The border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua was my only land border crossing in the Americas and it was supposed to be a stressful one. When I arrived in Monteverde – my last stop in Costa Rica – I was told that it would probably take a few hours but that it would be uneventful. Three days later, when I told another staff member at the hostel that I’d be heading across the border tomorrow – Good Friday – he looked at me like I had two heads. He told me that 800,000 Nicaraguans live in Costa Rica and they all love to go home for the Easter long weekend and that I’d be totally fucked. Like, I wouldn’t get a bus and if I did I’d have to wait all day at the border because most of the border guards don’t work on the holiday weekend and that I should leave ASAP. So, I cancelled my chill day in Monteverde and left on the afternoon bus to Liberia – the closest city to the border. I stayed at a shitty hostel and the following day – Good Friday – I woke up as the ass crack of dawn and headed out to get to the bus station by 6am. While I did have to wait 2 hours for the first bus, my arrival at the border was… totally the opposite of what I was expecting. There was no one there. Except the staff. It seemed fully staffed, actually. And I didn’t need to wait in any lines. I basically just walked across. It was so fucking easy and all of that stress was unwarranted. I gave a dirty glare to the worker in my hostel in Montverde, but as I was already several hours away, he didn’t see me. Bah!
Anyway, enough of my gripe. Nicaragua, like Costa Rica, is full of a surprising number of expats. I guess those that can’t afford the country’s rich southern neighbour come here to live the easy life. Nicaragua definitely isn’t as nice as Costa Rica. The restaurant options aren’t nearly as good, the tap water is not drinkable, and it just doesn’t look as nice in general. But it’s cheap. And I like cheap. It’s also very easy for travellers to navigate and the main tourist spots are surprisingly safe for Central America.
A few highlights of my time in Nicaragua:
The little town of San Jorge sits on the shore of Lake Nicaragua – the 19th largest lake in the world. This little town isn’t really a stop for tourists, but it is near the Costa Rica border and it’s the jumping off point for the ferry to Isla de Ometepe. I arrived on Good Friday to find the beach absolutely packed with locals celebrating the day off. There was a stage with live music, what seemed like hundreds of food stalls, and lots of men touting large fake horses to take pictures with. Weird. The beach offers great views of Isla de Ometepe.
Isla de Ometepe:
Formed from two volcanoes that erupted and joined together to form an island, Ometepe sits in the middle of Lake Nicaragua and is one of the top spots to visit in the country. Della and Eric – friends of mine from university – arrived the day after I did and we took the ferry to the island together. I had met up with Della and Eric last year in Bali when they did their gap year. I planned that week out so it was their turn to return the favour! They booked us into accommodation in a quiet area of the island – the little village of Merida. From there, we had the perfect view of three sunsets in a row. It was a great location! We did a walk to the San Ramon Waterfall one day – though it was dry season so there wasn’t much water falling. We also visited the Ojo de Agua – a mineral spring which was a lot more commercialized than we were expecting, but super pleasant nonetheless – and Playa Santo Domingo.
From Ometepe, we ferried back to the mainland and taxied to Granada – a famous colonial era city that is extremely popular with the tourists. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and is full of beautifully restored buildings. Ok, mostly beautifully restored churches, but there were a few other buildings thrown into the mix too. We visited the Church, Convent, and Museum of San Francisco where we learned about indigenous games. We popped into the beautiful Granada Cathedral and climbed the belltower at the Iglesia de la Merced to take in views of the town. We walked around the Fundacion Casa de Los Tres Mundos where student artists and musicians were at work improving their skills. The highlight was a day trip which took us to various sites in and around Granada. We visited a traditional tile-making factory, Fortaleza Coyotepe (a fort high on a hill which was used for political prisoners up until 1979), and the Laguna de Apoyo. The laguna is a lake occupying the caldera of an extinct volcano. We went up to a viewpoint on the rim and then drove down to the water’s edge to a swanky (yet still fairly inexpensive) beach club to have lunch, a drink or two, and a nice swim in the clear water. Gorgeous.
While we were hesitant to double up on well-restored colonial cities, we decided to visit Leon as well. While Granada has always been the bastion of conservatism in the country, Leon has been the left-wing capital. Factions from these two cities battled it out for glory but eventually the country chose Managua as its capital – somewhat halfway between the two rival cities. It was sort of like Sydney-Melbourne rivalry that led to the establishment of Canberra but a LOT more bloody and terrifying. Like, a LOT a LOT. Just like Granada, Leon is full of churches. We visited a handful of them on our walking tour but the best was the Catedral de Leon aka Basilica de la Asuncion. The roof of this large, white-domed cathedral is open for visitors to walk around barefoot. We explored the roof and took plenty of photos of the surrounding areas, and had a bit of a photoshoot of ourselves too!
We also visited two museums in Leon. The Museo de Arte Fundacion Ortiz-Guardian had good collection of contemporary art and occupied two very large, gorgeous colonial style houses. Far more interesting was the Museum of Legends and Traditions. This museum had models of important Nicaraguan historical figures and crazy displays and dioramas depicting local folklore. Most of the folklore seemed to revolve around women getting screwed by men and then getting their revenge. The most interesting and entertaining one was titled “Grab Your Tit” and basically had a mannequin of a women with one breast hanging out of her clothes. The caption more or less read as follows:
“She was a woman… it is said she was a very ugly woman… Her father offered a lot of money for someone to get married with her but no-one wanted to. For that reason, she wanders in the different streets… looking for a man, she chooses the one she likes… and forcefully put her nipple in the mouth… telling him GRAB YOUR TIT, GRAB YOUR TIT, leaving them mortified and with asphyxiated.”
There wasn’t really anything too exciting about the food, especially after Costa Rica. I had some local fried chicken with plantains, rice, beans, and salad on the beach at San Jorge my first day. Aside from that, the typical food didn’t really differ from Costa Rica all too much. I had some coconut ice cream, some pretty good gelato at a place called “Kiss Me” in Leon, and various international cuisines such as Asian-style stir-fry, a Sri Lankan-Polish-Nicaraguan style take on butter chicken masala, and – of course – Mexican food! We also had pupusas with a nice big glass of tamarind juice for dinner on our last night in Managua. Pupusas are thick corn tortillas with filling and are more El Salvadorian than Nicaraguan but it felt authentic anyway. It was also in the front yard of someone’s home so that felt pretty authentic. Finally, the local beer – Toña – is also worth a mention as it was very enjoyable!
We didn’t do anything in the capital – Managua – as there isn’t much for tourists to do there, but I did have one night there before my early morning flight and I must mention that my little guesthouse (Hostal Monte Cristi) was excellent. I wish I actually had stayed another night or two and given Managua a chance!
Now, despite being from Miami, I had never been to South America. So, time to check my sixth continent off the list. But first, let me take a selfie.
To see more photos of my time in Nicaragua, follow this link: