Tucked away roughly 45 minutes from the Guatemalan border lies the often forgotten town of Copan Ruinas. Having falling off of the main tourist track, due to the country itself being in somewhat political turmoil, this charming town seems to be surviving, despite the lack of visitors. What it lacks in numbers, it makes up in warmth and friendliness; in fact, the hotel we stayed in was our favourite of the entire trip for host friendliness and helpfulness. We stayed at Hotel Cuna Maya, a family run hotel, and every morning included a freshly cooked breakfast consisting of eggs, plantain, guacamole, beams and ham. The family were always on hand to help, regardless of a somewhat complicated language barrier!
Arriving in Copan in time for dinner was just what we needed, and we headed straight for Café ViaVia, a great restaurant and bar with a quiet, relaxed atmosphere. This is also a well priced hostel, and they offer some well priced tours, excursions and travel options.
Our first morning in Copan was dedicated to the ruins that lay on the outskirts of town. An easy 20 minute walk from the main square, these ruins are the towns main attraction and on a good day, are very serene and peaceful. We hardly saw any other visitors (whether that’s due to Honduras being advised against travel whilst we were there, or just because bigger parks of more impressive ruins are to be found in neighbouring Guatemala, I’m not sure), and this allowed us to really take our time to explore, and enjoy our stay in Copan Ruinas.
Having made the ruins their home, a huge amount of red macaws live within the area encompassed by the grounds. It is very entertaining spending some time with these birds and watching them feed, fly, and communicate with each other. Having not spent enough time with these birds, we spent the rest of the afternoon at Macaw Mountain, a small holding dedicated to tropical birds and their rehabilitation.
Consider getting a taxi here if you will visit straight after the ruins. It is a long walk uphill, and at our time of visiting, the main bridge for vehicles connecting the road the park is located to the main town was broken. We walked the long taxi route, when we should have got a taxi ourselves. Tuktuks wait at the ruins to take you anywhere and are inexpensive.
I have a fairly laid back mind set when it comes to …. and public transport, but be aware that Central American transport is not the same. We had arranged (and paid for!) a transfer with ….. (US$ ) and it was due to pick us up at 11am from our hotel in Copan. After half an hour of waiting, our friendly hotel landlady phoned the company who told us they would be with us shortly. In actual fact, the bus had forgotten to pick us up and, having already crossed through to Guatemala, had to illegally pass back through to Honduras, and back to Copan to collect us! If your gut is telling you to check, do it! We would have missed this transfer completely, and running only once a day, we couldn’t afford to not reach Antigua that evening.
Our Hotel: Cuna Maya
The hotel that we stayed at in Copan Ruinas was one of the best hotels of our stay. A fantastic family ran hotel (the three young boys are very helpful!) with great wifi, air conditioning, and an extremely tasty breakfast. Good cost, and super friendly. Would 100% recommend!
After a wonderful few days of laying by the beach, drinking $1 beers, and discovering underwater treasures, we were due to the catch the morning ferry across to mainline Honduras when suddenly, we realised that we didn’t have enough cash to pay for our taxi to the ferry port in the morning as well as our ferry tickets if they didn’t take card payment. The ATM’s in the West End were empty when we tried to get some, and we struggled the next morning (we were travelling early Sunday morning and ATMs hadn’t been refilled yet!) to find another that was working. Eventually, we managed to get some cash at the airport (cash machine in the terminal building), and when we arrived at the ferry terminal, realised they did have card machines and just paid with that!
We paid US$25 to get to from the West End to the ferry terminal, which is in Dixon Cove.
Galaxy Wave offers two departures daily, leaving Roatán at 7:00am and 2:00pm. These then return to the island, leaving La Ceiba at 9:30am and 4:30pm. They recommend that passengers check-in around an hour before departure, but we rocked up about half an hour before and were fine. The only point to stress is that these tickets cannot be purchased online for international passengers, and so if the ferry happens to be full (there is a lot of local footfall), you will have to wait until afternoon which could ruin your onward travel plans – maybe we were lucky!
The crossing takes around 75 minutes and currently, a one-way ticket Roatán to La Ceiba costs US$32 (~£23). You can also travel in first class, which is in a separate area upstairs, but this really isn’t necessary. Check out their website for updated prices and schedules.
