"I Grew My Boobs in China" and " Backpacks and Bra Straps"
26 year old Canadian, Dutch resident travelling to every country in the world (111 so far) to become the first Canadian female to visit them all. Bestselling travel AUTHOR and founder of popular #TRLT Twitter chat.
And the journey contuniued with Ammon Sasha and Maggie (mom):
I’d have never guessed we’d end up spending more time in Nicaragua than any other country in Central America. It wasn’t by plan and ended up becoming a necessity as we ran into a few problems.
Nicaragua is a bit of a mixed story depending on who you talk to. On one side, it is more politically aligned outside of the US-axis than any other country in Central America having been good friends with Cuba, Iran and the rest of the “other side” in recent history. This all stems from a leftist revolution and take over back in 1979 which led to further messiness and a civil war with US-backed rebels throughout the 80’s. Not that they invented corruption and incompetence (there is a reason the Somoza regime was overthrown in the first place) but like most revolutions worldwide, leadership changes but crappy conditions mostly just stay the same for the little guy.
Despite all this, in the last decade or so Nicaragua had been gaining a pretty solid reputation as the next “Costa Rica” with much better prices and a lot of growth potential on a stable and safe tourism front. Many Americans and Canadians were buying up land for retirement and things were generally looking good. Last year all hell broke loose with a whack of political instability, violent protests, mass repressions and human rights violations by the authorities and suddenly most of the foreigners ran away and tourist-oriented businesses shut down. It was yet another thing to keep my eye on as it looked more and more likely that we would get there this year and it seemed that things had stabilized enough on the safety front and visitors were starting to trickle back in.
We got a direct bus from Liberia to the border. Generally I make a point of taking more obscure and interesting routes and border crossings through countries and have avoided a lot of scam and hassle this way. With Nicaragua we didn’t really have much choice but to take the most popular crossing and although it wasn’t particularly difficult or obnoxious, it was probably the least pleasant border post of our trip. The exit fee for Costa Rica is just stupid and scammy in the way they have a broken official payment machine so you have to pay extra to pay the fee at other booths and of all the people we were to meet and deal with in Nicaragua, the touts and bus drivers at the border were the worst. Not the best start to the day.
Our first destination was Granada, arguably the most touristic place in the country and with a large expat community. If they aren’t living on the beach, they are probably living in Granada. Granada is one of the oldest Spanish settlements in Central America and bills itself as one of the best preserved colonial towns in the region. True. It is cute with its colonial plaza and many of the streets have been repainted in multiple colours so it is all very photogenic and makes for a nice stroll. The churches are looking a little run down but that just gives it a bit more character. It was pretty, quiet and noticeably suffering for a lack of visitors though we saw more here than anywhere else in the country.
Granada’s central plaza
We planned on giving ourselves a couple nights in Granada to see it and then move on. What we didn’t realize until the morning of our departure was that our chosen departure date was a major holiday in Nicaragua and that this one was very politically motivated, having to do with the Sandinista revolution by the (somewhat) current government. With all the troubles lately I guess it was a good excuse for them to really get some serious self-promotion on and so all public bus licences were revoked for the day and suddenly Granada felt like a ghost town. There was virtually no traffic on the roads and the little bus station was completely deserted. What was supposed to have been a simple “get up and relocate a few hours northwest” kind of day became much more interesting. First there was the initial panic of “we aren’t going to be able to get out of this suddenly ghost town and I have a place booked to get to” which was solved when our Granada host suggested a tourist shuttle.
