02 Feb 9 Days in Nicaragua

We’re just in time to catch one of the frequent buses running north from the border (of Costa Rica), after a hassle-free entry into Nicaragua. As we drive along the west side of giant Lake Nicaragua, two volcanic peaks appear on the water, topped with small tufts of cloud. Eighties American music sung in Spanish blasts from the bus radio as we pay about 80 cents for the 50 minute-ride to Rivas. At Rivas, we jump in a colectivo, or share taxi, as our driver cruises through the market and down the highway honking at pedestrians, yelling our destination over and over until he finds more passengers to share the fare. In only 25 minutes, we are at the Pacific coast in the small town of San Juan del Sur.

San Juan Del Sur – Nicaragua

Sitting in white wicker chairs on her patio, we listen to Frederica tell us how she moved here from the states, and how she adores Nicaragua. We settle into one of her two rooms at Frederica’s B&B, just across from the beach, then set out to explore the town. It only takes about a half hour to walk around the quiet streets of San Juan del Sur, a tiny town where fishing boats fill the bay, local restaurants line the beach, and foreign-owned properties dot the lush hillside above. With foreign interest booming in developing Nicaragua, the country is seeing a lot of change as Americans and Europeans buy up cheap land and islands and the Japanese fund rubbish bins, dump trucks and bridges. A Nicaraguan lunch of jalepeno steak, rice and salad is perfectly complemented by their fantastic Tona beer as we settle in for a weekend of relaxation, heading further up the hill the next day for a bit of luxury at Piedras y Olas Hotel. From the pool and open-air restaurant, we have an amazing view of the bay, the stunning sunset, and the town square below, where church bells ring and revelers set off deafening fireworks to ward off evil spirits. In between walks down to the beach and local market, we find refuge from the rainy weekend in our hillside retreat.

Ometepe Island – Nicaragua

The weather mellows just in time for us to get back to that beautiful Lake Nicaragua where a rusted sputtering boat carries us an hour across the placid water to Ometepe Island. The island, formed by two volcanoes, Concepcion and Maderas, is covered in farms and forest and has an incredibly rural, tranquil atmosphere with only one road encircling the peaks and few towns. We soak up this tranquility at Finca Playa Venecia Hotel, where we share a simple cabin with three girls, our new Dutch and German friends from the boat. We spend two days laying in hammocks, chatting with our new friends, bush walking near Charco Verde green lagoon in the shadow of Concepcion Volcano, and swimming in the lake off the small stretch of dark sand that is Venecia Beach. A small horse grazes in the adjacent farm, geese wander through our garden, butterflies and hummingbirds flit in the flower bushes, and jay birds squawk in the trees overhead.

Granada – Nicaragua

Back on the mainland, we watch the volcanic island get further away as our bus heads north toward the city of Granada. The oldest Spanish built city in Central America, Granada is an architecturally arresting town, with restored pastel colored colonial buildings, a central plaza surrounded in arched columns and numerous cathedrals that reach toward the cloudless blue sky. As we walk through the peaceful streets, we peek through open doors to see magnificent interior courtyards of homes, always filled with rocking chairs and often with a colorful caged parrot. We stay in two of these homes which have been converted to small hotels, the Hotel Casa San Martin and Casa Clarita Guesthouse, indulging in a hot stone massage and facial in Casa Clarita’s open-air Maximus Spa. On Granada’s east end are the shores of Lake Nicaragua, where we stay with local guide Ricardo Noguera and his lovely family. Ricardo takes us on one of his tours driving up Mombacho Volcano, where we hike around the cloudforest covered crater and admire sweeping views of the valleys below. Back at the lake, we explore part of the 365 islands that dot the water, created from rock blasted out of Mombacho millions of years ago. Tierra Tour takes us on a boat cruise of the area, stopping to watch monkeys and have a swim, then Mombotour takes us kayaking around the islands, where we can spot exotic birds and explore an old island fort. Alan and Connie, an American couple who we meet kayaking, join us the next day in Masaya, where the local markets are full of action. Live chickens are carried home by their feet, crabs scramble over each other in baskets, sacks of beans and grains are scooped and weighed, and everything from bras and toothpaste to pottery and hammocks are bought and sold. We stop to enjoy cocoa flavor drinks made from Jicaroa seeds, then share a taxi to Catarina, where we are serenaded by guitar and marimba players over a traditional lunch overlooking Apoyo Lagoon crater lake. Brad gets a 24-hour flu during the week but recovers in time to still indulge in international and Nicaraguan culinary delights and watch the millions of yellow butterflies everywhere as we are endlessly charmed by Granada and it’s surrounding nature and culture.

Nicaragua Travel Tips:

** At the Costa Rica/Nicaraguan border, wait until the money changer men calm down and stop swarming before changing money with them. Do your own calculations beforehand and ask an unbiased source for the proper exchange rate. Then get some Nicaraguan cordobas to pay the entry fee into the country.

** When traveling between cities, taxi rides don’t cost too much more than the local bus and are much faster. On well-traveled routes, colectivo, or share taxis charge a minimal cost per person. There are also micro-buses which are sometimes more comfortable and faster than regular buses, but often wait until every seat is filled before leaving.

** Don’t be surprised to see only one shower knob in most showers in Nicaragua. There is often no hot water, even in many upmarket hotels, but the weather is usually hot enough to enjoy a cool shower.

** SURF: There is fantastic uncrowded surf 30 minutes drive north of San Juan Del Sur. Not many places at all to stay at up there, hence SJDS is the place to stay. There are a few surf rental and schools available here as well.

Rebecca Rasmus – Written in 2004 – Nicaragua

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