On arrival at La Ceiba, there is a long line of tables greeting you as you disembark. Passengers queue up and wait for luggage to be unloaded and placed on the tables for you to grab an attendants attention and swap your luggage tags for your bags. Be prepared for slaughterhouse type fighting – I’ve never seen a collection of folk scramble before like it! Hold your ground, split up if there’s more than just you, and you’ll be fine!
Unfortunately, the only direct bus from La Ceiba to Copán Ruinas is operated by Hedman Alas and departs at 05:15am. This takes around 8 hours, but at least you arrive in Copan by around 1pm. As we were still on Roatán at this time, this wouldn’t be possible. In fact, when we were almost going to miss the ferry because of the ATM debacle, our next plan was to get the later ferry to the mainland and stay the night in La Ceiba to take this direct bus the next morning! This could potentially be preferential, as the party scene in La Ceiba is meant to be quite good, so it’s worth considering an extra evening here to then travel in comfort!
On exiting the ferry terminal, we flagged down a taxi (not hard – there’s lots of them) to take us to the bus station (most non-luxury buses use the main terminal which is at Mercado San José). We were planning on getting a 09:30am bus which is ran by Catisa or Contraibal. This is not what happened though. We got taken straight to another bus terminal which was ran by the company Trans-Mirna, who we had heard of, but not what we wanted! It was 09:15am by now, and they informed us that the next was at 11am. Knowing that we had probably missed the bus we were aiming for, and knowing we were quite a way from the main terminal, we decided to wait. We paid 121 HNL (£3.50/US$5) each for our tickets.
The fun really began at San Pedro Sula bus station. We were arriving into the bus terminal at 1:45pm, and we knew that there was a 2pm bus leaving to Copán Ruinas that we wanted to be on. We jumped off of the bus, and tried to find out way around the terminal, soon realising it was vast. There are lots of shops and a huge food area, but eventually we found the window for Casasola. We had just missed the 2pm as it was full, but the next (and last) was at 3pm. We had an hour to chill with some food and drink, which actually was a blessing having been travelling since 6am! We paid 140 HNL (£4.25/US$6) each for our tickets.
Be aware that if you don’t think you are going to make this 3pm bus from San Pedro Sula, you will not make it to Copán Ruinas on this day! Budget hotels in San Pedro Sula are mostly in the downtown area south of Parque Central and this area is very dodgy after dark. Hostels tend to be in the more suburban areas, and you may struggle to find any on just walking around. If you know that you are leaving La Ceiba too late to make it, I’d suggest staying put and making your journey the next day as early as possible. Honduras can be a dangerous place.
This bus was long! We sat at the front of the bus so we could see the road ahead – bad decision. After a few hours, having been stuck in traffic too, it started to get dark, and the roads started to get worse. There were no street lights, and the headlights on the bus weren’t working particularly well. It was a miracle we arrived in Copan Ruinas in one piece!
Roatán is the largest and most developed of the Bay Islands off the coast of Honduras. Long and thin (50km long, but only 2km to 4km wide), the island is a real diving and snorkelling hub – almost all of its coastline is surrounded by a diverse coral reef teeming with tropical fish. Set 65km off the Caribbean coast of Honduras, Roatán sits a golden jewel. Sandy beaches, cheap food and drink, and a surprisingly great vibe for an island whose mainland is currently experiencing the worst political unrest it has faced in years.
Roatán attracts a far more midrange crowd than its neighbouring island, Utila, with far more budget options for sleeping and eating. The main hub for backpackers is in West End, which is where we decided to stay.
On arrival at Juan Manuel Gálvez International Airport in Coxen Hole (the ‘capital’ of Roatán), we haggled with taxi drivers to get to West End. We tried to share with a few other tourists that had been on our flight, but as the drivers here price per person rather than per journey, we weren’t really able to get it any cheaper. We had read in the Lonely Planet that a colectivo runs from the highway just outside the airport. We tried to strategy but could not find any kind of bus stop, or see any minibuses running. As we were about to give up, a taxi arrived dropping somebody off, and agreed to take us to the West End to US$10 (£7) for the entire journey, instead of the US$30 they wanted inside the airport compound. Maybe we were getting an unlicensed taxi, but it saved us money and was quick and easy!
A point to remember if you visit the island; there are only a few ATMs on the island, and most of the time these don’t work! The most reliable ATM is at the airport in the terminal building. There is one in the West End, but it tends to be emptied fairly quickly in an attempt to curb crime. Make sure you have enough cash for your entire time on the island – not all restaurants and bars accept card! We had a bit of a nightmare trying to get cash out on our way to the 7am ferry off of the island when we realised we wouldn’t have enough cash to pay our taxi driver!
