Tag Archives: lake nicaragua

Traveling in Nicaragua with Food Allergies

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Quite simply put: when food can kill you, travel can be terrifying.

Thanks to my friend, Linda, a fellow food allergy mom (whose daughter was desensitized to milk through treatment at John’s Hopkins!  Yay!) for succinctly articulating this thought.  Linda has also traveled extensively with her daughter, and was a good resource for me before we left, and in the decompressing that needed to happen once we were home.

The short story:  8 nights in Nicaragua, brought our own food, had one troubling incident, made it home in one piece with no more than a couple of doses of Benadryl. Glad we went.  Slight modifications if I were to do it again.

The long story: [deep breath] I knew that trying to navigate food in a country where I don’t speak the language, or know the cultural issues around food allergies would be difficult. So we planned and planned and planned some more.  Here is what we planned:

1. We packed a suitcase full of packaged food to keep my son full for the week.  Shelf stable soy milk, dry cereal, crackers, cookies, Daiya “cheese” spread, bagels, margarine, dry pasta and so on….  It helped that we froze much of what we took, and then defrosted things as needed, so that kept the bagels going all week (though by the end, I didn’t think my son would eat another bagel for a year.)

2. We rented places that had full kitchens, so we could prepare hot meals for our son and feel safe.  It also meant we could refreeze our ice packs and store our cold items for the week.  This worked great, and allowed us  to make him his favorite “mac n cheese” (dairy free of course!), baked chicken and warmed bagels.

3. We brought along a lot of emergency medication.  Like 8 epi pens, tons of Benadryl and even filled a script of liquid prednisone (the steroid) after I had read that not all counties readily treat with that.

4. We had all of his allergy information, and key phrases like “he’s having a serious life threatening reaction to milk” translated into Spanish.  If something happened, we needed to be able to communicate it!

5. We bought emergency travel insurance.  I wanted the peace of mind that if we needed to get out fast for a medical issue, we’d have help.  The travel clinic where we got our typhoid shots before the trip told me that the travel insurance carriers were great resources for local medical help, too.  So we didn’t just buy the insurance, we printed out all the contact information and coverage instructions so we could be prepared.

6. We brought tons of antibacterial hand wipes, to clean hands plus surfaces on the airplane or in restaurants.  (Remember, antibacterial gel doesn’t remove food allergens!)

7. Most importantly, we were really careful.  We planned to be really careful.  At home, we eat out and we let our son eat restaurant food, once we’ve done the song and dance about cross contamination and all that.  But we decided that we would take no chances while we were traveling, and unless we cooked it, he wasn’t eating it.  This really bummed him out, but we stuck to our plan — except for the fruit smoothie we got him at the American-owned hotel Mango Rosa, where we were able to have the food allergy song and dance conversation with the American owner, and we went for it.  But then we felt stupid and remembered our plan and didn’t deviate again.

But like many well planned events, we failed to foresee every possible issue, and found ourselves in a bit of a pickle (I mean panic) while on an aging ferry on Lake Nicaragua on our way to the most remote place on our trip.

IMG_3752No sooner than we lifted anchor and found ourselves leaving land did my son start to show signs of an allergic reaction.  We were seated in the passenger area of the cramped ferry — broken seats everywhere, lots of holiday tourists on board, and vendors had been on board selling sunglasses and roasted nuts.  Yes, roasted nuts.  We hadn’t let my son sit down, for fear of the seats being contaminated, but he got hives on his face and neck and started to complain of an itchy throat.  He was scared.  We were terrified.  This all happened within minutes of leaving the port.  I had him outside in fresh air immediately, washing him down with those handy wipes, dosing him with benadryl and counting epis in my head while I imagined having to ask them to turn the ferry around.

For all the adrenaline and fear I experienced, the whole thing resolved itself almost as fast as it came on.  But from that moment on, I was berating myself for putting us in this position.  I mean, what was I thinking taking my FAMILY to this remote place?  How could I bring my allergic son to someplace SO FAR AWAY?  And even though we had identified before our trip that there was a hospital on Ometepe Island, I was sick about the might-ofs that were running through my head.

My darling husband was calm once we were off the ferry (under an hour on the ferry) but I wasn’t calm until we had finished our three night stay on the island and were safely back in the more developed, modern city of Granada.  On the return ferry, we never took our son inside, and found a quiet spot on the deck to ride out the trip back to the mainland, and it was a blissfully uneventful trip.

