After an incredible chill time playing at Playa Popoyo and deciding we need to buy land on the Nicaraguan coast, we took a taxi with our boy Ronald (with a majorly rolled “R”) to San Jorge to take a ferry to the island of Ometepe.
As what seems to be the case for all things in Nicaragua, it’s never totally a direct, normal path. Halfway through the ride we were pulled over by the cops who were managing a situation: a very upset girlfriend leaping and reaching for her boyfriend, who was in handcuffs. It was pretty dramatic. The cops spoke Spanish to Ronald and the next thing we knew the guy in handcuffs got in the taxi with us. Guess we had to escort him to town because the cops were on bikes.
So yeah our cab helped arrest someone and then we were on our way to take the ferry to Ometepe, which literally means two mountains in a native language. Because it’s an island made up of two volcanoes!
The ferry ride was hot and miserable. I get motion sick so I mentally prepared to have an unenjoyable hour. All I can say is you definitely want to take the big ferry. They have little boats that transport humans to Ometepe as well, but if you are prone to motion sickness stay on the big boat. Lake Nicaragua is wavy.
At last we arrived and were immediately pumped by everything we saw on the beautiful island. We stayed in El Encanto Garden Hotel—you go up a crazy rocky “road” into the jungle but when you get to the top you are #blessed with volcano views—guess we’ll trade our oceanside views for this.
The food is actually really incredible at El Encanto—people come up just for the restaurant and the views. And the guys who work here were cool too.
The next day we rented a scooter to explore and do the waterfall hike on the Maderas volcano. There is the option to do full-day hikes on either the Maderas volcano or El Concepcion, but both take at least 8 hours and are SUPER intense. Plus there’s fog at the top almost all the time so do you even get a view? (after chatting with some friends who survived the hike, general answer seems like mostly no…)
Since we only had one full day in Ometepe we decided scooting around and doing a 3 hour hike (which we crushed in 1.5 hours…. and could’ve easily done faster because I like to trail run). The hike was to a waterfall on the Maderas volcano.
The road to La Cascada (that’s waterfall in Spanish. The locals didn’t know what I meant by “Donde es el waterfall?” so don’t try that) is incredibly bumpy. Like, all rocks. I rode on the back of the scooter since I’m incapable of driving one myself (see: Bali recap) and I got cramps in my rib cage just from all the bouncing.
We took spill after hitting a rock at one point. Chris took most of the fall though so I didn’t add too much to my scooter scar collection. Everyone survived.
The hike was awesome. Slightly uphill and the last 45 minutes of it are a little tough for the average human but it’s totally do-able and a very pleasant hike. And you are rewarded by a waterfall at the end. Made me super happy 🙂
After that we enjoyed some victory tonas, obviously.
Then it was back on the bumpy road to El Ojo de Agua. This is a cool natural spring pool that locals and tons of tourists hang out at (about $5 entry). Perfect to cool off on the humid island. They also have a full service bar/restaurant by it so you could hang here all day if you wanted to.
After that we explored a tad more with the scooter to drive over to the town Balgue (still don’t know how to pronounce this) and saw a kids’ soccer game and more restaurants I wanted to try. I made us stop when I saw a kombucha sign, of course, and met this cute Scandinavian lady who lives on the island and makes homemade vegan ice cream using 5-6 different fruits from the island and homemade kombucha. The gringa (me) was happy 😋
At last we made it back to El Encanto for an awesome dinner and sunset. It was actually Valentine’s Day this day so we had a romantic volcano Vday.
In the morning I forced us to do one more activity because I like to seize the day. We rented the worst bicycles ever (think they pumped the tires once a couple years ago) and went on a short bike ride to El Petal, a “chocolate paradise”. (I saw a sign for it and decided we had to go). Turns out this is a pretty popular backpacker spot—I saw ads for it everywhere else I stayed in Nica. It’s a cool little hippie hostel/restaurant on the lake with yoga, funky dance stuff, and super vegan treats. They have SMOOTHIE BOWLS (ugh why did we already eat breakfast) and these crazy chocolate ball desserts. They are SUPER rich but it’s fun to try them and maybe share a couple if you’re in a group. But we definitely couldn’t finish it.
