Beans, Birds, Beds & Wife Swap Fight Club – Boquete, Panama

The mountain town of Boquete, near the border with Costa Rica, is something of a legend on the expat circuit. At 3,900 feet (1,200 meters) above sea level, Boquete’s weather is delightfully cool. There are scenic coffee plantations at this altitude too plus great bird watching and, well, plenty of other gringos to hang out with. However, travelers seeking an escape from the heat will also find plenty of reasons to hangout in Boquete (pronounced Bo KEH tay), as this one-stop Boquete travel guide reveals, including great hikes, rock climbing, kayaking, coffee tours, the chance to see a quetzal (trust us, you want to), great hotels and something we like to call “wife swap fight club.”

View over the Boquete valley and the flank of Baru Volcano

Looking down on Boquete town from the flanks of the Baru Volcano, the tallest mountain in Panama.

Coffee culture in Boquete

Coffee experts agree on little. Most do agree, however, that beans grown above 3,000 feet (900 meters) are of higher quality than beans grown at lower altitudes. Coffee is grown high on the hills all around Boquete and much of it is renowned as exceptional, including some small batch Geisha coffee.

In 2010 Hacienda La Esmeralda in Boquete produced Geisha coffee which broke all records to date, fetching US$170.20 per pound. More recently that same pound of La Esmeralda Geisha coffee went for more than US$350 per pound.

Finca Lerida Coffee Estate - Boquete, Panama

Coffee grown in the hills around Boquete is world class.

Geisha coffee was too rich for our blood but we did get into the coffee culture in Boquete at Finca Lerida. Unfortunately, the tour of their coffee procession operation was perfunctory at best.

We’ve done more than half a dozen different coffee tours in MexicoCosta Rica and El Salvador so we have the  basics down, but if this was your first coffee tour you would have walked away only slightly more educated than when you walked in. We heard very, very good things about the coffee tour at Cafe Ruiz, especially with bilingual local guide Carlos. If you’ve never toured a coffee plantation before Cafe Ruiz is probably a good place to start.

Finca Lerida Coffee Tour - Boquete, Panama

Workers bringing ripe coffee “cherries” in from the fields at Finca Lerida in Boquete, Panama.

Weirdly, citrus, tomatoes and strawberries thrive in the lofty heights of Boquete right alongside the coffee. There are strawberry shacks all over town selling fresh berries with cream, strawberry preserves and strawberry batidas (shakes) made with locally grown fruit. The batidas (a sort of milkshake) at Fresas Cafe came highly recommended.

Abandoned Coffee Beneficio in Boquete, Panama

An abandoned coffee processing facility in Boquete, Panama.

Outdoor Boquete

A much, much more satisfying tour at Finca Lerida Coffee Plantation & Boutique Hotel was their guided bird watching tour. The coffee plantation and hotel take up only a fraction of the 360 acre (145 hectare) property which butts up against the Baru Volcano National Park and the La Amistad International Peace Park.

Baru Volcano is the tallest mountain in Panama at more than 11,000 feet (3,352 meters) and it’s the centerpiece of a massive protected area which has created a haven for wildlife including more than 500 species of endemic and migratory birds.

You can honestly do some pretty good bird watching right from the grounds of Finca Lerida (or almost anywhere in the Boquete area). We saw hummingbirds of all sorts and a dozen other colorful species we’re not equipped to name. Serious bird watching, however, is done on foot along trails that crisscross the property through coffee trees and cloud forest.

We got up at 7:30 am to meet up with Cesar, a Finca Lerida guide whose father and grandfather both worked on the property. Cesar learned about nature and how to guide from his dad in these very hills.

Resplendant Quetzal - Finca Lerida, Boquete, Panama

One of the five resplendent quetzal birds that we saw during a bird watching tour at Finca Lerida in Boquete, Panama.

Though the bird watching hike covered less than two miles (3.2 km) it took all morning. Progress is slow when you’ve got binoculars glued to your face and your ears are straining at every peep and rustle. We were rewarded for our vigilance with sightings of five resplendent quetzal birds, one of the most colorful and shyest species on the planet.

We also saw a black-headed solitaire which is a plain gray bird with an orange beak and orange feet but it sings a fabulous song. We also heard the distinctly synthesized call of the three-wattled bell bird though we were denied a clear sighting. Check out our photo essay for an eyeful of even more amazingly colorful birds spotted in Boquete.

The bird watching tour at Finca Lerida concluded with lunch in the hotel restaurant where we enjoyed the best trout we’ve ever had stuffed with herbs grown just a few feet from our table, all followed by a cup of coffee, of course.

Rock climbing basalt formations Boquete, Panama

This unusual basalt formation is popular rock climbing spot in Boquete, Panama.

Looking for something a bit more heart-pounding? Boquete is full of outfitters ready to take you rafting or kayaking on the Palo Alto River or Chiriqui River. You can go rock climbing on very odd rocks shaped by volcanic activity which reminded us of the formations we saw at Devils Postpile National Monument in the US early in our Trans-Americas Journey.

There’s also horseback riding, something called the Bat Cave, you can hang with monkeys at the Refugio de Monos or take on the Boquete Tree Trek zip line which travels 1.8 miles (3 km) along 12 different cables. Afterwards, you can relax and recap in local hot springs.

Hiking is also a major activity in the hills around Boquete and you can head out for a few hours or a few days on trails like the famous Quetzal Trail which winds through cloud forest and takes you from Boquete over the flanks of Baru Volcano to the town of Volcan.

Wacky Boquete

By far the wackiest thing to do in Boquete is to pay a visit to the private El Explorador Garden (US$5) in the hills just south of town. Slowly created by the Miranda family over the past 50 years or so, this ever-evolving rolling piece of hillside is part garden, part found-object outdoor sculpture park and part, well, good old-fashioned wackiness with superhero cutouts you can be photographed in and a disturbing number of doll heads. El Explorador is best conveyed in photos, so here goes.

