A Travellerspoint blog

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


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.

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.

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.

Eventually we found a small grouping of comedores and had a good lunch of grilled meat and stewed plantains.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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)

Hola Nicaragua! Selva Negra

After Managua, our itinerary took us to a place we probably wouldn't have chosen on our own, the Selva Negra ecolodge in the mountainous department of Matagalpa. The lodge was built by a German couple in the 1970's on the grounds of a hundred year old coffee plantation. We'd packed one set of warm clothes for the stop, but our cabin was still fairly cold the first night. The next day we realized there were vents under the windows we had left open. The lodge was a pleasant place with a lagoon and a playground next to the dining patio.

For our one full day at Selva Negra, we had a nature walk in the morning followed by a tour of the farm and estate in the early afternoon. The nature walk was fun, although the kids yapped so loudly it eliminated any chance of seeing any wildlife larger than a snail.

The sustainability tour of the farm and coffee plantation provided some scenic views over the rolling, forested hills. At the farm, the boys were good sports about letting a calf suck the sweat from their hands but Cleo was horrified at the idea.

We ended up with a lot of downtime that day, which is unusual for us when we travel. The kids were kept occupied by the playground while Mei Ling worked on her Chinese blog and I caught up on work. The patio was crowded with Nicaraguan daytrippers from Managua.

We left Selva Negra early the following morning and found another market in the nearby town of Sébaco. We picked up some snacks and Cleo practiced her runway poses in the muddy streets of the market. From here it was mostly fields, coffee plantations, and cattle at the side of the road all the way to León.

Posted by zzlangerhans 07:18 Archived in Nicaragua Tagged nicaragua matagalpa selva_negra Comments (0)

Hola Nicaragua! Managua

The itinerary NA originally provided completely excluded Managua. They were going to put us up in a hotel close to the airport the night of our arrival and then whisk us north to Matagalpa in the morning. That didn't surprise me, based on what I'd read about Managua. The lowdown was that there was little for tourists to see, and lots of downside in terms of crime and other city blights. However, that didn't sit well with us. Big cities and big markets are part of our travel DNA, regardless of the presence of tourist attractions. We requested a hotel in the middle of the city and a late afternoon departure, which would give us a few hours to see the city and more importantly a major market. The largest market in Managua is Mercado Oriental, but extensive research convinced me that the widely-reported danger of crime was real enough that we had to avoid it. Instead we chose Mercado Roberto Huembes, a slightly smaller but much safer location. For more about Mercado Oriental, try this article or this video. The videographer has a great YouTube channel about what it's like to live on the Corn Islands off the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua.

We enjoy the challenge of DIY traveling, but I have to admit it was nice to get off the plane and see a guy holding up a placard with my name on it among the throng of shouting taxi hustlers. The main boulevard downtown was lined with brightly lit floats celebrating the Nativity as well as Managua's famous "Trees of Life", a recent creation of the country's First Lady. We could see a lot of people milling around the sidewalk and some street food stands. I wished we could have stopped to walk around, but I didn't want to take advantage of our driver late in the evening and I wasn't sure we'd be safe.

The driver took us to the restaurant I'd picked for dinner, which turned out to be mediocre and mostly empty. Check out my nearly-raw churrasco!

Our room for the night was very basic, but in the morning we saw the hotel had a beautiful pool area with an outdoor dining patio.

After our complimentary breakfast, we met our driver and a guide to show us some sights of Managua. Our first stop was the hilltop Loma de Tiscapa, which was appropriate considering that to understand Nicaragua it's important to know a little of the modern history of the country. Most of the 20th century was characterized by a struggle between conservatives from the South, backed by the United States, and liberals from the North. In the 1920's, liberal general Augusto César Sandino pushed out the Conservative government in a guerilla war but was ultimately forced to share power with the US-backed strongman Anastasio Somoza García. Somoza soon had Sandino killed and assumed full control of Nicaragua, engendering a family dynasty that would rule for half a century. In the 1970's, the Sandinista guerilla movement was greatly strengthened after it became known that the Somoza regime had embezzled billions in international aid that was sent in response to a devastating earthquake. In 1979 Somoza's regime collapsed and the Sandinistas took control. However, in an anomaly for Marxist revolutions, the Sandinistas were not highly repressive of their opposition and largely maintained the democratic process. They held an election in 1984, which they won handily and was generally recognized to be legitimate, and then actually lost to their opposition in 1990. Since then the Sandinistas and their opposition have traded the presidency back and forth, with the current president being Daniel Ortega, the original architect of the Sandinista revolution.

