We headed off to the Institute for Advanced Studies of Oriental and Natural Medicine, a Japanese government-funded project that trains students, some from the adjacent academy for the blind, in massage and acupuncture. In a bare-bones cinder-block building where the silence is broken only by the whirring of ceiling fans and footsteps on tile floors, a masseuse swathed me in orange-scented towels and treated me to an expert shiatsu treatment.
An hour later, and thoroughly relaxed, we made the 45-minute drive southeast to Granada, an elegant cluster of 18th- and 19th-century Spanish colonial homes and churches on the edge of Lake Nicaragua, to meet with Willa in her new habitat. As in the rest of the country, addresses almost never consist of a simple name and number. Over the phone, Willa’s host mother told us to turn at the hospital (“the old one or the new one?” my companions asked), go a block and a half south, and look for a house painted “color mamón,” referring to the apricot-hued interior of the mamón fruit. I’d misheard her, and was on the lookout not for mamón but jamón (a ham-colored) house. When we finally found Willa, we took her and her host sister, Wendy, out for pastry at Espressonista Specialty Coffeebar and Restaurant, a cafe in a magnificent old house with a courtyard overgrown with palms and hibiscus. Andrés Lazar, a co-owner, is among the bicultural Nicaraguans who returned to their country after taking refuge overseas during the 10-year civil war that ended with the 1990 electoral defeat of the Sandinistas.
“I was a waiter at the Chateau Marmont, a yoga instructor, a hotel manager and art student in London,” he said. “I worked for CBS in New York and attended N.Y.U., and produced TV documentaries in Managua. I developed a superhuman ability to adapt.” His latest incarnation, as a kind of cultural curator, is drawing a sophisticated cross section of Nicaraguans and expats to artistic events — readings by local poets and novelists, exhibitions of conceptual sculpture — at the cafe, where he serves local food, including ham from pigs that forage on the slopes of the nearby Mombacho volcano, and Camembert-style cheese from the mountain town of Matagalpa.
Mignone was eager to lead me to her boutique Spices and Sugar housed inside the cafe building where she sells her own line of simple, chic clothes. She uses Nicaraguan materials when possible and employs local artisans to make her dresses, bathing suits, bags and jewelry. It’s a far cry from the wardrobe acquisitions I had made during my previous stay: a T-shirt from China I found on the bare shelf of a grocery and another that advertised the benefits of breast feeding.
One pleasure of this trip was being able to wander the lush, mountainous northern part of the country, where tiny coffee farms and terraced hillsides hide behind veils of mist. This area had been the war zone. One December in the mid-1980s, I picked coffee with a brigade of Managua office workers near the city of Jinotega, as part of a national effort to salvage some of the harvest that was being decimated by the war. We were outfitted with combat boots and instructed in the cleaning and loading (not the firing) of an AK-47 I could barely lift. At night, we could sometimes hear mortars exploding in the distance.
Willa had stayed with her exchange program in Granada. I would have loved to show her the sites of the intrepid excursions of my youth, but she decided to attend a school dance and the next day go zip-lining on the side of a volcano. My nostalgia trip didn’t compete with such activities, and anyway, it dawned on me that Willa’s generation has its own revolution: the one encapsulated in her iPhone that makes every place, no matter how far-flung, feel like home.
My friends and I spent the night at Selva Negra Mountain Resort (named for Baden-Württemberg's Black Forest), a coffee farm and inn midway between Matagalpa and Jinotega that has been run by a succession of German immigrants since the 19th century. In 1975, Mausi and Eddie Kuhler bought the property and stayed there during the war, building a resort-cum-sustainable-coffee-and-dairy farm in the midst of 1,000 acres of nature. All the buildings, including the stone and timber guest cottages, which you reach by following winding, flower-lined paths through the forest, have spontaneously occurring green roofs — ferns, orchids and bromeliads that have sprouted in the bed of organic debris that falls from the canopy overhead. Early one morning, I trekked a few miles along the trails and ran into two agoutis, rain forest mammals that resemble outsize guinea pigs. The solitude felt primordial, until I heard the nasal cry of the guardabarranco, Nicaragua’s national bird, a turquoise and green beauty with swaths of rust and a flirty, pendulous tail.
After a breakfast of eggs with yolks the color of blood orange, Selva Negra feta, papaya and Selva Negra coffee, I toured the farm. My guide, José Luis García, pointed out the whitewashed house where he was born in 1979, the year the Sandinista revolution toppled the dictatorship. As we bumped along in the Selva Negra van, he regaled me with descriptions of the farm’s workings — from the natural pesticide lab to the methane gas converter that powers farm workers’ stoves. I wondered if this is a little more agriculture than the average tourist would swallow, but the views at the Selva Negra were sublime. And 25 years ago, my young guide would have inevitably been ensnared by the war.
