Around Granada – Lake Nicaragua, Mombacho Volcano & Lake Apoyo, Nicaragua

Granada isn’t just another pretty face you know. When you get done appreciating Granada’s Colonial ambiance, shockingly good value boutique hotels and super-friendly locals Granada also makes a good base for exploring nearby natural attractions including Lake Apoyo, Mombacho Volcano and Lake Nicaragua (aka Lake Cocibolco).

The weird waters of Lake Apoyo

Just 20 minutes or so from Granada lies the Apoyo Lagoon Natural Reserve not far from the Pueblos Blancos handicrafts region. Established in 1991, the reserve protects 8,648 acres (43 km²) of jungle and geology including Lake Apoyo, a crater lake formed in the extinct Apoyo Volcano more than 200 years ago.

Laguna de Apoyo Mombacho Volcano panorama

Lake Apoyo, near Granada, Nicaragua, with Mombacho Volcano in the background to the right.

Lake Apoyo is said to be the cleanest place to swim in all of Nicaragua (but you still can’t drink the water) and it’s home to some species of fish that are found nowhere else. Despite the fact that the lake is more than 600 feet (200 meters) deep at its deepest point, the water is warm since the lake is fed by active fumaroles below it. The water is also slightly salty and is said to contain healing minerals. It just felt like slimy bath water to us.

You can hike, kayak, swim, go bird watching and get real familiar with the dinosaur-like call of the areas many howler monkeys. Thankfully, motorized craft (jet skis, boats) were recently banned on the lake. There are also some volunteer opportunities, Spanish schools and a few restaurants and hostels and hotels around the lake.

Laguna de Apoyo Mombacho Volcano Nicaragua

Lake Apoyo with Mombacho Volcano in the background near Granada, Nicaragua.

We stayed at Apoyo Resort (which used to be called Norome Resort & Villas) in one of their 60 villas in the jungle, all with full kitchens. We watched a small troop of howler monkeys pluck flowers off a tree near our deck as homemade pasta sauce simmered on the stove. Heaven.

Our timing at Lake Apoyo was accidentally perfect and one night we got to enjoy views of a rare super moon from the hillside pool without the interference of any light pollution.

Laguna de Apoyo Full Moon, Nicaragua

A rare Supermoon in the dark skies above Lake Apoyo in Nicaragua.

An epic drive up Mombacho Volcano

The Mombacho Volcano is considered extinct. Its last eruption was in 1570. That’s given the cloud forest in the area plenty of time to re-forest the slopes of the volcano which means that unlike more recently active volcanoes, the hiking trails around Mombacho are shaded and travel through more than just rocks and scree. But first you have to get there.

Reserva Natural Volcan Mombacho, Nicaragua

Entering the Mombacho Volcano Natural Reserve near Granada, Nicaragua with one epic road in front of us.

We paid US$5 per person to enter the Mombacho Volcano Nature Reserve that surrounds the volcano itself. You can pay an additional US$15 per person to take official transportation up the paved road from the entrance to the volcano or you can pay US$18 and drive yourself and a carload of friends up to the top as long as you have a 4X4.

They aren’t joking about that 4X4 part. Though the road is paved and in good shape it is wicked steep climbing more than 3,000 feet (900 meters) in four miles (6.5 kms). Even in 4-low our truck huffed and puffed all the way up and down was no easier.

Once at the top we found a respectable visitor center with an impressive diorama of the area.  There are a number of trails up to four miles (6.5 kms) long that you can hike alone. The longer trails require a guide (US$10).

View from Mombacho Volcano Nicaragua

Lake Nicaragua seen from one of the trails around Mombacho Volcano near Granada, Nicaragua.

We hiked the crater trail down to some fumaroles along a shaded trail that was in excellent shape. At various points on the trail we also got excellent views of Granada and of Masaya Volcano in the distance.

Mombacho Volcano Nicaragua

Mombacho Volcano in Nicaragua.

Volcan Mombacho Nicaragua

Clouds stream off the top of Mombacho Volcano near Granada, Nicaragua.

Eco luxury on Lake Nicaragua

Granada was settled on the shoreline of Lake Nicaragua, aka Lake Cocibolca. It’s possible to book a boat tour of the lake and its dozens of small islands or even kayak around.  We toured the lake on our way out to Jicaro Island Ecolodge which occupies its own small island. Jicaro Island is one of our favorite green boutique hotels in the country and home to one of the best pools in Nicaragua. There are more tempting reasons to make a reservation in our full Jicaro Island Ecolodge review.

Jicaro Island EcoLodge, Nicaragua

Welcome to Jicaro Island Ecolodge in Lake Nicaragua.

Jicaro Island Lodge pool, Nicaragua

Lake Nicaragua still has a few bull sharks in it so we stuck to the pool at Jicaro Island Ecolodge.

Villas at Jicaro Island Lodge, Nicaragua

We’re not carpentry geeks, but the woodworking in the structures and furniture at Jicaro Island Ecolodge stunned us.

 

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Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2013 – Best Hotels

This post is part 4 of 4 in the series Best of 2013

Welcome to Part 3 in our Best Of the Trans-Americas Journey 2013 series of posts. Part 3 is all about the Best Hotels from the past year of travel on the road including an epic shower in Bogota, a riverside room with missing walls in Colombia, an amazing adventure resort in Panama, a houseboat hotel and more. Part 1 covers the Best Adventures & Activities of 2013 and Part 2 covers the Best Food & Beverages of the year.

First, a few relevant stats. In 2013 our Trans-Americas Journey road trip through the Americas explored Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia and Ecuador, driving 8,546 miles (13,753 kms) spending US$2,400 on fuel and crossing four overland borders to do it.

For the seventh year in a row we were on the road full time and nearly every night of the year was spent in a hotel of some sort. Here, in no particular order, are our picks for…

Best hotels of 2013

Best shower: B.O.G. Hotel is one of the few fine boutique hotels in Bogota, Colombia. There are many boutique-y touches including a polished design inspired by the city’s amazing Gold Museum. Our favorite touch? The shower (pictured below). This thing had three adjustable shower heads, gold tiles, fabulous Calima amenities made just for the hotel, plenty of pressure and heat and a glassed-in design that turned the thing into your own private sauna. The only thing missing was a seat or bench. Then again, we’d probably still be in that shower had there been a place to sit down…

BOG Hotel shower - Bogota Colombia

Best adventure resort: You may know Travis Pastrana as the stunt man/motocross/X-Games/Red Bull-sponsored extreme sports icon. We know him as the guy who got our butts up on wakeboards then gave us a swish bed and private Jacuzzi to recover in. In 2012 Travis, and a bunch of his amped-up friends, opened Nitro City Panama Action Sports Resort near Panama City. With world class wakeboarding, kiteboarding and BMXing facilities, champion instructors and a luxury hotel Nitro is a unique concept in adventure resorts. Nitro City Panama is the first in what the gang hopes will be a global revolution in the way thrill-and-skill-seeking travelers play and stay. Check out their Miller Lite theme room, below.

