A Travellerspoint blog

Magical Islands: Sicily and Malta


View Sicily and Malta on zzlangerhans's travel map.

Easter vacation is tough when it comes to choosing a travel destination, because it raises the question of whether it's worth the two 9-10 hour flights across the Atlantic to Europe and back for a one week trip. Most of the places we want to visit in the US are too cold for us in April, and Latin America gets repetitious (we were just in Nicaragua in January). I was thinking about Malta for a few reasons: it was probably going to be acceptably warm with lows in the 60's, there seemed to be a lot of fun things for kids, it was tiny and isolated so we probably would never get there on a longer European road trip, and it would be a new country for everyone. However, as usual when I look at Google Maps I can't keep my hand off the scroll button and my eye kept getting drawn to Malta's larger island neighbor Sicily to the north. I'd been there twice before: with my parents when I was about five, and for a couple of days in my twenties. My memories were very vague from both trips. I had planned to include Sicily on a future road trip from Rome down the Amalfi coast, but after doing a little research I realized I didn't want to wait. I started working on an ambitious itinerary that would cover all the main attractions of Sicily as well as Malta and determined that the absolute minimum time for the trip would be two weeks. We don't like taking Cleo out of school now that she's in pre-K, but eventually we decided it wouldn't upset her to miss about a week. Of course, there were no direct flights from Miami to Sicily or Malta but I found very reasonably-priced two-leg itineraries to Palermo with a connection in Rome. The rental car ended up being inexpensive as well thanks to our discovery in Munich that a larger car could accommodate three car seats across the back seat, which meant we wouldn't have to go with a costly and cumbersome minivan. I did my best to confirm that our seats would fit in the promised BMW 218D and decided we would deal with the issue at the rental agency if that turned out not to be the case.

We did a great job on our end of preparing for the trip. After forgetting a few things on our last two road trips we had made an exhaustive checklist of all the essentials which ensured everything got into the bags before we left. We had an evening departure which meant the kids would sleep most of the flight and take much of the sting out of the nine hour ordeal. I had booked flights on KLM but the check-in desk redirected us to Alitalia which was apparently the actual airline we were flying on. At Alitalia, the check-in agent sent our bags through but then found herself unable to assign us boarding passes for our flight from Rome to Palermo. She called over another agent and after much scrutiny of their computer screen the second agent informed us our second flight had been canceled due to "a strike at the airport". While Mei Ling tried to get more information from the agents I Googled the strike and found it it was actually an Alitalia strike and had nothing to do with the airport. I brought this to the agents' attention and the second agent smiled and nodded. "Yes, it's an Alitalia strike." Apparently these strikes have been a fairly regular event lately and last for part of a day. Alitalia then cancels a whole bunch of flights, screws over hundreds of their passengers, presumably rebooks them, and business continues as usual until the next strike. At that point we decided to proceed to Rome and hopefully rebook on a later flight to Palermo. If worst came to worst, we could take a ferry or drive down to Sicily and salvage most of our vacation. Rome isn't the worst place in the world to be stranded anyway.

The flight to Rome wasn't too bad, although the kids didn't sleep as much as I'd hoped and I didn't sleep at all. Once we landed, we quickly found a desk where Alitalia agents were supposed to be helping people rebook their canceled flights. After about a twenty minute wait I came to an agent with a shaved head. He looked at my itinerary and immediately passed it back to me, telling me that since I booked through KLM I would have to go to KLM check-in in the departures area. That seemed to make no sense to me. It's an Alitalia flight, I told him. He just shook his head and gave me a very insincere sympathetic look, the kind of expression that is intended to make it very clear that it is not meant sincerely. He wouldn't talk to us any more. We would have to go to KLM. I asked him if we should go to baggage claim first and get our luggage. No, he answered, your luggage will be going on to Palermo. How does our luggage get to Palermo if the flight has been canceled? For a second, his smirk was replaced by a look of confusion. Then the smirk reappeared, and he told us that yes, we should go to baggage claim. We were pleasantly surprised to find all our bags piled up next to the empty baggage carousel. We schlepped everybody and everything to the KLM check-in where as expected, they told us that they had absolutely nothing to do with domestic flights within Italy which were exclusively conducted by Alitalia. They were courteous enough to take us directly to Alitalia check-in, where a long line of displaced passengers awaited reassignment, and prevail upon the agents there to attend to us immediately.
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Despite cutting to the front of the line, we still had to spend an hour sprawled in front of the check-in desk while the agent scrutinized his computer screen wordlessly aside from barking nastily at any coworkers who spoke to him. Eventually he informed us that all flights to Palermo the rest of the day were fully booked and the best he could do was ten in the morning the next day. I asked him if that was the first flight to Palermo that day and he told me there was one at eight. I asked him if there was space on that one and he said there was, with no explanation regarding why he had just told us that ten in the morning was the best he could do. It actually made a huge difference for us, because the earlier arrival meant we would be able to catch one of the morning markets in Palermo that we were desperate to experience. We booked the tickets and the agent told us that we would be comped for a night at a Holiday Inn close to the airport. During this long interaction there was only one other agent tending to the queue of refugees in a similarly slow fashion, so the line didn't move at all the entire time we were there. I felt a little guilty about cutting to the front, but when you have three exhausted little kids you accept any favors you get. Hopefully none of those folks ended up spending the whole night on that line.

