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The Best Budget Hotels in Central America

Finding great budget hotels is like winning the travel lottery because they allow you to make your travel budget go even further. Over the years we’ve become expert at choosing the best budget hotels and for the first time we’re sharing what we think are the best budget hotels in Central America, gleaned from more than three years of travel through Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Panama. We’ve personally vetted all of these budget hotel options so you don’t have to. Consider them Trans-Americas Journey approved.

Best budget hotels in Central America

San Jose, Costa Rica: Hotel Aranjuez offers a range of spotlessly clean rooms in three adjoining houses in a safe, quiet neighborhood of Costa Rica’s capital convenient to most attractions at extremely reasonable rates which include the best hotel breakfast buffet we’ve ever had in any price point. We stayed here repeatedly and they even have (limited) parking.

Hotel Aranjez - San Jose, Costa Rica

El Tunco Beach, El Salvador: There are two places called Papaya Guesthouse in this beach hangout. You want the one directly across the street from a hotel called La Guitara. Look for the enormous wooden gate. This place is spotless, has a nice little pool and sitting areas with hammocks and offers rooms with A/C and large, stylish rooms with fans and private baths for US$25 plus perfectly acceptable smaller rooms at smaller price points (US$14) with shared bathrooms (that’s what we went for). Toss in WiFi, parking, a great staff and a decent shared kitchen and you can’t beat it.

Panama City, Panama: Hostal Amador Familiar (dorm beds from US$15 per night and private rooms with a fan from $30 for two people) is beyond spotlessly clean thanks to the tireless efforts of the best hotel housekeeper we’ve ever seen at any hotel in any price point.There’s a large, shared, semi-outdoor kitchen which stocks paper towels and  tin foil for guest use in addition to the usual supplies. Breakfast is included.There’s a large and secure parking lot. It’s located in a quite neighborhood from which you can easily access Casco Viejo, the Amador Causeway, downtown Panama City and other areas.

Hostal Amador Familiar - Panama City

Cahuita, Costa Rica: At Cabinas Palmer US$20 got us a clean private double with bathroom, fan, TV, a furnished porch with a hammock, free coffee and bananas all day, use of a shared kitchen, parking and WiFi. It’s right in the center of town, just ask for it when you arrive.

Gracias de Dios, Honduras: We called Hotel & Restaurant Guancascos home while we were in Gracias and you should too. Located just below the Castillo San Cristobal fort, the 17 rooms (US$10 dorm and rooms from US$26) are spotless and well-appointed, the staff is charming, free Wi-Fi works in the common area and in the three rooms under the restaurant, which is excellent. Owner Fronicas “Frony” Miedema, a Dutch woman who’s lived in Honduras for more than 20 years, will be happy to give you information about the area and arrange tours and transportation. When we were there the hotel was also in the final stages of gaining green certification, making it one of only a few eco-certified hotels in Honduras.

Guancasos hotel - Gracias del Dios, Honduras

San Ignacio, Belize: Nefry’s Retreat has four peaceful, clean rooms with WiFi and A/C for around US$20 located about a five minute walk from the bustle of the town’s main drag. We really liked the homey feel. It’s not a rock bottom price, but it’s value for money especially in Belize.

Bocas del Toro, Panama: Hostal Hansi, located just off Main Street in the town of Bocas, has a wide range of different room types from singles with shared bath (from US$11) to private doubles (from US$25). WiFi and use of a spotless kitchen is included. It’s quiet and clean (there is a resident cat) and it’s extremely popular. Hansi does not take reservations so get there as early as you can to see about available rooms.

Hostal Hansi - Bocas del Toro, Panama

Panajachel, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala: Hotel Contemporeneo down by the lakeshore, delivers clean, quiet rooms with a bathroom, a TV, secure parking and a good WiFi signal for 120Q (about US$15). We even scored a lake view (ask for room 4 or 5).

León, NicaraguaHarvest House was created by Jason Greene, a smart, surprisingly young man from North Carolina, and it’s spotlessly clean, brightly painted, comfortably furnished and has a huge shared kitchen. Rooms, which range from singles with shared bath to small private apartments, were irresistible (from US$15 per night or from US$150 per month). We booked a double room with shared bath for a month, spending less and getting more than we would have in any hostal.

