We began our travels through Nicaragua three weeks ago, heading to the spectacular twin colonial cities of Leon and Granada. At odds for centuries over which city was superior, Leon on the Pacific Ocean has maintained its reputation as the intellectual and cultural center of Nicaragua, while the lakeside town of Granada is Nicaraguas wealthy agricultural center with river access to the Caribbean. Our first stop was Leon and the Museo Gurdian Ortiz, the largest collection of Central American classic and contemporary art anywhere. After months of heavy adventure travel it was such a nice change of pace to visit such a grand museum and see the evolution of art from Mexico to Panama over the past several hundred years or so. It was so beautiful and was a reflection of Leon as a whole. With countless grand cathedrals and churches and streets of multicolored homes with ornate woodwork and doors, the city was a great place to spend a few days soaking in the local vibes and cuisine.
After three days we pressed onward three hours south east to Granada where we found similar colonial beauty but perched along the shores of the massive Lake Nicaragua, one of the 20 biggest lakes in the world. With unique cathedrals and the main street still cobblestoned, Granada is historically charming to say the least. Our first day we decided to take a tour of the “isletas”, the more than 300 small jungly islands along the shores of Granada. Travelling in our little motor boat through the tightly packed islands we felt as if we were on a jungle river more than a lake, especially as white faced and spider monkeys came out to the shore of one of the islands to watch us float by. The vined trees were covered with beautiful white herons and though we were only 20-30 minutes from Granada it felt like we were deep in the jungle. I jumped in for a little swim (even though the lake waters contain both caymans and fresh water bull sharks!) and the water was perfect on a hot day. One of the islands closest to Granada remarkably had the remains of an old stone fortress on it and we were shocked to learn it was for defending Granada against pirates! Apparently the dread pirate Henry Morgan (yes, THAT Captain Morgan) would travel the hundreds of miles up the Rio San Juan from the Caribbean, then travel the hundreds of miles across the lake and attack the lakeside city, plundering it on multiple occasions. Seeing the old fort there one could almost imagine the firefights and battles on the lake. For history buffs like us it was very cool. The next day was New Years Eve and we made our way to one of the beaches on the lake for what would be an incredible and unforgettable party. Thousands of locals (and us) dancing to DJ’s in the sand, waves crashing on the shore beside us, smoke and confetti cannons blasting over the dancing masses, fire jugglers and spitters lighting up the beach throughout and an endless stream of fireworks exploding overhead for hours on end. They do it right in Nicaragua. Hello 2014.
With new years behind us we made our way from the thriving metropolis of Granada to possibly the most opposite location imaginable, Isla Omatepe. Conjoined jungle islands in the middle of Lake Nicaragua, each section of the figure 8 islands have giant volcanos rising in their centers, Volcan Concepcion and Volcan Maderas. As you cross the water on the ferry from the mainland, the two green and brown volcanoes rising out of the lake absolutely take your breath away. Our home on Omatepe would be a group of small thatched bamboo huts with sand floors on the strip of land where the two islands come together. We didn’t have many options. As we were checking in a pair of bright green parrots came out of the jungle and attacked our luggage! We were annoyed but couldn’t stop laughing at the bizarre scene. After an uncomfortable sleep the first night, we rallied and decided to get out and see the island and search for a waterfall we had heard about. With some friends we hiked up and through the jungle (it’s a little crazy how hot and sweaty one gets hiking uphill for hours in 95 degree heat with 90% humidity… good lawd) but eventually we began hearing the sound of falling water in the distance. We would not be disappointed. The waterfall fell two hundred feet through the bright green jungle down to a pool at the bottom which we immediately waded into to cool off. It was bliss feeling the cool water rain down on us and the reward was well worth the effort. A feeling we’ve experienced many times on this trip already. The next day we decided the best way to see these giant islands would be to rent dirt bikes, what a great decision that was! The 8 of us rented 4 motorcycles and we took off on an epic journey around the island, cutting up trails up the sides of the volcanos and zipping around the islands outer edges. At one point we found a dirt trail around the far side of one of the volcanoes and spent an hour cruising with the lake on our left, the jungle on our right and a giant volcano overhead. All the while avoiding roving chickens, pigs, horses and herds of oxen which shared the trail with us. It was a special time and sharing it with our friends made it that much more fun.
Eventually though we made our way off the island craving a shower and a bug and animal free room to sleep in. To the Pacific we headed and the southern beach town of San Juan Del Sur. A crescent shaped bay of white sand with a 100′ Jesus statue looking down upon the town from the mountain top. San Juan is home to many of the top surf spots in Nicaragua, it’s one part Rio, Brazil, one part Santa Cruz, California, ten parts Nicaragua and 100% beautiful. For five days we relaxed on the beaches, swam in the ocean every sunset, surfed the waves, hiked the hills and ate the incredible food (fish tacos on the beach are always a fave). An easy place to lose yourself in the shear comfort and beauty, San Juan is only 30 minutes from the Costa Rica border but still graces you with Nicaraguan prices. Our hotel room was 5 feet from the beach with a private balcony overlooking the sea and was only $20 US a night and a 12 course meal at a delicious Spanish tapas restaurant was just $6 each. It’s no wonder so many Americans and Europeans have been finding their way to San Juan over the years as the expat population continues to grow. It was really, really, REALLY hard to leave but the next stop was to be the white sand Caribbean beaches of the Corn Islands. The plan was to fly across the country to the isolated islands and spend a week snorkeling and scuba diving in the Caribbean waters. The plan was a good one and started off right as planned… but little did we know there was a large tropical storm brewing to the south that would hit our part of the Caribbean shortly after we arrived…
But that will be a story for another day.