When I moved down to Nicaragua, my friend, Brian, was quick to say that he wants to come visit. I like hosting visitors, as I enjoy putting together a travel agenda and showing off all my favorite places. I originally met Brian in Antarctica and visited him in Milwaukee in April. He bought his plane ticket in August to arrive in Managua on November 2nd and stay for eight days in total.
Having just eight days in NIcaragua isn’t very much. The country offers a lot if you’re interested in nature, culture, adventure sports, gastronomy, or whatever you may like. At first, we had planned on taking public buses everywhere. But after thinking more about it, we decided to rent a car to roadtrip around the country. After all, the car rental was just $20 per day including the mandatory $13 per day insurance.
So on Saturday, November 2nd, I waited for Brian at the airport in Managua. We signed some papers, gave a credit card number, and then we were off to see what we could do. I had created a pretty full agenda and I was excited to see how it would all work out.
The first night, we found a hostel in Managua and then went out to a bar called Caramanchel. I had spent Nicaragua’s revolutionary day celebration here. I had enjoyed the live band that night, so I wanted to go back again. This time, there was a local band playing oldies, anything from Elvis to the Beatles. We headed back to the hostel fairly early. I splurged and paid four extra dollars for a room with air conditioning. I definitely enjoyed it, the first time I’d slept in air conditioning for many, many months.
The next morning, we took the car and explored a bit more of Managua. We drove up to the Tiscapa Mirador, which gives views of Managua, Lake Managua, and the surrounding volcanoes. We then drove down to what used to be the heart of Managua.
Managua no longer has a true city center. An earthquake destroyed the city center and most of its surrounds on December 23, 1972 which killed 6,000 and left 250,000 homeless. People fled from the city center to more livable areas, and a city center was never constructed again. Because of this, Managua is a very spread out metropolis and honestly not a beautiful city.
The Plaza de la Republica is the most interesting place to visit in Managua. It is a big open space surrounded by 3 different buildings: the Presidential Palace, the Cultural Palace, and the Santiago Cathedral. The first two are newer buildings, while the Cathedral is the oldest and most interesting. The Cathedral was not completely destroyed in the earthquake, but it was greatly damaged and abandoned. To this day, it still stands but no one is permitted to enter.
60 miles northwest of Managua is Nicaragua’s second biggest city, Leon. Leon has long been known as Nicaragua’s progressive city. In the late 70s, It had a huge relevance in the overthrowing the Samoza dictatorship. It remains on the progressive side with its abundance of universities which draws people from all over the country. Leon’s architecture is similar to Granada’s, with it’s colorful colonial Spanish homes. The Cathedral in the Central Park is impressive in itself. Both locals and tourists use the Central Park as a hangout place, people watching and enjoying a fresco and a snack out in front of the old cathedral.
Cerro Negro and Volcano Boarding
The main reason Brian and I came to Leon was to volcano board, a new sport that I believe is only done here in Nicaragua. Volcano boarding is pretty much what you may imagine it to be. Here it is done at Cerro Negro, Nicaragua’s youngest and most active volcano. After an hour and a half bus ride on a rough road, we were given a wooden board and a bag containing our protective suits. After all, we are going to going down a volcano which consists of small volcanic rocks. We arrived at the top of the volcano after an hour hike of climbing about 1,500 feet. From the top were 360 degree views of Leon and the surrounds. The surrounding half a kilometer area around the volcano was completely black from the volcanic rock from previous eruptions.
We put on our protective suits, knee pads, elbow pads, gloves, and goggles. Meanwhile, the guide gave us tips on how to get to the bottom safely. There were two ways to get down, standing (like a snowboard) or sitting (like a sled). Most of us took the sitting option, as it seemed easier and could probably get more speed.
The volcano seemed much bigger and steeper from the top. With the sled, your feet are your breaks. We all got at least a little nervous as our time got closer to head down. Brian went first and I followed soon after. I kept my feet down on the volcanic rock for a while until I found my comfort level. After that, I let it fly. It was more comforting after I could see the bottom. Volcanic rock kicked up into my face and chest as I tried to keep my balance on the sled. I could’ve probably went a bit faster, but I had my doubts. The two minute journey went pretty quick. I ended up with a decent amount of rock in my mouth. Nothing like sucking down some volcanic rock.
Later that afternoon, we drove 30 minutes straight west of Leon to a beach town called Las Peñitas. We were that close to the Pacific so we couldn’t resist spending time in the ocean. We found a hostel called Oasis, and we ended up paying $25 between the two of us for a simple room located right on the beach. There was sand as we stepped out the of the room. And hearing the waves crashing onto the beach all night was a bonus! The waves were rough, but we found a small bay to relax in the afternoon and then again in the morning before heading south.
That day was used as a travel day to Ometepe, the volcanic island in Lake Nicaragua. The drive took us through Managua, Diriamba, Naindame, and finally to Rivas and San Jorge to catch the ferry. Driving in Nicaragua is different and fun. Relatively, there are not many roads. In the US, you may be able to choose two or three different ways to get from one place to another. In Nicaragua, there is typically only one paved road. (We tried to take an alternate route from Leon to Managua, as it looked like a main road on the map. It was a destroyed road and we actually had to turn around!) There is no such thing as a freeway. The main road is typically a two lane road filled with slow buses, bicycles, and the occasional horse and wagon. The speed limit is typically 45 or 50 miles per hour, but you’re often slowing down with slow traffic or buses stopping. So even though you’re not covering a huge amount of miles, it still takes time. But it’s interesting to pass through the towns and see the people, as there is always something interesting going on.
