Nicaragua Part 2:
Onto the fun part – the breakdown of our travels through Nicaragua! I was surprised to learn what a quick trip it was when we were booking it. It took about as long as flying from Newark to San Diego, and we had a layover! (Chicago – Miami – Managua) Although I don’t mind flying, my stomach seems to pick and choose when it does, so less airtime = better for me.
What I want everyone to know about Nicaragua is that it is not scary. I felt more myself there than I have in many places over the last few years. The people are extremely warm, friendly, and accommodating, and genuinely care about your experience. It is an amazing country that I look forward to visiting again in the next few years.
Stop 1: Granada
Upon landing, we were greeted by a driver set up by our Airbnb host to transport us from Managua (the capital city) to Granada. The trip took us about an hour and cost us about $30 USD, not bad for some peace of mind and air conditioning. There are other options like cabs, the chicken bus, and chauffeurs, but we were told they can give Americans a bit of a run-around, and with our Spanish being pretty minimal, we opted for the sure thing. The chicken buses are Nicaragua’s de facto public transportation, but I will explain those later.
The first Airbnb we booked was attached to the beloved Garden Cafe, which was right in downtown Granada, and a perfect first stop on our adventure.We were shown to this romantic studio which was attached to the pictured cafe. I was in vacation mode immediately. We were 2 blocks from the cathedral I was dying to see and conveniently positioned among some other great restaurants. With my last few international trips being either interrupted or cancelled due to my condition, I finally felt like I could be excited about this one now that we were here! And with a belly full of Prednisone, I felt I could don anything!
When it came to eating, we didn’t get very far. There is a reason every travel blog mentions the Garden Cafe – the food and drinks are top notch and the ambience can’t be beat! After filling ourselves at the cafe, we visited the shoreline of Lake Nicaragua,
then proceeded to wander through the city stopping at the various happy hours, eventually to take back out to the street for dinner and to check out the vendors. I found an awesome ring, the equivalent of which I had been looking at spending $125 dollars on at Nordstrom, cost me $7 at a street vendor. Big win! As the sun went down, people filled into town area to eat, drink, and dance – definitely something that translates across all cutures! It was so strange, surprising, and pleasing to me that I had woken up in Chicago and now was going to bed having eaten pesto and avocado toast, a passionfruit smoothie, about half a bottle of a wine and most of an oven roasted pizza – within two blocks of this completely new city to me in Central America. I started to really realize how much I needed to expand my horizons.
The next morning after having breakfast, we walked around as the market opened. It was great to see how the everyday workings of another city like this took place. A lot of the time when I’m on a vacation, I only see the best part of city and its workings, but this really helped me to understand how and where everyone came to sell, trade and conduct business. We were slightly overwhelmed and intrigued by the sites and smells of raw chicken sitting in the morning sun, flies greeting every new piece of food, and fish being brought in and gutted in the market.
It’s No Notre Dame – but it’ll do
I quickly forget what a prevalent role religion plays in other countries; the amount of money and time that went in to building these beautiful structures is mind boggling. The most notable cathedral (to me), appropriately named, Cathedral de Granada, in Parque Central, allows you to see the entire city from the bell towers. Admission was $1 per person to take the stairs to the top, and while certainly not ADA accessible, it was pretty amazing. We had the chance to visit three different cathedrals over our short stay and were more than impressed with the intricate architectural detailing and huge variety of colors displayed.
By far, my favorite colors and structures in Granada were on the doors and entrances. Nearly every building had incredible hand-made, solid wood doors that in America, would cost thousands of dollars to reproduce. It was this simplistic and subtle attention to detail and craft that added to the charm we felt everywhere we went in this city (and country!)
The Most Hilarious Part of this trip was getting from Granada to Ometepe Island – which only takes around 1-2 hours, supposedly. We (Alex) decided that since this was supposed to be an adventure, instead of hiring private transit, we would take the infamous chicken bus. Chicken Bus = a retired American school bus probably older than Alex and I combined, that everyone/anyone piles onto, with no regulation on capacity, which just barely stops as people jump on and off.
On this particular day, it was 95 degrees as we hustled through the market with our loaded backpacks trying to find the aforementioned chicken bus. Granted, I don’t speak Spanish (I took Italian in college and Spanish for a year in high school) so the language barrier was thick. After talking with a few locals, Alex was able to determine where we were going and got us onto the bus (as a 15 year old tossed our bags on top, tying them down with rope). In that moment I was so happy I had already checked into what coverage was available if my things get damaged, lost, or stolen, because I was sure my bag would be falling off. As soon as we sat down in the last two open seats on the bus, the urge to find a bathroom hit. I knew it would be a journey ahead, but as I went to hop off the bus to find one… we started to move. As the bus twisted and turned through the ancient streets, an already packed bus doubled in capacity with locals hopping on and dangling from the side at every intersection. Our two person seat quickly became a four person seat.