Harvest House, Leon Nicaragua

 

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Rear View Mirror: Nicaragua Travel Tips & Observations after 177 Days in the Country

After traveling in Nicaragua for 177 days we’ve produced 24 blog posts about the country in which we’ve revealed our favorite city in Nicaragua, weighed in on the Big Corn Island vs. Little Corn Island rivalry, explored the beauty queen that is Granada, took the hippest cigar factory tour in the world and told you why you really should make it all the way up to the Northern Pacific Coast and out to Ometepe Island. In our final post about the country we present these Nicaragua travel tips and observations.

Honduras-Nicaragua-borderNicaragua  is definitely on our “go now” list. The country is making eco travel and adventure travel headlines, showing off a small but impressive crop of new luxury hotels that could hold their own anywhere in the world and producing some of the best rum in the world. It remains very, very affordable, it’s not yet over run by travelers and it’s one of the safest countries in Central America. Here we go.

Eating and drinking in Nicaragua

Cold Toña Beer Nicaragua consistently served up the coldest beer we had in Central America and it seems to be a point of pride to only sever beer that’s truly bien fria. Sometimes the glass was frosty too and the refrigerators in most bars and stores had stickers on them promising beer under 0 degrees C (32 F). That’s noticeably colder than the norm in other neighboring countries.  Also, it’s practically unpatriotic to hike up the price of a cold Toña, the national beer of Nicaragua, so the price doesn’t vary by much (it’s a little more than US$1 for per liter) whether you buy it in the supermarket or at a fancy bar.

 

Nicaragua is not a foodie destination but two local dishes you’ll be grateful for are fritanga, usually served from basic street vendors and including a grilled meat, gallo pinto (spiced beans and rice) and a small salad. The best fritanga in the country, if you ask us, is found in the town of Masaya (below).

Fritanga in Masaya

Vigoron is another national dish which will please pork lovers with succulent pork cubes and chicharon (fried pork skin with some meat still on) served over cooked yucca slathered with a vinegary cabbage salad (below).

Gourmet Vigaron

Then there are street snacks like guiliras which are made with sweet corn masa cooked on a griddle between squares of banana leaves. They’re like a cross between a thick tortilla and corn bread and they taste great on their own or served “servicio” with a hunk of salty cheese called cuajada on top. Guiliras are not found everywhere. In fact, the only place we ever saw them was in Matagalpa, so snag ’em when you see ’em.

Award-winning Flor de Caña rum is proudly made in Nicaragua and is even cheaper in most stores than it is in the Duty Free shops at the borders, especially when it’s on sale which is often. The distillery is located just north of León and we recommend taking their fun and informative distillery tour.

Flor de Cana Run, Nicaragua

Nicaraguans are crazy about beets which turn up in salads all the time and are even used to tint and flavor white rice.

Driving in Nicaragua

Nicaragua has far better roads than Costa Rica and most of their other Central American neighbors too thanks to serious petroleum contributions from fellow socialist country Venezuela (petroleum is a key ingredient in asphalt). There are still some dreadful stretches of road through small towns, so don’t get lulled into a false sense of smoothness.

Nicaraguans are also crazy about paving roads using interlocking cement bricks instead of black top. We suspect this has something to do with the fact that relatives of politicians own paving brick companies, but maybe that’s just us. Anyway, when done well, it’s a pleasure to drive on roads paved this way and if a pothole develops workers can just replace the broken/missing bricks by interlocking new ones in their place.

Pedestrians, pedi-cabs, horse-drawn carriages and cyclists rule the road and will not move for you even if you’re driving a great big pickup truck like ours.

You must have local liability insurance to drive in Nicaragua, but the best advice is to simply not have an accident. We were told that in Nicaragua if you have an accident in which blood is drawn you go to jail until the official fine is worked out and until a personal settlement (usually US$1,500 to US$3,000) is worked out with the victim and your liability insurance isn’t going to help you.

Nicaraguan drivers are very horn-happy, even by Central American standards.

We could get our truck washed for less than US$3 but finding a car wash with a pressurized water gun was difficult.

New, much stiffer traffic laws and fees are currently being considered.

Money, baseball and other random observations

The La Prensa newspaper, whose publisher was killed in 1978 after a long career of criticizing Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza, refers to Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega as “the unconstitutional President” almost every single time he is mentioned in print.

Speaking of Daniel, as the Nicaraguan president chummily refers to himself, his FSLN party recently got a re-branding at the hand of Rosario Murillo, the woman he secretly married then publicly married. Murillo, who is the government’s spokesperson and is with Ortega at nearly every appearance, is a fascinating character – like a cross between Stevie Nicks, a voodoo mistress and your long-lost crazy Latin aunt. Anyway, she thought the FSLN’s traditional black and red color scheme was too aggressive and in 2011 she swapped it for the color pink and tossed in peace signs and hearts for good measure. You will still see the random light pole or roadside rock sporting the old red and black bands, but most FSLN campaign message are now cheery and rosy, like the one below.