We caught the 4pm ferry from San Jorge to Moyogalpa, the biggest town on Ometepe. Another hour driving and we arrived at our hostel called Buena Vista located on the Playa Santo Domingo, the isthmus between the two volcanoes. It’s a beautiful location, beachfront with Lake Nicaragua stretching into the distance and Volcano Maderas rising up from the south.
After a good night sleep, we decided to head to the Cascadas de San Ramon waterfalls. We were initially going to drive to the waterfalls but were told that with our small Suzuki Alto, there was no way we’d be able to make it. We’d never either a 4×4, a motorcycle, or bicycles. We both love riding bikes so we naturally chose the bicycles. It was about 12 miles each way, which didn’t sound like much. After all said and done, it turned out to be a tough day.
They weren’t lying when they said the road was tough. Brian is a mountain biker, and he said the road is similar to the trails he does up in Wisconsin. We arrived at the entrance to the waterfall after about and hour and a half. From the entrance is a 2 hour hike up to the waterfalls. What we weren’t prepared for was this hike. The entire trip was climbing, and we were already pretty tired after just 30 minutes. Of course we made it to the waterfalls, and it was well worth the trip.
Apart from the monstrous waterfalls like Niagara falls, most waterfalls look alike. Once you’ve seen a few, you’ve seen them all. The Cascadas de San Ramon are different, though. The waterfall is about 120 feet high. What makes it different is the way the water falls. Rather than having a heavy stream of water falling, the water kind of sprinkles down. Below the fall is a small pool where you can bathe. And the water falls light enough that you can stand under it. There was surrounding greenery and a feeling of being in the middle of nature. The tough bike ride and hike up sure made the waterfall that much better!
After arriving back at the hostel, I had doubts about our plan for the next day, which was to hike to the top of Volcano Maderas, which rises 4,500 feet. We were told it was an 8 hour hike to get up and back down. I was doubtful after struggling to get to the waterfalls. But we decided to go for it anyway.
It’s required by law to hire a guide, and our hostel was happy to book a guide for us. Our guide was a guy named Jordy, a 19 year old guy who has been a guide for 4 years. He hikes the volcano 3-4 times per week, plays soccer on Saturdays, and sometimes play baseball on Sundays. Let’s just say that he was in shape. Brian and I were already tired within 45 minutes of starting the hike. But somehow, some way, we made it.
The cool part about Volcano Maderas is that just on the opposite side of the highest point, there is a steep 10 minute hike down to what leads to a lagoon in the dormant crater. Just like the waterfalls, this was the prize at the end of the trail. The water was a nice temperature, but the water was not deep and the bottom was muddy. I did my best with it and backfloated for a good 30 minutes enjoying the serenity of swimming in a pond in a volcano crater.
After arriving back at hostel, it was an 8 hour day. Absolutely exhausted, we made our way two doors down to a restaurant whose owners had treated us very nice the few days prior. This place was called Comedor Julia, which became our spot. They would fry up whole fish for us (head and everything) fresh from the lake. We’d sit along the beach, having a few beers, and recapping our adventures. This is another one of those times when you start thinking about where you’re at and what you’re doing and how you got there. The world is an incredible place!
Granada and the surrounds
With tired legs, we woke up the next morning and drove back up to Moyogalpa to take the ferry back to the mainland. From there, it was another hour and a half to get to Granada. We spent the afternoon walking around Granada and also walking out to El Pantanal, the community I had been working in. A few friends came down from Managua and we went out that night to celebrate her birthday.
The following day, we made our way up to San Juan de Oriente, Catarina, and then down to the Laguna de Apoyo for lunch and a beer. San Juan de Oriente is the town which specializes in ceramics. We visited a few of our microfinance clients. One client, named Jacobo, showed us step-by-step how they make ceramics. From taking the mud and shaping it on the turn-wheel to adding the wax to make the ceramics all shine, Jacobo walked us through the process. He even let us try our own at shaping the mud. He makes it look easy. Brian and I made it look impossible.
In Catarina, we just went to the lookout over the Laguna de Apoyo lake. It’s a beautiful view where you can see Granada, Lake Nicaragua, Las Isletas, and Volcano Mombacho. Afterwards, we made the decent in our car to the Laguna for a lunch and a swim.
The last thing on the agenda was heading up to do a night tour of the Volcano Masaya. Rain starting coming down when we were driving towards the volcano, which was not a good sign. We arrived at the entrance and were told that we weren’t able to do the tour nor go to the top of the volcano. The conditions at the top were very bad because of the rain, causing much more sulfuric smoke than normal which made it unsafe. Not much we coudl’ve done, so we headed back to Granada to relax for the evening.
We drove the car back to the airport the following morning, which ended Brian’s trip. For 8 days, we accomplished a lot. Night out in Managua, exploring Leon, volcano boarding, Flor de Caña rum tour, day at the beach, cycling and hiking to a waterfall, hiking up a waterfall, walking around Granada, ceramics workshop in San Juan de Oriente, lookout in Catarina, afternoon in the Laguna de Apoyo. In total, I only spent about $330 for the entire week, including the car rental, hostels, food, etc. Looking at what we did, I don’t know if you can get much better value than that!
I couldn’t have ended my time in Nicaragua on a better note. Traveling for a week to take in what the country has to offer was a great experience. It really is a beautiful country and very safe, and I would highly recommend travelers to spend some time here.