We got to the Holiday Inn shuttle stop only to find out we'd have to wait an hour for the next bus, so we took a taxi instead. The Rome airport is actually in Fiumicino, about twenty miles from central Rome, and our hotel was in an isolated business park halfway between the two. Once we were settled in the hotel, we had to decide if we were going to simply use the hotel dinner voucher we'd been provided or find a restaurant. Eventually I decided that the Holiday Inn dinner was probably going to be awful and I didn't want the Alitalia fiasco to have a permanent impact on the quality of our trip, so I used the "Restaurants near me" function of TripAdvisor to pick a place to eat. I wasn't sure that Uber was reliable in Rome and I already had the European Mytaxi app installed on my phone. Mytaxi showed me a very inexpensive fare and I summoned a taxi which took about 15 minutes to arrive. When we arrived at the restaurant, the taxi driver entered his own fare into the Mytaxi app which was about three times higher than what I had been quoted. Later I determined that Mytaxi is basically a dispatch app and the fare estimate they provide has no basis in reality. At the end of the ride, the taxi driver determines the fare and he charged us for the mileage he drove to get to the hotel as well as the mileage to the restaurant.

Fortunately, our dinner at Scuderie San Carlo was quite good and the restaurant was beautiful and peaceful, which made me feel like the effort to drag ourselves from the hotel had been worthwhile.
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We took a Uber back to the Holiday Inn which was less than half the price of the Mytaxi. Mei Ling used the voucher to get more food from the hotel restaurant, but the overcooked rigatoni in canned red sauce and baked chicken thighs ended up in the trash can. I felt a small sense of victory that we hadn't let Alitalia reduce us to eating garbage on the first night of our vacation.

The next morning we were up at the crack of dawn and took the shuttle bus back to the Fiumicino airport. One cool feature in the departure area was the rectangular columns with LED screens that displayed a continuous loop of sharks and fish moving inside a large tank. Very realistic.

Overall things went much more smoothly than the previous day and we got to Palermo without any issues. As we approached the airport, I was amazed by the topography that was visible from the airplane window. I could see the two massive cliffs of Monte Gallo and Monte Pellegrino bookending the beach of Mondello. Behind were rows and rows of low mountains with towns and villages occupying most of the valleys between them.
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We had arranged for our Airbnb host to pick us up at the airport for about the same price as a taxi, which meant we didn't have to worry about the driver locating our apartment in central Palermo. We unloaded our stuff into the apartment as quickly as we could. Our first market was just a short walk away.

Posted by zzlangerhans 07:01 Archived in Italy Tagged italy sicily malta Comments (0)

Hola Nicaragua! Trip conclusion

We had only one plan for our last morning in Managua, which was to return to Mercado Roberto Huembes for a killer market meal and perhaps pick up some souvenirs. When we arrived around 10, the comedores were just getting set up with huge cauldrons abubble with broth and freshly cut vegetables. At the crafts side of the market, we bought some dresses for Cleo and her friends and a few small souvenirs. Back in the meat and produce section, I asked one of the iguana vendors if there was anywhere we could eat iguana in the market. She pointed me back to the comedores. Sure enough, once we got there and asked around, we were directed to a stall where we were served a piping hot bowl of iguana soup. Add another huge bowl of mondongo and a seafood soup with coconut milk broth and we practically had to roll ourselves to the van for the ride to the airport.

