LAKES, VOLCANOES AND LIQUOR
The lights were dim and the music was loud on the cobblestone streets of León, Nicaragua, where I was dropped off by bus late on Nov. 9, 2017. I had been on the road nearly a month — first in Honduras, then in Guatemala, and most recently, in El Salvador. But the final stretch of my trip would be spent here, in the largest country in Central America, known around the world as “the land of lakes and volcanoes.”
Nicaragua is a tropical paradise, home to the second-largest rainforest in the Americas, lush lagoons, volcanic landscape, and miles of glittering coastline. The country has done an excellent job of marketing this environmental asset, and in the last few years, has sprouted an ecotourism sector to rival Costa Rica. But unlike its southern neighbour, it’s still a cheap place to travel — perfect for the penny-pinching journalist in your family.
As of the date of this posting, the country is recovering from a devastating political and economic crisis in which more than 300 people have died, 700 have been jailed and 62,000 have been exiled for action demanding the resignation of President Daniel Ortega. The unrest began shortly after my visit, as Ortega’s administration proposed social security reforms that reduced pension benefits by five per cent. In the months to come, the United Nations would admonish Ortega for his excessive use of force against protesters, including torture and enforced disappearances, as would human rights groups, which point to cases of apparent extrajudicial executions as well. The instability has prompted a number of governments around the world to issue travel warnings for Nicaragua.
I won’t discourage you from travelling there, but I think it’s important to understand this context as you visit a country and people whose wounds are still fresh. Nicaragua is a warm and wonderful place to kick back, but it’s critical to be sensitive to the socioeconomic and political events that impact your hosts. Consider the itinerary below for a most excellent and adventure-filled trip to the land of lakes and volcanoes. See my posts on Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador for an extended backpacking route through Central America.
Day One: El Cuco to Léon
Like its sister in Antigua, Guatemala, the Bigfoot Hostel in León is a serious party house. As I walked through its arched wooden doorway, predictably, there were people doing shots in every direction. A good night’s sleep was not in the equation, but Bigfoot happens to be the best place to book Léon’s famous volcano boarding excursion — so it’s a worthwhile stay, and a great place to meet people.
A RUDE AWAKENING
After plunking my belongings onto my bunk, I meandered back to the bar. A group of revellers were gagging their way through test tube ‘lava shots,’ a vile and spicy in-house concoction. Drink three in less than 90 seconds, I was told, and you win a free tank top — plenty of motivation for the folks lining up to chug the thick, neon orange drink. It was the noisiest hostel I had ever been to, between games of pool, beer pong, flip cup and Jenga. Exhausted from the commute via El Salvador and Honduras, I tossed in some ear plugs and hit the sack.
I slept relatively well until around 5 a.m., when someone shook me roughly by the shoulders and shone a flashlight in my eyes. Apparently, the front desk had signed me into someone else’s bunk, and drunk and determined, they wanted it back. I shuffled myself onto the nearest empty mattress, but unfortunately, couldn’t fall back asleep, as folks continued to wander into the room post-party.
Day Two: Cerro Negro to Las Peñitas
I was greeted on the morning of my 27th birthday by a wonderful chorus of puking from the hostel bathrooms. I paid USD 25 to the front desk for my spot on the volcano boarding tour, then went out for a stroll on the streets of León in search of coffee and cash.
It was a lively and colourful city — the second largest in Nicaragua, after the capital, Managua. There was a bank just around the corner, where I was able to withdraw some córdobas, and a little eatery on the way back where I picked up some juevos, frijoles, crema y café for the equivalent of about USD 4.
The hostel was a different place in the light of day. Sticky is the best word to describe it — used and abused such that everything is covered in a layer of beer, sunscreen and mystery filth. But I signed up for it, so I soaked in its nasty ambiance as I drank my coffee and dipped my feet into the murky indoor pool. My birthday was off to a glorious start.