A 90-minute drive to the west, past Day-Glo green rice fields dotted with egrets and cattle, is the town of Estelí, where I once helped manage a group of American volunteers who were building some houses on a farming cooperative northwest of town. In those days, the road leading to the farm was lined with fallow tobacco fields. A year after we built the houses, I returned to visit; they had been abandoned after a contra attack that left half the inhabitants dead.
On this trip, I hardly recognized the site of that gut-wrenching history. Estelí and its environs were bustling now. It is one of Nicaragua’s fastest-growing cities, the frontier purveyor of building materials and agricultural supplies, and has the noisy energy that typifies all the towns I visited this time around. In fact, Nicaragua’s population, most of it under 25, has doubled since the ’80s, to six million people.
Estelí is also the country’s cigar capital, and according to Cigar Journal’s rankings, many of the world’s top stogies are born here. The cigar producers, most of them of Cuban descent, waited out the revolution in Honduras and in the United States and made their way back to Nicaragua in the ’90s to reclaim their expropriated land. “When you’ve got tobacco in your blood, nothing can keep you away,” said Néstor Plasencia, the scion of a venerable Cuban cigar dynasty. His family’s operation, which produces cigars for Rocky Patel and 40 other labels, along with their own highly-regarded brand, offers factory tours. In the pungent, stucco-walled workrooms, skilled workers in ocher smocks coddle the leathery leaves, sorting, curing, cutting, rolling and packing them in an exacting process.
I talked Willa into joining me 250 miles south of Estelí, where we encountered the pristine beaches of San Juan del Sur and waves that beckon surfers the world over. We skipped surfing lessons for a dip in the saltwater pool at Morgan’s Rock Hacienda and Ecolodge, an exquisite resort and wildlife reserve where estuary kayaking and nighttime sea turtle watches are included in the price of the room.
“Don’t you want to get up early and collect our own eggs for breakfast?” I asked Willa. “Or visit the reforestation project?” We were lolling in a hanging bed on the screened porch of our bungalow, overlooking the bay. “Mommy, we’re on vacation,” she said, rolling over to give me a look. She was right, I had to admit. I lay back, inhaled the briny-sweet Pacific air and contemplated a stroll down the hill for another coconut-banana smoothie, knowing that in the new Nicaragua, there is Wi-Fi at the snack cabana.
An article on March 9 about a writer’s return to Nicaragua after 25 years misidentified the German state that is home to the Black Forest, for which the Selva Negra Mountain Resort in Nicaragua is named. It is Baden-Württemberg, not Bavaria. And an accompanying picture credit misstated the surname of the photographer who took the pictures of present-day Nicaragua. He is Oswaldo Rivas, not Riva.
An article last Sunday about the writer’s return to Nicaragua after 25 years misstated the direction she drove from the Institute for Advanced Studies of Oriental and Natural Medicine in Managua to Granada. It was southeast, not southwest. And the article misstated the direction she drove from the Selva Negra Mountain Resort to the town of Estelí. It was west, not east.
I’m in Nicaragua for the second time in three years and I have to admit that not that much has changed to my surprise. I’m here with Conni from Planet Backpack because we launched our ultimate online course for german bloggers! Everything is a bit slower here. In Central America everything is actually much slower but in Nicaragua it seems like as if time sometimes stops. You sometimes need an hour being the only customer in the restaurant until you get your fresh made juice and dinner served. Also you can’t really trust the opening hours, they open and close whenever they feel like and when there is business to be made. Everything is made with a gut feeling. Andthis is, what makes this country so special. The feeling that everything is possible but nothing is necessary…
Nicaragua: The new Costa Rica!
This is what they say right now, that Nicaragua is the new Costa Rica. I’ve read in many international magazines that it’s an up and coming destination. A destination where only the hardcore and experienced travelers that are willing to wear their things on their back will make it to the country they say. It clearly shows that some of those journalists that wrote those articles were stuck behind a desk in a cubicle. While the infrastructure isn’t as good as in the neighboring countries that are already very americanized I think that Nicaragua is also a country for the less experienced backpackers among us and should definitely be on your bucket list! Nicaragua has everything you need and a many things that you don’t! Nicaragua has beautiful coast, perfect waves, Caribbean Islands, the best rum in the world and friendly people. But it also has a lot of crime, not very rich cuisine and little money!
