Magmarvelous Nicaragua

Itinerary:

  1. Day 1: Land in Managua, transfer via private driver to Granada
  2. Day 2: Walking tour of Granada and evening tour of Masaya Volcano
  3. Day 3: Isletas boat tour and visit to chocolate museum
  4. Day 4: Transfer back to Mangua for flight

Dates: February 9-12, 2017

Our Odyssey:

Nicaragua was our second trip as part of our winter escapes to Central America (our first was Belize, back in January and our third, to Guatemala, is coming up next weekend!), and even though Belize and Nicaragua are very geographically close, we found the countries to be surprisingly different from one another! Nicaragua is the poorest country in Central America, and, though it is also the safest, it looks and feels a bit rougher than Belize. Nicaragua is also predominantly Spanish-speaking, while Belize is English-speaking.

Nicaragua was also much, much cheaper –  for $80 per night in Caye Caulker, Belize, we got a small apartment with one bathroom, one bedroom, and a living room. For about the same price per night in Granada, Nicaragua, we got what was essentially a mansion – several bedrooms, each with a bathroom, an expansive living room with vaulted ceilings, an open air courtyard area served as the kitchen, and in the center was a pool (yes, a pool in the kitchen). Upstairs we had a terrace with a garden and views over the city and nearby Mombacho volcano. Basically, we were living like royalty, and while we loved getting out and exploring the city and surrounds, we also really loved hanging out in our lavish apartment.

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Yep, that’s a swimming pool in our apartment!

We got in late Thursday night to Managua, the country’s capital and home to the major international airport. From there we had a transfer to our apartment in Granada that our Airbnb host arranged for us. We stayed up for a bit exploring our new digs and settling in, then picked one of the bedrooms to sleep in.

The next morning, we naturally woke up early and decided to venture out for a walk around the city and a bite to eat. We walked to the Central Park, where the famous Granada Cathedral is located. One thing most people don’t know about this park is that it actually used to be a cemetery, and all the bodies were moved across town. I wonder if it’s haunted…

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Nicaragua Cathedral

Being out just as the city was waking up for the day was so peaceful and lovely – something we would later see is a stark contrast to the city at night. We found a lovely little restaurant with fresh juice and a big traditional breakfast of rice, beans, eggs, cheese, plantains, bread and fresh coffee. We fell in love with Granada just sitting there people-watching, eating, and loving on the cute stray dog nearby.

After breakfast, we headed back to our apartment, where a guide would be meeting us at 9:30am for a tour of the city. Normally, I like to find self-guided walking tours for cities we visit, but being only $20/person for several hours, and not having a guidebook to the lead the way, hiring a guide for the morning was the best way to make use of our brief time in Granada.

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Open air courtyards in the middle of colonial homes in Granada were (and still are) an important way to keep cool air circulating within the homes.

Our tour started at the Xalteva Cathedral, a colonial-era church that sits across from a lovely park that used to be the site of one of the early markets. We visited a second church – the Iglesia la Merced, which dates to the 1500s but has been destroyed and rebuilt several times since. The church has a bell tower that visitors can climb up, affording a fantastic view over the city, from the volcano to the iconic Granada Cathedral.

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Xalteva Church

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Iglesia la Merced

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Atop the bell tower of Iglesia la Merced

We then proceeded to the Central Park and Granada Cathedral, already much busier than it had been earlier. During our tour we also learned about some of Nicaragua’s post-colonial history where the US engaged in some not-so-kind behavior (backing cruel and corrupt dictatorships, invading and occupying for several years, for example). Our tour also took us to a museum at the Convento San Francisco (an old monastery). We were really happy to have a guide with us at the museum, since there was not a ton of information available in English.

After the museum visit, we had a bit of a surprise – a horse-drawn carriage was waiting for us outside the museum. This wasn’t great for us, since I feel uncomfortable using animals this way, and Tim is allergic to horses. But we got on, because what else could we do? We rode around the city and got to see the old fortress, train station and the second hospital in Granada (which is dilapidated and being renovated for another purpose). Horse-drawn carriages are very popular with tourists in this city – you can find them lined up waiting all around the Central Park. But they are also used by locals for transportation and carrying farming materials. I had conflicting feelings about this – somehow, it felt okay to me to use these horses as part of the livelihood and transportation for a family, but exploitation by tourists felt frivolous and excessive. But at the same time, the people who earn a living giving these rides to tourists are as reliant on it for their livelihood as those for whom this is their main transportation. I saw contradictory emotions within myself on this topic, and they are feelings I haven’t yet resolved.

After the tour we had some downtime to go to the grocery store and grab items to make lunch. It was a leisurely afternoon lounging in our apartment before being picked up for the most adventurous part of our weekend – visiting the very active Masaya Volcano.