Nitro City Panama Action Sports Resort

Best eco hotel: One of the very last hotels we stayed at in Costa Rica ended up being the greenest. Selva Bananito Eco Lodge & Preserve scored points right from the start when the dedicated owner pointed out a rarely seen potoo bird just off the deck of our bungalow. Toss in some of the most serious eco and sustainable practices in all of Costa Rica, the absolute best adventure horse back riding trip in Central America (check it out on our list of Best Adventures and Activities of 2013) and you’ve got a great stay that’s doing great good.

CabinSelva Bananito Eco Lodge, Costa Rica

Best room with (intentionally) missing walls: It’s sensible. If you’ve built riverside rooms in one of the most spectacular canyons in Colombia why not take out an entire wall in order to maximize the view? It’s risky as well. What about bugs? And bats? We can’t explain it, but when we spent a night in the partially open rooms at El Refugio along the Rio Claro (pictured below) there were no bats and remarkably few bugs in our room. All the missing wall let in was that spectacular view and the sound of the rushing Rio Claro river below.

El Refugio Hotel Rio Claro reserve Colombia

Best cabins in the cloud forest: Los Quetzales Ecolodge & Spa, in the town of Guadalupe near Cerro Punta in the cool hills of Panama, has a secret. About 10 minutes up a rough dirt road beyond the main lodge and rooms are a handful of spacious wooden cabins tucked in the cloud forest (one is pictured below). They each have multiple bedrooms, WiFi, full kitchens and fireplaces (at over 7,260 feet/2,200 meters it gets chilly). They’re the perfect family or romantic hideaway. Bring your own groceries or arrange for the chef from the main lodge to come cook for you. Los Questzales Ecoldge & Spa also gets the award for best hotel spa of 2013. It ain’t fancy but you can get a superb deep tissue massage for 1.5 hours for US$45 in an open air spa room with the sound of a creek gurgling by.

Los Quetzales Ecolodge & Spa Volcan Panama

Best for bird watchers: Canopy Tower, just outside Panama City, used to be a US military radar station watching over the former Canal Zone hence the tall, circular design. After the US abandoned it, the tower was converted into a lodge (pictured below) with large windows and patios which provide nature lovers (including Martha Stewart) with 360 degrees of jungle watching. Birds and monkeys can be seen from almost every spot in Canopy Tower, including the showers. If that’s not enough for you, their guided bird watching tours are also excellent.

Canopy Tower bridwatching Panama

Best hotelier slash city guide: Claude Pimont would be fascinating even if he didn’t own and manage two noteworthy hotels in Cartagena, Colombia (Casa Pestagua and Casa Pombo). He’s a relaxed but elegant Frenchman who has made his home in Colombia where, in addition to running hotels, he has established an acting career. He is also one of the most enthusiastic and connected proponents of Cartagena and our time in the city was greatly enhanced by his guidance, recommendations, introductions and lively company and conversation.

Best bathroom amenities: There can be no doubt that freshly-opened Hotel Casa San Agustin has raised the bar for all boutique hotels in Cartagena, Colombia. There are many things to love about this place, from the pool under the remains of an ancient aqueduct to the suites with private patios and plunge pools, but it was the little details that we loved most, including the Ortigia shampoo, conditioner, lotion and bath/shower gel (pictured below). Straight from Italy, these amenities were indulgent, large (nearly four oz./120 mls) and pleasantly masculine. We have to admit, we pocketed more than a few and we break them out whenever we want to be reminded of the best boutique hotel experience of the year.

Ortiga bathroom amenities - Hotel Casa San Agustin Cartagena, Colombia

Best houseboat hotel: There is only one houseboat hotel in Panama and it’s a doozy (pictured below). Located in a secluded section of Lake Gatun, which forms the central portion of the Panama Canal, Jungle Land Panama Lodge is the creation of Captain Carl. He’s connected two houseboats, crafted a handful of simple but comfortable rooms and leads boat and kayak tours on the lake. You can go fishing, look for monkeys and crocs or just relax in the hammocks or on the two astro-turfed “lawns” onboard.

Jungle Land Panama Lodge Panama Canal

Best value city hotel: We arrived in Cartagena, Colombia after a five-day crossing via sailboat from Panama and we were facing at least of week of red tape in front of us as we navigated our way through the process of getting our truck out of customs after its journey by container ship from Panama. We needed a comfortable and affordable base to operate from. After an uncharacteristic misstep (don’t check into a new hostel in Cartagena called The Roof) we got some sage advice from David Lee of GoBackpacking.com and MedellinLiving.com who steered us directly to Hotel Villa Colonial in the Getsemani neighborhood of Cartagena. Villa Colonial does not have dorm rooms but its prices for private rooms (doubles or  triples) is the same as or even cheaper than area hostels and there’s a kitchen for guest use. Martha greeted us as we arrived and her “Glenda the Good Witch” personality and optimism got us through the next week of paperwork as much as our clean and comfortable A/C room did.

Best alterna-hotel: We tried our first vacation rental in 2013 and it combined the best of a hotel and the best of a home. FlipKey set us up in a chic, fully appointed apartment in the historic center of Quito, Ecuador. We used it as a base for exploring the world’s first UNESCO World Heritage city before returning “home” to cook, relax and work in peace.

 

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Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2013 – Best Food & Beverages

This post is part 3 of 4 in the series Best of 2013

Welcome to Part 2 in our Best Of the Trans-Americas Journey 2013 series of posts. Part 2 is all about the Best Food & Beverages we had while traveling during the past year of our road trip through the Americas including where to eat the best of Colombia all in one place (thanks Anthony Bourdain), a mobile restaurant in Ecuador and shockingly good local beer and wine. Part 1 covers the Best Adventures & Activities of 2013 and Part 3 covers the Best Hotels of the year.

First, a few relevant road trip stats: In 2013 the Trans-Americas Journey spent time exploring Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia and Ecuador and we drove 8,546 miles (13,753 kms) spending US$2,400 on fuel and crossing four overland borders to do it.

That’s hungry work. Luckily, 2013 was another year full of some great eats and drinks. Now, in no particular order, here are our picks for…

Best food & beverages of 2013

Best patriotic restaurant: We’re fans of Anthony Bourdain’s food/travel shows and we often take notes as we’re watching. That’s what happened when we saw his No Reservations episode about Colombia a few years ago. This year we finally visited a highlight of that program. Queareparaenamorarte, near Medellin, was created to uncover, resuscitate and preserve the recipes and ingredients of Colombia. We sat down to talk and eat with the passionate owner, who has so far collected more than 200 recipes and located more than 40 artisanal food providers for his restaurant (pictured below), then wrote all about it for TheLatinKitchen.com.