BRANCHES AND BOARDING
Everyone who was boarding that day gathered by the bar around noon. We got our free tank tops and orientation, then hopped on the bus, where we all received our welcome beer and sandwich. I got two beers because it was my birthday, and when I asked if I could ride on the top of the school bus instead of inside it, the tour guide’s answer was, ‘Fuck yes.’ Once we were out of town, he and I hopped on the roof together, and sped off through the Nicaraguan countryside towards Cerra Negro.
I was feeling my birthday glory when a tree branch smacked me square in the face as the bus whipped through a canopy of forest. This happened not once, but three times on our way to the volcano, leaving me with a nice set of welts on my face for the rest of the trip. I couldn’t help but wonder if the branches were a metaphor for how my 27th year would go — one nasty smack of reality after another.
Cerro Negro is a young and active volcano in the Cordillera de los Maribios mountain range, surrounded by green hillsides that contrast with its black and ashy makeup. We were outfitted with our boards, protective orange jumpsuits and goggles, and started our march toward the peak of the volcano. It was a gorgeous and worthwhile hike for any scenery junkie and not out-of-reach for most fitness levels.
At the top of Cerro Negro, we got a short lesson in braking and steering. I soon set sail through a sea of black ash, praying I wouldn’t tumble off the toboggan and find myself log-rolling down an active volcano. Advice? Bring a scarf to keep the ash out of your mouth and ears. By the time I reached the bottom, I was covered head to toe in sweat and soot.
More birthday beers awaited me on the bus, as we compared notes on close we came to losing control of the boards, reaching speeds of up to 75 kilometres an hour. I’ll be honest: the buildup to the volcano boarding, including the hike, was a lot more exciting than the sledding itself, which was over quickly and in my opinion, fell a little short of the hype. Then again, that could just be because I spent my childhood years racing down icy hills on a sled in Canada. But the excursion was worth it — it’s just one of those things you’ve got to do to say you did, and León is one of the only places in the world to do it.
A BEACH BIRTHDAY PARTY
There was barely enough time back at the hostel to rinse off before the bus left for the afterparty at Playa Las Peñitas. If I recall correctly, it was about USD 10 for the shuttle, including a Toña beer and entrance to the Bigfoot Beach House, about half an hour outside of León. Again, I got birthday freebies, and rode for free to the beach located in a small fishing village on the northwest coast.
The sky was glowing a glorious pink and orange by the time we arrived. Waves crashed into the sand in high tide, and locals gazed at the sunset from a large wooden cross atop the nearby rock formation, beyond which lies the neighbouring Poneloya community. I walked along the beach until the sun went down, then enjoyed an evening of salsa, swimming and beer pong. Getting back to Bigfoot by cab in the wee hours was a bit of an adventure, so I advise catching the early shuttle back to León. It’s also hard to find a place to eat in town late at night, so grab a bite at the Beach House, or make sure you eat before you go.
Day Three: León
The chorus of puking from the washrooms was right on time the next morning, as I rolled out of bed around 9:30 a.m. Folks from the beach party filtered into the hostel restaurant slowly. I winced from the tree-smack bruises on my face while eating a breakfast sandwich and smoothie, both of which were pretty good. I booked a spot on the San Juan del Sur shuttle for the next morning, checked into the nearby Hostel Guardabarranco for a better night’s sleep, and set out for a walk with Jason, a Canadian fellow who was staying in my dorm.
FREE AND FASHIONABLE
Cobblestoned and colourful, León is as delightful to look at as Antigua, Guatemala, but far less gentrified and touristy. In fact, apart from ‘Gringo Alley,’ where Bigfoot is located, it’s relatively easy to stay clear of intoxicated travellers, most of whom stick to the south of Nicaragua, in Granada and San Juan del Sur.
At this time of year, Christmas decorations were for sale on every available inch of sidewalk. They competed for space with horse carts, tuk tuks, pastry stalls, blocks of cheese and clothing stores. Some of the local fashion highlights included a woman sporting Ray-Bans and a Yoda t-shirt, and a gentleman who had repaired his ripped jeans with several patches of Jesus Christ. The streets were crowded on a Saturday morning, and commuters rushed by beautifully painted political murals — remnants of the successful rebellion against the U.S.-backed “Tachito” Somoza dictator in 1979 — without a second thought.
