After a long bus journey with two border crossings in one day we had made it through Honduras and into Nicaragua, rolling into the outskirts of Leon just as the sun had gone down. Being the forward thinking planners that we are lately, we had no accommodation booked and waved down a taxi to take us into the middle of town. Our first attempt at a hostel was met with rejection as they were full so instead we had to walk around Leon in the dark carrying our bags and deciphering Spanish instructions from locals in the street as to where to find the next hostel we had in mind…
Nicaragua is referred to as the country of Lakes and Volcanoes and with 19 volcanoes and two of the largest freshwater lakes in Central America it’s not hard to see why. Both the climate and culture vary greatly between the Pacific and Carribean side of the country and we had a lot we wanted to see and do. Nicaragua was one of the countries I had been most looking forward to visiting and we ended up spending 3.5 weeks exploring its many beaches, volcanoes, lakes and islands and making plenty of friends along the way.
The next morning we set off to explore and find breakfast. Stopping in at the local markets, we found a friendly lady selling street food cooked on a small coal fire and sat down at her two seat table area for a plate of tasty grilled chicken with rice and salad. By mid morning Leon was already unbearably hot with the humidity making walking around even harder. We took refuge from the heat in a smoothie shop for cheap ~$2 smoothies, a refreshing treat that quickly became a regular habit throughout the country thanks to the cheap cost of living and our desire to keep cool.
That night we made a last minute decision and took an old school bus to a beach party in Las Penitas. The rain didn’t stop anyone and with the help of plenty of rums between us we danced outside by the sand until it was time to take the bus back to Leon, getting into bed around 3am. Volcano boarding was conveniently booked for early the next morning and whilst hiking a volcano hungover is not something I would recommend it was soon forgotten once we were getting to slide down it. We hiked up carrying our board, taking photos during rest stops along the way. Surprisingly, Cerro Negro is relatively new in volcano terms at 165 years, and there was no question it was still active as we felt the hot ground at the top and witnessed both smoke and sulphur smells coming from the holes in the crater. We got dressed into our full body orange jumpsuits and goggles and one by one slid down the volcano, borderline out of control. I was down the bottom in no time with a head, mouth and face full of volcanic rocks and dirt but a smile on my face. I turned around to proudly watch Lauren come hurtling down the steep 41 degree slope straight after me and together we waited at the bottom on the black surface in the hot sun for the rest of the group to follow. The complimentary cold beer as we got back on the truck was very much appreciated and we were both pulling dirt and rocks out of our hair for hours afterwards.
Not content with ending our volcano hiking careers at that point, especially after the grueling overnight hike in Guatemala, we signed up to hike the Telica volcano at sunset the very next day. On arrival we were happy to find out that no one else had signed up and it would just be us for a private tour. We took a 4WD from Leon to the base of the volcano stopping along the way for some photos and to meet a local who was digging a well 40m deep with only a shovel for the local families so that they did not have to travel 1.5hrs each way by horse just to get water. We began ascending the volcano as our guide filled us in on its history on the way up. The most alarming yet exciting fact was that it had only erupted 10 days prior sending smoke and large (>100kg) rocks travelling through the air with some landing through the wall of a building 4kms away. In Australia they would never let you do something like hike to the top of an active volcano, and even if they did there would be a fence around the crater. However this is Central America and instead you can do this:
The crater was 700m wide and it felt every bit that large as we stood right on the edge peering in. We moved around alone on our own private volcano taking photos from many different vantage points before sitting on a rock to watch the sun set over the many surrounding volcanoes and farmland in the distance. We descended in the dark each carrying small torches to help us hop between the sharp volcanic rocks. We arrived back into Leon by 9pm exhausted and got some quick dinner before relaxing and unnecessarily causing our mums worry back home by boasting on Facebook.
The following morning we moved on to Surfing Turtle Lodge on the Pacific Coast. A hostel commonly referred to as one of the coolest places to visit in Central America and one that was referred to us by the owner who was our guide during our Mexico trip 18 months earlier. It is located right on the sand on an isolated beach island in Poneloya, accessed via boat and then horse and cart and takes an off the grid approach with solar panels, water tanks and a small garden providing much of the vegetables and eggs for the kitchen.
