Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Nicaragua - 2013


Decided to travel to the central america during Christmas to enjoy the sunny weather and to practice my Spanish.  In a way, motivation for me to pick up Spanish in a faster phase ;-)  Wanted to cover more than one country for this two week trip and the combination of Nicaragua & Costa Rica fell in place.  One of the reasons for this choice is the opportunity to cross the border with less trouble by bus.


Island Ometepe: Volcano Conception and Maderas
There are a lot of very nice places in Nicaragua to visit and deciding where to go is a tough decision.  If I go to  El Salvador or Guatemala anytime, I may end up visiting the northern Nicaragua later. We stayed with the main cities (Granada & Leon) and Island Ometepe (wanted to visit here before they start building the canal and mess up the beauty of this place) this trip.  Despite Nicaragua being the second poorest country in the southern hemisphere, we felt safe wherever we were in Nicaragua - except in Managua and it was because of the opinions given out by a number of locals we met in our journey.  We were walking out and looking for a restaurant in Managua at 9pm but didn't face any threats and it's going to be as bad as walking around in LA or NY in the unknown areas at night.  Most of the time we used our common sense and didn't end up in any issues.

Improving Bus System in North West

Christmas in Portland
To save $200 per ticket for this trip, I booked our tickets from Portland, the overall savings because of this cheap-ass plan was $400 and it was worth it.  The new BOLT bus service in the North West is awesome, we used this bus to get to Portland downtown and the public transit system in Portland is very impressive, hoping that Seattle will learn a thing or two from Portland.  Getting from the bus stop to the airport was very easy in Portland and the same BOLT bus service operates between Portland and Vancouver, so more options to choose cheap tickets to fly ;-)

Plan for the first day

Our flight landed in Managua @ noon and our first night stay was in the Ometepe Island, since I had to coordinate the ferry timings and reaching the hotel before very late, I arranged for a taxi, with the hotel owner in Ometepe, to pick us up from the airport to take us to the ferry dock in San Jorge that's two hour taxi ride.

Trip to San Jorge

Managua airport is very small and getting through the immigration/customs was pretty simple. I was expecting a lot of run down buildings and bad roads on the way because I was thinking that this country is out of their civil war just less than 30 years back and it's one of the poorest countries, but to my surprise the roads are very good.  Didn't find a lot of shops on the road to San Jorge except a gas stations where we stopped to get some local currency and water bottle.  We were looking for some roadside places to eat but couldn't find any.

Taste of Road Side Food

Street Food near Ferry
We reached San Jorge around 245 pm and there's nothing much to eat in the ferry station, so Sharada & Shabina (my daughters) who could speak good Spanish went out of the ferry station looking for some vegetarian food to buy while I was taking care of our backpacks. One of the stupid things that I did was related to the amount of money that I withdrew from the ATM in our stop, while I was thinking that I was withdrawing close to $100 equivalent Cordobas, I withdrew only $10 equivalent of Cordobas and I gave my kids $5 worth of Cordobas to eat their lunch and get me some lunch.  I realized this only after they left but to my surprise after having their lunch, they returned with my lunch and some Cordoba change ;-)   The food is really good and less expensive (or cheap) in the local places.

Ferry to Ometepe

El Che was waiting for us and a couple of vehicles to board before taking off to the island by 4 pm.  Unlike most places that we visited the tickets for the ferry ride needs to be paid at the ferry - wondering what they would do if someone rides without money ;-)  I was worried about not having enough local currency to pay for the ferry but the US Dollar is accepted everywhere and the change is provided in the local currency.

Foreigners In Nicaragua

Met an American guy aged around 55-60, who moved to Ometepe Island from Hawaii five years back and
enjoying his quiet life there.  When inquired about what the heck he does in Ometepe, he answered that he enjoys reading and having a quiet life - when he had to drive an hour to cross five mile distance in Hawaii, he decided to make the move.  He spends summer months, when it rains like crazy in Ometepe, with his grandchildren in Oregon and we met a number of Americans & Europeans in this trip who decided to take life easy either in Nicaragua or in Costa Rica.  Costa Rica has advantages over Nicaragua in the health care area but the living expenses pretty economical in Nicaragua and the real estate is very cheap.

Lake Nicaragua Sunset
The ferry ride was about ninety minutes to Moyogalpa and on the ferry we met two Swedish medical students who were making one day trip to the island to climb the Maderas volcano.  Since we didn't have any plans for our days in the island, we decided to climb with the Swedish friends the next day.  They didn't have a place to stay that night but very lucky to find a place very close to our hotel in a hostel after calling a few places and we were able to car pool with them to the hotel.  These guys spent about 3 months working in Mexico helping the health care facility in a small town, started their travel to the south via Guantemala and Nicaragua to Costa Rica.

