Diana and I decided to travel to Nicaragua during the summer of 2013 because she had previously gone by herself and had loved every minute of it. She had reminisced many times to me on her travels through Central America and had always said that Nicaragua had held a special place in her heart. We booked a flight from El Paso through Houston and on to Managua, the capital of Nicaragua. The flight to Houston was 1.5 hours and the flight to Managua was 3.5 hours, so we were only in the air for a total of about 5 hours from the time we left El Paso. Not a bad trip considering some of the folks we met while we were there had stories of their total time to Managua taking more than 20 hours! I guess we’re lucky to live between major hubs in the Southwest.
When we landed in Managua, we were taken by private SUV (which we had previously arranged for) to Hotel Art about 20 minutes from the airport. When we arrived we were shown our rooms and given our keys. We arrived at the hotel at around 9 pm and by 10 pm we were lounging by the pool with some Flor de Caña rum along with some Toñas. The atmosphere was fantastic and we felt extremely welcome and comfortable. Hotel Art is clean and the staff was very friendly. They were available whenever we needed them and it was a great first night for the two of us in Nicaragua.
When we woke in the morning we wandered to the front “lobby” area and found a young man there making breakfast. He asked us what we wanted and proceeded to make a wonderful omelet with fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as a never-ending cup of Nicaraguan coffee that was like manna from heaven. After just under 12 hours in Nicaragua, we’d already experienced a great deal of hospitality and friendliness from the locals we’d met, and we were excited to venture out and see what we could see.
We settled our bills and caught a cab to the local bus station on the south side of Managua. Diana and I wanted to experience a bus ride in Nicaragua and we were not disappointed. Our bus ticket was extremely cheap to get to Granada, one of the oldest colonial cities in all of the Americas, so we bought a ticket and hopped the bus. The bus ride was pleasant with many people smiling at us and making small talk. It got very crowded, but at no point did we feel like people were trying to pickpocket or check out what we had.
Every stop offered an array of snack and beverages from vendors who would climb onto the bus and then leave as quickly as they came. People were vocal, but not pushy, and it felt like we were just part of the crowd – albeit an interesting part of the crowd. Eventually (after about an hour and a half) we found our way to Granada and got off with a friendly wave to those we’d made acquaintances with.
One of our guidebooks had stated that each person should only pay about 20 Cordobas for cab fare anywhere in Granada. After about 3 taxis that stopped and demanded double that amount for each of us, we found a taxi driver that stated he would accept 20 Cords (Cordobas) each and we were on our way. One US dollar equals roughly 25 Cordobas, so the cab fare was about 80 cents to get anywhere in the city. Honestly, this is pretty standard in any of the cities while we were in Nicaragua. Travel from Managua to Léon was about $50 (US) for the both of us to get a cab ride. The trip was around 4 hours – and you can’t beat that price to sit back and see the views.
We stayed in Granada with a wonderful woman named Daina Platā who originally hailed from Latvia and had been living in Nicaragua for a year for business. She now owns Amano in San Juan del Sur. She had a nice room for us that we had secured through www.airbnb.com for pennies on the dollar, and we quickly developed a good relationship with her. Her home was nicely located within walking distance of everything we needed, and yet it was far enough away to offer peace and quiet at night.
After 3 days in Granada, we traveled to Isla de Ometepe, a double volcano in the middle of Lake Nicaragua that had formed a unique figure 8 island where Maya relics could still be found. We took a small panga to the island and made our way to Finca Venecia, a quick 10-minute taxi ride from the dock.
Finca Venecia turned out to be just what the doctor ordered. Right on the lake, quiet, and full service – it gave us the tranquility and peace that we were looking for. We were the only people there for the 2 nights and 3 days that we stayed. We rented one of their small motorcycles and toured a small portion of the island, stopping at a couple of beaches, as well as Ojo de Agua – a set of pools fed by springs from the volcanoes that are renowned for their healing properties. I can honestly say that I felt incredible after taking a few dips in their cooling waters.
Ometepe is one of the reasons why Nicaragua is one of the most beautiful places I’ve been to. For all of the beauty, both natural and personal, the prices just can’t be beat. My wife Diana and I received our bill at the end of the three days and here was our breakdown: For two nights in a decent room (no A/C), including all meals, drinks, and motorcycle rental, our bill was a whopping $120 (US). That’s right, for both of us – for the whole time – one hundred and twenty dollars. Amazing.
After Ometepe we caught a cab back on the mainland and headed south to San Juan del Sur. This small town is known for its surf and casual living, a hub for vagabonds and leisure seekers of any age. The vibe in San Juan del Sur is very much a beach one, with most shops catering to some kind of sand and surf activity. The half moon bay that the town sits on offers gorgeous views of the surrounding hillsides and ships anchored just out to sea. There is a statue of Jesus on one of the predominant hills overlooking San Juan del Sur and we were told it was designed by an American to draw tourists to the area – a la Rio de Janeiro’s iconic figure.
The majority of folks we saw were of the tourist type, and the locals had the weary and wary eyes of those that have seen it all come and go many times over the years. Though it was a great place to take in the beach and have a cocktail, Diana and I decided to just spend the day and head out as soon as possible. We swam in the warm Pacific waters and drank a few Toñas before catching a cab back towards Managua where we had planned to stay the night. The next morning we wanted to buy our tickets to visit the Corn Islands off the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua with a jumping off point of Blue Fields.
When we arrived in Managua it was already getting late so we decided to rent a room at the Hotel Las Mercedes, conveniently located right across the street from the airport. Las Mercedes is a Best Western hotel and is a prime spot for jumping to the Corn Islands in the morning as flights leave Sandino airport at 6:20 am and 2:00 pm. We opted for the 6:20 am flight to get into the islands with time to investigate the new digs. Well, after spending so much time in Nicaragua the thought of paying $100 (US) a night on a bed to sleep on was almost insulting. Add to this the throngs of tourists busy singing hymns in the lobby and generally acting like fools, and our experience at the Best Western was the worst we had in Nicaragua. However, it was only for the night and the next day we were on our way.
The airport section going to the Corn Islands is tiny, but you should get there about an hour to an hour and a half before the flight because the process for screening folks takes a while. People were very courteous and helpful, but tend to take their time (I don’t blame them) – so give yourself as much time in the morning as you feel you need. We boarded what looked like a Skyway short 360 aircraft and headed into the sky. The 1.5 hour trip to Bluefields was bumpy but nice. We landed for about half an hour to let some people off and some people on and then back up we went for the short half hour trip to Big Corn Island.
Big Corn Island was a revelation. Taxi drivers hounded us when we arrived and we found an amiable man that took us straight to a hotel we had seen online called the Paraiso Club. When we arrived a wonderful woman greeted us and helped us get settled, and we were shown to our rooms. They were located in little casitas with thatched roofs that were perfectly blended with the scenery and the Caribbean vibe. Evidently, this was not a good time to visit the Paraiso Club. The casitas were okay, but there was no A/C and no hot water. Not really big deals for us, but throughout our stay there we found that our room seemed to always have a layer of water on the ground and things were sticky inside every day that we were there. The restaurant/bar that was attached to the place was overpriced and poorly serviced, and we ended up going to other places on the island for food and drinks.