Eating in the West End
There are a couple of really good haunts in the West End that the regulars will always swear by. Luckily, a lot of the finest eateries are based in the West End as there is so much more passing trade.
Creoles Rotisserie Chicken is described in the Lonely Planet as an “island institution.” It is exactly that. Umming and ahhing at the entrance, a local passed us and told us it was the best on the island. It offers excellent Honduran-style roast chicken (we had the half chicken and a number of sides including rice, carrot salad, and coleslaw). Let me say this; the chicken here was better than any creole chicken we’ve had, even in New Orleans!
Cannibal Café was the next choice for us. Seriously large tacos are a specialty with traditional Central American food in this relaxed eatery. We got stuck in a massive rain storm having finished our food, so kicked back with a few more Salva Vida’s (Honduran beers). Matt had a huge chimichanga, and I had sizzling chicken fajitas. This place also offers wine at an affordable price, which was a rare treat on Roatán!
Activities whilst on Roatán
Half Moon Bay, which forms the northern part of the West End, is a lovely sandy beach, with sheltered water. The few days we were on the island wasn’t the best weather, and because of this we only really had a little time on the beach, but I think this would be the best bet if it were complete beach weather.
Diving and snorkelling are obviously top of the list when it comes to activities other than lounging by the sea. There are a number of different companies based in the West End. We went with Eco Divers as they were offering a discount through our hotel. We paid US$15 each for an hour trip, and we basically had free reign of exploring. We were the only people snorkelling on the particular trip, and so we were joined by a few others doing scuba diving (one of whom was doing their first deep sea dive!) and once we were dropped off, we were allowed to swim freely for 40 minutes. We had a great vibe from the instructors, and a successful first snorkel! They even let us borrow the equipment for a couple of hours before to have a little swim around in the bay to get used to it, as it had been so long since either of us had done it. Check out a video here!
Being on Roatán for the weekend felt entirely different to what I thought it would. The island felt a lot more American than Central American, and it was easy to forget it’s Spanish roots being out on an island in the easy Caribbean. Honduras is currently experiencing a very bad political scene, but out in the Caribbean life is easier and there are no worries. We just hoped that the next few days travelling across mainland Honduras would be just as easy…
After our 48 hours in Granada were complete, we planned our trip up to the capital, Managua. We had arrived into Granada in style (okay – only a private taxi, but this felt luxury to us after a week of public transport!), but were planning on a much cheaper route this time.
Just south from Parque Central, on Calle Vega, is a bus station where shuttles run between Granada and Managua. Before even arriving at the station, a shuttle was leaving, and the bus boy grabbed our luggage and threw it onto the top of the bus in the middle of the road. We hopped on and realised it was completely full, so stood at the back of the bus clutching our backpacks. We paid 120NIO (70p/US$1) for ourselves and our backpacks (charged as a passenger!) and the journey took about an hour.
On arrival at the shuttle stop in Managua, we realised we were a 20 minute journey from our hostel. Gaby, our hotel manager in Granada, had warned us not to use the local buses in Managua. It’s too busy, takes too long, and is too complicated for two limited Spanish speaking Brits! We flagged down a taxi, but couldn’t explain where we were going and the driver didn’t understand our broken “Casa… Aeropuerto… Mañana…” Our second taxi driver again spoke limited English, but we were able to explain our hostel was right next to the airport. We had the cunning idea to phone the hostel and ask them to speak to the driver directly! I’ll remember that next time!
We stayed at the Flying Hostel – quite possibly the strangest place we stayed on the trip. It’s a converted house, in a gated community (hopefully for security!), and operates hourly shuttles to the airport. People obviously don’t spend an awful lot of time here, but it was fine for 5 hours sleep before our 4am shuttle to the airport.
We decided to fly to Roatan with Avianca (via San Salvador) and paid around ~£350 (~US$500), which is quite expensive for such a short flight, but well worth it considering the amount of miles we were travelling. The journey by land covers 775km and was a non-stop 13 hour trip which we had no idea how to even start! Yes, we could have stopped at Matagalpa in Nicaragua, or some spots in Honduras, but we simply didn’t have the time in our schedule. Sometimes speed and comfort out-trumps budget!
