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Second step of this trip to Central America, the arrival in Nicaragua is not of any rest: more than 12 hours of bus and crossing of two borders, the journey is just exhausting. Add to this already more than five months of travel, perhaps a bit of weariness (a large dose of tiredness especially), and also the impression that all these colonial cities of Central America start to look alike (sign on a journey that it is necessary, either resting, either completely changing the environment, or maybe it might be time to go home), I might as well say that I did not arrive in the country in the best conditions.
Despite this picture a priori unflattering, I will try to make you want to visit this country that has a lot to offer! Moreover, it is a country that I would very much like to visit again, in better conditions, to appreciate it at its fair value.
León, the revolutionary
The city of León, in the north of the country, welcomes us with a sweltering warmth. After the mild temperatures of Guatemala and the long journey, the extreme heat adds to our fatigue. This, as well as some mishaps with locals pushes us not to linger too long in town. Indeed, on several occasions, in shops in particular, while we politely spoke to the people, in Spanish, these have not sent us a word (neither Hello, nor thank you, nor shit), while not even looking at us. All in different parts of the city. Nice… I admit that it surprised me, I have always been used, in more than 5 months of travel, to always be welcomed by the locals, or at least politely.
In 2 days, we visited the Museum of the Revolution. The tour is done with a local guide, which is often a former guerrillero. Indeed, Nicaragua in general, and the city of León in particular, has a strong revolutionary past, and there is still traces of this past, relatively recent, in the city: street art, walls riddled with bullet holes, like the building that houses the museum Etc. The visit of the museum is quite short, about 30 minutes. However, I found that the museum had only the name of the museum. Indeed, here it is a very manichean story that was presented to us, based on wicked imperialist Americans, etc. Indeed, the fact that the United States considers Latin America as their backyard is not a new fact, on the other hand the visit really lacks objectivity and rigour (the posters of the election campaign of the outgoing President Daniel Ortega were placarded all over the place), needed in my opinion in all good historical work. We understand, however, in the main lines the chronology of events and we have a look “from the inside”, but if the question interests you, I can only invite you to deepen your knowledge through personal research. The museum has at least the merit of drawing attention to a period of history largely unknown in Europe.
Finally, do not miss the art Museum of the Ortiz Foundation, to discover works of art from the sixteenth century to the present days, and which is a beautiful part of contemporary Latin American artists. The entrance is $2 for foreigners.
Unfortunately we missed the visit of the Cathedral of León, and especially of its roof which offers a breathtaking view of the whole city, because we arrived at the time of closing and we left early the next day. Thrill-seekers, let be tempted by the volcano boarding from the top of Cerro Negro. If you are rather lazy, bask in the beaches of Las Peñitas.
Granada, the Colonial
The city of Granada, located on the western shore of Lake Nicaragua, is known for its well-preserved colonial architecture and its colorful streets. The place of independence, with its large yellow and white church is worth a glance. On the other side of the square, the buildings are also very beautiful, especially the Selina hostel (do not hesitate to enter, the bar in the lobby is open to everybody!). During my stay there was also a sale of paintings by local artists, so we could admire beautiful works for free!
To eat or find small local shops, go to Calle Calzada, you will a lot of choice! The advantage of this street is that you will find bars and restaurants, with local cuisine or world cuisine, and that the place is frequented by tourists and locals.
During your stay, visit Las Isletas. Do not take a tour, way too expensive for what it is, but walk along the lake Nicaragua (approximately 30 minutes walk) to get to the pier and negotiate a guided tour directly on site. Finally, for a relaxing day, visit the Laguna de Apoyo, a lake of volcanic origin, classified as a nature reserve since 1991. You access the lake through a hostel with a right of entry (again, I advise you not to take a tour, public buses leaving Granada go all day to La Laguna). So you lazy, sunbathe and tubing on the lake. A bar-restaurant is on site, but I thought it was very expensive ($4 for a smoothie, European prices), so make sure to take enough to eat and drink before.
