October 19 – November 17, 2016.
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.
Silver parked in front of the Cathedral in the main square.
We could not believe that horses where roaming the streets and no one was paying attention to them, in a town of about 125,000 people!
Yo Amo Nicaragua (I love Nicaragua). New murals have replaced the revolutionary pieces! Some of the murals were created by children through the FUNARTE cultural organization. A Mural Tour is also available to learn more about their signification.
Love this stone statue of a round woman in the main square by Artist Sculptor Juan Carlos Sanchez Diaz from San Juan de Limay a small town famous for its artisan production of soapstone (marmolina) sculpture.
Shoe shinning is a big thing in Latin America and that usually takes place in the main square or central plaza. The guy with the light blue shirt is getting his sneakers shinned!!!
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.
Joe is not a cigar smoker but we did buy a box for his brother Steve. Since we knew we were going home for Christmas the plan was to bring it with us, but we forgot the box in the truck where it sat for 6 months until we finally mailed it, from Panama! Hopefully they were still good!
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”.
Driving through Nicaragua’s highlands.
It took us a while to find the place and when we did, there was no one around so we decided to set up the camper anyway! Then the owner, a German expat, came out and told us that since they had not taken a vacation in a very long time, they were leaving for the weekend. He said that there was no problem to park on his property and he would be back on Monday to show us around. In the mean time the caretaker would be on site if we needed anything. That was perfect for us!
We camped four nights next to this little stream! Enjoying cooler temperatures, hiking a few nearby trails, doing laundry and a lot of relaxing…
One the second day the caretaker brought us a bag of oranges and yellow jocotes. At first we thought that the green oranges were not ripe but when we tried one we could not believe how sweet and juicy they were!
We cooked in our camper but one day we had a typical lunch: Bean soup with a boiled egg in it, white rice on the side. Simple but delicious!
When the owner Juergen came back, he gave us a tour of his property and explained the process of a small organic coffee plantation. They only produce enough for the hotel use and to sell to their guests. Joe is getting the fire ready for coffee roasting and pizza!
We roasted these beans in this large clay bowl, we were able to buy 2 kg the next day before we left. By far the best coffee we ever had!
After the roasting the beans went back on the screen to cool off!
Beautiful Mountain view on our way back!
Each region or town have different modes of transportation. Here it was a motorbike or bycicle with a seat in the front.
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 roots of the rebellion run deep in León and the many murals are there to remind everyone! Edgar Munguia nicknamed La Gata (the cat) was a hero/martyr of the revolution who was captured, tortured and killed by Somoza’s civil guard. He reminded us of another famous revolutionary: Che Guevara.
Local market, always an abundance of fresh fruits!
While walking around town we came across this group of students getting their class picture taken, students always look so clean and proper in their crisp uniforms.
Just a typical scene from a city street! Building renovation, ladies crossing the street, truck delivery and a guy riding his bike.
Basílica de la Asunción, León’s cathedral is the largest in Central America, but what really made it special was it’s rooftop. You can go up a tiny stairway for $1 and enjoy the magnificent views and the all white structures but not before removing your shoes. Perfect setting for picture taking.
Leon has no less than 16 churches. This one called The Recollection built in 1780, was our favorite for it’s ochre color and dramatic Baroque facade!
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!
We camped in the parking lot of the Playa Roca Hotel . The main attraction was the restaurant/bar specially at sunset. It was a popular hang out for expats and locals from nearby Leon. US sports were shown on a big screen TV, cheap beer, good Wi-Fi, bathroom and shower. In other words everything we look for in a camp site. Oh! and did I mention that it’s located right on the beach and we paid $15 per night!!!
The beaches in Nicaragua are some of the most beautiful we’ve seen in Central America.
How can you not like a place where horses roam free and sleep on the beach?
Surfing was pretty high on my bucket list. I know I will never be a “surfer” but I often dreamed about how it would feel to be standing on a board on top of a wave. After a couple days of observation, I mustered the courage to sign up for a class.
My stars must have been aligned that day because after a few minutes of instructions on the sand we went in the water and on my third attempt I went up! The feeling was absolutely fantastic!
This is what happiness looks like! Did I just catch some waves? So proud of myself!
Our new friends Sue and Mike invited us for happy hour and to watch the amazing sunset from the roof top terrace of their newly acquired house in Las Peñitas. It/s available for rent, look for Marisol on Airbnb.
View of the Juan Venado Nature Reserve where you can see lots of wildlife including nesting turtles.
Just another sunset!
This is Las Peñitas main street! Horses, bicycles or walking are the main modes of transport!
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!!!
The road to Cerro Negro Volcano was quite narrow, the only other traffic we encountered were cow pulled carts! Notice the volcanic dirt road!
We were certainly not the first Overlanders to camp there but most camp in the parking lot by the entrance. We got there at the end of the day and most of the tour groups were already gone so I asked the attendant if it was possible to camp on the Volcano and to our surprise he said, sure!
Who says you can’t prepare a Steak dinner while Volcano camping?
This camp spot is without a doubt the most unusual and surreal we’ve experience so far! Notice the green mountain and clouds on the left!
The ascent, I was very happy that our guide carried our boards! Since we went there on our own, usually people book a tour in Leon and come in groups, we paid less and had our own private guide for just the two of us. We got up at 6am before it got to hot and before the tour groups arrived. We had the place to ourselves!
