Nicaragua: Part Two
After five nights in León, we made the short journey onward to its longtime rival, Granada. Because the distances between our destinations within Nicaragua were pretty short, we chose to string together public transportation. From León, we boarded a collectivo van ($4.40) and made the two and a half hour trip to the capital of Managua. The scenery on these drives is something we often remind ourselves not to take for granted, and Nicaragua’s was some of the best we had seen during our recent travel days. The stark difference in comparison to its neighboring countries was the lack of litter and trash along the highways. In El Salvador and Honduras, it can unfortunately get pretty bad. Nicaragua was drastically different. Even the area surrounding Managua appeared much cleaner than many American cities.
Immediately after getting off of the collectivo in Managua, we were directed to the bus ($3.10) heading towards Granada. After passing a group demonstrating in favor of the government, walls covered in pro-Ortega graffiti, and an hour and a half drive later, we arrived in Granada.
When you close your eyes and picture a colonial city in Latin America, it’s Granada you’re seeing. The beauty of the architecture in the city cannot be overstated. It made for a very picturesque backdrop for our four days there. We spent quite a lot of time wandering the streets, thankful for the lack of Burger Kings and Pizza Huts that are present in some of the other colonial cities we had visited. No matter how many times we walked down the same street in route to finding food, the views never got old. Without a doubt, the best vantage point we found in Granada was from atop the bell tower of Iglesia de La Merced (entrance fee of $1.89 for 2). After squeezing ourselves up the extremely narrow, spiraling staircase, we had the tower to ourselves to look out over the entire city. Being able to see the cathedral with the expanse of Lake Nicaragua looming in the background was a view we’ll never forget.
Granada also had our favorite spot to eat in all of Nicaragua, Comida Tipicas y Mas. For those less educated in Spanish, the name describes exactly what they serve, typical foods and more. It was here that we had multiple helpings of Vigoron, the signature dish of Granada. Vigoron is yuca topped with chicharron and curtido (cabbage slaw) and was easily one of our favorite dishes in all of Central America. They also served up some awesome cerdo asado, chorizo con arroz, and had some great happy hour specials on Nica Libres (2 for $2.20). This became our usual spot in Granada.
We didn’t come to Granada just to eat and wander the streets staring at buildings. Over the past month, we had explored volcanoes in many different ways; hiking to watch lava flows, hanging out at a sulfuric crater lake, and most recently boarding down the side of one. About a half hour outside of Granada sat Volcano Masaya and another unique volcano experience. Late one afternoon, we boarded a public bus ($1.57 for 2) headed in the direction of Managua and, about thirty minutes later, got off at the entrance to the volcano park.
Once in the park (entrance fee of $20.29 for 2), we paid a bit extra to receive a van ride ($6.29) to the top. A trip to Volcano Masaya is not about a scenic hike to the top, it’s getting to the top fairly quickly and getting down just as fast. Our driver stopped along the way to give us some time to look around the museum and take in a quick view of the nearby lake, but mostly we were killing time to allow for the light in the sky to dim.
We got back in the van and continued our ride to the top of the volcano. On the way to the top, we climbed winding roads, flanked by the views of life trying to reestablish itself in a hostile and evolving environment. There wasn’t much moving around amongst the large volcanic boulders; a few birds and some tall grass blowing in the winds, not much else. It was a scene that, had the lights of Managua not been visible in the far distance, seemed otherworldly.
When we arrived at the top of the volcano, we nearly sprinted in excitement across the parking lot. With the darkness taking over the night sky, we peered over the rock wall and down into the crater to witness something we never thought we’d see in our lifetimes. We were staring at the lava splashing around in the crater of an active volcano. Prior to arriving at the crater, we had never considered the fact that the movement of the lava would be audible. It was thunderous, like the densest, most crushing waves you could imagine. The feeling you get when watching and listening to the waves of lava is hard to explain. It almost makes you feel weak and powerless. For the first time, you understand why an eternity in a place like that could be so unappealing. The cross on the ridge above sort of starts to make sense.
We had read that you are only allowed ten to fifteen minutes at the top because of the gaseous fumes. For whatever reason, our driver was not in much of a rush and did not set a time limit. However, almost on cue, we each felt throbbing in our heads after fifteen minutes at the top. And after one more...no one more...okay last look, we returned to the park entrance and ultimately Granada.
From Granada, we were headed to Ometepe, an island form by two volcanoes rising out of the largest lake in all of Central America, Lake Nicaragua. Initially, we weren’t sure if we were going to make a stop at Ometepe, but after a week of every local telling us it was a must, we carved out a few days to spend there.
