Best of Central America: 2. Nicaragua
After literally living the pure life in Costa Rica, I was excited for the next 7 days in country number 2. Nicaragua has an interesting history…particularly the fact that it has gained independence three times (first from the Spanish, then the Mexicans and finally from the Republic of Central America). Although Pura Vida wasn’t a thing here, we discovered that Nicaraguans are just as lovely people. They are known locally as Nico (males) and Nica (females)… “Soy Nico/a – I am Nicaraguan”.
We were travelling on Easter Sunday which was hectic as it was the end of the week long holiday for everyone!
Once we had crossed the border (we paid $8 USD cash to leave Costa Rica and $13 USD to enter Nicaragua), we boarded a local bus and then a private bus to the ferry port at San Jorge (taxis can take you here too). Local buses are called chicken buses and are basically old American school buses…so not much space if you have big luggage! Plus you have to be quick to make it off at your stop as it’s likely to get crowded. But they play music loud and sell snacks onboard so it’s quite the experience!
From the ferry port, it’s an hour ferry ride to Ometepe Island. As it was Easter Sunday, everywhere was buzzing with music and dancing which was lovely to see. If you don’t have an issue with sea sickness, I highly recommend sitting on the top deck as you get an incredible view of both volcanoes. The ferries run on the hour and should be boarded at least 20 minutes before departure for a good seat (price was included with our tour).
Ometepe is the largest freshwater volcanic island in the world (it sits on Lake Nicaragua which is the largest freshwater lake in Latin America). It is shaped like an hourglass and has 2 volcanoes on each half – Concepción and Maderas.
We stayed with a family for 2 nights as part of the Puesta Del Sol Community Guesthouse stay in the village of La Paloma, near Moyogalpa. I really enjoyed having a unique insight into their home, life on the island and being able to use my Spanish whilst trying to teach their adorable toddler a bit of English. Plus Carla (our host mum) and her mum (abuelita – little Grandma!) cooked us the tastiest meals. The families have had hundreds of foreigners stay with them over the years so if you visit, do keep up the tradition!
One of the best ways to enjoy this island is to hire a moped for the day ($30 USDpp) and go on an adventure. You can also hire dirt bikes or ATVs or take a leisurely bike rides some of the way. I managed to crash and knock myself off the moped during my practise run so had to piggyback with my saviour Dannie! We started by the barely used airport and travelled around the island, stopping at the beautiful Playa Santo Domingo where we had lunch and a swim, before riding through the town centre to our village.
All our families homes were close to the communal outside space which was by the Lake with hammocks and beautiful views. Our first evening was spent here watching the sunset, playing games and enjoying drinks from the bar. There is also the option to paddleboard here which would be best at sunrise or sunset. On our last night, we had a group dinner and the kids of the village showed us their traditional music and dancing which was a lot of fun to join in!
Our next stop was the lovely colonial city of Granada. On our way we visited Playa Hermosa, part of San Juan Del Sur. It is a private beach located on the Pacific Ocean and it is beautiful as the name suggests. The waves are strong so great for surfers…otherwise you can enjoy the beach, hammocks and the cutest turtles that we discovered in an area near the showers! There is only one restaurant on the beach with a limited food menu so you could bring alternative snacks. Entrance to the beach costs $3.
In Granada we stayed at Lemon Tree Hostel. It is centrally located so just a few blocks walk from Central Park. It had quite a few hammocks and an outdoor pool so pretty good for a hostel!
There is plenty to see in the centre of Granada and it’s all so pretty! The yellow cathedral is worth a visit as well as the markets and quaint cafes surrounding it. For a great view of the town, you can climb up the Tower La Merced Church for $1 USD.
We visited Cafe de las Sonrisas (Cafe of Smiles) which is run by super talented deaf and blind people…they make hammocks from recycled materials and other souvenirs which you can buy in the connecting shop. The cafe has been cleverly designed to help the staff serve you no matter their needs which was just great!
One of my favourite activities of this trip was our 5 in 1 tour with “No Rush Tours”. It started with a brief visit to the old railway station and fort then we visited the cemetery which is mostly white and had some beautiful headstones.