Haridas in Nicaragua

The most part of the ride to our hotel was in very nice roads but the last 30 minutes of the ride was extremely bad and the worst part of it was that it's in dark.  The hotel we were staying is owned by a German named Hari and when I mentioned that it's an Indian name, his reply was that his full name is Haridas - very Indian.  He lived in India for a long time, traveled most parts of North India and in a way that he's more Indian than I ;-)  Had very good discussions about his Indian experience, why Nicaragua and the plans by the Nicaraguan government to build the shipping canal competing with Panama.  After him moving to island, he changed the culture of how the horses are treated. Some of the people in the Ometepe Island concerned (my perception after talking to a few people) that the canal won't bring a lot of employment to the locals but there'll be a lot of Chinese will be coming to do the work, also the canal will change the whole character of the island.

Hari advised us to start the hike after 8am but before 9am to avoid the fog at the top of the volcano at the same time enough time to get back to hotel before dark.  He volunteered to coordinate with the hostel manager where our Swedish friends were staying regarding the guide for the hike.

Maderas Volcano Trek

Maderas Trail
Our Swedish friends showed up at 930 am with the guide and guide's girl friend, and we were fickle minded whether to start the hike that late but since we didn't have anything planned, we decided to start the hike and discussed about turning back at 145 pm.  Looking at the mountain, it didn't look good at all, it was very foggy and we're hoping to have a good view from the top and we thought that starting this late might help us.  The hiking got pretty strenuous after the first hour with steep slopes, muddy tracks and places where we had to climb holding on to the tree roots/branches or cables.  The views of the Ometepe Island and the water falls in the volcano was excellent but after two hour there's not much views but hiking in cloud forest which had completely different climate from where we started.

On Top
The Swedish girl spotted a small snake on the side of the trail after crossing it, it was crazy to hear from the guide that it's a poisonous snake and it won't do anything if we didn't disturb the snake.  It all made sense  but seeing the snake and needed to face it to climb up was little scary.  Anyway, we moved on after waiting for a few minutes without having any encounter with the snake.  We meet two other guys who are from Sweden from the same town as our friends climbing down.  One of the guys couldn't climb up because of his knees, so they decided to turn back just an hour away from the top.

We reached the windy and cloudy top around 130 pm and couldn't see the crater at all, there're no views
except the satisfaction of reaching the top on time ;-)  The hike down was pretty bad for the first two hours and everyone in the group fell down at least ones (including the guide and his girl friend) because of the muddiness or steepness of the slope.  We reached the base almost close to the sun set and by the time we reached the hotel, it was dark.

Overall, the hike was great in experiencing a different micro-climate at the top of the mountain and good time in the cloud forest.  We saw only five people in our trek, so in a way that we had the whole volcano for ourselves that day.  Even though, the trails are in very good condition given how much it rains there, it is better to go with the guide because there's absolutely no traffic or trail marking there.  The guide mentioned that a young hiker lost his way a few years back and found dead.

Options for Travel in Ometepe

After the long and tiring hike, the dinner at the hotel (egg plant lasagna) with the cold beer was awesome.  We met a Sri Lankan guy and his Russian girl friend, who are from Toronto.  Enjoyed talking about the countries that the guy lived over a period of his preteen-age (India, Germany, Tanzania, UK and Canada) years and how his parents decided not to travel anywhere once they got settled in Toronto.

When inquired the horse riding prices, it's little expensive for Nicaragua (but after reaching Costa Rica, we were cursing ourselves for not riding horses with Hari), so we decided to skip the horse riding and decided to leave Ometepe in the noon ferry so that we could reach Granada before night.  To catch the ferry at noon, we had the option to take either the public bus, which takes about 3 hours, or take the taxi, that takes about 90 minutes, to reach the ferry dock - we decided to take the taxi and spend the saved time wandering in the village.  There's not much to do in the village and if I planned better, we should have hired the Vespa to go around the island.

Chicken Bus Ride

 Ride from Moyogalpa ferry dock to San Jorge was uneventful despite the fact that it's the day before Christmas.  We were thinking that we got the taxi for the very cheap rate of one-third of the normal price to go from the ferry dock to the bus station, but later on we found out that the normal way of negotiating or quoting price for the taxis in Nicaragua is per person rate (even if you are traveling as family) ;-)  The taxi driver dropped us closer to the bus stand and walking through the congested roads to the bus stop reminded me of India.  In a way, the Central america reminds me more of the roads, markets and congestion of India.

