After a little more than 3 weeks in Honduras, we crossed into Nicaragua at Las Manos. First we had to pay 110 Cordobas ($3 USD) to get our vehicle fumigated. While in Guatemala we renewed our C4 tourist visa good for Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua so we were good until December 16, but we still had to pay $10 USD each + 45 Cordobas ($1.50 USD) for tourist cards and $1 each for municipal tax. Silver, our rig, got a 30 day Temporary Import Permit (TIP) at no cost. The final step was to purchase the mandatory liability insurance for the vehicle, right there on the side of the road, we didn’t even have to get out of our truck, $12 for 30 days. I still don’t understand why some fees have to be paid in US currency and others in local currency. Border crossings in Central America are quite a disorganized bureaucratic process, lots of patience and a big smile are the two most important things one needs to get through it!
From the border we wanted to visit Somoto Canyon National Monument but when we got to the little town it was pouring rain, we stopped for lunch to sample Nicaragua’s delicious Gallo Pinto (rice with kidney beans) and Carne Asada (marinated grilled meat). After lunch, it was still raining, so we turned around and headed for Esteli.
To understand Nicaragua, it’s important to know a little bit of it’s recent political history:
1936 – 1979 Somoza Dynasty: the country was under the right wing dictatorship of the Somoza family with the support of the US.
1972 – 1979 Sandinista insurrection: The FSLN (Sandinista National Liberation Front) came to power establishing a revolutionary government in 1979. They instituted a policy of mass literacy, devoted significant resources to health care and promoted gender equality, but came under international criticism for human rights abuses, mass execution and oppression of indigenous peoples.
1981 – 1990 Contra war: rebellions against the Sandinista government by Militia right wing rebel group backed and funded by the US.
1986 Iran-Contra scandal: Many will remember Oliver North testifying about the money made from weapon sales to Iran being diverted to the Contras.
1990 – Post Sandinista period: The first truly democratic election was held in 1990 and won by Violetta Barrios de Chamorro known for ending the Contra war, the final chapter of the Nicaraguan Revolution, and bringing peace to the country.
While we were in Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega a former left-wing rebel won his fourth presidential election securing his third consecutive term in office. He ran under the FSLN now a democratic socialist party. His running mate was his wife Rosario Murillo who now serves as vice-president! It was clear by talking with the locals that none of the other candidates had a chance! We thought American politics was messy…
We spent our fist few days in Nicaragua in the town of Esteli, a Sandinista stronghold, a university town and a market center for the thousands of farmers that populate its surrounding hills.
Some of the world’s best cigars or puros are produced in Esteli, many of the factories offer tours. We visited AJ Fernandez Cigars, we learned about the dramatic story of the Nicaraguan Cigars. AJ’s grandfather, Andres Fernandez, grew up in Cuba where he learned his craft. In 1959, like many Cubans fleeing the revolution, he brought tobacco seeds to Nicaragua. Twenty years later, after the 1979 revolution in Nicaragua, the tobacco farms were redistributed and the production was redirected toward cigarette tobacco. After another change of regime in 1990, the cigar industry flourished again only to face another crises. In 1998 hurricane Mitch destroyed all the tobacco farms along with 70% of the country’s physical infrastructures and killing thousands. Today, after years of hard work, the cigar industry produces once again some of the best cigars.
On our private tour, we saw the whole process from the tobacco leaf to the finish product. Cigar making is definitely an art form and we now understand why aficionados are willing to pay the price for a good cigar that’s meticulously handmade by skilled workers.
We heard about the highlands around the city of Matagalpa where the climate is cooler in the heart of the coffee region and found a little slice of heaven at the Mountain Hotel “Aguas del Arenal”.
From the mountain we drove to León, the second largest City in Nicaragua after the capital Managua. With a little more then 200,000 people, it has a highly political and cultural vibe. Another Sandinista stronghold, it was here, in 1956 that a local poet (Rigoberto Lopez Perez) shot dead the first of three Somoza dictators, it was also the first city to be liberated during the 1979 revolution. The population is very proud of their revolutionary past and many museums are dedicated to it.
It was quite hot and humid so we found a nice hotel in the center that had a garage for Silver. We stayed a few days and walked all around in the morning and in the evening to avoid the heat.
The lazy beach town of Las Peñitas is a wide sandy stretch on the Pacific with a few hotels and restaurants, only 20 km west of León.
It offers the easiest access to the turtles and mangroves of Isla Juan Venado Nature Reserve, and there’s also good surfing, with small regular waves perfect for beginners and amazing sunsets!
After a week at Playa Roca it was time to get on the road and say goodbye to our friends. We meet a ton of people while traveling but every now and then it just clicks and it’s like being with old friends. That’s how we felt with Mike and Sue. We hope our paths will cross again.
Cerro Negro Volcano
While reading about things to do in Nicaragua, one in particular peaked our curiosity: Volcano boarding!
Cerro Negro (Black Hill) is the youngest and one of the most active volcano in Nicaragua, it first appeared in 1850 and has erupted 23 times! The most recent eruption was in 1999. You can hike to the fuming top in an hour and back down or you can also surf down!!!
Laguna de Apoyo
After highlands, beaches and volcanos it was time to spend some time on a clear blue volcanic lake. Laguna (Lake) Apoyo is part of a Natural Reserve, it occupies the caldera of an extinct volcano. It is 175 meters deep and has a diameter of 6.6 km. It has a rich flora and fauna. Swimming, kayaking, hiking, birdwatching are the main activities. Strict laws to restrict human activities around the lake are being enforced to protect this gem!
Located in Nicaragua’s first and largest National Park. We visited the park at night to see this dramatic view of the volcano. We’re allowed to stay a maximum of 20 minutes because of the high risk of explosion and the gas vapors!
Playa Popoyo (Guasacate)
We stayed a week at this popular surf spot, near the small town of Las Salinas de Nagualapa.
Ometepe is an island formed by two volcanoes rising out of Lake Nicaragua, it is known for it’s twin volcanoes and laid back vibe. Even though the ferries going to the island take vehicles, we decided to leave Silver (our truck camper) on the main land.
Our fiends Mike and Sue told us about a small hostel owned by a young couple from New Jersey, Finca Mystica.
Few Facts about Nicaragua:
Population: 6.15 million (2016) World Bank
Area: 50,338 sq miles (130,375 km²)
Currency: Nicaraguan Cordoba (1 USD= 30 NIO)
Time spent: 1 month (October 19 – November 17, 2016)
Miles driven: 500
Diesel price per gallon: $3.12
I’m sure that by now you have noticed that our blog posts are way behind (more than a year in this case).
Even though I enjoy writing it, I don’t want it to become a burden and the internet being what it is in remote areas of central and south America, I only write when I have a long period of down time and good wifi.