Daniel Ortega pink FSLN billboard

Baseball is huge in Nicaragua. It’s the official national sport (not soccer) and there are currently four Nicaraguans playing in the US Major Leagues. Extremely popular Sunday games are played as double headers but with only seven innings in each game as we learned when we caught a baseball game in Nicaragua.

Nicaragua versus Cuba National baseball teams

Though Nicaragua is the second poorest nation in the Americas (behind Haiti) we saw less evidence of homelessness, hunger, begging or shanties here than we did in Guatemala or Honduras.

You need to show your passport when you change money at banks, though there are official, regulated money changers on the streets who carry don’t require your passport and often give a slightly higher rate.

Electricity and water regularly cut out in Nicaragua. If you can’t work around that, make sure your hotel has a functioning power and water backup system. Many do.

1,000 córdoba bills from the Sandinista administration are out of circulation and worthless though “coyote” money changers may still try to give them to you.

Our ATM cards never worked at any ATM anywhere in Nicaragua.

Start getting your bearings by reading the Nicaragua Dispatch online English language news site even before you get here. It’s top-notch. And check out the Moon Handbooks Nicaragua Guide written by our friend Joshua Berman.

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River Rising – Rio San Juan, San Carlos & El Castillo, Nicaragua

The whole southeastern chunk of Nicaragua is set for rising tourism. A fantastic new road has greatly reduced the drive/bus time from Managua to San Carlos on the banks of the Rio San Juan, there’s now better boat trip service to El Castillo and a new airport in Greytown makes reaching that far-flung southern destination easier than ever. No more excuses. Here’s our travel guide to Rio San Juan, San Carlos town and river trips to the historic fort in El Castillo.

El Castillo Fort Rio San Juan Nicaragua

El Castillo Fort above the Rio San Juan was built by the Spanish to help keep pirates from navigating the river to Granada where they stored their gold.

Getting to San Carlos and the Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

Forget what you’ve read about the hellish journey required to reach the town of San Carlos, gateway to the Rio San Juan region in southern Nicaragua. A new amazing paved road now whisks you from Managua to San Carlos in about four hours. For much of the drive we had the wide, smooth road all to ourselves and conditions were so good we even used the cruise control for a bit, something that is generally impossible on crumbling Central American “highways”.

The road was built in anticipation of increased traffic to a new, more direct border crossing between Nicaragua and Costa Rica following the construction of the Santa Fe bridge across the Rio San Juan. The bridge, which is four lanes wide, 1,187 feet (362 meters) long, 131 feet (40 meters) high and was built by the Japanese at a cost of US$30 million, is now finished. However, the bridge and the border remain closed due to bad relations between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Stay tuned…

Construction of Santa Fe Bridge over Rio San Juan Nicaragua Costa Rica

Construction of a US$30 million dollar bridge across the Rio San Juan to create a new border crossing between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. The bridge is now completed but the border remains closed.

Where to sleep in San Carlos

San Carlos is a typical river town. Dirty, slow and unavoidable. It smelled a bit like fish, stale river water and boredom. Everybody seemed to have a dearth of free time. We looked at a few accommodations in San Carlos and quickly realized that Hotel Cabinas Leyko was the budget hotel choice for us. For US$25 we got a private double room with a bathroom, Wi-Fi and parking which is key for us. The hotel even let us leave our truck in their lot while we took a boat trip on the Rio San Juan to spend a night in El Castillo.

San Carlos, Nicaragua

San Carlos on the Rio San Juan is a typical river town: slow, dirty and unavoidable.

Boat trip on the Rio San Juan to El Castillo

There are two ways to get from San Carlos to the small riverside town of El Castillo: slow boat and fast boat. We chose the slow boat (US$4 per person each way) which was a clean, basic motorized boat with a roof and seating. Fast boats, which do the trip in about half the time, are US$11 per person each way.

Transportation on the Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

This is how you’ll travel on the Rio San Juan between San Carlos and El Castillo.

Our slow boat was full but not packed and the four-hour journey on the Rio San Juan was pleasant and even included some animal sightings (kingfishers, osprey, howler monkeys, egrets). We made a handful of stops to pick up or drop off passengers at riverbank docks serving the handful of people who live along the river.

