Nicaragua - Adventures in the Land of Volcanos!
When I told people I was going to Nicaragua I often received a look of confusion and a comment something along the lines of, “why would you want to go there?” Fortunate for me, I love my research and was quick to reply with all the wonderful things it had to offer; beaches, volcanos, jungle, culture, delicious food and affordable prices. And by implementing standard travel safety measures and common sense it could all be experienced smoothly and hassle-free.
Nicaragua is a beautiful country that has so much to offer, especially for the down-to-earth traveler who wants an adventure. The activities are seemingly endless; countless volcanos to hike, volcanos to board down, waves to surf, lakes and islands to explore by boat, towns to wander and $1 beer that is pretty damn good.
Of course, it isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Nicaragua surprised me in both good and bad ways, and some of those surprises were due to my own ignorance. It is one thing to READ about something, it is another to see it and experience it. I knew that Nicaragua was a poor country, but the poverty was much more prevalent than I had expected it would be. It was definitely an adjustment.
Cobblestone roadways, colourful colonial style buildings, bustling streets with locals selling fresh fruit, bags of Coca-Cola and handmade goods, Granada is a buzzing little city with all the anticipated elements of Nica life. Enjoy the $1 view of Parque Central, the clay rooftops and distant volcanos atop the beautiful church Iglesia de La Merced, right in the centre of town. Grab some shade in the park and sample vigoron, a local specialty of cabbage, pork rinds and yucca for $3. Check out some of the local shops, browse their beautiful handmade hammocks and enjoy the art galleries, many of which are free. A short walk from the central park brings you to the largely undeveloped boardwalk of Lake Nicaragua. There isn’t a whole lot to see here, but you can enjoy the beach away from the busyness of the city.
We spent a good chunk of time walking and wandering the city and did an afternoon boat trip to explore parts of Las Isletas, the 300+ small islands on Lake Nicaragua. I love any activity that involves a boat ride, and this one was lovely – the guide had a wealth of information about the wildlife, flora, fauna and history about both the islands and Granada.
Take a 30 minute trip outside the city to visit Laguna de Apoyo, a 200 century old crater lake, with the cleanest freshest water you will ever swim in. For $6 you can enjoy Monkey Hut’s facilities for the day including beach, kayaks, floating dock, inner tubes, hammocks and restaurant and bar services. This was one of my favourite afternoons – it was beautiful, relaxing and a lot of fun! Beers, beach and good times.
Another bustling little city with colonial buildings, beautiful churches and plenty of locals selling their fair on the streets. The ‘white cathedral’, Basilica de La Asuncion, is an impressive structure and is worth the visit to enjoy the rooftop and its gorgeous views of the city. Leon is known for its political and artistic roots and you can get a good understanding of both by paying a visit to the art gallery, Museo de Arte Fundacion Ortiz-Guardian, featuring both local and international artists. If the cultural attractions don’t appeal to you, Leon is a great hub for getting to know the local active volcanos a little better! Admittedly, I was all about the volcanos! We did volcano boarding on Cerro Negro one day and hiked Volcan Talica the next.
Volcano boarding on Cerro Negro involved an hour-long off-road bus ride to the volcanos base, where we were given a bag of gear (suit, goggles and gloves) and a board (literally a plank of wood with a small sheet of metal on one side and a rope on the other), and then we hiked! The hike was about 45 minutes and was very doable, though awkward at times because of the board. The view at the top was amazing and worth the effort. From there, we suited up and essentially tobogganed down the volcano on our boards – you controlled your speed by ‘tapping’ or ‘dragging’ your feet on the ground. I caught a bit of speed, but was playing it a bit on the safe side! I still had an amazing time and was absolutely covered in tiny volcanic dirt and rock. I was fortunate enough to be prepared with my buff that covered my mouth and nose on the way down – definitely have something to cover your face a bit, otherwise you might have mouth full of ash!
The sunset hike up Volcan Talica was also pretty spectacular too. Again, you face about 1.5 hours of rough terrain to get to the base of the volcano where you begin the 45 minute hike. It is 45 minutes of work as the incline never stops, but it was very manageable. Perhaps the one unpleasant quality is the sulfur smell from the volcano, which burns your throat quite a bit as you take deep breaths for air. At the top you are able to look hundreds of feet down into the crater to catch a glimpse of the lava. You can also purchase a beer or coke at the top from a few locals and selling drinks from an old cooler – we did, though sadly (and probably not so surprisingly) they were not cold.