Queareparaenamorarte Restaurant Medellin Colombia Anthony Bourdain

Best mobile restaurant: Is it a tour bus? It is a restaurant? Eric calls it a bustaurant, so let’s just leave it at that. Whatever you call it, Casa 1028 combines the best of an after-dark guided tour of three top sights in Quito, Ecuador (that’s the Casa 1028 bustaurant at Plaza San Francisco, below), including the legends and quirks attached to each sight, with and a rolling restaurant serving traditional Ecuadoran snacks and small dishes.

Casa 1028 mobile restaurant Quito Ecuador

Best hotel lunch experience: The thing that sets Hotel LM in Cartagena, Colombia apart from the other hotels in town is its home-like atmosphere. Okay, if your home is in a Colonial era building with two swimming pools and a nice modern art collection. Anyway, part of that hominess is an open air kitchen which is exclusively for guests. Breakfast is superb, but the real fun comes at lunch when guests can get into the kitchen a bit by booking a cooking lesson with the hotel’s chef Javier Diaz Daza. Lubricated with plenty of wine, we watched and learned as Chef Diaz and a staff of smiling women took us through the preparation of beef lomo in a traditional creole preparation involving onions and Coca Cola, coconut rice with caramelized sugar and coconut milk and plantains softened and sweetened in Colombia’s impossibly pink Kola Roma soft drink which tastes like cream soda. Then of course, we ate. The fun and the food are pictured below.

LM Hotel Cartagena Cooking School

Best local wine: Sure Chile and Argentina hog all of the South American wine spotlight and we can’t wait for our little road trip to get that far south so we can try it all. In the meantime, we found excellent Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc at Marques de Villa de Leyva winery in Colombia (pictured below). This 25 year old winery, owned by a Colombian with a degree in viticulture and enology from UC Davis in California (one of the best grape growing and wine making programs in the world), has the looks, facilities and (most importantly) taste of wineries in Paso Robles, California wine country where Karen comes from. Read more in our story about Marques de Villa de Leyva for TheLatinKitchen.com.

 Marques de Villa de Leyva winery Colombia

Best new restaurant, best business card & best ice cubes: In March of 2013 Demente Tapas Bar opened in the hip/artsy Getsemani neighborhood of Cartagena, Colombia just a short stroll from the historic center. Check out our full review of Demente for TheLatinKitchen.com to see why we love the space and the food so much. Icing on the cake? Demente’s business cards are customized beer bottle caps in the restaurant’s signature turquoise blue and staff members make ice cubes by hand using special molds to ensure patrons don’t suffer from “watered down cocktail” syndrome. Now that’s attention to detail. See it all, below.

Demente Tapas Bar Medellin, Colombia

Best boutique restaurant group: The concept of a boutique restaurant development and management company that operates a number of restaurants under one umbrella has yet to really take off in Latin America. One exception we found in 2013 is the Henesy Rodriquez Group (HRG) in Panama City which is nearly 10 years old and continues to gain fans at its restaurants including Market, La Posta and La Chesa. All are reliably delicious and good value (not cheap, but you get quality food, service and ambiance for your money).  A new HRG restaurant and a new HRG gourmet market were both opening after we left Panama. We await your reports. Bonus: co-owner David Henesy is a New Yorker who used to be an actor, most famously in nearly 300 episodes of the TV series Dark Shadows.

Best popsicles: La Paletteria in Cartagena, Colombia is an institution and for good reason. Though the historic center of this city is jammed with ice cream and paletta (Spanish for popsicle) shops, La Paletteria stands out thanks to hand-craftsmanship with the freshest all-natural ingredients from fruits to nuts to chocolate. If you’re lucky the owner’s precocious son will be there showing the world what customer service is all about. Don’t miss out on having your paletta dipped in chocolate before you dig in. The palettas here (pictured below) are almost too good to eat. Almost.

 La Paletteria in Cartagena, Colombia

Best (and best value) authentic Italian food: Naturalmente Boutique Bungalows & Restaurant opened in 2013 just inland from Playa Las Lajas, a largely untouristed beach in northern Panama which makes a great break-journey stop for anyone traveling the long haul from David to Panama City (or vice versa). The handful of bungalows are stylish but the real reason to visit is the open-air restaurant where owners Chantal and Gabriel, both from Modena, let their Italian roots show. Everything from the pizzas (baked in an oven imported from Italy) to the pasta dishes to the homemade bread and homemade Italian sausage shines and the prices are very reasonable.

Best brew pub: It’s a tie between La Rana Dorada in Panama and Bogota Beer Company in Colombia but that’s not a surprise since the owners of both are friends and mentors. Both are pictured below and both offer a true brew pub atmosphere and menu, with some local twists (try the plantain pizza at La Rana Dorada) and, most importantly, the beer is fresh and delicious.

Bogota Beer Company Colombia

La-Rana-Dorado-Cerveceria

Best bread: We’ve happily given up many foods that were staples of our diet back in the US. Things like asparagus, baby artichokes and proper parmesan cheese are either crazy expensive or simply unheard of in much of Latin America. Good artisanal bread, however, is something we’re willing to spend both time and money to get. In Medellin, Colombia our search for crusty carbs lead us to the recently opened Eduardo Madrid bakery in the Envigado neighborhood. The large sourdough loaf is pricey at US$5 but worth every penny with a flavorful, chewy interior wrapped in a proper crust. You will be sorely tempted by the cakes, pies, rolls and sweets in the display case as well.

Best supermarket: The Riba Smith mini chain in Panama is the closest we’ve come to a North American style gourmet market since leaving the US. Consider this one good side effect of all the expats living in Panama these days.

Best ice cream: Granclament, in the bohemian Casco Viejo neighborhood of Panama City, has been serving up homemade, all-natural, French–style ice cream and sorbet for years and it remains a must-visit. Be prepared to elbow your way to the counter (pictured below) and they do give out tastes if you’d like to try the more offbeat flavors (like basil) before you buy.

Granclament, ice cream Casco Viejo Panama City

Best pizza: We expected many things when we visited Santa Catalina, Panama, including some great SCUBA diving around Coiba National Park (which made it onto our list of Best Adventures & Activities of 2013). We were NOT expecting excellent brick oven pizza but that’s exactly what we got at Jammin Pizza (located within Casa Maya). This was easily the best pizza of the year and not to be missed.

 

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Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2013 – Best Adventures & Activities

This post is part 2 of 4 in the series Best of 2013

Welcome to Part 1 in our Best Of the Trans-Americas Journey 2013 series. Part 1 is all about the Best Adventures & Activities we enjoyed during the past year of travels on our little road trip through the Americas including SCUBA diving in Panama with a man named Herbie Sunk (true story), some truly adventurous jungle horseback riding in Costa Rica and paragliding over one of Colombia’s largest canyons. Part 2 covers the Best Food & Beverages of 2013 and Part 3 covers the Best Hotels of the year.