Next was our party boat ride around the isletas (islets in English). These 365 islets were created in Lake Nicaragua when Mombacho volcano erupted a very long time ago. They vary in character from monkey island (housing orphaned monkeys), some covered in various beautiful plants to islets owned by the richest family in Nicaragua and their exquisite homes.
Laguna Beach Club was our next stop which was a gorgeous off the beaten track place to relax, swim, paddle board and have lunch. This meant we had plenty of energy afterwards to navigate the large Masaya Market which is perfect for all your souvenirs needs.
Our last stop was to Masaya Volcano National Park. We spent some time in the museum learning about its history and geology. The ancient people believed eruptions signalled the Gods’ anger so people were sacrificed to try and appease them. Later on, the Spanish believed the volcano to be the “Gates of Hell”.
We waited for sunset to draw near then drove up to the top to view the lava. Yes you stand there and watch real lava spitting up towards you! It was the most incredible thing…but you can only spend about 20 minutes up there due to the toxic fumes. Ideally anyone with respiratory problems should use a towel to cover their mouth and nose.
This whole tour cost $65 USD which included our amazing tour guide Ramón, transport and many litres of rum! Check out their tripadvisor page here to see how much others loved it too!
We passed through on our way to Poneloya. Like Granada, it is also a colonial city and is the second biggest city in Nicaragua after its capital Manuga. My favourite building was the incredible white cathedral which has a cool rooftop and views of the city and beyond (don’t try and walk on the half spheres up there as I was told off and almost removed for that!)
Wandering around the centre you will find various statues, powerful street art relating to the revolution and many markets.
We stayed at Surfing Turtle Lodge here. The boat ride to reach the hostel is short but it was the most rickety boat ever!
The hostel is largely run by volunteers who work behind the bar, organise entertainment during the day and night and are there to have a good time. You have a tab for your meals and drinks which you pay when you check out…always a dangerous thing!
Here you can enjoy a yoga class for $5 USD, free volleyball tournaments, beach time including surfing plus happy hour and themed nights (we experienced pirate night). If you’re lucky, you’ll see the turtles being released as we managed to!
If you fancy a trip to the town for cheaper food or a change of scenery then you can get the boat across in 20 minutes.
Food and drink highlights:
Number one was definitely the food with our host family in Ometepe. They introduced me to two incredible drinks which I enjoyed throughout the trip. First was “Agua de Jamaica” which is a red hibiscus juice and is great on its own or as a mixer and the second was “tamarind” – tasty to eat as well as drink.
Nectar in Granada – $1 taco Tuesday (including tacos and beer each for a dollar)!
Kathy’s Waffle House in Granada – perfect for a huge breakfast of waffles, pancakes or traditional breakfast.
Tostones at Surfing Turtle Lodge – fried plantain topped with cheese and meat…SO good (also tasty without the meat!)
Toña – one of the local beers. I’m not a huge fan of random brands on clothing but the toña tops were so cute and worth buying!
Selina’s in Granada – bar number 1 of 2 during our night out. I fell in love with it as it has the coolest interior design…perfect setting for date night!
Reilly’s in Granada – is there anywhere that you can’t find an Irish bar!? This was the last stop of our night out and my favourite of all. It was mainly filled with tourists but a few locals dotted around and we danced salsa on the dance floor with no roof! Drinks prices were variable but slightly cheaper than Selina’s.
Nicaragua final words:
The local currency is Córdoba – named after the country’s founder. Dollars can be used in places (notes only) but you will get better rates paying with Córdoba.
For anyone like me who isn’t mad keen on fresh coconut water from coconuts, the vendors in Granada will convert you.
Another cool activity which you can do is volcano boarding! Unfortunately we didn’t have time to but I’ve heard good things. For $30 USD you go down the small Cerro Negro Volcano in León…on a board whilst wearing a jumpsuit!
I hope this has convinced you to consider visiting Nicaragua if you haven’t done so already. Next in the series will be El Salvador…