Nicaragua suffered from a massive genocide in the 60s and 70s, killing 50,000 and leaving the people of Nicaragua in poverty with major gaps in education and infrastructure. Th significant amount of poverty is striking as opposed to Costa Rica- its frequently visited neighbor. The streets are polluted without a strong sanitation system, the pace of life is slow, infection is prevalent, and the roads are lined with shops full of trinkets, used donated clothing and packaged foods for sale. The tourist scene is slowly building, but it is far and few between the bustling streets of Managua or Leon. Surrounding the cities, the nature is absolutely immaculate. 19 volcanos sweep the country, the colors in the architecture that fills the cities are vibrant, the local fruit is delicious and the waves crash strongly against the coast on the black volcanic beaches. I had the opportunity to spend a week on the western side of Nicaragua and found so much beauty and charm in such a rarely visited central american country.
Managua –> Granada.
About an hour south from the airport, Granada is a smaller city on lake nicaragua, with a strong colonial heritage. We stayed at Hotel El Maltese located on the waterfront.
- Iglesia de La Merced – from the top of the belltower there is an amazing view of the city- but the hours are not set. Across the street there is an information desk regarding the hours. It’s $1USD to enter and make the climb up the rounded narrow staircase to the top.
- Granada Cathedral – this is the iconic building commonly seen in photos of granada. Its a huge church that has active services going on- we actually walked in as one of the services was coming to a close. It is a stunning church, and hundreds pile in for mass everyday. it is also conveniently located near the town center.
- Get out of town! Take a cab ride to the top of volcan Masaya just as the sun is setting and peer down into the active lava – it is absolutely incredible. It was most definitely the highlight of granada for me.
- Ziplining- Zip tours are offered almost every hour, and are only a short 15 minute drive from town center. They are short lines, the longest at 300meters, but it’s a quick and fun activity to do while in the area. The guides are hilarious, and filmythe entire time.kayaking, hiking mombacho or visiting a coffee farm are also suggested activities to do in Granada- though we were not there long enough to do them all.
Out of all the places we visited in Nicaragua, I had a difficult time connecting with Granada. Something about the city just didn’t click with me. Masaya was actually incredible and everyone we spoke to was kind, but I didn’t feel the same sense of community and synchrony in Granada as I did compared to the other places we visited.
Granada–> Isla De Ometepe
We opted for local busses rather than private taxis. Not only are they much cheaper ($2.50 compared to $40), but riding the packed big yellow non-airconditioned school busses provide a glimpse into the lives and culture of the people. The busses are no joke. Locals hop on and off at stops that look nothing like a station. Vendors hop on the bus with big baskets on their heads, plastic bags full of pastel colored looking liquids to sell- trying to sell snacks and baked goods before walking out the back of the bus before the bus pulls away at each 2 minute stop. The sweat pouring down as the minutes go by is just an added bonus to the authentic experience.
The bus takes you from Granada to Rivas. From Rivas a taxi must be caught to San Jorge, the town that the ferry docks. After making it to the ferry port, a $2 or so ticket gets you across lake Nicaragua to Isla De Ometepe in just over an hour.
Ometepe is incredible. It was by far the highlight of my Nicaragua trip. The island is much larger than it appears, at 31km long and 5-10km wide at any given point. It is situated in Lake Nicaragua, with volcan concepcion on one side, and volcan maderas on the other. The ferry docks at the largest town on the island, called Moyogalpa. From Moyogalpa we took a taxi to where we stayed for 3 nights on the island, Totoco Ecolodge.
Totoco is an organic farm and ecolodge that promotes sustainability and nature perseverance. From the main road, it is up 1.5km rocks and hills into the rainforest. Handmade soap sits by every sink, the toilets are compost toilets (don’t forget to throw in 3 scoops of sawdust after a numero dos) and the showers are outside and drain into the ground. The lodges are made of local woods, and much of the food served comes from the animals on the farm located on the property. The pool looks out over Volcan Concepcion and Lake Nicaragua, and the reception and dining area opens out to the rainforest.
Freshly made meals are made for breakfast, lunch and dinner, with 1-2 menu options every night. The kitchen staff is friendly, the meals are wholesome and nutritious and the serenity seeps through as the hours go by.
Our time at Totoco made a significant impact on us throughout our time on the island, but we came to the island for 2 major excursions.
- Hiking volcan Concepcion.
we both consider ourselves fairly athletic. I run 3-4 times a week. We ran a marathon last year? A half marathon last month? no matter, hiking Concepcion requires a different kind of stamina and perseverance.
My thoughts taking on the hike:
“no problem, I am young and in great shape. I love hiking, this projected 9 hour hike will be no biggie- why do we need a guide? that’s annoying”
5,282 feet at a vertical incline up the active volcano pushed me to my mental and athletic limit.
