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The lure of Nicaragua

Nicaragua is a developing country where, I’m told, every family has at least one cellphone and TV satellite dish, and even those without a fridge can  buy milk for their children two or three times a week. It’s a charming destination with friendly locals who regularly reassure you that “the country is safe now”. 

I was there for a month in 2016, travelling with family including my grandson, who was a toddler at the time. The month was February, which is in the dry season, and the weather was perfect. 

Nicaragua is a destination that attracts adventure travellers in particular, like the gung-ho ones we ran into on Ometepe Island who were determined to climb a volcano in the morning, ride horseback after lunch, and kite surf as the sun set. “A little ambitious,” the hotel manager suggested, and sure enough, the volcano climb alone did them in (the wind was very strong, they said).  

Agricultural workers in Nicaragua

Indeed, climbing volcanoes is a popular activity in Nicaragua given that a chain of 40 or so volcanoes run north to south along the Pacific side of the country, some of which are still active. The very fertile volcanic ash has long been a boon to the agriculture industry although tourism has done much for the economy the past few years.

The capital is Managua and it can be described as being a little seedy and difficult to navigate. The streets are without names and buildings aren’t numbered but when you consider what Managua (and the rest of the country) has been through then this is understandable: A massive earthquake in 1931, a huge fire five years later, another earthquake in 1972 that decimated the whole city centre, a revolution followed by Contra Wars that took thousands of lives and destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure, and Hurricane Mitch in 1998. 

Rural life in Nicaragua

A common itinerary for visitors to Nicaragua includes the colonial towns (Granada and Leon), the surfing village on the Pacific coast (San Juan del Sur), and the island in a lake that’s so big that it has been mistaken for a sea (Ometepe). Travelling to these places is not difficult and can be done inexpensively. We took some local buses, which were like those crowded “chicken” buses of Guatemala, but preferred to use tourist shuttle vans and when our group increased in size it was economical to hire a car with a driver.    

Managua

My sister and I spent a day in the capital walking from the city’s highest point, the Parque Historica, down to the waterfront. It was easy for it’s all downhill and we just had to follow a line of massive medal trees. These trees are studded with thousands of light bulbs so they are impossible to miss even at night. Locals were quick to tell us that the trees are a colossal waste of money for a country that is so poor but the guide at the museum said they were “Trees of Life” for they lit up the dark core of a city that had largely been abandoned and encouraged people to return.  

Trees of Life lining the waterfront in Managua

Our walk took us past a huge statue of the national hero, Augusto César Sandino, a rather moving monument of a guerrilla soldier with a pick-axe in one hand and an AK-47 in the other, a memorial to the peace process, the Catedral Santiago de los Caballeros, which had remained upright through two earthquakes, the national museum, which is well worth a visit, and the waterfront where there are a number of restaurants. We stopped for awhile, listened to live music, watched locals dance, before making our way to the authorized taxi stand for a ride back to our hotel. 

San Juan del Sur

San Juan del Sur is a beach town on the Pacific coast near the Costa Rican border. It’s a laid-back, backpacker sort of place, with a guesthouse on every block. Oxen still roam the streets pulling carts. The setting is just about perfect: on a crescent bay with cliffs in the background. Open-air restaurants line the waterfront and that’s where you find a spot to watch the sun set. There are signs that say, “From the moment the tsunami alarm sounds you have 20 minutes to get away from the coast.” 

San Juan, Nicaragua

We first stayed on the main strip right across from the beach at the HC Suites Hotel. The rooms were simple but impeccable and affordable, the whole place seemed to be very well run, and from there it is easy to walk around the whole town.

Later, when my daughter and her family joined us, we stayed high on the hill in Casa de Cooper, a gorgeous villa that we reserved through airbnb. The walk down the hill was easy enough but we often hopped a taxi to get back up.   

Ometepe Island

Ometepe Island in Lake Nicaragua was formed by two volcanoes and you can usually see both of them from anywhere on the island, so it’s not too large. The still active Concepción volcano (1,610 meters) is the steeper of the two, shaped like a symmetrical cone. El Maderas volcano (1,340 meters) is dormant but the climb is through jungle so that adds to the challenge. Visitors can only attempt the climb with a local guide. 

