Stepping off the plane after a long journey from London, Managua isn’t quite the Central American city you expect. The sprawled out capital of suburbs with no real city centre is really lacking in any charm! For me, the fact that I’d packed up my life to move to this country was suddenly a very daunting thought. Refusing to be discouraged I hopped on the next bus to go to Leon, my new home.
Leon, the capital of the revolution, was a whole other story. With the best colonial architecture in Nicaragua, walls covered in memorial murals and a crumbling old cathedral in the centre I finally found the charm I was looking for. Just the start of the wonders this country had to offer.
Because of Nicaragua’s turbulent history it has stayed off of the tourist trail for a long time, unlike neighbouring Costa Rica many areas are difficult to get to, unspoilt and hardly any people! What more could you want from the cheapest and arguably the safest country in Central America?
Grenada is a very popular tourist town and feels cosmopolitan, so if you fancy a western heaven for a few days then Grenada is the place to visit. Burgers, wine, air con and hot water showers can be a relief after months of rice and beans, beer, broken fans and cold water!
Leon is on the backpacker trail more than the ‘holiday-maker’ trail. Its the rugged version of Grenada. The locals are proud of its dilapidated exterior and believe it tells visitors a story about their history. They’re not wrong. Everywhere you look buildings are covered in murals with symbols of the revolution. Being a university town many young Nicaraguans flock to Leon, which makes for a a vibrant atmosphere with many busy ramshackle bars playing live tradition music.
Ometepe Island in the middle of Lake Nicaragua is also on most tourist itineraries. In the middle of the island sits the most ‘perfectly formed’ symmetrical volcano in Central America, Concepción. Across a thin flat isthmus is another volcano giving the island a figure of eight shape. Here you can relax on a beach with small lapping waves, go and explore by bike, go fishing or if you are feeling very fit you can even hike the active Concepción.
[There’s a 12 day Essence of Nicaragua tour which will take you to all three of these destinations]
Chicken buses! These old American school buses definitely add a little colour to your journey. Some painted with elaborate patterns and designs and some still left bright yellow with the word SCHOOL on the front (not overly helpful when the buses destination should be written there). All you need to do is turn up at a bus station, say the name of the town you want and someone will walk you over to the bus you require. Nicaraguans love to help out a confused traveller. The buses will leave when they are full and boy are they full! But you can’t complain when it costs around 60p to travel 30 miles.
You’ll never go hungry or thirsty on any journey in Nicaragua as there are always street sellers that clamber on to your bus to sell you a quesillo (extremely delicious by the way) or a bag of ice cold water. Chicken buses all the way!
Having your own car is great way to get around but the Nicaraguan roads are unpredictable. Sometimes tarmac, sometimes gravel and sometimes the road will simply resemble a rugged dried out river bed. If you’re going to hire a car make sure it’s a 4x4 and it is sturdy. Also don’t forget petrol is very expensive.
This is such a tough question to answer! Both undeniably have exceptional qualities. If you’re a surfer or want huge rolling waves then the Pacific coast is for you. if you’re a scuba diver or want tranquil white sands then the Caribbean side is for you. If you want all of the above, like me, then the only option is to extend your trip and go away for longer. Fact!
The main dishes in Nicaragua are either rice and beans or beans and rice. So it would make sense for their national dish to be beans mixed with rice - locally known as Gallo Pinto.
That maybe slightly harsh - I loved the food in Nicaragua. Very Mexican influenced with favourites like tacos and enchiladas. In Leon I can’t recommend highly enough Comedor Lucia. Conveniently placed opposite my office on what is now known as ‘Backpacker Street’, this comedor (dining hall) is only open for breakfast and lunch. The lunch time option serves up a monumental dish of chicken, rice, beans, creamed zucchini and salad with a precariously place tortilla on top all for a mere $3!
