I’m not big on telling people to defy government travel advisories, so I will not tell you to go to Nicaragua, but I also will not tell you to not go to Nicaragua. I went there and I loved every moment of it! If you’ve followed my travels, you will know that trouble and I are kinda, sorta frenemies, so my going to Nicaragua, in spite of the numerous warnings, may not come as a surprise to you. However, let me make something abundantly clear, especially if this somehow catches my mother’s eyes, I am not, in any way, shape or form, a reckless traveler. In fact, I’m very careful, but I probably have a slightly higher tolerance for risk than the average traveler.
I’ve always believed that if you push your physical limits, you inadvertently push your mental limits. This helps you control the part of your brain that tries to stop you from doing things out of fear. So, essentially, you learn to conquer your fears. This translates from bungee jumping, to starting a business, to getting into or out of a relationship, etc. So mind, body, and soul, you become a better person.
It’s been exactly two years since I was in Central America – how time flies – so a return felt overdue, especially since I kinda skipped Nicaragua last time – woe is me no more! So despite the strong US warnings against travel to Nicaragua, I dusted off my trusted backpack and headed out for adventure – and boy oh boy, did I find it.
I landed in Managua, en route to León and for once decided to take the easy way by using an airport pickup shuttle for gringos. They promised me a nice ride with A/C and a fully bilingual driver at a price of $50. I was disappointed to find that the “state of the art shuttle” did not have a working A/C. And while my driver, Julio, was very nice, he did not speak any English. I didn’t mind that Julio spoke no English (I don’t expect to speak English on trips like these), but I was promised two things that I didn’t get. On the flip side, if I did what I usually do, which is take a local chicken bus, I would have had to change buses a couple of times, navigate the dreaded main bus terminal, which is not for the faint of heart – people get robbed here and stuff – and add a few hours to my journey, but it would have cost me all of about 120 cordobas (roughly $4). So while I didn’t suffer as much, I’m still about $46 angry because of the false advertising. That kind of money goes a long way over here. Anyway, life.
Julio regaled me during the 2 hour journey to León with stories of his dancing days. Apparently, he used to be a b-boy dancer with the nickname Molino, because he used to do the best windmills. When I told Julio that I didn’t have a b-boy nickname because I only danced leisurely when I was in France, he seemed a bit hurt. Guess you can’t please everybody.
I arrived in León early enough to join a free* walking tour around the city. I got to see the indoor market, saw the churches, some restaurants, and bars, all while getting a lecture about its history. León has always been a hotbed of intellectualism and independence. This still holds true today. Everywhere you go, you are met with reminders of the various fights against the country’s dictatorships; be it murals on large stretches of walls or from the mouths of Leonesses on the streets, in bars, buses, etc. They are a very proud people, well, all Nicaraguans are, and it shows.
There’s a very loud alarm that goes off every morning at 7am in León. For some reason, no one warns you of this, so for first time travelers in a city surrounded by several active volcanoes, this is a startling event. The day after I arrived, I woke up in a jolt and scrambled out of my room thinking a volcano had erupted, only to find my hostel roommates laughing at me. A couple of days later, I was the one doing the laughing when poor John from Australia ran out of the room almost fully naked. Safety first, I guess.
That day, after said alarm scare, I set out for my first adventure: hiking, and camping overnight by the crater of Telica volcano. Telica is one of Nicaragua’s 17 active volcanoes – last eruption, 2015. Given the frequency of its eruptions, Telica is due another one anytime now.
Side bar: this was true for all the volcanoes I summited on this trip. The guides usually wait until you are high up or at the summit before they tell you that the volcano is over due for an eruption. They get a kick out of it too, but it’s probably not that funny, especially when you realize that it’s not a joke.
The walk up Telica requires some cardiovascular endurance. You don’t have to be a supreme athlete, but if you are going to carry up camping gear (tent, sleeping bag, mat, at least 8L of water, and your personal belongings) to hike up an elevation of about 3,500 feet, all along a rocky terrain and the occasional rumblings of the volcano, you probably should be in good shape. It doesn’t really measure up to what I had to endure whilst climbing Arenal in Costa Rica, but it was still difficult. Difficult, but worth every second.