El Explorador Garden - Boquete, Panama

Wacky garden art at the puzzling El Explorador in Boquete, Panama.

El explorador cutouts Boquete

We couldn’t resist…

El Explorador Garden - Boquete, Panama

Yep, it’s a collection of empty mini perfume bottles (and a goat) at El Explorador in Boquete, Panama.

flowers Boquete, Panama

Even the non-man-made stuff at El Explorador was wacky, like this waxy, super-geometrical flower.

Wife swap fight club

The indigenous Ngöbe-Buglé people (pronounced, oh hell, we have no idea) never really integrated into modern Panamanian society either by choice or not. In Boquete they’ve been pushed even further afield by the rising tide of foreigners and the rising prices that usually come with them. Some reports put the number of expats (mostly from the US and Canada) living in Boquete at 14% of the overall population.

Most of the Ngöbe-Buglé in the Boquete area work on coffee plantations. Ngöbe-Buglé women wear primary color tops and skirts with bric-a-brac trim–it’s Raggedy Ann meets Little House on the Prairie. Men wear jeans and a t-shirts. Nothing too surprising about that. In indigenous groups the world over the women tend to retain traditional dress longer than the men, either by choice or not. However, how many indigenous groups do you know of that have a wife swap fight club on the weekend? Well, the Ngöbe-Buglé do.

Bar Nacional Boquete quetzal, Panama

One of the best bar signs we’ve ever seen is in Boquete, Panama.

As the weekend approaches (and pay checks are handed out) some of the men start to get pretty liquored up. Once drunk enough to be stupid but still sober enough to stand some of them begin fighting in an alley next to the Romero Supermarket in downtown Boquete.

The bare-knuckle punches are real and so are the stakes: apparently, the winner gets to inherit one of the loser’s wives and her children. Did we mention that the Ngöbe-Buglé are polyamorous? Some champion fighters are said to have more than 30 wives. We have no idea if the Ngöbe-Buglé women are complicit in this or simply moved around like poker chips.

As we stood at a respectful (and safe) distance and watched increasingly inebriated men duke it out (the drunker among them did more neck hanging than fist swinging) we were plagued with questions: Is this a traditional thing or something new? How is the wife/prize chosen? Does she have any say in what’s going on? Is this financially driven, ego driven or sexually driven? Do other cultures do this? We walked away from the fight, as it devolved into two drunk men more or less slow dancing, more confused than ever.

Where to eat and drink in Boquete

No matter how you feel about the world’s many Gringolandias, of which Boquete is certainly one, you have to admit that food selection improves as more expats move in. Here’s where we enjoyed eating and drinking in Boquete.

  • Nelvis is a simple restaurant serving up well-prepared basics to a mixed Panamanian and foreign crowed. Their fried chicken, US$3 got with rice and salad, was a tasty bargain.
  • Mike’s Global Grill is owned by Mike and Heidi Rehm who both used to work in the Amudson-Scott station in Antarctica where Mike was a cook and Heidi did five winters which is some sort of endurance record. Mike told us he also cooked at Spice in NYC. They’ve created a casual pub-like place that shows big games, gives free WiFi and serves up good burgers (US$4.50 but fries are extra) and more. Their apple flip is like a folded over piece of apple pie and just as delicious as it sounds. They make their own pulled pork and sausages. Beer was US$1.50, wine was US$2.50.
  • At Big Daddy’s Grill, owned by Larry and Elizabeth, we enjoyed their lovely back porch and delicious fish (always fresh, never farmed) at great prices. Do not miss the fish tacos.

    Big Daddy’s Grill - Boquete, Panama

    The fish salad at Big Daddy’s Grill in Boquete, Panama is huge and delicious.

  • Sugar & Spice bakery has a wide selection of passable, freshly baked breads and pastries.
  • Punto de Encuentro serves up huge US-style breakfasts (around US$6) and the owner calls everyone “mi amor.”
  • Zanzibar is a lively bar with African decor, hookas, a great lounge-y vibe and good prices (four glasses of wine and two beers came to US$15). Sadly, Zanzibar also has some of the world’s most uncomfortable seating. The place attracts students, expats and Panamanians.

Where to sleep in Boquete

There are a lot of hotels in town but we’re just going to point out three standout places to sleep in Boquete.

The original owner of Finca Lerida Coffee Plantation & Boutique Hotel, located in the hills above Boquete town, was a Norwegian engineer who came to Panama to design aspects of the Panama Canal. In 1911 he bought what is now Finca Lerida and began planting coffee. We were told he also invented the still widely used waterborne method of sorting coffee beans (poor quality beans float) and we were even shown a framed US Patent Office document for the gizmo.

Finca Lerida Coffee Plantation & Boutique Hotel - Boquete, Panama

Finca Lerida Coffee Plantation & Boutique Hotel in Boquete, Panama.

Under the current owners, Finca Lerida now has six spectacular suites, 14 rooms and a historic house where guests can stay. The new suites are best described as Central American shabby chic with a charming combination of chandeliers, plushly upholstered sofas, outdoor fireplaces and downy bedding—necessary at this altitude.

The original rooms are small but charming with the same great beds that the suites have plus renovated bathrooms and inviting patio hammocks. Our favorite touch? The small dish of ground coffee in every guest room as an air freshener.

The 10 rooms at Boquete Garden Inn, near the center of town, are a comfortable bargain (all have kitchenettes) and the owners are dedicated, charming and info-filled. But the best part of this place is the garden which attracts dozens of species of colorful birds which flit around bird baths and fruit-filled platforms nearly oblivious to your presence. Bring your binoculars to breakfast (included in rates) and enjoy some of the laziest bird watching in Panama.

Red Legged Honeycreeper - Boquete Garden Inn, Panama

Red-legged honeycreepers spotted on the lush grounds of Boquete Garden Inn.