First, a few relevant road trip stats: In 2013 the Trans-Americas Journey spent time exploring Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia and Ecuador through which we drove 8,546 miles (13,753 kms) spending US$2,400 on fuel and crossing four overland borders.

Now, in no particular order, here are the…

Best adventures & activities of 2013

Best thing we tried for the very first time: Paragliding really is the best way to appreciate Colombia’s Chicamocha Canyon which is one of the largest in the world. When Parapente Chicamocha (parapente is the Spanish word for paragliding) offered to take us up, up and away we said yes. Quickly. Before “I hate heights” Karen could change her mind. We arrived at the launch site with owner Sergio and a team of wing wranglers and pilots then stood around and watched  the birds waiting for them to catch thermals so we could too. Then we ran of the top of the hill (well, Karen dragged her feet a bit) and the thermals took us up a few thousand feet above the canyon floor. We spent about half an hour rising, circling, dropping and rising again over the canyon. Eric says the view was great. Karen never had her eyes open long enough to really appreciate it and her forearms are still sore from the death grip she had on her harness.

Eric took our GoPro up with him and our video, below, shows the gorgeous scenery and the thrill of flying during our paragliding adventure above Chicamocha Canyon in Colombia. Don’t miss the acrobatics Eric goes through just before landing…

Best controversial tour: Like many Colombians we struggle to find a middle ground between Pablo Escobar fascination and Pablo Escobar revulsion. When we got an assignment to write a piece about Pablo Escobar tourism in Colombia for the awesome travel/food/sports/world journalism site RoadsandKingdoms.com we booked one of the half-dozen or so Pablo Escobar Tours offered in Medellin, Colombia. We’re still struggling to find a healthy middle ground when it comes to this narco terrorist (pictured below during a rare and short-lived stint in jail), but taking the controversial Pablo Escobar tour helped a little bit thanks to a guide willing to share personal stories and his own struggles with Escobar’s legacy.

Selling Pablo Escobar - Roads 7 Kingdoms & Slate magazine

Best SCUBA diving: The water around Panama’s Coiba National Park (which used  to be a penal colony and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site) is full of rocky formations and sea mounts which attract the big stuff like sharks and rays. We spent two days SCUBA diving in the area with Herbie Sunk (real name) who is the owner of Scuba Coiba based out of Santa Catalina. There was lots of current and not much viz when we were there (March) but we still had a ball and even in the less-than-perfect conditions we could appreciate these unique dive sites. On the surface we saw dolphins, leaping mobula rays, bobbing turtles and even a whale shark.

SCUBA diving with Manta Rays - Coiba National Park, Panama

Best horseback riding: If you’re gonna call it “Adventure Horseback Riding” and charge US$60 for 2.5 hours you’d better deliver. Selva Bananito Eco Lodge & Preserve on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica did just that with super sure footed horses, varied and challenging terrain and even a boa constrictor sighting (there she is, below). This is not a ride for beginners, as we found out one heart-pounding, thrill-packed, fabulous afternoon.

Boa Constrictor - Selva Bananito Eco Lodge, Costa Rica

Best nearly deserted wind sport beach: Cabo de la Vela in the Guajira peninsula of northern Colombia is hard to reach and hot as hell but it’s also one of the best places in the region for wind sports as our traveling companion at the time, an avid kiteboarder who travels with not one but two kites, verified. As we sought the shade on shore he spent hours in the water (that’s him kiting, below) and raved about the consistently kiteable winds and the often deserted water.

Guajira Kite Surfing -  Cabo de la Vela, Colombia

Best white knuckle landing: Any time you get into a small plane you know that take off and landing are going to be extra exciting. Still, we weren’t quite prepared for the fly-straight-at-the-mountain-bank-hard-then-drop-straight-down-onto-the-”runway” landing that the pilot of our Air Panama flight artfully made into the dinky, waterside Playon Chico airstrip in Panama. The extra gray hairs were worth it, however, since this is the only way you can get to Yandup Island Lodge where we learned a lot about the area’s Kuna people, the largest indigenous group in the country.

Fasten your seat belts, stow your tray tables and check out this epic landing in our video, below.

Best festival: We attended/survived our first Carnaval (aka Carnival) in 2013 and while annual celebrations in Rio and New Orleans hog all the limelight we’re here to tell you that the festivities in Las Tablas, Panama hold their own with gorgeous, dueling, foul-mouthed Carnaval Queens, relentless water cannons during the day and fireworks that approach the noise, mayhem, and danger levels of a combat zone at night.  Go inside the madness of this five-day non-stop mega-party in our series of posts about Carnaval 2013 in Las Tablas, Panama.

Calle Abajo queen pollera carnival Tuesday night

Best border crossing adventure: Going from Panama to Colombia (or vice versa) may be the most difficult overland border crossing in Latin America. Shipping our truck from Panama to Colombia was an adventure in and of itself. This border crossing also lead to an enjoyable adventure when we got on board a sailboat and spent five days sailing through the postcard-perfect San Blas Islands (below) from Panama to Cartagena, Colombia where we reunited with our truck. Blue, blue water. White, white sand. Dolphin escorts. Even our open-water passage into Cartagena went pretty smoothly.

Sail San Blas Islands, Panama aboard MS Independence

Best difference of opinion: You can choose to explore the Panama Canal on a small tourist boat during a partial transit trip, which takes five hours and travels through three of the six locks, or during a full transit trip, which takes more than eight hours and gets you through all six locks traveling from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean (or vice versa). ONE of us had his heart set on the full transit from ocean to ocean. The other one of us spent the day wondering when the boat ride and subsequent interminable bus ride back to Panama City would end. Adventure really is in the eye of the adventurer. One man’s awesome day is another woman’s hostage crisis.

Our adventure/hostage crisis on the Pacific Queen booked through Adventure Life resulted in one awesome time lapse travel video, below, that will take you from ocean to ocean through the Panama Canal in just 10 minutes.

Best milestone: 2013 was also the year that finally entered the Southern Hemisphere when we crossed the equator in Ecuador as the photo of our Garmin GPS, below, proves.

0 latitude - Crossing the Equator - Equador

 

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Photo Essay: Granada, The Most Beautiful City in Nicaragua

It’s no contest. Granada is the most beautiful city in Nicaragua. Everywhere you look vibrant Latin colors and stately Colonial architecture team up to stunning effect. Enjoy these glimpses of Granada (lots of colorful doorways) and learn about other great reasons to travel to Granada in our full post about Granada.