There is an indescribable feeling you get standing by the crater of an active volcano. From the massive hole (crater) to the rumbling sound, to the volcanic clouds, to the vista, as well as other sensational views of the ground beneath you. They all add up to a humbling, yet empowering feeling. I try, but I do not have the vocabulary to help you fully appreciate it. And the pictures don’t do it justice. I guess nature wouldn’t have it any other way.
I had planned on camping a few nights on this trip, so I was excited, but things got real interesting after sunset. When darkness fell, it became clear how powerful nature is. At this point, I am a somewhat experienced camper, but camping on an active volcano comes with an added layer of incertitude, especially in pitch darkness. Like, where are you going to run to if it…say maybe… erupts? Chai, what was I thinking? May my mum not read this.
After enjoying the sunset, we used flashlights to make our way back to where we had set up camp, navigating rocks, cow and horse excretions, and the animals themselves. The horses were easy to evade because of the noises they made, but the cows? They stay absolutely quiet and still, so walking into or stumbling on one is quite easy to do.
Once Eddy got the fire started (with my help!), we were able to make dinner and enjoy the starlight. In circumstances like these, you are tempted to let fear ruin the peace you enjoy, but thankfully, I was able to forget that I was on a volcano – at least until the white horse decided to neigh nonstop just outside my tent. She was probably still mad that we didn’t feed her as much as she wanted.
We descended the volcano on the eve of my birthday, so I looked forwarded to doing even more reflection when I got back to my hostel (this time without the threat of danger). I also looked forward to sleeping. If you think I was able to sleep peacefully on an active volcano, you must be crazy.
Back at the hostel, word had started to get around that my birthday was coming up, so I got invited to Trivia night at a local bar. I had every intention of having one drink and enjoying a quiet night because of the following day’s activities: hiking up another active volcano, Cerro Negro, and then descending it on a high speed wooden sled. I needed two critical things: energy and concentration.
Everything was going according to plan until I realized that Nicaraguans don’t take no for an answer when it comes to alcohol. There was no escape. I was sent pictures days later that I had no recollection of. In fact, I have no idea how I got back home that night. It’s even more of a mystery how I was able to hike up Cerro Negro.
The hike up Cerro Negro was not too demanding, given my experience with Telica, but once we got to the top and looked down the slop we would descend, I felt a lump in my throat. If I wasn’t still drunk from the night before, I may have changed my mind, but alas, alcohol!
We took a few fun pictures, then it was go-time. We suited up, grabbed our boards, then gingerly made our way to the tip of the slope and away we went.
I needed a whole day to recover so I spent the day after volcano boarding, sleeping and resting my joints. The following day, I traveled to Granada.
I had such a good time in León that I was not even sure I wanted to go to Granada anymore. Everything had worked out perfectly so far that I wondered if my luck was going to run out at some point. Anyway, I was not going to cut short my trip and I was determined to see more of Nicaragua, so I soldiered on. I would be glad I did.
My first day in Granada was a bit of a disaster. It rained heavily the entire day. What’s worse is that, the weather forecasts predicted it would rain the entire time I was there. If that was the case, I would not be able to do anything I had planned on doing, but I didn’t despair. I told the workers at the hostel who booked tours that it was going to stop raining just in time for me to do what I came to do, because it was my birthday. I told them the same thing had happened in León. There was something about my aura that spoke to the heavens, everything was going to be alright. I said those exact same words and I know they thought I was high – I honestly don’t know why I would say something so crazy, but at this point, I was certain that the rain would stop, not so much because I was there, but because I had visualized it, and from my experience in León, I knew the universe was in agreement.
The very next morning, when the clouds made way for the sun, I made sure to give my I-told-you-so speech to anyone who would listen. They were stunned! The mind truly is a powerful tool.
I was not going to sit back and gloat forever. So, I decided to go Kayaking on Lake Nicaragua, the largest lake in Central America. This was a spur of the moment decision, one that I would seriously question a couple of hours later.