About 35 minutes in, the bus stopped …. and never started again; 20 minutes after that (it was indeterminable whether I had just showered or was sweating) we decided to abandon the bus and figure out the next step. As we got the bags down from the top of the bus, the Garden Cafe saved us again. Two women who I had noticed that morning in the cafe had also gotten off and were planning their next steps. When we acknowledged each other, a decade old Toyota Corolla pulled up, our new friends negotiated with the driver, the four of us piled into the (air conditioned) back seat, and we were transported to our next destination! When we got to San Jorge, the port to Ometepe (which was actually another hour plus), he charged us $10 USD each, which was probably a rip-off, but at that point, I would’ve paid $10 a minute for air conditioning. The best $10 dollars I spent that trip.
Stop 2: Ometepe and Onward
Fast forward getting on the ferry to Ometepe Island from Rivas, where they played Teen Mom and Anime and sold some crazy flavored Pringles. We get to Ometepe Island where we were meeting friends and the rest of the group we would be traveling with. I feel like these things never happen for me, but this whole group of people was so much fun. For the first time in awhile I felt comfortable to open up and genuinely became invested in people I barely knew – this came quickly when they politely encouraged me as I attempted our volcano hike the following morning.
Ometepe has a lot going on, but we came for Volcano Concepcion. This is one of the coolest and also most difficult things I’ve ever done. Doing this in my best shape would be a struggle but doing it while this flare was literally sucking the life out of me hit me hard to say the least. It was 1600 meters up (and down!) in 10 hours. I drank at least 3 liters of water and could’ve taken down another 3 with ease. I considered faking a fall down the volcano at least 6 times to get out of it, but the group’s endless encouragement and patience kept me going.
With all of that being said, getting up past the cloud line before noon on a Sunday really made me 1. Grateful for my body taking me up 2. Appreciative of this amazing world. And it was Earth Day! Such great timing. As we made it to the top, I felt like I was in another life.
As we descended, we could see the water surrounding the island, the city, all of the lush land below, but also the top of the volcano. I really felt like for a moment I was in a scene from Land Before Time.
You basically go through 2-3 different atmospheres while completing the hike. Amazon-style rainforest atmosphere, atmosphere that reminded me of Midwest hiking and then volcano atmosphere. They all greatly differed but it was a great experience to go through in one day. I fell 7 times coming down. It hurt. By the time we were closing in on the last hour, none of us were speaking and if we were, it was probably me grumbling about pain. You kick up a lot of dirt it turns out. See picture. Needed: Mas Tonas, por favor.
After meeting some awesome people at the Airbnb, eating some delicious pancakes made by Abuelo (our cute little host who didn’t speak a word of english), renting a moped and driving to Ojo de Agua (needed more time there for sure) we hustled to grab our bags and head for the ferry to take us to the mainland and eventually San Juan Del Sur. Where I could finally fulfill my dreams of living the lifestyle of a real housewife.
Stop 3: San Juan Del Surf’s Up!
Fast forward ferry ride getting sunburnt and drinking mas Tonas, ride to SDJS.
As we approached our new home for the next few days, we were all bubbling with relief and excitement. This house slept 10 people and there were 6 of us, so getting some space was definitely something to look forward to. We were greeted by Nicaragua’s best – Katalina! She was the house manager over the Airbnb property we rented and the reviews about Katalina were nothing short of truth. We settled in, hopped in the *infinity pool* and immediately felt like rockstars (I mean, at least I did, I had just paid someone an extra dollar to drive me up a really steep hill).
Our main purpose in visiting San Juan Del Sur was for the surf. Well yes, I have surfed a handful of times or less, but it seemed much easier in SDJS! We found a local surf shop that takes you to any number of locations you want to visit, rents the boards, and drops and picks you up. We decided Playa Hermosa was first on our list. Sidenote: getting seven people to agree has never been easier.
It was a 20 minute ride (with 3 of us in the back of a pick up), out to this amazing beach. Travel, completed. Volcano hike, completed. Relaxation time, finally. I only surfed the end, but I did get up! And more importantly, I was getting a great tan.
The next few days were a combination of visiting the town, which was a short walk down the hill, as well as working on that tan, relaxing, and learning about the country. San Juan Del Sur is definitely the most ‘Americanized’ of the cities I would say that we visited but they all had their charm for their individual reasons. A few more notable times included: Alex getting bit by a scorpion, and the local drunk finding him every night at the bar; Mr. Salad, our new roommate/Belgian friend getting lost on the Nicaraguan countryside and sleeping at a farmer’s house, and finding friends we made back on Ometepe at Playa Maderas, north of SJDS. The trip was nothing short of an adventure like I had hoped, and my Crohn’s had complied all along the way! I definitely think I romanticize the trip, but it is hard not to. I have considered moving back for a while (and still do, as long as Henry can come), but look forward to visiting again soon!