Actually, the best part of Boquete Garden Inn is co-owner Susan who used to read Sassy magazine back when Karen was a staff writer there in the 1980s. Susan emailed us when she discovered our Trans-Americas Journey travel blog and it was a delight to finally meet her in Boquete.

Susan came to Boquete from Toronto in 2008 and she and her husband, Jay, bought the small hotel and totally renovated the five two-storey buildings. They host a lively beer and wine happy hour for guests so you’ll get the chance to enjoy her company too.

Blue Grey Tanager - Boquete Garden Inn, Panama

This blue-grey tanager was having breakfast just a few feet from our own breakfast table at Boquete Garden Inn.

When we were in Boquete the area’s classic high end hotel, Hotel Panamonte, was looking a little worse for wear so we skipped it. However, a wellness-focused hotel and spa had recently opened just outside of town and we definitely checked that out.

We were worried that we were in for a dressed up version of medical tourism at The Haven but we were wrong.The Haven, for adults only, is part natural health clinic committed to treating chronic pain and health complaints through diet therapy, natural treatments even psychology/psychiatry when needed. Then there’s the spa designed to achieve relaxation not simply through pampering treatments but also through behavior and diet modification. Finally, it’s a true boutique hotel.

The Haven Spa & Hotel - Boquete, Panama

The Haven, a sophisticated combination of wellness center, spa and boutique hotel in Boquete, Panama.

Designed by a Brazilian architect, the interiors were done by the owners, Howard and Sonia, and reflect their personalities and attention to detail not just some hotel designer’s play book or a dressed up version of a hospital.

Even if you’re not partaking of the considerable menu of wellness (acupuncture, nutritional therapy, naturopathy, physical therapy, chiropractic adjustments, deep tissue massage, sports injury work, lymphatic drainage and exercise physiology) or spa services, The Haven is a serene setting. Birds wake you in the morning and frogs serenade you in the evening.

Super chic rooms (some with kitchenettes or patios) are well-appointed with big bathrooms, tea, coffee and a French press plunger, cereal, yogurt and milk for a healthy in-room breakfast. All guests have use of a hot tub, lap pool with resistance wave machine, very well equipped light-filled gym and infra-red sauna and steam room. All in all, The Haven was one of the most unusual hotels we found in all of Panama.

Read more about travel in Panama

 

Support us on Patreon


1 Comment - Join the conversation


Bocas del Toro Travel Guide Part 2: Where to Sleep – Bocas del Toro, Panama

This post is part 2 of 2 in the series Bocas del Toro Guide

Christopher Columbus arrived in Bocas del Toro, Panama in 1502. In the 17th century pirates used the sheltered bays in the area to repair their ships. Rumors of buried treasure persist. British author Graham Greene finally got to Bocas in the early ’80s on his third attempt to reach the area. These days the conquistadors, pirates and old-school adventure travel writers are long gone, replaced by a growing number of tourists. Here’s part 2 of our 2 part  Bocas del Toro Travel Guide. This one is focused on where to sleep in Bocas del Toro on any travel budget. Check out part 1 to learn about what to do and what to eat in Bocas del Toro.

Beautiful beaches Isla Colon - Bocas del Toro, Panama

This is why you want to travel to the Bocas de Toro Archipelago in Panama.

Getting to Bocas del Toro and Bocas town

Generally speaking, when people say Bocas del Toro (Mouth of the Bull) they’re referring to the whole Bocas del Toro Archipelago of nine islands. The main town in the archipelago, located on Isla Colon, is called Bocas Town. This is where you will get off the ferry from Almirante on the mainland (30 minutes, US$5 per person in an open sided motor boat) or off your flight from San Jose, Costa Rica or Panama City.

Bocas Town wouldn’t exist if not for the United Fruit Company  (now known as Chiquita Brands) which created the town as part of its now-defunct banana operations in the area. Today, Bocas Town still has more bicycles than cars, though a vehicle ferry makes the run between Isla Colon and the mainland daily.

Hotels & hostels - Isla Colon, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Bocas Town on Isla Colon has many hostels like this one.

The number of buildings in Bocas Town has increased, but they’re still mostly small, wooden structures (there’s a five story maximum) simply built and brightly painted in true Caribbean style. Electricity is supplied from massive, and massively unreliable, diesel generators.

Bocas Town has the charm and pace that beach towns in Belize wish they had and a smaller price tag to boot. It’s like a Central American version of Key West from 50 years ago and it makes the perfect base for exploring the Bocas del Toro Archipelago.

Where to sleep in Bocas del Toro

We spent two weeks exploring Bocas del Toro which gave us plenty of time to try lots of different accommodation options including a hostel and a boutique hotel on Isla Colon (Bocas Town), over the water bungalows in the middle of the Caribbean and a real stunner on Isla Bastimento.

Sunset Bastamientos Island - Bocas del Toro, Panama

Tropical sunset, Bocas del Toro style.

Beach boutique:  Take the best of a small waterfront apartment and add in attentive hotel staff and you’ve got Tropical Suites. The hotel was built in 2005 and renovated in 2010 by new owners Jamie and Chip, a couple from the southern US. They’ve crafted the perfect balance of laid back island style with spot-on North American service and southern hospitality.

All of the 16 suites (six have ocean views) at this waterfront hotel right on main street just a few blocks from the ferry docks are sunny, large and have air conditioning, furnished patios and fully equipped kitchens. Breakfast at Lili’s (one of the highlights of our previous post about what to do and what to eat in Bocas del Toro) is included in rates.

Tropical Suites also has good quality bikes for hire (around US$15 per day) which is how we got out to Playa Bluff (another travel highlight in our previous post about what to do in Bocas del Toro). Since we were at the hotel, they’ve opened up a “glass bottom Starfish suite” which sounds totally intriguing too. Tell us how it is…

Bocas del Toro, Panama

Bocas Town, on Isla Colon in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago.

