In Central America everybody is either traveling south or north on more or less the same Gringo Trail. Which makes it easy to catch up on stories and information on the countries we are heading to. Like Nicaragua. We only heard good about the country. Supposedly cheap and the people are friendly. And, even though nobody could really point out the must-sees, everybody seemed to linger longer than planned. We were curious.
Muy Tranquilo in Jiquilillo
Our first stop after a 14-hour journey from El Salvador is the small fishing village Jiquilillo on the Pacific coast, about an hour northwest of Chinandega. It’s a quiet place that stretches out along a wide black sand beach. We take up residence in a dusty cabaña at Rancho Tranquilo. For 20 USD a night not exactly value for money but accommodation options in this area are limited. Same with restaurants so we are dependent on the menu options offered by the hostel. Which are delicious. Although, considering they’re all vegetarian, with around 4 USD slightly overpriced. Nicaragua cheap? Not so far.
But enough moaning about the prices. It’s a remote place so it’s understandable. Let’s focus on the positives. It’s a beautiful place. Right on the beach with plenty of hammocks to chill out. And since there’s no wifi it’s excellent to socialize with fellow travellers now that nobody is occupied with their online affairs. We spend most of the days chatting, reading and writing. Or, as soon as the heat died down, playing frisbee on the perfect wide beach.
Until the amazing sunset draws everybody’s attention…
Cultural Explorations in León
We continue our way south and visit colonial León, founded in 1524 by the Spaniards and one of the oldest cities in Nicaragua. León is also the most politically progressive city in the country and still is the heartland of the Sandinista movement. During the 1979 revolution it was here where the street fighting took place that eventually led to the fall of the Somoza regime.
So it’s no surprise that in León you find the Museo Historico de la Revolución. After paying the 50 cordoba (2 USD) entrance fee we get a guide who explains passionately – in Spanish – about the events leading up to the revolution and the happenings afterwards. The museum features mainly photo’s and newspaper cuttings dedicated to the blood, sweat and tears of the revolutionaries who fought bravely for the liberty of Nicaragua.
The museum is located at the central square opposite the cathedral. Ironically it’s housed in a building that used to be the former Palace of Communications of president Somoza. It was the site of a number of shootouts with Somoza’s soldiers and the decrepit building is still marked with bullet holes inside and out. All in all an interesting place but in hindsight it would have been better if we hadn’t overestimated our Spanish language skills and opted for the English-speaking guide 🙂
To finish off our cultural tour we also visit the Museo de Arte Fundación Ortiz-Guardián, renowned for having one of the finest collections of contemporary art in Central America. It’s housed in a couple of beautiful old homes with works from big names like Picasso, Chagall and Botero displayed in hallways that surround elegant courtyards. Even if you’re not interested in paintings it’s worth a visit for the old houses alone.
If still not culturally satisfied, León is full of beautiful colonial buildings. And then there’s of course the famous cathedral, the biggest in Central America…
Granada & Laguna de Apoyo
In Granada we re-unite with our Flemish friends Mathijs and Gerlinde whom we met earlier in San Pedro at Lago de Atitlán. Granada is the oldest city in Nicaragua and, like León, filled with colonial buildings in pastel colors and ancient churches. In the afternoon we take a short stroll around the center where I climb a church tower to capture the well-known picture of Granada’s cathedral.
While Granada is undoubtedly an interesting place, we don’t feel like hanging around in the heat of a city again. We decide to spend a day at Laguna de Apoyo, a big blue lake inside the Apoyo Volcano. The water is clean and, because it’s thermally vented, of a pleasant temperature. It is a great place to relax, swim and kayak or to just spend a day lounging in the water and sun.
So we do just that. With some beers of course.
Survival at Isla de Ometepe
Two chicken bus rides takes us from Granada to San Jorge, the jump-off point for Isla de Ometepe. From there it’s a choppy 1-hour ride on a ramshackle ferry to Moyogalpa, the main gateway to the island.
Isla de Ometepe is an island composed of two volcanoes emerging from Lago de Nicaragua. Joined by a thin, flat isthmus the two volcanoes shape the island like an hourglass. On the northern half looms Volcán Concepción, a majestic and perfectly cone-shaped active volcano, while the southern half is dominated by the extinct volcano Maderas which is covered with cloud forest and has a lagoon in its crater.
With its fertile volcanic soil the island’s economy used to be based on livestock and agriculture. But with challenging volcanoes, clean waters and nice beaches tourism is increasingly becoming an important source of income. Nevertheless it’s still very quiet and rural.
Still travelling with our Flemish friends we share a taxi to Playa Santo Domingo. With its long sandy beach one of the more popular spots on the islands. That wasn’t our smartest choice.
The Fuego y Agua survival run, with Santo Domingo as start and finish point, happens to take place this weekend. The 100 km course of this run involves an extremely rugged loop that includes climbing both volcanoes. It takes about 28 hours. Crazy. There are 25 and 50 km courses too, taking in only one volcano. Less crazy, still challenging.
