Nicaragua was a bit of a last-minute addition to AJ and I’s itinerary; we found ourselves with a week and a half to kill before we had to be in Costa Rica, and when we had a look at what there was to explore in Nicaragua we knew straight away that we had to go. Nicaragua is a really beautiful country, and I think is definitely a hidden gem of central America right now. “The Land of Volcanoes and Lakes,” it has all the beauty and charm of Costa Rica without being as tourist-centric. That’s not to say that it doesn’t have its issues; there was a severe litter problem in the cities we visited, and the infrastructure for tourism isn’t very developed. I’ve heard that there’s a debate over whether or not to build a canal through the country, similar to the Panama Canal; while this would bring a lot of money into the country and provide a lot of jobs while the building is being done, it would ruin Nicaragua’s natural lakes and therefore deprive the country of some of its beauty. I hope that instead the government decide to take Nicaragua in the same direction as Costa Rica, focusing on eco-tourism and using the resources the country already has. I will definitely be visiting Nicaragua again in the future; what AJ and I experienced during our week and a half there was an amazing taster for what the country has to offer. In this article I will go through my favourite memories from my time in Nicaragua.
- Volcano Boarding
This was one of the top activities that came up when I was researching what to do in Nicaragua, and I was so excited to be able to do it. Volcano Cerro Negro is the only active volcano that you can board down as its steep slopes and base are free from large rocks. The entire experience is an adventure from start to finish; hiking up the side of the volcano with your board strapped to your back, scrambling up rocks and trying not to get blown sideways by the wind, finally making it to the top, and then hurtling yourself down the side of the volcano with only a wooden toboggan to cling on to. The feeling of flying down the slope was a mix of terror and exhilaration, and I could feel my heart pumping from the adrenaline and excitement. The worst part was trying not to scream in delight so that I wouldn’t end up with a mouth full of ash and stones. Volcano boarding is an incredible and unique activity, and I’m so glad I was able to experience it.
- Museo de la Revolucion
The Museo de la Revolucion is definitely a hidden gem in Leon; its outward appearance is a bit shabby and not very enticing, but the wealth of knowledge to be found inside is incredible. The moment we stepped into the building we were steeped in history. It was apparent everywhere, from the personal experiences of our guide as he told us about his involvement in the revolution, to the posters and photographs in the exhibition, to walking around the building that’s been preserved as it was during the time of the revolution. Before I went there I had very little knowledge of Nicaragua’s history, and was fascinated by what I learned. The museum is a really fantastic attraction, and one that I hope will be able to keep going long into the future.
- La Gigantona
La Gigantona is a really fun and sort of silly-looking figurine that has evolved into a central piece of Nicaragua’s culture and heritage. We saw many examples of La Gigantona during our stay in Nicaragua, from the giant figurine in Leon’s central plaza, to the smaller figurines worn by street performers which dance through the streets to the beat of a drum. Although it’s very popular with tourists, the tradition of La Gigantona and the other figures that accompany her still remain rooted in Nicaragua’s culture and heritage.
- The Churches of Granada
Granada is home to a number of churches, each of them beautiful and distinct from the other. The Cathedral is a huge, imposing building, as beautiful on the inside as it is on the outside, Xalteva has its exquisite wooden panels and murals, and the crumbling exterior of La Merced hides a gorgeous and crisp interior. La Merced was also where we could climb the bell tower and get a really nice view over the city, including the ‘postcard picture’ view of the cathedral and the red-tiled roofs of the houses. Each church is a joy to behold, and definitely worth a visit while you’re exploring the town.
- Shepherd’s Pie and Irish Stew from O’Shea’s
As much as I love travelling, I really do miss the food from home, to the point where I have a list of all the foods I want to eat when AJ and I get back home. When we found O’Shea’s in Granada, I was just happy to sit and have a beer in an Irish bar, and enjoy the atmosphere of the place. When I saw the menu though, and saw that there was actual Irish food available, I knew I had to try it out – and I was not disappointed. The food was DELICIOUS, the mashed potatoes creamy, the meat tender, the gravy rich and full of flavour…it was honestly some of the nicest food I’ve had while we’ve been away, and was the perfect way to experience a little bit of home away from home.
- Looking into the crater of Volcan Masaya
If someone had told me that I would someday stand on the edge of a volcano and look down into the crater and see lava, I would have laughed at them. I didn’t even think there was any place in the world where this could be done, so naturally when I found out about Volcan Masaya I absolutely had to go and see what it was like. It was pretty surreal if I’m being honest. The crater is HUGE, the smoke and steam and gases hit the back of your throat the moment you arrive, and the lava flickers and emits a soft glow, way down in the heart of the volcano. It’s like something from another world, and definitely something that should not be missed out on. For an even more dramatic view, go at night when the lava is easier to see.
- Watching Pottery Making
I’d seen a lot of exhibitions on traditional crafts and how they’re made, and I’ve watched traditional weaving being done, but I’d never seen how traditional pottery was made. Being able to watch the process step-by-step, and seeing how everything is hand-made and crafted was really amazing, and made me appreciate the finished product all the more. I would highly recommend visiting a pottery workshop and watching how they create the beautiful products they’re selling; it gives you a real insight into the love and care put into the products, and how the creators are keeping their traditions alive. We visited a family run establishment in a small village outside of Masaya, famous for pottery making. They also have a shop selling their products which are all beautiful traditional designs.
- Swimming in the Apoyo Crater Lake
I’ve hiked to a few crater and mountain lakes (Quilotoa and Lago 69 being the most memorable), but I’ve not actually had the chance to go swimming in one. The Apoyo Crater lake is absolutely enormous, stretching out from the shore. I had so much fun swimming in the lake and bobbing on its surface balanced on a rubber ring; the water was surprisingly warm due to the volcanic activity far below the surface, and I was not expecting how strong the waves would be. Hostel Paradiso, where we visited the lake is a really beautiful lake-side sanctuary, and is the perfect place to spend at least a couple of hours sunbathing, enjoying a refreshing drink, and enjoying the lake at its finest.
- Hiking Volcan Mombacho
Volcan Mombacho stands out in my memory for two reasons: learning about all the different plants both good and bad, and the view from the top of the volcano. I will truly never forget the ‘so bad’ plant (and subsequently will never trust any plant that looks like a coffee plant…or has red berries), or the delight at watching the leaves of the Mimosa Pudica curl in on themselves after a soft touch. The many uses of the plants of the forest by the native people is fascinating, and seeing how different plants and trees live and thrive together is amazing to see, especially when we saw one tree that had 37 different plants living on it. Our views while we were in the cloud forest itself were non-existent (damn fog), so it meant that the view when we reached the top was all the more spectacular; the coast-line, the apoyo crater, and las isletas, all of them bright and colourful, basking in the sunshine.
- Kayaking down the River Istián
This tour was brilliant fun both because of how much nature we saw, and also from the fun of paddling ourselves along the lake and river in our double kayak (although, not going to lie, it was a little frustrating at times when we were constantly being thrown off course on the lake by the wind and tides…). The river is beautiful and tranquil, and even though we weren’t able to spot any turtles or caiman, it was wonderful to just bask in the beauty of the trees and plants that surrounded us, and to be able to admire so many different water birds, including one of my new favourite birds, the Blue Mockingbird. I would definitely recommend doing a kayak tour if you’re on Ometepe; it’s great exercise, gives you a chance to get up close and personal with nature, and is a brilliant way to spend half a day.