The Rio San Juan is sometimes called El Desaguadero (The Drain) because its 120 mile (192 km) length drains Lake Nicaragua into the Caribbean.

Fortress of the Immaculate Conception - El Castillo, Nicaragua

The El Castillo Fort was recently refurbished by the Spanish, who built it in the first place.

The town of El Castillo, only accessible by river, almost feels like an island town – small, contained, protective. Or maybe that’s just the vibe coming off the demurely-named Fortress of the Immaculate Conception (aka the El Castillo  Fort), which is the one and main attraction in town.

The hulking stone fort overlooks the Rio San Juan and was completed by the Spanish in 1675 as part of a string of forts meant to stop pirates from navigating the river to Granada. Since 1995 the fort has been on a tentative list for consideration as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Rio San Juan Fort - El Castillo, Nicaragua

The Rio San Juan snakes past the formidable El Castillo Fort.

The fort (US$1.75 per person), nicely rebuilt by the Spanish to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Spanish conquest of the Americas, includes a tidy little museum where a guide informed us that “The bravery does not depend on the sex” as he was explaining how the daughter of a Spaniard managed to defend an attack on the fort after her father was killed during the battle. Sex-based bravery aside, the fort was a great place to wander around near dusk with good views of the river. We had the place to ourselves.

view of Rio San Juan from Fort El Castillo, Nicaragia

The El Castillo Fort overlooks treacherous rapids in the Rio San Juan which the Spanish hoped would slow pirate ships long enough for cannons to take them out.

As impressive as the fort are the Raudal del Diablo (Devil Torrent) rapids which rage away directly below it. That’s no accident. The fort was placed in this spot precisely because of the rapids which represented a natural barrier which forced pirate ships to slow down and navigate carefully at this notorious spot in the river giving the Spaniards a fighting chance to pick them off from above.

Devils Torrent rapids  Rio San Juan - El Castillo, Nicaragia

The Devil Torrent rapids as seen from the El Castillo Fort.

Canon El Castillo Nicaragua

We swear that flower was in that cannon when we got there.

Sleeping and eating in El Castillo

El Castillo is a tiny town but there are a surprising number of hotels and a handful of eateries to choose from. We intended to stay in the Hotel Albergue el Castillo directly behind the fort. Our Lonely Planet described the place as feeling like a Swiss chalet, however, the room we were shown felt more like  a stall so we moved on.

We finally chose Hotel Victoria where US$25 got us a spotless (if small) private double with bathroom and full breakfast. A torrential downpour arrived as we were checking in so we retreated to hammocks on the covered patio of the riverfront hotel and listened to the water flow and fall. We were not alone. Colorful birds darted between leafy tree hideouts to nearby platforms which the hotel’s perky owner kept stocked with tempting fruit.

El Castillo, Nicaragua

Main street in El Castillo town which is only accessible by river and has no cars.

When the rain finally let up we reluctantly hauled ourselves out of the hammocks and found Border’s Coffee. Owner Yamil Obregón is a young and talented Nicaraguan chef. He’s also a gay man and, he told us, had to fight the government for his right to open the place. We enjoyed perfectly cooked (from scratch) shrimp over pasta (US$7.50), terrific fresh fruit juices with no ice or sugar and wonderful organic Nicaraguan coffee made using real espresso  machines.

Unfortunately Border’s Coffee was not open early enough to get another one of those coffees before our very early morning boat ride back to San Carlos.

Bus stop El Castillo, Nicaragua

Waiting for our river boat back to San Carlos.

 

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Beach Bungalows, Perfect Pizza & the Best Road in the Country – Mechapa & Northern Pacific Coast, Nicaragua

Few  travelers make it to León, Nicaragua which is just one reason why León was our favorite city in Nicaragua. Even fewer people travel to the northern Pacific coast north of León, but they should. In fishing villages like Mechapa and on beaches like Aposentillo you’ll find great beach bungalows, perfect pizza and the best road in the country.

Driving on the beaches of Northern Nicaragua

Karen hanging out on the tailgate during a break in our epic beach drive in Mechapa, Nicaragua.

Mechapa, gateway to Nicaragua’s Northern Pacific Coast

Thanks to the completion of a fantastic new paved road, replacing one of the most notoriously brutal dirt roads in the country, you can now drive yourself to Mechapa from Leon in 1.5 hours or 3.5 hours from Managua (it’s tricky and slow by bus as service is limited and stops are many).