We ended up staying for six days and it was the perfect spot to relax after what had been a fairly busy last few weeks. Most days typically involved any combination of swimming, hammocks, reading, table tennis, surfing, drinking and eating. It was a nice change to be able to wake up and walk straight across the sand and jump into the water and was definitely a place I could see myself falling into a lengthy stay if it wasn’t for the many other places we still want to see throughout Central and South America. The Nicaraguan sun was unforgiving and despite some late nights the morning sun already had enough heat in it to force you out of bed early. The dark sand meant you had to sprint towards the water taking breaks in the shady spots. I barely opened my backpack as the days were spent simply in boardshorts so that you were always ready to duck in and out of either the surf or the beach showers at all hours of the day or night to keep cool.
One activity I was certain not to miss was the daily late afternoon beach volleyball competition which always had a large turnout. If you asked Lauren she would [incorrectly] argue that I became quite competitive when it came to volleyball o’clock. Despite my best efforts to position myself in the right order when random teams were being counted out, I more often than not got ‘stuck’ with fully grown adults that were somehow incapable of getting a ball over the net… Regardless, it was something that we looked forward to each afternoon and I still managed to get my fair share of free drink prizes! The competitions finished off with a cool down swim watching the daily sunsets over the water.
Being such a small and remote spot, occupied only by the hostel guests, it created a great social atmosphere and the evenings were usually spent making friends over drinking games before moving out to the late night beach bar for a bonfire on the sand and games of giant Jenga complete with entertaining and sometimes embarrassing rules for each piece.
Little Corn Island
The typical backpacker trail through Nicaragua largely focuses on the western side of the country, though with a bit of research we had found that the Corn Islands in the middle of the Caribbean on the Eastern side were an amazing yet isolated and unfrequented paradise. Making it over to the Corn Islands can be quite the mission but we had a bit of money up our sleeves and nothing but time so we thought we would make the effort, and an effort it was. In one day our methods of transport door-to-door from Surfing Turtle to Little Corn Island consisted of firstly riding in the back of a horse and cart, then a boat, then a 2.5hr taxi to the airport, then a 2hr small propeller plane, then a taxi, then a 1hr boat, and finally walking.
The Corn Islands are situated 70kms east of the Carribean coast of Nicaragua and we spent five days on the smaller of the two. Little Corn has an area of 2.9 square kilometres and is so small that there are no cars or even roads. All transport is done on foot which suited us fine as each day we got up early, packed a bag and explored a different section of the island. We uncovered many empty and isolated beaches all to ourselves, setting up towels on the untracked sand and jumping in for a swim. Palm trees lined the shores, scattering coconuts onto the sand and providing a common ingredient in most of the meals on the island from coconut curries, coconut bread, coconut rice and everything in between. Seafood was of course the other typical fare with whole fish, and shrimp both cheap and easy to come by.
Much to my enjoyment, baseball is the most popular sport in Nicaragua. So much so that games were being played all over the country in everywhere from the school playground with sticks, to adults playing an impromptu game on the side of the road in the dirt. TVs in restaurants and bars were always showing baseball whether it be local or from the US and in Leon we even witnessed a large crowd sitting on chairs in the middle of the street with a projector screen set up to show the local derby. Baseball fields and stadiums were everywhere, and even this remote island without roads or electricity for half the day still managed to have a field and proper grandstand. It is so widespread that I’m told the kids on Big Corn Island even play baseball on the runway in between planes taking off!
We landed back on the mainland in the capital city, Managua, on a propeller plane so small I was almost sitting next to the pilot. Our next destination was Granada and we made our way from the airport to the bus station just in time to make the next local bus. By this stage it was close to 4pm and we’d had no food all day. With no time to buy anything at the station we instead bought a can of drink each and a chicken pastry some guy was selling out of a container walking down the aisle of the bus. In total it was $1.50 and as an added bonus we didn’t get food poisoning, in fact the pastry was pretty good.
