Nicaragua: Land of Lakes and Volcanoes

img_1497Two weeks in Nicaragua over the holidays greatly increased our: basic Spanish, sleep mastery (9 hours a night), dedication to Deet, tolerance for creatures sharing our bedroom, surfing skills, enthusiasm for volcanoes, life tally of best sunsets ever, perspective on Nicaraguan politics, and gratitude.

CRITTER TALLY:

  • Bats (in our room), howler monkeys, capuchin monkeys, black iguana, geckos (3:00am on David’s head)…
  • Scorpion (in David’s luggage), tree snake, ground snake (but luckily not the coral snake that was there the day before), grasshopper, leaf cutter, wasps of all sizes, ants of all colors, ubiquitous mosquitoes, giant cockroach (down my shirt), tree termites (edible in a pinch), tarantula-ish spider + an unfortunate (imo) multiplicity of other spiders (small and not small at all), butterflies (blue morpho, swallowtail, monarch, owl +++), enormous cicadas, moths…
  • Dolphins, sea anemones, tortoises, giant sea turtles (nesting and swimming), angel fish, sea urchins, barnacles, possible baby sting ray or horseshoe crab (between our feet, gulp), hermit crabs, rock crabs of every color, guapote (fierce lake fish on my plate), jellyfish (on Siena)…
  • White egrets, herons, white crested magpie jays, humming birds, white headed eagle, black headed vulture, wild turkey, terns, grackles…
  • Chickens, baby chickens, roosters, pigs, piglets, pig in a bag (on the ferry!?), cows, oxen, children riding oxen, pelibueys (sheep/goats, um, supposedly yum?), skinny horses (sad), sturdy burros, a plethora of hungry dogs (also sad), 3 fluffy bunnies, 5 cats…
  • and Paco the giant crocodile (at the beach)!!!

GRANADA:

  • The best way to see the city is from one of the horse drawn carriages that line the central square. The guides are very knowledgeable about the history and sites, and some speak good English if you need. Cost about $20 for a 1-hour tour.
  • Get lost in the dense warrens of the bustling city market to learn how local people shop and eat.
  • Climb to the bell tower of the Cathedral ($1) for views across the city and into some of the lovely gardens in the center of the older buildings.
  • Meander down lively Calle la Calzada lined with festive bars, cafes, shops and ice cream.
  • Take Spanish classes or cooking lessons.

To eat:

  • Garden Café – May favorite place in town and maybe one of the best of the trip! Healthy salads, smoothies and coffee in a lovely art-filled garden with a book borrowing program and a fantastic shop featuring very nice artisan products from NGOs and sustainability projects around the country.
  • El Pizzaiol/Pita Pita – Wood fired pizzas + hummus plates. Good stop for the family!
  • El Tranvia – Charming garden, elegant building, nice food, live traditional dancing on Thursday evenings.
  • Restaurante Las Colinas – Worth a small detour out of the center of town for this traditional thatched roof restaurant. They actually sent a driver to take us to/from our hotel but you could walk in 15 minutes. The specialty is a fierce looking whole fried lake fish called guapote in a special sauce with a nice array of salad, rice and beans on the side.
  • Restaurante El Zaguán – One of the most recommended spots in town for a nicer meal. A good spot to have a steak.

To stay:

  • Hotel Plaza Colon – Definitely book a room with a balcony overlooking the cathedral and the main square. You can spend all day in a rocking chair watching the dramatic sky above and the world go by below.

img_1273SIDE TRIPS FROM GRANADA:

  • Las Isletas – Book a 1-hour boat tour (about $30) from the lakefront harbor for a placid putter around a chain of 365 minute islands on the lake hosting beautiful villas, small restaurants with pools and even one with tame monkeys.
  • Mombacho – Walk or hop in the back of a truck to scale the near vertical road to the ranger station on top of this sort-of-sleeping volcano, and take a moderate 1 ½ hour walk around the crater trail to experience throngs of orchids and bromeliads, howler monkeys, steaming vents and cool microclimates. The reward is sweeping views of Lake Colcibolca, Masaya volcano and lovely Granada below. The cloud forest hosts 50 species of mammals, 174 species of birds, 30 of reptiles and 750 species of flora. There is also a rigorous 4-hour route around the second crater, which you can only visit with an approved guide.   Half way up the mountain there is a coffee stop at Cafe del Flor (like Nicaraguan Starbucks they are everywhere) and zip line tours.
  • Apoyo Lagoon – It was very windy on the day we went, but this crater lake is famous for being clear and lovely for a swim. Check in to the Monkey Hut where you can eat, drink, lounge and rent kayaks. Supposedly there are five different fish that are ecologically unique to this pretty little lake.
  • National Artisan Market in Masaya – Housed in the shell of a beautiful renovated 19th century market, this is a good place to buy many different crafts from around the country like hand woven hammocks, textiles and carved wood. There are folkloric shows every Thursday evening as well.

OMETEPE ISLAND:

Take the 1-hour ferry or book a flight from Managua to this island formed by two volcanoes (one very much alive), rising out of vast Lake Colcibolca.  Cloud forest, crystal pools, prehistoric petroglyphs, beaches and nature preserves – you really shouldn’t visit Nicaragua without at least a 2-day stop here.