Once we were in the bus, we were able to store our backpacks inside the bus on the luggage rack and settled down.  It was very hot and humid, we didn't know what time the bus would leave.  There're a bunch of street vendors selling food, water and snacks in the bus, we decided to try some sweet bread and it was good.  The bus was full with standing crowd before the driver decided to start the bus and the ride to Granada took about 2 hours which wasn't bad at all.  There're people in the bus with with Chicken and a small dog ;-)  The bus made a few stops to pick up and drop people on the way and the price for the two hour bus ride was about $2 per person which is way cheaper than the taxi fare of $15 per person.


The walk from the bus stand to the main square was about 500 meters through the main market street - being the Christmas eve, it was very crowded and fun to watch the people and things on our walk to hostel.  There were no grand Christmas decorations in town except a giant (artificial) Christmas tree in the town center and at sunset there's a simple Christmas procession.

The hostel was small and really beautiful with a small swimming pool inside the hostel.  The hostel is managed by an Irish guy, Gary, who moved to Nicaragua about three years back who bought the hotel property, in a central location, using ReMax real estate company.  We met  a couple, from Portugal, who stays in this hostel and commutes to Managua everyday (about 90 minute ride) to attend the medical school.

Christmas in Granada

Granada is a small town and we walked around the whole town in a couple of hours, visiting churches and shops, the day we arrived there.  The people in the churches were decorating the churches around 8 pm on the Christmas eve for the mid-night mass. Granada seems to be mostly a party town with a lot of bars and restaurants, and there's not much to do in the town other than eating and drinking.  One interesting thing about the Christmas eve was that there's a lot of fireworks at night to celebrate the arrival of Christmas day ;-)

We ventured further into the city in non-touristy areas in the morning after having waffles and pan cakes in the Kathy's Waffle house.   Most of the shops were open during Christmas day but didn't see a lot of action in town.  The town, the parts out side the touristy main square, is clean and safe but the long iron grills at the shops and houses indicated that the safety at night may be different from what we felt at day time.  The houses are very colorful around the city.  After wandering off most part of the morning around the city and relaxing around main square, we decided to head off to the Laguna Apoya earlier than planned.

Negotiating With Nicaraguans

The bus services from Granada to Laguna Apoya was not operating at full schedule on the Christmas day, so decided to spend $15 for the taxi ride to our hostel which is located inside a crater.  Nicaraguans are easy to negotiate, easy to convince what we could pay and very friendly people.  Not sure whether so many years of civil war made them sick of fighting and being aggressive !!  really, we never had any issue with street vendors, taxis or any one else in negotiating the prices.  Very friendly people.


On the way to our hostel, we were able to spot a number of young people having alcohol on the road side and most of these guys are much younger than 16 years.  The alcohol is cheaper than fruit juices in most of the places where we were getting our drinks.  I can confidently say that Flor de Cana is one of the best rums that I had and it's dirt cheap.  Alcoholism and teen pregnancies seem to be major problems in addition to the lack of the employment opportunities in Nicaragua.  

Laguana Apoya

Our hostel was a cool place managed by a couple of French friends who decided to move to Nicaragua and provide hostel facilities to fund the education for the local kids.  First of all, living inside the crater and swimming in the lake inside the crater was awesome, the water in the lake is the cleanest fresh water in Nicaragua.  There were kayak, tubes and other beach accessories provided by the hostel to enjoy the lake.  The lake was huge, clean and not crowded at all.  We were able to relax in the hostel with the cool breeze, warm water and cheap beer.

In the windy weather, wavy waters, it was initially difficult maneuver the kayak and ended up going towards people swimming in the water, after a few minutes learned the technique to stay calm and paddle.  It is a nice place to wind-down for a couple of days with swimming, reading books in the hammocks or just lying down in the beach.


One of the greatest thing about travel is the people we meet and discussions that we have.  In this place we meet a couple from Sweden whose daughter decided to study in Leon to immerse in Spanish.  Initially, they were wondering why not Spain but overall they are happy with the University in Leon and their daughter's stay in Leon.  Can't forget the religious discussions with a guy from Montana and a guy from German just after dinner.  I was surprised to see a number of Americans traveling to Nicaragua instead of the typical touristy places of Costa Rica.