Fisherman, Machapa, Nicaragua

Fishermen plying their trade in Mechapa, Nicaragua.

There are around 600 people living in Mechapa, most of them involved in fishing or working on the area’s sprawling peanut farms. There are a handful of small closet-sized shops in the dirt-road-town and they peddle the basics. There are no restaurants or coffee shops or nightlife or tour companies of any kind but there is one friendly and comfortable beachfront hotel and, really, that’s all you need.

Redwood Beach Resort & Restaurant, Nicaragua

Beach view from the porch of one of the bungalows at Redwood Beach Resort & Restaurant in Mechapa.

The Redwood Beach Resort  was originally built in 2000 by a man from Managua who planned on building 32 bungalows, a large swimming pool and 16 condominiums. Only a handful of bungalows every got built and he never opened the property.

In 2006 Mike and Stacy Vogelsang, a metal worker and psychologist from Illinois, bought the 22 acre (nine hectare) property, sold everything in the US and became hoteliers. There was no running water, no electricity and no plumbing.

Bungalows Redwood Beach Resort - Mechapa, Nicaragua

Redwood Beach Resort & Restaurant in Mechapa on Nicaragua’s Pacific Coast north of León.

Today the Vogelsangs offer a full restaurant and six homey, comfortable beach bungalows (from US$65 per person per night including three meals a day). All are just steps away from the beach (#4 has the best view) with hammock strewn porches.

It’s the perfect comfy castaway base and your hosts can arrange horseback riding, kayaking, boat tours, fishing and more. Sea turtles also nest here  between November and January. Cold beers are abundant and thoughtfully served in beer cozies.

Redwood Beach Resort - Mechapa, Nicaragua

Sunset on Nicaragua’s Northern Pacific Coast.

The best road in Nicaragua

While Nicaragua’s roads are far superior to those in many of the neighboring countries thanks to the fellow-socialists in Venezuela who provide cheap petroleum (asphalt is made from a mixture high in petroleum), we took one look at the 15 mile (24 km) long wide, flat, hard-packed black sand beach in front of Redwood  Beach Resort and asked one question: can we drive on that?

Come along on our epic 30 mile (48 km) beach drive in Mechapa in our seven minute high-speed recap video.

 

Turns out, the owners enjoy a good beach drive too and assured us that as long as we timed the tides right we could drive for miles. Which we did, driving all the way down to the largest estuary in Central America. We saw plenty of birds along the way and no more than five other people.

Mechapa Beach Nicaragua

Our happy truck unleashed on the beach in Mechapa, Nicaragua.

End of the beach lies Reserva Natural Padre Ramos, Nicaragua

This end of the 15 mile (24 km) beach in Mechapa is home to the Padre Ramos Nature Reserve.

Mechapa Beach Redwood resort, Nicaragua

One of the bungalows at Redwood Resort & Restaurant peaks out of the jungle toward the beach in Mechapa, Nicaragua.

This is yet another reason to explore this part of Nica in your own vehicle.

Perfect pizza by way of Paris

Tipped off by Stacy and Mike from Redwood Beach Resort we made a point of stopping at Al Cielo Cabañas & Restaurant just above the surf breaks at Aserradores Beach while we were in the area. It was created by two friends from France, Xavier and William, who decided to ditch the pace in Paris for the surf in Central America.

Al Cielo Cabanas & Restaurant Nicaragua

Rooms with a view at Al Cielo Cabañas & Restaurant on Nicaragua’s Northern Pacific Coast.

The pair were traveling and surfing along the Nica’s Northern Pacific Coast when they fell in love with a patch of land above Aserradores Beach which had been used to grow cotton. They bought it, cleared it and did much of the construction themselves.

Menu at Al Cielo Cabanas & Restaurant - Aserradores Beach Nicaragua

Everything on the menu at Al Cielo is homemade and delicious but do not miss the pizza.

Al Cielo has eight basic but comfortable wooden cabanas, some with shared bath (from around US$30 per night). All have views of the Pacific and breezy porches and there’s a pool. One of the country’s top surf beaches is just a few minutes away. However, the best thing about Al Cielo is the restaurant.

Pizza at Al Cielo Cabanas & Restaurant - Aserradores Nicaragua

Behold, REAL pizza made from scratch by the French-trained chef who co-owns Al Cielo Cabañas & Restaurant on Nicaragua’s Pacific Coast north of León.