IMG_3795The only other point of nervousness for his safety came, ironically, when we visited the active volcano outside of Granada.  Now, we weren’t nervous about the VOLCANO erupting (though in hindsight, I seriously brought my family to an active volcano!?!?) But, the air is thin and the sulfur from the volcano can make it hard to breathe.  I had trouble as we ascended the volcano (by car), and only then, in that moment, did I realize that I had failed to pack my own inhaler AND MY SON’S inhaler!  Oops.  Asthma is not a chronic problem for him (it is more an issue for me) but I really had thought that it was in our bag, but it wasn’t.  Luckily, there was a great breeze at the top and we all had good clean air to breathe.  Problem averted.  But next time I would definitely pack the inhalers!

Next time?  Well, we’ve been home a few weeks, and I’ve had time to reflect on our trip, and have asked myself many times, “would I go again?”

Yes.  I am glad we went. I would go to Nicaragua again with my food allergic son.  I would still do all the planning we did, but I would not go on the ferry.  It was too remote.  It was too “developing” and I was so unprepared for airborne tree nut particles causing a reaction!  I know that the unexpected can happen anywhere, but if it is to happen, I don’t want to be on a remote ferry in the middle of Lake Nicaragua!

Ask my son, and he’ll say he loved Nicaragua, but he has asked “next time can we please go to an English speaking country so I can eat in a restaurant?”  And that just breaks my heart.  Should we have brought food for all 6 of us? Should we have totally avoided eating out (where we’d bring his food that we’d prepared?)  It just isn’t practical, especially when part of our purpose of travel was to expose our kids to the food of Nicaragua.  But I do wish that he could have been more free to get more smoothies, or to get allergy safe pancakes or other special “restaurant food” that the other boys got.  We made sure he got plenty of treats, but they grew less and less special as the trip wore on, and he was sad that he couldn’t eat like everyone else.

What my darling son doesn’t know is that even if we went to an English speaking country, it doesn’t mean we’d be any less vigilant; and it doesn’t mean we’d even let him eat in a restaurant (unless we could understand the cultural issues around food allergies.)  We are seriously talking about traveling to India next time (English speaking yes, but I would not be comfortable with food prep/handling/cross contamination in the kitchens there.)

I would love to hear from other food allergy parents about their experiences traveling abroad!  Happy travels.

“Where’s the Paper?” Nicaragua Part 2: Ometepe Island

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Isla de Ometepe, Nicaragua

IMG_3694Remote. Rural. Lush. Ometepe Island, formed from two volcanoes, sits in the middle of Lake Nicaragua, one of the world’s largest natural lakes.  We debated all week what claim this lake should make, so I had to look it up.  According to Wikipedia, its the 19th largest freshwater lake in the world (and the largest in the Americas.)  Ometepe was our 2nd stop in Nicaragua.  The first was  San Juan del Sur;  read about that adventure in Part 1 of the “Where’s the Paper” series.

From the small port town of San Jorge, we boarded a ferry for Ometepe. You can also take a boat, but we were told, in broken English and emphatic mime that the boats were tiny and rocked a lot on what can be windy/rough waters.  So we took the ferry, along with dozens of other tourists (international and Nicaraguan.)

IMG_3752The Ferry itself is unimpressive.  Worn looking.  Old.  I did see life vests but didn’t bother assessing how many there were.  The timing of our trip was days after the horrific ferry boat sinking in South Korea.  For better or worse, we had been cut off from all news and didn’t learn of that tragedy until we returned home.  I never felt unsafe on our ferry — except for the allergic reaction that our food allergic son had shortly after we departed.  Luckily, the ride was just over an hour and provided stunning views of the volcanoes on Ometepe!

Most ferries to Ometepe arrive in Moyogalpa — the largest town on the island.  Getting transportation in Moyogalpa is easy when you arrive by ferry — taxis areIMG_3680 lined up and eager for business.  We had to wait for the truckload of bananas to move onto the ferry before we could leave, ironically, the only glimpse of that fruit we would have for the 3 1/2 days on the island!  Our rental property was an easy 10 minute drive away, and our driver luckily knew how to find it!

Nestled in a quiet town called Los Angeles, our farm is called Finca Macedonia.  A beautifully lush farm, filled with mango trees, lime trees, avocado trees and more.  A flock of roosters wandered around, beautiful birds abound and a few horses rounded out the wildlife we experienced.  I found the rental on VRBO, and it was amply large and modern, especially compared to other available lodging.  On Ometepe, you can stay in an upscale eco-lodge, or in a hostel.  There tourist infrastructure is very limited on the island, and this was the ONLY house we could find to rent.  It was important to us to have access to a kitchen to be able to manage our son’s food allergies, and so we were very pleased to find the farm house!

IMG_3684The farm keeper and his family live on the property, and saw to our needs during the stay.  My boys loved playing with his girls, and while Emerson’s English was limited, it far surpassed our Spanish, and he made sure that we found the path to the lake, and he arranged for fresh fish for us, which his wife prepared in a traditional grill with rice and beans and plantains!  We picked many mangoes and limes, and Emerson gave us each a large avocado, which unfortunately didn’t ripen before our trip concluded and we had to forfeit our fruit.

In general, our time on Ometepe was sleepy and hot.   Our fans in each bedroom did the trick, but as in San Juan del Sur, nights were loud with cicadas, birds, roosters and dogs.

The day after we arrived, we ventured onto a local bus, and ended up sitting next to a couple from New Zealand, an American and a Croatian.  All of them young, and adventurous — not knowing where they were staying the night, and taking each day as it came.  They reminded us of our younger selves, and also made it clear how different travel is when you have three children and an older parent with you!  These travelers helped us navigate to our destination, and we exited the bus to find the Charco Verde Eco Reserve.

IMG_1118We had a slick brochure from the tourist office that made the Eco Reserve a top destination on Ometepe Island.  But we were a tad disappointed.  The nature walk was nice — we saw monkeys and some beautiful plants and birds.  But we didn’t see anything inside the reserve that we hadn’t seen on our farm or in San Juan del Sur.  It being located adjacent to an upscale hotel and restaurant was a fortuitous coincidence for us, as we enjoyed delicious Nica snacks, drinks and their beach.  The boys rented a paddle boat, and enjoyed cooling off in the lake.  We were so wiped out by the heat and all the walking that we had the hotel call us a private car to go back to the farm.  Private transportation in Nicaragua is expensive, but we were too tired to walk the 1/2 mile back to the main road and wait for the bus.

Our sense of remote isolation was amplified on Sunday, as we understood that public buses are not running.  So we made the day a lazy one and enjoyed the farm and a nice hike/swim with Emerson and his daughter. We made our 3rd trip to the local store — literally inside someone’s home — to replenish our soda supply (which, ah hem, we needed to polish off the rum that was purchased on day 1.)  It turns out that the town only gets fresh veggies/fruit delivered on Monday or Tuesday — and we left on Monday morning.  We ate simply those few days, chicken, canned veggies, rice and beans…  cooking in the house was our plan, and proved harder than we would have expected.  It was HOT on Ometepe, and our home had no air conditioning, so cooking made us feel like we were in an oven.  Luckily, we had ample space outside to sit and try and catch a breeze.

IMG_1120As we packed up to leave Ometepe on Monday morning, the grown ups were more cheerful about leaving the island — for various reasons.  We wanted fresh fruit and veggies, I wanted to be closer to transportation and feel like we could access modern medicine should there be an issue, and we craved air conditioning.  I realized how soft I had become in how much the heat bothered me.  The kids never complained.  Even my mom was more comfortable on the farm than my husband and I (she had grown up spending summers on her grandfather’s farm in Canada.)

Our ferry ride back to San Jorge was quick and uncrowded.  The Easter crowds had dispersed, and things felt less hectic on the return.  Our prearranged transportation was waiting for us as we walked off the ferry!  I loved how easy it was to arrange transportation with Iskra Travel!  We lucked out and Mike, our first driver from the night we arrived, picked us up and took us on the 1 1/2 drive to Granada.

The Bottom Line

My husband and I are city people.  There, I said it.

Ometepe Island is great for hikers or adventurous travelers who need little modern comfort.  In hindsight, I don’t think we prepared enough for our visit, or knew what to expect.  If I were to go again, especially with kids in tow, I would either arrange to have a private car/driver meet us daily or else rent a car.  The island is large, and we would have had a better experience had we seen more, but once we were at the farm, the “schlep” to make transportation work was greater than our desire.  As a mom of three kids (11, 9 and 5) and one of them having serious food allergies, I was nervous about being so remote “just in case” something were to happen.  There are medical facilities in Moyogolpa, the main town where the ferry comes into, but I would have been at a total loss as to how to get there if we had needed it!

Where’s the Paper?”

That’s what I heard when the first rooster loudly cried out — I must admit that not everyone in our group heard that, but once I heard it, I couldn’t not hear it.  I will probably forever more hear “where’s the paper?” when others hear “cock-a-doodle-doo.”