Nicaragua: the land of volcanoes

Despite popular belief, the start of rainy season is a wonderful time to visit Nicaragua! The jungle is lush, the tourists are sparse, and the hotel/hostel accommodations are at a discount! And of course, there are volcanoes everywhere.

Day 1 – Managua & Granada

I arrived around noon in Managua after a long 10-hour layover in Mexico City. It was a short 3 hour flight—thank goodness! On arrival, be prepared to pay the entry fee of $10 in cash. I was caught unprepared and only have $7 in cash on me. The customs officer said they don’t take credit card until I showed him that I only had $7. He proceeded to pull the card terminal from the corner of his desk and reluctantly charged my card. So…they do in fact take credit card, just that cash is preferred.

From the minimal research I had done prior to leaving, I found that the city of Managua wasn’t worth checking out. So my plan was to go straight to Granada. To get to Granada, you have to get to the bus station first. It’s not that easy, I found out. The bus station was about a 10-minute drive from the airport. The taxi guys that harass you the moment you exit baggage claim are relentless. They will offer to drive you to the bus station for $20 USD, which is only 10 minutes away. (Try not to laugh at the ridiculous proposition). You can take a bus that’ll take you to the bus station, but I found a little trick which was more time and cost efficient. Hail down a taxi that is dropping off a customer. They aren’t airport taxis, so they won’t charge nearly as much. I walked over to “departures” and hailed a taxi just as the customer climbed out. Luckily for me, my taxi driver, Freddie, spoke English very well. I asked if he would take me to the bus station for 200 cordobas (about the equivalent of $6.42 USD). Don’t pay any more than 250 cordobas. If you want his number, he also picks you up wherever you are at a fair price. I will include his number in this post in the Tips section.

Bus station in a busy market. The school buses are “chicken buses”.
“The Market” where you catch the bus to go to Granada from Managua
 Collectives (vans)
Collectives (vans)
 Granada
Granada

Day 2 – La Concepcion

I had breakfast at Kathy’s Waffle House, which was conveniently located next to where I was staying. It wasn’t anything special, but for the price, it was pretty good. I spent the morning walking around Granada and taking pictures of the numerous churches around the city. I climbed up the bell tower of the Church of Merced for $1. The city of Granada is pretty small and very hot and humid. After wandering around for a couple hours, I returned to my host’s house and we took a chicken bus from Granada to La Concepcion, the city where his mom and sisters resided. Chicken buses are these school buses that run between cities and towns. A trip could cost anywhere from 10 cordoba to 40 cordoba, depending on where you are going. They are called chicken buses because they’re usually filled to the brim with locals, just like a chicken coop. They are definitely the cheapest way to travel, but there isn’t a set schedule for when they arrive or leave. Chicken buses pick people up along the way, at bus stops and on the side of the road. Thus, what should be an hour ride could easily turn into a 3 hour trip. If you choose this option, just make sure you are flexible with time.

 Breakfast at  Kathy's Waffle House
Breakfast at Kathy’s Waffle House
  Centro Cultural Antiguo Convento San Francisco  across the street of Kathy's Waffle house
Centro Cultural Antiguo Convento San Francisco across the street of Kathy’s Waffle house

On arrival to La Concepcion, the air was significantly cooler and less humid, simply because we were at a higher elevation. However, within the first two hours, I was eaten alive by mosquitos just walking around. There was not a single other tourist in sight. I settled down in their humble abode, had the traditional dinner of rice and beans with eggs, and then set off for a short walk to a view point of the Masaya Volcano. In the evening, the Masaya Volcano emits a red hue surrounded by smoke. Yes, the volcano is still active! It was an amazing sight! 

 Central Park in Granada
Central Park in Granada
 Cutting open a coconut
Cutting open a coconut
 My host making a banana milkshake
My host making a banana milkshake

