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Trip Report 2 Weeks in Nicaragua -- Color, Calor, Culture!

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Just returned from a first-time visit to Nicaragua over the holidays (Dec. 22-Jan. 5) and want to share some thoughts. There aren't many postings on the Nicaragua board for Fodor's, so perhaps some of this will be helpful if you are planning to travel there.

My husband and I (66/58) are experienced travelers in Europe and Asia, but this was our first trip to Central America. Traveling with us for most of the two-week trip were our two sons and their partners, all in their 20s. One of the group is a fluent Spanish speaker, and the rest of us studied Spanish in school, in some cases many (many) years ago. Fluent Spanish was helpful in a couple of cases, but even when we were on our own we didn't have any problems despite our limited skills.

ITINERARY

San Juan del Sur (4 nights, side trips to Ometepe and Playa Majagual)
Granada (4 nights, side trips to Masaya, San Juan de Oriente & Caterina, Mombacho Volcano, and Las Isletas)
Selva Negra (north of Matagalpa) (2 nights)
Leon (4 nights, side trips to Playa Las Penitas and Cerro Negro Volcano)

GETTING THERE

Holiday flying is usually stressful and this time was no exception. All of our American Airlines flights were delayed 1-3 hours; Miami airport is horrible at any time; 1 bag was shredded and the replacement bag was lost on the next leg. But despite the fact that the three couples were all coming from different places (San Francisco, New York La Guardia, Newark) on different flights, we managed to meet up in Managua airport on the afternoon of the 22nd, more or less as planned. (As our American Airlines pilot announced, 'We apologize for the delay, folks, but at least we got you there today!')

DRIVING

Because there were 6 of us, we had decided to rent a large Toyota SUV rather than depend on taxis, buses, and hired drivers. The SUV was pretty expensive, but we appreciated having it.

Everything we had read prior to the trip made it clear that rule #1 must be followed: Don't drive at night! And we were happy to follow that rule'until our inbound flight delay. Our scheduled 1:30 p.m. arrival time stretched to 3:30, and by the time we picked up our rental car it was already 4:30 p.m. So we violated rule #1 on day #1, because by the time we passed Granada and headed to San Juan del Sur, it was definitely dark. So it can be done, though I wouldn't recommend it. No road lights, plenty of pedestrians even at night, lots of animals and bicycles on the side of the road, and serious potholes to avoid. I definitely needed a drink by the time we arrived at the hotel!

Daytime driving was also a challenge because of police checkpoints, streetside activities (dogs, horse carts, cattle herds, pigs, chickens, children, bicyclists), a multitude of potholes in some areas, and all-around poor signage. If you don't know where you're going, it's almost impossible to find any road signs (and I thought New Jersey was bad!). If there are signs, they are usually hidden behind a well-leafed tree branch. Managua seems to have no street signs at all (fortunately we had a good map and could dead-reckon on our drive-through to Leon). Granada and Leon do have readable street signs on corner buildings, which was very helpful. Thank goodness people were universally helpful when we asked for directions, though I don't think I'll ever get used to asking a person with a machete (there were many) how to get somewhere!