Isla Ometepe, the relaxing
The island of Ometepe is located on Lake Nicaragua. Its name comes from the Nahuatl, ome (two) and Tepetl (mountain). Indeed, the island consists of two volcanoes, the Concepción and the Maderas. The main town is Moyogalpa, therest of the island being made up of small villages on the edge of the few roads that roam the island. Here, everyone travels by scooter/motorbike or 4×4 (many roads are in fact only rocky slopes, difficult to reach with another type of vehicle, including two wheels).
I stayed in Santa Cruz, a small village about 30 minutes from Moyogalpa, at the hostel Santa Cruz, kind of hotel/hostel, where the staff very nice, rather frequented by couples. The property has a small garden with an incredible view of the Maderas volcano, good to make beautiful pictures in clear weather, or just to rest for hours in a hammock. The place really invites you to relax and rest.
Via the hostel, we rented a scooter for a day for $20 for two people (the other agencies offer rates around $30-35/day for two people). This is the best way to explore the island! Go first to Ojo de Agua, a kind of swimming pool whose water is loaded with volcanic minerals good for the skin. Contrary to what one might think, the place is not reserved for tourists, many locals go there regularly to enjoy a swim with family and the benefits of water. From there, it just takes a few minutes to reach the park of Charco Verde, and in particular its House of butterflies, to observe different species of butterflies, in particular the famous Morpho with magnificent blue wings (very difficult to photograph though). I was like a little girl in this place full of vegetation surrounded by the graceful flight of these small animals. The park around also offers nice little walks, and if you’re lucky, you can even watch some howler monkeys. We were amazed and amused by the first steps of a baby monkey, who tried so hard to climb his first branch, under the gaze of his parents. After a quick tour of Moyogalpa, as the sun begins to set, it’s time to go back to Santa Cruz, stopping regularly at the roadside to take some pictures of the volcano, or to let a huge herd of cows pass by.
If you have not yet climbed a volcano, now is the time! In fact, Nicaragua is the Central American country with the largest number of volcanoes, and in Ometepe, you have two! Treks are made in one day and start very early in the morning. They require a very good physical condition. Warning, however, very often, in the early morning, the summit is very misty… Personally, after Acatenango in Guatemala, I passed my turn.
Finally, take a kayak tour on the lake, observe the fauna and flora, and perhaps you will have the chance to see a caiman!
Where to stay on the island of Ometepe?
- For a relaxing atmosphere, as a couple or with friends (there are two dormitories), the Hostel Santa Cruz is what you need.
- For a more party atmosphere, visit the party hostel El Zopilote. Twice a week, the hostel organizes a pizza night, open to all. I was disappointed with the pizza, but the atmosphere is here, and it makes it possible to meet up with other people.
Where to eat in Santa Cruz?
Without hesitation, go to the Nectar Café, I ate here twice a day for a week, I had the opportunity to try all the vegetarian dishes of the menue. Everything is delicious, special mention for the quesadillas. Everything is homemade and by the minute, so the service is quite slow, especially when there are a few people, but the wait is worth it, and the prices are very affordable.
How to get to the island of Ometepe?
From Granada you can book a shuttle directly from your hostel to San Jorge, where you will take a ferry to Moyogalpa, then a taxi, a chicken bus or a shuttle (booked in San Jorge or directly upon arrival on the island), according to your budget.
Another option is to take a chicken bus from Granada to Rivas, then a taxi to San Jorge where you can take the ferry.
San Juan del Sur, the party animal
San Juan del Sur, as its name implies, is located in the south of the country, near the border with Costa Rica. It is a popular seaside resort for tourists and surfers. But if the backpackers go to San Juan, it is mainly for the “Sunday Funday”, or a gigantic
drinking party, every Sunday, in most of the hostels in the city. The principle is simple, for $30, you can party from the end of the morning until late at night by going from hostel to hostel where events are organized, with alcohol at will. Personally, I passed my turn ($30, it’s an expensive hangover), but it may be a good way to party (if you drink enough to make profitable $30) and meet other alcoholic travelers.
Finally, Nicaragua was very beautiful, but also a lot of tiredness, and you can really feel it on my general impression of the country, or at least some cities. Moreover, I had absolutely nothing planned, and by chatting with other travelers, I realized that I had missed lots of incredible spots. So it is a country that I would really like to visit again, in a better mood to appreciate it at its fair value.
What did you think of Nicaragua?