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.
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.
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.
Looking back six months after our arrival in Munich, I can say this was another very successful road trip. We accomplished everything we set out to do and had amazing family experiences we will all remember forever. Except for the kids of course, which is the main reason I write the blog. I would love to be able to look back at my own travels with my parents from when I was a kid but unfortunately most of those memories are gone forever.
There were very few disappointments among the cities we visited. I would say most met or exceeded my expectations, especially Kraków and Prague. The only slight letdowns were Vienna and Salzburg, but I wouldn't sacrifice any of the time we spent in those places. What was missing for us in Vienna? I'd say that it's a beautiful city with amazing architecture, but it feels a little sterile and almost boring compared to the relative chaos and gnarliness of the major Eastern European cities and Munich. Perhaps if I went again, I'd have a completely different experience. It's hard to say what makes us less compatible with certain cities that others find amazing. We don't care for Paris, Chicago, or Seattle either. Go figure.
I won't bother with a ten best meals list. The only standout gourmet meal was at Cafe Sochy in Banská Štiavnica in Slovakia, which came as a complete surprise. Lokal in Prague was amazing for local specialties and atmosphere. Steckerlfisch and other Bavarian beer garden classics at the Hirschgarten in Munich were unforgettable. We had very good dinners in Oberammergau and Innsbruck. However, the food overall was undistinguished. It usually wasn't bad but it wasn't particularly creative or delicious. If we had meals like that in a restaurant in Miami, we wouldn't go back. We won't be remembering this trip for the food, but rather for the long walks through beautiful and historic cities and our repeated encounters with the Danube, possibly the greatest river in the world.
10. Trhovisko Miletičova market, Bratislava, Slovakia 9. Linderhof Palace, Bavaria 8. Munich beer gardens 7. Český Krumlov, Czechia 6. Highline 179, Austria 5. Neighborhoods and markets of Kraków, Poland 4. Exploring the Wachau Valley, Austria 3. Walking around Budapest 2. Jan's farm, Slovakia 1. Walking around Prague. The most beautiful old town of the trip, hands down, and possibly the world. The Vltava river, castles and forts and bridges, and David Černý sculptures. We were blown away.
So how are we going to top this? Maybe we can't, but trying is half the fun. Over the summer we'll be doing our third round-the-world trip. Plans are still fluid, but the current projected stops are Taiwan, Mudanjiang, and Copenhagen. We've already bought the flights for Cleo and Ian's spring break from school this April, which we'll spend in Sicily and Malta. Aside from the fourteen hour flights, that one should be amazing. I still need to blog our recent trip to Nicaragua over New Year's. I expect I'll be getting started on that over the weekend if I get any time away from the kids.
When planning our trip I'd debated whether to stop for a night in Passau or Regensburg on the way back to Munich from Prague. At some point I realized I had an extra day in the itinerary due to having forgotten that there were 31 days in July, so we were able to visit both. I probably would have chosen Regensburg, the larger and more well-known of the two, but Passau proved to be a wonderful and unique city that would have been a shame to miss. That extra day proved to be very fortunate.
As with Český Krumlov, the unique character of Passau is made possible by the interaction of land and water. The Danube and Inn rivers converge obliquely to form a narrow tongue of land which contains the Old Town. At the northern bank of the river opposite the convergence point, the smaller Ilz river empties into the Danube as well. Overlooking this confluence is the Veste Oberhaus, a medieval hilltop fortress on the northern bank.
Our Airbnb was on Lederergasse, a narrow cobblestone street on the southern bank of the Inn. The winding street was lined with immaculate and colorful houses with stucco facades.
As usual, there wasn't much time to do more than check in and get dinner. We got a very good meal downtown with some delicious desserts to reward the kids for not being too horrible on the drive from Czechia.
We only had half a day to explore Passau, so we got an early start Friday morning. The main landmark of the Old Town is St. Stephan's Cathedral, which looked close as we crossed the Inn over the Mariahilfstrasse bridge but actually could only be reached via a long circuitous uphill route.
We walked eastward among beautiful Baroque fountains and townhouses to the tip of the Old Town, which finally ended in an attractive park mostly surrounded by water. Across the Danube, the Veste Oberhaus loomed above us.
We took the easy way out and drove the SUV up to the Veste Oberhaus. We climbed the observation tower for panoramic views of the idyllic countryside and the Danube. On ground level we got ice cream for the kids at the cafe, which also had a sandbox with a view. Here and here are more blogs with pictures and stories about Passau.
We encountered the Danube once again in Regensburg, our last city of the trip. The Old Town of Regensburg wasn't as storybook perfect as Passau had been, but there was still a lot to see. We found an Italian food festival in the main square before having dinner in the shadow of Regensburg's enormous Gothic cathedral.
On Saturday morning we drove to the southern bank of the Danube in the Old Town to hunt for the weekly market, the Donaumarkt, but were unable to find either the market or anyone who seemed to know what we were talking about. Perhaps it doesn't take place every Saturday, or perhaps we were in the wrong place. Instead we settled for some views from the Stone Bridge and a sausage breakfast before leaving town.
Our last stop before returning to Munich was an unusual building called Walhalla on the bank of the Danube, about 15 minutes downstream from Regensburg. The monument was constructed in the 19th century to honor German cultural heroes throughout the centuries. Some might regard it as an architectural monstrosity, but I found it very serene and we were glad to have some final views over the amazing Danube.
We had booked a hotel near the airport for our early morning flight back to Miami, so we decided to spend our last few hours in Munich. Naturally we made a beeline for the Hirschgarten where we braved a steady drizzle to gorge on currywurst and Steckerlfisch one last time. The rain ruled out the playground so we sorrowfully got back in the SUV and prepared to endure another months-long exile from our favorite continent.