Bocas on a budget: If you’re on a tighter travel budget don’t worry. Bocas Town is full of hostels, but if you’re not interested in a party atmosphere head to Hostal Hansi (big thanks to our friends at Globetrotter Girls for tipping us off about this place). Located just off Main Street, Hostal Hansi 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 a 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.

When we were in Bocas an absolutely enormous building was going up next door to the Hansi and the rumor was that was going to be a 100 bed hostal. That sounds like hell on earth to us, but fyi.

Eco immersion: The place is called Al Natural Resort and it really is one of the most stunning places we’ve stayed at on our Trans-Americas Journey. For starters, stand-alone stilted bunglaows, built using techniques and materials the indigenous Ngöbe-Buglé people have used for decades, are mostly open air with very, very few walls. Heavy canvas curtains can be pulled shut it you want.

Al Natural Resort bungalow - Bocas del Toro, Panama

Our virtually wall-free bungalow at Al Natural in Bocas del Toro, Panama.

Each wood, bamboo and thatch bungalow was built by local Ngöbe-Buglé workers, many of whom had forgotten the traditional techniques until they were asked to resurrect them to build Al Natural.

Bathrooms were covered in tiles in designs inspired by Ngöbe-Buglé weaving patterns. Bungalows were intentionally placed near the high tide line, giving the feeling of being in the calm Chiriqui Bay when you’re really just lazing around in your hammock. Again. Great mattresses, custom-made super-bug-proof nets and cooling fans inside the nets plus the sound of the Caribbean ensure restful nights.

Over water Bungalow View Al Natural Resort - Bocas del Toro, Panama

Bungalows at Al Natural are built at the high-tide line giving you the feeling of begin in the peaceful bay right from your room.

Al Natural’s owner, Michel, a reformed NYC lawyer from Belgium, calls his bungalows “natural houses” and they range from single rooms with a small bathroom to a three bedroom house. He says he created Al Natural to be “the place I always hoped I’d find in my travels but never did.” He explored Madagascar, Costa Rica and other countries looking for the right location for his vision before he returned to Bocas del Toro (a place he’d visited nearly 20 years earlier) and was shown beach front property on the southern tip of Bastimentos Island.

Michel Natalis owner of Al Natural Resort - Bocas del Toro, Panama

Owner Michel during the commute to his remarkable Al Natural eco bungalow hideaway in Bocas del Toro, Panama.

Michel bought the land directly from the local owners who still live on an adjoining piece of property. Don’t miss the chance to take a short jungle walk with Michel to visit Niato,and his family. When we visited Niato he told us how a friend had just drowned while free diving for lobster. Niato was convinced that his friend’s death had been foretold in a dream and that an evil mermaid had lured him deeper with visions of giant lobsters. He said many local men see mermaids all the time but the secret is not to pursue them. Good advice.

Bocas

Niato told us local men see mermaids all the time. The secret, he said,  is not to follow them deeper to a watery grave.

Despite the semi-remote location (it’s a 30 minute boat ride to Al Natural from Bocas Town), the food at Al Natural rivals anything in the region. Every single thing we ate was delicious from fresh juices to buttery soft grilled octopus to fragrant chicken cooked with mushrooms and orange peel. Even better, all meals, which are included in room rates including wine at dinner, are served family style with Michel at the head of the table telling stories and making friends.

Restaurant Al Natural Resort - Bocas del Toro, Panama

Pre-dinner drinks at Al Natural.

Over-rated over-the-water: To say we were excited to be staying at Punta Caracol Acqua Lodge would be an understatement. This long-standing place is basically the poster child for over-the-water bungalows and classic Caribbean island accommodation in Panama and photos of the place are used in many tourism promotional materials.

Pulling up to Punta Caracol Acqua Lodge, after a 10 minute boat ride from a private dock on Isla Colon, was dramatic.The whole thing is built over the water a short distance from a mangrove-covered shoreline. We disembarked and got settled into our over-the-water bungalow, one of nine at the lodge.

Punta Caracol Resort - Bocas del Toro, Panama

The over-water bungalows at Punta Caracol just might be the most photographed hotel rooms in Panama.

All are two-storey affairs built out of wood with thatch roofs and powered by the sun. They’re romantic in a rustic, castaway kind of way. Conch shells are used instead of door handles. Your back deck has loungers, hammocks and a ladder directly into the clear Caribbean below you. It’s certainly not basic, but the only truly luxurious thing is privacy, views and lack of WiFi/TV.

Snorkel gear (including fins) is provided and you can jump in for a snorkel right off your deck. We saw parrot fish, pipefish, starfish and even some coral without ever venturing too far away from the lodge and that was pretty awesome as was kayaking through nearby mangroves.

Punta Caracol Resort Kayaking  Bocas del Toro, Panama

Kayaking through nearby mangroves and snorkeling right off your back deck are just some of the activities at Punta Caracol in Bocas del Toro, Panama.

However, our food at Punta Caracol was mediocre at best and some dishes, like rubber-tough squid, were downright terrible. The service was even worse. Staff members spent more time on their phones than doing anything constructive or helpful. Morning coffee was repeatedly delivered to the bungalow without the benefit of cups.

To be fair, Punta Caracol was for sale when we were there and that sort of limbo invariably creates an environment where employees feel like they don’t have to be on top of their game. However, that’s an excuse not a justification and with rates starting from US$330 (including breakfast and dinner but not lunch for some reason) let’s hope this place finds the owner and management that it and its guests deserve.

Hammock-life-Bocas-del-Toro-Panama

Karen testing out the hammock on the back deck of our bungalow at Punta Caracol.