Like Antigua, Guatemala, León is known for its beautiful churches, along with its colonial architecture and universities. With a population of about 200,000 people, it’s one of the oldest cities in Americas, founded in the early 1500s. There are about 13 churches within walking distance of the Parque Central.
The Catédral de León is the most well-known, found in the heart of the park. It’s been built, rebuilt and rebuilt again, and its current iteration houses the tombs of some of León’s most famous artists, along with some religious masterpieces. For USD 3, you can buy a ticket for the rooftop, which on a clear day, offers stunning views of the main square and the volcanoes surrounding the city. Behind the cathedral, you’ll also find León’s best street food, so it’s a great place to grab a bite and people-watch.
El Calvario is the most colourful and graphic church — brutal depictions of the Stations of the Cross decorate its otherwise inviting pink and yellow exterior. It was in front of this church, on Calle Real, that I had a delightful conversation with a young man who wanted to practice his English, and also needed me to buy him a textbook.
Aglow in blue and green, Iglesia La Merced is a lovely church to visit at night. It’s the second-most important church in the city, home of León’s patron saint, la Virgen de la Merced. And, like many others in Central America, it has undergone reconstruction due to earthquakes. It’s a popular hangout for Leonese youth, with a makeshift skate park just across the street.
LA NOCHE DE TERTULIA
When we tired of churches, Jason and I stopped for a smoothie and shisha by a shawarma shop next to the market. At that moment, a siren blared so loudly I practically knocked my drink over — it was the noon-hour signal declaring lunchtime in León. What an abrasive start to one’s break, I thought, as I watched the street commotion slow down for the hour.
Our group of Canucks expanded that evening as we hit up the famous El Sesteo café in the Parque Central for mouthwatering passion fruit mojitos. I got really excited when I found pupusas at the food stands behind the cathedral, but within a few bites, it was clear they were nowhere near as good as the ones in El Salvador.
As sunset, the square came to life with buskers, breakdancers, face painters and more. A government-sanctioned noche de tertulia (night of social gathering) was underway, and traditional dancers performed on stage by the cathedral, ribbons woven into their long, twirling braids. Around the corner, the boys put on a show too — propping up puppets of tall, beautiful women and comedic, bobble-headed men who ran around them. It seemed like a bizarre performance until I heard the story behind it: the moustached men represent locals who fell in love with the breathtaking Spanish women who came to Nicaragua with the conquistadors in the 1500s. At least, that’s what Francisco told me — he was a parking attendant at the Iglesia de la Merced that night, and a firm advocate for what he described as León’s “unique and very protected” culture. He said that performance was unique to the city, and couldn’t be found elsewhere in Nicaragua. Pointing to his bare feet, he also told me that despite having four jobs, he still couldn’t afford shoes. But he asked me for nothing, thanked me for the chat, and wished me well on my travels.
Know Before You Go: León
- You don’t need to stay at Bigfoot Hostel in order to book their volcano boarding. You can also book a same-day boarding tour, as long as there’s room and you pay before 8 a.m.
- Bring a small scarf on your boarding excursion to keep the ash out of your face, nose and ears.
- You can book shuttles within Nicaragua and to El Salvador from Bigfoot, and plan ahead if your next stop is San Jual del Sur ahead of a Sunday.
- If you want a good night’s sleep, stay off of Gringo Alley. If you want a room at Bigfoot, at peak season, reserve in advance.
Where to Stay
- Bigfoot Hostel is among the loudest and most popular accommodations in León, with shared dorm rooms starting at USD 7 per night. It’s a great place to meet people, play games and book shuttles and excursions. WiFi inclusive.
- Hostel Guardabarranco is across the street from Bigfoot and much quieter. There are fewer amenities, but there’s more privacy and the rooms are cooler. Shared dorms begin at USD 9, WiFi inclusive.