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Just like that, we had finished our second trip to Central America in a year. There was no question we had accomplished much more in Nicaragua than we had in Panama. Part of that was due to Spenser being a year older and us being more accustomed to traveling with three kids, but there's no way we could have gone to all those places without the help of Nicaragua Adventures. One thing I would have changed about our itinerary in hindsight would have been to base ourselves in Matagalpa and just visit Selva Negra for a nature walk and lunch before heading to León. That would have freed up another day to see Esteli or the state of Chinandega. We also could have seen more in Ometepe. I probably should have negotiated with NA or chartered a taxi to take us to the town of Altagracia on our final morning instead of hanging out at the lodge. Overall, I think we got a great overview of the Pacific half of the country. The biggest surprise was enjoying León more than Granada, although Granada has the reputation of being the best city to visit. León may not have any Irish bars, but the vibe was much more authentically colonial.

If we ever go back to Nicaragua, it won't be until my youngest kid is old enough to take a three hour hike without complaining (and hopefully I won't be too old to take a three hour hike without complaining). That's at least ten years away, and possibly more if we go for a fourth kid. On the map it looks like we only covered a small area, but most of the center of the country is lightly populated with almost nothing for casual tourists to do. The Caribbean coast and Corn Islands seem more interesting but I didn't come across much in my research to differentiate them from other Caribbean destinations. We've spent a lot of time in the Caribbean, and actually live next to it. One only gets a certain amount to travel time in one's life, and it's incumbent on the traveler to discover those places that will add truly new and memorable experiences. Now that we've proven the concept of a personalized tour or assisted traveling, we'll have lots more opportunities in Central and South America, and maybe even Africa, for winter travel.

We were very happy with Nicaragua Adventures and there's a good chance we'll use them again to see the rest of Panamá, since we didn't venture outside of Ciudad de Panamá on our first visit. I haven't decided about Costa Rica, the third country NA operates in. It's got the most developed tourist infrastructure and I think there's a good chance we could do it ourselves once the kids are a little older. If there ends up being a fourth kid, then we'll probably fall back on NA and their large vehicles.

I'm buckling down with work for the next couple of months to generate some positive cash flow before we go to Sicily and Malta in April. When June comes round and the kids finish school, we'll set off on our third round-the-world trip to visit Mei Ling's family in China. Our tentative stops on the way there and back are Taiwan and Copenhagen. Happy travels!

Posted by zzlangerhans 22:25 Archived in Nicaragua Tagged managua huembes Comments (0)

Hola Nicaragua! Ometepe

My curiosity about the oddly-shaped island of Ometepe was what drew my attention to Nicaragua in the first place, so it was a fitting conclusion to our ten day tour of the country. The island was formed from the intersection of lava flows from two volcanoes, Concepción and Maderas. Concepción is still highly active, with the last eruption being in 2010. We just missed the 2:30 ferry out of San Jorge but it was no big deal since there was another one an hour and a half later. We drove into town and found a playground where Ian and Cleo had some fun with the local kids.
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We could see Ometepe even before the ferry left San Jorge. The sight of the island's two volcanoes seemingly arising right out of the lake was almost surreal.
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We met our new driver when the ferry landed in Moyogalpa, one of the two real towns on the island. We made one brief stop at a roadside stand to stock up on fruit, and also picked up two French Canadian kids who mistook our van for a route bus. When our driver tried to explain to them in Spanish that it was a private van, I told him there was plenty of room and we didn't mind. I'm not sure the Canadians ever realized what was going on, but they were glad for the ride. Our destination was Finca San Juan de la Isla, a lakefront lodge within a tropical fruit plantation near the isthmus between the two volcanoes. Once again, we were very happy with NA's choice. At the end of a dirt road through a spooky forest of plantain trees, the lodge was pretty and well-appointed with a decent restaurant. Best of all, there were piles of toys for the kids to play with.
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We spent the next morning at Charco Verde natural reserve, on the southern coast of the Concepción side of Ometepe. There was a butterfly conservatory which the kids loved. We captured some amazing sights including a mantis slowly biting the head off a butterfly and clutches of butterfly eggs on the undersurfaces of leaves.
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We walked an easy trail through the preserve, encountering numerous birds as well as a snake and a large troupe of spider monkeys. Within Charco Verde is a lagoon said to be inhabited by the spirit of a witch named Chico Largo, who is reputed to drown lost hunters at the bottom of the lagoon. Here's some more about Charco Verde and Chico Largo.
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At another small botanical garden we discovered an achiote tree. The small pods were filled with greasy red seeds that Nicaraguans use for coloring and flavoring their food, but we found they also made excellent warpaint.
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We had lunch overlooking the shoreline, and afterwards walked down to the narrow strip of beach for a view of the Maderas volcano. Our last stop of the day was the Ojo de Agua natural swimming hole, which was sufficiently crowded and commercialized to feel like any community swimming pool.
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For the rest of the day and the next morning, we were stuck at our lodge as there weren't any good transportation options to the closest real town. Of course, it wasn't the worst place to be stuck. We worked on our computers and intermittently cleaned up the toys whenever the mess in the lodge started to reach critical mass. On Friday morning we took one last long walk around the property. At the edge of the plantain forest we encountered another large group of spider monkeys, or perhaps the same group we'd seen at Charco Verde. It was amazing to see such a large number of them roaming freely in their natural environment.
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In the early afternoon our driver took us to San José del Sur to catch the ferry back to San Jorge. We had one last good look at Concepción from the ferry, a tableau in shades of green accompanied by that one cloud that always seemed to shroud the summit. On the way back, Cleo and Ian were happy to provide iPad demonstrations for a crowd of curious Nicaraguan kids who collected on the benches around us.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 17:48 Archived in Nicaragua Comments (0)