 

Weird Bocas del Toro

  • There’s a guy who walks around Bocas Town at night with a large, intricate paper plane on a string tied to a stick. When the spirit moves him, he starts running down the street to make his plane “fly.”
  • There’s a Chinese temple on the water near the fire station with Chinese characters in red across the front. It’s never been used, but it will never be sold or torn down either. It’s been sealed and sacred since the Buddha inside somehow remained upright through a strong earthquake in 1991.
  • There’s an old man who collects tin cans. When he has more than he can carry he lines them up in the middle of main street and crushes each one with a cinder block.

Bocas del Toro travel budget tip

Whenever we head to a beautiful island location (which is embarrassingly frequently) we get ready for the sticker shock. After all, the logic goes, everything has to be shipped or flown in and the customers are a bunch of geographically captive holiday makers so who cares if we double the price of beer/Band-aids/beds. Imagine our delight when we realized that prices for most things in the Bocas del Toro archipelago are only marginally higher than they are on the mainland. We don’t know why and we don’t care.

Read more about travel in Panama

 

Support us on Patreon


Leave a comment


Bocas del Toro Travel Guide Part 1: What to Do & What to Eat – Bocas del Toro, Panama

This post is part 1 of 2 in the series Bocas del Toro Guide

Christopher Columbus arrived in Bocas del Toro, Panama in 1502. In the 17th century, pirates used the sheltered bays in the area to repair their ships. Rumors of buried treasure persist. British author Graham Greene finally got to Bocas in the early ’80s on his third attempt to reach the area. These days the conquistadors, pirates and old-school adventure travel writers are long gone, replaced by a growing number of tourists. Here’s part 1 of our 2 part  Bocas del Toro Travel Guide. This one is focused on what to do and what to eat. Check out part 2 to find out where to sleep in Bocas del Toro on any travel budget.

Getting to Bocas del Toro and Bocas town

Generally speaking, when people say Bocas del Toro (Mouth of the Bull) they’re referring to the whole Bocas del Toro Archipelago of nine islands. But it gets confusing since the main town in the archipelago, located on Isla Colon, is called Bocas town. This is where you will get off the ferry from Almirante on the mainland (30 minutes, US$5 per person in an open sided motor boat) or off your flight from San Jose, Costa Rica or Panama City.

Bocas del Toro, Panama

Bocas del Toro in Panama is not short on charm, as this guest house proves.

Bocas town wouldn’t exist at all if not for the United Fruit Company (now known as Chiquita Brands) which created the town as part of its now defunct banana operations in the area. Today, Bocas town still has more bicycles than cars, though a vehicle ferry makes the run between Isla Colon and the mainland daily. The number of buildings in Bocas town has increased but they’re still mostly small, wooden structures (there’s a five storey maximum) simply built and brightly painted in true Caribbean style. Electricity is supplied from massive, and massively unreliable, diesel generators.

Bocas town has the charm and pace that beach towns in Belize wish they had and a smaller price tag to boot. It’s like a Central American version of Key West from 50 years ago and it makes the perfect base for exploring the Bocas del Toro Archipelago, which we did for two weeks.

Panama Beer  - Bocas del Toro, Panama

Beer on the beach, just another day in Bocas del Toro, Panama.

What to do in Bocas del Toro, Panama

Playa Bluff: You have to work a bit for it–a five mile (eight km) bike ride from Bocas town (about 45 minutes)–but your effort delivers you to one of the most beautiful beaches we have ever seen. The sand at Playa Bluff is gold. The beach is wide and flat. And nearly deserted. Shade-giving sea grape trees hug the high tide line. The waves crash mercilessly, so much so that you can’t actually swim at Playa Bluff. No problem. That allows you to focus on settling into the chair or hammock you’ve claimed and downing your cold beverage of choice, supplied by nearby Playa Bluff Lodge. If you had your heart set on swimming, we hear Mimbi Timbi Beach, further down the coast, has a naturally protected pool.

Playa Bluff  - Bocas del Toro, Panama

We told you the sand on Playa Bluff, in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago, is gold.

Playa Estrella (Starfish Beach): You’ll need to catch a public bus (US$3 round trip from the small central park in Bocas town) going to Boca del Drago (Mouth of the Dragon) if you want to visit Playa Estrella (Starfish Beach), and you most certainly want to visit Starfish Beach unless you’ve got something against giant, bright red starfish. They’re common in the archipelago but they love this beach in particular for some reason. Buses leave town for Boca del Drago on even hours and come back from Boca del Drago to town on odd hours. From Boca del Drago you can catch a water taxi to Starfish Beach (US$1.50 per person) or walk for 30 minutes along the coastline.

Starfish Beach - Bocas del Toro, Panama

Two of the starfish that congregate in the calm, warm, shallow bay off Starfish Beach in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago in Panama.

Playa Estrella - Bocas del Toro, Panama

A water taxi waits to take travelers to and from Starfish Beach (Playa Estrella) in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago in Panama.

To be honest, we were expecting to be tripping over starfish but there were only a dozen or so around when we were at Starfish Beach. The smart ones fled. We watched in horror as person after person picked up the fragile creatures for photos or just for the heck of it despite signs all over the area telling people to keep their hands off so they don’t kill the starfish.

Don't touch the starfish sign - Starfish Beach, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Despite warning signs like this all over Starfish Beach, many, many visitors still insist on touching and picking up the starfish which can be deadly.

Enterprising locals have set up makeshift kitchens on Starfish Beach and we were delighted with our fresh grilled fish lunch. Fried chicken and even lobster were available too (US$7-US$12). We rented beach chairs (US$4 each for the day) and enjoyed cold beer (US$2) before getting back into the crystal clear, warm, protected water in the bay. It was like floating in a salty, warm pool full of pipefish and humans tormenting starfish.

Starfish - Bocas del Toro, Panama

Don’t touch the starfish in the bay at Starfish Beach!