Loma de Tiscapa is the former site of Somoza's presidential palace as well as the horrific prison where he tortured his political opponents. Fittingly, the hill is now crowned with a giant silhouette statue of Sandino overlooking the city. Directly below is the Tiscapa crater lake.

On our next stop, we walked through Parque Central to the Museo Nacional, where we took a brief walk among exhibits of Nicaraguan history. Across the plaza from the museum is the Santiago of Managua Cathedral.

Just north of the Museo Nacional is the lakeside Paseo Xolotlán. Here we found a rather barren plaza full of Trees of Life and views over heavily-polluted Lake Managua, also known as Lake Xolotlán.

Next was the day's main attraction, Mercado Roberto Huembes. We weren't disappointed. The market was large and contained hundreds of stalls replete with fresh fruits and vegetables, meats, and seafood. Among the unique sights were tortillas being made and live iguanas to be used for soup.

We ate twice, first at a small tortilla stall and then at a larger food court where the selection of soups was too tempting to forgo even though our stomachs were mostly full. We split a mondongo, which was a huge pile of tripe and starchy vegetables in savory yellow broth. Despite our best efforts we were unable to finish the bowl, but there was a friendly toothless dude who immediately scooped up the remnants.

I made a couple of videos of the Huembes market. It was a great market with lots to see and delicious food. While it didn't quite reach the heights of Mercado de Abastos in Oaxaca or Mercado Bazurto in Cartagena, I found it more enjoyable than the markets of Mexico City and a lot better than what we found in Panama City. We never felt remotely uncomfortable or unsafe in the market or anywhere else in Managua. Of course, we were never out after dark and we were never on our own except in the market.

Posted by zzlangerhans 04:00 Archived in Nicaragua Comments (0)

Hola Nicaragua!

A month after we'd gotten home from our Central Europe road trip in August, it was already time to think about where we were going to go for the kids' winter break from school. Staying home with the kids off school for two weeks was definitely not an option. I was also determined to go somewhere warm rather than have to worry about my Florida kids being miserable in cold weather. I flirted with Senegal but eventually decided the risk of malaria was too high. Next came Ecuador, but I didn't feel comfortable with the crime in Guayaquil or the altitude in Cuenca. I've already been to Colombia and Costa Rica, and to Brazil four times. The Yucatan was a possibility, but we'd been in central Mexico just two years earlier. I thought about a Caribbean cruise involving Bonaire and Curaçao, but I've actually never taken a cruise before so I put the idea on the back burner. One night I was fooling around with Google Maps, which is always open on my desktop. I like to click and drag the map around and zoom in and out, and my eye kept falling on that big lake positioned incongruously in the middle of Nicaragua. I'd never thought very seriously about going to Nicaragua. I wasn't sure how safe it was, or if there was anything to see that was differentiated from Costa Rica. My zoom function showed me a tantalizing hourglass-shaped island in the middle of that gigantic lake, along with a lot more interesting-looking lakes, peninsulas and islands around the country. Soon I had more windows open researching various places in Nicaragua and after a couple of hours I knew we had our destination.

My next job was figuring out how to do the trip. Renting a car didn't seem like the best move, given potential concerns about the quality of the road network and some crime issues. It seemed like the best option would be to base ourselves in the colonial city of Granada and arrange some field trips to nearby attractions like volcanoes and islands. Fortunately, while researching day trips I came across a company called Nicaragua Adventures which had stellar reviews across the board on TripAdvisor. We'd never traveled with a tour company before, but I thought that the relative cheapness of Central America might allow us to arrange a personalized itinerary so that we could get everywhere we wanted with one outfit without sacrificing our independence. I sent the company an inquiry and after trading a couple of e-mails, I had a ten day itinerary in hand that was far more extensive and ambitious than the localized trip I'd been thinking of. I decided on the maximum amount I'd pay to close the deal, and when I got the quote it was comfortably on the lower side of that number. We were going to have assistance on a vacation for the first time.

That's the story of how we ended up traveling for ten days around a country which up until that time I'd never seriously considered visiting. Nicaragua turned out to be a unique and exciting country full of natural wonders, beautiful landscapes, and friendly people. It's a great example of why when it comes to travel, it always pays to keep an open mind.

Posted by zzlangerhans 17:58 Archived in Nicaragua Comments (0)

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