Wednesday, August 22, 2012

P.S. We went to Nicaragua in 2011

After numerous requests from my fans, here is an update on our travels to Nicaragua (Only 18 months late).  My apologies it’s still in a “this is what I did on my summer vacation” format, but I just can’t get this out otherwise.  Also, be advised that since I am so far behind and frustrated, I am not doing much fact-checking on this post. Without further ado….
Laguna Apoyo

Last year, for my 30th birthday, I asked Grant to make plans for a trip someplace new.  I had about 2 weeks to do the trip, as I was on a rotary job, and could only take 30 days off.  I could not participate in any meaningful way in planning the trip. By plan, I mean pick a place and buy a ticket.  Other than that, we never do much planning anyway.
After skimming through our various Lonely Planet guides, and after staring at a map of the world, Grant settled on Nicaragua.  When Grant e-mailed me about it, I’ll be honest, I was like most Americans, and was a little dubious. What I told Grant though, was “Hell yeah, let’s go there!”  He explained that Nicaragua actually has one of the lowest crime rates in Central America, and we found out later that it’s violent crime rate is lower than Costa Rica’s. Plus, it isn’t overrun with tourists and condos like in Costa Rica (not that we know first hand, as neither of us have been there.)
I came home, threw myself a party, then two days later we flew to Managua.  Based on advice on the interwebs, we only stayed one night in Managua, then hopped a bus to Granada, a picturesque colonial town on enormous Lake Nicaragua.
Heart of Granada

When we arrived in Grenada’s  town square and got off the bus, the first thing we noticed was IT WAS FREAKING HOT!  It was siesta time, about 2pm, and we had no hotel arranged.  We sat down for some coffee and beers to get our bearings.  We then started huffing it around town looking for a hotel.  All the locals were staring at us like we were crazy.  When we finally found a place, the lady told us as much.  She was fanning herself, moving slowly, and basically implied “you idiots, can’t you see it’s hot this time of day?  That’s why we don’t work in the afternoons.  Why would you walk all over town with a backpack in this hot sun?”  This was all said with her eyes and comment about the heat, mind you, not directly.  But we understood. Unfortunately, for the rest of our trip, we were still too stupid to not travel at the heat of the day!

Street Art in Granada

We saw all the sights Granada had to offer, taking a boat ride amongst the isletas, formed by the nearby volcano erupting and throwing huge boulders into the lake.  That was fun.  Not a huge adventure, but nice.  I had no problem finding good vegetarian food on the main drag off the town square.  We also did a guided tour of a nearby volcano, though we could have handled the longer hike as it was much cooler at the top. Our guide was really nice, and we got our first taste of the civil war that racked Nicaragua in the 80’s. This guy was one of the boys that was sent to America so as not to be forced into the army at the age of 12, so he spent many years in Texas. (We later met several men his age not lucky enough to be sent out of country for the war)
A view of Las Isletas from the Volcano Mombacho

Granada Church

Granada Lakeside Street scene - the rush hour
 One of the highlights of our stay in Granada was a huge international poetry festival.  Apparently, Nicaraguans, or “Nicas” are infatuated with poetry, so this is one of the world’s largest poetry festivals. The lady who owned our hotel excitedly explained that her youngest daughter was participating in the festival. This is how she described her child, from the best we could decipher; “her words are like sugar on her toungue”  It sounded nice in Spanish anyway. I doubt you’ll find any town in America, or Europe even, who turn out in such force to listen to poetry. The whole town was in the zocalo (town square), including children, teens, and the elderly, as well as tourists from all over. We didn’t fully participate in the festivities, but on stage that night were many, presumably well known, international poets from all over the world. They each read a poem in their own language, then one they wrote in Spanish. Or perhaps it was their poem translated into Spanish.  I’m a little hazy on those details. I’m not a poetry buff, but it was fun to see all the enthusiasm of everybody, including teenagers!

Mombacho Volcano from Lake Nicaragua Las Isletas tour

Pirate's Eye view of Juicy Granada from Las Isletas
A rescue monkey in Las Isletas

Along the Lake Shore, Granada
Colorful Granada

The Granada area from Mombacho
Just think of all the Puma wounds that could be avoided!?
Pretty Nature Mombacho
 After a few days of taking in the sights of Granada, we grabbed a taxi to Laguna Apoyo, a crater lake in another nearby volcano.  We arranged for a private room in  a hostel right on the water.  They served three squares a day at a reasonable price and had a lakeside bar open until 10pm, with free use of kayaks, etc… All for $25 (not including beer and food).  As we kept discovering was true for all of Nicaragua, the lake was even more isolated than described in the guidebook.  There wasn’t really a town to speak of.  There were a few illegal restaurants by the shoreside down the path from our hostel, but nothing too special. The bathroom facilities were a little rough near the local’s restaurants.  We ordered several tostones, cheese and meat, from one establishment, and when we had leftovers, some local kids came by and asked if they could have the food.  Not knowing local customs, and what to do in these situations, we said of course you can have our leftovers. The kids happily grabbed our appetizers, while the locals looked on like it was nothing (a good thing in our opinion!) and perhaps a little approvingly? The Nica’s can be hard to read as they are a little more reserved than a lot of the cultures we’ve spent time with.  At any rate, the little shacks were good for a change of pace from the hostel bar and restaurant.
Evening on Laguna Apoyo
Stunning Laguna Apoyo Accomodations
 After Laguna Appoyo, we went to Granada, and after a few minutes of aimless wanderings, hired a cab south to San Juan Del Sur (get it, South, del Sur?) for $50.  I thought I was going to die in that cab ride.  The kid drove so fast, with cows, busses, you name it, in the middle of the road the whole way.  We survived.
San Juan Del Sur is the gringo’iest town in Nicaragua.  It is mostly old Canadians, eh! but not too bad all things considered.  But we still went a little crazy with the North American culture invasion.  The next day we continued to splurge with the cab rides, and hired a cab for the day to take us to several isolated beaches.  
Sunset, San Juan Del Sur

