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How a content creator unplugged in Nicaragua on a $1,500 budget

For tasty and affordable meals, he sought out cost-friendly local eateries that offered more-than-generous portions.

By Dave Lieske (@davey_gravy) 16 April 2024 5 min read

Welcome to The Passport! In this new series, we’ll explore how different people manage the costs of travel — in ways that fit their budgets, lifestyles, and vacation goals. In each dispatch, we’ll break down trip costs, but also share tips for picking the right destination, managing surprise excursion expenses, and finding the right moments to splurge a little.

In today’s Passport, a Calgary content creator heads to Nicaragua on $1,500. Read more to find out how he stayed on budget by flying into a nearby airport, chose local food over tourist food, and found peace with unplugging (instead of trying to do it all). 


The person

Name: Dave Lieske

Occupation: Photographer and videographer

The trip

Where did you go: San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua

Where did you fly from: Calgary, Alberta

Length of flight: 4-hour flight to Houston, 3-hour layover, 3.5 hour flight to Liberia, Costa Rica

Length of trip: 12 days

Total trip cost: $1,557


What were the approximate trip expenses?

Flight: $519

Stay: $650

Food: $276

Activity: I didn’t go on any excursions.

What were the highlights of your trip to Nicaragua?

This is one of the first vacations I’ve ever gone on where I came back relaxed. I purposely went on this trip being okay not seeing every corner of the country or photographing every sunrise or sunset. I took a break from my phone, social media, and emails, and spent most days walking around town without headphones, journaling on our rooftop patio, having hour-long conversations in café, and sitting on the beach with a book.

How did you choose Nicaragua as a destination? Was budget a factor? 

My friends and I wanted to visit a place for a week or two that was warm for less than $2,300. I knew very little about Nicaragua before visiting, but I had heard rave reviews from other friends who’d visited before.

Check out the surfboards from our day at Playa Maderas, a beach with great waves. (📷: Dave Lieske)

Just one of the many fresh, amazing meals we enjoyed. (📷: Dave Lieske)

What would people be surprised to know about the country? 

The surfing is great and the beaches are beautiful. There are also two volcanoes in the middle of the largest freshwater lake in South America, which contains bull sharks.


What sites should visitors of Nicaragua not miss? 

I spent almost all my time in San Juan Del Sur, but I did venture out to some neighbouring beaches. If I visited again, I would make sure to explore more of the western coastal beaches, the island of Ometepe, and some of the cities including Managua, Granada and León.

What should someone visiting know before they go? 

There’s something for everybody in Nicaragua. It’s great if you’re backpacking across the country on a budget, but it can also be enjoyed if you have a larger budget and want some more luxurious and memorable experiences or stays. The cost of items and experiences in Nicaragua tend to be lower than in Canada.

What was your most memorable meal in Nicaragua? 

While walking around during dinner time, we saw a restaurant without a sign and lots of people eating inside and outside. In front of the restaurant there were two or three large grills with people cooking huge pieces of chicken. We decided to visit and ordered the “BBQ: Complete Service,” which was two barbecued chicken breasts, the largest piece of halloumi cheese I’ve ever seen, a sausage, plantain chips, an avocado and a salad for $6.75 CAD. I was in heaven.

Here’s one of the restaurants we visited almost every day on the main street in San Juan Del Sur. (📷: Dave Lieske)

We hiked to a viewpoint one evening to get a view of the bay and the town. (📷: Dave Lieske)

What do you think is the importance of travel? 

I think it’s important to see how people live in other parts of the world. I think it’s interesting to observe how different cultures treat their work-life balance, the value they place on a social life, and the traditions they follow. As a creative person, I enjoy experiencing different types of food and drink, different climates, and architecture. I also enjoy seeing different museums and observing fashion. It broadens my understanding of the world and exposes me to different ideas and approaches to my work.

How do you budget for a trip?

We weren’t on a strict schedule, so we had a lot of options for flights. We chose to get a much cheaper flight to the neighbouring country, Costa Rica, and arrange transportation across the border to our final destination. We wanted our accommodation to be private, have air-conditioning, and be walkable to the city centre. Because this was our first time visiting, we looked through photos submitted to Google Maps to find the general cost of items. We estimated that we could comfortably eat, drink, get around, and relax for about $35 a day or less.

Any travel hacks to share?

We found that if you visit restaurants that serve the local food (rice, beans, chicken, and halloumi), the cost of a meal was $1 to $2 rather than the $6 to $14 it would be at a restaurant targeting tourists. 

Purchasing a local SIM card was extremely easy. I purchased a SIM card that cost $10 CAD with 15 GB of data, which was more affordable than my Canadian cell phone plan. That plan wanted to charge me $10 a day for roaming. 

Pack light. It’s easier to move around with a small piece of luggage, the weather is warm and if you need anything, you can purchase it there. 

Book flights and accommodations with a good travel credit card that will help you if flights are changed, your luggage gets lost, or there are delays or cancellations.

Do you ever feel stressed about the cost/spending while you travel? 

I try to book all of my accommodation, transportation, flights, and any sort of excursions (museums, art galleries, monuments) before I leave on a trip so there are fewer surprise purchases. I do my best to research before I leave what it costs to comfortably eat and get around day to day, and add 30% to that number. I like going into a trip with a ballpark idea of what I’m going to be spending — and have a buffer for unaccounted for costs — rather than returning home to a surprise credit card bill. I don’t like surprises.

Meet Davey.

Davey is a commercial photographer and videographer in Calgary. He graduated from the Alberta College of Art + Design. He’s been fortunate to travel locally and abroad with clients to share stories and capture beauty. 

Using a unique and meaningful approach, Davey aims to tell authentic stories by creating natural-feeling content — with a hint of documentary style. Receiving training as a multidisciplinary artist has encouraged him to explore different mediums, overcome challenges, and take risks to create something memorable.

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