Nicaragua is famous for being a budget backpacker’s dream. An ideal place to spend weeks or even months. Less touristic than Costa Rica and thus more authentic.
San Juan del Sur
I started in San Juan del Sur. A small touristic place very close to the beach. Known for its Sunday funday parties. My favourite roommate there was a 68-year-old Canadian guy. According to him he used to be a criminal (bike gang, drugs and other related things). When I asked him what exactly he just smiled. He made 7’500 CAD per week and at the end of the week there was nothing left. Seven years of his life he spend in prison. Got tortured. Now he lives from his pension. He might have been a criminal but he was such a sweet and fun person to me. He took me to his favourite coffee place El Gato Negro. Full of books and arranged with much love. Wanted me to meet all his friends, joined me for a short but tough hike (20 mins, stunning view over the beach, Cristo de La Misericordia, 2 USD), helped me to save some fishes who stranded on the beach, showed me the local market (next to the Market Bus Stop), took me to a rock concert in the evening, and offered me besides a joint a lot of unhealthy food (donuts, chicken soup, fish and chips, pizza, ice cream). Almost felt bad that I said no to everything. But he did not seem offended at all and was smiling the whole day.
Next I wanted to go to Ometepe. But it was so windy that no boat or ferry was leaving the harbour. So I went first to Granada. A beautiful, colourful colonial city. Great place just to walk around, observe the local life, and getting lost. Many houses have a little garden in the middle and horse and cart are still common. The Choco Museo is definitely worth a visit. Most I liked the chocolate tea with cinnamon.
One day I visited Laguna de Apoyo. A thermal crater lake where you can kayak, swim, and relax from the city life. From the local market in Granada I took a bus (every 10-15 mins) with Managua as a destination and asked to get dropped off at ‘la entrada de la laguna’ (Duration: 30 mins. Price: 10 Córdoba). From there I wanted to walk (1.5 h). But after only a few minutes a car with a couple of people stopped and asked me if they can give me a lift. Since my gut instinct told me I can trust those people I said yes. Later my host told me that this was very dangerous and I can be very lucky that nothing happend. I am wondering if when something will ever happen to me if this will change my belief in the good nature of humankind. The Laguna de Apoyo was nice but nothing more. One of the disadvantages of already having seen too much of this beautiful world I guess.
My next destination was Ometepe. A beautiful island with two volcanoes in the middle of Lago de Nicaragua. Probably one of the safest places in Nicaragua and great to explore alone. One day I rented a horse. The other days I took the bus and walked along gorgeous empty beaches with wild horses, enjoyed hidden restaurants, natural hot springs, and enjoyed the evenings with a local who did not speak any English. Google translator was our biggest friend.
To get from Ometepe to Leon you need to pass by in Managua (capital). A hectic messy city most tourists try to avoid. Thanks to a Nicaraguan girl I had a nice time. She realised that I was not interested to take one of the taxis to the other bus station, took my hand, and guided me through different local food markets. Leon is the place to learn a little bit more about Nicaragua’s history in its museums (especially about the revolution). Made me realise once more how lucky I am that I was born in a country and at a time with no war.
I did not like the diet in Nicaragua. It is very unhealthy. They use half a cup of oil for making only one fried egg. The plantains are fried and look like potato chips. Even the gallo pinto (rice and beans) is very greasy. And they add sugar in many things (juices, coffee). But there is always a chilli sauce on the table. That’s nice. Unsurprisingly I cooked there a lot, went in the more expensive European restaurants or the maid of my host cooked something for us. Be aware that most hostels do not like when you cook beans. It uses too much gas. You can get a meal at a local place starting from 50 till 120 Córdoba. Other restaurants are often double as much. Food at local markets is most cheaply of course. The price is negotiable. If using a supermarket Pali is the cheapest option (e.g. 300 g oat flakes for 20 Córdoba). And you should not drink the tap water.
Even though Central America exports a lot of coffee beans they do not have a coffee culture. Probably because they do not know how to make really tasty coffee. Moistly you get instant coffee. Unless it is a coffee place for tourists.
The cheapest, longest but most interesting way to travel in Central America is by Chicken buses (old yellow school buses from the US). Often very colourful painted and usually the door stays open during the ride. Sometimes a true rollercoaster, sometimes a disco, and sometimes a local market. The food literally comes to you. The only disadvantage is that after eating people throw out the rubbish out of the window. For sure a great place to see a different side of the country’s culture. If they would have a bathroom I might stay there permanently. It is around 1 USD for one hour. There is not really a schedule and bus stations are rare. Ask locals, wait on the roadside, jump on the next bus and pay on board. There are no tickets you can buy in advance. Often the buses leave when full and are therefore overcrowded.
Buses I took:
- San Juan del Sur to Rivas Terminal: 25 Córdoba (45-60 mins)
- Rivas to Ometepe: bus from Rivas to San Jorge (ferry departure) every 30 mins (7 Córdoba. 15 mins). NO bus on Sundays. So a taxi is your only option. The bus doesn’t leave from the main bus station, but rather from the road running parallel. Boat to Ometepe: 50 Córdoba (60 mins). On the Island are buses running every hour. Sundays only every two hours. If staying in Myogalpa then there is no need to take a taxi. There are many hostels within a 10-minute walk. If you plan on staying on the other side of the island, then there are buses throughout the day but only once an hour (every 2 hour on sundays). I stayed in Altagracia. A lovely city with eight bars.
- San Jorge to Managua by bus: 67 Córdoba (120 mins)
- Managua to Leon by bus: 54 Córdoba (90 mins)
Don’t believe the taxi drivers. They are trying to rip you off and take advantage of tourists. Sometimes some helpful looking young guys come in the bus and tell you that there is no bus to your desired destination, the next bus isn’t for another two hours or the last bus just left. There are buses all the time.
- Hostel: I payed between 7 and 9 USD per night.
- Couchsurfing is not really common yet.
- It is very rare that there is hot water
Nicaragua has only two seasons: The dry season from December to April and the rainy season from May to October. The Caribbean side does not have a defined rainy season. Be prepared for sun or rain at any time. It is possible to wear short pants during the dry season even in the evening.
I felt safe and nothing happend to me. Especially on Ometepe. But I did not go out alone anymore after it got dark and did not wear any jewelry.
Currency: Córdoba (NIO). ATM available in most midsize towns. USD are accepted, but for smaller items it is better to use Córdoba. If not they just charge 1 USD even when cheaper.
Spanish is the official language. Even in major tourist destinations only a very few locals speak English.
Length of tourist visa
Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua have a visa agreement (CA-4). This is a 90-day visa given to you by the first country you enter out of the four. It allows you entry into all of them. After you need to exit to either Costa Rica or Mexico.
Border crossing from Leon to El Salvador
- Bus from Leon terminal to Chinandega: 0.60 USD
- Bus from Chinandega to Border (Guasaule): 1 USD
- Exit Nicaragua: 2 USD. Enter Honduras: 3 USD
- Minibus from border, through Honduras, to El Salvador border: 6 USD
- Exit Honduras: Free
- Enter El Salvador: Free
- Bus from El Salvador border to Santa Rosa: 1 USD
- Bus from Santa Rosa to San Miguel: 1 USD
- Total duration: 10 h