Currency: 22.6 Cordobas/dollar. Nicaragua offers Visa-On-Arrival for most nationalities. Nicaragua is also part of the “Central America-4 (CA-4) Border Control Agreement” mentioned in my Guatemala post. Check that out for more details if you haven’t read it already. It may cost $7 to enter and $12 to exit the country a land border depending on the border guard on duty. If you exit the country by air there is a $32 departure tax, but that’s usually included in the ticket price.
After the long escape from Honduras, it was time for a couple days of relaxation in Leon! Leon is the second largest city in
the country behind Managua, but it lives and feels like a small town. The streets are small, many of them cobblestone, and the architecture is mostly colonial Spanish. You can walk around the highlights of the town in a day, and still have time to hang with the locals in the main square. Watching the daily life stroll by while having a few beers and/or sipping on the fantastic local Flor de Cana rum is a great way to spend an afternoon!
One of the most impressive sites in town is the Cathedral of the Assumption of Leon. Built between 1706 and 1740, it is one of the largest in Central America and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In this seismically active area, it’s one of the few to survive the numerous earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. For 40 Cordobas you can take stroll on the rooftop to admire the roofs construction and view the beautiful surrounding countryside.
Speaking of volcanic eruptions, volcanoes are the other major attraction here. There are several nearby that you can hike or even camp on top of, and for $30 you can sled or board down the rocky gravel slope of the active Cerro Negro volcano! What an amazing day this was! There are a number of operators offering this trip, but the main two are BigFoot and Tierra Tour. We went with Tierra Tour and had a great time, but BigFoot runs a good tour as well. They both provide the sleds or boards, lunch, thick full body suits, pads, helmets, goggles, and a guide to hike you the top. Most people choose to go sledding because it is easier and faster, but as a snowboarder, I had to try the boarding. If you are good boarder, you can get some serious speed heading straight down and carving on your toe side. However be warned, if you try to carve heel side, you will sink and lose all your speed, or worse, eat some gravel! It is nothing like riding a board when you try to go heel side!
While staying in town, we chose the Tortuga Balooda hostel. They had good reviews online and it was only $8 for a dorm. The dorm was clean, had enough fans to keep it cool, they have a nice patio for relaxing, and the group staying there at the time was fun. If you are looking for good food and drinks at reasonable prices, check out Bar Baro. There is a good mix of locals and travelers here, and their drink menu is massive.
Once you’ve had your fill of Leon, it’s likely your next stop will be Granada. Some stop in Managua on the way, but I haven’t met anyone yet who actually enjoyed it. Either way, you’ll need to stop in Managua on the way to Granada. From the town of Leon, you’ll need to catch a 20 Cordoba taxi to the bus/minivan station outside of Leon, and then a 40 Cordoba minivan to Managua. When the van stops in Managua, cross the street and you’ll see numerous buses heading for Granada. These should only cost 20 Cordobas. Make sure you catch the express or you’ll stop a thousand times on the way. Lesson learned the hard way!
Granada is historically one of Nicaragua’s most important cities. The city was founded in 1524, making it ostensibly the first European city in mainland America. Before the panama canal was built, this area was a major trade route for delivering goods from the Atlantic to the Pacific. To control that trade, Granada was where the American William Walker took up residence and attempted to take control of Central America as a ruling president. He succeeded, but only lasted a year before Central American armies united and captured him.
For me, Granada is one of the most beautiful Central American cities. It’s rich colonial heritage is seen in its architecture and structure. The streets are small, and it is widely known for preserving some of the finest colonial-era architecture in the country. Locals have serious pride for the maintenance of their homes, and restorations have been completed by many of the Europeans and Americans that have recently bought homes here. As a testament to the pride in homeowners here, one local told me that they have competitions for the cleanest and best painted homes. With beautiful homes, easy to walk streets, sidewalk cafes, horse drawn carriages roaming the streets, and many beautiful churches, it can feel like you’ve stepped back in time here.
While staying in town, we chose the Hostel Oasis. The hostel has a pool, fast computers and internet, a nice rooftop balcony, it’s easy walking distance to the main square, and only $8 per night. They also have a sister hostel on nearby Laguna de Apoyo. This is a lake within a dormant volcano, and for a $6 return shuttle ride from the hostel, it’s a relaxing day trip.
Also in the Granada area is the Masaya Volcano National Park. It is the only volcano in the western hemisphere where you are able to drive to the rim. From the top, you’ll have stunning views of the surrounding landscape, and you’ll be able to see directly into the mouth of the volcano. If you’re lucky, you may see lava, but usually it is masked by the massive amounts of constantly out flowing gases. In the park there is an interesting museum with good information on geology, local
wildlife, and illustrated stories of how past tribes in the area used to sacrifice virgins into the volcano to appease their gods. Visit the museum before the volcano, and that imagery will be fresh in your mind when looking down into the abyss. If you have a guide, you’ll also get to venture into a tunnel formed by past lava flows that now houses thousands of bats. Most tour companies run this tour from Granada for around $30, and will also include a brief trip to the local markets. If you want to save some money you can get to the park by local transport, but you will have a long hike from the entrance of the park to top of the volcano. From Granada, the next usual stop for travelers is Isla Ometepe.
