Nicaragua – A most surprising destination

I always had a curiosity about Nicaragua, but was concerned about safety. I did quite a bit of research on the current and recent conditions in Nicaragua and decided I would add to my 100 plus countries visited. I wanted to see as much as I could within 4 days. I contacted their department of tourism and was immediately set up with a private guide and driver for my learning expedition.

The flight from Miami to the capital city of Managua was a little under 3 hours. Since I always fly American Airlines and have Executive Platinum status I was upgraded to first class. I was the first passenger off the plane and was delighted to see there were no lines in customs.  My passport was quickly inspected and I was directed to the baggage claim area. My bags came off the carousel immediately (another advantage of traveling first class). The total time to pass customs, pick up my checked bag was less than 15 minutes.  I received a warm welcome by my private guide Juan outside the baggage area. He introduced me to our driver Edwardo and our new 12 passenger minivan.

Juan spoke perfect English and was very knowledgeable and enthusiastic to share his love of Nicaragua.  Our first stop would be Leon, the second largest city in the country. It was a very pleasant 90 minute ride from the airport. Driving through the city that soon turned to beautiful farmland. My home for the night was the Hotel El Convento, a converted convent from the 1600’s. It was a very unique boutique hotel filled with history. The basic room featured air conditioning, private bath, phone and wireless internet that worked fine. The view from my room was of the hotel’s garden courtyard and fountain.

Leon has a very colonial feel. It was like a mixture of Cuba and Spain blended together. It was very safe to walk around and the local people were wonderful. Juan joined me for dinner at the El Sesteo restaurant located in the town square. We sat at an outside table and admired the park and church views as the locals walked by. Juan insisted I should try traditional Nicaraguan foods. We ordered a big platter of local foods with a glass of wine. The total bill was under $20.

Church of Leon

Church of Leon

The highlight of our Leon sightseeing was the Cathedral of Leon built in the 1700’s. We climbed the stairs to the top of the roof and it was an incredible experience to walk on the whitewashed basilica roof in a sea of blazing white. My overall impression of Leon is a beautiful, safe colonial city with beautiful churches, art and streetscapes.

The next morning we headed for a 3 hour drive to the fabulous city of Granada. During the drive we passed more beautiful farmlands as I admired the colorful horizon dotted with volcanoes that could be seen in the distance.  The small city of Granada reminded me of Seville Spain. Very trendy atmosphere filled with picturesque streets and buildings. Lots of cafes, restaurants and boutique hotels on the colonial streets. I stayed at the Hotel Dario which was in the center of it all. The city had a great artsy vibe to it.  Had an incredible dinner at the Bistro Estrada while we sat by their fountain in the outdoor courtyard.  It is connected to a boutique hotel called the Estrada Hotel (I will probably stay there on my next visit). Grenada was probably my favorite area of Nicaragua, I really loved it.

The next morning Juan took me to visit a local family. I was warmly greeted and offered a fresh fruit juice. The family had a small pottery work shop and the husband gave me a demonstration how he makes the pottery, stomping on clay, molding the clay on the wheel powered by his foot, heating in furnace and painting by hand. He was extremely talented with his craft. I purchased a large bowl and a vase from him totaling about $23.  We stopped for lunch at a wonderful trendy restaurant in Granada called the Garden Cafe. It was a popular stop for lots of backpacking American and Canadians in their 20’s, and the restaurant offered good affordable cuisine.

Edwardo drove us to the small town of Massaya where I bargained for goods in the colorful and busy marketplace. From Massaya it was a short drive to the crater of a volcano. Edwardo dropped us off close to the top of the volcano. Juan and I hiked up to the top as the gases and steam flowed out of the top. It was quite an experience with incredible views. It was time to head to the capital city of Managua.

On the way back to the city we stopped at Caterina to admire the incredible views of Lake Managua. Musicians played traditional music while children danced under the watchful eyes of their parents.

Our next adventure was a 2 hour private boat trip around the lake. Lots of birds, monkeys and local fisherman lined the banks around the lake. We arrived in Managua and the three of us enjoyed a nice lunch in a local restaurant before saying our good byes.

My hotel in Managua was the Intercontinental, considered by many to be the most upscale hotel in the city. It was filled mostly with businessmen, and was quite a contrast to the smaller boutique type hotels of the previous nights in Nicaragua. My next driver assigned to show me around was Josh. Josh arrived promptly at 8am in a new Toyota Camry and spoke excellent English. He would take me to the beach resort area of San Juan Del Sur. The drive was about two and a half hours to our final destination. It was a pleasant ride, the roads in excellent condition. Part of our ride was on the Pan American Highway (the world’s largest drivable motorway) stretching all the way to Argentina.

Our first stop on arrival was to view the Christ of the Mercy statue overlooking the bay of San Juan Del Sur. It was reminiscent of a past trip to Brazil viewing the famous Christ the Redeemer statue overlooking the city of Rio De Janeiro. The area has many beautiful beaches and is known as a surfer’s paradise. The small funky downtown area was filled with small hotels, hostels, bars and restaurants. We enjoyed a cup of local coffee and a giant bowl of seafood soup at a beach front restaurant before heading home.

I found a fantastic Steak House in Managua called the Don Candido. I felt like I was in a Buenos Aires restaurant. The Steak was so good I went back the next night. Nightly bill for myself and Josh for 2 big delicious steaks, with baked potato and bottle of red wine was around $65 (tip included). Expensive for local standards, but the same meal in Boston would be around $170.

My overall thoughts on Nicaragua…….surprisingly safe, wonderful people, very cheap, very cultural and exciting. It helps if you can speak some Spanish as most people do not speak English. It will become a popular tourist destination in the future. It is also very affordable to have a private guide or driver with you during your travels.

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