Nicaragua has been on our radar for sometime. Friends have raved about visits there. For the last 10+ years, at least, travel writers and marketers pushed it as an up and coming spot for holidays and retirement. And Nicaragua featured prominently in the 80’s during the Cold War at which time I was becoming just old enough to become aware of current events and global politics. So we were interested to spend some time in the country while in Central America.
We hopped on a short Copa flight from Panama City and picked up a rental car for a couple weeks to explore the country. However, it did not play out in any way as expected. We have not had too many misfires on our trip, but with hindsight, we both would have done Nicaragua differently or skipped it altogether. Much of this sentiment is due to the extremely hot and humid weather which we encountered and frankly, we did not find it all that interesting or scenic.
Immediately upon landing, one appreciates how far Nicaragua has slipped behind its neighbors such as Panama, Costa Rica and even Guatemala. The country is extremely poor, the infrastructure is lacking, and the division between classes is very apparent. Public transport is a collection of old school buses and local “chicken” buses. Paved roads are limited, although travel between the larger, tourist cities is relatively covered. After decades of a corrupt dictatorship, followed by a devastating earthquake in the capital city of Managua in the 70’s, a civil war and even more years of corrupt politicians, Nicaragua has been bled dry, and many in the country have suffered immensely.
We debated about car travel but because after speaking with the owner of an Airbnb rental, we decided to go for it. The car travel was relatively straightforward. Progress was relatively slow due to traffic, obstacles and police check-points, but we did not run into any issues either with navigation or police which are two popular topics in the interweb. We also did not find the drivers overly aggressive. Renting a good car is relatively straight forward and affordable (although you need to add the cost of the mandatory insurance costs to the $1-3/day advertising on Expedia and other internet travel agents). We did not need a 4WD or truck for any of our travel although during the rainy seasons and for many locations we understand why many recommend one.
Our first stop was Granada, one of the tourist centers of Nicaragua and an old Spanish colonial city. It is about 40 kms from the airport, and the spot where most visitors stay upon arrival or before flying out of Nicaragua. Managua, the capital city, is much closer but has much less to offer. Granada is a bit gritty and yet also has some very touristy spots, but we managed to find a great spot at the edge of the town, Los Patios, that was both out of the way and yet a short walk to restaurants and the lake. It also had air-conditioned rooms (which can be a luxury in Nicaragua) and a lovely pool. Both are key when visiting regardless of the time of year; however, when we visited, it was extremely hot and humid. The weather was oppressive, and this was after spending months in the heat.
The spot also had one of the best breakfasts we had in Central or South America. The standard Nicaraguan breakfast is a real treat and usually consists of a form of egg, beans, fried plantations, sour cream, cheese and some times tortilla.
A couple days in Granada is more than enough to see the sights. There is colonial architecture, a couple beautiful churches and great views of volcanoes around town. And there is no lack of restaurants and bars, but most can be skipped as the depth and quality of food is a bit lacking. The edge of Lake Nicaragua is only 5 minutes out of town, and there are many boating and kayaking options there. We took out a couple SUPs one morning which was a great way to see the lake and some of the islands. However, unfortunately, the lake was at an extremely low level which took a bit away from the whole experience. Most of the time, we were paddling over about 4 feet of green sludge that you definitely did not want to swim in. Some of the passages among the small islands were impassable due to rocks. Given the lake levels, it is not a bad idea to go a bit further afield from Granada and get out to deeper waters with a kayak or other means.
From Granada, we headed off to Ometepe island, a small island in the middle of Lake Nicaragua with two volcanoes that dominate the landscape. There is mostly farming land and small tourist villages on Ometepe. It is very popular with the backpacking crowd who rent scooters once on the island. We took our rental car on the ferry and found that to be pretty straightforward. There is not a lot of guidance at the ferry terminal so get there an hour early, and do not hesitate to chat with locals to get in the right lines. We found everyone helpful and friendly. Once on the island, we found the car very useful. Hikes, beaches and sights are spread out and the local buses are a little restricting (but fine if you are just heading to one spot).
Our original plans were to climb one of the volcanoes on the island and take a few days of kite boarding lessons. Unfortunately, the kite season ended literally days before we arrived as our instructors sent us a note indicating they were getting out of Dodge a week early. And we both decided, independently and without too much discussion, to bail on the volcano trek. The heat was stifling even at higher altitudes. We also booked ourselves into Totoco Ecolodge which was a mistake. Being an eco-lodge, there was no air-conditioning. It was REALLY hot and humid. The lodge was perched on a beautiful bluff above a bay with views of the volcano. Ultimately, we decided to leave a bit earlier than planned and head to the ocean hoping for some reprieve from the heat.
We headed south to San Juan del Sur, a popular beach town in the southwest of Nicaragua with access to many beaches and surf breaks. It is a quirky, little town crowded with a unique mix of hotels, hostels, bars and sometimes cruise ships mostly catering to the international backpacking crowd and surfers. When the surf is up, pick-up trucks with their beds filled with surfers can be seen heading out of every road in town.
Our challenges with the heat and the country continued. We booked into an Airbnb spot just out of town which was nice enough but did not meet expectations. With a kitchen and access to a pool, we looked forward to chilling out for a few days and just staying put. We learned at check-in that electricity usage would be monitored and charged incrementally at the end of our stay. We were also warned that electricity can be extremely expensive and the last few guests were adding hundreds of dollars to their stays because of their use of the air-conditioners. Our Airbnb rentals to date have included all utilities. We will not make this mistake again.
With a couple of missteps, we decided to cut our losses and head back to Granada to a spot we enjoyed and was both quiet and air-conditioned. We loaded up our Kindles, bought some passes to the local yoga gym and hunkered down for a short week of downward dogs and pigeons in the 100% humidity.
The visit to Nicaragua did not go as planned, but it was still interesting to see the country and experience a bit of the history that played out so prominently in our early years. If we were to do it over, we probably would go sometime between December and February when it is cooler and book into one of the resorts remotely located on the Pacific coast and skip the roaming around to different spots.