Things to do before you die: Go to Nicaragua.
Nicaragua was tacked on to our one-week group tour to Costa Rica. While intriguing, we weren’t sure what being in Nicaragua for just one day would be like. Would it be worth the effort of the border crossing? Would we get sick from the less-potable tap water?
As someone who lives in Los Angeles, one of the country’s most-visited cities by tourists, I often feel a cringe of sympathetic regret for people who come to LA for just a couple days and only see all the horrible touristy sites: Disneyland, Universal Studios, Hollywood Walk of Fame (or the wax museum or Ripley’s Believe it or Not… why??), crowded Venice Beach and its boardwalk and shopping at the Grove or Farmer’s Market or Third Street Promenade. You won’t find any of my favorite parts of Los Angeles in those places (especially not the Grove, which I once described to my boyfriend as “the worst place in the world” - mostly because of the terrible parking situation and the crowds).
But that’s just what tourists do. If you only have a day or two to see a city, you check your guidebook and find the top attractions and go to those. I’ve been to Paris, but have I really experienced Paris or France only through eating at a cafe on Ile-Ste-Louis, climbing the Arc de Triomphe, breezing through the Louvre, walking along the Seine and through the Left Bank, touring Notre Dame and Sainte-Chapelle, going on a barge cruise on the Seine, and taking the “Sommet” elevator to the top of La Tour Eiffel? No. No, I have not. I’m sure most Paris residents would roll their eyes at how many crowded tourist hotspots I hit up versus their favorite spots. I’m sure most other French residents would argue that there is much more of France to see outside of its largest city.
But that is the peril of being a traveler. You can never see as much as you want to see. You probably don’t even have a clue what the most amazing thing in the city is. There is always the promise of, “There’s so much to see, and I can always come back another time.” I am glad that at least I have spent as much time in Los Angeles that I have a good sense of the city. I know about its different neighborhoods, some of its best cuisine, its funky street art and interesting shops and public spaces. As much as I know, I don’t know everything and I learn about and discover new things all the time. You can never really know a place completely, even if you live there, especially if it is a large city.
(But wait, I’m supposed to be talking about Nicaragua. However, as a note, I will advise that you should most definitely visit Sainte-Chapelle - it is worth the line and security check.)
So, Nicaragua. After a reasonably long border check, in which our passports were stamped by both Costa Rican and Nicaraguan authorities, and a visual inspection of our small tour bus, and the collecting of fees, and border agents boarding the bus to examine our passports, we were in Nicaragua.
Nicaragua, in case you did not know, is comprised largely of a massive lake called Lake Nicaragua (good name). We were headed for this lake and the colonial city of Granada, where we would spend the night.
While I know that I don’t really know the country of Nicaragua or the city of Granada well at all, I now present to you a few things that I did in Nicaragua which makes it worthy of a “must visit before you die” kind of place (well, at least for me).
1. Volcanoes. Yes, more than one. We drove to Masaya and its national volcanic park. There were several volcanoes - some dormant, some still steaming - and you could get up close and personal with them. Although our day in Nicaragua was mostly overcast, you could still be impressed by the huge cloud of steam coming from the volcano, lean over slightly and smell the sulfuric smell, and hope that the volcano didn’t decide to start erupting. Because then, I think, you’d be running as far away as you could.
Just steps away from the massive volcano is a dormant crater, dormant for so long that there is a lush forest growing inside. You can see me standing in front of it above. I think I could have looked into this crater for hours, wondering about the life inside of it, what birds and animals call it home, and thinking about how fleeting we are on this planet. I stood on that crater while trees grew and flourished, but only for a moment. We haven’t been here that long and we won’t be here forever.
2. Lakes, Islands, Boat Cruises. After the volcano, our next stop was Lake Nicaragua itself for a tour along Las Isletas. The city of Granada is located directly on Lake Nicaragua, and surrounding the outskirts of the lake is a network of tiny islands. Some of the city’s more distinguished residents call these islands home. You can see large estates, complete with helipads, swimming pools and outdoor sculptures. We slathered on the bug spray and went out exploring. Our guide was enthusiastic and friendly as he pointed out rare and exotic birds to us - king fishers, egrets - and drove the boat slowly enough that we could see tiny sardines jumping out of the water every few seconds to catch mosquitoes. We ogled the mansions, gasped when we learned we could buy an island here for as little as $350,000, and enjoyed the ride.
Then we stopped at a small island only to find monkeys swinging from the trees. We learned that the monkeys were brought there by someone and now live on the island surviving mostly off of food that tourists bring. Three monkeys named Lola, Panchito and Mike approached our boat from just a few feet and gleefully accepted Ritz crackers that we threw on them. Little Lola had a baby monkey on her back, and we all went crazy laughing and snapping photos. Our guide called a bird to come over to us to show us something amazing. Although we were mostly focused on the monkeys, he told us to watch the bird as he gave it a cracker. The bird then used a cracker to attract a sardine from the water, and he promptly captured the little fish, killed it by slapping it against the rocks, and ate it in front of us.
We finished the boat ride with a race against the other boat in our tour group - we were going at maximum speed, crossing each other’s wake, and laughing as the wind rushed in our hair and mosquitoes splattered on our faces. It was a wonderful moment of pure joy.
3. Granada - colonial architecture and charm. If you’ve never been to a Spanish colonial town in Latin America, what are you waiting for? GO! Granada is Nicaragua’s most-visited city and I am sure it is because of its colonial charms. Lots of cobbled streets, flat-front buildings with large, ornate doorways, wide streets with restaurants and bars and a lively nighttime scene. Across from the central park, just steps away from our hotel was a lovely modern church, lit up beautifully at night. Although you’ll be accosted by menu-holding men, it’s still worth a stroll through the streets, shopping from craft vendors or checking out unique shops selling chocolate and cigars.
We stopped for dinner at El Kapuyo, a vegetarian tapas restaurant just off the street from the main restaurant drag, and were amazed by the amount of food we could get for such a little price tag. A deliciously fresh salad, a shared plate of vegetarian tapas, and a yummy dessert of chocolate cake and ice cream - for about $15? You’d never find that in Los Angeles.
4. Beach time. On our way out of Nicaragua, back to Costa Rica, back to another border check, luggage scan, passport stamps, etc., etc. we stopped by the little surfing town of San Juan del Sur. It was overcast, but we still appreciated the time we spent there shopping for beachy souvenirs, swimming out in the bay all the way to where the boats were anchored, getting up close and personal with pelicans, and eating (not me, the vegetarian, but everyone else) plates full of lobster tails.
So there you have it, just a few little things that made Nicaragua a wonderful place to visit, even if I was only there for a brief moment in time.