Xavier trained in the culinary arts in Paris and, thankfully, he did not want to abandon his chef whites entirely. The restaurant at Al Cielo is now one of the most exciting casual restaurants in Nicaragua, attracting locals from the nearby city of Chinandega who make the 20 minute drive to the place just to enjoy the food and the views from the open air, thatch roof dining room.

Xavier - Al Cielo Cabanas & Restaurant - Aserradores Nicaragua

Meet Xavier: French-trained chef, baker of bread, surfer of waves and co-owner of Al Cielo Cabañas & Restaurant on Nicaragua’s Pacific Coast north of León.

The menu is small, featuring one pasta dish, one fish dish, one meat dish (like pepper steak for US$8.50), a real salad (for around US$5) and pizzas. And what pizzas! Thin crust made using a slightly modified recipe given to Xavier by a mentor in Paris before he left, real Italian cheese, inventive toppings and all cooked up in a real pizza oven for around US$7. No wonder Al Cielo made our list of Best Food & Beverages of the year. Oh, and don’t miss their Flor de Caña rums infused with goodies like hot peppers, vanilla and ginger.

Infused Flor de Cana Rums - Al Cielo Cabanas & Restaurant Nicaragua

Flor de Cana rum naturally infused with ginger, hot chilies and more at Al Cielo Cabañas & Restaurant on Nicaragua’s Pacific Coast north of León.

 

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Around León – Cerro Negro, Flor de Caña Rum Tour, León Viejo & Casita Volcano, Nicaragua

The best way to justify extending your stay in León, our favorite city in Nicaragua, is to sign up for some of the day trips and activities you can do from the city. One of the most popular options is volcano boarding down Cerro Negro (Black Hill) Volcano but you can also make day trips to take a tour of the Flor de Caña distillery, the mudslide memorial at Casita Volcano and León Viejo, all located around the city of León.

Cerro Negro Leon Nicaragua

As you approach Cerro Negro Volcano you can clearly see why it got that name.

Volcano boarding down Cerro Negro

It should really be called volcano sledding, however, that’s a lot less sexy. Anyway, you huff up a steep trail for about 40 minutes, suit up in day glow coveralls in a vain attempt to keep from getting an involuntary full-body exfoliation, sit your butt down on a piece of wood, grab the “steering” rope at the front then plummet down the black pumice-covered slopes of Cerro Negro Volcano, hopefully wearing a helmet.

Cerro Negro volcano boarding - Nicaragua

An orange-jumpsuited traveler goes volcano boarding down Cerro Negro in Nicaragua while a dude at the bottom clocks his considerable speed using a radar gun.

Cerro Negro is an active volcano and the youngest in Central America. Time has not worn down its slopes and the thing is steep – more than a 40 degree grade in places. The volcano is 2,388 feet (728 m) tall and it take most boarders about a minute to slide, swerve and sometimes wipe out from top to bottom. One woman topped out at 54 miles (87 km) per hour.

In 2002 “high speed specialist” Eric Barone smashed his own world record for fastest downhill speed on a bicycle when he reached 107 mph (172 kmh). Check out the video of his ride to see why that ride as very nearly his last.

We drove out to Cerro Negro but we did not go volcano boarding. However, our friend Matthew over at The Expert Vagabond did and (barely) lived to tell the tale.

Here’s our video of volcano boarders on Cerro Negro.

 

Cerro Negro volcano boarding - Leon Nicaragua

Our trusty truck at Cerro Negro Volcano in Nicaragua. The dust trail on the left of the slope is a volcano boarder. The dust trails on the right of the slope are people running down the access trail to the top, perhaps after chickening out…

Flor de Caña Rum Tour

We also drove about half an hour north of León to check out the tour offered at the Flor de Caña rum distillery in Chichigalpa where we learned why Nicaragua’s years of war and revolution were good for their rum, why you might want to think twice before buying a rum made using the “Solera” method (check your labels people) and how to spot top quality stuff (hint: wash your hands with it).

Tag along in this piece we did about the Flor de Caña tour which we did for TheLatinKitchen.com (the foodie web spin off of Latina magazine).

Flor de Cana Run, Nicaragua

This steam engine, once used to haul sugar cane from field to factory, now greets guest taking the Flor de Caña run tour in Nicaragua.

Flor de Cana Distillery Visitors Center - Chichigalpa, Nicaragua

This bar, gift shop and small museum is part of the tour at the Flor de Caña distillery in Nicaragua. The building’s design was inspired by rum barrels.