Enveloping visitors with the unmistakable sense of stepping into tropical Spain, arriving in the beautifully humid city of Granada in Nicaragua was truly a breathtaking experience. After being fairly secluded on Ometepe (and before that spending time in the cloud forest in Costa Rica), it was welcome change to see beautiful colonial architecture and to finally have some scorching sun. It’s clear to see why so many travellers use the city as a base, with such beautiful cobblestone roads full to the brim of magnificent photogenic elegance, to stunning attractions a short journey into the countryside, this city has it all. Here’s our top pick of things to see!
Top things to do in Granada
1. Climb the staircase at the Iglesia La Merced at sunset
Make sure you visit half an hour before sunset (sunset was at 5:30pm so we arrived at 4:45pm in January as the tower officially closes at 5pm). The view from the top is incredible and you can stay until they kick you out! It only costs 30NIO (about 70p/US$1) to climb the stairs up to the top of the clock tower, so you have no excuse not to go!
2. See the Masaya Volcano at night
It’s an hour drive from Granada, but visiting the active Volcano has to be high on your to-do list. Make sure you do the night tour – during the day you won’t get the full experience of the bright lava or feel the heat of it! I have never before seen an active volcano, and it did not disappoint! We paid US$35 each for our night tour with Erik’s tours. Once you arrive at the park entrance, you will sit in traffic for a long time. We arrived at about 5pm, but didn’t get into the viewing point until 7:15pm! They let a certain amount of vehicles in for 15 minute slots, and so if it’s busy you could be waiting a while! It will help if your driver gets fed up easily – ours did and so was overtaking people on the way up! Once your 15 minutes at the top are up, there is a small, informative museum to walk through (and bathrooms to visit) before you are whisked back into the van and driven back to Granada
As part of our volcano trip, we decided to visit the Masaya hand craft market. If you are set on visiting, a quick twenty minutes here would suffice – every item for sale is available in every other shop, and it almost seems as though everything has just been bought in bulk and imported in. I’d possibly say don’t bother; not quite the hand craft market we had hoped!
The pickup from the market to the volcano was also very late – we were worried that they had forgotten us, but we had learnt that Nicaraguan time is something of fluidity – times are rarely stuck to, but nobody seems bothered by this at all. Something will happen, just not when locals tell you it will!
When we arrived at Erik’s office to pay, the saleswoman tried to charge us far more than we were quoted. Luckily we had our email conversations handy and we paid US$35 per person for the Masaya Market and Volcano trip (instead of the US$55 she wanted from us originally!). We had heard similar stories about the same woman from other people on the trip, and the prices seemed to vary between people we spoke to on the trip!
3. Visit the Laguna de Apoya for a day of relaxing by the lake.
There are a few ‘resorts’ in the area that you pay for a day entry to use their area. We paid US$14 each for entry into the Laguna Beach Club (which was lovely and relaxing, and has free kayaks/body boards to use) and a return shuttle from the main office in Granada with Eric’s tours (for some reason, this isn’t listed on their website). We even managed to work out a trip to the Laguna, travel to the market, and then the evening volcano tour as one package. You can also get a taxi, or find similar shuttles from other tour operators.
4. Book a boat trip touring the Isletas
We paid US$27 per person for a morning boat trip, again with Erik’s Tours, around the 365 small islands found off of Granada in Lake Nicaragua. We had a beautiful couple of hours with just one other passenger exploring the different islands, and seeing the famous monkey islands.
5. Get a free cocoa tour at the Museo de Chocolate
The free tour at the Chocolate Museum (they also have museums in Guatemala, Peru, Columbia, Mexico) is worth a visit. The staff will explain to you how cocoa is grown and harvested, and transformed into the chocolate we know and love, with a bit of history along with it. There is no expectation that you have to buy something after, but why wouldn’t you?! The chocolate tastes great, and you can buy other treats like chocolate tea, chocolate liquors, fudge, brownies, and even chocolate beer!
6. Lounge by the exclusive pool hidden behind the Chocolate Museum
Tucked away at the rear of the Museum (you have to walk through the courtyard) you will find the most beautiful spot for sunbathing and swimming. There is a bar and changing rooms, so you don’t need anything else! We spent a couple of hours in the scorching afternoon sun.
We booked the same taxi driver that collected us from Moyagulpa port on our arrival on the island to take us back for the boat the next day. He charged us slightly more than the first time as we were two people instead of four people sharing, but we bartered down to US$30 for the whole journey. This was still cheaper than a newly flagged taxi would have been.