Travel Safety: Nicaragua and Crime
In Central America everybody probably thinks of the crime statistic first and how corrupt everything is, and it often is true if you travel without using your brain cells. It is important that you pay attention to your surroundings, and follow a few rules to travel safely in Nicaragua
Taking a Taxi in Nicaragua:
Outside of Managua there should be no problems. However, in Managua you should be really careful taking taxis from the side of a street. If you have to travel in Managua (I really don’t know why you would do it) take a taxi from the hotels. Most hotels have their own taxis. Otherwise take the official radio taxis, their drivers wear red shirts. It often happens that taxi drivers cooperate with gangs and drive tourists into dodgy neighborhoods where they get mugged and robbed. If possible always travel with a companion!
After Sunset: Don’t walk alone!
After sunset you should try to not walk around alone. With the sun setting, crime rises everywhere in the world. Three years ago I escaped a robbery in the middle of the night while walking down to the beach in San Juan Del Sur after partying with some friends. Luckily nothing happened but it would have been our own fault, we stumbled down the street and clearly showed that we were intoxicated and wouldn’t be able to defend ourselves.
What do I really have to take into consideration when traveling in Nicaragua?
Leave your passport, walled and other important things in a safe (In your packing list, you should always have a padlock) and split your money in your pockets. Never have bigger amounts of money in just one pocket. This way you’ll never show people that you are carrying that much with you when paying a bill. Better have a 1000 cordobas split into four pockets with 250 cordobas in each than having a big roll of money in one of your pockets!
Is it Safe for Women to Travel in Nicaragua?
I would say yes! It is as safe as in other countries in South America or Central America. There are a few things to take into consideration. Best thing is you check out this post by Tanja about Travel Safety for Solo Women in South America!
Things to do in Nicaragua: All the Things you can Do in Nicaragua!
Nicaragua, unica… original! That’s the official tourism slogan by the country and they are right! Nicaragua is unique and original and I couldn’t agree more even though the logo looks like it was created in the 1990ies. But this is what Nicaragua is like, it’s a bit slow and it feels like you are traveling in the past. It’s like the time stopped for a bit!
Things to Do in San Juan Del Sur
In the south western part of the country, close to the boarder to Costa Rica you will find San Juan Del Sur. It used to be a small, sleepy fisher town and today is the epicenter of surf tourism in Nicaragua. The town now has plenty of hotels and hostels and profits a lot from tourism. The region around San Juan Del Sur is known for its good surf breaks and perfect for surfing, yoga and party. Your personal paradise that you’ve been looking for! From San Juan Del Sur you can easily travel to the beaches of Playa Hermosa and Playa Maderas where you can easily learn how to surf. Renting a surf board coasts around 10 Dollars a day or 50 Dollars for a week. Most of the waves are shoulder high. Perfect for beginners and intermediates. In the back country you can easily mountain bike in the mornings. In the afternoon it would just be too hot. Some shops in town rent mountain bikes, bikes and quads. You could also try to bike or walk up to the second largest Jesus staue in the world from where you have an amazon view over the area! For more inspiration about things to do in San Juan Del Sur, please check out 100 Things to Do in San Juan Del Sur! San Juan Del Sur is the perfect start for your Nicaragua trip. It’s one of the most expensive places in the country but from here everything becomes cheaper and you can slowly get used to the culture, the people and the country!
From San Juan Del Sur you should travel to Isla Ometepe. You can easily take the Chicken Bus from the Market or share a taxi with other travelers to Rivas. From there you can take a ferry from San Jorge to Moyogalpa on Ometepe Island. The ride takes about 60 minutes and the ferries run almost every 30 minutes. It costs between 2 and 3 dollars per person. There is also the possibility to travel from Granada to Ometepe and from Ometepe to Granada by ferry. I haven’ done it yet but apparently it takes only 4 hours and costs around 4 dollars per person (1st class 9 dollars). The ferry leaves Ometepe from Algracia! Isla Ometepe has a lot to offer. It is located in the middle of the Nicaragua lake and consists of two volcanoes and has quite bad infrastructure. Once you arrive, you can take a taxi or wait for a bus that will take you around the island. I would recommend that you rent a motorbike, quad or a horse once you arrive at your accommodation to easier explore the island. You should definitely explore the volcano and drive to the Ojo de Agua a natural spring with clean water. I stayed at the Landing Hostel near the port and at Monkey Island Hotel. Both were great. The Landing Hostel is closer to the Ojo De Agua on the northern side of the western island and the Monkey Island is on the southern side of the eastern island closer to the entrance of the volcano.