Anyway, as you can imagine, ALL accommodation in and around Santo Domingo is fully booked. Leaving us with our own survival challenge. I throw in my best shack-building skills and assemble a shelter on the beach made of driftwood and palm leaves. Now hopefully it’s not going to rain…
Romantic as it seems it’s unfortunately kind of windy on this side of the island. And my hand-crafted shack doesn’t turn out to be windproof. So after a cold and wind-swept night we decide to look for another spot. With still no affordable rooms available we find a little hostel that lets us sleep on the sand behind one of their buildings. Sheltered from the wind it’s a better place. Safer too. At night we gaze at the stars and in the morning we wake up surrounded by chickens pottering around.
And finally cheap!
Despite the accommodation issues I slowly begin to appreciate Nicaragua. Jiquilillo was nice but the cities, in all their colonial beauty, were too hot and busy. Now that we’ve left them behind the relaxed pace of countryside Nicaragua starts to befit us.
On the Ferry to San Carlos
As in a miracle, the wind that swept us away the last few days has totally died down. Just in time for our ferry crossing to San Carlos at the other side of the lake. Lago de Nicaragua is the largest lake in Central America. So not only does it look like a sea, it can behave like a sea too. As we noticed the days before, this area is notorious for its strong winds and then the lake can really play up. Making the 10-hour ferry crossing a long fight against seasickness.
There are two levels on the ferry – the lower deck is second class while the upper deck is first class. As a tourist you’re only allowed to buy first class. On this upper deck you have a choice between the open deck in the back or the aircon cabin with padded benches and a blaring television.
Now the big secret to making this trip enjoyable is to hire a deck chair for 2 USD extra. This has to be done together with buying your ferry ticket. They won’t ask you whether you want a deck chair or not so make sure you ask for it yourself. Not sure if the deck chair is a good idea in rough weather though. In any case bring warm clothes and a blanket. The ride from Ometepe to San Carlos is during the night and it gets cold on the way.
We were lucky to have the smoothest water crossing ever. The lake was like a mirror. Making the whole trip a very relaxed experience. Plus, as a bonus, a wonderful sunrise on arrival in San Carlos.
Poison Dart Frogs on the Río San Juan
We saved the best for last. From San Carlos we take a lancha to El Castillo, about 2 hours down the Río San Juan. And what a nice surprise El Castillo is! A cute riverside town built around a 17th-century Spanish fortress. There are no cars, no motorbikes. Bicycles are scarce.
Caribbean style wooden houses line the walking paths that go up, down and around the hill with the fortress.
We immediately feel we want to stay here for a couple of days and find a nice room at Nena Lodge. With a big wooden balcony overlooking the main street and the river.
And, like everywhere in Nicaragua, furnished with rocking chairs!
Three guys we met earlier on the ferry – Jerry and Esteban, Swiss guys with respectively Dutch and Spanish backgrounds, and the Danish Christian – join us. We try to arrange a guide for some nocturnal alligator spotting but nobody shows up. What else to do? Drink rum maybe? We decide to get a bottle of Flor de Caña, the Nicaraguan rum. And another one. No need to mention we got pretty hammered. At least I did.
More or less recovered from the rum party I join the guys on a jungle tour the next day. About half an hour by boat further down the river lies the Reserva Biológica Indio-Maíz, one of the best-preserved lowlands rainforests in Nicaragua. And raining it does. Accompanied by our guide Juan and dressed-up in fashionable rubber boots our group of six gets on the boat. It has rained all morning but fortunately it has just stopped by the time we leave.
We first stop at an army checkpoint where we have to register ourselves (we’re on the border with Costa Rica). Juan immediately starts searching for frogs. He soon finds the tiny Strawberry Poison Dart Frog shortly followed by the slightly bigger Green and Black Poison Dart Frog. Beautiful creatures. They are called “dart frogs” due to the Amerindians’ indigenous use to poison the tips of blowdarts. Hard to imagine that the poison of such a small animal can kill an animal. Or even a human.
We get back in the boat to continue our tour and get off a bit further downstream for the jungle hike. It becomes clear why to wear the rubber boots. We trudge through ankle-deep mud in search for more wildlife. We find bullet ants, also known as 24-hour ants because of the burning, all-consuming pain they cause and which lasts for, you guessed it, 24 hours…
It’s a beautiful dense jungle, much like I always imagined a jungle would look like. We learn about medicinal plants and we spot howler monkeys.
We see a stick insect, turtles, another frog, and the fresh footprints of a jaguar and a puma. They really seem to live here! But as always with wild cats, nobody ever sees one.
I have to admit we weren’t a big fan of Nicaragua in the first week or so. We found the food bland and in too small portions, accommodation overpriced and the nature, from what we had seen, not that impressive or at least similar to what we had seen in the other Central American countries.
But then Nicaragua started to grow on me. I accept that accommodation prices are inflated. Public transport is easy and cheap though. Getting around on chicken buses becomes a second nature. I start to see the beauty of the countryside at Ometepe and I’m impressed by the jungle around chilled-out rivertown El Castillo. Hell, I even become a fan of gallo pinto (rice with beans).
Ok, maybe that’s exaggerated, but at least I started to appreciate the nutritional value.
And then, after two weeks, I leave with a curiosity for other parts of the country. For all the places we skipped. I want to come back for the Corn Islands. For the highlands around Matagalpa and Esteli. For Playa Maderas. For all the volcanoes I didn’t climb. Nor boarded down.
I’m sure I’ll talk positive about Nicaragua to fellow travelers. But I wouldn’t call Nicaragua cheap.
Unless you sleep on the beach…