To do:

  • El Ojo de Agua – cool off in this clear natural pool formed by a pristine river originating from the Conception Volcano.
  • Petroglyphs at Finca el Porvenir – Visit a field of stones dating to the 4th century AD showing ornate human and animal scenes carved by the original indigenous settlers of Nicaragua – probably related to the Aztecs. There are several other sites around the island where you can find additional petroglyphs.
  • Charco Verde Lagoon and nature preserve – A small fee admits you to this lovely nature preserve which includes a butterfly garden. Take the loop trail around the lagoon, and pause in a clearing to learn about the infamous witch doctor Chico Largo who haunts the lake.   Watch out for snakes – no joke.
  • Climbing – You can climb either of the island’s two volcanoes with a round trip of about 8 hours. The hikes are vigorous and guides are essential.

To stay/eat:

  • Finca San Juan de La Isla – Located on a huge plantain farm.  Book an elevated lakefront log cabin for peaceful breezy sleeps.  A kind vaquero will take you on a horseback ride through the beautiful farms, forests and beaches around the property.
  • Hotel Villa Paraiso – Enjoy a nice lunch on the terrace of this lakeside hotel, probably the most upscale on the island.

BEACHES:

Tola:   The “Emerald Coast” is beautiful with virtually untouched beaches – serious Pacific Coast paradise. Hotel Punta Teonoste offers charming but basic accommodations (thatched huts, outdoor showers). A little roughing it is worth it though for the hotel’s pristine private beach with nesting sea turtles, literally perfect boogie boarding waves, and a dramatic lava shoreline providing excellent tide pools. Nearby the Rancho Santana development offers more infrastructure and homes for rent, and Mukul is the most exclusive and high end resort in the country ($$$$$).

San Juan del Sur: Surfer/backpacker HQ bustling with nightlife, people watching, honking, music, surf shops, laundromats and a strip of lively beachfront restaurants perfect for taking in sunset with a cocktail.  It seems really loud if you’ve been hanging out in other parts of the country, but it’s a great stepping off point for the many beaches along this beautiful stretch of coast.

  • The beach in town is calm and nice but crowded (it’s in town!). You can rent a car or find an easy ride from one of the surf shops to beaches nearby including Playa Maderas – a great beginner’s surfing beach with three restaurants, surf lessons and beach chairs for hire. Playa Marsella – much more tranquil – stop at Rancho Marsella on the estuary for lunch and a glimpse of Paco the resident crocodile (3 meters long!). Playa Hermosa south of town was also highly recommended to us.
  • Da Flying Frog – just outside town for zip lining, repelling and horseback riding on the beach.
  • Nica Sail and Surf – Spend a day on a catamaran drinking rum and cokes and waving to dolphins as you sail away to a private beach.
  • To eat: G&G Gourmet (one of our favorite restaurants of the trip), Gato Negro (for books, smoothies and yummy breakfast), Dia de los Donuts for donuts fried to order, Super Frutto Gelateria for real gelato, Vivan, El Timon and many more cafes along the beach.
  • To stay: Pelican Eyes is considered one of the best in the country, and is a good place to rent 1,2 and 3 bedroom homes/villas.  However, it is not on the beach, and being built into a hill some of the rooms are VERY hard to get to unless the resort drives you up a side dirt road.  Either request a room near the pool or lobby, or consider renting a house on the beach.

WE ARE GOING BACK FOR:

  • Stop through the colonial town of Leon
  • Eat lobster and coconuts on a pristine white sand beach on the Corn Islands in the Caribbean
  • Take a boat trip down/up the Rio San Juan – bordering Costa Rica, the untouched jungle along the former route of infamous pirates sadly might be turned into a giant shipping canal by the Chinese in the next few years…
  • Canoeing, hiking, swimming through the newly opened Somoto Canyon whose dramatic vertical canyon walls are one of the oldest rock formations in Central America
  • Tour the chocolate and coffee farms in the north

TIPS AND NOTES:

  • The current exchange rate for the Nicaraguan cordoba is about 29/1$ as of winter 2016.  It is not hard to create a very affordable trip in most of the country, but expect to pay US prices in more touristy areas like Granada and San Juan del Sur.  Many people take US$ in small notes, but you should exchange some money anyway.  You will get a better exchange rate if you get money from the ATM or change $ on the street rather than changing cash at the airport or banks.
  • DO NOT forget to apply bug spray every day.  Even in the dry season mosquitos are plentiful and tenacious.
  • When you enter the country you need to have $10 cash at customs for each traveler.
  • Check the season you travel – the dry season is still moderately rainy with brief light daily showers, but the rainy season is WET and makes some areas impassable.
  • Nicaragua is very casual.  Leave your diamonds and fancy resort wear at home.
  • Most people do not speak English.  Brush up on your Spanish or bring a phrase book to help you communicate.  Locals were very patient and appreciative of our meek efforts to speak Spanish!
  • Bring a flashlight.  Although electricity is now pretty reliable throughout the country, smaller hotels and beach hotels may not have lighted pathways at night.
  • Nicaragua is a very agricultural country.  All the food we ate throughout the trip was very fresh, locally grown, clean and safe to eat, although I do recommend drinking bottled water.
  • We booked a lot of our trip through Nicaragua Adventures who arranged wonderful guides and airport/hotel transfers in very clean comfortable vans.
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