Sharlene and I schemed Nicaragua when I was visiting her in January. That was before my semester travels commenced, and as it turns out Nicaragua is where my semester travels ended.
In January, Nicaragua was peaceful. In fact, it is one of the few Central American countries that has a relatively calm history. Yet, it is not heavily touristed like its neighboring Costa Rica which Sharlene and I have both been too. Since it's a little more off-the-beaten path yet not far away, we thought it was perfect.
But in mid-April riots erupted after an unpopular social reform. The demands increased to wanting to oust the current president, Daniel Ortega, along with his wife. Many signs with "AFUERA Ortega!" which literally means "Outside Ortega" or off with Ortega. There were reports of military violence against the protesters in Managua, the capital, but we thought it had calmed down by the time we arrived on May 16. Apparently it had not. So, this made for an interesting adventure. Each day we never knew what the conditions were going to be, if the roads would be open or if transport would run. But overall, the people were very friendly and helped us along the way to still have an enjoyable and safe trip.
Day 1: Arrival to Granada
Luckily we had booked a taxi from the airport in Managua to Granada, about a 45 minute ride. Our taxi driver weaved around road blocks (including a flaming tire), paid off a masked protester and steadily drove us to our hotel.
First afternoon: one of the many peaceful protests we witnessed.
Families were marching. We learned that afternoons were prime protest time.
Typical streets of Granada with colorful buildings.
The colonial town was pleasant, but nothing particularly special in my opinion.
We spent the afternoon walking around town and also trying to organize our next day. Not that easy. More on that later.
Former train station not turned into technical trade school
You can see the desks on the right.
Typical Nica dinner. Rotiserrie chicken, rice and beans, plantains and cheese.
We found this neighborhood food gem on the outskirts of town going on an unsuccessful hunt. We got it to go, which meant in several layers of plastic bags, and ate it on our bed. Note: the cheese was very squeaky like rubber. Hmm... We got tired of rice and beans pretty quickly.
We then retired to sleep early, which would become a regular schedule for us.
Day 2: Village plans canceled; where to go from Granada?
All public transport was not working while we were in Nica, so we had to shell out for expensive taxis. Not only was it pricey, but we were sad to not get to experience some of the true culture that comes out in the chicken buses rode by the locals. On the flip side, it actually made for easier travels in many ways to always take taxis from door-to-door.
We learned that the earlier you leave, the better chances you had of a safe, block-free road. So, we were up early, ate a lovely Nica breakfast (more rice and beans) and went to wait for our taxi to drive us to white villages (Pueblos Blancos) about 30 minutes outside of town. But the hotel just received a call that the roads were closed and that we could not go. We also could not go to the lava-bubbling volcano at night. Same road. We were sooo disappointed because we were really looking forward to it.
After much debate, we were convinced to go walk around a cloud rainforested crater. Since Sharlene and I have traveled a lot, there were lots of activities that just didn't excite us. I felt bad since Nica really is a beautiful country.
Why does this frog look so familiar?
Oh! It was on the cover of my bio book! So cool to see it in real life!
View across the crater and into lake.
The crater was actually so old that this forest grew up in it.
Yoga-ing in crevices of the rainforest.
We also got to stop at a coffee farm, saw monkeys and our favorite, a sloth!
After we arrive back in town, we are told by our guide who called another person who I'm sure called another person, that we can go to the Masaya Volcano at night to see the bright red lava. Really? We were excited, but also a little bummed that we had gone our earlier too.
Masaya Volcano, lava and me at sunset
Usually there is a long hour wait to get into the park and then you only get 10 minutes near the volcano. But, it's been closed for awhile and people haven't been leaving the house really at night, we almost had the entire volcano to ourselves. There were only 3 other cars there and we could stay as long as we wanted. Luckily, no problems in transit either. Score.
Day 3: En route to Ometepe, a two-volcano island
Our second destination was a little tricky to get to. We were told to take a ferry at noon. Then we were told to leave earlier to avoid road troubles and take a 10:30 am ferry. Then we were told to leave even earlier and take a ferry at 9:30 am to a different destination to avoid other road troubles.
We arranged a taxi to take us to the ferry terminal at 6:45 am to give extra time in case we hit road blocks, but we smoothly sailed and arrived at 8 am. When we arrived, we were told to take the 8:30 am ferry, and that the 9:30 ferry wasn't going. EH? OK, here we go...
Gorgeous morning views from the ferry from Port San Jorge to Moyogalpa, Ometepe
Road blocks from trees and signs:
"Live Nicaragua FREE" and "Out Daniel"
After arriving, we grabbed lunch at a comedor, a very casual eatery. In other words it was someone's home with a table outside. Mom grilled pork, onions and peppers in a tomato sauce while a toddler grabbed ice from somewhere and the daughter chopped up a pineapple and added the ice. Of course, the meal included rice, beans and plantains. We avoided the fresh cucumber tomato salad as we were certain the sanitation grade was not anywhere near passing. All for an unknown cost which ended up being 150 cordobas each ($5). A true local experience.