Masaya Market and Interesting Paintings

After enjoying the sun rise and early morning in the beach, we took the chicken bus to Masaya with a Danish couple who were staying in the hostel and traveling from Belize to Rio by road.  Other than the hammocks, we couldn't find any handicrafts that interested us to buy.  One type of the paintings that we couldn't forget about seeing in Masaya was that the painting of man or lady sitting in the toilet (especially big size women) and using the toilet paper - not sure why this painting is all over the market !!!

Mini-Bus Travel

The mini-buses in Nicaragua are much better than the chicken buses and they are 12 seat mini vans.  They leave as soon as they fill up and costs almost same as the buses.  We had to pay for a seat to keep our backpacks and other than that the trip was quick and easy to Managua from Masaya.  And in the UCA bus station, we got another mini-bus to get to Leon immediately.  The public transportation with the mini-buses is pretty good between the touristy towns.

Reaching Las Penitas

Las Penitas Beach
We were asked to keep our backpack next to our seats and in front of us, so no charge or seat for the bags for the ride from Managua to Leon.  I was worrying about traveling at night in this road before reaching Nicaragua, I was imagining that the road conditions would be primitive - but I was wrong.  The only thing that of a concern was the speed of the vehicles and how they were overtaking each other.  We left Managua around 3 pm and reached Leon just before 5 pm in a very comfortable ride in the mini-bus.  Since it was getting closer to the sunset, we got a taxi for $11 to get to Las Penitas and reached our hostel in 45 minutes.

Eco Room

What I noticed about Las Penitas when we reached our hostel is that it's a small beach town with a lot of dogs all over the place. We checked into our eco-room which is made up on bamboo sticks and honey bucket kind of toilet in the restroom.  SO when you are planning for the eco-room, inquire how it'll be different from a regular room;-)  It is not bad at all and the shower area has the dried palm tree branch sidings, so it was a truly an eco-room, and to prove this - we found a frog sitting on my bed the second night of our stay;-)

Even though the hostel is advertised as the beach front place, we couldn't see the sea from our room or from the hotel which was a let down and it's was 10 minute walk in the beach to get to the water.  After dinner at the hostel, one of the best restaurants in town, we walked around the town but didn't find anything interesting.  The next day it was noisy very early in the morning with the dogs barking and vehicles honking.

Practicing Spanish and Getting Beer

We spent the whole day swimming in the beach that was not crowded at all and enjoyed the strong waves as well as the feel of hundreds of small fishes (sardines) hitting our body.  We located a nice restaurant at the beach, where we parked ourselves to enjoy food and drinks, in between our swimming ventures.  At the afternoon, after spending more than four hours in the beach, I wanted to have a bottle of beer, so went to the counter  for ordering the beer and to practice my Spanish.  The whole restaurant was managed by only one waiter and I told him "Pardon...una cerveza par favor" for that he replied "Litre" which I assumed that he's saying he'd bring it to me later, I answered "Si...gracias". But to my surprise he brought a one liter bottle of beer and then only I realized my Spanish understanding skills suck ;-)  So spent the rest of the afternoon finishing the liter of beer...

Tired of Relaxing

Wanted to learn surfing in Las Penitas but we couldn't find anyone teaching surfing in the beach and we couldn't find a lot of tourists in the beach either.  The beach is very beautiful and clean with nice restaurants spaced a kilometer apart.  After lazing in the restaurant and in the beach for more than 6 hours, we got tired and decided to go to the hostel to make reservations for the volcano surfing the for the next day.  Thinking about lazing in the beach, we all got bored after 6 hours doing nothing beach and wondering how people spend a week in the beach or in the swimming pool "relaxing".

Communicated with Quetzal Trekkers, which is a voluntary organization that raises funds for the local children by providing local tours and trekking services, for our trip to Cerro Negro Volcano.  After exchanging emails with them and booking the trip for next day, we returned to the beach for more swimming and to watch the sun set.

Volcano Boarding

Top of Cerro Negro
We arrived at the Quetzal Trekkers building in Leon by riding the chicken bus to Leon and then taxi at 730 am.  After storing all of our bags in their offices, we started out for the adventure.  Initially, there're only 4 people signed up for this adventure but slowly more people started to show up and the group ended up being 15 people.  All of us boarded at the back of a pickup truck before heading to the volcano the pickup truck stopped in the market to pick up some lunch for the group.  It was an hour long drive in a bumpy road to the bottom of the Cerro Negro volcano, which is an active volcano that is smoking hot.  This volcano erupts almost every 18 years, the last big eruption was in 1995 and the next one can be anytime.

