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!