North of the capital Managua you’ll find the old capital Léon. Léon is the intellectual home of the country and has the best universities of the country. “Without the students, we wouldn’t have much business here” my cab driver said when driving me from Léon to Las Penitas, a small beach town 20 Kilometers away from the city. While other cities go to bed once the sun sets, Léon really starts to come alive. Many bars will play loud music where students meet to play a round of pool, talk or party! The Bigfoot Hostel is the biggest and most famous hostel in Léon and also introduced volcano boarding years ago!
This little town is my personal rendition of nicaraguan heaven and truly Off The Path. It’s located on a very long beach and only 20 kilometers away from Léon. You can’t do much around Las Penitas, except relax, surf, eat, drink, work and enjoy life. There are a few hotels, hostels, bed and breakfasts and a few small restaurants along the coast. The atmosphere is just incredible. You have to come here if you want to relax and aren’t looking to experience a lot. Come here to detox and to find yourself a bit. Single rooms start at around 20 Dollars. If you are traveling with a few people you can share a private room for 10 Dollars or less each. You can go for endless walks by the beach and if you like to surf or want to learn to surf you’ll love this place even better than San Juan Del Sur. There are almost no people on the beach and you often have the waves to yourself. No need to worry to hit another surfer! If you just want to chill and maybe work on a longer project then you’ll love it here. I’m sure you’ll wonder about the internet situation. I will talk about his in a bit… keep reading!
Traveling in Nicaragua: Exploring Nicaragua by Chicken Bus, Schuttle or private taxi!
Using a chicken bus in Nicaragua
The bus network in Nicaragua is pretty good. You can easily get from one bigger city to another for a very small price. Usually buses run every few hours between the cities. From San Juan el Sur to Léon you can travel for about 130 Cordobas. That’s around 3,70 Euro for 4 hours of travel. Buses in Nicaragua and Central America are called Chicken Buses. That is because people are cooped up in the busses like in a hen transport. If there is no space in the bus you can also travel on the roof rack, you just have to pay attention at all the branches that are on the way…
In a collective in San Juan Del Sur
Traveling with a shuttle in Nicaragua
If you like it a little bit more comfortable and don’t want to travel with the locals you can also take a shuttle. Many accommodations will be happy to organize a shuttle for you. You will be sharing a cab with other travelers and the driver will drop off and pick up other travelers on the way. A shuttle from San Juan Del Sur to Léon casts 20 Dollars!
Traveling through Nicaragua by taxi
If you don’t have too much time and want to explore the country on your own and have the pocket money you can also use private taxis. Usually the day rate for a taxi is about 120 Dollars. From San Juan Del Dur to Léon you pay between 80 and 100 Dollars. From Managua airport to San Juan Del Sur you’ll pay around 100 Dollars at night. We booked through an agency a few days before we arrived in Nicaragua that picked us up from the airport and drove us to San Juan Del Sur.
Nicaragua Visa: Do I need a visa when entering Nicaragua?
Yes. But most countries can get a visa on arrival. If you come from Europe you will probably travel through Panama. On the last flight you’ll get the immigration papers that you have to fill out. On arrival you have to pay 10 dollars for the visa. Make sure you know the address of the place where you are going to stay the first few days since you have to mention that when entering the country!
Money in Nicaragua: Can I Withdraw Money in Nicaragua?
Yes. There are ATMs in every major city. You can’t pay with Euros and most banks won’t even exchange Euros. Make sure to take a few dollars with you when you enter the country to pay for the first taxi and for the visa. In case you don’t, there is no need to worry, you can withdraw Cordobas and Dollars from an ATM at the airport. You can also pay with credit card at restaurants and hotels. Often there is a surcharge of 6 to 7 % per transaction. To avoid fees abroad, make sure to get a Visa card from the DKB where you will never pay a fee again for withdrawing money when traveling. This way I already saved hundreds of euros!
Flights to Nicaragua: How do I get to Nicaragua and What is the Best Airline?
There are three options and three airlines to get to Nicaragua:
Option 1: Continental Airlines via USA
Option 2: KLM via Amsterdam and Panama
Option 3: Iberia via Madrid and Panama
I would always recommend option 2. If you fly via USA you’ll have to get a transit visa which costs around 20 dollars and then you still depend on an officer if you can keep flying or if they will send you back to your country of departure.
With option 3, Iberia, I traveled to Nicaragua three years ago. Back then Iberia lost my backpack which I got back after 5 days and when leaving the country the airline apparently didn’t pay the airport fee and almost got me stranded. If that is true or if an airport employee tried to betray me of my last dollars I don’t know, but Iberia had the chance to confirm or reject for almost 6 months afterwards when we wrote emails back and forth.