Hola Nicaragua! Granada

Our hotel in Granada, Casa del Consulado, was even prettier and closer to the center of town than our hotel in León. We naturally made a beeline for the market as soon as we'd settled in, but it was almost entirely closed due to the New Year's Day holiday. We decided to go to Restaurante El Zaguan for lunch instead, where we had the best restaurant meal of the trip. Everything was good but the highlight was a whole deep-fried guapote, a type of bass native to Lake Nicaragua.
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Next up was the Chocolate Museum, where Cleo and Mei Ling got a crash course in the making of chocolate bars from the bean to the mold.
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After a relaxing breakfast the next morning, we were reunited with our guide from the first day in Managua and proceeded eastward to the Masaya Volcano. This is one of the few sites in the world where it's possible to see magma within a volcano crater, but between the smoke and the ambient light we couldn't see anything besides a faint red glow. Apparently going at night is usually more rewarding.
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The nearby city of Masaya has the best-known crafts market in Nicaragua. We had made it clear we wanted to split our time in Masaya between the crafts market and the municipal market, so we quickly toured the crafts stalls and bought a couple of small items as souvenirs. Nicaraguan ceramic artists are well-known for their talent and creativity and I have a beautiful pair of Nicaraguan vases at home, but buying anything fragile was not going to be possible on this trip. The municipal market was a lot more lively than the crafts market had been, and there were virtually no tourists except us.
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After lunch we visited Laguna de Apoyo, a pretty crater lake between Masaya and Granada well-known for its clean, warm water. It's a popular spot for relaxation and water sports, but we were on a tight schedule so we limited our stop to a few minutes for views and pictures. Nearby was the small colonial village of San Juan de Oriente, which is famous for its ceramic artists. We stopped in a workshop for a demonstration of pottery-making and a look at some of the finished products.
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Our last stop of the day was Las Isletas de Granada, an archipelago of tiny islands that surround a small peninsula projecting into Lake Nicaragua just south of Granada. About 1200 people live on the islets, many of them subsistence fishermen. However, some of the wealthiest Nicaraguans maintain luxurious second homes on private islands as well. One of the islands is inhabited only by monkeys, which were placed there for sanctuary by a veterinarian who lived nearby. We disembarked on one island that had a bar with a pool and had a couple of Toña beers before jumping back in the boat. The best part of the boat ride was the smiles that never left the kids' faces.
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On our second full day in Granada we were taken on a short hike around the forested slopes of Mombacho Volcano. When we emerged from the forest on the northern side of the volcano, we had beautiful views of Granada as well as Lake Nicaragua and the islands we had visited the previous day.
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We had nothing else scheduled with NA for the day, so once we were back in Granada we had a refreshing lunch at expat-run El Garaje before taking a carriage ride down to the lakefront. We couldn't really enjoy our walk by the lake because of clouds of tiny flies that sometimes got so thick we couldn't keep them out of our mouths and noses. At one point I think I rubbed one into my eye which resulted in a rather unpleasant temporary case of conjunctivitis.

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We walked back to the hotel via the main tourist drag, Calle La Calzada, where we saw some beautiful buildings. Closer to the center, the street was lined with tour agencies hawking daytrips and cheap restaurants, including some incongruous Irish bars.
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Besides requesting a late departure from Managua the first day, the second smart adjustment I made to our itinerary was to switch our Granada departure from early morning to afternoon. Wednesday morning ended up being our only chance to visit the Granada municipal market and we made the most of it. The market seemed to be in full swing and there was a very energetic atmosphere. We weaved up and down the narrow aisles and found a barber where I and the boys got haircuts for less than ten bucks in total. Afterwards we kept exploring until we found the food stalls, where we got an awesome lunch including our first taste of Indio Viejo.
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Thanks to our long lunch we were a little late to meet our driver back at the hotel. We threw our belongings into the van as quickly as we could because there wasn't much time to get to the ferry to Ometepe.

