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Lac Moraine Alberta

A short incursion in the Land of lakes and volcanoes: Nicaragua - While in this Central American country, the largest one in fact, we felt almost as though we were on a tropical island.

That’s not so strange when you realize that both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans border this country of lakes and volcanoes. That it offers a range of protected areas, even larger than the renowned ones of its neighbor Costa Rica. That its natural landscape showcases vegetation that is rich with hundreds of exotic plants, home to even more varied fauna.

A destination where all of this can be discovered and rediscovered most certainly attracts fans of the outdoors. Even more so considering that the country once associated with guerilla warfare is now one of the safest in Central America.

It is also a country that is still free from mass tourism. Its minimal tourism infrastructure makes up in warmness what it loses in modernity, just like its people, always happy to help you discover their land and make sure you will want to return.

The Pacific Coast 

This coast of Nicaragua is renowned for its endless sandy beaches such as La Piñata, one of the most popular, near Léon, and others that offer calmer waters while others are known for their big waves - to the great pleasure of surfers.

The main city on the coast is San Juan Del Sur, which is nestled in a magnificent bay.

We chose Montelimar as our pied a terre. Located 65 km from Managua, the capital, we appreciated its exceptional and almost deserted seaside… even with a thermometer that read 38 degrees!

Take my word for it, I have seen many beaches in my life but this makes the top of my list with its clean water and fine sand for as far as the eye can see… 11 km. And the small, rare shells scattered around will not satisfy collectors!

We were told to beware of the stingrays that might swim near the beach and spoil our pleasure. None was ever spotted, despite the hours we spent testing our bodysurfing abilities on the white-capped waves, in which a few surfers were testing their abilities and just enjoying being cradled by the sea.

Masachapa

A few kilometers from Montélimar, the traditional village of Masachapa is worth a stop. It is easily reached from our hotel in a taxi or a tuk-tuk, an option that could be fun!

However, at night a taxi would be a safer option. The winding and very dark roads are sometimes blocked by cows and surrounded by huge trees called “Chili Marte,” whose roots seem to grow out of their trunks. We suspect they would be deadly upon loss of control.

In the village, a few small hotels and restaurants share the seashore with a menu mostly composed of fresh catches from local fishermen.

Try the Summer restaurant. On a lovely terrace built on stilts, it offers a large variety of fish and seafood and will give the impression of being on the sea. Their fish ceviche and octopus are absolutely mouthwatering. Arrive around 4 or 5 for the aperitif and enjoy the gorgeous sunset!

Granada, the Great Sultana

This is a truly interesting colonial city 50 km from the Pacific beaches and one of the most ancient cities in Central America, built in 1524. Granada is the second largest city in Nicaragua and is a principal place of interest for its historical interest with sites dating back to the colonial era that have kept their original character. 

Its streets hinge on a Central Park, the true heart of the city, where fountains and small food kiosks abound. We stopped for a snack of “vigorón” (boiled manioc with chicharon - pork skin - and cabbage and tomatoes). Definitely invigorating! By the end of the afternoon, musicians and artists join in to add life to the already vibrant place!

The most important buildings in town are decked in colors ranging from blood red to a bright yellow, and a sky blue and a gleaming white circle around the park includes the city hall, a bank, hotel and, of course, the cathedral.

The cathedral, with its bright yellow and imposing columns, was restored in the beginning of the 1900s and dominates the place. It is very plain, with a powder blue and soft yellow interior, and houses a few small altars, one of them a charming reproduction of Lourdes with Bernadette and its sheep.

Other sites worth seeing in Granada include the oldest church in the city, Guadalupe Church, and the San Francisco Church and its monastery.

Inside the latter, a room is dedicated to a series of naïve works of art painted by the best Nicaraguan artists, belonging to the Solentiname movement, named from the archipelago where the movement was born and whose traditions are still alive and well.

Another hall displays an impressive collection of pre-Columbian statues discovered at the beginning of the 20th century on the island of Zapatera on Lake Nicaragua.

The local Mercado comes to life every day at dawn, offering everything from meat, tropical fruits, fresh vegetables – we saw the biggest carrots there! – and, of course fish, almost still wiggling, and without fail every other article necessary in daily life.