The hike takes you through 5 ecosystems, each with distinct plants, animals and vegetation.
The initial ascent at the bottom of the volcano is flat- grazing animals, coffee fields, gorgeous greenery that turns into rainforest filled with “killer caterpillars” screeching howler monkeys, and thousands of mosquitos and beetles within the first mile.
The rainforest area is breathtaking, but filled with roots, uneven sliding rocks and packed thick with insects. It is also incredibly humid, and no amount of bugspray can help the feeling of being eaten alive as you pour with sweat. we carried 2L of water each, and drank the vast majority of it in the first 3 hours of the hike. After getting out of the shaded rainforest, be prepared for heavy winds and some serious sun- take a deep breath, slap on some screen and get ready for the hard parts. at this point I asked the guide “are we half way?” and he smirked at me and said “almost..”.
The upward climb continues, trekking through the Savanna, primary and secondary dry forests, succulent desert areas, with constantly transforming flora.
each new “section” of the hike brought jaw dropping scenery, new plants and vegetation, and with it more colorful and hungry- ready to tear apart your legs and ankles- bugs. The vertical never let up. With every step, my calves and thighs were burning, and I could constantly feel my heart beating in my carotids. The mud, sand, and the rocks that shift with the ash as you try to propel yourself up with each step become exhausting. With each step, you let in what feels like a gallon of sand in your shoes. There are no hand holds, and rocks that seem stable to step on slide.
We made it to the top after the last straight shot up the volanic rock remains. The air was thick, sulfer smelling, and the bugs were exotic. Bright vibrant colors, they looked like they were from another planet. (*clearly during this hike, the bugs were on my mind- I ended up with over 100 bug bites!).
We sat at the top, ate lunch and made the descent.
The descent was significantly shorter, but much more nerve wracking than the climb. Not knowing what rocks were stable to put weight on, sliding down through the ash, cuts and scrapes imminent. Matt and I both fell half a dozen times, and our shoes were toast. It took me much longer to get down the freestanding jagged rocks than climbing up, and it was definitely a blow to the knees. The concentration it takes to get through the rocky slippery downhill is exhausting, and you’ve never been happier to see wet muddy and muggy jungle with regular ol roots and trees to hold as you turn corners by the end. There was a part where we were literally volcano boarding on the bottoms of our shoes- it was actually insane.
We made it to the bottom of Concepcion at around 3:00, exhausted, hearts full, eaten alive, red as a tomato, having completed the most strenuous and trying hike I have yet to endeavor. But honestly- how cool is it to actually climb up to the top of an active volcano?!
We got back, showered, and made it to the pool to hang out and watch the sunset- AND we got to look out over the hike we just accomplished as concepcion was our view. Dinner was vegetarian lasagna and it was delicious- needless to say we both slept well that night- itching from the bites and all.
Though my favorite was concepcion- there are other awesome things to do on the island.
- San Ramon Waterfall
On the other side of the island, there is a long windy and rocky road that leads to the entrance of San Ramon. It is about a 4k back to the waterfall – again a pretty vertical hike but significantly more moderate than concepcion.
Parts of the hike require crossing the river to continue onwards. The whole hike takes about 3-4 hours, and it ends with a gorgeous, luscious green waterfall coming off the side of Volcan Maderas. We were hot, and eager to hop right in the cool water!
- Rent a moped- this is so much fun! we did this to get around the island, and ended up mopeding from where totoco is near Maderas into town for dinner.
- Coffee Plantations Galore! The island produces thousands of pounds of coffee every year, and we took a tour at a Finca Miraflores where the coffee is 100% certified organic, and they clean and filter the water from the volcanos and distribute it to hotels to drink, which is sustainable and also super cool! They also have petroglyphs that line along the land on the plantation- demonstrating civilization in the area thousands of years prior.
- Ride a horse, Hike Maderas, go to Ojo De Agua, spend an afternoon kayaking, rent 4 wheelers- the list goes on.
Due to our limited time in Nicaragua, we portioned the longest amount of time on the island, but we still didn’t do everything we wish we could have. I have read and heard wonderful things about Ojo De Agua, as well as Kayaking and swimming in Lake Nicaragua. I wish we could have hiked Maderas as well- but after concepcion one day followed by San Ramon the next- my legs had just about enough!
