Nicaragua: A Dance of Colonial Cities and Volcanoes
Initially Nicaragua was teetering on the chopping block when Brad and I decided to backpack Central America. Concerns of safety and political stability swirled in our heads as we inched closer to the decision to make the border crossing. Fortunately, speaking to fellow travelers eased our doubts.
As we loaded body-to-body into our shared shuttle like a can of sardines, Brad and I looked at each other with wide eyes. The 15-hour ride with Roneey Shuttle from La Ceiba, Honduras, to Leon, Nicaragua, suddenly seemed twice as grueling. It turns out we weren’t wrong!
Our driver didn't like to follow general road rules and along the way hit an object while speeding down a gravel shoulder to avoid a standstill. During a break at a gas station, I noticed brown fluid leaking from underneath the van. Although our driver didn't divulge the situation, we all knew something was wrong once we stopped at a few mechanic shops. The hodgepodge fix would take us as far as another house to obtain jugs of oil and a funnel kit.
A sigh of relief hit us all once we reached the border, but the hiccups didn't stop there. My career as a blogger led to a minor interrogation with officials. I had to reassure them I wasn't a journalist covering affairs of state, but a travel writer hoping to explore the country. Let's just say a smile and knowing how to speak a bit of Spanish came in handy!
Brad and I stayed on the main backpacking route for three weeks visiting León, Granada, and Ometepe. The eclectic streets, beautiful landscapes, and adventure activities are worthwhile reasons to check out Nicaragua!
The center of the city is a tourist mecca with lively parks and unique cathedrals. Join The Original Free Walking Tour to learn about Leon's history with a local guide. Tours depart every day at 9:00 AM and 4:00 PM nearby the Parque Héroes y Mártires. Tours last approximately two hours and are available in English and Spanish.
My favorite part of the tour was visiting the Mercado Central to taste Nicaraguan street food. We tried fried snacks, sopa de leche (bread pudding), perrerreque (sweet corn cheese bread), manuelitas (rolled crepes with cheese), pinolillo (cocoa cornmeal drink), and tropical fruits. The hearty food filled us up!
Nicaragua's history is a vital part of its identity. León was the headquarters of the student-led revolution to overthrow the Somoza dictatorship in the 1960s and 1970s. Intense fighting led by the victorious socialist Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN) is memorialized with graphic murals.
Black and red FSLN flags are flown throughout the country to remind citizens of the party's continued influence. If you want to learn more about the tumultuous history, check out the Museo de la Revolución.
See the city from a mesmerizing perspective atop the roof of the Catedral de León. The whitewashed domes with wrought-iron windows are stunning before sunset. Be prepared to remove your shoes in order to preserve the floors. Access to the roof is located on the south side for $3 USD (110 NIO) per person.
Cerro Negro Volcano
Ready for an adrenaline rush? Try volcano boarding! León is the perfect launch point to enjoy this extreme sport. Brad and I joined the morning tour from ViaVia Hostel (combined with our Roneey Shuttle booking) which included a free t-shirt and drink. The tour is normally $30 USD (1093 NIO) per person and leaves every day at 8:00 AM and 2:00 PM.
After a bumpy ride in the back of an old army truck, we hiked for about an hour with our plywood boards before reaching the breathtaking summit. Our group got a kick out of the hot spots emitting puffs of warm steam. Cerro Negro is the youngest active volcano in Central America!
The ride tutorial commenced once we changed into our yellow jumpsuits. Basically, there were two speeds: fast or slow. My anxiety kicked in as I stepped up to the starting point and sat on my board. I leaned back into position and took off a like a rocket!
Even though I made it down unscathed, I felt equal parts petrified and exhilarated. I wish I could say sledding down snow covered hills in Wisconsin as a kid prepared me for volcano boarding, but it didn't! By far one of the craziest stunts we've done together!
TIP: Wear shoes and bring a bandana to cover your face. Safety goggles and jumpsuits are provided for protection against the rough volcanic stones.
A colorful city with gritty charm, Granada has a lot to offer with unique day trips and delicious restaurants. Situated along Lake Nicaragua, the colonial architecture beckons travelers to get lost wandering the streets.