Isla Ometepe is an island formed by two volcanoes with a narrow isthmus connecting them. It was recently listed as a UNESCO Biosphere Preserve and is the largest volcanic island inside a fresh water lake in the world. Highlights include a nice beach near the town of Santo Domingo (depending on the season and height of the lake water), volcano trekking, waterfalls, and the fresh water pools of Ojo del Agua. If the weather is nice, the mix of volcano/waterfall trekking and beach/pool relaxing makes for a great few days.
To get to Ometepe from Granada, most take the direct ferry that runs two days a week. If you want to leave on a day it’s not running, you can take a bus down to Rivas and catch the daily a ferry from there. The schedule is below if you need the times. If you are taking the bus, you can easily walk to the bus station from Hostel Oasis and take the local bus to Rivas for 30 Cordobas. Once in Rivas you’ll need to catch a taxi to the pier for about 80 Cordobas, and then the ferry to Myogalpa on Isla Ometepe for 50 Cordobas. The direct ferry from Granada to Myogalpa costs 100 Cordobas so you’ll end up paying a bit more to go the bus route, but you’ll obviously save some money on lodging if you don’t want to wait for the next ferry. Once in Myogalpa, you can either take a 100 Cordoba taxi to Santo Domingo/Santa Cruz, or wait for the rare local bus depending on the time of day. Buses on the island are infrequent, so be sure to ask a local to make sure there is one coming if you choose to wait for it. To be centrally located on the island, most people stay in either Santo Domingo or Santa Cruz. For the first night, we chose Hospedaje Buena Vista in Santo Domingo. The rooms were clean, they have a great patio, its on the beach, and only 30 minutes walking from Ojo del Agua. For $9/night its a little expensive, but seemed worth it for the location.
Ojo del Agua is a serene location of two crystal clear spring water pools surrounded by old-growth trees. The pools are man made, but the water is fed by a natural spring from the nearby volcano. Facilities have been built around the pools, including thatched huts with tables and chairs, dressing rooms, toilets, and rope swings. Our group spent the whole day lounging in the chairs and trying as many tricks as we could on the rope swing. For just $2 per person, it was a great day in the cool clean water.
Since we wanted to trek and visit the waterfalls, the next night we moved a bit further south to the town of Santa Cruz and the Little Morgan hostel. This place is very popular with backpackers and often fills up so be sure to book ahead. If the hostel is full, you can also stay down the road at Hospedaje Santa Cruz. Due to weather and general laziness, we didn’t hike or visit the waterfalls, but based on reviews from others and the pictures I’ve seen, it looks beautiful! After a few days of relaxing on Ometepe, we were ready for some nightlife and the party town of San Juan del Sur!
From Ometepe, getting to San Juan del Sur is simple. Take the ferry back to Rivas, a taxi to the bus station, and a local bus to San Juan del Sur. The prices for the ferry and taxi are the same as above, and the bus to SJDS is only 20 Cordobas.
Once a sleepy fishing village, San Juan del sur is now a hot spot for backpackers, and ex-pat retirees. The long waterfront is lined with seafood restaurants and beach side decks looking over the sailboats and fishing boats anchored in the bay. Known as the quintessential surfing town of Nicaragua, San Juan del Sur is full of hostels, surf shops, and beach side bars. Nearby Playa Maderas and Playa Grande are both popular breaks for the short boarders and can easily be reached by shuttle for $5 roundtrip. This is not just a surf town however! Stroll through the local market, try a cup of local Nicaraguan coffee, zip line through the jungle, rent a quad to ride around the area, charter a fishing boat, try the best tacos I’ve ever had at the Taco Shop, or simply relax on the beach and with a mojito as the sun sinks into the great pacific. If you have some energy to burn, you can hike to the top of the nearby hill to the second largest Jesus statue in Latin America. The view over the turquoise bay at sunset is gorgeous!
One of the highlights of my trip through Central America was a visit to the turtle nesting grounds just south of San Juan del Sur. For $25, you will be guided on a night expedition to Playa la Flor. If you are there during the right season, you will be able to see between 10,000-100,000 Olive Ridley turtles lay there eggs. The sounds, sights, and smells of that many turtles during such a special time was incredible!
In town there are several decent hostels to stay. Naked Tiger, Pacha Mama, and Casa del Oro were the top three hostels when I went through, and in that order was the party level. Naked Tiger had recently opened when I was in SJDS and on another level of partying. Expect naked pool parties, massive amounts of cocaine, an no sleep. If you are looking for the complete opposite, check out Hotel Estrella near the beach. The rooms are nice, the location is calm, and your a couple blocks from the beach. Personally, I think PachaMama is the best. They have a pool, free coffee, Wifi, Wii, movie nights, a great atmosphere, and the dorms are just $7 per night.
Once you’re ready to leave, the Costa Rican border is just an hour away. From San Juan del Sur you catch a local bus to the highway near La Virgen, and then flag down a passing bus headed for the border at Penas Blancas. Be sure to let the driver AND the ticket agent know that you’re heading for the border when you leave San Juan del Sur so they remember to drop you off in the right spot. Each bus takes about 30 minutes and cost between 15-20 Cordobas. Thankfully getting out of Nicaragua was a much easier border crossing than the one coming into the country. From where the bus drops you off, you can easily walk through both checkpoints to get into Costa Rica. Once you’ve been stamped into Costa Rica, you will see plenty of local buses waiting to take you onward.
Isla Ometepe ferry schedule: http://www.ometepenicaragua.com/ferryboat.php
Big Foot Hostel and tours: http://www.bigfootnicaragua.com/
Tortuga Booluda: http://www.tortugabooluda.com/