Guide books are great, but word of mouth is better and even prior to embarking on this journey we heard such great reviews about Nicaragua that we specifically set aside a large chunk of time to explore the country and look for a place that we may want to come back to live after Australia. Nica did not disappoint.
We’re better beach bums than city travelers so we tend to avoid them, but there are destinations in Nicaragua that are compulsory and three of them happen to be cities. Lucky for us we’d just spent a lazy week and a half on the beach in El Salvador before arriving, so we were happy to oblige. This is an account of the first half of our Nica experience – The Obligatories.
Known as one of the cultural epicenters of the country, as well as THE hottest city, Leon is typically the first stop on the backpacker trail for anyone coming from the North. Churches, museums and monuments celebrating the Catholic religion, revolutionary history and artists (namely Ruben Dario, the renowned poet) fill the city. A full day can easily be spent strolling the calles to check out the colonial architecture, small outdoor markets and array of cathedrals.
An abundance of fairly priced hostels attract heaps of young travelers looking for raucous nightlife and to take part in the number one tourist attraction – Volcano Boarding at Cerro Negro. We chose to forgo the Volcano Boarding namely due to cost ($28) and because we have previously boarded down the sand dunes outside of Mui Ne, Vietnam back in 2011 for $2.
As serious shoestringers we have to pick and choose our activities wisely as this is where cost can rack up, and to be honest, we were pinching pennies for the surfboard rental cost we knew we’d have once we got to the beach. That being said, based on what we heard from other travelers the volcano boarding is a must-do activity if you’ve got some flex spending cash.
We opted for a cheaper day trip option and took the Big Foot Hostel shuttle out to Las Penitas where Big Foot also has a beach hostel. We spent the day exploring the beach, swimming, playing pool, drinking a few cervezas and caught our first epic Nica sunset.
Even more so than Leon, Granada is touted for the colonial architecture and actually is Nica’s oldest colonial city. It is located on the bank of Lago de Nicaragua and boasts a beautiful central plaza, numerous cathedrals and a sprawling outdoor market where you can find anything from DVDs to shoes and clothes to produce and carne. In the plaza, we were especially excited to purchase some delicious tamales from a street vendor and a locally rolled cigar made with Cuban seeds at a nearby shop.
We were in Granada for the 4th of July, so we decided to celebrate with some friends we made at our hostel La Libertad and take a day trip out to another hostel out in the jungle called Treehouse Poste Rojo. We took a free shuttle from The Bearded Monkey Hostel to get out there and had to fend for ourselves on the way back into town which was actually great! We saw Howler Monkeys for the first time while walking through the jungle and easily caught a bus back into the city center.
ISLA DE OMETEPE
Located in Lago de Nicaragua is Isla de Ometepe, an island formed by two impressive volcanoes – Concepcion (1610M) and Maderas (1394M). Of the two, Concepcion is the only one that is still active and we could see plumes of smoke rising from the top. Upon first arrival, Ometepe actually reminded me of Hawaii. It was significantly more lush with vegetation than the mainland (which was undoubtedly suffering from the late start of the rainy season) many of the guesthouses are actually located on small farms.
Driving from the ferry dock in Moyogalpa to Santo Domingo where we stayed was like taking a step back in time and I was surprised to see that the one paved road around the whole island was actually hand-laid brick!
SAN JUAN DEL SUR
I would venture to say that SJDS is the most popular destination on mainland Nicaragua for travelers looking for the surf vibe and PARTAY. Based on what we’d heard about it I was prepared for mayhem, but was pleasantly surprised that this wasn’t the case. I can think of one possible reasons for this:
A lot of the party-travelers actually stay in hostels located up the hill from SJDS that require a long walk or a short shuttle ride to get to. Three of these hostels are among the four stops on the Sunday Funday Pool Crawl which means people are fairly mellow on Saturday in preparation for a day of debauchery and then said people spend the following Monday recovering in their rooms.
SJDS is a bay so you can’t actually surf at the beach, but it is the transportation hub for getting to Playa Hermosa, Playa Yankee and Playa Maderas. We took the shuttle to Maderas for a day and found it to be A LOT smaller and with A LOT more people than we expected. It was great to spend a day, but trying to surf with that many people in the water isn’t all that fun for beginners or skilled surfers.
Here are a couple of other fun random shots from SJDS.
As you can see the first half of our time in Nica was pretty unbelievable and the second half was even better! Stay tuned for another post coming soon…
Buena onda, amigos.