Day Four: León to San Juan del Sur
I was pleased to see the back of Bigfoot as the shuttle to San Juan del Sur left its doorstep at 9:30 a.m. that morning. Coffee in hand, after a good sleep at the Hostel Guardabarranco, I was ready for whatever awaited me at the notorious Sunday Funday in San Juan del Sur — an infamous pub crawl and rite of passage for backpackers around the world. The party started around 3 p.m. at the Naked Tiger, neighbour to Casa de Olas, where I had reserved a room by email. It’s about a four-hour drive between León and San Juan del Sur, but as four hours turned into five and five turned into six, I was worried I wouldn’t make it in time.
I was made it to Casa de Olas just as the staff were loading up buses of glitter-covered backpackers for the tour. I barely had time to toss my backpack onto a bunk before the trademark Sunday Funday tank top was stuffed into my hands, and I was passed onto someone’s lap in a truck overflowing with drunk people. I hadn’t even paid the USD 30 pub crawl fee.
Our first stop was the PachaMama Hostel, a sweet spot on the beach with a fantastic view of the sunset. I grabbed a Toña at the bar, tiptoeing carefully around the outdoor swimming pool, whose surface was covered in a fine layer of sparkles, glow sticks and bathing suit tops. There were people there from all over the world — diversity I hadn’t seen since Antigua, Guatemala. I ended up meeting another Canadian who had lived in West Africa, and as we spoke in a mix of Krio and Pidgin English, we remarked on how very small the world seemed to be. I encountered another pleasant surprise at PachaMama: Matt, the Australian fellow I had shared a dorm with in El Tunco, El Salvador. Fate had brought us back to the same hostel in another country, and we made plans to catch up later.
The shuttles arrived to take us back up the hill to the Naked Tiger around 5 p.m. About a hundred people crammed into the hallway at PachaMama trying to get a spot on the bus, and it took quite a while to get everyone to the hostel. By the time I made it, the party at Naked Tiger was in full force — body shots, beer and bathing suits seemed to be flying everywhere.
Our final stop, Arribas Bar, had an excellent DJ and dance floor that opened onto the beach. The stars were spectacular, and I walked along the breezy shoreline until a particularly strong wave came in and pulled the flip flops right out of my hands. Now shoeless and not wanting to put bare feet on a dance floor of broken glass, I wandered over to an overturned sailboat on the shore. It was partially submerged — the handiwork of Hurricane Nate, I was told by some locals who stopped by to see what I was up to. I had a drink at one of the neighbouring bars, and returned in time to make sure I was at the front of the line for the shuttle to Casa de Olas, grateful my shoes had been the only casualty of the night.
Day Five: San Juan del Sur
Judging by the state of my fellow travellers the following morning, it was clear I had fared well. Some had lost phones, wallets, cameras and dignity, and others were still too hungover to figure out what was missing.
I took the free shuttle down the treacherous hill into town, and found a rental shop in the downtown quarter. I paid USD 20, left my ID as collateral and sped off on a motorcycle toward some of the area’s most beautiful beaches.
It’s about a 20-minute drive westbound on Highway 72, past the towering Cristo de la Misericordia to Playa Marsellas and Playa Maderas, each of which are beautiful and quiet on a Monday morning.
The roads were bumpy on my beater of a bike, but I passed delightful towns along the way, and noticed a tempting amount of land for sale in San Juan del Sur’s astonishing countryside.
CRISTO DE LA MISERICORDIA
I should have visited the Cristo de la Misericordia first thing in the morning, before the blazing sun had reached its peak. I was grateful for the bike — it’s a steep and lengthy climb to the 134-metre effigy, and I don’t envy anyone who has to make the trip on foot. But the harbour views from the top of the hill are absolutely jaw-dropping, making this statue an absolute must-see in San Juan del Sur.
