When We Were There: October 14-November 5, 2008

Places We Visited:
Ometepe, Granada, Esteli (plus Tisey & Miraflor Reserves), Leon (plus Los Penitas)

View all of our posts about Nicaragua here.

Exchange Rate: $1 = about 20 cordobas
Both dollars and cordobas are accepted currency in Nicaragua.
See a breakdown of our Nicaraguan budget here.

What We Did:

Though it rained the entire time we were on Ometepe, we didn’t let that stop us from exploring. We visited the boys of Si a La Vida, stopped in to say hello to Jeff’s former host family, and hung out at Finca Magdalena. We weren’t able to climb the volcano due to the weather, but we did enjoy meeting and chatting with lots of people, both locals and travelers.

We spent most of our stay in Granada taking Spanish classes at Casa Xalteva ($135). From 8am to noon each day for a week, we studied the Spanish language in small classes (2 person + a teacher). It was immersion-style with almost everything in Spanish right from the start. This can be frustrating at first if you don’t know anything, but you do learn quickly. The school organizes afternoon outings each day, and they also run a program for disadvantaged children, which your tuition helps support. In our free time, we visited Laguna de Apoyo. Though there are hotels that allow you to pay a day-rate to access their private beaches, we chose to go to the public beach and had a great time. The water is warm, clean, and clear, and the surroundings are beautiful. We also made a trip out to La Isletas ($9). This trip was organized by Casa Xalteva. We took a motor launch out into the islands, visiting a Spanish fort, an island that is home to monkeys, and an island with a restaurant and swimming area. We also visited Volcano Mombacho ($10). You ascend to the top of the volcano via park transportation and then have access to two trails (one for which you must have a guide, who costs extra) that wind through the cloud forest and around the craters. We did the free trail twice. Finally, we took a daytrip to the Masaya Market, but we didn’t buy anything.

Up in the mountains, Esteli is much cooler than the rest of Nicaragua, and we again had to contend with rain. Perhaps against our better judgment, we visited the Miraflor Nature Reserve, where We hired a guide ($12) for a day of hiking, which was okay, but would have been better had the weather been better. We’d also been told that it would be no problem to have an English speaking guide, but found that not to be so when we arrived. I think it’s a kind of hit or miss experience here, but I’d give it a second chance in the dry season. It’s impossible to hike without a guide as the land is privately owned and there is no mapped trail system. In town, we visited the Museum of Heroes and Martyrs (50 cordoba donation). Run by mothers of Sandinistas who were killed in the fighting against Somoza’s forces in the 70s and the Contras in the 80s, this museum provides a very personal look at the struggles of Nicaragua.

We enjoyed Leon very much and spent a fair amount of time just walking around, checking out the murals decorating many of the city’s buildings, and soaking up the culture. We did make time for two museums: Art Center Fundacion Ortiz Gurdian (12 cordobas adults, 8 students), an excellent art museum housed in two facing buildings and the Museum of Traditions and Legends (10 cordobas adults, 5 students), which was one creepy place. First of all it’s housed in a former prison, where Somoza’s national guards tortured dissidents. Secondly, the traditions and legends are portrayed via stuffed handmade dolls that are just plain freaky. Standing in a prison cell looking at a stuffed headless priest is just a weird experience. We also hiked Cerro Negro with Quetzel Trekkers ($20). You have to get up before 4 a.m., but it’s worth it, as the hike is a good time. This active volcano is not particularly difficult to climb, but it’s very scenic. You get close to the craters and fumaroles and also have excellent views out to the surrounding volcanoes. The run down is especially fun. The guides are excellent, and we highly recommend doing one of their hikes.