Flor de Cana Aged Rum, Nicaragua

Outside the barrel aging room where the rum magic happens.

Rum aging barrels Flor de Cana, Nicaragua

Rum barrels waiting to be filled and filed away for aging.

Mudslide memorial at Casita Volcano

Not eager to dig volcanic pumice out of every nook and cranny for the next three weeks (or worse), we chose to visit the Casita Volcano where, in 1998, Hurricane Mitch dumped 67 inches (1,700 mm) of rain on the area triggering a massive mudslide that killed more than 2,000 people.

Casita Volcano disaster Memorial, Nicaragua

This strange pyramid-like creation is a memorial to the more than 2,000 people who died in a massive mudslide in this area in 1998.

Now there’s a small museum on the site which includes an eerie diorama which shows the path and scope of the massive flow which came barreling down the volcano at 40 miles (65 km) per hour. A local man in the museum told us the slide happened in seconds.

mudslide stretched nearly 10 km

This diorama in the small museum at the site of a deadly mudslide in Nicaragua shows how the six mile (10 km) slide traveled from the rain-swollen crater of Casita Volcano down through hillside villages.

Just a few months after the slide US President Bill Clinton toured the destruction and a plaque in honor of his visit has been placed on a boulder that rolled down the slope.

Prsident Clinton visit to Casita Volcano Memorial, Nicaragua

A plaque commemorating the visit of former US President Bill Clinton to the site of the deadly Casita Volcano mudslide.

Casita and active San Cristobal Volcano Nicaragua

You can still see part of the path of the deadly 1998 mudslide on the slopes of the Casita Volcano (right). That’s San Cristobal Volcano puffing away on the left.

And don’t forget to visit the first León

About 20 miles (32 kms) from modern León lies the site where the Spanish originally settled the city in 1524. Now called León Viejo (Old León), earthquakes forced inhabitants to abandon the area in 1610. The ruins of the city, which is one of the oldest Spanish settlements in the Americas, were excavated in 1960 and the place was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000.

Leon Viejo Nicaragua dog attacking indigenous sculpture

This grisly statue in León Viejo stands in memory of a brutal attack that happened there in 1528 during which the Spanish government used dogs to kill 12 Indian hostages.

Leon Viejo Ruins World Heritage site Nicaragua

Some of the excavated ruins of León Viejo.

Cathedral Leon Viejo Ruins Nicaragua

Excavated areas inside what was the Cathedral of León Viejo.

Mombacho volcano Nicaragua

León Viejo was founded at the foot of Momotombo Volcano.

 

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Loving León – León, Nicaragua

There are only three cities in Nicaragua: Managua, the capital, is a chaotic, crumbling city with few reasons to linger (but if you must stay there, check out our travel guide to hotels in Managua first). Granada is gorgeous but it’s brimming with gringos. That leaves León. The second largest city in the country is hot (we’ve started saying “León hot” instead of “Africa hot”), has not experienced a sweeping Colonial beautification and much of the food leaves a lot to be desired. But what León lacks in obvious charms it makes up for in sheer authenticity which is why we were loving León.

Lion Leon Cathedral, Nicaragua

León is named after its Spanish counterpart city. As every Spanish 101 student knows, león means lion in Spanish.

First impressions of our favorite city in Nicaragua

Our first impression of León was the heat which somehow combines the searing, life-sucking dryness of the Sahara with the kind of humidity that means that every activity (including breathing) makes you break a sweat.

Our second impression of León, however, made us stick it out even in the thick of the pre-monsoon heat. While Managua and Granada both have disturbing, unavoidable and very stark divisions between the haves and the have-nots, in León that gulf seemed less pronounced. There was no gringo area. There were no gated communities. No one’s car or bike seemed that much nicer than the next person’s. Everything and everyone (for the most part) seemed to exist in the humble middle ground espoused by the country’s socialist government.

A large population of Nicaraguan college students and foreign aid workers and volunteers gives León a pleasant hopeful vibe as well. Though you wouldn’t know it to look at the sleepy city today, León was the on-and-off capital of Nicaragua until 1858 when Managua got the title once and for all.

Sandanista mural with Uncle Sam and Samoza

This street art in León shows revolutionary Augusto César Sandino with his foot on top of dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle (left) and on top of Uncle Sam.

Where to sleep in León

León attracts far, far fewer visitors than it’s more popular sister, Granada. However, you won’t have the place to yourself.  Most of the travelers who spend time in León are backpackers and there are dozens of hostels in the city, some of them offering free bed bugs.

