampaignMy Profile

  3. Totally loved hearing here about all your time traveling, there and back again. My hat is truly off to you and seriously so very proud of you. Just so happy now to hear you are home safely now, too!! Hugs :)
    Janine Huldie recently posted..Mustela Skincare Has The Whole Family CoveredMy Profile

  4. This reminds me somewhat of traveling around Bolivia, where most of the roads are unpaved, where I took a small passenger plane, and that also have interesting “airports.” My my interesting transportation issue was when we were on a trip in the salt flats and the jeep we were in broke down. We had to wait for another tour jeep passing by to pick us up a few at a time. These types of trips definitely make you grateful for what you have back home, as well as realize how much we take for granted!
    Bev recently posted..March in Review: Instagram StyleMy Profile

  5. Whoa! Were you scared on the plane that was wasting fuel for an hour? Was it circling? I’ve been in a circling plane before and it made my ex-boyfriend get airsick. It didn’t bother me much. And how did you do on the bumpy roads? You look so carefree and awesome in every photo!
    I’ve only had the usual flight problems we’ve all had – delays, cancelations, missed flights, bumpy flights, etc.
    Tamara recently posted..I Had No Idea How Much I’d Need Her.My Profile

    • The flight going to Managua was probably the scariest part of the trip, And that’s not at all what I was worried about! I give that flight crew a lot of credit. It could have been much worse. We actually lucked out with the roads. While they were extremely bumpy and dusty, they weren’t as bad as I expected. Surprisingly, I was pretty carefree during the trip. I was fairly prepared for what I was going to experience and just went with it. It was emotional, but very invigorating.
      anotherjennifer recently posted..Philanthropy Friday: Two Easy Ways to Celebrate World Water Day Next WeekMy Profile

  6. What an adventure! Hearing your stories definitely makes you realize how easy life is for us. I can’t say I have had any true transportation issues…a day without a car here and there, missed or cancelled flights.
    Michelle recently posted..1969: A Look Back in Time #TuesdayTenMy Profile

  7. Loved this post! What an adventure. Thanks for sharing with us, Jennifer. I face these transportation issues almost every day. Living on an island in Nicaragua is quite a challenge. :-)
    Gypsytoes recently posted..A Great OpportunityMy Profile

  8. Oh my what an ADVENTURE!!! And I can only imagine those rickety roads flooded… oh my. And how amazing all the different ‘modes of transportation’ you took. WOW. Which one was your hardest and which was your favorite? I would bet the back of that truck was um, a bit hard!

    I am sure your perspective is forever changed. And to think that MOST of our world lives like that… oh we are all so protected, aren’t we?
    Chris Carter recently posted..Are You Feeling STRETCHED?My Profile

  9. It must be weird to be back in the states after being in Nicaragua for a week. I love the willingness showing through your smile for things you aren’t used to doing. I adore looking at pictures of the people of Nicaragua like that woman carrying a bucket on her hand with her daughter in hand. This kind of stuff makes me want to travel the world like NOW!
    Ashlee recently posted..1st Birthday vs. 2nd BirthdayMy Profile


  1. […] Mother of All Meltdowns, and we both LOVE and ADORE WaterAid. In fact, Jennifer just got to go to Nicaragua with WaterAidUS. So Cool! All of these things (and our mutual love and adoration of Ilene, Chris, the Dose Girls, […]

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