Nicaragua is a beautiful country that we both took an immediate liking to. While plagued with a dark past of dictators, civil war, and the Iran-Contra affair that the U.S. was involved in, Nicaragua has bloomed into a safe, welcoming country full of culture, volcanoes, lakes, waves, amazing beaches, and much more.
Our first stop in the country was Leon, the former capital of Nicaragua. With an amazing history, Leon was and still is a university town and the nexus of artistic, poetic, liberal Nicaraguans and this could be felt throughout the streets. A highlight of our stay here was a visit to the revolutionary museum, which at first glance was just a large room in an old building with pictures scattered along the walls- until Franco Zapato brought it all to life. Franco was involved in the Nicaraguan Revolution in which he lost a brother and many friends. Now his life work is to share the tragic and heroic past with others and to keep the presence of the revolutionaries alive. We had read a little about the history of Nicaragua and it’s difficult past, but hearing about it from someone who lived it took it to another level. Franco took us on a tour of the museum while we learned about the Somoza family dictatorship which kept Nicaragua under their rule for nearly fifty years, the revolution of 1978 when the Sandinistas successfully rebelled against the conservative government, and the Iran-Contra affair in which the U.S. illegally sold weapons to Iran and used the profits to fund the Nicaraguan contras enabling continued fighting and severe human rights abuses. There is much more to the story than this but we wont go into all of the details here.
On a lighter note, the roof of the revolutionary museum has a beautiful view of the cathedral and central square of Leon.
We spent the rest of our time in Leon wandering the cobbled streets, sampling food and Toña, the national beer, and checking out the beautiful old churches and cathedrals.
After our visit to Leon we headed out to explore Nicaragua’s northern beaches with our first traveling guest, Vanessa, a new friend from Germany who we met at our hostel in Leon. After making our way through a few traffic jams (i.e. cows being herded down the main highway) and driving past a string of Nicaragua’s spectacular volcanoes, we arrived in the little beach town of Asseradores.
We made our way to Rancho de Pedro at the recommendation of some fellow Californian travelers and found a cozy outdoor palapa restaurant run by one of the kindest families we have ever met. Not only did they have enormous one dollar smoothies, delicious fresh plates of typical Nicaraguan cuisine, and a parrot named Rosita, but Pedro and his family warmly welcomed us to town and helped us find a place to camp. We spent a lot of time hanging out at Rancho de Pedro drinking smoothies, watching futbol games, and hanging out with the locals.
Pedro led us to a gorgeous ranch property with a large palapa house in the middle of avocado, cashew, and mango trees. It was a beautiful, tranquil place to call home for a few days while we explored the surrounding beaches and lounged. We spent the evenings cooking lovely dinners and even had a cashew roast.
We gathered cashews from the surrounding trees and Aron bravely roasted them over a fire where they turned black and crackled and shot flames into the air. Then we peeled off the shells and lo and behold we had a tiny little bowl of freshly roasted cashews. It was a lot of work!
The beaches of Asseradores are beautiful and remote. We were some of the only foreigners in town and got to know many of the friendly locals who showed us around and gave us enormous mangos fresh from the trees.
Asseradores has many waves that are less crowded than the waves of the popular southern Nicaraguan beaches. From our camp the closest wave was a beach break named “The Boom” that was huge, closing out, and fully un-surfable for the first two days. Pedro’s young son, Pedrito, showed us to a point that was slightly sheltered from the massive swell where we surfed while waiting for the swell to diminish. On the third day the swell was backing off and the beach break out front was perfect. There were barreling peaks up and down the long stretch of sand with only a handful of surfers in the water.
After a wonderful stay in Asseradores we made our way east toward Matagalpa, a town surrounded by verdant mountains known to be a good starting point for hiking and other outdoor adventures. After a four hour drive we soon realized our bad timing. Being the end of the dry season we found Matagalpa to be a busy working city surrounded by crispy brown mountains, dry waterfalls, and empty riverbeds. Locals explained that it was the driest it’s been in nearly 20 years, so we changed plans and spent a night in the town sharing a bottle of rum and travel stories at a local bar with our exceptionally savvy world traveling friends Vanessa and Michael. Our stories were nothing compared to Vanessa getting leeches in her eyes in Asia and Michael living with a remote tribe in Papua New Guinea for five weeks.
We said goodbye to our traveling friends and headed south toward Granada, a wealthy, conservative town on Lago de Nicaragua. We camped at the nearby Laguna de Apoyo, a beautiful clear blue lake in the crater of an old volcano. We spent the day reading, lounging, and swimming in the cool water.
After a quick stop for a night in Granada, we made our way south to catch a ferry to Ometepe, an island of two volcanos in the middle of Lago de Nicaragua.
On Ometepe, we camped at Finca Magdalena, a beautiful ranch and coffee farm at the base of Volcan Maderas, the smaller, greener, inactive volcano of the two. Volcan Conception, a perfect cone, could be seen smoking in the distance.
During our stay we rode horses through the jungle where we say howler monkeys and a number of birds on the way to a viewpoint of Volcan Conception where we watched the sunset- pretty spectacular!
The next morning we ambitiously decided to hike up Volcan Maderas, a sweaty four hour hike straight up followed by a four hour descent. It was hot and humid and we were drenched in sweat the entire time but the trail through the jungle at least shielded us from the intense sun. In the volcano’s crater, we enjoyed a nice lunch beside a lagoon before the trek back down.
With two more weeks left in the country, we headed west to spend our remaining time at the beach. We found a perfect place to call home at Camping Luna, a new campground on the beach run by Erol, an awesome local surfer, and his girlfriend Isabelle from Belgium. It’s probably a good thing that Nicaragua only allows foreign vehicles to be in the country for 30 days, or we might have never left. The beaches we visited around Las Salinas and Popoyo were absolutely amazing and we experienced why Nicaragua is referred to by local surfers as “the land of the offshore”. Offshore winds blew all day long, helping to shape perfect waves and making surfing fun all day long. There were waves all over the place, with four or five different spots within walking distance and even more beyond. Aron surfed at least three times a day since the waves and wind were always perfect. There was even a perfect learning wave for me that peeled off of a rocky point and Aron took me out for lessons each day.
We met so many awesome people at Camping Luna that became like family. We cooked together, surfed together, and drank Toñas and Flor de Caña (the local beer and rum) together. We never wanted to leave!
Over the weekend there was a surf contest at Santana’s, a barreling beach break just down the way. We watched the heats and bbqd with new friends that lived nearby. Every person we met in Nicaragua was awesome.
As our time to Nicaragua drew to an end, we made one last stop in San Juan del Sur, the famed beach town in southern Nicaragua. Although filled to the brim with tourists, it was a cool, mellow town and by luck we happened to meet a local named Luis who offered us a room for our two night stay. It ended up being a beautiful private master bedroom with a large balcony. We visited the nearby Playa Maderas, known for it’s waves, but our timing must not have been right because there weren’t much of them during our short visit. On our last night in Nicaragua we cooked a huge feast with Luis and all our housemates and new friends. What a perfect ending to a wonderful time in Nicaragua. We definitely plan on being back soon!