Nicaragua, like it’s neighbor Costa Rica, is a volcanic paradise. Dotted with lakes, lush forests, and rolling hills; Nicaragua is stunningly beautiful.
I’m going to be totally honest with you: given the news headlines in the US, I didn’t know what to expect in Nicaragua. Since my Spanish is practically non-existent, I thought a guided tour would be the best and safest way to see the highlights.
The tour left at 4:30am from my accommodation in Tamarindo. I’m pretty sure I was sleep walking. One of our guides, Paul, explained to us that it was a 2 hour drive to the border where we would exit the van, walk across the border, and join a second driver with a different van in Nicaragua. I’ve crossed many borders via car before but nothing compared to this experience.
Traffic started backing up about 10km from the border. Paul told us the computer system routinely crashes causing backups that can extend for days. The road was blocked and there was no space to move forward…. so we decided to drive along the shoulder for the remaining 7km. Unfortunately, the paved shoulder was only about 2 feet wide and our 12 passenger van was at a 45 degree tilt towards the ditch. For a minute, I thought we would tip over.
Once we arrived at the crossing, our guide took our passports and arranged everything with the officials. This part was pretty painless- because of the tour company’s “connections” we were able to skip the lines and crossed in about twenty minutes.
One of our first stops in Nicaragua were the Isletas de Granada. This cluster of tiny private islands is located in Lake Nicaragua, central America’s largest lake, near the city. Today, foreigners and wealthy families have built homes on islands which are only accessible by boat. There are also a few islands with restaurants that are open to the public.
We took a boat ride through the islands and stopped to feed plantains to a few of the monkeys living there. Unlike in Southeast Asia, these monkeys were too timid to approach humans. We mostly threw the fruit onto the ground although one did take fruit from my hand.
Following the protests last Spring, tourism has almost completely dried up. The church, one of Granada’s most famous landmarks, was empty on a Saturday afternoon. The cafes lining the square, with English menus plastered on the walls, were empty. Our guide told us there used to be a cruise ship a day visiting Granada via San Juan del Sur. Today, there are only three a month.
The lack of tourists was almost eerie, but boy did it make for some beautiful photos. The town square’s quintessential yellow Spanish stucco pops against the red tile roofs. Just outside the city square, Granada transforms into a bustling city. The narrow streets are lined with vendors. I wandered down a crowded street in an attempt to find a historic church (and failed). As I walked, I had to dodge cars and buses, stepping into fruit stands, covered markets, and clothing stores.
It was December and lots of stores were selling Christmas decor. It looked like the same things we get in the US- hell, they do have Walmart here- with the sparkling tinsel and traditional Santa Claus. The main square had Christmas tree set up and it looked real. Does Nicaragua really import pine trees? From where? Minnesota?
We also stopped at two stores- a Chocolate shop that taught us about the history of cocoa and a local cigar factory. Did you know the Mayans used to mix cocoa with human blood? This was where I could really tell the local tourism industry was struggling. Both attractions- which proudly displayed 5 star TripAdvisor ratings- were empty. Stacks of unsold merchandise lined the shelves. I loaded up on Christmas presents- cigars for my boyfriend, chocolates for my parents- and tried to do my part to support local businesses.
After leaving Granada we drove to Parque Nacional Volcan Masaya to view the Santiago Crater. This is only one of two parks in the Americas where you can view lava. Sure enough, between the clouds of sulfur you could see the lava burning red in the bottom. Our guide said the views were best after dark but unfortunately within the constraints of our timetable we couldn’t stay that late.
Our final stop in Nicaragua was another volcanic lookout- this time, the Apoyo Volcano, which is 7km wide (slightly smaller than Crater Lake). The lookout was filled with Nicaraguans enjoying a Saturday sunset. Children were playing games while couples cuddled on benches. Street vendors were selling my favorite food groups- popcorn, ice cream, beer- out of coolers.
I spent the last of my colones on a painting of Granada for my apartment back home and a popsicle. By this point, I was tired and looking forward to a nap on my way back to Tamarindo. Little did I know, we would have lots of time to nap because a car accident closed the road down from the lookout and we had to take a 2 hour detour.
My the time we arrived at the Costa Rican border it was past 9pm. The border technically closes at 8pm on Saturdays and there was already a crowd of people sleeping on mats in front of the office. However, our guide waived at the police and the door opened to quickly shuffle us inside. Just like earlier in the day, the tour guide arranged everything and within minutes we had our exit stamps. I was relieved to be back in Costa Rica, just a few hours from my cozy bed, but I wonder how different my night would have been had I attempted to cross the border alone.
Have you ever had any interesting border crossing experiences? Tell me your story in the comments below!