Day 3 – San Ramon, Isla de Ometepe

Getting to Ometepe from La Concepcion wasn’t easy…especially finding my way to the hostel on a Sunday (when the usual buses don’t operate). First, I took a van to Rivas. That was a long ride. From there, I had to take a short taxi to San Jorge where I would catch the ferry. I was lucky to catch the ferry (la lancha), which is a smaller boat, over to Ometepe. It was 35 cordobas. (The bigger ferry was 50 cordoba, but wasn’t leaving for another hour and a half. The bigger ferry is recommended for those who get seasick easily). The waters were choppy, so the ride over was a little rough, but I sat with the cargo in the back, so it wasn’t nearly as bad. I arrived on the island and jumped on another bus headed south towards Merida, where my hostel was located. The bus took me as far as it could, then dropped me off about 2.5 miles short of the hostel. With at least 20 pounds on my back, I wasn’t too ecstatic. Luckily, I talked to a local who had a motorbike and was willing to take me to the hostel for 100 cordobas. Hostel La Cascada is located in San Ramon, a little further south of Merida. It has a beachfront view which is fabulous! The food was also fantastic. For 175 cordobas, I got about a half a pound of steak, rice, salad, and French fries. It was actually too much for me to finish, but I was pleasantly surprised at how well the steak was flavored and made.

 Volcan Concepcion
Volcan Concepcion
 Hospedaje La Cascada (Hostel)
Hospedaje La Cascada (Hostel)
 Beachfront view from the hostel
Beachfront view from the hostel

Day 4 – San Ramon, Balgue, Isla de Ometepe

Today, I went to San Ramon Waterfall and Finca de Magdelena. I trekked out to the Ecological Station (where you start the hike to the waterfall) around 9:30am. They didn’t allow me to bring in my scooter even though many places online had mentioned that you could bike the first 2 km of the trail. Needless to say, I parked my scooter outside the gates and walked in. The entrance fee is $3 into the park. Three things you need to know before you go: 1) It is a little over 3km entirely uphill, 2) you can take a motorbike or car the first 2km until you reach a “parking lot”, 3) bring lots of water. Today wasn’t scorching hot so it was an ideal day to go hiking. Although it was overcast with a nice breeze, the humidity was draining my energy pretty quickly. Again, make sure you have ample water. For a while, the roads are somewhat paved and well-marked with tire treads, but as you approach the last km or so, the path starts to narrow and you’ll eventually reach a stream where it seems like a dead end. I guess during the rainy season, the path seems a bit more unnoticeable because it is overtaken by a decent stream. Fear not, just follow upstream, and within a hundred feet or so, you will see the path again. From here, the trail gets pretty steep. And keep in mind, during rainy season, the trail can get pretty muddy and slippery. Mind you, at this point I’m drenched in sweat and look like I’ve been under a waterfall already. Walk for another 5 minutes or so, and you’ll reach the magnificent waterfall! Pictures can hardly capture how amazing it is. I spent about half an hour relaxing under the cooling waterfall. Definitely worth the hike. It took me approximately 1.5 hours to get all the way to the top from the gate entrance. Coming down was much easier and faster of course. In total, the trip was a decent 2.5 hours.

 Start at the Ecological Station, walk 2 km on paved/semi-paved roads
Start at the Ecological Station, walk 2 km on paved/semi-paved roads
 San Ramon Waterfall
San Ramon Waterfall

Next, I rode my scooter about an hour to Finca de Magdelena in Balgue. On scooter, it was pretty difficult because of the terrain—unpaved roads and big rocks. I don’t recommend it unless you’re confident in your scooter riding skills. At times, I was scared that I would fly off the scooter when it went over piles of rocks, which nearly happened twice. There are no busses that run between San Ramon and Balgue, so your best bet is either by motorbike or car. The mile or so of my drive to Balgue was okay because it was paved, but when I arrived at the turnoff to Finca de Magdelena, I was again met with unpaved rocky roads. It is about 1km from the turnoff to the actual farm. Once you arrive at the farm, there is a restaurant and hostel where you can park your vehicle. From there, you walk up a small path to the entrance of the farm. The entrance fee is $3 and gives you access to all the trails. There is one trail that goes all the way up to Volcano Maderas, which supposedly takes about 3 hours to reach the top. And the other trail that takes you through the coffee plantation and petroglyphs, which is about 2km roundtrip. Normally you can request a guide, but there was no guide available today, so I just walked through the plantation myself. It doesn’t seem like a typical farm. In fact, it felt like I was walking through a jungle. Nonetheless, it was a pleasant hike and about 0.5km in, you reach the petroglyphs. It’s worth a quick look. Believe it or not, it was actually pretty difficult to navigate without a guide because the trail branched off multiple times. Consequently, I got lost on the way back. Rule of thumb is that if you see the yellow “X” on the trees, you’re going the wrong way. Follow the trees and rocks marked with “=”. When I returned, I was again covered in sweat because of the sheer humidity. But I quickly cooled off with a nice iced coffee. You can also purchase a bag of coffee (whole bean) at $10 USD.