The Cristo de la Misericordia, or Christ of the Mercy, is one of the tallest statues of Jesus in the world, found above the northern seawall of San Juan del Sur. Its gatekeepers charge a USD 2 entry fee (payable in Cordobas) to access the platform, where a small chapel is used for private worship.
DOWNTOWN SAN JUAN DEL SUR
I spent the rest of the day zipping around San Juan del Sur, chatting with tourists, vendors at the farmer’s markets, and some of the foreigners who owned local bars and restaurants. I had hibiscus juice at the Barrio Café (great if you need quick WiFi), and sushi and red plum sorbet at the Surfing Buddha restaurant. I went for a walk to check out the artwork and pottery for sale by the shoreline, and visited the modest, but colourful Iglesia Católica de San Juan Bautista.
I returned to Casa de Olas to a massive pork roast, games of cards, Jenga and pool. I partook in all these activities, and spent some time with Buzzer, the resident spider monkey. Literature at the hostel says Buzzer was an orphan and a rescue, and lives happily at the hostel with his companion, but I found it cruel he had no protection from the music, debauchery and harassment from guests in his large enclosure behind the bar. It’s my understanding that Casa de Olas is now under new ownership, and its website no longer features Buzzer as a permanent resident.
Day Six: San Juan del Sur
I spent my sixth morning in Nicaragua doing something I hadn’t done yet on my trip: drink coffee, read a book and lounge by the pool. Casa de Olas has one of the most astonishing views in the area, particularly during sunset.
When I had enough, I went into town to meet some the Canadians I had made friends with on Sunday Funday and we carpooled to Playa Hermosa, about 30 minutes south of town.
While shuttles are available to Playa Hermosa (inquire at the town’s surf shops), our group of five paid USD 25 for a roundtrip taxi to the beach. It’s a private beach, so we paid an additional USD 3 each for entry.
This is one of the most popular beaches near San Juan del Sur, favoured for its bars, restaurants and surf shops, but most importantly — the baby sea turtles. A local wildlife refuge collects them from the beach when they hatch to protect them from predators, and for a modest fee, you can help release them. Unsure about the ethics of all of this, I declined, but here are the little swimmers on video:
I ended the evening with a visit to a friend’s incredible Airbnb rental, just a few minutes’ walk from downtown San Juan del Sur. The luxurious hillside house had an ocean-facing infinity pool facing, loft beds and a luxurious kitchen. When I returned to Casa de Olas, I found the usual group of mischief makers playing Jenga, spinning the dangerous drinking wheel of fortune behind the bar, and jumping into the pool completely naked.
Know Before You Go: San Juan del Sur
- The free shuttle to and from Naked Tiger/Casa de Olas is available just outside the Barrio Café at the centre of town, and at the top of the hill between the two hostels. It runs back and forth on the following schedule: 8h10 to 10h10, 12:10-14h10, 16h10-18h10, 20h10-22h10, 24h10-1h10
- Don’t bring anything valuable on Sunday Funday, and book your tickets as soon as they go on sale Sunday morning. Shuttle spots fill up and t-shirt sizes run out quickly.
- See the Cristo de la Misericordia early to beat the heat. The distance to the top is walkable, but it’s entirely uphill and unpleasant in hot weather.
Where to Stay
- Casa de Olas is a welcoming hostel just outside of town, featuring spectacular sunset views and amenities, including the drinking wheel of fortune, a free shuttle and swimming pool. Because it’s not the Sunday Funday launch bar, it’s also quieter and cleaner than Naked Tiger next door. Shared dorms start at USD 16 per night, inclusive of breakfast and WiFi. Reserve in advance during peak season, and close to Sundays.
- Naked Tiger brands itself as “the most epic hostel in Central America.” It neighbours Casa de Olas, and has a beautiful outdoor pool. The bar and restaurant are a cut above, and guests get 50 per cent off their Sunday Funday tickets. Shared dorms start around USD 10 per night, WiFi inclusive. Reserve in advance.