Red Frog Beach: The most famous beach in the area requires a 15 minute water taxi ride form Bocas town (US$5 per person plus US$3 per person to walk through the private property at the dock) followed by a 10 minute walk to reach the beach itself. But famous doesn’t always mean fabulous and Red Frog Beach left us a bit non-plussed. It’s wide and the surf is swimable but we found Playa Bluff to be much more beautiful and much, much less crowded.

Red frog Beach - Bastamientos Island,  Bocas del Toro, Panama

Red Frog Beach in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago in Panama before the arrival of the day tripping crowds.

Yes, we saw the red frogs for which the beach is named. They’re strawberry frogs, actually, and visitors are so anxious to see them that local kids gather them up and charge you to take a picture of them. We’re fairly certain the captured frogs were dead by the end of the day. Luckily, we saw some in the wild too.

Strawberry poison dart frog - Red frog Beach, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Red Frog Beach gets its name from the strawberry frogs which live above the high tide line.

There are some hotels on Red Frog Beach, notably Palmar Tent Lodge and its bohemian tented beach safari vibe with solar power, outdoor showers, purified rain water and daily yoga. In late 2013 a mega resort called Red Frog Beach Island Resort & Spa opened as well.

Day trip to the Zapatilla islands: Isla Bastimentos National Marine Park was founded in 1988 and was Panama’s first marine park. It protects a vast area in and around the Bocas archipelago, including Zapatilla 1 and Zapatilla 2, a pair of neighboring island so named because someone thought they resembled a pair of shoes (zapato means shoe in Spanish and zapatilla means little shoe). The only way to visit the Zapatillas is on a day trip in a long motorized wooden boat with a driver (around US$40 per person including mask and snorkel plus US$10 per person park entry fee).

Zapatilla Island - Bocas del Toro, Panama

We finally managed to find a stretch of beach on Zapatilla 1 that wasn’t strewn with washed-up garbage.

The day we decided to visit the area the sea was rough which meant we didn’t see any dolphins as we passed through Dolphin Bay. It also meant that it was too dangerous to reach Zapatilla 2 so we had to content ourselves with Zapatilla 1. This was not easy since Zapatilla 1 was ringed with a mini-moat of garbage, mostly plastic stuff probably brought there from Bocas town on the tides including a bunch of flip flops which struck us as ironic. And sad.

The Zapatilla tour includes a lunch stop at a small nearby restaurant. We enjoyed the snorkeling around and under the restaurant’s dock and pier more than what we’d done around Zapatilla 1 (no garbage for starters).We saw soft corals, starfish and baby reef fish. But be warned: meal prices were extremely high at this restaurant. We’d recommend bringing your own food for this long day outing.

Smithsonian Tropical Research Center: The Smithsonian Tropical Research Center about a mile (two km) from Bocas town can be toured as well though we never got to it.

Oggling at the sunset: Any local will tell you that the best place to watch the spectacular sunsets is from Bibi’s on the Beach, an open-air, thatch-roof restaurant and bar on the waterfront on Carnero Island just a stone’s throw across the bay from Bocas town. Water taxis will take you to and fro and there’s a generous happy hour nightly.

Sunset Bastamientos Island - Bocas del Toro, Panama

Sunset in Panama’s Bocas del Toro Archipelago.

What to eat in Bocas Town

Lili’s Cafe, on main street, is a solid spot for moderately priced passable food served slowly on a pier. However, the real reason to come here is to try their famous, fiery-hot housemade Killin’ Me Man hot sauce which gets its considerable punch from habaneros, mustard and a slew of secret ingredients.

Eating in Bocas del Toro, Panama

Main Street in Bocas Town is dotted with eateries like this one.

The Wine Bar, on the second floor of a building on the inland side of main street, has a proper climate-controlled cellar for wine storage (though we’re not sure how climate-controlled the wine’s journey to the archipelago is). They offer a wide range of wines by the glass (around US$4 per glass when we were there)  which change every day. There’s a breezy balcony and interior living rooms and dining rooms for tapas or more substantial plates. Art rotates in and out of the place and there’s life music on Friday nights.

The RipTide Bar & Restaurant has two things going for it: it’s located in a converted ship that still bobs in the water and they offer things like “chicken fried steak and Texas holdem” specials and broadcast events like the Super Bowl which reliably attracts local expats as well as travelers. Don’t expect to try any Panamanian or Caribbean food here. It’s all US comfort food all the way, at reasonable prices.

Cute - Bocas del Toro, Panama

Opening hours can be unpredictable in Bocas Town.

It was too rich for our blood (around US$25 per person), but diners rave about the six course, prix fixe Mediterranean food at Guari Guari. Reservations are a must, it’s cash only and the restaurant is located a mile (two km) from the center of town.

We were disturbed to learn from another traveler that it looks like Chris Fish, a closet-sized take-out-only place we found on the waterfront on main street not far from the ferry docks, seems to have closed. It was our go-to spot for big red snapper sandwiches and huge plates of made-to-order fish and chips with hand cut fries and coleslaw for US$5.50 Ask around and let us know if it’s really closed or merely moved.

Main street, Isla Colon - Bocas del Toro, Panama

This is where our favorite cheap meal place, Chris Fish, used to be located on Main Street in Bocas Town, but other travelers told us it may now be closed. Update, please.

Another good budget travel eating option, also on main street not far from the ferry docks, is the no-frills place with the huge machines out front slowly cooking succulent chicken rotisserie style. You can buy a quarter, half or whole chicken, each one rubbed with a delicious Caribbean mix of spices and served with fries or patacones (fried discs of mashed plantain) along with hot and delicious housemade hot sauce. Get your ice-cold beer at the little store next door.

For a good cheap snack, pick up a few of the meat-filled empanadas at John’s Bakery (less than US$1), but grab ‘em early. They’re usually sold out by noon.