Unlike the rest of the country, we found Granada to be quite touristy and pushy trying to offload tours, and handmade goods to any passing foreigners. The waiters all stood in the street with their restaurant menus and even some of the kids were uncharacteristically rude trying to sell goods or beg for money. Despite this we still managed to have a good time opting to explore the outer parts of town on foot and seeking out a more local environment. We stumbled across a softball game where the spectator entrance fee was 0.25c each and we sat in the rusty, crumbling grandstand watching on. The following day we took a boat around the Isletas of Lake Nicaragua, formed when the nearby volcano blew thousands of years ago. We weaved through the small islands, home to some big houses owned by millionaires and stopped at an island fort, built to protect the city of Granada from pirates in the 18th century.
We woke early to catch a 6:30am public bus with all the locals going to work. At this stage, almost six months in, it’s been a while since I last worked and instead in our tough life we were heading south to our next holiday destination. Ometape is an island formed by two volcanoes rising from Lake Nicaragua and is accessible by ferry from the mainland. Upon arriving at the dock we learned that the next ferry was not for a few hours but we could instead take a dodgy looking boat for half the price and leaving much sooner. We hesitantly boarded and instead of taking the captain’s advice to just sit on the concrete slab of the deck we followed another passenger downstairs to a dark, run down lower level. We watched on as the boat was loaded with not only people, but motorbikes, barrels, bags of chicken, and finally multiple stacks of 320 eggs were slid down a makeshift ramp to the lower level. After piling our bags on the ground we found a seat that wasn’t broken only for a guy to come along and start picking up our bags. I was about to question it when I realised he was smiling and just moving them to higher ground whilst repeating “mucho agua”. Sure enough within minutes of leaving the dock water was leaking into the boat and splashing from one end to the other as the boat rocked to and fro, eventually reaching a level high enough to wet our feet.
Our hostel on the island was an impressive multi-storey treehouse looking structure made from branches and wooden slabs. Climbing to the top storey, there was a small lookout and seats with views overlooking the lake and both volcanoes. We slept under mosquito nets, though with the amount of bugs in the area this kept just as many in as it did out.
We hired bikes and rode along the road under the sweltering midday sun passing beaches, plantations and small houses before eventually arriving at Ojo De Agua (the eye of the water) sweaty and exhausted. The promise of a swim at the end was the only thing that had kept us going so the sight of the natural spring pool filled with crystal clear water was a relief. The freshwater pool is fed from an underground river that comes from the volcano and is clean, cool and full of minerals. We floated around for several hours, taking photos and attempting to teach Lauren how to open her eyes underwater… with limited success.
That night I took advantage of the hostel’s “all you can drink rum for $10” promotion as we sat around playing drinking games until the early hours. This however meant yet another hungover travel day as we made our way off the island via foot, two buses, a ferry and a taxi with several close calls of sickness along the way. We shared the taxi with a guy I met in the hostel and of course within minutes of the trip the taxi broke down. We quickly jumped out and gave it a push for a clutch start, the driver didn’t seem phased and we continued on to San Juan Del Sur.
San Juan Del Sur
San Juan Del Sur is a coastal party town on the Pacific side of the country, and a spot I’d been counting down the days to visit. It came recommended by several friends who had visited in previous years and its popularity also became pretty obvious when talking to other travellers in the weeks leading up to it with the common question not “are you going to San Juan?”, but “when are you going?”. The biggest drawcard for everyone coming to the area is Sunday Funday, a huge all day pool crawl party between the hostels throughout town that takes place every Sunday and sees hundreds of travellers flood into the town each weekend to take part.
Our first night happened to fall on Canada Day and we joined the celebrations at the Naked Tiger hostel for their big pool party. We ran into some friends we had made from several weeks earlier in Leon who had also made it to San Juan and danced by the pool drinking rum until late before walking back to our hostel conveniently next door.