Day Seven: San Juan del Sur to Ometepe Island
I left San Juan del Sur with a new group of friends, bound for Ometepe Island. We negotiated a shared taxi that would take us to San Jorge, Rivas, where we would catch the ferry to Moyogalpa. It was a beautiful half-hour drive to the port, but not half as stunning as the boat ride to Ometepe itself.
LA ISLA VERDE
The docks at San Jorge can be confusing, as cab drivers, bike taxis and bus drivers hassle you for fares that won’t get you to the island.
There are two routes to Ometepe, one landing in Moyogalpa and the other in San José del Sur. Most of the ferries go to the former, which is the largest village on the island and has the best access to hostels and restaurants. You can find the ferry schedule here, and generally speaking, the boats leave so often, you’ll find a ride as long as you get there by 5 p.m.
We paid C$ 50 each for the trip, which lasts a little over an hour. Expect to see colourful fishing and transport vessels, wind turbines, and jaw-dropping views of the Volcán Concepción on your way to the island. Ometepe is in Lake Nicaragua, and Concepción, more than 1,600 metres high, is the second-highest volcano in the country. It’s also described as one of “the most perfectly shaped” volcanoes in the Americas, with a symmetrical cone whose most recent production was a giant cloud of ash in March 2010.
I found a sticker on the ferry advertising the El Zopilote Organic Farm on the Maderas side of the island. When we arrived at the port in Moyogalpa, we found a shuttle that would take us there for a combined price of USD 20. I thought that was fair, given that Zopilote is about 45 minutes from where we landed (in retrospect, we should have taken the ferry to San José).
It was another stunning ride. Ometepe Island, much of which is a designated UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, is composed primarily of wetlands, tropical rainforests and fog forests, which have some of the highest conservation value in the country. On our way to the hostel, we saw more plantains, coconuts, cacao farms, banana plantations, birds, monkeys, and pigs than we could count. I had truthfully never seen any place more lush and green in my life. It positively sparkled when rays of sunlight peaked through clouds surrounding the volcanoes, to light up the space between trees leaves.
A HOSTEL IN THE HILLS
Our bus dropped us off on the side of the road, next to a hollowed out school bus belonging to El Zopilote. Inside were goods for sale and swap, including products from the organic farm, local jewellery and books. We then learned that our accommodations were a 15-20 minute hike uphill through the forest, on a path vaguely marked hard-to-spot signage. I surmise that its inaccessibility is meant to add to its atmosphere of escape, mystery and anarchy.
El Zopilote isn’t a place to stay, it’s a community and a culture. Plenty of guests had been there for months, earning their keep by shucking seeds, peeling fruit, working the farm, and finding themselves through sunset cacao ceremonies, yoga, and practicing permaculture. I tried to keep and open mind.
Hoping to flush out the toxins of San Juan del Sur, at the restaurant, I ordered a cleansing banana, cacao and chia seed smoothie. I spit it out instantly — it was disgusting. I would try again to fit in at yoga the next morning.
In truth, there’s a lot to explore at El Zopilote; there are hammocks, gardens, birds, monkeys and other small delights around tree in its large swath of jungle. But my advice is to know what you’re getting into before you stay here: compost toilets, a sweltering sleep outdoors, a hike every time you want to leave, and a culture that may require some adaptation on your part. Also, make sure to grab a map of the grounds at reception so you can find this awesome tower and climb it at sunset:
Day Eight: Ometepe Island
YOGA AT SUNRISE
It was with an open mind, once again, that I approached a 7 a.m. yoga practice under a canopy of trees the following morning. The bugs were out and the air was damp, but it was refreshing after the perpetual party of San Juan del Sur.
The class and mats are free to guests; I hadn’t done much yoga previously, but kept up well enough in class that was so crowded, we couldn’t Shavasana without touching each other.
A breakfast of granola and fruit followed at the Zopilote restaurant, which encourages you to pay in USD so it can capitalize on the exchange rate. Perhaps I was still bitter about my smoothie the previous day, but I thought the service at the restaurant was terrible.