The police checkpoints were interesting. They weren't directed toward tourists ' many, many Nicaraguan vehicles were pulled over for inspection of documents and perceived 'infractions.' We were pulled over three times in the course of the two weeks. I had read about this in advance and was prepared for the possibility of a shakedown of some sort. The first time we were pulled over was just outside Masaya, in fairly heavy traffic. First the policeman asked (in Spanish), 'Where are you going in such a hurry?' which led me to believe I'd be charged with speeding (I was going the speed limit). I was then asked to produce my documents. After a few minutes, I was told that I had made an 'infraction.' 'What was the infraction?' 'An illegal U-turn' (I hadn't). The policeman took my license, added it to a stack of licenses in his fist, and told me I could get it back by going on Monday (this was Thursday) to a particular bank in Managua and paying 400 cordobas ($21). Hmm, we were going to be in the mountains on Monday, not in Managua! Our Spanish speaker suggested that this would not be possible for us, and asked whether there was any other way we could pay the fine (we weren't about to argue that we hadn't committed any infraction). Meanwhile, my daughter-in-law rolled down her window and worked on the second policeman with her innocent 20-something voice. Eventually I was told that I could go to Managua on Monday and pay the 400 cordobas'or ' I could pay 300 cordobas ($16) to the officer on the spot. Of course I chose the latter, handed over the money, and got my license back. We drove off with a sigh of relief and a good laugh. Fortunately, the other two times we were pulled over we were simply waved on after we told the police where we were going. It did make for some nervousness every time we saw orange cones in the road though, and we had to set aside a few hundred cordobas as our emergency payment fund (we eventually spent it buying souvenirs at the airport). It seems that Nicaraguan drivers have to face this on a daily basis.

Will we rent a car next time we go to Nicaragua? With a group of 6, we definitely would. But with just two of us, I think we might opt for taxis and buses. We did use the car for some daytrips, but for several of the excursions we hired a guide and went in the tour company's van, which was so much easier in terms of navigation. But having a car made it easy for us to get to the four places we used as bases, so we might just to decide to rent again next time. Either way, it's an adventure!

ACCOMMODATIONS

Our hotels were all pretty upscale, and we loved them all. In San Juan del Sur we stayed in Casa Ensueno at Hotel Pelican Eyes'Piedras y Olas. We had a two-bedroom, two-bath house, at the top of the Phase I development, right near the upper restaurant, the infinity pool, and the family pool (or Pool Family, as the sign said). The kitchen was well-equipped (we used only the coffee maker and the refrigerator), and the living room had a TV/DVD play and an artificial Christmas tree (it was, after all, Christmas). The resort was delightful, with great service, easily arranged guided tours, excellent food, helpful staff, incredible tropical plantings, and friendly cats. Rates were much higher than normal due to the season (we paid $350/night for the six of us) but well worth it. A similar accommodation in the U.S. would have been far more expensive. Highly recommended!

Our Granada hotel was Patio del Malinche. This small (maybe 18 rooms total on two floors), family-run inn has two beautiful courtyards'one with a small pool, the other with breakfast tables and a hammock'a bar, and just about the nicest staff I've ever encountered. The rooms are simple but adequate ' a double bed or two twins, and a decent bathroom ' but what makes the hotel wonderful are the courtyards, the staff, and the international clientele. We spent quite a bit of time at the end of each day sitting around the pool enjoying drinks and conversation. This is not the most upscale accommodation available in Granada, but I highly recommend it. I missed it after we left! Oh ' directly across the street there's a family that sells Nacatamales out of their front door. We were never lucky enough to be around when they were available (missed them by just 15 minutes one day!), but if you do go, give them a try for what I imagine is a very authentic eating experience.

Selva Negra was our destination in the coffee-growing mountains north of Matagalpa. We spent a fun and worthwhile two nights there, highlighted by a fascinating tour of the coffee plantation from the owner and a wonderful walk on the trails in the cloud forest during which we spotted a group of monkeys in the trees. The hotel itself is best described as funky'very reminiscent of a summer cabin in the woods, with wood walls, basic furniture, and a cool, misty, backwoods sort of ambiance. Worthwhile for the close-up look at the coffee operation, the insights into working conditions on a coffee farm, and the cool, cloud-forest climate and vegetation. We were glad to have visited and definitely enjoyed our stay, but if you're looking for upscale this is not where you'll find it.

In Leon you can't do better than Hotel El Convento, a lovely, quiet oasis in the middle of the bustling town. This former school (attended by Nicaragua's beloved poet Ruben Dario) and convent has been turned into a sparkling hotel with, again, good service, a gorgeous big courtyard, and large though simple rooms. The tile floors are cooling, the air con is great, and nothing beats sitting in the patio overlooking the courtyard with a drink in your hand and a tasty meal from the excellent restaurant. Highly recommended!