Hike to the top of the volcano takes about 45 minutes with the 12 pound wooden board and the hike wss not hard but very HOT without any shades and the heat from the volcano.  Everyone talks about how scary it is to come down using the board but the scary part for me was to carrying the board in a very windy day to the edge of the volcano.  There's a 100-200 meter distance you have to walk on the top of the volcano in a narrow path with steep slope to the bottom of the volcano on one side and sulphur smoking hot inner crater on the other side.  Walking on this path with the heavy wind was scary and the wind resistance is more because the board is flat, the wind pushes you to the side of the path.  The day we were climbing, it was very windy and I would have fallen if I didn't manage to align the board in a certain angle.

Sharada Rocket Boarding

The sand or ash at the top of the volcano was hot and the guide indicated that we could bury an egg in the sand for 45 minutes to get it baked.  Digging the sand and feeling the heat just a few inches deep didn't make me question her statement.  After enjoying the view from the top of the volcano, we decide to board down.  I was very scared to look down from the edge and asked tons of questions before decided to go down.  Since you can control the speed of the board going down, it was not really scary or dangerous unless you want to hurt my daughter Sharada.  After sitting in the board, Sharada took off like a rocket and almost at the half way down, she let the board fly-off and she rolled on the ash.  She had minor scratches but nothing serious.  After collecting board, she continued her journey down faster.  But I was not that brave and descended slowly by stopping my board frequently.

Quetzal Trekkers gives the option to come down from the volcano the second time if any one interested and most of the people in our group wanted to board or run down the volcano the second time.  So whoever wanted to go up the volcano, started the trek after having some snacks at the pick up truck to enjoy the adventure.  Sharada and I ran down the mountain which was fun too but Shabina decided to board down.  I think that it's the only place where you can do this and we are glad that we did the volcano boarding with the great tour group.  The lunch prepared by our guide with simple fajita, guacamole, tomato, refried beans and chips was really awesome, and I got an idea on what to take for our camping trip in Costa Rica.

Interesting Friends

One of the couple who stayed with us in the Ometepe Island, who traveled from Quebec, was also part of the group that did the volcano boarding and we were surprised to see them.  We had an interesting conversation with two brothers, from LA, while climbing up the volcano that made the hike less tiring. One of the brothers is part of the Peace Corps that he joined after completing his bachelors degree in Business Administration to help one of the rural communities in Nicaragua in starting small business.  Getting into details  what he does in Nicaragua and experience he's gaining was very interesting.  In a way, he motivated me to consider looking into Peace Corps.  The other brother, who is doing Environmental Engineering, had done back to back foreign exchange programs in China and Argentina.

Time in Leon

Toured the Leon cathedral and climbed to the roof to get a good view of Leon before heading out to the super market to get the groceries for the Costa Rica camping and rum to take home.  The alcohol in the supermarket is much cheaper than the alcohol in the duty free shop, so decided to get the best.  After collecting the bags from Quetzals, went to the bus station to catch a mini-bus to Managua around 5 pm.

Panic in Managua

By the time we arrived Managua, it was dark a
nd raining, so we got a taxi to go to the hotel that we booked for the night before our flight.  I remember seeing the hotel being closer to a bigger mall as well as our friends from LA in the volcano group mentioned that there're a lot of restaurants closer to our hotel but the taxi driver started going in the back roads those were not lit properly, We started to worry but everything worked out and the hotel was in the back streets that's closer to the mall.


After unpacking all of our bags in the Aloha Hotel, we wanted to venture out eat, against the advise from our LA friends not to walk around night.  There's not much light or traffic in the back road and after reaching the main road, we didn't want to cross heavily trafficked road so we came back to the hotel room to order pizza from Pizza Hut.

Adios Nicaragua

The time that we spent in Nicaragua was excellent, we really enjoyed meeting very good friends and experienced a friendly culture/country.  The taxi to the airport came on time, checking in the bags and getting to the flight was very easy because Managua's airport is small.  The following are take away from our trip.
1.  Spend a night or more in Laguna Apoya because you will never get a chance to stay inside a crater
2.  Leon is less touristy and a lot more things to do than Granada.
3.  Ometepe is cool.  If possible, rent a Vespa and ride around the island
4.  Booze is cheaper in the supermarket than in the duty free shops.  Best rum.
5.  Public transportation is awesome and safe, use it whenever you can
6.  Nice, safe and fun place to travel for less money


  1. Ganesan, Wow !!! You have had an amazing trip !! come and visit us with your daughters !!

  2. Sounds like a great trip! Wish I had been there....oh wait a minute, I was. :-)

    And it was great.

    The parts I wasn't there for look great too. Thanks for posting!

  3. Another fascinating adventure - thanks for sharing the experience here! :)