San Juan del Sur
San Juan del Sur was the first place we visited when we got to Nicaragua. The interstate bus dumped us on a highway in Rivas and we had to flag down a bus heading in the direction of San Juan del Sur. The buses, which were donated American/Canadian school buses, barely stopped as the conductor unceremoniously threw our bags in the back amongst the sacks of chicken feed and baskets of potatoes and crammed us in the back. It was always pot-luck whether you got the bus with holes rusted through the metal floor so that you could see the road whooshing by underneath or the “party bus” with neon disco lights around a widescreen TV blasting the latest Latin dance hit at full volume. Whichever came your way, it was sure to be plastered with “Jesus loves you” bumper stickers inside and out.
San Juan del Sur was supposedly a surfer’s paradise even though you couldn’t surf the waves on the beach in town. Instead, it had restaurants and bars lining the beach and several good surfing beaches a short drive away. We decided to try out some of these supposedly world-class surfing beaches but since we aren’t world-class surfers, we were very scared of the giant waves. While everyone else surfed the picture-perfect barrels we caught the waves close in to the shore after they had broken. We still managed to get dumped a couple of times. We spent the rest of the day building a “crabararium” (pop: 20-25), a megaplex of sandcastles, arenas and tunnels for the hermit crabs that we found in the rocks to inhabit. We had a few attempted escapes but on the whole they seemed to enjoy it.
Isla de Ometepe
After our surfing triumph we caught the ferry across to Ometepe Island, an island consisting more or less of two conjoined volcanoes in the middle of a huge lake. The ferry trip across was a bit of an adventure. The ferry was a small wooden double storey boat that creaked and rocked from side to side over the small waves. As we made it further out, the waves got bigger and bigger and the rocking and creaking became more and more worrying. During one part of the crossing, the waves were almost making it up to the side of the boat and water was rushing down the aisle and under our seats. One girl next to us started frantically pulling on a life vest and making the sign of the cross while her friends giggled. But, the waves calmed down and we did eventually make it safe and sound to the island, although we did decide to wait for the larger ferry for the trip back.
Once on the island, we stayed at some sort of enviro-hippy-greeny-something hostel that produced all its own fruit, vegetables and dairy. They also had free yoga in the mornings but we accidentally slept in for too long in our treehouse dorm room.
Granada is another classic example of a Spanish colonial town. It has lots of churches as do most other Latin American towns. One exception is that it borders the same lake that Ometepe Island is in the middle of (the lake is huge!) and had beach areas.
There was a strip of land along the beach that was designated as the “tourism area”. It had playgrounds, parks along with nightclubs, bars and restaurants. We were convinced that it was haunted as it seemed abandoned when we walked through it except for tour vendors offering us boat tours. We could see into some of the warehouse-sized nightclubs and they were dark, dusty and had furniture sprawled randomly around. We guessed, looking at all the signs advertising a Nicaraguan tourism organisation, that a lot of money had been poured into the place in the past but it never really took off. After lunch though, the area seemed to liven up when pickup trucks full of musicians started to rush into some of the bars. Then, for some strange reason, an infestation of tiny bugs arose from the streets causing people with exposed eyes to swat constantly as they rode or walked down the street. They liked to land on eyes, also noses and the inside of your mouth. It was almost like a horror movie called “Day of the Nicaraguan Bug Swarm”.
After about 47 tour operators offered us tours that we refused one actually actually got to us somehow and we accepted a tour around the nearby archipelago of hundreds of tiny islands, many of which were privately owned or up for sale. Interesting islands included one owned by an ex-French president, one owned by the CEO of the prolific Nicaraguan rum company called Flor de Caña and a bar island which had a pool with a cryptic sign stating a requirement that bathing suits should be “waterproof”.
We didn’t stay long at the bar as the tour guide was waiting for us patiently in the boat.
We actually got to climb the bell tower at one of the churches in Granada which afforded us amazing views of the city.
Laguna de Apoyo
A bus ride away from Granada was Laguna de Apoyo, a lake formed in the middle of an extinct volcano crater. We did a lot of lounging around there so there is not much to write about but we did make use of the free Kayaks to paddle all the way across the lake. It seemed like a good idea at the time but after we got to the other side the sun came out and by the time we finished the hour long paddle back to our hostel we were quite sunburnt. Nothing a few cheap cocktails couldn’t fix.
We had heard that our next stop Leon had a church that you could climb to the top of. Arriving at the church we were disappointed that “prohibited were the romances” but we were not disappointed by the rooftop experience.
As per usual in Nicaragua the sun beat down like it wanted to kill you. The whitewashed roof of the church reflected the sun into everyones eyes causing everyone without sunglasses to stagger around in a daze. It was definitely worth the permanent retinal damage though, as you could walk to the edge and get great views of the city. The lack of safety barriers in particular allowed you to great photos.
We also tried a popular shaved ice dessert called Raspados. They are made fresh by street vendors wheeling around giant blocks of ice that use a metal device that looks like a carpenter’s plane to shave the ice into a bowl. They then offer a variety of toppings stored in old rum bottles. We went with strawberry rather than baked milk flavour.
Our last stop was the coffee-growing capital of Nicaragua called Matagalpa. The surrounding hills provide the right altitude and climate for coffee and bit of a break from the sun. We splashed out for a bird watching tour and had a hike through the nearby cloud forest. We saw some nice birds but it was really hard to get a photo. We got a photo of the Nicaraguan national bird called the Guardabarranco or “cliff guarder” but we didn’t get to see the elusive Quetzal.
We also got a visit to the Selva Negra hotel which is a popular place for rich Nicaraguans to stay at. It has amazing grounds and walks through the surrounding jungle.
Next stop: USA (where we are now).