There are a few moderately well-stocked Chinese-owned small supermarkets in Bocas town. There’s also the Super Gourmet, an adorable, well-stocked gourmet market. You won’t have any trouble finding ingredients to cook up if your accommodation has a kitchen.

Super-Gourmet-Bocas-del-Toro

The Super Gourmet market in Bocas Town lives up to its name.

Weird Bocas del Toro

  • There’s a guy who walks around Bocas Town at night with a large, intricate paper plane on a string tied to a stick. When the spirit moves him, he starts running down the street to make his plane “fly”.
  • There’s a Chinese temple on the water near the fire station with Chinese characters in red across the front. It’s never been used, but it will never be sold or torn down either. It’s been sealed and sacred since the Buddha inside it somehow remained upright through a strong earthquake in 1991.
  • There’s an old man who collects tin cans. When  he has more than he can carry he lines them up in the middle of main street and crushes each one with a cinder block very methodically.

Bocas del Toro travel budget tip

Whenever we head to a beautiful island location (which is embarrassingly frequently) we get ready for the sticker shock. After all, the logic goes, everything has to be shipped or flown in and the customers are a bunch of geographically captive holiday makers so who cares if we double the price of beer/Band-aids/beds. Imagine our delight when we realized that prices for most things in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago are only marginally higher than they are on the mainland. We don’t know why and we don’t care.

Read more about travel in Panama

 

Support us on Patreon


2 Comments - Join the conversation »


Why Does it Take 10 Years to Build a Museum? – Biomuseo, Panama City, Panama

It all started in 2004. That’s when Canadian architect Frank Gehry signed on to design his first Latin American project, a museum in Panama City. Ten years later, the Biomuseo is finally opening. Sort of. Ten years after the project started, Panama City’s Biomuseo is having a soft opening today (June 23, 2014) to give staff some practice with visitors. But don’t get too excited. The public really won’t have access to the museum (at US$22 per adult and US$11 per child) until the end of the year and then only five of the museum’s eight galleries will be open.

When we were in Panama City we got a private sneak peek inside the museum and here’s what you can expect from this ambitious project when it finally opens its doors.

Frank Gerhy's BioMuseo seen from Panama canal

The Frank Gehry-designed Biomuseo in Panama City with the skyline behind it.

Making sense of Panama City’s Biomuseo

We have to admit that an evolutionary museum in Panama seemed like a totally random project for Frank Gehry until we learned that his wife is Panamanian. Who knew? The abrupt, angular, primary color design of the building made more sense after we learned that it was inspired by the clothing of Panama’s indigenous Kuna and Emberá people, the angles and chaos of the shipping containers that pass through the Panama Canal and the upheaval of the isthmus which created the country of Panama.

The name of the Biomuseo made sense after we learned that the museum is focused on how the isthmus that rose three million years ago to form what is now Panama changed the world by facilitating animal and plant migration and creating the Caribbean sea which created the gulf stream which warmed up Europe and transformed the African continent from lush green to dry savannah.

The main mission of the Biomuseo is to educate Panamanians about the environmental and evolutionary importance of their terra firma and foster national pride and appreciation of what’s in their backyard. We were also told that museum officials also expect to bus in 40,000 school students every year and the museum will have two in-house teachers on staff. The students’ every day teachers will receive lesson kits from the museum months in advance of their scheduled visits so they can prep. The combined cost of the physical museum and the educational program is more than US$100 million.

Model of Frank Gehry's BioMuseo, Panama

A model of Frank Gehry’s Biomuseo in Panama City, Panama which has been under construction for the past 10 years.

 A sneak peek inside Panama City’s Biomuseo

There are plenty of reasons why travelers should also pay a visit to the Biomuseo (when it eventually opens in late 2014), as we learned when we got a private sneak peek inside the place while the exhibits were being installed (we were only allowed to take photos outside).

The museum is divided into eight themed galleries. Gallery 1 is the Gallery of Biodiversity in which we learned that the planet is losing species 400 times faster than we were a few decades ago and we only know about half the biodiversity on the planet.

In Gallery 2, the Panamarama Gallery, enormous video screens cover every surface including the floor and they show footage depicting the biodiversity in Panama.

Constructio of Frank Gerhy's BioMuseo, Panama

This is what Frank Gehry’s Biomuseo in Panama City looked like when we visited the construction site for a sneak peek inside.

Gallery 3 is called Building the Bridge and has a geological focus, including explanations of how the land rose and fossils displays.

Gallery 4 is called Worlds Collide and it’s filled with all-white, life-size versions of the species that “collided” thanks to the isthmus.

Gallery 5 is an indoor/outdoor venue called The Human Path which features 16 thick glass columns (at least one of which shattered during installation and was being replaced the day we visited) each depicting human evolution in the region.

Gallery 6 is called Oceans Divided and features massive aquariums, and Gallery 7, The Living Web, illustrates the inter-connectivity of species. Gallery 8, called Panama is the Exhibit, is interactive.

All exhibits are in English and Spanish. At the end of 2014 five galleries will be open including The Gallery of Biodiversity, Panamarama, Building the Bridge, World’s Collide and The Human Path along with a cafe, a temporary exhibit hall, a gift shop and part of the botanical park that surrounds the building will be open.

By the end of 2016 museum officials hope to open a series of aquarium tanks, the last three galleries, an auditorium and a restaurant as well as the finished park that will include an amphibian pond and a grotto for native orchids. Fingers crossed.

View of Panama Canalfrom Frank Gehry's BioMuseo, Panama

The Panama Canal seen from Frank Gehry’s Biomuseo in Panama City.

So, why does it take 10 years to build a museum?

Almost every ambitious building project goes over deadline and over budget. But why has it taken 10 years for Panama City’s Biomuseo to near completion?  “We knew this was going to be an architectural challenge for Panama,” explained Margot López, the communications and marketing coordinator of the museum, “Furthermore, this is a state project and changing from administration to administration every five years tends to slow things down.”