 Trail that leads you through the coffee plantation and to the petroglyphs
Trail that leads you through the coffee plantation and to the petroglyphs
 Turtle on the trail
Turtle on the trail
 Whole bean coffee for 300 cordobas a bag
Whole bean coffee for 300 cordobas a bag
 Cafe Campestre for late lunch
Cafe Campestre for late lunch
 Chicken fettucine
Chicken fettucine

It was around 3pm now and the thunder was gently rumbling in the distance. I hadn’t eaten so on my way back towards my hostel, I stopped at Café Campestre. The menu was written in both Spanish and English, so it was easy to order. Prices are decent for this island. I had a chicken fettucine and a glass of passionfruit juice. When the food came out, I realized, everything is served in large portions! It was handmade pasta with plenty of chicken and fresh tomato and basil. In total, the meal costed 190 cordobas. After a brief stop, I quickly hopped on the scooter again to get back before it got dark. I arrived around 5:30pm just in time to return the scooter.

 Volcan La Concepcion in the distance
Volcan La Concepcion in the distance
 Oranges
Oranges

Day 5 – Mayogolpo, Isla de Ometepe

An accidental extra night on this island. Long story short, on my way from San Ramon to the port, I lost my phone. It was truly a miracle that I got it back. In any case, I didn’t do much today. My day started with a simple breakfast then 1.5 hours of horseback riding. The hostel offered horseback riding so for $10 an hour, I rode along the rocky path without a guide or a map. I was not expecting that I’d be left all alone, but the guide figured I knew enough to ride without a problem. So I hopped on and he waved goodbye as I rode away. It wasn’t anything extraordinary or exciting, but rather a peaceful ride in the jungle and along the coast.

While I was anxiously waiting on the news of my phone, I booked a night at the Landing Hotel, which was just a hundred feet from the port. I threw my things down and got lunch at a nearby pizzeria, also close to the port. It was surprisingly good. A bit pricey, but so is everything else in Mayogalpo.

In the evening, I met a great group of lads from the UK and we ended up going next door for some food, and later a bar called Indio Viejo for some drinks. Normally the place is bumping with good music and company, but I suppose because it was a weekday, it was pretty dead. We still drank there and chatted the night away.

 Grocery store near the port
Grocery store near the port
 The Landing Hotel
The Landing Hotel
 Upstairs balcony of the Landing Hotel
Upstairs balcony of the Landing Hotel
 Stray puppy
Stray puppy

Day 6 – San Juan del Sur

In the morning, I packed my things and headed off to the port to catch the 9am ferry back to the mainland. This ferry was the “big ferry” that I mentioned in my earlier post. It transported both cars and people. Like the “lancha boat”, it took an hour to get back to San Jorge, the port in Rivas. From there, I took a taxi with two other girls I met for 200 cordobas/person to San Juan del Sur. Our driver raced down the two-lane road and made it there in about 40 minutes. I arrived at my hostel, HC Blau Mar Suites around 11am, technically still too early to check in, but the room was ready, so the receptionist kindly let me check in. This “hostel” is actually an apartment complex that consists of hotel and hostel rooms as well as apartments. I decided to splurge a bit on my last day since I need to use up all my cash anyway. So at a great price, I got a dorm suite with a kitchen (common area), 4 bunk beds and A/C for $9. Not bad at all! (Mind you, A/C is really expensive in Nicaragua because it’s an electricity hauler).

I quickly set my things down and went down to the reception desk to ask for restaurant recommendations. The lady at the front suggested two budget eateries: 1) a new restaurant that was a block over called Kitchen Salud and 2) a local eatery called Bufet which was a little further down, right across from the town church. I first went to Kitchen Salud, but to my disappointment, it was closed. So I walked over to Bufet and there, I got a pretty good meal for a decent price. For 100 cordoba, I got braised pork, rice, salad, fried plantains and a drink. It was quite a good price for the amount of food and the location. Everything in San Juan del Sur is overly priced. After lunch, I wanted to go surfing. To get to the surfing areas, you have to take a shuttle to the other beaches. As I walked back towards my hostel, I passed by a café/shop called O’Shop. There are shuttle prices painted boldly on the shop’s front exterior which caught my eye. So I went in for a quick look. You can order food and drinks, book an excursion or cruise, rent surfboards, reserve a shuttle, and more. I spoke to the owner, Bastien, who was really welcoming and helpful. I was also looking for a rashguard, so when I eyed a couple rashguards hung up in the corner of the store, Bastien offered really good prices on the used (and new) rashguards. (You should definitely consider using one this time of year because the water is really warm…so the jellyfish are out in masses!! Anyway, I digress). He offered me a rashguard that was just a bit dirty (but new) for $5! I had walked past a couple other stores that were selling the same product for $40-50. The shop also had clothing and some handmade jewelry (made by his wife). Of course I was eyeing the cute silver rings displayed behind the glass…and ended up purchasing one. *eye roll*