We left thursday morning after visiting the coffee plantation, and caught the 2:00 ferry after delicious margaritas and lunch in town. We then made the final leg of our trip
Isla De Ometepe–> Leon
This was more complicated than it seems. We had to take the ferry across to San Jorge. Caught a cab back to Rivas. Took the yellow bus ride from hell from Rivas to Managua. There was traffic, it was raining, there was no airconditioning, and it was WAY WAY too crowded. Talk about claustrophobia anyone? All of the smells. all of the irritation. all of the too close for comfort wet people. can’t breathe. What was supposed to take about 2 hours ended up taking close to 4- and by the time we reached Managua, we were so lucky to find a kind cab driver to take us from the station we got off at (with half of wet nicaragua) to the UCA station (pronounced ooka not u c a) since the bus we needed to get on to get to Leon was a small microbus rather than another large school bus (thank god for small favors). We made it to the microbus at UCA just before take off at 7 for Leon. Another $2.50 bus ride, $3 cab ride from leon bus station to our hostel, and we made it to Leon and in our room at Paz De Luna ($50/night and everything we could have asked for) by 9:45.
We left for dinner at a super gross “suggested” restaurant – and were asleep by midnight. disclaimer: we tend to like to eat the local foods because it tastes fresh and significantly better than most of the “western” menu items. Often times locals will suggest western restaurants because they realize you are foreign- however, I highly suggest the holes in the wall- so much flavor and delicious every time.
I absolutely loved Leon, and was sad we only had one full day to spend there- It is full of life, and the hustle and bustle goes on as if you don’t even exist. Besides the actual city itself- so many day trips can be accessed from Leon, but we were tired and decided to rent a moped and take the day as it came.
- Go see the Leon Cathedral- you will feel like Aladdin (Regrets for not wearing my velvet pants). It is incredible- absolutely stunning and you can see out over the city. it is iconic and short trip to make. However, similarly to the churches in Granada, the hours of service are weird- check first!
- the market in the center of the city- people are selling any and everything. clothing, trinkets, food, toys, and it goes on for blocks- definitely a site to see.
- The fort- off a dirt road can be accessed for a view of the city. we even got a personal tour (though we didn’t quite understand what was going on..).
- rent a moped! Reudas was a great place to rent from. They do want an $100 deposit, but it’s only $5 an hour to rent, and they are great bikes! this made our navigating so much easier
- Take the moped to the beach! we made the trip in under 30 minutes. Nica is known for it’s surfing. I am by no means a surfer but the waves looked incredible! We hung out by the beach club, watched the waves crash on the shore and hung out on the rocks during lunch.
- Go somehwere local to eat! our hostel had delicious food- and we had breakfast there. Matt basically thought the pancakes in Nica were gods gift to breakfast, and I liked the egg options with vegetables and fresh fruit. I have heard great things about so many of the resturants, but we were on the move for the majority of our day and our breakfast was included, so we missed out on that opportunity- we did, however stop and try the ice cream!
- There are so many day trips from leon- I wanted to do the mangrove kayaking trip but time just did not permit- volcano boarding cerro negro is also a very popular trip from leon (though we felt like we foot boarded down concepcion and didn’t feel the need for more volcano boarding after that- would have been lame, right?). There were also overnight trips, as well as a few days through the 7 volcanos that are accessible from Leon.
- go in and peek in the stores! They sell EVERYTHING. it’s actually crazy how much they store in the smallest little holes in the wall
- museums galore- I noticed on the back of the moped the large number of cultural and colonial museums Leon had- again, would have loved to take advantage of this opportunity but we just didnt have the time!
In retrospect- I would say skip Granada and spend an extra day or two in Leon if you only have a week in Nica. the city has a charm like nowhere else we saw in Nicaragua, and it had enough to do for weeks. The people we interacted with were kind, accommodating, and it felt very safe.
we made the trip from Leon to Managua friday night on a microbus, and tried to book a night at the airport hotel- only to find it was double booked.
The kind couple from the Philippines that runs the hostel monte cristi were accommodating and sweet as can be. they put us up in the best western directly across from the airport (it was so weird being in the best western- out of place was an understatement). we stayed there the night and I took off at 7:30am the following morning. Other than feeling completely out of place at a western hotel instead of a local hostel, the food situation was outrageous. Most plates we ate in Nica was in cordobas, and we paid max $4 for a plate- in the best western we sat in air conditioned, with white table cloths, and there was no local nica food on the menu to be found. We split a chicken and frozen veggie plate for ELEVEN DOLLARS- I about had a conniption. We would have walked down the street for tasteful food but it was late, dark, and we didn’t have room to be picky. – that was most definitely a ramble but needless to say, we preferred the spices and tastes of the nicaraguan cuisine significantly more.
I greatly preferred my time in Nica to my time in CR when comparing central american countries. I wish that I had another 2-3 weeks to get to the heart of Nicaragua, but it definitely left a mark on me in the short week I had to spend there. Next time maybe I’ll join one of the 500,000 mission groups that goes to towns to spread the word of christ instead of climb volcanoes and chase waterfalls with Matt? – > doubt it, but possible medical care is definitely an option for my nica future.