Frank Gehry's BioMuseo, Panama City

Construction workers at work on Frank Gehry’s Biomuseo in Panama City.

 

Read more about travel in Panama

 

Support us on Patreon


2 Comments - Join the conversation »


Border Crossing 101: Sixaola, Costa Rica to Guabito, Panama

Crossing international borders in Latin America is rarely easy or pleasant (why do they always smell like pee and desperation?). Things are even more complicated when you’re driving across borders in your own vehicle as part of an overland road trip. These border crossing 101 travel tips will help you travel from Sixaola, Costa Rica to Guabito, Panama on the Pacific coast smoothly with or without a vehicle.

From: Sixaola, Costa Rica

To: Guabito, Panama

Sixaola River - Costa Rica, Panama border

The Sixaolo River marks the border between Costa Rica and Panama.

Lay of the land: Private vehicles are allowed to pass the line of parked and double parked commercial vehicles lining the road leading up to the border. Before you reach the bridge (you’ll be relieved to know that the dilapidated, one-lane death trap we had to cross has since been replaced with a shiny new bridge), park your car and go to the Costa Rican immigration booth on the right hand side immediately before the bridge. Fill out the form and hand it in with your passport for a quick and easy exit stamp. Enter the aduana (customs) office immediately to the right of immigration to either cancel (if you are not returning to Costa Rica or have used up all your days) or suspend (if you are returning to Costa Rica) your Costa Rican temporary vehicle importation permit.

Once the easy and efficient Costa Rica formalities are taken care of cross over the bridge.

old bridge Guabito, Costa Rica - Sixaola, Panama border

We drove across this bridge between Costa Rica and Panama, but you won’t have to. A new bridge has since opened.

Scary old Sixaola bridge Guabito/Sixaola border crossing

We drove across this bridge between Costa Rica and Panama, but you won’t have to. A new  bridge has since opened and this old bridge is just used by pedestrians.

On the Panamanian side of the bridge you pass through an automated fumigation sprayer. The next set of windows is immigration where you hand off your passport and get your entry visa. Then travel two doors down to get your entry stamp. Between these spots is the aduana (customs) office where you handle the temporary vehicle importation paperwork. However, before they will do anything they will direct you to the one and only insurance office where you need to purchase the mandatory liability insurance.  Once we’d purchased our insurance, the vehicle importation permit process was fast and easy and after a customs agent took a cursory glance at the contents of our truck we were on our way.

Our video, below, gives you a sense of what it was like to drive our truck across the rickety old bridge between Costa Rica and Panama before the new bridge was opened. Hold on.

Elapsed time: Just over two hours but if we hadn’t had to wait for the lone insurance saleslady to get back from her lunch break this would have been our fastest and easiest Central American crossing by far.

Fees: There’s a US$3 stamp per person entering Panama, no fee for temporary importation of the truck, a US$1 fee to fumigate the truck entering Panama and it was US$15 per month for vehicle liability insurance. That’s a grand total of US$22 for both of us and our truck.

Number of days they gave us: Humans get 90-180 days. Vehicles, on the other hand, get 30 days which can be extended in-country up to two times for a total of 90 days. You can extend your vehicle importation permit in Panama City or in Divisa, a tiny stop at a crossroads on the Pan American Highway about midway between David and Panama City. We extended in both locations and highly recommend doing it at the Divisa office if you can. Staff at the Panama City office did not know what they were doing and made mistakes that then had to be fixed by the very, very knowledgeable and helpful staff in Divisa. Even they seemed annoyed by the ineptitude of the PC staff.

Vehicle insurance requirements: You must buy local insurance before driving in Panama and it costs US$15 for 30 days. This can be only done at this border at a small desk upstairs in the entrance to a department store (ask your immigration agent where it is). They sell insurance in one month blocks with no discount for purchasing multiple months at the same time.

Where to fill up: Diesel was about 40 cents cheaper per gallon in Panama than it was in Costa Rica when we crossed so we waited to fill up on the Panama side of the border where diesel was US$3.92 a gallon.

Need to know: Panama is always one hour ahead of Costa Rica so you’ll need to change your watch. This next border crossing tip is EXTREMELY IMPORTANT FOR ANYONE DRIVING ACROSS: We were not aware until we arrived at the border that Costa Rica will renew a tourist visa if you spend 72 hours outside of the country (usually not enforced) but foreign vehicles are only allowed to be in Costa Rica for 90 days out of every 180. This means that once you use up or cancel your temporary vehicle importation permit you can’t get a new one for 90 days. Luckily, Costa Rican officials can “suspend” your temporary importation permit which puts it on hold until you return to the country at which time the clock starts ticking again with whatever amount of time you had left on your original permit.

Panama Costa Rica border

The new steel bridge between Costa Rica and Panama was under construction when we were at this border, just to the right of the death trap bridge which we had to drive across.

Duty free finds: The smattering of duty-free stores include a down-trodden department store and a couple of liquor stores that had limited selection but decent prices. You’re allowed to bring US$200 worth of alcohol per person into Panama with you.

Overall border rating: Excellent. This crossing point was smoothly run, hassle-free and relatively quiet–almost no commercial traffic and only a smattering of other foreigners.

Read more about travel in Costa Rica

Read more about travel in Panama

Support us on Patreon


2 Comments - Join the conversation »


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.

Read more about travel in Nicaragua

 

 

Support us on Patreon


3 Comments - Join the conversation »


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.

 

Read more about travel in Nicaragua

 

Support us on Patreon


Leave a comment


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.

 

Read more about travel in Nicaragua

 

Support us on Patreon


Leave a comment


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 Mambacho Volcano.

 

Read more about travel in Nicaragua

 

Support us on Patreon


2 Comments - Join the conversation »


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.

IMG_9724

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

 

Support us on Patreon


1 Comment - Join the conversation


Page 3 of 251234525Last»