Color shadow - Granada, Nicaragua Colorful Granada doorways - Nicaragua Buildings of Granada, Nicaragua Colorful buildings of Granada, Nicaragua Colorful doorways of Granada, Nicaragua Colorful Granada doorways Granada doorways - Nicaragua Colorful Granada, Nicaragua Centalito Bar Calle Calzado - Granada, Nicaragua Colonial buildings of Granada, Nicaragua Granada, Nicaragua house Granada, Nicaragua Colorful doorways Colonial doorways of Granada, Nicaragua

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Our Second Favorite City – Granada, Nicaragua

Nicaragua is not known for preserving the past. Granada, with its Colonial architecture and cobblestone streets, is a rare exception to this rule. It’s often called Nicaragua’s most beautiful city and when we traveled there we found a real looker of a city with a stunning boutique hotel bargain, great locals and a pleasant slow, steamy pace. However, Granada ended up being our second favorite city in Nicaragua.

View of Colonia Granada, Nicaragua and Lake Nicaragua

A birds’ eye view of Colonial Granada, Nicaragua.

Colorful colonial houses - Granada, Nicaragua

The Colonial architecture of Granada, Nicaragua, like this typical house, is in various stages of restoration.

Old Granada

Granada was founded by the Spanish in 1524 which makes it, according to some, the first European city on mainland Latin America. The settlement was named after Granada, Spain and the Spanish used it as a more southerly seat of power in conjunction with Antigua, Guatemala.

Cathedral - Granada, Nicaragua

The main cathedral in Granada, Nicaragua is called the Antiguo Convento San Francisco and it was built in 1592.

In addition to Spanish conquistadors, Granada has been invaded by the English, the French, the Dutch and a whole bunch of pirates including Henry Morgan. The most bizarre interloper, however, came from the United States.

Iglesia Merced - Granada, Nicaragua

Iglesia La Merced, built in 1534, in Granada, Nicaragua.

Wacky William Walker

If he were alive today, William Walker would probably have been a member of the Tea Party. Back in the mid 1800s he had to settle for the Filibusters (aka Freebooters) who thought it was perfectly reasonable to just rock on up to a foreign country, establish an English speaking colony and then pretty much take over.

Oddly enough, that cockamamie tactic worked and Walker was actually President of Nicaragua for a year (albeit a spectacularly unpopular one). A fighting force cobbled together from the armies of various Central American countries finally kicked the Filibusterers (is that a word?) out of Nicaragua. In a final act of contrition they set fire to Granada as they fled.

Learn more about this Walker character in the 1987 movie Walker starring Ed Harris.

San Francisco Church Museum - Granada, Nicaragua

The San Francisco Church museum in Granada, Nicaragua has a large collection of indigenous artifacts and modern art.

It’s a wonder any of the Colonial architecture survived, but some did including the lovely yellow main cathedral and the Antiguo Convento San Francisco which was built in 1592 by Franciscan monks and is now home to indigenous sculpture, pottery and modern paintings (US$2). Iglesia La Merced is even older, built in 1534. Climb the narrow, curving staircase to the roof (US$1) for fantastic views over the clay tiled roofs of the surrounding Colonial structures.

Merced Cathedral - Granada, Nicaragua

A cupola view from the roof of the Merced Cathedral in Granada, Nicaragua.

View from Iglesia Merced - Granada, Nicaragua

A view over Granada, Nicaragua from the bell tower of the Iglesia La Merced which was built in 1534.

For some really, really old bits and pieces of Granada visit Mi Museo (free) where Peter Kolind, owner of the nearby Hotel La Bocona, has filled a gorgeously restored Colonial home with thousands of pre-Colombian artifacts. Mr. Kolind has found and purchased so many bits and pieces (more than 7,000 at last count) of the past that the entire exhibit changes every three months.

Colonial Granada, Nicaragua

A cross in front of the Antiguo Convento San Francisco in Granada, Nicaragua.

New Granada

Granada’s Colonial bones have been getting a slow but steady spruce up thanks to the city’s latest invaders: retired (or semi-retired) foreigners. Lots and lots of them. At times it feels like Granada is content to have sold its soul to foreigners looking for a place where their retirement funds go further. If a few travelers stop by that’s just gravy.

Cale de Calzada bars - Granada, Nicaragua

The pedestrian-only Calle de Calzada where expats, locals and travelers mix in Granada, Nicaragua.

Nowhere is this more apparent than on Calle de Calzada, a pedestrian-only street that breaks away off the main plaza. The promenade and the surrounding blocks are lined with foreigners enjoy foreigner stuff: bars (including the mandatory Irish bar), cafes, a few souvenir shops, a fabulous home made gelato shop and some noted restaurants including meat-centric El Zaguan (Nicaragua is famous for its beef) which was recommended to us by Chef Ben Slow who operates one of our favorite eateries in all of Nicaragua, Cafe Campestre on Ometepe Island.

Centralito Bar - Granada, Nicaragua

Centralito is one of the more modest, traditional bars (and therefore our favorite) on Granda’s Calle de Calzada.

Because so many foreigners (both expats and visitors) spend so much time in this area there are also a lot of begging children. We were glad to see business owners and locals making the point that child beggars are a new phenomenon (remember, Nicaragua is a socialist country) and most of the kids are not homeless or starving. They’ve simply learned that getting a handout is easier than going to school or getting a job. Don’t perpetrate the cycle.

Marimba Band - Granada, Nicaragua

A roving marimba band plays for tips on the Calle de Calzada in Granada, Nicaragua.

A much more welcome new addition to Granada is a small but growing crop of remarkably polished and shockingly affordable boutique hotels in addition to the city’s existing grungy hostels and slightly slumping, fairly uninspired Colonial style hotels.

pool Hotel Los Patios - Granada, Nicaragua

The courtyard pool at Hotel Los Patios in Granada, Nicaragua.

The best of the bunch is Los Patios Hotel where less than US$100 per night gets you stunning Scandanavia-meets-Spanish-Colonial style, a perfectly serene atmosphere and a gourmet breakfast. More reasons to book are in our full review of Los Patios Hotel.

Hotel Los Patios - Granada, Nicaragua

Stark design and Colonial touches, like replicas of original tile, mix at Hotel Los Patios in Granada, Nicaragua.

Boutique Hotel Los Patios - Granada, Nicaragua

Your gourmet breakfast is served here at Hotel Los Patios in Granada, Nicaragua.

Another stylish and even more affordable choice is  Hotel Con Corazon. Run by a foundation, 100% of profits from the hotel are used to help local kids finish school. There are 15 rooms around a central courtyard that has a pool and breezy patios. Room rates, starting at around US$60, include Wi-Fi and breakfast. The feel-good factor is free.

Horse Carriages - Granada, Nicaragua

We urge you to think twice or even three times before patronizing any of the horse drawn carriages on offer in Granada.

Momentary rant: You can’t swing a dead cat in Granada without hitting a horse pulling a tourist buggy. There have been allegations of mistreatment of these horses in recent years and despite a handful of improvements you may still want to think twice about promoting the practice of paying a man enough to (hopefully) feed and care for himself and his family but not his horse so you can be clippity-clopped around a city you should be seeing on foot anyway. If you ask us, this goes for any destination still offering horse-drawn carriage rides including New York City.

View from Merced Church - Granada, Nicaragua

The view from Iglesia La Merced in Granada, Nicaragua.