RESTAURANTS

Eating at a restaurant in Nicaragua requires a time commitment of at least an hour, and sometimes two to three hours (Nica time is not New York time). We found Nica food to be hearty and good, with the portions a bit too sizable. Beef, chicken, some pork, fish, shellfish ' all very good. We had decided not to eat salads, in the hope of avoiding stomach problems, and that was probably a good idea (but those salads were so tempting!). The fruit was plentiful and really tasty. All of our hotels served wonderful breakfasts as part of the room cost, so that we ate more breakfast than we usually do, but on most days we then skipped lunch and opted for dinner out. The dinners at Pelican Eyes and El Convento were excellent. In SJDS we can recommend Bar Timon (lively ambience, right on the beach).

Granada had a good array of tempting restaurants, El Zaguan being the best of the lot. We also had good, atmospheric meals at Mediterraneo and El Tercer Ojo (though the former was better than the latter). Pizza and calzones were great (and cheap) at TelePizza. I loved my meal at Taqueria La Jarochita - soft tacos with carne asada. Delicious! The only bad experience we had was at Casa San Francisco, where we had been looking forward to eating. It's an attractive small hotel with a reputation for excellent food, but on the evening we were there there were 'issues with the kitchen.' More than an hour after we ordered (by this time we were the only diners in the restaurant), our food started to come out. One dish was wrong and another arrived that no one had ordered, so we declined it. Big mistake. Soon our waiter came out to tell us my dish was not actually available that night'would I like to have a free drink and order something else? In fact, would the whole table like a free drink? (We took the drinks but I chose not to reorder). Later the chef came out to apologize. By the time we got our bill and left the restaurant, we had been there more than two and a half hours. But I might give it another try sometime before writing it off altogether, because the setting was beautiful.

In Leon there were fewer restaurants to choose from. We ate twice at another restaurant named Mediterraneo, set in a cool courtyard and enjoyable both for lunch and dinner. There were lots of street vendors in Leon, but we weren't quite ready to go that direction.

On Isla Ometepe, which we visited as a day trip, we had probably the best meal of our trip'a wonderful whole fish roasted in foil. Great setting, too, right on Lake Nicaragua (so big and wave-ridden it felt like an ocean).

In contrast, our meal at one of the restaurants at the Caterina mirador overlooking Lago de Apoyo was a bit disappointing ' though my perspective might be skewed by the fact that during the meal my wallet and camera were stolen out of my purse, which was sitting on the floor under the table, next to my feet. That was an experience I don't want to repeat! Though I discovered the theft when we got up to leave, about 30 minutes after it happened, and immediately called Visa and my bank to cancel my cards, the thieves had already charged $428 at a cell phone store in a nearby town. They later tried to use the card at a gas station but were denied since the card had already been canceled. My disappointment at the loss of all my pictures was assuaged only by the fact that two others in the group had taken many of the same pictures that I had. I'll just have to remember the others in my mind.

One fun food experience was in San Juan de Oriente, one of the 'pueblos blancos' near Granada. After some great pottery shopping in the village (don't miss it!), we were piling our purchases into the car when a tamale salesman bicycled by. I can never say no to a tamale, so we stopped him and bought fresh warm tamales from his basket for 2 cordobas (10 cents) each. Turned out they didn't have any filling but were like delicious corn muffins. What a treat!

ACTIVITIES

We filled a couple of days in Leon and Granada walking the streets and admiring the fun colors on the houses and the intriguing courtyards behind the stucco facades, as well as the impressive churches (especially in Leon). Leon also had a top-notch art museum, the Museo de Arte Fundacion Ortiz-Guardian'a real find. It has one of the finest collections of Latin American art anywhere, and it's housed in two beautiful buildings that make the art even more awesome to view.