It took one chicken bus (overcharged $6.29), a taxi ($6.29), Andy yelling at the driver for trying to rip us off, a few hours waiting for the next ferry ($3.15 for 2), and the ride across the lake before we arrived at Ometepe’s port town of Moyogalpa that afternoon. That part of the commute was cheap, but getting around the island itself was a different story. At about nineteen miles long and six miles wide, the island is much larger than it appears on a map. The only means of traveling around the island are via expensive taxis, scooter/atv/motorcycle rentals, or the very infrequent public buses. We were staying on the more remote part of the island, outside of a town called Merida. If you count some houses, three or four businesses, and a few streets as a town. To get to our place, we went with the taxi ($35.86) and forty-five minutes later we arrived.
Those three nights, we rested our heads in the house of a local family ($67.74). Much like nearly everyone we interacted with in Nicaragua, the family was extremely welcoming and helpful. Since the mother of house didn’t speak any English, we were also able to really test our Spanish abilities.
With our first day on the island, we decided to make the hike to the San Ramón waterfall (entrance fee of $6.10 for 2). The only issue was that the entrance to the hike was a bit far to get to on foot. Luckily, the family offered to rent us a scooter ($15.26) for the day, which turned out to be an adventure in itself. First, we tipped the scooter over when stopping for lunch, crushing Andy’s foot in the process. Then, we continued on past the village of Merida until the road began to more closely resemble the surface of the moon than a passage for motor vehicles. Teeth clenched, we dodged as many rocks and ditches as possible to avoid completely destroying our 7” wheels or shredding the undercarriage, which rose only a few inches off of the ground.
The hike to the waterfall was only three kilometers, but the last felt twice as long as the first two combined. After trekking through the jungle and climbing across the rocks of a dried stream bed, we arrived at the waterfall. We spent a couple of hours cooling off and relaxing by the light mist of the waterfall and watching the clouds above hurry past. The pressure of the waterfall was so light that even a moderate gust of wind could redirect the direction of the descending water. We timed our descent from the waterfall perfectly to be able to witness the sunset over the lake, while dodging craters on the ride back.
The next day, still shook from our stressful scooter experience, we decided to walk across the island to visit the natural pools of Ojo de Agua (entrance fee of $10.22). The walk was beautiful. One of the island’s two volcanoes were visible at all times. Horses, pigs, and chickens roamed the road alongside of us. The waves crashed on the beaches as we passed. However, after four miles of walking, we gave in and took a taxi ($4.72) for the last three and a half.
After all of the walking, we didn’t hesitate to jump into the spring-fed pools, more so to escape the mosquitoes than the heat. It was only after we got out of the water, that we realized we had been swimming amongst a couple of eels and a few turtles. Since the walk to the pools was probably the highlight of the day up to that point, we decided to walk halfway back before grabbing food and a taxi ride ($7.86) the rest of the way.
The next morning, we unfortunately had to move on from Ometepe. We ate a quick Nicaraguan breakfast made by the mother of the house ($2.00) and took the taxi ($26.35) back to Moyogalpa to catch the ferry back to the mainland. We had trusted everyone we had met that Ometepe would in fact be as beautiful as they had said. It didn’t take long for our eyes to light up the same way theirs did at the mere mention of the island. We now find ourselves dreaming of Ometepe whenever a fellow traveler asks us where they should go as they head northward. It’s not hard to sell a volcanic island with beaches, natural pools, a waterfall, an abundance of wildlife, simple living, and friendly people.
Before crossing the border into Costa Rica, we made one last stop in the Pacific beach town of San Juan del Sur. We needed to stock up on toiletries, do laundry, and make sure we had everything lined up for our entry into Costa Rica (Costa Rica’s border is more official than most of the ones we had crossed recently). Andy also needed to get another surf lesson in. We spent an afternoon along the beach of San Juan, watching the sunset, and spent the next morning at Playa Maderas for Andy’s second, and more productive, attempt at surfing ($30 for 2 hours).
Just like that, our two weeks in Nicaragua had flown by. We were so thankful that the political situation died down enough to allow us to experience this fascinating country. Some of our greatest memories came from our time in Nicaragua. Many of the kindest and most compassionate people we’ve met during our journey were also here. We’ve met many friendly, helpful people in every country, but the people in Nicaragua seemed to do so much to ensure you were doing well and knew where to find anything we could possibly need. Whether it was flagging down the proper bus for us or unpromptedly making sure we had directions to where we were headed, we’ve never felt so welcome.
It was odd to spend a short amount of time living in a country with all of the typical signs of a dictatorship. We’ve seen so many pictures of Ortega smiling and waving at us, that he’s become a recurring character in our dreams. Though we benefited from the political strife, we sincerely hope everything works out for the best for the people of Nicaragua. We’ll continue to follow the news out of Nicaragua, praying for a positive resolution. In the meantime, we’ll continue our work as unpaid advertising agents for the country.
Nicaragua, we love you. We’ll be back.