Compared to León, Granada is politically conservative and has a safer reputation. Expats, tourists, and locals seem to live harmoniously together in this picturesque place. Brad and I felt at ease walking at night and enjoyed the relaxed vibe.
The most striking landmark of the city is the Catedral Inmaculada Concepción de María. Completed in 1972, the symmetrical Neoclassical façade grabs your attention with its vibrant yellow and white paint.
For the best view of the cathedral, climb the bell tower of Iglesia Catolica Parroquia de Nuestra Señora de la Merced just a few blocks away. The brilliant cream interior beautifully contrasts with the deteriorating exterior. Enjoy 360 degree views of red tile rooftops and catch a glimpse of Mombacho Volcano on a clear day. The entrance fee is $1 USD (37 NIO) per person.
Affordable eats are best found in the local market, or Mercado. However, if you want to check out the vibrant food and bar scene head to Calle La Calzada. The pedestrian-only street comes alive at night with plenty of al fresco dining options. Below are a few of my favorite spots around Granada.
• Lunch - Head to The Garden Cafe for a healthy meal made with fresh ingredients. Pair a tangy juice with the summer bowl made with quinoa, grilled chicken, mango, and veggies. Another scrumptious option is Restaurante El Garaje with its international menu. Try the BBQ tandoori chicken pita with spicy tomato chutney and yogurt drizzle.
• Dinner - Pita Pita is a popular spot for Mediterranean cuisine and the portions are big enough to share. The crunchy falafel, seasoned shawarma, and tzatziki are flavorful. Grab a plate of mouthwatering nachos or smothered chicken burrito at Nectar while you enjoy the energetic ambiance of Calle La Calzada.
San Juan de Oriente
Did you know Nicaragua is famous for its pottery? The small town of San Juan de Oriente specializes in five distinctive styles: utilitarian, traditional, pre-Columbian, geometric, and contemporary.
San Juan de Oriente is an easy day trip from Granada. Chicken buses leave from the Nueva Terminal de Buses a Rivas at the top of every hour during the day. The direct route takes approximately one hour. Make your way back to the highway (drop-off point) once you're ready to return. The fare is only $0.50 USD (18 NIO) each way!
Brad and I had a blast searching for handcrafted pieces in the artisan workshops. We fell in love with the terracotta anafres with faces and splurged on an intricate vase depicting a vivid coral reef. Bring plenty of cash since most shops don't accept credit cards.
TIP: Don't have space in your luggage for your souvenirs? Grab some packing supplies at Gonper Librerías Granada before shipping your package via DHL. Although expensive, our fragile items safely made it to the United States in less than a week!
Laguna de Apoyo
Cool off from the hot temperatures of Granada with a day trip to Apoyo Lagoon (the largest volcanic crater lake in Nicaragua). We booked a combo tour with Hostel Oasis which included a day pass to Paradiso Hostel and entry to Masaya Volcano for $34 USD (1240 NIO) per person.
The pristine water is refreshing and best enjoyed by floating in an inner tube! Kayaks, stand-up paddle boards, lounge chairs, and hammocks are available. The onsite bar and restaurant has a diverse menu with excellent cocktails.
TIP: Bring a padlock if you'd like to use the free lockers to store belongings.
Masaya Volcano National Park
Approximately 2,500 years ago, Masaya Volcano erupted causing the formation of a caldera (a massive depression which forms shortly after the emptying of a magma chamber). This rare phenomenon, often confused for a crater, is actually a type of collapsed sinkhole. Plumes of sulfur dioxide gas continually float up into the atmosphere creating a dramatic effect.
Trails and lookout points are accessible during the day. Just be sure to make it back to the caldera's edge at dusk to see the lava spew and bubble like a witch's cauldron. Staring at the molten lava in the deep and wide abyss was a hypnotizing experience!
Leave the hustle and bustle of the colonial cities behind and make the ferry crossing to idyllic Ometepe! The island has two volcanoes (Maderas and Concepción) and sits on the western side of Lake Nicaragua.