Though we based ourselves in SJDS, Granada, and Leon, we did several side trips from each base, either on our own or with a guide. From SJDS we drove about 12 km on a truly bumpy dirt road to Playa Majagual, where we enjoyed a gorgeous cliff-ringed beach, great surf, and beautiful sand. A cute little grass hut for drinks, too, where we drank our favorite Nicaraguan beer, Toña, and one of us got a sharp sting from an unseen insect. (By the way, despite our fears, we were not overwhelmed by mosquitoes anywhere, though we always put on enough DEET-containing mosquito repellent to keep an elephant away).

We also did a fantastic night-time trip with a guide (Berman Gomez, from Pelican Eyes) to El Flor Reserve to see the turtles hatching. A sight to remember! We saw hundreds of baby turtles making their way out of their sand holes upon hatching and journeying the hundred yards or so down to the ocean under the full-moon sky. The trip was informative and fascinating. I definitely recommend doing it with a guide like Berman (noted in the Moon Handbook as 'locally famous Berman Gomez'). The road to the reserve was rough and scarey to drive at night, with a couple of stream crossings, so a local driver is essential. We paid $25 per person for this great trip.

Berman also arranged for us a daylong trip to Ometepe on Christmas Day, led by his brother, Carlos. Another very personable guide, Carlos was full of information on Ometepe and took us to many of the highlights. We really appreciated that he gave up his Christmas day on our behalf. He charged a total of $145 for the full day trip (van transportation on both ends included), and we supplemented that with a $20 tip, more than usual, in honor of the great day and his holiday sacrifice. We didn't think we would have time to visit Ometepe, so to be able to do so was a treat. We opted for the 'first class' tickets on the ferry ' about $2.50 each way ' and sat on the top open-air deck. It was awesome to see the twin volcanoes of Ometepe get closer and closer. Everything about the day was just perfect, and next time we'll definitely spend at least a couple of nights there. Reminded us just a little bit of Molokai in the Hawaiian Islands.

From Granada we drove on our own for an afternoon at Masaya's handicrafts market. I was particularly interested in buying a hammock (the market has a huge selection, most beautifully made, and I ended up getting two for $55 total), but among us we also managed to buy a primitive-style painting, many pieces of pottery, some birds and fish carvings from Soletiname Island, a chess set, a dozen woven bracelets, and a woven bag to carry some of these purchases home with. It was a great shopping experience ' lots to choose from, a little friendly bargaining, and great prices. Very fun.

On another day we drove to Mombacho Volcano and took the Reserve's 4-wheel-drive bus/truck up to the hiking trails at the top of the mountain. The upper reaches were socked in with clouds, mist, and some rain, so we only hiked the Crater trail (not the longer Puma trail), but we enjoyed the vegetation and the well-maintained trail. Two of our group took a nice guided walk with David Rosales from Tierra Tours because they didn't want to engage in our final activity of the day, part-way down the mountain: the Mombacho Canopy Tour, a.k.a. the zipline. This is something I had really wanted to do, probably because it looks so fun when the contestants do ziplines on The Amazing Race. It lived up to my expectations. I felt safe and well taken care of by the 5 canopy tour employees who accompanied our group of 8 people as we zipped from platform to platform. There were a couple of nice views to the valley below and some good looks at the forest canopy, but mostly it was a fun adventure that everyone in the group enjoyed.

We connected with Tierra Tours in Granada for a guided kayak trip among the Isletas on Lake Nicaragua. For about 3 hours we kayaked among the islands, looking at interesting vegetation and bird life. December is a windy month for Lake Nicaragua, so getting started from the shore was probably more of a rush than going on the zip line (I'm not an experienced sea kayaker, preferring the calmer waters of rivers and lakes). But once we got to the protected isletas it was easy. Our guide, again, was informative and friendly. He showed us one flower whose outsides you peel like a banana to reveal a beautiful brushlike flower inside. Very special!