Posted by zzlangerhans 05:39 Archived in Nicaragua Tagged granada masaya mombacho las_isletas Comments (0)

Hola Nicaragua! León

NA had put us up at the beautiful colonial Hotel Cacique Adiact in León, just a few blocks north of the main square and the market. Soon after we arrived, we were tearing out of the hotel in a quest for lunch at the market. On the north side of León Cathedral the street was filled with vendors mostly selling fruit and souvenirs. A block further east we encountered the market itself, although renovation had displaced the businesses from the covered building to the surrounding streets. That left only narrow alleys to pass through on the streets and congested sidewalks. There were several stalls selling varieties of queso blanco, the crumbly and salty Nicaraguan cheese. It's famous for the little squeak it makes when you cut it or chew it.
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Eventually we found a small grouping of comedores and had a good lunch of grilled meat and stewed plantains.
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We spent the rest of the afternoon in the small area around the market and the cathedral. I also finally picked up a SIM card for Nicaragua, which was very inexpensive for a week of data.
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Eventually it grew dark and we started seeing some Gigantonas, which are men wearing giant costumes of brightly dressed women followed by bands of drummers. They make a huge noise and if you get up close to take pictures they'll ask you for money. Gigantonas represent the wives of the conquistadors, and apparently there's a whole set piece that is supposed to accompany them although we didn't see any of that.
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When we were ready to eat again, we headed back to the market and saw a couple of large grills had been set up with comfortable tables to eat at. The food was mouthwatering. We made our selections and had our second meal of the day at the market.
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The next morning a local guide picked us up at the hotel to take us back to the market. The plan was for us to collect the ingredients for a Nicaraguan specialty called Indio Viejo and then bring them to the home of a local family where we would cook together. However, our guide told us we had the option to make iguana soup instead. Of course, there was no question which one we would choose. Mei Ling took care of buying the iguanas and some fish, while I worked through the long list of vegetables at another stall.
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Once we had our ingredients, we jumped into a colectivo which was no small task with the kids and a stroller. We drove to a residential neighborhood far from the center, and then took a seemingly endless walk to our next destination.
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We found ourselves in the dirt yard of a home where a group of women were making tortillas while their kids played on the ground nearby. Everyone got a chance to make tortillas except for Spenser.
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Tortillas in hand, we walked to another family home to make the soup. If you're uncomfortable with the idea of eating meat, or the requisite butchering of animals, click here immediately. We eat meat almost every day, occasionally from animals that Westerners find unusual or troublesome, and we have absolutely no second thoughts about it. Preparing animals to be eaten is bloody and messy work as well, especially if you're new to the game.

The hardest parts of butchering an iguana seem to be decapitating and skinning it. They are tough animals. Unfortunately there weren't any guys around to show me how to make a wallet out of the skin.
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I didn't get to document much of the cooking because I was busy keeping the kids away from the ant holes and other hazards around the property, but the iguana soup and deep-fried fish turned out to be delicious.
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There was too much food just for us so the extended family all joined in for the meal. We never did learn how to make Indio Viejo, but there's lots of recipes online so maybe we'll try it here in Miami sometime.
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We didn't have enough time to make it back to the hotel before our next activity, so our guide coordinated with the new group to pick us up nearby. They drove us to the small fishing village of Las Peñitas, where we got on a little boat for a tour of the Juan Venado Nature Reserve.
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The island is formed by a small river that empties into the Pacific at two spots fourteen miles apart. It's really more of a wide delta than a true island. The river is lined with mangroves reminiscent of the Everglades or the Louisiana Bayou. We had fun spotting birds with the kids, predominantly snowy egrets and blue herons. At one point we docked the boat and walked across the island to the ocean, where Ian promptly let himself get knocked over by a wave and got covered with wet sand.
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We had a rather typical, average restaurant dinner near the center and then headed back over to the main square since it was New Year's Eve. There were trampolines and rides set up for the kids and a lot of people out, although it wasn't crowded. We took another walk through the tourist market, which was bustling with activity, so I could make a video. There was absolutely no way we were going to stick around until midnight, so we walked back to the hotel and I took the kids for a late evening swim. We'd be moving on to Granada the next morning.

Posted by zzlangerhans 12:50 Archived in Nicaragua Comments (0)

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