Try to keep a card from a taxi driver if you intend on staying somewhere for a while and will need to take more cabs. Although you may think that the drivers are just touting for business, once they have delivered you safely, sometimes their repeat services are a godsend when you cannot find an alternative.
We arrived at the ferry port at 10:50am expecting to get the 11:30am ferry, but after paying 50NIO (£1.15/$1.60) each (15NIO more expensive than the boat that we took on the way), the ferry left at around 11:10am. I assume our early departure was because the ferry was full.
This ferry was a lot bigger, and if you are prone to seasickness, I would certainly recommend the ferry over the boat – it is a much smoother ride!
When we arrived after 70 minutes, we were planning to get to Rivas bus station and find the local bus to Granada (which departs every 90 minutes or so, taking around 2 hours). However, we tried out some poor Spanish to barter with a taxi driver who was offering to take us straight to Granada. We settled on this route for US$30. Up until this point, we’d been relying on local transport to take us on our journeys wherever we could, but on this occasion we were keen to get to Granada and explore the city having been enjoying the quiet lift on the Isla de Ometepe, so deemed US$30 was worth the extra speed and efficiency!
The island of Ometepe comprises two volcanoes; Concepción in the north, which is still active, and Maderas in the south which is dormant. The small island has one main road which rings around Concepción, another road which rings around Maderas, and a third road which links the first two.
The main purpose of our visit to Isla Ometepe was to relax for New Years. We had treated ourselves to an Ecolodge which we had paid for months in advance, and it was perfectly secluded up a bumpy dirty track which took about 15 minutes to drive, and almost destroyed the underneath of any car that dared to venture on it. (This began to become a hassle rather than a treat, as if we wanted to leave the hotel to explore the island we had to pay US$8 to get to the main road. It took about 40 minutes to walk the dirt track, which we did on our first night after eating in Balgüe, but decided it was too much effort after a nice meal!). If we were to return, we would definitely stay in accommodation by the main road, even though our lodge was beautiful. Seclusion has its down sides!
All hamlets on the island are built up around the main road. We stayed in a lodge closest to Balgüe (and Santa Cruz), which in recent years has evolved into one of Nicaragua’s prime destinations for tourism. The best way to get around the island is by bike. It is a long walk between most hamlets, with just farmland and residential areas between the more built up areas.
As it was New Year’s Eve, we only found one restaurant open in Balgüe, which was Cafe Comprende. The meal was lovely, but the restaurant was probably suffering a little from the influx of hungry travellers, it being the only place open. We had heard good things about an Argentinian steakhouse called El Bamboo down the road, but this was closed during our stay. After our hike back to the hotel, we had a drink in the quiet hotel bar and played some games. Without a big party, we simply enjoyed the reclusiveness of the lodge, before watching fireworks across the lake from our patio at midnight.
The next day we got a taxi to Ojo de Agua (“the eye of the water”) – a small swimming hole which was about a 20 minute cab journey away. We would have got the bus from the main road, but being the holidays, it wasn’t running! We paid US$15 to get there and then US$5 each to get in. The hole was beautiful but busy with locals enjoying the sunshine. It would be nice to return on a quieter day to experience the relaxing pool and enjoy a Toña or two by the waterside.
We decided to walk back to our hotel, and this took around two hours, but included a beachside walk, and then a stop in a bar in Santa Cruz for a beer during a sudden downpour.
Other possible activities that we decided not to do during our stay included horseback riding, kayaking on Lake Nicaragua or (for the very adventurous!) a climb up the dormant volcano. Ometepe certainly has its fill of possibilities and many different areas to explore. We chose a relaxing few days, especially in light of our adventures in Granada which was the next stop on the itinerary!
Having spent five wonderful (but expensive) nights in Costa Rica, we were ready to cross into our next country. Having read a lot of horror stories about the Nicaraguan border, we were nervous but excited for the trip.
We had pre-booked a shuttle through CaribeShuttle.com to pick us up at our hostel in Santa Elena, Monteverde at 6am and take us to Liberia. This shuttle runs only once a day, and at US$35 per person, was the most expensive form of transport for us (bar other flights) but it was by far the best way to travel in this instance.