Alas we returned to the ferry port, arriving a bit early. KEY MOVE because we were able to snag seats on the top, open-air level. THIS WAS SUCH A BETTER EXPERIENCE. We got to sit in the sun and drink tonas with a double-volcano view. I did get motion sick only for about ten minutes, nevertheless this ferry ride was the obvious winner.
And now I’m realizing Nicaragua needs to be 3 parts because the last part of our trip was really special (it all was). Granada + The Treehouse/village visit next + and then I’ll recap on coliving and coworking in San Juan Del Sur. 🤘
Oh and here’s another pic of the Nicaraguan kitties being obsessed with Chris:
To be honest, I booked a flight to Managua, Nicaragua for these reasons: to surf, to escape Chicago’s aggressive winter, and to focus on building my businesses at a cheap yet awesome-looking coworking/coliving space called NomadLife.
Aaaaand of course, I was more than pleasantly surprised, but blown away by the country!
I spent the first two days working from La Biciecleta Hostel in Managua (def recommend) and practicing a very limited/embarrassing set of Spanish phrases with the locals. Then Chris met me in Managua and we set off on an epic, action-packed 9 days to get acquainted with this crazy country.
The Spanglish craft cocktail bar is the first and only cocktail bar in Central America listed in World’s Best Bars; they’ve even been invited to The Broken Shaker in Miami to serve their cocktails. Most Nicaraguan cocktails are on the sweeter side or rum-based which isn’t really my thing, but this place was cool and the cocktails were well-executed. Also made buddies with two hilarious 70-year-old Nicaraguan men and had a pretty fun evening with them (I WAS SAFE).
A must-visit in Managua: Chureca Chic Boutique & Cafe. It’s a collective supporting female entrepreneurs and artists in Nicaragua, offering yoga and handmade pieces for purchase. They also have coffee, and leche soya (soy milk) for nice lattes 😛
Leon is the political and educational capital of Nicaragua. It’s a totally walkable city and despite a decent backpacker presence, Leon hasn’t catered to the tourist/‘gringo’ lifestyle too much. So everything felt very authentic… raw Nicaraguan life.
We enjoyed just walking around Leon, and of course climbing to the roof of the Catedral de León.
The volcanoes near Leon are a major attraction for the city. We visited the Cerro Negro volcano and did a 45 minute hike up the volcano, and then volcano-boarded down. Super unique way to see the volcanoes and learn about the region. We went through Barbaro Tours — cool because it was just $30 each for Chris and I and we were the only two on the tour (rather than other groups that were 10-15 people each). We got a really personalized experience and were able to ask more questions about the area.
Volcano boarding is really funny, literally sledding on volcanic rocks. It’s a nice time, but once you do it once, you don’t really feel the need to run up the hill and repeat, if you know what I mean hah. The ride out to the volcanoes is interesting itself; you’ll get a glimpse of the vibrant, rural Nicaraguan life.
I would’ve really liked to see a baseball game here but there weren’t any when we visited. Also, if we had more time we could’ve gone out to the beach town Las Penitas. They have surf lessons and such . But we had beaches in our future so we just chilled in Leon.
Nica hostels are super cheap, with decent ones for around US$8 per night. But when you’re two full-time working Americans, and want to ball it up together, why not ball it up. There’s super unique, luxe hotel options for not that much more $$!
We stayed at La Posada Del Doctor, around $60/night. This boutique hotel is super cool with a great courtyard to hang out in and drink wine. Breakfast was included (gallo pinto) and it was well-executed. The hotel wasn’t that good with helping out on recommendations or hooking up rides/tours (it was a little bizarre, most places like this are dying to hook you up with their partner tour groups/drivers). That was the only downside really. I’d stay here again though.