 Front of O'Shop
Front of O’Shop
 Inside O'Shop. Bastian, the owner, is behind the counter preparing smoothies.
Inside O’Shop. Bastian, the owner, is behind the counter preparing smoothies.

You can take a shuttle from Casa Oro, another hostel which is right across the street from O’Shop, for the same price, but they run on a schedule. O’Shop allows you to take a shuttle anytime, under the condition that 4 or more people are going at that same time. At $5 per person, you can go to Maderas or Playa Remanso. However, if you are going alone or “taking a private taxi” with him, the price is higher. Bastien told me that because some of his clients were already at Playa Remanso and his driver has to go there anyway, that he’d take me there for the same price (at $5 roundtrip). I arrived at Playa Remanso and met up with his clients that took a surf lesson with his employee. Playa Remanso wasn’t very crowded, but that may have been attributed to it being the weekday. There are two bar restaurants on the beach, a couple small huts with beach chairs, and that was about it. It’s a very small beach, but the waves were decent for beginners. We chatted for a bit and caught a few waves before heading back to town around 5pm.

In the evening, I met up with my new friends at 6pm for dinner. We went to a place nearby called Simon Says. The restaurant front is fairly small. You arrive at the front and walk through a corridor with neon-painted designs and lit in black light. It opens up into a patio area with a beautiful garden that expands a hundred or so feet back. The ambiance is pleasant and the décor is quite eccentric. Anyway, we got the menu, which is pretty limited—maybe 5 or 6 entrees, but with what was presented, a couple choices is all you really need. I got the “deep fried filet mignon with marinara and melted mozzarella” and my two choices of sides: mashed pumpkin and wok sautéed vegetables. Although it sounds totally weird, it was so delicious! For Nicaragua, it was pretty pricey, (260 cordoba = $8.60) but for the portion and how good it was, it was worth it!

 Remanso Beach
Remanso Beach
 Surfers catching waves and children wading close to shore
Surfers catching waves and children wading close to shore
 Beachfront view from my hostel in San Juan del Sur
Beachfront view from my hostel in San Juan del Sur

Last day – Managua Airport

Today, I spent the entire day trekking back to Managua from San Juan del Sur. It easily takes up to 3 hours to drive from SJDS to Managua. From O’Shop, I took a collective van that stopped in Granada (to pick up other passengers) before arriving at the airport. At a measly $25 per person, the trip up was fast and comfortable. If you are on a time crunch, I highly suggest taking a collective van or private taxi to the airport as to avoid uncertainty in the chicken buses.

Tips

  • Make sure to bring rain gear and a pair of sturdy hiking boots if you plan to trek through the jungle or hike up the volcanoes.
  • English speaking taxi driver (Freddie) #: +505 8767 0191
  • Bring cash or withdraw cash from an ATM. Most places only take cash, including the airport.
  • Chicken buses and collectives (vans) are the cheapest way to travel, but can also take longer because they pick up passengers along the way.
  • You can negotiate prices everywhere! Don’t be shy!
  • Most people don’t speak English, and if they do, it is minimal. So it’s best to learn at least a couple common phrases or words.
  • Don’t eat the watermelon. Two people I met along the way said they got food poisoning from the watermelon because the irrigated water to grow crops is unclean…and watermelon is basically 90% water. Most other fruits (i.e., mango, bananas, papayas, etc) are OK.
  • If you decide to go to Ometepe, you can either take the big ferry or la lancha. If you tend to get sea sick, take the bigger ferry. La lancha is a smaller ferry that is more prone to rocking in rough waters.
  • It is best to buy bottled water, although in most places, the filtered tap water is OK. Better safe than sorry though! A 2-liter bottle of water is no more than 30 cordoba anyway!

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