Spectacular beaches, pretty colonial towns, vast volcanoes, terrifying tarantulas and of course the surf.
21/12/2013 - 22/01/2014 32 °C
Our arrival into Nicaragua began with the most horrendous bus ride to date. There are basically 2 options from the island of Utila down into Nicaragua – do it all in the one hit, about 16 hours with a private shuttle bus. Or break it up and spend a night near the border. The majority of backpackers go the direct route given the less than ideal safety conditions of Honduras, and we did the same. Collectively as a group celebrating our scuba graduation and last night on Utila we decided it best not to sleep, plenty of time for that on the bus the next day and our ferry was leaving at 6am after all!
The ferry conditions were less than ideal, with sick bags being passed around and many returned full. The shuttle turned out to be a disheveled 10 person mini van, officially probably only an 8 person van but with an extra row of seats crammed in. Leg room was minimal, which meant for Brendan the most uncomfortable 18 hour ride of his life. Our poor friend Lee also broke out in an enormous red, scary rash that was growing by the hour, likely from sitting atop the frighteningly hot motor.
We made it in one piece though, just. Crossing the border at around 10pm, our friends had to pay the entrance fee twice as the official “didn’t remember” exchanging money merely seconds before. I managed to sleep a lot of the way, but apparently the countryside was rather beautiful. However it was interspersed with huge towers outside every service station with machine gun wielding security. Even our lunch stop, which was a huge bustling restaurant, had a security guard with a machete out front - slightly disconcerting.
We didn’t have a whole lot of expectations about Nicaragua. We’d met various backpackers on our route down south – generally those that visited loved it, others heard it was unsafe and opted to skip it. It’s growing in popularity for its world-class waves, cheap accommodation and delicious rum….
We spent our first two nights in the pretty colonial city of Leon. Christmas was fast approaching and thus the town was covered in decorations with Spanish carols blasting from restaurants and homes.
We had done quite a bit of research before deciding where to spend Christmas – many hostels & hotels book up fast over the silly season, and we had been planning a bit of a holiday from our holiday. It was time to sit still for a minute, 2 weeks was the longest we’d spent in the one place in almost 12 months so we were looking forward to a bit of down time, RnR, and more specifically, surfing.
We decided on a sleepy fishing town, well off the gringo trail, called Playa Gigante, about 30km north of the famous & tourist heavy San Juan del Sur. Unlike many of the nearby surfing spots, here you could walk to the local surf beaches rather than taking an expensive 4WD or panga boat.
What we discovered were untouched beaches stretching miles long, an abundance of wildlife & farm animals, a small local fishing & farming community of Nicaraguan’s, and an awesome bunch of expats (mainly Canadian’s and American’s) who welcomed us into their community with many a beer and parties.
Not that much surf on our first day, but Brendan was super eager!
On our last day in Gigante we watched as this local fisherman waded out with his spear gun, shot this enormous rooster fish and then a heap of locals dove in to wrestle it!
The little casita we rented in the jungle for 2 weeks. Brendan on the porch with the resident dog names BJ who was hideously inbred & blind so had a tendency to bite. We learnt to love him.
Typical morning view from our casita. Along with the seriously loud howler monkeys.
Sunday Funday at Casa Swell
Daily sunset from Casa Swell - our home for the first week of our stay in Gigante
Our favourite local cafe - Party Wave
A sneaky highlight was the surprise arrival of some dear Dutch friends....
The men cooked up a feast of lobster tails & fish - all for $12
After 3 weeks in Gigante we were ready to hit the road again, and made our way to Isla de Ometepe (Ometepe Island). It’s an hour glassed shaped island in the middle of Lake Nicaragua consisting of two dramatic volcanoes joined by a low-lying isthmus. Originally not on our radar, many fellow travellers we met all raved about how worthwhile a visit there was. The taxi, ferry & 4WD transport to get to our accommodation on the island was all fairly rough, the highlight certainly being the graphic infomercial blasting on repeat on the ferry about how a toxic colon can ruin every aspect of your life.
We stayed at an incredibly beautiful place called Finca Mystica (www.fincamystica.com) on the southeastern tip of the island. Nestled at the foot of the dormant Maderas volcano, the American owners Ryan and Angela have hand built a paradisiacal retreat of homegrown organic fruit and vegies, very comfortable and clean mud brick cabins, delicious food and the one and only Mystica rum cocktail. There was plenty to do in the surrounding area including hikes to waterfalls, horse riding, swimming in the lake and the hiring of motorbikes. We spent a day touring the island on a large dirt bike, which was great fun. The roads that aren’t paved (the vast majority) are incredibly rough and rocky but the patchwork scenery of different types of agriculture with the background of the lake was spectacular. There was a slight incident early on with the bike involving acceleration rather than brake, and a panicked change of gear which left us both in the grass. A few locals came out for a look & laugh, and we were on our way (Brendan promising it would all be good from there!).
Resident howler monkeys
There were also many a creepy crawlies on the island (and in Nicaragua in general), so removing a spider from the shower or toilet was a common occurrence for Brendan if I were to remain calm. On one night on the farm as I was entering the communal toilet I immediately yelped and shut the door. Again Brendan thought I was overacting to yet another arachnid, however when I asked him to take a look for himself he too was a little shocked to see a tree snake curled up in front of the loo. Good man managed to get it out though with a long stick, and I avoided the loos as much as possible before we left.
Next stop was Granada, a charming & pretty colonial town featuring plenty of original architecture. We spent a couple of days wandering the streets, enjoying being back in a proper town with interesting eats & reliable wifi.
A couple of friends from Melbourne happened to be staying half an hour away at a place called Laguna de Apoyo, so we spent the afternoon together swimming in the 200m deep volcano crater.
The least impressive part of our time in Granada was the $2.80 haircut I forked out for. I just wanted a simple trim & the hairdresser suggested a few layers - at the time it seemed a fairly straightforward suggestion. The entire haircut took a total of 3 minutes. Here’s a photo of the back a few weeks later when I straightened it. Note a Nica haircut with layers seems to translate to two distinct layers.
Our final stop in Nicaragua was a very special place, so we've decided it deserves its own post. Stay tuned.