Our Granada

The pros in Granada far outweighed any cons so we decided to stay a while and rented an apartment for a month. Though the influx of gringos is pushing real estate prices higher and higher we found a dark, breezeless furnished studio apartment with a grungy bathroom and a small bat problem for US$350 per month including water, cable and Wi-Fi through GPS Properties.

GPS apartment rental Granada, Nicaragua

Our lovely apartment for a month in Granada, Nicaragua.

 The very best part of this apartment was the quite street it was on, home to Nicaraguans and gringos. Every evening as the (scorching) sun went down our neighbors would drag big wooden rocking chairs out onto the sidewalk or street in front of their doors to catch the breeze and the latest gossip.

This evening ritual is also a chance for everyone to check on everyone else. Nowhere else in Central America did we feel this ownership of a neighborhood by its residents and we think that pride and responsibility is part of the reason Nicaragua is the safest country in the region–far safer than murder-plagued Honduras and reliably safer than Panama and Costa Rica too, according to The Economist magazine. Shenanigans simply aren’t tolerated.

Our other favorite thing about being in this apartment for a month was the fruit lady. Every morning she’d roam the ‘hood toting a four foot (1.5 meter) wide rattan basket full of fresh fruit. We still have no idea how she lifted the thing full of watermelons and papayas and pineapples and we were tempted to buy more than we needed just to lighten her load.

She quickly learned to pause in front of our door and call out “amiga” and we quickly learned to buy all of our fruit from her. If she didn’t have something that we wanted during her morning rounds she would return with it, or send her daughter, later in the day. The fruit was delicious and dirt cheap and her smile was always free.

Because the apartment did not come with any parking facility we arranged to leave our truck in a filthy lot adjacent to a nearby fire department. In a shocking insight into modern socialist Nicaragua, which is the poorest country in Central America, our US$20 per month parking fee meant the firemen had some money to put gas in the fire engine’s tank.

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Adventure Island – Ometepe Island, Nicaragua

We arrived on Ometepe Island like most travelers: pretty unaware of the range of eco, outdoor and food adventures that have been quietly developing on this spot in the middle of 3,000 square mile (8,264 square km) formerly bull-shark-infested Lake Nicaragua. Sure we were expecting the island, which is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, to have plenty of nature and island-y quirks. What we got was Adventure Island.

Lake Nicaragua (aka Lake Cocibolca) is the largest lake in Central America and home to Ometepe Island, whose name in the Nahuatl language means two hills. Those two hills are actually two volcanoes: the very active 5,100 foot (1,544 meter) Concepción Volcano and dormant 4,573 foot (1,394 meter) Maderas Volcano. Both can be climbed. Neither is easy.

two volcanos of Ometepe Island Nicaragua

Ometepe Island’s name translates to “two hills” for the pair of volcanoes that dominate its geography. That’s Concepción on the left and Maderas on the right.

Concepcion volcano  - Ometepe Island, Nicaragua

You can climb Concepción Volcano on Nicaragua’s Ometepe Island even though it’s still active.

Getting to Ometepe Island

While the rest of Nicaragua slowly gets its act together in terms of tourism and tourist activities things on Ometepe have been moving right along. They even have a brand new international airport, though no one seems able to say when it will open to flights–if ever. Welcome to Nicaragua.

New airport with Volcan Concepcion - Ometepe Island, Nicaragua

Construction of the new airport on Ometepe Island (now complete but yet to be used) with Concepción Volcano in the background.

Never mind. You can still get to Ometepe Island the old-fashioned way: by ferry. Passenger ferries leave from a large dock in the town of San Jorge just a few miles from Rivas. A number of ferries travel between the dock and the island. We chose to travel on the newer, bigger Rey del Cocibolca ferry because it also takes vehicles (US$16 for one driver and the vehicle; US$3.50 per passenger).

The ferry was clean and only moderately crowded (though the vehicle deck can get packed so make a reservation by calling 8833-4773 or 86913669 if you have a vehicle with you). Our one hour crossing was pretty smooth, though locals will tell you that the lake can sometimes get whipped up to white caps due to high winds.

Lake Cocibolca Ferry to Ometepe Island, Nicaragua

Taking a ferry across Lake Cocibolco (aka Lake Nicaragua) to Ometepe Island. You can see our truck at the front of the line on the left on the cargo deck.

Getting around Ometepe Island

The roads on Ometepe were notoriously bad but a recent frenzy of repaving with interlocking pre-fab paving stones is slowly changing that. When we were on the island the road connecting the main port town of Moyogalpa and the village of Balgue was in perfect condition and crews and supplies were in place to continue extending the repaving.

The island is big–19 miles (31 kms) long and up to six miles (10 kms) wide–and the things you’re gonna want to do, see and eat are spread out. If you don’t have a vehicle you can use the public buses or rent a motorcycle from many shops and vendors in Moyogalpa. Check in with Gary and Laura, owners of the Cornerhouse B&B, Restaurant and Coffee Shop, for a recommendation about the most reputable renters and for the best eggs Benedict (and more) in Nicaragua. Cornerhouse also has four stylishly stark rooms for US$30 double.

Cornerhouse B&B Ometepe Island, Nicaragua

Gary Long, co-owner of Cornerhouse B&B, Restaurant and Coffee House in the town of Moyogalpa, is your source for good travel advice about Ometepe and some of the best food on the island.

Moyogalpa with Volcan Concepcion - Ometepe, Nicaragua

You can almost always see at least one of the two huge volcanoes on Ometepe Island, even when you’re walking down the street in the town of Moyogalpa.

Eating and sleeping on Ometepe Island

As you enter Balgue look for the school bus on your right. This is El Zopilote, an artisenal shop selling handmade jewelry, bread, chocolate, soap, granola (you get the picture). That all happens in the bus. A short hike up the hill takes you to the El Zopilote Hostel, a lofty, free-form hangout where they also bake a mean pizza and offer yoga.

El Zopilote Hostal  Ometepe Island, Nicaragua

Free bananas at the reception hut at El Zopilote Hostel on Ometepe Island in Nicaragua.

Finca Magdalena also has budget accommodation and one of the best cups of coffee we had in all of Nicaragua made with beans grown on their property on the slopes of Maderas Volcano above the village of Balgue.

Finca Magdalena Ometepe Island, Nicaragua

Finca Magdalena, above the town of Balgue on Ometepe Island, is a working coffee farm with budget rooms, a simple restaurant and some of the best coffee we had in all of Nicaragua.

Concepcion volcano  - Ometepe Island, Nicaragua

Sunset over Concepción Volcano on Ometepe Island, Nicaragua.

Your complete adventure guide to Ometepe Island

By the time our week on the island was up we were so excited about the place that we wrote a feature about Ometepe Island for the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune focusing on the latest and greatest adventures on the island.