Our hostel, Casa De Olas, was in an amazing spot on the mountain with a large infinity pool looking down to the beach. It is a real homely place run by an Australian couple, who take care of all their drunk guests as if they are their own kids. Meals each night are eaten like a family dinner with everyone sitting down together and their Monday night roasts are a must for anyone missing a home cooked meal and recovering from a big Sunday Funday the day before. We had arrived on a Wednesday and not wanting to even think about moving further than the pool on the following Monday we ended up staying until Tuesday. Six nights all up and I could’ve easily stayed longer, not just for the Sundays but for the inviting and laid back environment the hostel offered laying around the pool in hammocks every day and watching the sunsets over the ocean in the distance. The place is hard to fault and I could easily see how people had fallen into “The Vortex” in the past and well and truly stayed longer than planned.
High on the hill overlooking the town of San Juan Del Sur sits ‘Christ of the Mercy’, a large statue of Jesus Christ reaching 24 metres in height. Lauren and I ventured away from the pool and the rums for long enough to walk the very steep streets up to statue for an amazing view down to the beach below. On the hot, sweaty walk back down a friendly driver thankfully stopped and offered us a lift so we jumped in the back of his ute and were taken right back into town.
We also took a day trip to a nearby beach, Playa Hemosa, and hired a surfboard for the day. The beach was quiet and clean and we spent most of our time in the water keeping cool and playing around in the small surf.
As luck would have it our volcano hiking group of friends from back in Guatemala had planned to arrive in San Juan the same weekend as us and we excitedly arranged to stay at the same hostel. We were so glad the timing worked out so well and it was great to catch up with Anthea, Jamie and Aaron again after going our separate ways more than a month earlier and assuming we would not see each other again. Even better was the fact that they had all brought more friends along which meant we now had a sizeable and friendly group to hang out with.
Two other friends, Ryan and Shaun, from the same volcano hike were also now working in another hostel in town which hosts a regular Friday night party so in what was to be a warm up for Sunday we all went to meet up with them for a big reunion. We got there early and our new Canadian friends, Kyle and Tim, got the night started with a game. Before long we’d had many rums, the place was packed and we were raiding the lost and found corner for makeshift costumes to fit the dress-up theme.
By the time Sunday Funday rolled around we had plenty of new friends to start the pre-party drinks with at breakfast. At 9:30am I was already onto my third beer after shotgunning the second at the request of the bartender and it was clear it was going to be a big day. We ducked next door to get in line for the wristband and finally the obligatory singlet, seen worn everywhere so far this trip. Back at our hostel the staff had been doing a great job at getting everyone up early and in the mood by pouring beer bongs and helping to set up drinking games. By midday everyone was well on their way, some more than others (Lauren and Anthea), and at 2pm the pool crawl officially started as we jumped in the back of trucks to be shuttled down into town for the first stop. As expected the day for everyone was a blur of rum, shots and falling in the pool. For those of us that made it all the way to the final stop, the dancing and drinking continued along with late night burritos before getting a taxi home at some stage after midnight and at least 15 hours of drinking. It was great having such a big group to enjoy the day with as well as recount the events over a bleary-eyed breakfast the next morning.
Tuesday came around fast and everyone once again had to go their separate ways. After some hugs and teary goodbyes we hopped on a bus heading out of town. Still feeling slightly fragile from our week in San Juan Del Sur we accidentally got off the bus too early only to realise it was the wrong stop before it was too late. We quickly jumped back on and sat down when minutes later a guy came up to Lauren, saying “chica, chica” and was holding her wallet. She had dropped it outside the bus on the side of the road somewhere, full of bank cards and money. Everyone around us on the bus, both local and foreigner, gasped at how lucky she was that someone was nice enough to chase her down and give it back.
We finally found our connecting bus that would take us across the border and into Costa Rica for the next leg of our trip. Our final amusing experience with the friendly Nicaraguan people was an easy-going bus attendant holding our passports and filling out our customs border entry document. When we pointed out that he had written that we were from Austria and not Australia he just smiled and said “bueno same same”… We just laughed and shrugged.