A short wander around the volcano allowed us to explore a small bat cave, where you could see and hear hundreds of them fluttering overhead. This was a little creepy, but very cool. My favourite part of course was finding a comfortable rock to bunker down and enjoy the sunset – it was beautiful.
Isla de Ometepe
Getting from Leon to Ometepe was a bit of a journey; a 4 hour bus ride, followed by an hour ferry and then another thirty minutes to get to our homestay. Staying with a local family was a completely enriching and humbling experience. Our accommodations were basic but provided us everything we needed; a bed to sleep on, roof over our head, running water (…well, kind of), and a few luxuries too like mosquito net and even a fan! We were so well taken care of and were given some of the most delicious meals we ate the whole trip – chicken, dirty rice, tomato salad, plantains and fresh fruit. It was fun getting a glimpse into real Nicaraguan life, and gave me a real appreciation for everything I had back home.
We only had one full day on the island and we were crazy enough to spend it hiking Volcan Concepcion. This is the second highest, but most technically challenging, volcano in Nicaragua. Evidently, hearing this was a bit like being dared to do it and we accepted the challenge! The hike was a grueling nine-hour round trip venture; five hours up and four down. I would essentially break up the hike into three major parts; the initial few kilometers down a flat dirt road, the uphill climb through jungle and the steep and rocky ascent to the top. Our guide, Eric, was so much fun – he had such a great attitude, was encouraging and had a wealth of information. He had lots to share about the plants, trees and wildlife we encountered and even had us eating termites and flowers along the way.
The last two hours of the ascent were tough; lots of scrambling and sometimes what felt like rock climbing, hoping to god the rock you reached for was sturdy! Unfortunately, the top was clouded and did not offer much of a view, but the feeling of success was worth every bit of effort. Not too short a distance from the summit there were beautiful views of the island to be enjoyed. Of course, once you are at the top you still have a four-hour journey back to the start. Gratefully, a few locals had set up shop a few kilometers from the beginning with the coldest most delicious beer I have ever had!
San Juan del Sur
San Juan del Sur is the perfect town to enjoy the beach and relax after hiking all those vocanos! It has an unmistakable beachy-surfer vibe, and is busy with young travelers ready to party, surf and get tanned. This was definitely the most touristy stop on the way, but also maybe my favourite of the destinations.
The town is full of shops selling trendy beach attire and restaurants serving up just about every type of food, but seafood and tacos is the always the best way to go! Grab a fresh and delicious smoothie in town and wander down to the bay; we walked the beach, enjoyed the views and did lots of people watching. San Juan del Sur is home of the ‘Sunday Funday’, so you will find happy hour drink specials just about everywhere. Take advantage and grab some $1 beers and 2 for 1 margaritas right on the water; my favourite! When you are ready for surfing or looking for a grander beach experience, most of the surf shops offer a $10 shuttle service to the beaches north and south of the town. We used this service and checked out Playa Romanso (small beach pretty much geared to beginner surfing, though has the most AMAZING fish nachos) and Playa Hermosa (large private beach with lots of shady spots, hammocks and huge waves).
Finally, the best views of the town can be found by paying a visit to the Christ of Mercy statue overlooking San Juan del Sur; it is one of the biggest in the world. You can walk there, but as we did not have the time we arranged a short trip up there with one of the surf shops. There is a $2 entry fee, but the view is gorgeous and the statue is impressive – if you can, try to get here, it will be worth it.
My overall impression – I really did enjoy myself in Nicaragua, though leaving I did not feel the urge to return. The country is still quite a bit rough around the edges, and it is hard not to feel overwhelmed at times. The streets are often littered with garbage, it is fairly common to receive what feels like looks of disdain and you are bombarded in the streets by both beggars and sellers after your money. At no point was I ever in danger, but I had a difficult time shaking a feeling of discomfort, mostly in cities like Granada and Leon. Spanish skills go along way here and there were multiple times we were charged a higher price for being foreigners. Going to Nicaragua I knew that it was a poor country, but seeing and being in it, it was much poorer than I had imagined. That being said, travel is all about new experiences and sometimes feeling uncomfortable in them; be patient, be open-minded and check your privilege.