Check it out for even more about eating, sleeping and adventuring on Nicaragua’s adventure island, including Totoco Eco-lodge, the swishest digs on the island, nighttime kayaking, becoming a permaculture volunteer at Project Bona Fide, some of the best horseback riding in Nicaragua, a blissful swimming hole, a private museum full of artifacts you won’t see anywhere else in Nicaragua and Chef Ben Slow’s fabulous farm to fork food at Cafe Campestre.

Totoco Eco Lodge pool with Volcan Concepcion - Ometepe, Nicaragua

Concepción Volcano as seen from the pool at Totoco Eco Lodge on Ometepe Island in Nicaragua.

Project Bonafide sustainable farm Ometepe, Nicaragua

You can volunteer at Project Bona Fide, a permaculture farm and agro education operation on Ometepe Island.

Cafe Campestre - Ometepe Island, Nicaragua

Yes, that’s home made pasta at Cafe Campestre, a shockingly stylish and gourmet restaurant in the town of Balgue on Ometepe Island.

Humus Cafe Campestre food - Ometepe Island, Nicaragua

Home made humus with home-made bread at Cafe Campestre on Ometepe Island.

Playa Santo Domingo & Volcano Maderas - Ometepe, Nicaragua

Playa Santo Domingo with the Maderas Volcano in the distance.

Volcano evacuation route - Ometepe Island, Nicaragua

Volcano emergency evacuation signs are no joke on Ometepe Island in Nicaragua.

 

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Travel Survival Guide – Rivas, Nicaragua

You would never plan a visit to the town of Rivas, Nicaragua. However, you may find yourself stuck there for a night since it’s the closest town to the Costa Rican border just 22 miles (36 kilometers) away and only a few minutes from the landing for ferries to and from Ometepe Island. We actually passed through Rivas more than once and here’s the travel survival guide we wish we’d had.

Church Rivas, Nicaragua

The church in Rivas, Nicaragua is one of just a handful of sights in this town that travelers past and present pass through.

Swindler warning in Rivas

Rivas is so close to the Costa Rican border that its frequented by Costa Rican expats making a border run to renew their visas. This means there are also unsavories in Rivas looking to prey on travelers passing through. We certainly found one such unsavory when we headed to the market area in Rivas to change some money–a routine, legal and normally safe activity in Nicaragua.

We found a dude, made the transaction and got about 1.5 steps away from him when Eric realized he’d shorted us by showing us the total on a calculator but cooking the number slightly. We returned, explained the concept of math and got our missing money. We got ripped off again, however, when we asked for the rates at the only parking lot in town that was big enough to take our truck, then the attendant demanded more once we were parked.

Choose your hotel wisely in Rivas

Don’t even consider the truck driver flop houses out on the main highway and even in town many of the cheap hotel and hostel options were appallingly filthy. After much searching we finally found Casa Lidia where US$18 got us a tiny double room with a TV, fan, Wi-Fi and a shared bathroom. Weirdly, check out time was 10 am, but whatever. At least it was clean.

The decidedly motel-like Nicarao Inn used to be the best place in town and it’s still a reliable, if soulless, choice. For more personality and something approaching local charm head to La Mision Hotel which was opened in 2011 in a restored 100 year old home. There are five rooms here with tiled floors, a mish-mash of antiques, high ceilings, Wi-Fi and A/C around an airy central courtyard plus parking. The place isn’t fancy, but it does have character and history in a homey kind of way and the reasonable rates include a delicious breakfast made primarily with ingredients from the owner’s nearby farm.

Speaking of eating in Rivas…

There’s a large and decent mid-range place on the main plaza in Rivas, a smattering of coffee shops and bakeries around town and the owner of La Mision, who is also a trained chef, had plans to open a restaurant called Mango serving gourmet typical Nica cuisine. Let us know if that ever happened. Chuckle at the “Pizza Hot” across the street from the main cathedral but don’t eat there. If steak is your thing, look for the reportedly good (but not cheap) steak house just past Pizza Hot.

Maybe baseball superstars shouldn’t open hotels

If you travel a bit south of Rivas, near the turn off for San Juan del Sur in the village of La Virgen you will reach one of the most unusual hotels in Nicaragua. Nicaraguan Dennis Martinez became a baseball superstar in the United States, pitching for the Baltimore Orioles, Cleveland Indians, Seattle Mariners, Montreal Expos and the Atlanta Braves during his 22 year career. He was the first Nicaraguan to play in the major leagues and was nicknamed El Presidente. He helped the Orioles win the World Series in 1983 and in 1991 he pitched a perfect game. He’s a big, big deal.

When Martinez retired from the game and returned to Nicaragua he opened the La Mar Lake Resort. Located on the shores of Lake Cocibolco (aka Lake Nicaragua), the property now seems all but deserted. When we pulled up a few staffers were busy making their lunch and they gave us a sideways glance as we wandered around the property. There wasn’t a guest in sight and it didn’t seem like there’d been one in ages. Even the regulation baseball field Martinez built on the grounds had seen better days.

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NOT an Abomination on the Beach – San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua

We were afraid. All indicators lead us to believe that San Juan del Sur, billed as “Nicaragua’s first beach resort town” and favored by sun-seeking travelers, locals and plenty of expats, would be an over-touristed, over-commercialized, over-priced abomination on the beach. It was not.

Pleasantly surprised in San Juan del Sur

The beach here is a lovely arc of a pale sand which was remarkably clean. Charming sun-bleached wooden fishing boats bobbed in the bay. A lovely beachfront strip of brightly painted businesses offered quaint B&Bs, seafood-centric open-air restaurants and even some budget hotels and reasonably priced meals could be found close to the sand.

No one offered to braid our hair or tried to sell us knock-off sunglasses or waved giant menus in our faces as if that’s what would make us choose their restaurant.

Sure you could drop a load of money at fancy resorts like the iconic Pelican Eyes Resort & Spa above town, dramatic Morgan’s Rock Ecolodge in a remote cove or at the most expensive and most luxurious resort in Nicaragua, the recently opened Mukul Beach Golf & Spa along an exclusive strip of coastline north of San Juan del Sur that’s been dubbed the Emerald Coast. All three are lovely options for the well-heeled traveler but what’s even more lovely is that San Juan del Sur still has great options for those on a budget too.

Playa San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

Playa San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua was cleaner and quieter than we expected.

Family & budget friendly hotel near San Juan del Sur

If your travel budget is somewhere north of a backpacker but south of the Emerald Coast allow us to suggest Mango Rosa Adventure Travel and Surf Resort. Every room is a large standalone bungalow with a A/C, Wi-Fi, a fully equipped kitchen, access to BBQs and private parking and rates start at US$98 for up to three people. Larger bungalows for families or groups of friends are also available.

Mango Rosa is less than 10 minutes  from the town of San Juan del Sur and is surrounded by jungle. We heard howler monkeys and saw a tiny pygmy owl right from the patio of our bungalow. Stellar surfing at Playa Maderas is just a 10 minute drive away.