Tourist shuttles are just that, a much more expensive door-to-door service used by most travelers now because of their “ease, safety and comfort”. I would never consider a tourist shuttle under normal circumstances, finding the vans more uncomfortable than buses and lacking in any kind of local flavour. Nevertheless they are faster and were running when nothing else was that day. Our plan was to get to Leon, normally only 2-3 hours away. It took us over 5 hours because shortly after leaving Granada we found all the missing buses and people. It seemed like almost everyone (certainly everyone that wanted to) was in these re-purposed buses heading toward the capital for…..something. We don’t know and never did find out. From the looks of things most were never going to make it in time anyway. The “highway” was gridlocked and our shuttle driver at one point resorted to driving at oncoming traffic on the wrong side of the divided road. This was done at the suggestion of the traffic police until we got busted by a different set of traffic police a while later. The other tourists didn’t complain when we were forced to turn around, backtrack to the nearest roundabout and rejoin the crowds. A few were fairly convinced they were going to die. Highly amusing…
Nicaraguan buses are “chicken buses”, converted North American school buses, in rough shape, usually with a personalized paint job and surely a new engine because I don’t ever remember a school bus at home that could drive like that. Now fill the buses with thousands of excited locals to the point they are riding on the roof waving red and black FSLN flags (from the political party). They’ll spend hours travelling to the capital and maybe get there but it didn’t really look like they cared where they were. Not the way I hope to spend my holidays but maybe Nicaraguans are short of entertainment options.
We made it to Leon in the end. Maybe it was the long weekend or maybe it is always that way, but we found it to be much quieter and more relaxed than Granada. The majority of visitors that come to Leon come for the volcanoes and the cathedral. The cathedral is a unesco-listed one and unique in its fusion of local and colonial styles. It sits on the dusty main plaza amidst other colonial buildings, the likes of which we have grown very accustomed to this past year. It didn’t take long to wander from church to church to check out the various facades, some of which were rather unique (one had dice? carved into it).
Church of the Recollection, Leon
Volcanoes, on the other hand, are very much a part of Central American geography with a long string of them on the west side of the isthmus at fairly regular intervals from Costa Rica all the way into Mexico. We were always within site of one it seemed and climbing or other activities are offered at many in each country. Leon advertises volcano boarding which seems to be more or less sand boarding down a volcano (on the outside). We had ruled out any volcanic activities not only on account of the oppressive heat but also because during the rainy season the tops of the volcanoes are usually covered in cloud. Laziness had nothing to do with it I swear. Instead we made a little day trip to the ruins of Leon Viejo, the original settlement of Leon, one of the oldest in the region having been founded in 1524. It was abandoned in 1610 after multiple earthquakes and issues with the nearby active volcano which subsequently buried the site. It wasn’t rediscovered until 1967 and parts of it have been uncovered and partially restored though it is mostly just the general layout and the bases of walls that remain. It lies beside the second largest lake in Nicaragua and has nice views of the nearby volcanoes as well. The ruins are obviously not as popular as volcanoes to most tourists these days because we were the only people visiting and the village beside the ruins was incredibly quiet with almost nothing catering to possible visitors.
Momotombo volcano from the lake shore near Leon Viejo
From Leon we made our way to Potosi, a tiny village at the end of a peninsula in the northwest of the country. Our plan was to take a boat from Potosi across the small Gulf of Fonseca to reach El Salvador. We needed to do this route because I was rapidly running out of space in my passport for anything but the bare minimum of stamps to finish our trip and this was the only way to avoid entering Honduras without flying. Unfortunately, after checking into our little guesthouse in Potosi, mom discovered that her bag had been rifled through on the bus and her valuables had been stolen, including her passport. They warn you about this kind of thing and it sucks, but the worst part of it is that the process of replacing a passport ends up more costly (in money but especially time) than what was actually taken in the first place. Let’s just say that I was not happy and the whole ordeal put us about 10 days behind schedule before we got back to Potosi and on track again. So close to the end, and having just bought our flight home based on a different schedule and itinerary, there was plenty of frantic planning on my part to come up with something new. In the meantime we had to backtrack to the Canadian embassy in Managua and after applying for a new passport, returned to Granada again to sit and wait a week for it to arrive.
We had to spend a little time in Managua so got a chance to see it as well. There is not much in Managua that is very exciting to be honest. There was a ton of heavy security lining the streets while we were there though I got the impression it was for a political event and not the usual amount. The only really potentially touristic area is along the lakefront but it was closed for security reasons. The most interesting attraction ended up being a partial viewing of the old cathedral which was abandoned after an earthquake damaged it in 1972.
The abandoned Managua cathedral
Central Managua. These giant “trees” light up at night.