It took about an hour to get to the top and it was quite hot!
View from the top! The contrast of colors was amazing!
The guide gave us these jumpsuits, cloves and goggles! Nothing fancy but quite effective! Unfortunately, with the fumes from the volcano my camera started fogging and the pictures of the descent are all blurry!
We did it! We actually went down an active volcano on something resembling a snowboard! It sounds more extreme than it actually is but we still had loads of fun!
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!
We came to join our friends Doug and Fran and camped in the parking lot of this nice little resort where we had access to the restaurant, beach chairs, bathrooms and showers. We did a tour of the lake on Water bicycles and swam in the clear waters.
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!
Seeing the boiling lava lake up close was quite an experience!
Just a little hot!
Silver posing in the Plaza de la Independencia (Independence Square) near the Cathedral
Parque Central or Colon. Like all Colonial towns, the main square or central park is the heart of the City life! This one has a beautiful fountain and pavilion.
Work of art in Poetry Park of President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro who served from 1990 to 97, the first woman head of State in the Americas, she pulled together a fractured nation. She is known for ending the Contra War and bringing peace to the country.
With the intense heat of the city we decided to splurge on a hotel room in the beautiful blue building with the flags located a few steps from the main square. Hotel Colonial
The hotel had a nice small courtyard with a refreshing pool and tropical plants!
This lady was always outside our hotel selling food! We tried to communicate but I could never figure out what she was saying and I think she got mad at me so I took her picture!
La Merced, Church was originally built in 1534 then destroyed by pirates in 1655 and rebuilt with its current baroque facade in 1783. You can climb up the bell tower on the left for magnificent views of the city.
Our Lady of the Assumption Cathedral with Lake Nicaragua in he background photographed from La Merced Bell Tower
Another great view from the Bell Tower.
Guadalupe Church was located on Calle la Calzada near The Red Cross where we had parked our rig while we stayed in a hotel.
I always admire the fact that in Latin America, bicycles, motorcycles, horses, cars, trucks and pedestrians can share the same roads without any problems!
On the tip of another Overlander (Doug) we had purchased Valvoline synthetic oil in Leon. Before we left Granada we had it changed at a gas station by this nice man for only a few dollars! When looking under the truck Joe noticed a whole in our front gear box cover, he patched it with J-B Weld, steel reinforced epoxy putty, a must have in every Overlander’s tool box!
Playa Popoyo (Guasacate)
We stayed a week at this popular surf spot, near the small town of Las Salinas de Nagualapa.
Our friends Doug & Fran from Calder Escapes were camped at Playa Popoyo and told us how peaceful and beautiful it was so we decided to join them!
We camped by this 3 room guest house, Casa Los Cocos. The owners were away but we shared the place with Doug & Fran and 3 young surfers. We had access to a shower, bathroom, electricity, wifi and use of the basic kitchen for $10 per night!
Reading, walking on the beach and swimming were our main activities.
Casa Los Cocos is very modest but the location is spectacular!
We got to know Désirée a very special young woman from Sweden! She came to Nicaragua to reconnect with herself and face her fears. We hope to meet her again one day … her smile and warm personality really made an impression on us and she will always be in our hearts.
Johannes and Daniel. We got some good laughs with these two German globetrotters! They travel with 6 surf boards! They let me use one but the waves were just to big for me!
No matter how often you do it, walking on the beach at sunset is always a magical moment!
Another Pacific coast sunset!
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.
The island of Ometepe is 31 km long by 10 km wide. On the left is the active Concepcion Volcano and on the right, Maderas.
Our fiends Mike and Sue told us about a small hostel owned by a young couple from New Jersey, Finca Mystica.
We stayed in this beautiful little Cob cabin, an ancient technique using soil, sand, rice, straw and horse manure!
This is the lodge where all the incredibly delicious meals are served family style by a super friendly staff. They grow most of their fruits, grains and teas on site. All the meals are prepared from scratch with fresh ingredients from their garden or from the village.
A wonderful place to hang out and enjoy a Red Pitaya (dragon fruit) and Lime smoothie, my favorite combination.
Doesn’t Joe look good in pink?
After traveling the world for 10 years, Ryan and Angela fell in love with Isla Ometepe and bought a piece of land in 2006. They build everything themselves little by little with the help of friends and a few locals. If you’re ever in the area, we highly recommend staying at Finca Mystica.
We took a 4 hour horseback riding tour from the guest house to the San Ramon waterfall.
The last 30 minutes is only accessible by foot
Not the most impressive waterfall but still refreshing!
Along the lake shore road back to the guest house.
On our way to take the ferry. Notice the Concepcion volcano in the background 1,610 m (5,280 ft). There are numerous trails in the tropical forest that surrounds it.
The ferry going back to San Jorge on the main land for one more night before crossing into Costa Rica.
Few Facts about Nicaragua:
- Population: 6.15 million (2016) World Bank
- Area: 50,338 sq miles (130,375 km²)
- Capital: Managua
- 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.
For more current updates you can follow us on Facebook at Joe and Josée’s Journey or on Instagram @ joeandjosee
Next, Costa Rica … Stay tuned!