Pygmy Owl -  San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

We saw this pygmy owl in a tree just off the patio of our bungalow at Mango Rosa Resort near San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua.

Mango Rosa Hotel -  San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

The pool at Mango Rosa Resort near San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua.

San Juan del Sur beaches, Nicaragua

Marsella beach all to ourselves near San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua.

Sunset Playa Maderas - San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

Sunset on Playa Maderas, a beach near San Juan del Sur that’s favored by surfers.

Surfer Parking Only - San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

Non-surfers take note.

The resort itself has a great pool, a good restaurant and a gregarious owner named Greg Bamford who seems straight out of Florida because he is (by way of Mexico, Hawaii and the Virgin Islands). Cap’n Greg, as we like to call him, is a great host and an actual captain. Don’t miss his Sunset Coastal Cruise fishing and sightseeing trip up the coast. You’ll get a chance to swim, catch dinner (included in the excursion price) and score a peek at the cliff-side bungalows of Morgan’s Rock from the water, cold beverage in hand.

Sunset cocktail cruise - San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

Enjoying the Sunset Coastal Cruise along the gorgeous Nicarguan coast with Mango Rosa Resort owner Cap’n Greg at the wheel.

Fishing -  San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

Catching dinner (literally) during the Coastal Sunset Cruise with Mango Rosa Resort near San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua.

Emerald Coast  - San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

Most of the so-called Emerald Coast near San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua is undeveloped, though that’s changing.

Bird Rock - Emerald Cosat, San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

Pelicans find a rocky roost along the so-called Emerald Coast of Nicaragua.

Rock formations, Emerald Coast  - San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

More dramatic views along Nicaragua’s Emerald Coast near San Juan del Sur.

Tona Beer - San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

Perfect beach days in Nicaragua always end with a cold Toña.

Sunset color -  San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

Sunset over Playa Marsella near San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua.

Playa Maderas sunset  - San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

Sunset over Playa Maderas, Nicaragua.

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The Heart and Soul of Handicrafts – Pueblos Blancos & Masaya, Nicaragua

The Pueblos Blancos (white towns) are reached by traveling about an hour from Managua, the capital of Nicaragua. The towns got their collective name either because of the stark white churches that anchor their central squares or the fact that their streets used to be paved with a white limestone concoction or the fact that the buildings used to be painted white to ward off bad spirits. It depends on who you ask. One thing is not in dispute: the Pueblos Blancos are the heart and soul of handicrafts in Nicaragua. We also found the best street food in the country (Andrew Zimmern endorsed) here and managed to miss one of the oddest festivals in the world (hint: it involves bull penises).

Lake Masaya, Nicaragua from Al Cielo hotel

Hacienda Puerta del Cielo Eco Spa is in the jungle outside Masatepe and offers one of the best views of Lake Masaya and Masaya Volcano.

The best handicrafts in Nicaragua

The road leaves Managua behind and is soon lined with family run furniture stalls acting as both shop and workshop. Rocking chairs are a favorite item and a staple of life in Nicaragua. The town of Masatepe fancies itself the rocking chair capital of the country, but the furniture on offer runs the gamut from some truly well-crafted dining sets to amazingly kitchy children’s beds.

If it’s decorative pottery or dishes you’re after, head to San Juan de Oriente. And for houseplants, head to the seemingly endless greenhouses in Catarina. You could furnish your whole house (tacky or tasteful) and do your landscaping too without ever leaving this area. Many people do.

The oddest festival in Nicaragua

Every town in every country in Latin America has an annual festival to honor their particular patron saint. It’s a good excuse to muddle up piety and partying and residents look forward to and plan for their patron saint days all year-long.

Things are done a little differently in the Pueblos Blancos of Diria and Dirioma where, every year, their patron saints are honored with a “dicking” festival during which presumably drunk adults (read: mostly young men) wander the streets whacking each other with dried out, elongated bull penises. This phallic fun is not done anywhere else in the country for fairly obvious reasons.

Sadly (sort of) we missed this festival but the best local English language news source, the Nicaragua Dispatch, published a good story on the penis festival spectacle. Yes, there are pictures.

Masaya Volcano from lake Masaya near the pueblos blancos

Masaya Volcano looms over the Pueblos Blancos region of Nicaragua and became dangerously active in 2012.

The best street food in Nicaragua

Furniture and bull penises take a back seat to serious eats in the nearby town of Masaya. Though not technically a part of the Pueblos Blancos it’s close enough and worth a stop especially around 5 pm when a desolate triangle of concrete near the Don Bosco school in a barrio called Monimbo is transformed into El Tiangue (the market), your source for the best street food in Nicaragua.

Fritanga - Masaya, Nicaragua

Welcome to El Tiangue in the town of Masaya, a nightly festival of the best street food in Nicaragua.

Tables heave under loads of artisanal cheese, grilling meat of all descriptions, frying plantains, mountains of rice, stacks of sticky homemade sweets and a whole bunch of stuff we struggled to identify. There’s a reason Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern visited this open-air street food wonderland while filming the show’s “Nicaragua” episode.

Nicaragua is full of fritangas–basic street stands selling grilled meat, chopped cabbage and rice and you’ll eat at plenty of them while you’re in Nica. But Masaya’s El Tiangue takes the fritanga (and more) to a whole new delicious level. We had some of the best grilled chicken we’ve had in our entire lives here, piled high on a plate with rice, crunchy cabbage salad and crispy, salty plantains for shockingly cheap prices. If you’re lucky you might even snag one of the few tables and chairs or just perch on a ledge and dig in with the locals.

Artisan Market  Masaya, Nicaragua

The open-air stone market building in Masaya is a pleasant place to wander and search for quality among the souvenirs on offer.

Masaya is also home to the sprawling Mercado Viejo (old market). The open-air stone market building is a breezy place for an enjoyable stroll and there are some quality finds here but most of the “handicrafts” are ho-hum. Bear in mind that Masaya is especially known for its hand-woven hammocks.

Hammock factory - Masaya, Nicaragua

The town of Masaya is famous for handmade hammocks, not sign makers.

There’s also a malecon (promenade) in town with views of Masaya Lake at the foot of the massive (and recently very, very active) Masaya Volcano.They say the lake, formed in one of the volcano’s dormant craters, is more than 200 feet (70 meters) deep in the middle.

Masaya’s central square is a fine place for a cold Toña, the official beer of Nicaragua, and some quality people watching in the evening after you’ve stuffed yourself silly at El Tiangue.

Masaya, Nicaragua church

Locals gather at the central church in Masaya as the sun goes down.

Masaya-plaza

A roving band accompanies a small procession to the main church in Masaya.

Zeus-Gym

Maybe there were so many gyms in Masaya, all with hyperbolic graphic signs like this one, because everyone eats too much at El Tiangue.

 

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