CASCADA SAN RAMON
We rented a couple of motorcycles from the folks who live on the farm at the foot of the hostel near the school bus — two at USD 25 each for the day, on the condition we returned them by 5 p.m. with a full tank.
We were bound for the San Ramon Waterfall on the southern slopes of the Maderas Volcano. It’s about a 30-minute ride along the coastline, but be warned, the road is rocky and it’s pretty dodgy riding. We passed villages and lagoons on the bumpiest path I’d ever driven on, and I couldn’t understand how the Aussies on the moped behind me were keeping up.
We arrived as the scorching sun reached its peak, and paid the C$ 90 entry fee to the Ometepe Biological Field Station at the foot of the hike to the falls. It was beautifully landscaped, set on a backdrop of low-hanging clouds and thick green trees covering the volcano.
The hike itself was not overly difficult, but the hot sun made for a gruelling march. The smell of rotting kumquat filled our noses as we marched through a mix of forest and open road. We encountered cuddly pigs along the way, and were followed by a horse for much of it. Truthfully, it wasn’t visually spectacular until closer to the waterfall, which was, in fact, quite beautiful:
My advice for the San Ramon Falls — get there early, bring lots of water and a picnic lunch. Because we started in the afternoon, we had turn around and hike back almost immediately after arriving to get our motorcycles back to the hostel in time.
SUNSET AT SANTA CRUZ
We went for a dip in the lake at the bottom of the volcano and stopped for homemade lemonade at a tienda on the way back to El Zopilote. We missed our rental deadline by half an hour, and I’ll shamelessly say I did some pretty fine negotiating to get us out of trouble.
We met up with our moped-riding Aussie friends that evening and watched the sunset from the hammocks at the Hostel Santa Cruz, which has views of both the Concepción and Maderas volcanoes. We went for dinner together at the Bahia Verde Comedor, which is just a few minutes away on foot, north on the NN-226. I had a delicious garlic chicken, and we capped the night off with card games at the Santa Cruz. We walked in the dark to El Zopilote, where we hiked to our bunk beds under the moonlight.
Day Nine: Ometepe Island
I blew my plans to leave Ometepe Island the next morning. I was convinced by friends to stay one more day, and then rush back through Granada to Managua to catch my flight in two days’ time. Our crew split into two groups: one, to embark on the ambitious eight-hour hike to the top of Concepción, and the other, to zip around the island on bikes in search of an unplanned adventure. The guys at the bottom of El Zopilote were reluctant to rent to us again, but after a bit of sweet-talking, we started our tour of Ometepe.
A NEW VIEW
I love travelling by road. On the bikes, we saw a different version of the island, beyond the bars, hostels and hikes. We visited fishing and farming villages along the coastline, and passed many of the island’s rural volcano evacuation routes.
We shared disastrous, gravelly roadways with dogs, pigs, cattle and horses, in sharp contrast to the urban centres we stopped in, like Altagracia, San Marcos and Moyogalpa. It was a fantastic day of riding in a stunning part of the world.
When we met up with our friends who had hiked Concepción, it was clear who had had the better day (it took them almost 11 hours altogether and they couldn’t see much from the cloudy peak).
We went for drinks that evening at Little Morgan’s, the infamous hostel about a kilometre away from El Zopilote. I compare it to the Bigfoot Hostel in León and Antigua — it’s where everyone goes to party, listen techno music and absorb cigarette smoke. But it did have wicked infrastructure: tree houses to sleep in, hammocks, and wooden towers to climb with astonishing views of the beach and treetops. Like El Zopilote, there’s much to be discovered with a walk around the facilities, including a beautiful beach and lots of wildlife. But I wouldn’t recommend staying there if you want to sleep or have a fear of heights.
Day 10: Ometepe to Granada & Managua
I enjoyed the hike down from El Zopilote the next morning, knowing it was the last time I’d get lost on the poorly-marked path. I grabbed a banana and passion fruit smoothie in Moyogalpa before hopping on the ferry with Chris, who would join me in this last leg of my trip in Nicaragua.