Before we set out, I told the guide that this was my first time, expecting some kind of lecture about dos and don’ts, but he just nodded. Wondering if he understood me, I repeated myself, this time in Spanish, but all he did was smile in response. Once we were pushed off, I realized I would have to fend for myself. Luckily for me, we were joined by a guy from Hawaii, Matthew, who was quite experienced. Matthew gave me few pointers and off we went.
I am still grateful to Matthew for not telling me about the snake that he saw cruising by us. I pride myself on being calm under pressure, but the threat of a snake, added to dangerous waves and rain, may have proved too much for my composure.
I would find out, after we returned, that this activity was mainly for experienced kayakers, because of the distance and time required, but especially because of the unpredictability of the weather. I could not believe I was not told any of this beforehand. I started to get angry, then I realized that these people are here to make money. This is bound to happen in a place without a fully developed tourism machinery. The onus is on you to do your research/ask difficult questions.
I am still not sure if I should feel proud or stupid for kayaking (and conquering!) Lake Nicaragua in bad conditions. It does feel good, however, to look back at pictures and videos.
Back on shore, waiting for our pickup, I found out that our guide was 19yrs old! That explained a lot. I could not believe that my life was in the hands of a teenager. I allowed myself a couple of F-bombs. It was cathartic.
Up next was another active volcano, Masaya. The last time she erupted was in January of 2016 when a bunch of people were actually on the rim of her crater (a bit of a hilarious story, I promise).
The crazy thing about active volcano craters is just how inviting they are. Of course, one knows better than jumping into bubbling magma, but one can’t help but wonder what it looks like underneath. Alas, maybe it’s just me.
We couldn’t stay and enjoy the sights for very long because of the effect on our lungs. If the guide’s warnings were not enough, the suffocating smoke coming from the volcano and the constant coughing made sure to remind me.
Granada is more of a lazy town, compared to the bustling León. It is also more tourist-friendly – most vendors accept credit cards, speak English, and there are a lot more gringos here – but more expensive than León.
So, if you’re looking for comfort, then Granada is for you, but if you want to mix with locals and experience more “authenticity” (probably not fair to Granadiños), then León is your spot.
And then there was Managua! I was advised by many (including locals) not to go to Managua. It is very dangerous they all said. While I knew there had to be some truth to that, I also knew that capital cities in Latin America get a bad wrap. So I thought, why not see it for myself.
Well, we were both right. Managua is no child’s play. Almost every traveler that had spent time in Managua had either gotten robbed or narrowly escaped a hairy situation. There was a Costa Rican backpacker who got robbed outside a night club literally two minutes from our hostel. Crazy right? Well, not so much when you hear his story.
Four of us went out that night, along with two Germans. Once in the club, I chatted up with a local who was very nice. Midway into the conversation, he told me to be very careful, not trust anyone and not stay out too late. My spidey senses were already alert, so that’s all I needed to hear. I informed my party of what I had just been told, so we agreed to call it a night by midnight. All of us except Mr. Costa Rica, who was not ready to leave the girl he had been talking to. Never mind that she had the sketchiest looking male friends with her. I’m guessing he believed that he could pass for a local.
Around 530am that morning, Mr. Casanova woke everyone up yelling about how he had been robbed at gun point about thirty minutes earlier by…yep, you guessed right, his new girlfriend’s companions. While it is easy to feel sorry for him, it was no surprise to hear what happened. He broke every rule there is about backpacking in a seemingly dangerous city.
Mr. Loverman’s robbery notwithstanding, my Managua experience was pretty chill. Just as I suspected, its reputation was a bit exaggerated. I met great people and went to a few cool spots.
Couldn’t take good/many pictures in Managua, because….Managua!
All in all, I had, probably, the best birthday ever (sparring with Cuban olympic boxers is right up there with this). I felt at home, made friendships that will last a very long time, and discovered even more about me and life in general.
Oh and speaking about hammocks, there is no gracious way to mount or descend a hammock. Believe me I’ve tried.
Song of the day: Upside Down by Jack Johnson, who else?! Let’s all be curious and discover the world together.
*Nothing is entirely free, so beware!