San Juan Del Sur Happy Hour: Agua, Tona, and Nica Libre
The first beach, Coco Beach, we were literally the only people there.  Incredible.  We had hoped to be able to buy a beer at the one restaurant on the beach, but it was closed that day.  The cab driver offered to track down beers for us at a local friend’s convenience store.  We sighed, acknowledging these would be “expensive” beers, but thought it worth it.  Well, not only was our driver fast, but he handed over the beers with change, for the regular price! This was another surprising thing that we finally got used to –the complete honesty and friendliness of the locals. Not to say that we assumed otherwise, it’s just not the norm in our own country, so is always a pleasant realization while traveling that you can, within reason, trust your fellow man.
Coco Beach looking toward Costa Rica

Oh the crowds!

This is the busy tourist area?  We love it!

Ahhh Nicaragua

The river over the road makes this impassable without 4wd in the rainy season
 After Coco Beach, we went to the beach where Survivor Nicaragua was filmed.  This huge tourist attraction had…one shack selling burgers, a couple of surfers camping and taking lessons, and us!  Total isolation, drop dead gorgeous beaches to yourself.  And this is the “gringo” area!
Survivor Nicaragua?

Survivor beach, a great surfing destination?
 I should mention quickly that these beaches were all accessed via slow bumpy dirt roads with several stream crossings which make these beaches totally inaccessible by car a lot of the year.  This is untapped beauty at it’s best.  It’s not going to last long, that’s for sure.
Next we hopped a “first class” bus to Ometepe, an island with two volcanoes in the middle of Lake Nicaragua.  The bus dropped us at the ferry and we ventured over to the sleepy paradise island.  
The 'big' ferry with Volcano Concepcion in the background
And this was our ferry!

Concepcion and Maderas, the volcanoes of Ometepe

At the bus transfer location, enroute from San Juan Del Sur to Ometepe

The ship's wheel

 Ometepe has a lot going for it; including some coffee plantations, some great tourist facilities and the sleepy quiet off the map feel that we welcome.  Some of the highlights for us include bicycling over to Ojo de Agua, a beautiful fresh water swimming area, hiking up to a volcano waterfall, and kayaking through some great scenery with howling monkeys 'yelling' at the barking dogs. While trying to take the bus to the far end of the island on a rough and bumpy dirt road, the bus broke down.  The locals were given their fare refund, and we were all left to walk to our destinations.  Luckily we travel light and our backpacks are very manageable.  However, it was the middle of the day (again) and thus very hot!

Ojo de Agua swimming

Dry Season

Dry vegetation juxtaposition

Bus broke down?  Looks like we're walking!
Kayak Tour to Rio Istian

Concepcion volcano

Rio Istian and Maderas volcano

Evening Kayaking

Local cows beating the heat

San Ramon waterfall hike
Taking advantage of tropical paradise

The Bus Stop
Ometepe Sunset

 Ometepe was great and highly recommended.  One thing to keep in mind however is "Nica time".
We found that this time zone has a dramatic effect on any travel plans you might think you have.  When trying to get from town to town, one must take this time into account. While Nicaragua is physically a fairly compact country on the west coast tourist circuit (we didn't make it to the Caribbean) it still does take some time to travel about.  We like to take the chicken bus or maybe even the 'directo' if we think we have a destination but as before sometimes we did resort to a personal cab just to get some distance covered.  
That being said, we barely escaped the pull of Ometepe.  Our destination was Leon, and though close it was an all day affair to get there including an hour's worth of standing in the aisle on the (barely caught) bus to Managua.  
Poneloya (or Penitas?) Beach outside Leon
Still, using transportation was a breeze and with everyone helpful and friendly we found a hotel and a beer and some great food before the end of the day.
We ended up in Leon on a Sunday, and everything was closed up and all the people were at the beach.  We decided to do as the locals and head to the beach!  While dangerous with riptides we had fun in the surf along with all the locals. We pressed our luck a bit because we counted on catching the last bus back to Leon - it was completely full when it got to our stop.  Not to worry!  We climbed on top with everyone else and rode the top of the bus back to town - we had to lay down flat and mind the powerlines and trees! A bus-top full of happy semi-drunk locals and tourists in the middle of the night - what could possibly go wrong?!
The fledgling revolutionary museum in Leon
 As a parting note, we did manage to take a tour of the revolutionary museum in Leon.  Fascinating, depressing and informative. The tour guide was speaking only Spanish and though Grant could comprehend a lot, we both missed a lot as well. A terrifying piece of history.

Nicaragua was a great place to travel. We never felt threatened or unsafe.  It was also the first place in the Americas where we truly needed to speak some Spanish to get by.  While some English could be found, it is difficult to travel there without some Spanish skills.  Nica's are more reserved in their personalities and have a softer and quieter cadence than we were used to our Latin American travels.  The were some of the nicest people to meet, however.  We highly recommended this country to visit. Better than the local grocery store, and cheaper!

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