It was just us and another couple on the shuttle to Liberia, so it was nice and quiet, but the road to the highway was pretty rough. It went from perfectly smooth tarmac to bumpy stones every thousand metres or so, which really didn’t make for a smooth ride! After about an hour along this road (with some pretty stunning views if you aren’t fast asleep – see above) and half an hour on the highway, we arrived at the Santa Rosa Plaza, where the bus was terminating (likely following a short coffee stop just outside of Liberia). I thought it might be more of a bus station, but was literally a car park for a shopping centre!
Don’t fall for the taxi and shuttle drivers offering to take you from Liberia to Peñas Blancas or beyond. It is a five minute walk from the shuttle Park to the bus station and buses leave regularly (and transport beyond the border is easy and cheap too!)
As we reached the bus station, we saw a Peñas Blancas (the border) bus sitting ready to leave. We were able to get our luggage on and paid around US$4 each for us and the luggage (and receiving some change in colónes) before two other travellers joined, and the bus left!
The fun really begun at the border. We had heard so many nightmare stories about how people were queueing for up to five hours around Christmas, and we were worried the same would happen today on New Year’s Eve. An international bus had arrived moments before we arrived, so we were keen to be speedy and miss these passengers!
The first thing to do at the border is to pay your exit tax. When you arrive, there will be people calling for this and leading you to a shady looking building about 500 yards away. There we paid our exit taxes (around US$8 each). The next thing to do is to go to the border office. This is found to the right of the border, and there you get your passports stamped for exit. We then started walking through the border, which is a long, unpaved road between the two countries. We passed border security who made sure we had paid and had our passports stamped. Arriving at the Nicaraguan side, we then had to pay US$1 each at the door (we had used all of our small notes for the bus) and around ~US$12 each entrance fee (you can pay in US dollars if you don’t already have Nicaraguan Córdoba – “NIO”) at the desk where our passports were stamped for entry. We did this whole process in the wrong order at first, so it took a lot longer to retrace our footsteps than it should have!
Make sure you have lots of small US dollar notes for border taxes and exit/entrance
Take public transport where you can – it’s quick and cheap – the only place we couldn’t find it available was getting out of Monteverde to the nearest city, Liberia
Pay your exit tax as soon as you get to Peñas Blancas, and then start your walk through the border – ask somebody if you are unsure
We changed US$25 into NIO with somebody sat outside the office who had an official badge (we bartered to get a better rate!) and then as we were walking away, saw a chicken bus heading to Rivas about to leave. We jumped onto the bus and clutching our bags in the overhead shelf, we stood for the 45 minute journey to Rivas. This cost us 20NIO each.
Unsure where we were getting off, I kept an eye on the map, aware we had to get to San Jorge ferry terminal to catch our boat to Ometepe. The bus guard also knew this and shouted us off and helped us down with our bags.
Two different type of boats service the island; a boat costing 35NIO and a bigger ferry costing 50NIO. If you are prone to seasickness, the ferry is a much smoother ride. Ferries run less frequently though. The Ometepe website also advises that only the ferries run on a Sunday – this wasn’t the case for us, but that may have been because it was holiday season – we weren’t quite sure!
It was 11:40am and a 15 minute drive away, meaning the midday ferry we hoped to be on would be tight. We haggled with a taxi driver (difficult when he knows the ferry was leaving in 20 minutes) and he drove us to the ferry terminal for US$10 (we should have been able to get this for about US$5). We arrived with time to spare, but one of the ticket windows informed us it was too late. Somebody from another window came and told us the next smaller boat (not the ferry) was at 12:30pm and we could buy tickets from him. We bought our tickets for 35NIO, along with another couple who were also travelling to the island for ‘Año Nuevo’, and managed to get a taxi sorted for the journey on to our hotels from the arriving port for US$10 per person.
The boat was choppy, and took around 75 minutes, but we were rewarded with excellent views of the Isla Ometepe, and the two volcanos. Our pre-booked taxi driver was waiting for us on the other side, and we spent around 45 minutes driving around the island before our drop off at our ecolodge Totoco at around 2:30pm. The alternative would be to take Ometepe’s public bus. This wasn’t running over the holidays, but would be cheaper (and slower of course!)
The island of Ometepe is composed of two volcanoes, Concepción, which is still active, and the extinct Maderas. The small island has one main road which rings around the north volcano, Concepción, another road which rings around the southern volcano, Maderas, and a third road which links the two. The majority of the boat services run to Moyogalpa, which is on the north west of the island. There are some services that run to San José del Sur, which is to the south of the northern volcano. If you are staying south of the island, the San José ferry would save you some time once you are there, but the journey from Moyogalpa isn’t too long anyway!