Brad and I based ourselves in Santa Cruz, a central location with walkable convenience stores and laidback restaurants. The best way to get around the island is by scooter or motorbike. Rental shops are abundant and rates depend on how many days you reserve. For example, we paid $18 USD (655 NIO) per day for four days.
Unfortunately, the weather didn't cooperate during our stay and we decided not to climb Maderas or Concepción due to the wet conditions. A guide is required to hike Concepción since trails can be confusing and overgrown. There are plenty of vantage points to soak in the views if you choose to appreciate the volcanoes from a distance.
You'll find a lot of easygoing restaurants offering delicious plates around the island. Here are my top recommendations for a mouthwatering meal.
• Lunch - For a traditional setting, pull up a chair at one of the palapa tables at Isla Bonita. Try the grilled fish with sautéed vegetables and tostones (fried plantains). The zesty homemade sauces add a punch of flavor!
• Dinner - Nothing curbs hunger like a hand-tossed pizza loaded with toppings, especially after a long hike. Pizzeria Mediterranea offers a variety of pies big enough to share. Go bold with the spicy chicken tikka masala or complex aloo paratha (Indian flatbread stuffed with potato curry) at Café Campestre. This farm-to-table restaurant also bakes a decadent chocolate brownie perfect for dessert.
• Dessert - Check out the vegan chocolate creations at El Pital if you need to satisfy your sweet tooth. Sipping a coconut chai latte made with peanut butter and dark chocolate was a fantastic way to take a relaxing afternoon break with a pristine view.
A serene way to appreciate the beauty of Ometepe is by kayaking the river which bisects the island. Rio Istián is an oasis full of wildlife, massive trees, and calm water. The guides at El Caiman Kayak Tours will point out critters such as bats, owls, turtles, lizards, birds, and even crocodiles! Tours last approximately two hours and cost $15 USD (546 NIO) per person.
Paddle through duckweed and maneuver between branches as rays of sunshine pierce through the canopy illuminating various shades of lime, emerald, and forest green. Exploring this lush landscape was spectacular!
Ometepe's pre-Columbian inhabitants left traces of their culture behind in ornate petroglyphs (rock carvings). Thousands of basalt boulders have been found with carved spirals, anthropomorphic (human) figures, motifs, and zoomorphic (animal) figures. Archaeologists have also found sites with pottery, sculptures, and utensils.
Some of the best places to see petroglyphs are nearby the Mirador Maderas, El Porvenir Hostel, and Finca Magdalena Hostel. Leave no stone unturned! Keep an eye out for howler monkeys hanging in the trees.
San Ramón Waterfall
A challenging hike worth the effort is the steep out-and-back 5 mi (8 km) trail to San Ramón Waterfall. Located on the south side of Maderas Volcano, this 197 ft (60 m) waterfall is a refreshing reward after a sweaty journey through farm fields and dense jungle.
Cooling off beneath the mist cascading down the moss-covered rock face was a magical moment. Time your return to see a glowing sunset over the lake. The trailhead begins at the Estación Biológica de Ometepe and requires an entry fee of 100 NIO ($2.75 USD) per person.
TIP: Although the hike is possible in active sandals (such as Teva or Chaco), I recommend wearing hiking shoes due to the terrain. Bring a waterproof bag, bug repellent, and plenty of snacks/water.
Nicaragua is a country worth visiting, especially on a Central America backpacking trip. The current culture is fueled by resilient people trying to overcome the hardships of the past. The authentic cities of León and Granada are juxtaposed with the untouched natural beauty of imposing volcanoes and tranquil lakes.
If you are looking to surf or enjoy a bit of partying, check out San Juan del Sur on the Pacific coast. For tranquil beaches with swaying palm trees, consider a visit to the Corn Islands on the Caribbean side. Since Brad and I previously spent three weeks on the Bay Islands in Honduras to learn how to scuba dive, we didn't feel like adding those spots to the route.
As politics have shaped Nicaragua's culture, so to have volcanoes formed the natural landscape. Jolt your senses by traveling to a provocative country actively writing its next chapter!