Many Spanish language schools offer various schedules: private lessons, group lessons that include lodging with locals or in a boutique hotel, lessons in the morning with a touristic and cultural program in the afternoon for all levels from beginner to advanced.

Las Isletas

365 small volcanic islands - one for each day of the year – form a string at the feet of the Mombacho volcano in the huge Lake Cocibolca. Also known as Lake Nicaragua, Cocibolca stretches over 8,264 km², making it one the largest freshwater lakes on the continent!

We were told that the private islands, once occupied by fishermen and their families, have since been bought by rich Americans and Europeans. A few houses standing on them are indeed testament to the wealth of their owners! For those interested: an island was offered for sale for $300,000, without any construction, when we were there…

Nonetheless, for a few dollars, you will be able to navigate around those islands in private or with a small group in a modest wooden boat that is moored at the south end of the Malecón. They are small enough to glide through the narrow canals between the islands, allowing us to observe the rich fauna that live there: white and blue herons, masked weavers busy weaving their giant nests, as well as some small “congo” monkeys that can be heard thanks to their piercing howls before they are spotted jumping amongst the palm and mango trees.

If you have time, why not go for a swim or cast a line? You might be lucky and catch a guapote, the local fish the lake is known for.

The Masaya National Park

It is one of the most interesting natural phenomena in Nicaragua: the park extends over 54 km2. More than 20 km of picturesque trails lead to a few mountains (cerros), the immense Apoyo Laguna and two volcanoes: the Nindiri and the Masaya, also known as “Popogatepe” - Smoking Mountain.

The modest park museum is worth a few minutes of your time. It will help you understand the reason for all of the volcanoes: Nicaragua hosts most of the Central American Volcanic Arc, which consists of 40 volcanoes. It is also most likely the only opportunity you will have to see the Chocouyos, blue parrots that nest inside the crater to hide from their enemies and are apparently immune from the toxic gas releases!

The Santiago crater – another name for the Masaya, whose last eruption was registered in the spring of 2012 - is the most interesting one. With its incandescent activity releasing a strong sulfuric odor and fumaroles near its active crater, it can be observed from close-up. You have to wear a hard hat and you will also be offered a mask since the odor and the smoke could possibly make some people nauseous (bring a light scarf). You are also asked to limit your presence on the site to 20 minutes.

Worshipped by the indigenous who threw children and virgins in the crater in sacrifice to appease the demon Masaya, the volcano was later named “the Mouth of Hell” by the Spanish in the 16th century when Father Francisco de Bomdadilla chose to replace children and virgins with… a cross, for the same purpose of exorcism. A reproduction of the wooden cross still caps a hill near the crater. It is an ideal lookout to view the lava fields around and notice that nature is quick to claim its territory. A carpet of greenery and wild flowers almost covers the land that grows out of the volcanic rocks, creating an almost surreal landscape.

The Apoyo Laguna

With its 6 km diameter, this is one of the largest in the country. The taste of its water is what gives it its name: “Alt-poyec” or brackish water. It is believed to be an old volcanic crater now filled with water and nourishing many species of fish and aquatic animals in the middle of exuberant tropical vegetation.

Masaya, the city of flowers

This is a small colonial town 20 km to the southeast of the capital. It is mostly known for its huge artisan market (Mercado de Artesanias).

Inside ancient walls offering a black backdrop for the fluorescent green vegetation growing around, the market houses hundreds of stalls where you will be offered - very nicely and without pressure - all the specialties from the different regions of Nicaragua: Masaya’s hammocks, San Juan clay pottery, the black pottery from Léon, naïve art paintings from Solentiname, leather and wooden handicrafts, cigars, coffee and weavings in all forms and colors… and much more.

Based on the price of $32 negotiated for a hammock at the market that was also offered at the airport in what seemed to be lesser quality for $65, the quality/price ratio seemed to be excellent.

If you are there at lunchtime, we recommend stopping at Che Gris restaurant. It is a small establishment with an unpretentious outdoor terrace where you will be served generous portions for less than $10 per person, beer included, including fresh fish, chicken and other meats “a la plancha” or “a la Gris”, a house specialty, of course!