We got lucky and happened to see a flyer for Harvest House while checking out the bulletin board in the office of Quetzaltrekkers, a non-profit tour company. We called the number on the flyer and set up a time to meet Harvest House creator and manager Jason Greene, a smart, surprisingly young man from North Carolina.

Jason proudly showed us around the sprawling home he rented and radically upgraded. It was spotlessly clean, brightly painted, comfortably furnished and had a huge shared kitchen. Rooms, which range from singles with shared bath to small private apartments, were irresistible (from US$15 per night or from US$150 per month) and we booked a double room with shared bath for a month, spending less and getting more than we would have in any hostal. Jason also runs Buena Vista Guest House in Matagalpa, which should be your address in that great town as well.

Where to eat in León

Though we had a kitchen in Harvest House we did eat some meals out in León. Your main choice is going to be fritanga from one of the dozens of women selling this ubiquitous dish from bare bones street stands. The meal involves some sort of grilled meat, a scoop of gallo pinto (rice and beans) and probably some grated cabbage salad. Fritanga is not gonna win any culinary awards but it will fill your belly and it’s cheap.

We wanted to kiss the French/Dutch owners at Pan y Paz French Bakery where we got delicious loaves almost daily. But the real food find was El Desayunazo which, as the name implies, rocks the breakfast menu. Portions are huge, there’s a wide selection of options (including an epic fruit salad and proper pancakes), the coffee is bottomless and price tags hover around the US$2 mark.

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La Merced Church in León.

What to do in León (besides sweat)

The main sight in León is the stately Cathedral of León. Completed in 1814, it was designed by a Guatemalan in a style that bridges Baroque and Neoclassical architecture with touches of Gothic and other styles thrown in as well. It was consecrated by Pope Pius IX in 1860.

Cathedral Leon, Nicaragua

The cathedral in León is one of thelargest in the Americas and is the final resting place for many, including Nicaraguan poet Rubén Dario.

It’s so well-built that the massive cathedral has withstood earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and worse. In 1824 cannons were installed on the cathedral’s roof when conservative forces laid seige to León, in 1979 the cathedral was used as a stronghold against dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle and the guerilla fighters of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) also used the cathedral for military purposes.

Official guides (Spanish only) hang out inside the cathedral, which was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2011, to make sure you take in the most important aspects including the final resting place of Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío. Make your way to the roof to check out the fantastic views over the city and beyond to the volcanoes which ring it.

View of some of the many volcanoes that surround Leon

The streets of central León with the cathedral in the distance and the chain of volcanoes that ring the city beyond that.

Roof-Leon-Cathedral

You can visit the roof of the cathedral in León for a great perspective on the mixed architecture of the building and awesome views of the city and the volcanoes that ring it.

Leon Cathedral

One of the bell towers of the cathedral of León.

Nicaragua is not known for its museums, it’s true. However, León is home to the Centro de Arte Fundacion Ortiz-Gurdian (free on Sunday for locals and foreigners) which is the best museum in Nicaragua and offers the most compelling collection of modern and religious art from Latin America that we’ve seen since Mexico City.

Ortiz Gurdian Museum Leon, Nicaragua

One of the may elegant Colonial era rooms that have been turned into treasure-filled galleries at the Centro de Arte Fundacion Ortiz-Gurdian in León.

The art is displayed in four adjacent restored Colonial homes which would be worth a visit in their own right even if every wall and courtyard wasn’t filled with art. Opened in 2000, profits from the foundation support a breast cancer awareness, screening and treatment center in Nicaragua.

As you’re wandering around between these sites be on the lookout for street murals including one commemorating the massacre of student protesters. Find relief from the heat by catching a cheap subtitled movie in the blissfully air conditioned movie theater.

Mural Commemorating the Martyrs of July 23 1959 - Leon, Nicaragua

A mural in León commemorating the July 23, 1959 massacre of student which occurred here at the hands of the military.

Parade Commemorating the Martyrs of July 23 1959 - Leon, Nicaragua

College kids in León dressed up as soldiers as part of the annual re-enactment that commemorate the July 23, 1959 massacre of students in the city.

Mural of the Martyrs of July 23 1959 - Leon, Nicaragua

Another mural in León in memory of the student martyrs who were killed by the military on July 23, 1959.

And that’s just the beginning. For even more travel options (from volcano boarding to rum tours) check out this post about what to do around León.

Read more about travel in Nicaragua

 

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