Las Penitas
The last stop of our trip, we mainly just relaxed. We hung out on the beach and watched surfers and sunsets. We also took a kayaking Trip to Juan Venado Nature Reserve ($10 kayak rental fee, 50 cordoba admission to reserve). We got up with the sun (and the high tide) and kayaked along the lagoon side of the island, spotting huge, beautiful birds, green iguanas, tiny jumping fish, and bright orange and blue crabs along the way. After a few hours in the boat, we docked and went across to the ocean side of the island, where we had a beach all to ourselves. We went back with the low tide, so the paddling wasn’t too terrible either way. It gets hot quickly though, so the earlier you go the better. Jeff also went out at night to watch nesting sea turtles.

Where We Stayed:
Nicaragua Guesthouse (Managua): Basic but clean and located in a safe neighborhood with a friendly and helpful owner. Came with a breakfast of fruit and crackers. We just stayed here the night we arrived. It’s not particularly well located if you want to explore Managua, but is a fine place to sleep for a night. $20 for a double room with private bath.

Hotel Castillo (Altagracia, Ometepe): One of two main hotels in Altagracia. Again basic but clean with television in the rooms. Nice little restaurant at hotel, which is convenient since there aren’t too many food options in Altagracia. $15 for a double room with private bath.

Finca Magdalena (Balgue, Ometepe): Very, very basic room at the coffee plantation at the base of Volcan Maderas. Simple walls separate what would otherwise be beds in a dorm. It’s a beautiful place with lovely grounds and is the place to stay if you want to hike the volcano. Unfortunately, it rained the whole time we were there, but it was an okay place to just chill as there are many hammocks on the porches, other travelers to talk to, and decent food. Only problem was that we left an energy bar out and it was attacked by rats, which I spotted and was then unable to sleep the rest of the night. $8 for a double with shared bath.

Hospedaje Samarcanda (Granada): Another basic room but clean and without animal invasions. Included a nice breakfast of eggs and toast. Easy walk down to the central park and the heart of the city. The water, while not hot, wasn’t freezing cold either, so that was a definite plus. $16 for a double with shared bath.

Homestay (Granada):
Through our language school we arranged to do a one-week homestay with a local family. I highly recommend the experience as you get to see how a typical family lives and you definitely get to practice your Spanish more than you would otherwise. $140 for a room, private bath, and 3 meals a day for 7 days.

Hospedaje Luna (Esteli):
The only place we stayed with hot water! Very knowledgeable, but busy, British owner who can help you make your plans for Miraflor and Tisey reserves. Nice, clean rooms. Free tea and coffee at the cafe across the street. Plus Internet (although it didn’t work nicely with our computer). $16 for a double with shared bath.

Ecoposada Tisey (Esteli):
Cabin in the mountains of Esteli. Equivalent to a basic cabin in the National Park System. Nice porch with hammock. A 5km walk from the actual Tisey Reserve, but in a nicer area than the town at the base of the reserve. And the mirador (overlook) at the Ecoposada is phenomenal. Family owned and very friendly place. $11 for a cabin with private bathroom.

Posada de Sonada (Miraflor): Cabin in the upper zone (cloud forest) of Miraflor Nature Reserve. Very, very, very basic. But the lodge has a nice fireplace for sitting and reading by, and if the weather is nice, there are hammocks and swings and tree houses. The food is also excellent, with nice soups and such that are a welcome change from the greasy, fried Nica food. $34 for double room with shared bath and three meals.

La Tortuga Booluda (Leon):
Great hostel in Leon. Clean rooms and bathrooms, free wi-fi with good connection, nice common areas, kitchen access, and free pancake breakfast. $20 for a double with private bath.

Barco de Oro (Las Penitas):
Located on the lagoon at the Las Penitas beach. Easy walk to the ocean and well located for kayaking to the nature preserve. Nice hammocks and decks for watching the sunset. Cheap laundry service. Best restaurant at the beach, especially for fish. The shower was pretty lousy, but the room was fine. $20 for a double with private bath.