With option 2, KLM, you are on the safe site. Amsterdam is a great airport for a layover and you can easily spend a few hours there. Furthermore KLM has amazing customer support. You’ll get a response from their social media team within 10 minutes via Twitter, Facebook or email. As a blogger I love this!
Internet in Nicaragua: How can I go Online or get Mobile Internet in Nicaragua?
If you are dependent from the Internet like I am and need to work while traveling you’ll need a lot of patience in Nicaragua. The internet isn’t the big problem, that actually works pretty good. The problem are all the blackouts that frequently happen and often leave big areas without electricity for hours! You can get PrePaid Internet with a local sim card from Claro. The sim card costs around 30 Cordobas and there are different internet packages. 1 GB mobile internet in Nicaragua for 7 days costs 130 cordobas. For 30 days it costs 200 Cordobas! Here you can inform yourself about the different packages and options!
Eat and Drink in Nicaragua: Gallo Pinto, Bier, Flor de Caña and Lobster!
The nicaraguan cuisine isn’t the most diverse I’ve met on my travels. You’ll get Gallo Pinto (rice with beans) to Every. Single. Meal. It doesn’t matter if for breakfast, lunch or dinner. You’ll always get Gallo Pinto. Period! When traveling through the country for a few weeks, you’ll quickly get tired of it! What else? Nicaragua lays between two rich oceans and that means that fish and seafood is always fresh and delicious. You can get delicious and cheap lobster for about 20 dollars a kilo right from the boat. In a restaurant you probably pay 8 dollars for three lobsters and they are a treat! You’ll love them! The beer in Nicaragua is quite cheap. Of course it also depends where you are. In San Juan Del Sur it’s more expensive than in Léon or in Las Penitas. In San Juan Del Sur you’ll pay around .85 Euro for a small beer while in Las Penitas you’ll only pay around .45 Euro or 20 Cordobas! The two main brands are Toña and Victoria!
Nicaragua Hotels: Where can I Sleep in Nicaragua?
If you decide for Nicaragua, you shouldn’t expect luxury hotels. Everything is a bit more “Down To Earth” in Nicaragua but you’ll find an oasis here and there!
San Juan Del Sur
As mentioned before, San Juan Del Sur is the hotspot in southern Nicaragua. There are many accommodations and I’ve stayed at two places:
I’ve stayed at this little guest house several time. The first time in 2008 and the last time in 2014. A great place and highly recommendable. You have an incredible view from the shared balcony over the city and the sea an beautiful sunsets from the hammock.
Small Hotel with a few rooms in the center of town, two streets from the beach. Rooms cost around 50 usd for two persons and are very clean!
Casa Oro – Hostel
The biggest hostel in San Juan Del Sur. You can’t book online here since they only give aways the rooms in the morning. You have to show up and be lucky. You can extend your stay every morning. Dorms cost 7 dollars, privates start at 30 dollars! They have a great rooftop from where you can enjoy a sundowner and chill with likeminded travelers.
Casa Medaras Eco Lodge
Dorms start at 8 dollars and privates with Queen and Double Beds start at 48 Dollars! The lodge has a cool yoga platform from where you can oversee the country and also has a nice pool to relax. Casa Mederas is about 10 minutes away from the beach and you will need to hike a small hill to get there!
I stayed at a small Bed and Breakfast in Las Penitas called Sol y Mar. The B&B is directly by the beach and nicely decorated. It was so nice that I stayed a whole week! A private room costs 20 dollars. They have no website but you can reach the owners Jose & Azalea Montes by email: Nicaraguanbedbreakfast@yahoo.com!
There are many hostels in Léon. The most famous and biggest hostel is the Bigfoot Hostel. I stayed at the Posada La Gordita. It has private rooms with private or shared bath available, beds have orthopedic mattress for a comfortable night sleep. Rooms cost around 12-15 USD.
English in Nicaragua: Do they Speak English in Nicaragua?
Yes but… its better if you speak at least a little bit of Spanish. Most Nicaraguans don’t really speak any english. Since I’m half spanish I haven’t had any problems in the country and have no idea what it would be like if I wouldn’t speak any spanish. But I heard from other travelers that it can be very difficult to communicate with the people if you don’t speak their language! Learn a few basics of spanish when you travel to Nicaragua…
Did you know…
That until 1984 the americans under Ronald Reagan supported the underground organization Contras in Honduras with money, training and weapons to topple the democratically elected government. The country has for decades been one of the poorest countries in Central America and had many dictatorships and civil wars. Nevertheless, it is one of the safest countries in Central America. On top of that in 1971 a sever earthquake destroyed many parts of the country and almost the entire capital of Managua.