Lunch: Katu – awesome vibes, good drinks (and Toñas when in doubt). Has live music sometimes.
Dinner: El Bodegon – Great mojitos in a lovely backyard, the food is delicious and actually comes out quick (dude. Nicaraguan restaurant service is SO SLOW)
Dessert: Kiss Kiss Ice Cream! Really cool art in the shop and the ice cream was actually amazing.
We also went to the Nicaraguan supermarket El Union for some wine and snacks one night, and it was crazy busy with both locals and tourists and the line was SO LONG. It’s a funny experience though.
Yum frozen cocktail at La Bodega 😛
Katu for Lunch
I planned this whole trip for Chris and I, and given my day-to-day life generally involves logistical challenges, a trip planned by yours truly cannot go without at least one logistical error. I booked an amazing place in Popoyo, a remote beach destination. Which was an excellent decision. But somehow I missed the whole “leon-is-4-hours-away-from-popoyo” and instead of taking a taxi for $120-140 USD from Leon to Popoyo, Chris and I decided to go to budget route, saving a net $30 bucks to take a shuttle instead.
I mean, we did get from A to B, but we spent half a day (almost 7 hours) getting passed around Nicaragua from shuttle to shuttle, and eventually the shuttle company just put in a taxi to Popoyo. If we were true backpackers with as much time as we wanted in the country, we’d just take the cheap chicken busses to Managua, then to San Juan Del Sur, and then up to Popoyo. But since Chris had a limited time, it wasn’t ideal to spend most of a day during a 9-day trip in a hot shuttle/on the sides of roads waiting for the next shuttle in the never ending string of shuttles.
But anyways, we made it. And Popoyo was heaven.
We had the most lush few days in Popoyo and fell in love with the chilled-out vibes. There’s really nothing here but a few restaurants and surf lodges. It’s remote. You can take a ride into town if you stay longer, but really everyone is just there to get away, surf, do yoga, read, and C H I L L. So of course we didn’t leave our beach paradise the whole time.
I booked us a couple nights at SUYO, a simple boutique hotel comprised of 6 beach cabanas with a yoga deck and communal kitchen. Only $60/night which we felt was worth it. The rooms don’t have much but a comfy queen-size bed, a sink and mirror and some storage (and a beautiful handmade roof). We literally stayed next to the waves—sometimes a big wave crash would wake us up at night but we didn’t mind because it was so cool.
And in the morning we’d slide open a door and watch the ocean. Can’t beat it.
Since we were only there a couple days we didn’t bring anything to cook, and after experimenting with a couple other food options, we settled on having pretty much every meal at the neighbouring 99 Surf Lodge. The rooms look like Abercrombie storefronts and they serve healthy meals and delicious pizza (pizza approved by Chris).
It’s only a $10 minimum restaurant spend and you can enjoy their infinity pool all day! We of course enjoyed a few poolside mojitos and tonas.
We also went down to Magnific Rock which overlooks the beginner surf break on Popoyo Beach. The food and cocktails here are not good (also heard meh reviews from other travellers we met here). But the views are awesome! Definitely enjoy some tonas here, can’t hurt.
We loved Popoyo because it’s not very developed yet (but on the south end of the beach there’s this American resort that looks straight out of Southern California. Meh). Popoyo will eventually turn into an American-ized beach destination (Nica also has a 3-year plan to build a marina there…), so we really appreciated getting this raw Nica beach experience before it’s taken over.
By the way, you can stroll down the beach and stop in lil shacks to buy beers (and you can even take them with you down the beach)…
In the Part 2 Nicaragua post I’ll detail our adventures on the island of Ometepe and our last few days in Granada. You won’t believe what a range of experiences we jammed into just over a week.
Nicaragua is apparently what “Costa Rica used to be”, some say as far back as Costa Rica in the 70’s and 80’s. Property value is going up here every year though, and likely a tourist rise with Granada celebrating its 500th year as a city in 2020 (it’s apparently the oldest city in the Americas) so try to visit before everyone in the world catches on 😛