Kayaking .... through cabbage.
That was a first, and rather challenging!
But quite a rewarding sunset view on the water and beach to end.
Day 3: Cruzing around the island on bikes
Neither Sharlene or I are huge scooter riders, but we love our bicycles. For $5 and no collateral, we were off on quite hilly roads. First stop ...
Ojos de Agua
Amazing natural mineral water pools and also very empty. The perks of traveling in shoulder season and during protest time. It was sooo nice to cool off and just not be hot for once. We chilled with a Tona (the national beer of Nicaragua) for Sharlene and a fresh coconut for me. We spent a good 3 hours here, but alas had to leave because we got hungry. We scored again on going to a lovely lunch spot (a hotel) with nice grounds. It was hard to find places to eat since many places closed shop because no one was around! In fact, we just skipped dinner this night.
Hotel Finca Del Sol
Our ecolodge that had a compost toilet (not my favorite), mosquito nets, solar energy and lots of critters! It was on the less crowded side of the island and off the beaten path. Definitely worth the trek.
Hammocking at sunset in front of our lodge with a volcano view.
Looks lovely, was lovely, but we paid the price with mosquito bites.
Looks lovely, was lovely, but we paid the price with mosquito bites.
Day 4: Off to Leon
The truce a few days back was broken so still holding breath for smooth travels. Another early start at 6:15 am with a 45 min ride to the ferry, an 1 hr and a half ferry ride (thank goodness it ran) to the mainland, an hour wait then a surprisingly short 3 hour shuttle ride to Leon. Whew. Everything ran very smooth again, thankfully.
Cafe at our Airbnb with Flor.
Really nice decor.
We went to the Ortiz Foundation Art Museum, the best art museum in Central America. It was in old houses and pretty diverse.
Day 5: Volcano boarding!
Quetzaltrekkers: Hike Volcanoes, Help Kids
We came to Leon for the star attraction, volcano boarding about 45 min outside of town. We chose this company because of its social cause. We highly recommend them over the other many companies.
Me boarding down volcano
Sharlene boarding down volcano
Street food attempt 2We made a mistake of taking it to go at night and some kids tried to steal it out of Sharlene's hand. In the process the container dropped and all the food fell. Oh well. We weren't that hungry, and we're pretty sure the kids ate the food off the street. If they need it that bad, they can have it. The second night we just ate on the street to avoid any issues. Is all the Nica food starting to look the same?
Day 7: Chill in Leon; Happy Birthday Shar!
We scheduled this trip to include Sharlene's birthday. It was a perfect last chill day and birthday celebration.
We ate a lovely breakfast at Flor de Sarta then walked around town.
Murals in Leon depicting the history
It's a college and artsy town, with strong political views. Protests were rampant here.
Chilling by the pool in our lovely airbnb.
Overlooking the main plaza
On top of Cathedral Leon
It took us 3 tries to get up on the roof but we finally made it. It was worth the effort. Then we chilled by the pool and at the french bakery, Pan y Paz, which had a lovely atmosphere but not so good chocolate influenced drinks. The weather held out. Hot, but no crazy downpours.
At night, we ventured out to try and find a bar that would play the Warriors game. The Biblioteca projected it. Score. It was interrupted by lots of the same commercials. Unfortunately, we did not pull through in the end. The streets at night in Leon were fairly deserted, not particularly safe feeling, because of the riots. Luckily we got back safely. But that last night was a doozie.
Day 8: Safely back to the airport and off
In the morning we were up before the alarm clock again around 5:30 am. "Did you sleep well?" I asked Shar. "No", she replied. "Did you?" "No." There were LOUD sounds all throughout the night, more than usual, about every 10-20 minutes in the late evening. A few even made our airbnb rattle and I heard the dust and pebbles fall. When we asked our driver later what the explosions were he said "Oh, la bombas." Great. Bombs from the university which was nearby.
We were enjoying our pastry and coffee/tea on the patio when we get notice that we should leave earlier. We were used to that. Off we go for a two hour taxi ride to the airport. We hit several road blocks in Managua. Protesters ripped up the cobblestones from the street and built barricades. At one point we were driving down the middle divide. When we arrived, the taxi driver said with a sigh of relief, "aeropuerto". We made it exactly in time. Whew. And, flights were on time.
What a crazy, great adventure in Nicaragua. Definitely back to traveling with the will see-as-we-go mentality. We were fortunate to stay safe the whole time and not have major disruptions to our travels. Thanks to all the Nicaraguans who were super friendly, concerned for our safety and helped arrange our travels to ensure we still had a great trip. For the most part, we didn't feel unsafe and were still glad we came despite the travel warnings. Most natives we talked to were sad, but accepting of the unstable situation and maintaining a resilient mentality. My heart goes out to these admirable people, and I'm glad that we got to experience both the pains and beauty of the country. We definitely recommend going to Nica, but perhaps when it settles more.
And thanks to Shar of course for another great adventure in another part of the world!