Hammocks blowing in the wind on Ometepe Island

Kite surfing is popular on Ometepe because the wind is so strong. In fact, the the waters here can be very rough and a ferry turned over and dumped all its passengers when we were there. Swordfish and sharks swim in this lake so you may prefer to be rocked by the wind in a hammock.  

Scenes from Ometepe Island

We spent several hours exploring the island with a guide and it really is a special place. Domestic animals roam freely– pigs, cows, horses. They make their way down to the lake for a drink and munch on whatever they can find along the roadside. Spirited white-faced monkeys threw fruit and sticks at us when we got a little too close.

There are scorpions and spiders but the hotel where we stayed said we wouldn’t die if they stung us. There are also boa constrictors that kill deer and monkeys though supposedly not people. But the cora snake, with its black head and rings of red, yellow, black, yellow over its body, is said to be highly poisonous. 

Living on Ometepe Island

Life is very traditional on Ometepe Island. Mothers wash their laundry and their kids in natural pools along the road. There are few cars and just one gas station. Primitive carts and strong backs carry fire wood and produce. Most people get around on rangy horses and bikes and the occasional bus. 

We stayed in charming cottages at Ometepe Beach Hotel near Playa Sabto Domingo. The hotel arranged for a driver to pick us up in San Juan and drop us off at the Rey de Cocibolca ferry terminal; then another to collect us when the ferry landed and bring us to the hotel. 

Granada

Granada is the oldest Spanish colonial city in the Americas, founded in 1524 on the shores of Lake Nicaragua. Today it is a lively place with red-tiled roofs, impressive cathedrals, and spectacular views of a  nearby volcano.

Granada at its best

Granada was once the country’s trading hub and capital and it is slowly being revitalized after years of destruction; tourism is vital to that undertaking. The city’s symbol is the Catedral de Granada, situated on one side of the large central park. Calle Calzada runs from here down to Lake Nicaragua. There are many restaurants, a lively and inviting atmosphere in the evening, and small shops selling some great art (I indulged). 

We stayed in two small hotels–both very good–and when our group expanded, rented a rather luxurious house a couple of blocks from the centre where the hired help included a  daily maid, a pool man, a gardener, a cook to prepare a special dinner, and a driver for local excursions. 

One excursion was to the Volcán Masaya where we walked right up to the crater’s lip and looked inside. You’re only suppose to stay for 5 minutes because it’s still active (I assume this is because of the gases) and there’s a sign that instructs you to park your car so that you can make a quick escape.

Masaya Volcano outside Granada

My daughter and grandson at the Masaya Volcano outside Granada

The nearby Masaya artisan market was a disappointment, overpriced and seemingly just for foreign tourists. We also stopped at the Apoyo Lagoon Natural Reserve that was created by a volcanic eruption that left a 7-km wide crater that over time filled with water and today is a beautiful lake with very few visitors. 

Leon

Not as many foreign tourists make it to Leon, probably because it takes a little more effort to get there and the weather is reputed as being way too hot. I found it to be more interesting than Granada, its Spanish colonial foundation far more visible, its markets and parks more authentic. It’s a university town, a place of protest and murals. 

Grandson on a tour of the streets of Leon

Grandson on a tour of the streets of Leon

Some visitors go to Leon to ski down the sand of the Cerro Negro volcano. I preferred walking the cobblestone streets and visiting the Cathedral of León and the various museums, particularly the Museo de la Revolución where the guides are veterans of the revolution. 

Guildes at the revolutionary museum, Leon

The Nicaraguan people we met so wanted our stay to be good. All the drivers we hired were friendly and often contacted us the night before to go over arrangements. There is no begging from what I could see and the dogs that roam the streets didn’t chase after us. The coffee here is the best and the local beer is cold and cheap. Tips (10%) are noted as being voluntary. Baseball is the national sport and in the evening you see kids everywhere playing the game, often taking over flat spaces on the beach.   

There are often signs in bathrooms with instructions to throw the paper in the bin and not flush it down the toilet. Bedbugs, we were told at one hotel, were under control because mattresses are regularly put out in the sun. So it still is that kind of destination. It is also charming, welcoming and affordable. Hard to beat that.

By Sylvia Fanjoy

Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy

© Riding the buses™ 2017

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