Flor de Caña – which is an exquisite, Nicaraguan made rum. When you head into a local bar and order a rum and coke, be warned, you will be given a bottle of rum and a bottle of coke on ice. Prefect for sharing with friends - not so good if everyone else is on the beer and you now have a bottle of rum to get through. Instead, ask for ‘un vaso de ron y coca’ - A glass of rum and coke!
In the major towns you can usually get by speaking English but a basic knowledge in Spanish will really help. Heading to the more rural areas it’s a lot harder. So brush up on some common phrases such as ‘I want…’ ‘where is….’ ‘which bus…..’ and this will help enormously. My Spanish was appalling when I first arrived so I booked into a homestay with a solely Spanish-speaking family with a lovely, loco grandma. It was by far the best way to learn and a fantastic way to give back to the local community. You will also find that travelling around Nicaragua you’re bound to meet plenty of people so subtly seek out the Spanish speaking ones!
Many tourists get into a taxi and then are shocked when another pedestrian jumps in beside them. This is known as a ‘collectivo’. The driver charges everyone a set price and picks people up and drops them off long the way. This is the best way to get a taxi. A private taxi will charge you double.
Well seeing as Nicaragua is known as ‘Le Tierra de lagos y volcanes’ The land of lakes and volcanos. I’d highly recommend climbing a volcano during your stay. Whether it is the colossal, 10 hour hike, 1,744m high San Cristobal or the baby, 45 minute hike, 728m Cerro Negro where you actually have the option the slide back down on a board aka volcano boarding.
Las tortugas! The beaches of the Pacific coast are a nesting ground for the majestic Olive Ridley turtle. Usually around the week before the full moon hundreds and potentially hundreds of thousands of Olive Ridley turtles all come to nest at the same time. In a trance-like state they work their way up the beach to bury their eggs. This is known as an arribada and if you’re lucky enough to witness this extraordinary sight you’ll be telling the story for years!
Nicaraguan’s tend to point with their lips - pouting in the direction of the station or the supermarket. It took a while to get used to but by the end of my time there I had it down. So pucker up and point away, its not rude to point in Nicaragua.
Nicaraguan people are pretty relaxed (apart from when driving). They are undoubtedly friendly and very generous with their time. They can come across as blunt and direct but you should never take this as rudeness.
The long deserted beaches of Pacific coast just blew me away. A 30 minute bus ride from Leon is a beach called Las Pinetas, lovely though it is, the place is rammed! Especially every Sunday (a Nicaraguan’s sole day off in a week) it is crazy busy. But just 5 more minutes on that same bus takes you to Poneloya, my sanctuary. From the bus drop off, you need to get a fisherman to take you across the river mouth for a dollar and when you reach the other side you have your own private beach! Looking left and right it’s just you, sand and sea. Then again if you fancy a 10 minute stroll you’ll arrive at Turtle Lodge where you can rent a surf board, laze in a hammock or chow down on a cooling ceviche.
The heart breaking battle between conservationists and turtle egg poachers, but I guess ‘disappoint’ is the wrong word. It primarily just made me sad. Communities who have the pleasure of living by the coast in Nicaragua don’t live in swanky apartments or luxurious houses but simply in wooden shacks they made for themselves. These people make their living of off the sea and are purely trying to make enough to feed their families. The concern here is that there’s a lack of education in how to do this sustainably. It’s been an ongoing arduous task for turtle conservationists to change the habits of generations, but fortunately there are dedicated people out there persevering to make these positive changes.
Peoples’ appreciation of the small things in life. Everybody in the UK gets so caught up in life - having the latest gadget or the fastest car and yet they still feel hard done by when the new sofa they wanted has gone out of stock. Nicaraguans appreciate everything they own and everything they do. Children will happily play with a small piece of driftwood making up endless games, entirely content while an adult will proudly show off their humble home, built by their father. Even those who have nothing would still share their last bowl of beans with you, just to show how hospitable Nicaraguans are. Far removed from an ‘I want culture’.
Or I’d transfer chicken buses!! How much would they brighten up British streets??
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