When we arrived in San Jorge, Rivas, we were swarmed again with eager drivers. In the end, we settled on a shared taxi to Granada for about USD 30 with some other travellers (although it’s certainly easy to take the public bus). It was a one-hour drive, most of which I spent staring out the window at the lakes, villages and volcanoes in between the two cities.
AN AFTERNOON IN GRANADA
We reached Granada around noon, just in time for lunch at Jardin Café, one of the city’s most popular restaurants. It specializes in craft beer, and things with quinoa. If you’re need of comfort food, it’s a great place to go. If not, eat elsewhere and avoid the lineup of tour buses.
We did an informal walk around the city, the oldest and most photogenic in Nicaragua. It’s revered for its well-preserved Moorish and Andalusian appearance and exceptionally colourful streets. The bright yellow Granada Cathedral is a centrepiece, with a bell tower that offers exceptional views. The Iglesia de la Merced is just a short walk east from there, across the Parque Central. That church has been pirated and pillaged over the years, and was most recently restored in 1862. Its tower, too, is open to tourists to soak in the city views from above.
A NIGHT IN MANAGUA
It was a short stay, and before I knew it, it was time to depart for Managua, a ride booked through a roadside travel agent for USD 20. It’s about an hour north to the capital city, which was calm and quiet in the evening. I grabbed a C$ 90-meal of chicken and rice from a stall on the streets, and as I walked by Managua’s hallmark Trees of Life, I had no idea that the political revolt brewing in homes, newsrooms and universities would soon become the deadliest civil conflict since the Nicaraguan revolution.
It would eventually claim the life of a friend — videographer Eduardo Spiegler, who died in a tragic accident at one of the protests in May 2018. He was a relentless social justice advocate, killed while documenting the political and social movement on the streets of Nicaragua, where he lived. I had the privilege of working with him through the Nobel Women’s Initiative in Honduras and Guatemala. He had a giving soul and gift for stunning, impactful storytelling.
I left Managua early the next morning, bound for Guatemala City and one last adventure. Click here to follow my itinerary.
Know Before You Go: Ometepe Island
- Ometepe Nicaragua is a great resource for visitors, with all kinds of information on the cities and tourism attractions. It also has links to the bus and ferry schedules, along with a downloadable map of the island.
- Know which part of the island you’re going to stay in before you show up. It could impact your ferry route and it can cost up to 20 USD from the dock to get to the area you have in mind.
- If you’re on a tight schedule, I don’t recommend a hike up Concepción. It takes at least eight hours for a crew with relatively good fitness, and if it’s a cloudy day, you might not see much.
- Most of the hostels have their own bars and restaurants, so it’s easy enough to walk to a hostel you’re not staying in, hang out, meet people and sample their wares. If you choose to stay in a larger centre, like Alta Gracia, you’ll have lots of more local options to choose from.
- Bring a flashlight in you’re staying in Santa Cruz — there are no street lamps to guide you if you’re out and about.
Where to Stay:
- El Zopilote Organic Farm is great place to stay if you don’t mind sleeping outdoors, you’re keen on yoga, and you don’t plan on doing a lot of running around on the island. It’s a true retreat: isolated, engulfed in nature and self-sufficient. The accommodations are cheap (starting at 4 USD for a hammock), but the food is expensive. Booking conditions are also strict, so make sure you want to stay here before reserve in advance.
- Little Morgan’s is a party hostel. Don’t book here if you’re visiting the island to relax and recharge. Otherwise, it’s a great place to make friends, book tours and organize hikes, while enjoying beach access and nifty infrastructure. Dorm beds start at USD 8 per night. There are no advance reservations, so you’ll just have to show up and roll the dice.
- Hostel Santa Cruz is a good halfway point between Little Morgan’s and El Zopilote — quiet enough to sleep, but with some of the best volcano and sunset views around, it’s a hotspot. WiFi is included and dorm beds start at USD 10 per night.