Overall, a perfectly reasonable journey for what we thought could end up being a bit of a nightmare. We checked in for two evenings and brought in the new year! Read what we got up to in the next post!
We had arrived at the gateway of the Arenal Volcano National Park without concern, and were excited to explore the tropical rainforests and the clear waters of the Rio Fortuna. Our first exciting adventure was a night tour we had pre-booked with Arenal Natura Ecological Park which cost us US$44 per person (and US$9 round trip travel per person) – this was a really fun couple of hours with a small group (6 of us), and we saw different types of frogs, birds, insects, and the parks crocodiles. From talking to people later on in the trip however, it seemed like the nature walk in Monteverde was actually better, so if you are planning to visit there too, maybe plump for that instead.
The next day we went to the hanging bridges which cost US$26 per person (and US$11 round trip travel per person). This was a great walk through the forest, spotting wildlife and crossing the huge suspension bridges, which takes about an hour to walk through (you don’t need a guide!).
We then visited Rio Fortuna, which is a 200ft waterfall set some 200 steps down through the rock. We swam in the pools below, and climbed over the rocks to stand in awe of the waterfall. The swell and the current is so strong you can’t actually swim in the main pool, but you can feel the energy from standing at the shore alone. It cost US$15 per person to enter the area, which is reinvested into local conservation efforts, and we paid US$8 for a taxi each way (you can phone for a taxi when you are ready to leave at the parks information desk).
Later that evening, we visited Baldi Hot Springs, a natural hot spring resort with 25 different mineral pools. The steep entrance price of US$45, which includes a buffet dinner too, was well worth it. A taxi here was US$6.
Remember your own towel – their deposit charge is expensive
Try not to bring too many valuables with you – the non-refundable fee for a locker is expensive
Link your card with a wristband when you enter, so you don’t have to keep paying as you go, which will be annoying when you’re in the pool bar and your bag is not nearby
We found in Costa Rica, more than anywhere, that USD was more widely used with tourist activities. For cheaper purchases, like snacks and taxi journeys we tended to pay in colónes, and if we paid in dollars, were given a huge array of Costa Rican coins. This is also the country we found the most expensive. It obviously has a much larger tourism scene than most other Central American countries, and maybe they are capitalising on this. Activities were also spread out with no public transport available, so plenty of taxis are required.
We liked our hostel, Arenal Backpackers Resort, and chose a fancy tent complete with wifi, electricity, and a fan! In hindsight though, I think we would prefer to spend the money on a dorm room, or even pay for a private room, as logistically the tent was a bit of a nightmare (and we came away with most of our clothes feeling and smelling damp after our first three days!)
The next morning we took the taxi-boat-taxi to Monteverde. We had prebooked this with Anywhere.com and paid US$25 per person, but our hostel offered this for US$20. It’s one of the most common things for people to do leaving La Fortuna, so don’t worry about booking ahead. You can definitely save money by arranging the day before you leave with multiple hostels and travel agencies in town. These run at 8am or 2pm.
We were collected at about 8:30am, and given a number on a post-it note. This, we were helpfully told by another tourist, was the bus number we needed on the other side of the water. From La Fortuna, the drive to the ferry port is about 20 minutes (in fact, it’s on the way to the Hanging Bridges Trail) and there, the shuttle empties onto a boat. Our boat seemed to be having a few speed issues, but we bumbled along, able to take in the tremendous views of the volcano.
We found our second bus on the other side, and found our driver. It was now apparent that the buses were divided by destination; we were staying in Santa Elena, a small town just next to the town of Monteverde (the area in general is called Monteverde because of the cloud forest, but most people stay in Santa Elena due to its close proximity).
It took about two hours (including an unnecessary stop at a restaurant) to get to Monteverde, and we were dropped off at our hostel, Casa Tranquilo. We had found this place in a Lonely Planet (“LP”) guide and were really pleased with it. Nice private rooms and bathrooms, with communal areas and a kitchen area too. We wandered into town once we had checked in, and decided to book a zip lining tour that afternoon. We paid US$45 per person, including travel, with the Original Canopy Tour.