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Volcanic haze 

The volcano was about 40 minutes away, and due to its popularity, visitors are permitted up to the rim of the caldera in groups and are allowed to stay for up to 15 minutes before departing to make room for the next group. Though we had to share space with many others overlooking into the caldera, it was one of the most memorable and mesmerizing sights I’ve ever witnessed. It is second only to the northern lights. From 400 meters above the surface of the lava river, we could witness the powerful sight, smell and odor of red, gurgling magma. I love our photos from this experience, but have to admit they don’t do it justice.

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Me and Tim at the Masaya volcano

Later that evening, our throats were scratchy and chests congested – we realized that just 15 minutes breathing in those toxic fumes had us feeling pretty ill – I can only imagine how this impacts the rangers at the national park who stand up there daily for hours.

Upon returning to our apartment and showering up, we ventured out for dinner. There was a free concert going on in Central Park, which we stopped to watch for a few moments before heading down the main street towards Lake Nicaragua. Near the end of this road, too, was another free concert. It was really exciting to see this city coming alive with free art events for the community.

We ended up stopping for dinner at the same place we had had breakfast – breakfast had been so delicious, we felt it was a safe bet. Unfortunately, the peaceful, serene scene of the morning had given way to the chaos and crowds of the night. What was worse, though, were the young boys who came up to our table asking for a bite of our food. We’d been casually tossing scraps to the dog we had met earlier that morning, and I felt awful sitting there with more food than we could heat and saying no to giving any to the young boys. I was overwhelmed – while Tim and I had been in impoverished countries before, it had been a while since we had been confronted with this level of begging from children. We’d read that the humanitarian groups in the area discourage giving the beggars food, since in most cases they are being exploited by adults. Sure enough, we later saw one of our begging boys taking something intravenously with a group of young men. My heart broke for this poor boy and the awful situation he’s in. I knew then that it wasn’t mere food that he needed, but instead a total way out of his current situation.

My mood was pretty low after this experience, so Tim and I went back to our apartment (we also had an early morning the next day).

At 6am on Saturday, a bus arrived to drive us to a ferry where we cross part of Lake Nicaragua to reach Ometepe Island. After about an hour on the road, however, our guide told us that due to strong winds, the ferry was not going to be running and that the tour would be canceled. We were disappointed but weren’t going to let it ruin our time, so we inquired about other tours they could offer us for that day instead. Once back in Granada, we were signed up for a late-morning motor boat cruise of the isletas of Lake Nicaragua – small islands off the coast of Granada that were formed when the Mombacho volcano blew off most of its cone thousands of years ago. There are 365 of them, most privately owned, many converted into Swiss Family Robinson style jungle homes.

During our ride, we saw many species of birds, including one resourceful egret who was riding on a bull’s back along the shore of the lake. We also saw a very sweet, active monkey, and were heartbroken to see he was tethered to a leash. Again, I was confronted with my discomfort of seeing animals used for human entertainment, but at the same time could not succeed in reconciling my discomfort in this situation with my relative comfort with seeing dogs on leashes. We did, however, come upon a “Monkey Island” which is home to many spider monkeys. Our guide gave us each a small cookie to feed them, which, yet again, made me wary. With the number of tourists coming through each day offering these wild monkeys manmade food, it must not be good for them. Tim and I opted against feeding cookies to the monkeys, but did enjoy getting close with our boat to observe their sweet faces and swinging bodies through the tree branches.

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Spider monkey

Our boat also stopped at an old Spanish colonial fort on San Pablo island which was  built in 1789 to protect against pirate attacks. Now, since the island is in a large lake, you might be wondering how the pirates were getting there. There is actually a river that connects the Atlantic Ocean with Lake Nicaragua, so pirates would sail in that way.

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Mombacho volcano as seen from Lake Nicaragua 

It was a nice, easy-going tour and we were back at our apartment by the early afternoon. After lounging around, playing card games and watching some TV for a few hours, we decided to venture out on one last Granada walk. We looked at Trip Advisor to see any places that would be interesting to us that we hadn’t already done yet that were also open, and saw that there was a chocolate museum near the main square!

We walked to the museum and were greeted by a very enthusiastic young man who worked there. He said he could give us a free tour of the museum that would include free samples at the end and we could just pay a tip. Although the shop was going to be closing in about an hour, this man did not have the waning energy of someone who had been working all day. He was so excited to tell us about chocolate in Central America!

After the tour, we had samples (the best part) – a chocolate tea (we bought two bags), a brownie (we bought one of those too), and about 5 shots of various chocolate liquors (we bought a chocolate mixed drink and a chocolate beer). From the free samples plus the two drinks we bought, we were pretty tipsy by the end! Admittedly, we did not expect to spend our time at the chocolate museum getting drunk!

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Goodies at the chocolate museum! 

That evening, back at our apartment, we cooked dinner and relaxed- the next morning would be back to the airport and onward to Atlanta and the normal work week!

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