To most, Nicaragua is a mysterious, unfamiliar land. When my partner and I first decided to venture into this Central American nation, most of our friends couldn’t imagine why we would want to visit – images of Sandinistas, revolution and US travel bans still linger. Let’s face it – Nicaragua is not your typical vacation hotspot.
On the plane from Miami, I wrote two aspirations for the trip: live in the moment, and don’t stress the details. Although I was safely picked up at the airport, the drive to the hotel was frantic. The roads are a hive of activity, populated by people, oxen, horse-drawn carts, moto taxis, bicycles, motorcycles and trucks.
The next morning, Rafael from Ceiba Tours, arrived. I learned that in Managua, as U2 said in its song, the streets have no name. Street names, if they exist at all, are unknown or simply not used. Directions are relative to local landmarks – hotels, restaurants or stores – many of which may not even exist anymore due to earthquakes, the revolution or simply abandoned.
The best of Nicaragua can be found outside the capital, in its jungles and colonial cities. Our first day was spent visiting volcanoes. The active Masaya Volcano, which is about 30 minutes from Managua, is extremely accessible – in fact, it is the only volcano in the western hemisphere where you can drive to the rim.
It’s famous for its bats and colony of green parakeets, which live inside the volcano, and you can look into the glowing lava in the dark crater mouth, smell the sulfur dioxide and feel the heat rising up. This 2083-foot volcano has been a popular religious site for centuries, with many ceremonies and human sacrifices allegedly taking place into the ‘mouth of hell’.
After we’d explored Masaya, my guide inquired: ‘So, have you ever had coffee on a volcano?’ Always ready for adventure, I jumped in the truck and we drove up the 1345-foot dormant Mochambo Volcano, a massive conical volcano bordering Lake Nicaragua, close to Granada. We sat on the porch of Hacienda El Progreso, sipped delicious Café Las Flores organic coffee, and enjoyed the hazy views of the forest below, enjoying glimpses of Nicaragua’s national bird, the motmot, a brightly colored bird with a long blue tail.
Over the next two days I was treated to the best of Nicaraguan artistry in the Pueblos Blancos (‘White Villages’), Masaya and Granada. We visited the picturesque San Juan de Oriente, which has been in the pottery business for over 1000 years and the Mercardo de Artesanias craft market in Massaya, which has hand-woven hammocks, leather goods, and colourful dolls, hemp weaving and wood carvings. I took a pass on the frog-head leather wallet and painted crocodile head, but I did purchase a hammock for my daughter at the market.
One of the highlights of our trip was meeting Tio Antonio, who started Café de las Sonrisas or Café of Smiles, which creates jobs for people who can’t hear or speak. The café and the adjacent hammock workshop in Granada trains people with some physical difficulties, and provide them with usable skills for employment.
We spent a few nights in San Juan del Sur, and were surprised to meet so many expats in the town, at restaurants and coffee shops. On Thursday nights, El Timon hosts Nicaragua Cultural Night on the beach with live music and folkloric dance. Overlooking San Juan is the 24-metre tall statue El Cristo de la Misericordia (‘Christ of the Mercy’), the largest statue of Christ in Central America.
On our last night in Nicaragua, we headed south to Playa el Coco, near the Costa Rican border. We gathered with Luise, our host, and neighbours to watch baby turtles being safely ushered into the water, and a large turtle laying eggs on the shore. As we watched the sun dip into the ocean, we realized it was hard to articulate the most meaningful part of our journey – every part of Nicaragua is unique, and every experience brings a new understanding of the culture.
Where to stay
Hotel Los Robles, Managua features 14 rooms, at about $100 per night including breakfast. Full service restaurant. Ask for a room near the pool.
Hotel Dario, Granada, about $95 per night including breakfast. Ask for a second-floor room near the back to avoid street noise.
Posada Azul Beach Hotel, about $100 per night including breakfast. Ask for a room near the pool/courtyard.
Playa Marsella Beachfront, Ocean-view cabins $59 for two people; $49 for mountain view sleeps 2-3 people; Marsala Villa $155 per night for families. Pool and restaurant on site.
La Veranera Guesthouse, four rooms $74 to $104 depending on season.