Managua Backpackers Inn (Managua):
A good find in difficult Managua. Nice, safe neighborhood with everything you need nearby. Kitchen access, large common room, nice pool and outdoor area. Room was basic, and though it was a “double” it was hostel-style with two sets of bunk beds, one of which had a bottom bed that was a double. A bit pricey. $28 for a double with private bath.

Notable Places We Ate:
Nicaraguan food is good, but basic. It primarily consists of a beans and rice dish called gallo pinto, meat and rice stews, plaintains, yucca, grilled meats, and very salty cheese. Typical Nica food is inexpensive and easy to find. It would be fine for a week’s vacation (it’s definitely all we ate at our homestay), but for longer periods, you have to seek out a bit of variety, and thus our “splurges” food-wise.

Icecream is very popular in Nicaragua, and this is the brand name of the icecream sold there. You can get a scoop at the Eskimo icecream shops located in all the major cities, or you can buy a bar or popsicle from the many, many men pushing icecream carts around every town.

Cuban Restaurant (Esteli): I don’t remember the name but if you ask for the Cuban restaurant, everyone would know it. We just had typical Cuban sandwiches, which are full of meat (and some with veggies) and toasted on Italian bread. They were delicious and totally hit the spot. $9 for two sandwiches and two drinks.

La Casita (Esteli): A bit out of town, this spot is worth the effort. It’s an oasis of beautiful plants on a tumbling creek, and the food is so refreshing. It’s more of a cafe than a restaurant, serving mainly loafs of bread with brie, hummus, or other delicious spreads. Also has good smoothies, lassis, and juices. $4 for a bread with brie, bread with hummus, lassi, and juice.

Hamburger Stand (Leon): Apparently not too many gringos sit down at these sidewalk stands, where you can get nothing but burgers, hot dogs, and sodas, as we were quite the attraction. The burger is huge (we split one), rather tasty, and resulted in no gastrointestinal issues. I’m kind of sad we didn’t have time to go back for another. $2.50 for a burger and 2 sodas.

Dave’s Shark Pit (Leon):
Possibly the best meal we had in Nicaragua. The chef, an American ex-pat that looks a good bit like a pirate, takes your order himself and then makes multiple trips to your table to see how you like things or suggest possible variations on what you ordered. Portions are huge too. $11.50 for Thai chicken and beef fajitas, a beer, and a juice.

*It is very rare to find someone in Nicaragua who speaks English (unless they’re an ex-pat) so at least a basic level of Spanish knowledge is practically necessary.

*The tourism infrastructure is still pretty undeveloped in Nicaragua. You’ll find fairly basic services in most places. This is more of a place for backpackers than luxury travelers.

*Prices for activities in Nicaragua can be higher than you expect. This seems to be because there is little competition. If there’s only one person renting kayaks, they can charge a rather high fee, especially since this isn’t an activity that locals are interested in and they are thus only serving tourists.

*You don’t, however, have to worry about getting scammed in Nicaragua. In almost all cases, they’ll charge you exactly what they charge everyone else, although taxi drivers can inflate prices a bit. Ask the cost before you get in the car and agree on a price before you set off.

*The people in Nicaragua are some of the friendlist people you’ll ever meet. Take some time to get to know them. Overall they may not have much, but they are generally quite happy.

*Nicaragua is extremely safe. Aside from a few neighborhoods in Managua, safety is not at all a concern. I never felt threatened or was even nervous, even when walking through the dark streets of Leon, the second biggest city, at 4 a.m.

*If I could change two things about Nicaragua, it would be the dog and the trash situation. There are a lot of stray dogs. They’re almost all very skinny and gross looking, but fortunately they generally steer clear of people. And though Nicaragua is a physically beautiful country, it is marred with the trash of the people who just drop it on the side of the road. It’s interesting, because most people are very particular about their own hygiene and looks and the condition of their house and the sidewalk in front of it (I’ve never seen so much mopping! It’s nearly constant!), but sadly that tidiness doesn’t extend to non-personal property.

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