Having had such a good experience with Tierra Tours in Granada, we were happy to find that they had recently opened an office in Leon as well. We took two trips with them out of Leon ' one was to Las Penitas beach, where we took a two-hour boat ride along the swamp side of Juan Venado Island. Our guide for the day was Gerard Pavon, a really personable guy who enjoyed discussing the Nicaraguan political situation, religion, and all kinds of other topics. He also had a good knowledge of the bird and animal life in the mangrove swamp, and we saw more exotic animals than anyplace I've been (Australia to come in May), including crocodiles, an iguana, three kinds of herons, and kingfisher birds. I loved this trip and only regretted that we didn't do it in a kayak. (We later saw that the beachside inn Barca de Oro had kayaks available for rent.) Still, our boat guys were terrific at spotting animals, slowing down, going backwards, and even finding me some beautiful seashells on the beach, so it was a great experience.

On our last day in Leon we drove ourselves to Leon Viejo for a look at the ruins of the original Leon, which was abandoned in the early 1600s. Several well-known Spanish explorers are interred there, and it's a quiet place for a walk. Back in Leon we met up with Will from Tierra Tours, another fun guide (they were all great!), for a drive out to Cerro Negro, Central America's youngest volcano (last eruption was 1999). The climb up the steep slopes took about 3/4 of an hour. It was an incredibly windy day up there and I was sure I was going to blow over when we walked on the ridgeline, but we made it to the top without losing anybody (me) and then proceeded to do the classic Cerro Negro descent ' we ran down the 50-degree slope to the bottom. The descent side of the volcano is made up of volcanic ash and lava pebbles, so it was like running downhill in sand dunes. What fun! My husband made it down in 2 minutes, but it took me about 4 because I stopped halfway down to catch my breath. Highly recommended! (This is the volcano that you can descend on a wooden board, but we weren't quite up to that level of adventure.)

A FEW MORE THINGS

We generally used cordobas but also used dollars for some transactions (exchange rate at the time was 18.76 cordobas to the dollar). If you are intending to bring dollars, make sure they're crisp bills in small denominations (ones, fives, tens'though twenties are fine to pay tour companies and hotels). Some of our more worn bills were rejected as unworthy. (Ironically, we got some of the oldest, most used cordobas you can imagine.)

ATMs were available in the towns, and most gave you a choice of getting your money in dollars or cordobas.

Gas was about $4 per gallon'very expensive for locals to afford.

Beer was about $1, and bottles of purified water were popular and cheap. We generally avoided ice, but when we were dying for a drink other than beer we asked and the restaurants assured us they used purified water for ice. We believed them and encountered no problems.

We brought Cipro pills with us and popped one at the first sign of the dreaded traveler's diarrhea. That immediately took care of any problems. The Cipro also came in handy for the mysterious bug bite that wouldn't go away.

Everybody but me took malaria pills (and had malaria pill dreams), in addition to getting typhoid and heptatitis A shots prior to the trip.

For guidebooks we used the Moon Handbook and Footprint. Both were a couple of years old, so some of the recommended restaurants and hotels had closed, and some new ones had popped up. Footprint gave detailed background on many the sites we visited.

There were some fun-looking hostels in Granada and Leon that were filled with young people. Not so many other tourists (more in Granada), and many of the tourists we did see were Europeans.

We were expecting power outages but didn't notice any. Our guide in Leon told us that the government had announced that December and January would be full power months. Lucky us. The months with rolling power outages apparently cause more than a little hardship to those without the resources for generators.

Well, this report turned out to be a little longer than I intended, but I hope it gives a flavor of our Nicaragua vacation. We truly loved Nicaragua ' the natural beauty, interesting culture, and friendly people ' and hope to return someday. I was often asked before we went, 'Why Nicaragua????' I used to respond 'It's the next Costa Rica,' but from what I've heard about Costa Rica in recent years, Nicaragua is even better. My response now ' 'Because it's fabulous. Go see for yourself!'

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