Managua, the capital

Managua has experienced many earthquakes and its city centre, left in shambles, has never really been reconstructed. The capital has grown from the outside in its outskirts and has consequently lost all historic character.

The cathedral was the only building restored and constitutes, along with the Constitution Plaza and the Rubén Dario Theater, the only points of interest in downtown.

Managua enjoys an interesting location in the shadow of Momotombo Volcano and on the banks of Lake Managua, with many other lakes and lagoons within the city.

Food

You might have guessed by now that the availability of fish and seafood is saturated throughout the country. It is very fresh and served in many ways, from ceviche to fried dishes, and is accompanied with fried plantains and every vegetable you can think of.

Beans are also omnipresent, served in sauce, as well as as a dish or in a “galapinto” – a rice and bean mixture with eggs served in a banana leaf.... or in a more modern aluminum sheet!

Bananas, pineapples, mangoes, limes, cantaloupes and melons are all fruits on the menu.

Where to stay?

Very few large hotel chains have left their mark in Nicaragua outside of the capital. In other cities and on the Pacific coast, a few modest local hotels, B&Bs or boutique hotels offer lodging and food.

One exception: The Barceló Montélimar on the Pacific Coast. It is where we chose to stay.

If we were to tell you that Somoza, the former dictator, had a magnificent Victorian residence constructed for his family on a hill here – it is now the casino and the specialty dining rooms of the hotel - do we even have to add that the site is an outpost in paradise with breathtaking sunsets!

The Barceló has a main hotel and many lovely small bungalows built on the seaside, all of them offering a hammock on the porch (ask for bungalows in the 200 or 300, they are the most interesting as far as location goes). Small pathways bordered by nice bars, small pools, waterfalls and ponds… traverse the luscious gardens of this 210 acre haven where everywhere hammocks invite you to savor a few minutes of bliss in the shade of the omnipresent and magisterial wilderness.

For now, the Barceló is the only hotel occupying this seaside with a beach that seems to be endless. But we were told that another resort is in its development phase a little further away, which will offer houses and villas to buy or rent, golf and other popular activities. This will be The Grand Pacifica Beach & Golf Resort, coming soon for those looking for this type of travel.

To fully enjoy

At least two weeks are necessary if you want to discover the country and still enjoy a few moments of relaxation on the beach.
Bear in mind that the transportation system is rudimentary inside the country and even in a taxi the beaches of the Pacific are at least an hour and a half away from Granada, Masaya and Managua.

When

The best period to visit Nicaragua is between November and April, which is during the dry season: temperatures vary between 30 and 350 C. The rainy season, or winter, which is between May and October, sees the temperatures “drop” to between 27 and 32.

The weather is, however, quite different from one region to another and the western part is generally more favorable for discoveries throughout the year.

Currency

The local currency is the Córdoba but the American dollar is accepted everywhere, even by small street merchants.

One last thing…

The Nicaraguan rum! Its “Flor de Cana” is offered in varying qualities aged up to 18 years. It is a true nectar with its wood, nuts, caramel, vanilla and spice taste, to be savored straight. To dilute it with juice or soda or even adding ice would be a heresy!

And did you know that rum has fewer calories than whisky or vodka? No reason to deprive yourself! That is exactly what we were telling ourselves during our stay!

Salud!

Christiane Théberge

From Canada: the tour operators Nolitours and Tours Mont-Royal share the Barceló Montélimar. 

Montélimar beach

Cathedral, Granada

Small food kiosk in Central Park, Granada

San Francisco Church

At the market, Granada

Small boats on Lake Nicaragua

Mombacho Volcano

Las Isletas

Tisserins' huge nests

Masaya Volcano

At the foot of the Masaya volcano

Apoyo Laguna

 Masaya artisan market

Hammocks at the artisan market

Chez Gris, Masaya

Bungalow at Barcelo Montélimar

Pool at Barcelo Montélimar

Seaside at Barcelo Montélimar

Fishermen

Small local tuk-tuk

One last sight!

  

 

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