It’s sometimes hard to reconcile the double life that I live – part responsible adult, scholar, teacher, home owner, consummate list maker, and perpetual bill payer contrasted with the other part of me, the me I see less often but like so much more – the wanderer, the risk-taker, the doer, the foregoer of clean fingernails and clean clothes. The traveller.
So the latter me is finally in Nicaragua, which has lingered at the top of my endless must-see list forever, especially since I’ve visited so many of its neighbours and love the general culture of Latin America – the language, people, pace, music, oppressive heat and vibrant colour – and what it all does to me.
Nicaragua has had its share of turmoil in recent times, most notably the Revolution in 1979 followed by the Contra War that lasted almost a decade, but it’s been relatively calm since then and is just starting to gain attention for the amazing country that it is and not the ugliness of its past. Less than an hour away from Managua International airport is Granada, a colonial city of about 100,000. It’s arguably the most popular tourist destination in Nicaragua for what it offers in its own right, but also because it’s a central base to get to everywhere else that matters.
The city has few grandiose sites, but if you love history and colonial architecture, it’s quite rich and well-preserved here as are the seven main churches scattered throughout the city, the oldest dating back to the 1500s. The focal point is definitely Central Park which sits adjacent the beautiful Cathedral, a foreboding structure in updated yellow stucco which can be seen from almost everywhere in the city.
The park itself is packed with families and venders galore and is the mecca for people watching. And the best nightlife can be found on nearby Calle La Calzada as there are many bars and restaurants and patios to choose from – all blasting salsa and teeming with tourists and locals alike that seem to be having the best day of their lives.
As is the way with city centres though there are some drawbacks such as the poverty and homelessness that you see frequently. However, Granada’s biggest turnoff, in my opinion, is the plethora of horse-drawn carriages that line the perimeter of the park and jaunt around the city all the live long day. I know it’s a part of the culture and a common practice here and many other places, but my heart breaks looking at these sad tired horses.
They are all clearly underfed, miserable and in some cases, injured as they wait all day in the hot sun for their owners to profit off of their hard work by showing tourists a city that they can’t be bothered to see on foot. I whisper a silent “I’m sorry for the ignorance of humans” every time I make eye contact with one and an equally passionate “I hate you aresholes” to the drivers or families that are oblivious to the state of the animals they are being carted around by. But I digress…
Next up for me was Ometepe Island in nearby Lake Nicaragua, a welcomed change of pace from Granada. An hour drive to the city of Rivas, an hour ferry ride over and an hour ride to Merida on the far side of the island, and I arrived in paradise.
The island itself was formed from two volcanos, Concepcion, the grander of the two which last erupted in 1957 and Maderas, which is covered in a thick cloud forest and shelters an array of flora, fauna and my fave, monkeys! I stayed at a sprawling ‘finca’, which is like a farm/ranch, at the foot of Medras Volcano and Nature Reserve and had planned to spend three very peaceful days surrounded by beauty, wildlife and the sounds of nature. Yeah, well….enter the dogs. And Ohio.
The finca is run by a group of Italians that have been living on Ometepe for a number of years, and while the place is most certainly paradise, they have about a dozen beautiful (and very healthy) horses, two noisy parrots, as well as 10 dogs – 7 chihuahuas, a hairless Peruvian and a few mixed breeds.
These dogs were hilarious, all well behaved and definitely in charge of the place and everyone who steps foot on the property. There was little peace to be had in their presence, but it was so welcomed as the whole animal tribe is happy and loving and in demand of only one thing at all times – affection.
The Ohio wrecking ball came in the form of two guys I met before boarding the ferry that happened to be staying at the same place as me. They were super friendly and enjoyed activities and beer as much I do, not to mention they came with an endless supply of Seinfeld references which is, in my opinion, how life should be lived, so we got along just fine. As much I relish in the solace of solo travel, I do enjoy meeting up with people so long as they’re fun and low maintenance, and these guys were all that….and an endless supply of Toñas.
We explored our area and every little hole in the wall the first day and went on an amazing four-hour horseback adventure the following day. It was pretty surreal to ride through the jungle and see monkeys jumping through some of the biggest trees I’ve ever seen, then stop on the beach for lunch while our horses swim in the lake and get a rub down by the horse whisperer from our finca. Pure bliss.
Aside from the horrific boat ride over (I’ll get to that once I can adequately process the experience) and the fact that I found a scorpion in my backpack that I’m convinced is still lurking somewhere in my stuff, Ometepe was one of the treasures of this trip and of my entire travelling resume to date.
From the island, I parted ways with my Ohio partners in crime and headed for San Juan del Sur, a 30-minute, 20$ cab ride away. I was a bit hesitant to go because it’s probably the most popular beach in the country – I wanted to relax and decompress and do a whole lot of nothing – but I figured it could be an interesting place to spend my Christmas. And that it was.
My hotel was right on the beach which is jam-packed with patio restaurants and every exhausted-looking souvenir hawker around. I spent four days in perpetual sunburn-ed-ness and explored all that the little surfer village had to offer. I also did the sweltering hour-hike up to the Christ of the Mercy statue that overlooks the city, which is worth the mild case of sunstroke as the view from the top is unparalleled. There is more to do in the area if you’re so inclined, but I grew rather tired of the Daytona beach-esque crowd reeking of patchouli oil and hangover, so I did little besides but swim and sun, which suited me just fine.
I ended up back in Granada afterwards, not by choice, but hotels in the little town of Masaya where I wanted to finish up my trip were sold out. Masaya is a small village, but it has a huge and understandably famous market and of course, Masaya volcano, which I was dyyyyying to explore, so I easily booked a day tour from the ‘big’ city. I’ve climbed a number of volcanoes, but this one was definitely the most active I’ve seen. There are actually warnings everywhere that you shouldn’t spend long at the top because of the overwhelmingly fumes and sulphur smell. Didn’t take me long to see why.
So as my trip winds down and I prepare to head back to adulthood-land and a date with a snow shovel, I cannot rave enough about Nicaragua although I am admittedly left a bit perplexed. It’s not the well-known tourist haven like its neighbour Costa Rica, which is hard for me to reconcile because from what I gather, it offers much of the same here and is absolutely incredible.
A part of me hopes for the people that the tourist industry booms now that the country has been politically stable for the past few decades, but the other part of me hopes it stays just as it is – untarnished, a bit unmanacured and most definitely underrated – for they are its most enduring qualities and exactly why I’ll return.