There is an abundance of canopy tour companies in Monteverde, each offering something slightly different. We found Extreme Adventures had mostly the same basic zip line tour, but also offered a superman type wire. The overall price was more, and you had less time, and covered less wires, so we decided to go with the Original Canopy Tour, who again were recommended in the LP.
We both really enjoyed this activity. We jumped off of Tarzan ropes and zip lined 16 different wires, the last two being the longest and the highest, an exhilarating 800m across and out of the forest, and also offering the best views of the continental divide between the Pacific and the Caribbean (see video below!)
There is a lot of choice when deciding where to eat in Santa Elena, and we went for the Treehouse, which is a restaurant built around a tree! Good Costa Rican food, and a fun atmosphere (but a bit of a tourist trap – the food was a little more expensive than other less exciting venues.)
The next day we booked on a coffee, chocolate & sugar plantation tour with El Trapiche, a family run farm. It was fascinating to see how each crop was grown, harvested, and prepared, ready for sale. We got to sample everything! Well worth the US$33 per person including transport.
The bus to the Monteverde cloud forest itself runs every hour and a half from Santa Elena (or thereabouts – check with your hotel, as a couple of bus times have recently been cancelled, and you wouldn’t want to get caught out), so determined to not let the rain dampen our spirits, we jumped on the 1:30pm and paid just over US$1 each (we paid with US$2 and a few Costa Rican coins). This took about half an hour and we paid US$20 each to enter the park. Sensibly, the park guards make you sign in and tell them which form of transport you arrived on, so they know not to let the last bus leave without you! They gave us a map and told us the routes we should take with the time we had before the park closed. We were sheltered for the majority of the time from the rain as a lot of the walks were covered by the foliage, but a few of the paths were exposed and so were very muddy.
That evening we ate at Taco Taco (the best tacos in Costa Rica) and spent the evening with hostel guests, who had become new friends. We did not get the early night we should probably have had considering we were rising early to cross our first border, and to reach our next destination; the beautiful twin-volcano island of Ometepe, situated in Nicaragua’s vast Lake Nicaragua. More on those next few days to come!
Here it was. The trip we had been planning for over six months. Our respective families had digital and hard copies of our itinerary (we had spent the holidays split between two families – the perils of two mothers wanting to see their sons on Christmas Day!), and we had spent weeks collecting piles of toiletries and clothes we thought we might want or need whilst away and packed them all into our rucksacks. A last minute repack of Christmas stocking sun tan lotions and insect repellent and we were good to go! Boxing Day saw us take the direct flight from London Gatwick to San José, the capital of Costa Rica.
San José airport was fairly easy to navigate; the queue at immigration and customs was minimal, and our luggage was fairly quick to arrive. This was all very welcome after 11 and a half hours on a plane! We were hounded by taxi drivers as soon as we walked through arrivals, but they were pretty quick to leave us alone once we made it clear we were going local.
We found the bus stop on the main highway outside the airport, and waited for a San José bus (the majority that arrived were heading to Alejuela). We told the bus conductor at the stop we were heading there and he shouted to us when the right bus was there, and paid C$550 (around 70p/$1) each. It was full and we stood the whole way, but it was only about half an hour, and a lot cheaper than the $20 taxi drivers wanted!
We stayed at Hotel Novo, which we had worked out was right next to the bus drop off so that we didn’t have to walk much. The room was fairly basic and had no windows, but the city was dark, dirty and noisy, and so we weren’t missing out on much. We probably missed out on some potentially interesting sights to see in San José, but wanting to kick off our busy itinerary straight away we decided that a quick one night turnaround in the capital city was best.
We made sure that we visited the bus terminal that evening before our journey the next day (T7-10), conveniently located near to our hotel as well. We paid C$2495 (£3.20/$4.50) each for our 8:40am bus to La Fortuna (Arenal). The buses leave from the ground floor to the right of the station, but you have to buy your ticket from the ticket office on the second floor (we were able to buy our ticket the night before).
We arrived the next morning at about 7:50am and Matt asked where the queue was for the bus and the bus guard pointed to an empty lane, and then announced it to the crowded bus station. Scores of people then joined the queue behind us, and when it was time, Matt took the two rucksacks to the hold, and I took our day bags onto the bus to secure front seats. The bus took just over four hours, which was only a little over the scheduled time. The best thing about public buses, apart from the obvious cost benefits, is that they run non-stop, unlike the tourists shuttles or minibuses where stopping at services is common.